Nothing propagates optimism like the combination of summer weather and the start of NFL training camps. But there are reasons to be bullish about the Cowboys that go well beyond the typical hype cycles that define NFL media at this time of year.
Dallas’s 2021 camp kicked off Wednesday, with the team returning to Oxnard, California, for the first time since 2019 with a few new tweaks, including COVID-19 protocol accommodations (i.e., socially distanced reporters) and HBO’s Hard Knocks crew roaming the premises. Things may not look or be totally normal. But at least owner Jerry Jones—perched Wednesday alongside second-year coach Mike McCarthy and team executive vice president Stephen Jones at their first presser of camp—expressed a familiar, earnest hopefulness for his squad.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I’m naive or say ‘He’s naive.’ Well, it’s a beautiful world,” Jerry Jones said Wednesday, pausing with a smile. “It’s a better world to be naive than to be skeptical and be negative all the time. I do my best work, I think, when it’s more positive. And so I need it to be promising. And I need us to have a way to go that causes me to do stupid things, or it causes me to do excessive things that sometimes really work. And that’s been the way I’ve played the cards.”
Quarterback Dak Prescott represents Dallas’s biggest reason for optimism entering the new season. The Cowboys finally signed the 27-year-old to a record-breaking deal back in March, following a long and arduous negotiation that the front office regrets. After a gruesome ankle injury spoiled Prescott’s 2020 he was limited as a precaution during this offseason’s OTAs, and he’s expected to fully participate in training camp starting this week.
“The way we approached the offseason program was to keep him out of the team drills,” McCarthy said. “But he will participate in the team drills [during training camp]. That was really the last hurdle as I view it.”
Prescott’s output across the past several years—including last season, when he was leading the league in multiple passing statistics when he got hurt—has been steadily efficient enough to inspire confidence that he will sustain his high level of play. According to ESPN, Prescott ranks fifth among qualified passers in QBR since he entered the league in 2016. Furthermore, the Cowboys brain trust loves Prescott’s leadership and involvement with teammates, which remained constant even as he rehabbed his ankle.
“We stepped up and made him the highest-paid player in the league for a reason,” Stephen Jones said. “I think he’s got rare, rare traits, leadership traits, winning traits. He’s unique.”
With Prescott as the centerpiece, there was little need for investment on offense during the offseason. The Cowboys offensive line was decimated last season, the unit reaching to the bottom of its depth chart for significant stretches. The turnover undoubtedly played a role in running back Ezekiel Elliott having the least productive season of his career, averaging a career-low 4.0 yards per carry and 1.9 yards before contact, according to Pro Football Reference. Should tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins stay healthy throughout the year, Dallas could once again boast one of the NFL’s better offensive lines, which could bode well for Elliott’s production.
“Last year was hard,” McCarthy said. “It’s no excuse. Every year, you have adversity that you go through as a football team, both personally and professionally. And last year, we’re definitely on the high end. So we will be better from that.”
Dallas’s outside playmakers could be primed for a huge season if Prescott and the offensive line stay healthy. Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup form one of the most talented receiver trios in the league. Cooper is coming off his third consecutive 1,000-yard season; Lamb impressed by recording 74 catches, 935 yards, and five TDs in his rookie campaign; and Gallup enters a contract season with plenty to prove. Tight end Blake Jarwin also returns after tearing his ACL during the Cowboys’ 2020 season-opener, pairing up with Dalton Schultz, who impressed during Jarwin’s absence.
While Dallas’s offense suffered from misfortune, the Cowboys defense simply struggled to find cohesion throughout last season, finishing 23rd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings. Dallas’s young secondary floundered and its pass rush wasn’t dominant. As a result, the Cowboys aggressively pushed to improve that side of the ball this offseason.
Former Falcons coach Dan Quinn joined as Dallas’s new defensive coordinator, replacing Mike Nolan. The Cowboys used eight of their 11 draft picks on defensive players (including their first six choices), adding some of the 2021 class’s most recognizable prospects in linebacker Micah Parsons, cornerback Kelvin Joseph, and linebacker Jabril Cox. Those rookies will join a defensive unit helmed by talented veterans such as linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, and pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence. The team also believes that 28-year-old pass rusher Randy Gregory, who has been suspended frequently for violations of the league’s substance abuse policy, can be a key contributor, too.
“We’ve got a lot of the kind of thing that you can make good defenses out of,” Jerry Jones said. “We’ve got size, we’ve got speed. We’ve got people that know how to take that, and a lot of times the stuff that goes with it, which is inexperience.”
This year’s roster even had Jones thinking about the Cowboys’ glory years.
“When you look at our top 10-11 paid guys, they’re guys that can make major contributions to this team,” Jones said. “We had a core place like that in those championship years … yet we’ve always had some talented young guys come through. We’re starting to look like that when you look at team makeup.”
It’s been decades since the Cowboys’ 1990s heyday, when the squad won three Super Bowls within a four-season span shortly after Jones bought the team in 1989. On Wednesday, the 78-year-old occasionally spoke reflectively of the franchise’s stars of old, including former coach Jimmy Johnson, a 2021 Hall of Fame inductee who won two titles (1992, ’93) before their relationship frayed, and his replacement, Barry Switzer. Per Jones, Switzer wanted to speak directly to both Johnson and Jones during his interview so he could ask them, “‘How could you fuck this up?’” The Cowboys won a title in the 1995 season under Switzer, but haven’t advanced past the divisional round since.
“I’ve never been able to know why I fucked it up,” Jones said Wednesday.
The Cowboys have been chasing past glory for more than 25 years, having yet to find a way back to the NFL’s biggest stage. However, the pageantry that goes into that—from holding training camp in Southern California to hosting more fans at home games than any other NFL team last season to having Hard Knocks around—is a point of pride for Jones. “I’m naive enough to believe that it actually says something about what we are and can be as a football team,” he said.
Cowboys leadership agrees that its current roster presents plenty to build on, and ownership believes that the team’s experienced coaching staff (McCarthy and Quinn each boast Super Bowl wins as key coaching figures) can instill a winning culture. This season will provide the first clear look at how far the current regime can take this Cowboys squad, after things fell apart so badly last season that they couldn’t win an underwhelming NFC East.
McCarthy said that things went “significantly better in the virtual realm” during his second offseason with the team. The Cowboys have already completed eight installs, enabling them to use training camp as more of a review, focusing on mental reps and game management situations earlier on.
“It feels like the first year because we’re getting to do things for the first time,” McCarthy said. “But for the climate that we are in in the offseason, I thought our players knocked it out the park.”
Despite the confidence in how things are going, there weren’t any Super Bowl proclamations made Wednesday. Jones called it “fact” that he “would do anything known to man to get in the Super Bowl. … There’s nothing in my mind that can have a higher priority than that.”
That doesn’t mean Jones wants to be unrealistic about Dallas’s expectations. “I’ve always had to be pragmatic at the end of the day,” Jones said, “because if not, you’ll end up on the outside looking in.”