From a flawed co-favorite in a weak division to a legitimate Super Bowl contender, the Dallas Cowboys have come a long way in a short time – in ways expected, and not.
In hindsight, it’s tempting to proclaim that, had injuries (most notably to franchise quarterback Dak Prescott) not torpedoed the Dallas Cowboys’ 2020 season, that we’d have all seen this massive resurgence that invigorated Big D and Jerry World. It’s worth noting, of course, that at the time of the gruesome ankle injury that ended Prescott’s season, the Cowboys were just 1-3 and allowing over 36 points per game, with their lone win coming by a single point, 40-39, over a Falcons team that finished the season with a 4-12 record.
Suffice it to say, the writing was not exactly on the wall.
Heading into the 2021 campaign, the ‘Boys’ hilariously loaded offense was healthy, happy and raring to go. Prescott, now secure with a long-term contract, assured us that his leg was fully healed. The offensive line, if not fully on par with the prime vintages of the past decade, still promised to be one of the NFL’s best. Between Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and future SUPERstar CeeDee Lamb, the Cowboys had one of the league’s two or three best wide receiver trios. Running back Ezekiel Elliott, who looked to be in decline following a spectacular (and spectacularly busy, in terms of workload) start to his career, said he was back to 100%. And even if he wasn’t, Tony Pollard, who’s one of the NFL’s top backup backs, was on hand.
The story on this side of the ball was a simple one: Keep Dak upright and the offense will be virtually unstoppable.
The other side of the ball was another story altogether.
The Cowboys’ 2020 defense was an out-and-out. The #23 leaguewide ranking with which the unit finished greatly flattered a group that allowed the second-most rushing yards in the NFL and, in the franchise’s six-decade history, the second-most total yards and the most points. And prior to the start of the season, optimism did not abound.
In previewing the NFC East (which I, admittedly did not pick the Cowboys to win), I proclaimed that “other than pass rushers Demarcus Lawrence and Jaylon Smith, there’s not a reliable NFL defender on the roster”.
Sure, Trevon Diggs played well down the stretch, but it seemed foolish to put too much stock in performances from meaningless games in which the team was simply playing out the string. Beyond Diggs, the only source of optimism was first-round pick, Penn State University pass rusher Micah Parsons, was selected with the draft’s twelfth overall pick. His talent was undeniable, but the fact that Parsons was an immediate Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite seemed as a reflection of the crazy workload that awaited him as much as it did his awesome potential.
Beyond that, the Cowboys addressed issues of depth in the pass rush by bringing back Randy Gregory, who was out of the league in 2019 and played just 25% of the snaps in 2020, and investing a load of draft picks (five in the top 115) in defenders. It’s a solid long-term strategy, but not typically the way that a putrid defense finds competence in a hurry.
And then, the season began. The Cowboys went into their Week 6 bye not only with a stellar 5-1 record, but a stellar 5-1 record that cannot be undermined. Their only loss came in Week 1, by two points, to Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions (and current Super Bowl favorites), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They’ve since ground out impressive wins over the Los Angeles Chargers and the New England Patriots, and easily handled the Eagles, Giants and Panthers. This is, unequivocally, a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The offense… well. That’s done what the label says it does. Through six games, the Cowboys lead the NFL in yards gained per offensive play (6.6) ad points per game (34.8), and rank in the top five in net yards per pass attempt, yards per rushing attempt, percentage of offensive drives ending in points and, despite having played one fewer game than most teams, points scored
The suspects here are usual. Prescott in an MVP candidate who ranks in the top five among quarterbacks in every meaningful statistical category. Elliott is back to averaging five yards per carry and looks poised to make a run at 1,500 rushing yards and 15 TDs, while Pollard averages six per carry and eyes 1,000 yards himself. Meanwhile, Lamb is on pace for 110 catches, 1,500 receiving yards and at least a dozen touchdowns, while Cooper and tight end Dalton Schultz each track toward 100 catches, 1,100 yards and 10+ touchdowns. This is the juggernaut we were promised.
