It remains unclear whether they did, but the 2020 season didn’t provide the opportunity to find out. Just five games into the season, the Cowboys lost quarterback Dak Prescott to a gruesome ankle fracture. While his loss effectively ended any realistic hopes of a title run, the defense added insult to injury, seemingly inventing new ways to let down the team in critical moments. Special-teams gaffes followed, resulting in Dallas finishing third in the worst division in football.
The Cowboys return in 2021 with a largely similar roster, hoping to discover whether their original plan can still work.
Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl 56 odds: +2800
The Cowboys’ path to a Super Bowl doesn’t look much different in 2021 than it did the previous season. On paper, the NFC East offers no other championship-level contender as the Washington Football Team and the New York Giants remain works in progress and the Philadelphia Eagles have just begun a full rebuild. Dallas carries some concerns, but the healthy return of quarterback Prescott, a talented and deep receiving corps, and a badly needed change at defensive coordinator give the team cause for optimism.
The last time Prescott played a full season, the Cowboys finished with the NFC’s No. 1 offense by DVOA. The supporting cast has changed somewhat since then, but the quality of the group remains high. With Prescott back under center and Kellen Moore entering Year 3 as the offensive coordinator, the unit looks likely to rejoin the NFL’s elite.
The other side of the ball doesn’t have the same ceiling, but the floor of the unit has come up since the departure of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Replacement Dan Quinn lost his previous post as the Atlanta Falcons’ head coach in part because the defense never became dominant. However, his simpler, Cover 3-heavy system could benefit from Leighton Vander Esch, Micah Parsons, and all the speed the Cowboys have in middle and back of the defense. Still, Demarcus Lawrence and the rest of the defensive line need to generate pressure more consistently than they have in recent years for Quinn’s scheme to work.
If the Cowboys can pair Prescott’s return with an improved defense, a deep playoff run hardly seems unrealistic. Even if a few NFC teams have the inside track, Dallas would only need a few breaks to leap ahead in such a scenario.
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