There is little argument that the NFC East was the worst division in the NFL in 2020. And according to several articles filling the space before training camps opened, there isn’t much reason to think it will improve significantly. Many believe the Dallas Cowboys are likely to advance to the playoffs by winning the division. However, it seems to be more of a case of just being the least worst of the worst. There’s also a theme running through many of these rankings, with the best example from a written by John Breech for CBS Sports. He came to his conclusions with a hard but precise examination of the severity of the NFCE last season.
If you need a quick refresher on how serious NFC East was last year, just consider this: Washington won the division in a loss record (7-9). Overall, NFC East finished with a non-divisional record of 10-29-1 last season, which was tied with NFC South 2014 for the worst non-divisional record since the NFL realigned the divisions in 2002. Additionally, the NFC East combined to go 23-40-1 overall, which was the second-worst overall record on record for a division (the 2008 NFC West went 22-42).
It’s valid. But what he said about the Cowboys isn’t so much.
The Cowboys will get Dak Prescott back, but who knows if that will actually help. In all four of Dak’s healthy games last year, the Cowboys have gone 1-3.
This fact on the record before Prescott was injured continues to crop up in articles and social media. It is very irritating. Let me use my pinned tweet to illustrate why.
Remember that a soccer team is made up of 11 men on the pitch at a time and includes offense, defense and ST. A player, no matter how good, does not win on his own.
– Tom Ryle, fully vaccinated (@TomRyleBTB) October 14, 2020
And the corollary is that a player does not lose matches on his own. Prescott certainly had some turnover issues last season before being lost for the year. He had three fumbles and four interceptions, but he also had ten touchdowns while passing and running. And he wasn’t the only player struggling to hold onto the ball, as Ezekiel Elliott made six fumbles during the season.
Meanwhile, it masks the defense’s role in last year’s Dallas fiasco. They averaged 509.5 yards and 36.5 points per game in the 1-3 start. They haven’t improved enough over the season to help save quarterbacks save many wins. It’s not Kellen Moore and her attacking team who have been the subject of a cleanup during the offseason. We have to see how well Dan Quinn will fix the mess, but that at least indicates where management thought the biggest problem was.
More importantly, Breech’s analysis only mentions Prescott’s health. He doesn’t know what’s going on in front of him. La’el Collins, the starting right tackle in those four referenced games, was missing, and with swing tackle Cameron Erving also unavailable, the team had to dig deeper into the depth chart just to field a team. Then, with Tyron Smith in IR for the remainder of the season after Week 2, Prescott was literally under fire, which may have a lot to do with his fumbling issues.
That 1-3 record in his four full games is not a conviction for Prescott, who was posting huge numbers. These weren’t just shitty time stats, as he had the team within a point at the end of the fourth quarter except the loss to the Cleveland browns. It was no coincidence that it was also the worst defensive performance of the year, as they reported 566 yards and 49 points. It is virtually impossible for a quarterback to overcome this kind of problem.
While it’s undisputed that the NFL is now a passing league and the Cowboys are designed to be the most menacing in the air, there were some major issues with the running game as well. This patchwork line was a big deal, but many forget that Ezekiel Elliott contracted COVID in the offseason. He wasn’t the symptomless type, and he was still recovering when the season began. It’s a continuing story about the great shape he appears to be in this year. At least part of that is in relation to how he was slowed down in 2020 while trying to get back in shape. Now, apparently fully recovered, he’s ready to step out and prove he’s still one of the league’s most effective all-round fullbacks.
A more precise assessment of Dallas’ outlook should focus on the team’s overall health, with an obvious focus on Prescott’s recovery. But the rest of the offense must be ready, including Blake Jarwin. While Dalton Schultz was a big surprise substituting on the tight end, Jarwin’s loss is often overlooked. Better to have two great TEs than one, and maybe that’s where the Cowboys are.
Now it looks like there is only one major injury issue, but it is important. Reports indicate that Amari Cooper may not be ready for the start of training camp. The team are making optimistic rumors about his recovery, but the story of them downplaying what has become serious injury issues in the past is hardly encouraging. They are fortunate to have good depth in this position, but Cooper is a master at road racing, and it would be a problem if he wasn’t available.
It revolves around Prescott and how he should get around not having the WR1 on the court. But it also means he needs that support from the rest of the squad. A key intangible is the quarterback’s leadership, which receives nothing but praise. This is perhaps his greatest asset, and the one that should help make this season a much more successful one.