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It’s one thing to look at the Cowboys’ talent level entering training camp, match it against the regular season schedule of games, and come away with a general sense of how the team- catastrophic injuries to the starting quarterback in Week 5 notwithstanding- will likely do in 2021.
Forecasting how the team is built to handle the next several years, on the other hand, is a much different thing. ESPN has made their projections for how each of the 32 NFL squads will fare through the 2023 season, and for Cowboys fans, it’s a depressingly predictable story.
The team that has put up thoroughly average results for seemingly so long is ranked smack in the middle of the pack.
When compiling their predictions, The Worldwide Leader factored in five categories. Each was weighted- quarterback situation (20%), the rest of the roster (30%), draft ability (15%), front office (15%), and coaching (20%)- to compute a total score out of a possible 100.
The Kansas City Chiefs set the bar with a league-best 88.5. The defending Super Bowl champ Tampa Bay Buccaneers are hot on their heels with an 88.1. The top 10 teams all have scores in the 80s.
The Cowboys sit at 16th, with an overall score of 76.4. That’s fractions of a point below the Miami Dolphins, and just a hair higher than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As for the rest of the NFC East, the experts believe the division will remain weak: Washington comes in at 18th, the Giants place 25th, and the Eagles hover near the very bottom, at 30th out of 32.
In breaking down the Cowboys’ score, several ESPN experts weigh in on various aspects of the projection.
On why the club is ranked where it is, Field Yates writes:
“Unlike the past couple of years, we know with absolute certainty that [quarterback] Dak Prescott will be in Dallas for the next three years. Stacked with arguably the league’s best skill group on offense, the points should be easy to find. But the defense has a ways to go. The foundation was laid through a draft almost exclusively focused on defense and a new coordinator in Dan Quinn. The overall coaching was average last year in Dallas, and that needs to be better for this group to achieve more.”
No surprises there for the Dallas fanbase. While Prescott’s injury cast a pall over the 2020 season in early October, it was a historically bad defense that made the games so painful to watch.
To that end, the network’s Jeremy Fowler says there’s reason to be hopeful starting with the 2021 defense:
“The Cowboys are dedicated to solving the issues in the secondary. [Cornerback] Trevon Diggs should fight through rookie struggles to become a high-level player, and Dallas loaded up with three corners in the 2021 draft. And don’t be surprised if the Cowboys look for a real difference-maker; there were rumors this offseason that Dallas looked into Xavien Howard, who is unhappy with his deal in Miami.”
But will shoring up the defense be enough? Head coach Mike McCarthy went into his first season on the Dallas sideline severely hamstrung. Pandemic protocols took away the most important part of the offseason and made the implementation of his new staff’s systems a little like trying to change the tires on an Indy 500 car while it’s flying around the track at top speed.
It would have been a monumental ask of any coach, but many expected McCarthy’s extensive resume and his staff’s seasoned pedigree to net at least a few more wins despite the steep challenges.
That leadership- from both the coaches and the Cowboys’ ever-looming ownership- is the concern that ESPN’s Louis Riddick clings to:
“Is coach Mike McCarthy the man to lead this team to success on the football field? Does owner Jerry Jones actually let him do his job without significant interference? Has McCarthy made the necessary adjustments to his coaching staff, on the defensive side of the ball in particular, that will allow this team to meet or exceed what amounts to lofty preseason expectations year after year? Or will the Cowboys disappoint yet again?”
The team’s best hope for the 2021 through 2023 seasons, though, is unquestionably its starting quarterback. Without Prescott contractually locked in, Dallas would have certainly ranked much lower on this list. Now whether or not they surpass their middle-of-the-road placement will fall squarely on the about-to-turn-29-year-old passer, who Seth Walder points out is far better than his doubters give him credit for… and even better than many Cowboys fans realize:
“Prescott is permanently underrated. Since he entered the league in 2016, Prescott ranks fifth among qualifying quarterbacks in QBR only behind Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Drew Brees, and Deshaun Watson. Prescott will need defensive help if Dallas is going to be a title contender again, but offensively, the Cowboys should be in great shape. That starts with a QB in his prime who has been more efficient than Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers over the past five seasons.”
The 16th slot on a list of 32 seems like a disappointment. But it also feels pretty accurate heading into 2021. The trick, though, as Prescott himself has shown since coming into the league as a little-known fourth-round draft project expected to hold a clipboard and take kneeldowns for several seasons, is to ignore those mid-level paper-and-pen predictions and surpass all expectations with overachieving on-the-field play.