The defense, however, despite not having DeMarcus Lawrence since the season opener, has delivered spectacularly. Gregory has returned smoothly to a full-time role, and has four sacks through (roughly) a third of the season. Rookie third-rounder Osa Odighizuwa has contributed two sacks, three tackles for loss (TFL) and eight QB hits. They are two five Cowboys defenders with at least three TFL, and two of three with at least eight QB hits and two sacks. The third, of course, is Parsons. The rook has been a been a revelation, starting from Day One and, in his first six NFL games, racking up 31 tackles, 2.5 sacks, three TFL, 10 QB hits, defending a pair of passes, and generally providing strength and smarts wherever he’s needed – to the extent that the team felt comfortable releasing veteran Jaylon Smith after losing Lawrence at the start of the season.
As part of a recent roundtable with former NFL defenders and current BBC presenters Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora, we discussed the Cowboys’ defense as one of the NFL’s biggest surprises in 2021, and some of the players that are powering the spectacular improvement.
On Micah Parsons:
OU: He’s a fantastic athlete, let’s just get that out of the way first and foremost. And he’s a very smart player. He was drafted as a linebacker, and was actually a defensive end/pass rusher in high school. So he has the skills, and a quick-twitch athlete’s ability to bend the edge. He can just do a plethora of different things.
You know, early in early in training camp was when I was speaking with them, they told me that this guy, when they line him up at defensive end, he really gets after the quarterback. I wasn’t so sure that this was going to translate quite as quickly as it has, but when you have an athlete of that level with that type of intelligence, he’s going to figure things out pretty quickly.
Now Dallas is loaded on defense, and playing very, very well defensively. I know we’re always talking about how good their offense is, but the defensive is where I’ve seen the most improvement. And Micah Parsons is a big part of that.
JB: Osi is spot on! Obviously, coaching really matters when you’re young, and they’ve put him in the right position. That’s the key. They also told us that they believe in him by getting rid of Jaylen Smith. That is a direct result of what Parsons has done on the field. It’s amazing. As a rookie, things can be overwhelming. But, if you have a really great staff that can teach you and puts you in positions to be successful, you’re in a great situation. And that’s what we’re seeing with him. As great a playmaker as he is, and as a great a talent as he is, he’s got great coaching putting him in positions to succeed. Man, he is he’s in a really great situation.
On Parsons’ role once DeMarcus Lawrence returns to the lineup:
OY: Well, they’re winning, so that’s going to matter. But, I mean, DeMarcus Lawrence is commanding a very hefty salary, so they’re going to find a way to get him on the field. Michael Parsons is, at this juncture, clearly the better pass rusher, so they have a serious question to consider. Now, because Lawrence is the bigger player, they can choose to slide him inside and have both guys on the field. I don’t know what they’re going to do, but my philosophy is that you can never have enough pass rushers out there. Just line them all up on the football field and see what happens.
Now, it must be said that this group is still giving up nearly 25 points and more than 350 yards per game. However, the way in which they’ve mastered the art of the big play is nothing short of staggering. Of course, there are elements of randomness and luck associated with forcing turnovers, but the way in which the Cowboys are pulling this off suggests something repeatable is at play.
Which brings us, of course, to Trevon Diggs. The second-year corner – whose approach does sometimes deliver some ‘bust’ along with the ‘boom’ – is on a playmaking streak the likes of which has rarely been seen in the history of the sport. With ten pass breakups thus far in 2021, he’s poised to make a run at former Jet Darrelle Revis’ record of 31, set in 2009. And then, of course, there are the interceptions.
Diggs has intercepted at least one pass in each of the Cowboys’ six games, tying the single-season record for consecutive games with an interception, set in the 1950s, by then-future legendary Cowboys head coach, Tom Landry (the record across multiple season, eight, was set in 1962-63). He’s got seven in total, having victimized Carolina’s Sam Darnold twice, and has returned two of them for touchdowns. The most notable of these came in Week 6 in Foxborough, when Diggs picked off Patriots rookie Mac Jones and returned it for a touchdown, seemingly sealing a victory.
Now, seconds later, he gave up a 75-yard touchdown that forced the Cowboys to scramble to pull out an overtime win. Perhaps not ideal, but for all of the incredible instinct and ability that Diggs brings to the table, the Cowboys will deal with the occasional misstep. As Jason Bell summed up perfectly: “they’d win the NFC East and be in the playoffs based just on their offensive play. With the defense playing at this level, with playmakers at each level, forcing turnovers, and with a guy like Trevon Diggs… If you get this offense the ball back, you’re going to win games. They are quite dangerous. Jerry Jones is probably really excited about his team this year.”
Couldn’t agree more.