The most decorated quarterback in Cowboys history just said what most of the fanbase has been thinking all offseason.
Despite a few promising prospects picked up in the draft and several overachievers who have beaten the odds to make the squad as undrafted walk-ons, America’s Team is nearly universally considered to have taken a step back in the grand scheme of things since the disappointing end to their 2021 postseason.
The front office largely slept through free agency, and injuries at several key positions have created some bold-faced question marks as the team makes its final preparations for Week 1 of the regular schedule. Last year’s division crown, the double-digit win total, the playoff berth: a repeat on any one of them doesn’t feel like a slam-dunk for 2022.
And Troy Aikman agrees.
“I don’t feel this team is as good as it was a year ago,” the three-time Super Bowl champ said Thursday of his former club during a call-in with The Ticket KTCK 96.7 FM/1310 AM. “It doesn’t mean that they’re not talented enough to go on and do all the things that they want to do, because I think that they are. I think they’re one of those teams that, as you look at the landscape of the NFL and certainly the NFC, you feel the Cowboys have as good a chance as any of them. So we’ll see how it goes.”
For the first time in a long time, it’s the Dallas offense that’s causing the most concern.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn orchestrated a dramatic enough reversal in his first year- thanks in large part to the Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign from Micah Parsons and a league-leading interception total from Trevon Diggs- to turn that unit into a real strength moving forward.
But the offense has seemingly slipped. Amari Cooper and La’el Collins are gone. Tyron Smith, Michael Gallup, and veteran signee James Washington are all sidelined to begin the season. It’s likely that two untested rookies will have starting roles in Week 1. And running back Ezekiel Elliott is coming off a season in which he played hurt for the final 14 games and turned in the poorest numbers of his career.
“I think the worries are valid. I think the questions are valid,” Aikman said, despite the unfailingly positive we-like-our-guys talk coming from inside the building. “The Cowboys, whether you’re talking to Dak or anybody in the organization, they’re always going to say, ‘We feel good about it. We like our team. We feel we’re better than we were a year ago.’ There’s 32 teams that feel they’re better than they were a year ago, but not everybody is going to be better. Teams are going to be worse. There’s teams that really don’t have much of a chance at all that are talking like they can contend to be in the Super Bowl. So I understand that part of it, but yet, there’s also the reality of it: that maybe they’re not. Maybe they look at their team and they have seen what they have out at the practice field and they say, ‘Hey, we feel like we’re in really good shape.’ Maybe on the other hand, there’s some real concern. I think Dak is maybe sitting there thinking, ‘Hey, we’re not quite as good as we were a year ago or we are short-handed here in the early part of the season.”
Not that Prescott would ever say that out loud. In fact, what the veteran leader has said about his almost-completely-inexperienced corps of pass-catchers is that the 2022 season presents them “nothing but opportunity, honestly.”
After CeeDee Lamb, the healthy receivers are Noah Brown, Simi Fehoko, and rookies Jalen Tolbert, KaVontae Turpin, and Dennis Houston. At tight end, only rookies Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot sit behind Dalton Schultz.
Aikman says at least one of them- and probably more than one- will need to step up big-time to be more than just a decoy on the field.
“Back when I was playing, I felt that a receiving corps was as good as its third receiver. As great as Michael Irvin was and as great as Alvin Harper was, do you put Jay [Novacek] in there at No. 2, do you put Harper No. 2, Jay is No. 3? But then we had Kelvin Martin who was a slot receiver who could win and that was the guy who really made the difference for us in those years when we were really, really good. And now I would say that it’s that fourth receiver. It doesn’t have to be the fourth wide receiver, but you have to go four deep, and I’m not saying you have to have four No. 1s. But you’ve got the fourth guy — definitely the third — has got to beat the third corner and has got to be able to do some things. And if you don’t have that — and I think that’s the question mark that I would have. If they take CeeDee Lamb away, then who exactly who are going to be the people that step up and make plays for the team on a consistent basis? And that’s not to say that can’t happen, but I can’t readily say, ‘Okay, this guy, this guy, this guy are guys that can do that.’ But that’s why they play the game, and that’s what we’re going to find out.”
The uncertainty about the Cowboys offense in 2022 might even surpass that of last year’s season opener, also against the Buccaneers. Dallas entered that game having not seen Dak Prescott throw a ball in 332 days and with All-Pro right guard Zack Martin a late COVID scratch.
But the back-and-forth 31-29 thriller that night in Tampa came down to the final seconds and set the tone for the Cowboys’ resurgent season.
And the Hall of Fame quarterback who had a 1-15 start to his playing career knows as well as anybody that the losses often say more about a team than the wins.
“Even though last year they lost that game,” Aikman said, “I think everybody came out of that game going, ‘Wow, this team has a chance to be pretty good.’ I know I was impressed with what I saw. I’m hopeful that they go out and play at the level that they’re capable of, and if they do that, then I think Tampa has their issues as well. I think they can get off to a really great start.”
If the 2022 Cowboys can put forth a strong showing despite their numerous challenges on the offensive side of the ball, they just might show they have answers for all those swirling questions.