FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys were among the biggest disappointments in the NFL in 2020, finishing with a 6-10 record in coach Mike McCarthy’s first season.
Pin the results on the coronavirus pandemic, poor in-game decisions by the coaching staff, a porous defense or injuries to quarterback Dak Prescott and offensive linemen Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, among others.
As the Cowboys look to 2021, there is a fundamental question that needs to be asked: Are they better, worse or the same?
Here is a position-by-position look at the Cowboys’ offense for 2021:
Losses: Andy Dalton
Returners: Prescott, Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush, Ben DiNucci
Better, worse or the same? Worse, and it has nothing to do with Prescott’s return from a serious right ankle injury. It has everything to do with the unproven backups.
A year ago the Cowboys had Dalton, with his long track record in Cincinnati, as Prescott’s No. 2. Dalton is now with the Chicago Bears, and Gilbert, Rush and DiNucci have combined for two career starts (one each for Gilbert and DiNucci last season). The Cowboys met with free agents Jeff Driskel and Brett Hundley, but they appear ready to go with Gilbert as the No. 2 for now.
It’s a risk, but it’s a risk they have taken in the past. Honestly, if Prescott goes down again for any length of time, the season isn’t going to be what the Cowboys hope for regardless of the backup.
Additions: Brenden Knox, JaQuan Hardy, Nick Ralston
Losses: Jamize Olawale
Returners: Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Rico Dowdle, Sewo Olonilua
Better, worse or the same? The same, but with an asterisk.
Elliott is coming off a down season with 979 yards and six fumbles. Was it a pronounced drop-off for Elliott, or a product of injuries on the offensive line or the loss of Prescott? We will find out when the regular season starts.
Pollard showed he can be more than a change-of-pace back, but his workload should not be expected to increase that dramatically. The Cowboys have yet to show they can figure out how to get him enough work to maximize his talents, while also making Elliott the lead back. Pollard’s explosiveness needs to be a bigger part of the passing game in 2021.
Additions: Simi Fehoko, Johnnie Dixon, Osirus Mitchell, T.J. Vasher, Brandon Smith, Brennan Eagles, Reggie Davis
Returners: Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, Malik Turner, Aaron Parker
Better, worse or the same? Better, even though the top five receivers from a year ago are the same. Why? Lamb’s numbers with Prescott would have been terrific, and a receiver generally makes the biggest jump in Year 2.
Cooper had a career high in catches (92) while working with four different quarterbacks. His touchdowns dropped (from eight in 2019 to five) but the passing game muddled along for a good spell after Prescott went down. Gallup, who is in a contract year, is a big-play threat. Wilson had a 100-yard game with Prescott. Brown is a serviceable receiver, blocker and special teamer.
Additions: Jeremy Sprinkle, Nick Eubanks, Artayvious Lynn
Losses: Blake Bell
Returners: Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz, Sean McKeon
Better, worse or the same? Let’s go with better, even with Jarwin coming back from a torn ACL in last year’s season opener.
He was supposed to have the breakout season. Instead, it was Schultz, who took over for Jarwin after catching just 13 passes in his first two seasons. He finished with 63 catches for 615 yards and four touchdowns last season.
Somewhat like figuring out how to get Pollard more involved, coordinator Kellen Moore will have to figure out how to make the two-tight-end look productive when there is so much personnel to choose from on offense. That’s a good problem to have and why he has been given a substantial raise to stay after he opted out of the Boise State coaching search.
Additions: Ty Nsekhe, Josh Ball, Matt Farniok, Braylon Jones
Losses: Cameron Erving, Joe Looney, Greg Senat, Jordan Mills, Marcus Henry
Returners: Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, Collins, Connor McGovern, Terence Steele, Brandon Knight, Eric Smith, Mitch Hyatt, Isaac Alarcon
Better, worse or the same: It’s the same with a chance to be better, depending on the return to health of Tyron Smith, Collins and Martin.
Smith played in two games because of neck surgery last season. The left tackle has not played a full season since 2015, but the Cowboys’ hope is the surgery will fix what had been a recurring problem. Collins did not play at all in 2020 because of hip surgery. Martin missed six games last season because of a concussion and a calf injury.
If they are right, then the Cowboys should be right. If not, then the hope is the players who gained experience a year ago — McGovern, Steele and Knight — are not as green and can play better.
Biadasz, a center, performed decently in his four starts before a hamstring injury halted his development. He needs to show he can handle a 16-game season and make the necessary checks at the line. Having Smith, Martin and Collins should help him with that.