Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Cowboys organization, fans of the team around the world and those who watch “Friends” religiously on Nick at Nite because the 1990s were the best decade:
You might have noticed, but there are a lot of 1990s reboots out there. You have a brand new “Aladdin” in theaters. “Charmed” is coming back. Hell, Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff are heading up WWE programming right now. It’s crazy. And it should be no surprise that the Cowboys are also dipping back into the 1990s, as well. And no, that’s not a joke about when Jason Witten started his Cowboys career. But the current Cowboys are following a blueprint that’s similar to the one that led the franchise to three championships in four years in the ’90s: Find a trio of talented offensive players to complement a stunning defense. Now, let’s see how this reboot is going.
How the Cowboys got here
Let’s take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season.
— The Amari Cooper trade. I didn’t think this was going to work out well at all. But Cooper went out and proved everybody wrong. Or at least most of us. I’ll touch on this more in a few moments.
— Losing at Washington in Week 7 to fall to 3-4. All things considered, that loss might have precipitated the sense of need that sparked the Cooper trade. So maybe this wasn’t so bad after all.
— Giving up 273 rushing yards to the Rams in their playoff loss. That’s the most ever allowed by the Cowboys in their 63-game postseason history. Yes, that includes the time Eric Dickerson nearly got that number himself against the Cowboys in the 1985 playoffs.
Head coach: Jason Garrett. His clapping on the sideline has become a meme, so he’s got that going for him. And while he seems to be on the hot seat almost every year, this might really be a make-or-break campaign for him. He’s in the final year of a contract he signed after leading Dallas to a 12-4 record in 2014. But he’s been a solid coach, even though he’s often maligned (something his predecessors can probably identify with). He’s won the NFC East in three of his last five seasons, and the Cowboys are 48-32 dating back to the 2014 season.
The sticking point might be that he’s yet to make it out of the Divisional Round. And that’s the kind of thing that will stick out to Jerry Jones. The Cowboys had so much success during the early part of Jones’ run as team owner that anything short of a Super Bowl isn’t going to cut it. It’s like being Mark Hamill, whose first movie role was Luke Skywalker. Like, after that point, your expectations are going to be raised. So I don’t envy the position Garrett is put in. Because he’s doing a pretty good job. Just not a spectacular job.
Quarterback: Dak Prescott. Like Garrett, Prescott is in an unenviable position of being the Cowboys‘ quarterback. Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman are already in the Hall of Fame. You can debate whether Tony Romo deserves a bust in Canton. But even if he doesn’t make the Hall, he’s already become this generation’s version of John Madden on the CBS telecasts. So there are a lot of expectations that come with being quarterback of the Cowboys. It’s like being the Ben Solo/Kylo Ren of football. Think about that poor kid. His parents are General Leia and Han Solo. Heroes from the Outer Rim to Corellia. And his uncle is Luke Skywalker. Pretty much anything outside of blowing up the Death Star is not going to work. So, yeah, there’s a high standard for Prescott, just as a general job description, and he might be on the verge of getting that huge contract extension a lot of quarterbacks are getting these days. Prescott, who’s in the final year of his rookie deal, is 32-16 as starter of the Cowboys. A QB from his draft class that plays for a division rival — Carson Wentz — just got a huge extension worth $128 million. And Prescott seems to love being the quarterback of the Cowboys and would like to continue in that role for a long time.
But some continue to question Prescott’s game and whether he deserves an extension that would make him one of the league’s highest-paid QBs. To me, those questions seem somewhat ridiculous. But it’s also, again, part of the problem of being the quarterback of the Cowboys: Nothing you do is ever going to be good enough. Prescott has the second-most quarterback wins (32) in the NFL since entering the league in 2016, behind only Tom Brady. He’s led the most game-winning drives in the NFL since 2016 (14). He’s gone 13-5 vs. NFC East opponents since 2016. Pay the man.
Projected 2019 MVP: Amari Cooper, wide receiver. I know you might have been expecting me to pick somebody else for this. But it has to be Cooper. The Cowboys were 3-4 last year when they made the trade for the Raiders wide receiver (whom I thought they had overpaid for). But they went 8-3 after dealing for Cooper, including the playoffs. The offense scored more points, gained more yards and led the league in third-down percentage from Weeks 9 through 17 after acquiring Cooper.
And the impact of his arrival on Prescott was highly notable. Dak completed more than 70 percent of his passes with Cooper, up from 62 percent before the deal last season. His passing-yards average surged to nearly 270 per game, up from 202.4. He threw 16 touchdown passes and just five interceptions after the trade. And his passer rating was 101.0 with Cooper, 13.6 points higher than it was without him. That’s why I believe Cooper might be a more important piece to this offense than Ezekiel Elliott, whom we will talk about in a moment.
2019 breakout star: Jaylon Smith, linebacker. When Smith went down with that brutal knee injury during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Notre Dame, it haunted me. It reminded me of that scene with Alvin Mack in “The Program,” one of my favorite movies from the 1990s. Mack was a sure-fire first-round pick who suffered a career-ending leg injury in the film. But this isn’t the ’90s, and Smith has been able to battle back from his injury. The Cowboys picked him in the second round of the 2016 draft, but he didn’t play during his rookie season. And even in 2017, he didn’t quite look right. Last year, though, was the start of something special. Smith finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ sixth-highest-graded off-the-ball linebacker. So I might be cheating by calling him a “breakout” here, since he already kind of broke out. He was one of just five players with at least 120 tackles and four sacks in 2018. But I still feel like he’s going to become an even bigger star this year.
