OXNARD, California – The Dallas Cowboys rebounded nicely from Mike McCarthy’s first season at the helm.
After finishing 6-10 overall in 2020 and missing the playoffs mainly due to star quarterback Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury, the Cowboys rallied in 2021 to finish 12-5. The only disappointment was the team’s stunning 23-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the playoffs at home. So what are the expectations this year? Is this the season the Cowboys finally return to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in 27 years?
This year marks Greg Simmons’ 5th decade of covering the Cowboys, and to honor the occasion, he will break down the five things you need to know about Dallas as they prepare to start their training camp in Oxnard, California.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER
There is no question who this is: quarterback Dak Prescott. Now that he is fully healed from the devastating compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle that he suffered in Week 5 of the 2020 season, there are no restrictions on Prescott at practice. He has been moving much better in the pocket while scrambling. The Cowboys admit they limited their playbook by calling running plays on first downs last season in an effort to protect Prescott. That won’t be the case this season. Even with those restrictions in place, however, Prescott still managed to throw for 4,449 yards and 37 touchdowns. A healthy Dak Prescott helps everyone perform well, from running back Ezekiel Elliott, who struggled with his own nagging injury last season, to Tony Pollard and obviously the wide receiving corps.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER
This is a toss-up between two burgeoning superstars, which is a huge boon for Dallas: Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs. If these two can put up numbers anywhere close to the ones they had last year, Dallas’ vaunted defense will be even more devastating. Parsons finished 2021 with 13 sacks, three forced fumbles, 30 quarterback hits and 84 tackles, a resume which earned him Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Diggs was right there with him, leading the league with 11 interceptions. That marked the most for a Dallas Cowboy since Everson Walls recorded the same total in 1981. Combine this pair with a leaner DeMarcus Lawrence, and opponents have every reason to watch out.
So far, rookie wide receiver Jalen Tolbert fits the bill. Some reporters and analysts have already penciled Tolbert in as an opening day starter since the usually stout wide receiving corps will be shorthanded early in the season. Michael Gallup is not set to return until later in September after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL, and wideouts Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson both left Dallas in free agency. Tolbert is an All-American from South Alabama and was drafted in the third round after posting 82 receptions for just under 1,500 hundred yards in his final college season. He was also named the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. Tolbert’s versatility outside and in the slot is exactly what the Cowboys need in Kellen Moore’s offense.
The are several major question marks, but the largest is undoubtedly the offensive line. With the departure of Connor Williams and La’el Collins to the Miami Dolphins and the Cincinnati Bengals respectively, the Cowboys have some big holes to fill up front. That’s why Tyler Smith was Dallas’ No. 1 draft pick and the No. 24 pick overall. The rookie is expected to start at left guard, but depending on the health of the Tyron Smith -- who hasn’t played a full season since 2015 due to neck and back injuries -- Tyler may see more playing time at left tackle. The Cowboys are grooming Tyler to eventually take over for the eight-time Pro Bowler.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP OR BUST
The Dallas Cowboys haven’t even been to, much less won, the NFC Championship Game since their last Super Bowl run in 1996. Based on the talent they have this year, the Cowboys are expected to repeat as NFC East Division Champs. But after last year’s early exit in the first round of the NFL playoffs, the window for players such as Tyron Smith, and even Ezekiel Elliott, is closing. There’s also significant pressure on head coach Mike McCarthy to not stumble during the regular season, especially since the Cowboys re-signed Dan Quinn as Defensive Coordinator. Sean Payton’s availability also still looms over his shoulder.