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NFL power rankings countdown to training camp: Dallas Cowboys, No. 12

Year 1 of the Mike McCarthy era didn’t go well for the Cowboys, but the healthy return of Dak Prescott and changes on defense should lead to better returns in 2021.

Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Dak Prescott (4) talk on the field during voluntary Organized Team Activities at the Ford Center at the Star Training Facility in Frisco, Texas. Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys believed that their 2020 reset would bring about a new era of stability for the franchise. The team parted ways with Jason Garrett, the longtime underperforming head coach, and replaced him with a Super Bowl winner in Mike McCarthy. Even with the pandemic limiting offseason work, the Cowboys remained optimistic that a breakthrough awaited them just around the corner.

Instead, their hopes largely went up in smoke less than a month into the season. Star quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle injury in Week 5 that sidelined him for the remainder of the year and the offense never recovered. Meanwhile, the Cowboys defense never found its footing under coordinator and McCarthy confidant Mike Nolan, becoming a source of national scrutiny as the season unfolded. The near-complete lack of competition in the NFC East allowed Dallas to remain in the postseason discussion into late December, but the team had no real chance of winning a playoff game.

Now, as the NFL returns to normal, the Cowboys find themselves at a critical juncture.

2020 record

6-10, 3rd in NFC East

2020 defense

Points: 29.6 points per game, rank 28th
Yards: 5.9 yards per play, rank 23rd (tied with 2 teams)
Football Outsiders ranking: 23rd

2020 offense

Points: 24.7 points per game, rank 17th
Yards: 5.3 yards per play, rank 21st (tied with 2 teams)
Football Outsiders ranking: 24th

2021 DraftKings Sportsbook odds

Super Bowl: +2800
AFC/NFC Champion: +1300
DIVISION: +125
Win Total: 9.5 (Over +107, Under -130)

Offseason moves

The Cowboys took care of their biggest piece of business early in the offseason, securing Prescott on a long-term deal. Prescott’s contract will keep him in Dallas for the next four seasons and pay him an average of $40 million a year. Only one quarterback currently averages a higher salary, but Prescott offers the best path to stability for the franchise.

On defense, the Cowboys invested high picks at all three levels. First-round pick Micah Parsons adds athleticism to the linebacking corps while Kelvin Joseph will compete for a starting job at cornerback. Meanwhile, Osa Odighizuwa will attempt to carve out a niche along the defensive line.

The Cowboys’ defensive scheme will also change, as McCarthy fired Nolan and replaced him with former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. Quinn’s defense, a Cover 3-heavy scheme rooted in the system run by the “Legion of Boom” Seattle Seahawks, will require the new additions to have an immediate impact.

Biggest question entering training camp

The healthy return of Prescott should fix many of the Cowboys’ issues on offense, but they still need to figure out a better way to incorporate running back Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott struggled during his first season under McCarthy, setting career lows in per-carry average (4.0), rushing yards (979), and total touchdowns (eight). Dallas can win without Elliott tearing apart defenses, but his cap number ($13.7 million this season, $16.5 million next) becomes difficult to justify if he cannot improve on his 2020 production.

What needs to happen for the Cowboys to win the Super Bowl?

The Cowboys offense dropped from second in DVOA during the 2019 season to 24th last year. Prescott’s injury certainly led to that result, but the numbers didn’t look favorable with him under center either. McCarthy and his staff need to recreate the system under which Prescott thrived during his last healthy campaign.

Additionally, the defense has to approach some level of competence in order to put Dallas in the Super Bowl race. The unit hasn’t finished in the top 10 by DVOA during either of the past two seasons, unacceptable performances given the talent on that side of the ball.

2021 Outlook

The Cowboys look well-positioned to take the NFC East crown as long as Prescott stays healthy. Last season’s division champions, the Washington Football Team, sport an ascending defense but lack a clear identity on offense. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles have begun a full rebuild and the New York Giants plan to start Daniel Jones at quarterback for at least one more season. That likely doesn’t put Dallas in Super Bowl contention, but it would represent a respectable improvement from 2020.