New face to know: Robert Quinn, defensive end. When the Cowboys traded for Quinn in late March, some thought it was an insurance policy in the event that the team and DeMarcus Lawrence had a prolonged contract squabble. Lawrence signed a new deal about a week after Quinn was acquired, though, and now they will provide pretty formidable bookends on this D-line. Quinn, 29, recorded 6.5 sacks in 2018 after he was traded by the Los Angeles Rams to the Miami Dolphins last offseason. His best season came in 2013, when he was selected first-team All-Pro after racking up 19 sacks. But now he’s in a position where he can play opposite Lawrence and not have to be the guy, which could be a great opportunity for him.
The competitive urgency index is: EXTREMELY HIGH. Here’s the thing with the Cowboys: The sense of urgency is always going to be extremely high. And that’s no fault of their own. I mean, if you take your significant other to Paris on your second date, you’re going to have a high standard to live up to every year. So for Dallas, winning is always going to be expected, no matter what the roster looks like. Seriously, you could have Nate Peterman (no disrespect) starting at quarterback and Cowboys fans would expect a championship. But the ‘Boys actually have a great roster right now and should legitimately expect a run for a title.
Will the Cowboys be able to …
Get another great season from Ezekiel Elliott? Yes, I know we are deep into this piece before we finally get to dig into one of the best running backs in the game. But do you think Pearl Jam just opens with “Alive” or something? (And since you probably don’t know who Pearl Jam is, ask your parents, because they loved them.) And really, we don’t need to spend a lot of time here on Elliott because he’s been pretty great for the Cowboys. He finished behind Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Jim Brown and Edgerrin James for the highest rushing-yards-per-game average through the first three seasons of an NFL career with 101.2. And Elliott has led the league in rushing yards per game in each of his three seasons. Only Brown and Steve Van Buren have longer such streaks. Elliott led the NFL with 381 touches last year, and is the only player in the NFL with more than 1,000 touches since 2016.
And if you’re a fantasy person, here is some promising news for you if you have Elliott on your roster … The Cowboys will play just five games against teams that ranked in the top 10 in rushing defense last season: the Bears (ranked first), Saints (second), Eagles (seventh; they’ll play them twice) and Lions (10th).
Make strides under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore? The 2018 Cowboys‘ offense was much better once Cooper was acquired, but there is still some room for improvement. You kind of felt like maybe the end was near for offensive coordinator Scott Linehan last season, and indeed, Dallas parted ways with him in January. The Cowboys then promoted the 30-year-old Moore (who was previously the QBs coach), following a league-wide trend where teams are hiring young coaches to design the offense (and in some cases, lead the team). One of the biggest complaints I recall hearing from Cowboys fans was that Linehan would get way too conservative in the second half of games. And scared money don’t make money. So, naturally, there’s a desire for Dallas to add a little more sizzle on that side of the ball.
Continue to stifle folks on defense? The triplets — Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin — were the headliners of the Cowboys‘ dynasty of the 1990s, but that defense was vastly underrated. Similar thing seems to be happening with the current Cowboys. They ranked sixth in points allowed, seventh in yards allowed and fifth in rushing yards allowed last season. This crew has young studs like Lawrence, Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Byron Jones. The latter allowed a catch only once every 16.5 cover snaps, ranking eighth among CBs, according to Pro Football Focus. And then they went out and used four of their first six picks in the 2019 NFL Draft on defensive players. Moving the ball against this group seems like it will be a daunting task for opposing offenses.
Overcome any potential contract drama? Garrett is in the final year of his deal. Ditto for Dak, Cooper and Byron Jones. Elliott’s deal expires after the 2020 season. And Jaylon Smith is due to become a restricted free agent after this season.
“When it’s time for Jerry to cut the check, it will happen,” Smith said during a recent interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
We’ll probably hear similar things publicly from these players when they’re asked about their contract situations in the weeks and months ahead. But will that become a distraction for the Cowboys this year?
Three key dates
— Week 14 at the Bears. I don’t feel like I’m going out on a limb when I say these two teams could have the top defenses in the NFL this season. Both are loaded with so much young talent, too. This could end up developing into a rivalry for years to come.
One storyline people are overlooking: Dak Prescott‘s improvement as a deep-ball thrower. Prescott had a 113.4 passer rating — the sixth-highest mark in the league — on deep balls (20 or more air yards) in 2018. That was an improvement of 26.9 points from his deep-ball rating in 2017. He also had seven touchdowns and only one interceptions on deep balls, which tied a career high set back in 2016. And it seems plausible to expect that Moore is going to put more of an emphasis on stretching the field with deep passing.
One storyline people are overthinking: Jason Witten‘s return from the booth. I mean, it was kind of a win both for fans of the Cowboys and those who like “Monday Night Football,” as well. But really, getting Witten back is great for the Cowboys. They don’t need a huge season from him. But Prescott had a passer rating of 108.4 when he targeted Witten in 2017 (his career passer rating is 96.0).
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Cowboys MUST …
— Get past the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
I’m not here to suggest it’s Super Bowl or bust for Garrett. But we’ve seen some coaches (like Tony Dungy when he was with the Bucs) get fired if they don’t advance far enough in the playoffs. And the Cowboys do have one of the best rosters in the league, so the expectations should be high.
This will be an interesting year for the Cowboys. One of the biggest cliches in sports is that you want to have guys on your team that are in contract years because they’ll be extra motivated to perform. And here you have a coach, a QB1, an RB1, a WR1 and a CB1 looking to get paid. If Garrett can get this all to work, the Cowboys could have the best 1990s reboot of them all. Well, their fans will think it’s the best. I’m not sure the rest of us are going to enjoy it.
Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.