The Dallas Cowboys came up just short of the playoffs in 2019 despite beginning their campaign at 4-0 against the NFC East. While fighting for the playoffs, the last game of the season for Dallas was against long time rivals Washington. The result was a 47-16 win, but the Cowboys still didn’t qualify for the postseason even as they finished 5-1 in their division.
Last year, the Cowboys dominated Washington, winning both games, which included a 31-21 victory in Week 2. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw for seven scores in the two contests and Dallas has beaten Washington in seven of the last eight meetings.
While things have come easy for the Cowboys in this head-to-head over the last few years, dousing the heated rivalry in cold water, it appears that Dallas might have a more difficult time of it in the near future. Washington has made some changes this offseason and they have the look of a team that is headed back to being a tough out in the division.
The biggest differences are that former GM/President Bruce Allen and head coach Jay Gruden are gone. Allen had been with Washington since 2010 and there wasn’t a ton of success with him running the ship.
In Gruden’s stead is new coach Ron Rivera. The former head man of the Carolina Panthers brings with him to D.C. a successful pedigree as Super Bowl champion as a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears, and he has a strong coaching resume. Rivera won four NFC South titles in nine years and brought the Panthers to a Super Bowl in 2015.
During his tenure in Carolina, Rivera was known as a hard-nosed coach who took chances on the field, earning the moniker “Riverboat Ron.” Rivera’s arrival announces a new era, where the team won’t look like the pushovers they sometimes appeared as under Gruden.
Former head coach Jack Del Rio also arrives to be the defensive coordinator of a talented group. Washington boasts one of the most talented, young defensive lines in the league. They have five first-round picks among the group and they will be tough to handle in the trenches, even for a team with an elite offensive line such as Dallas.
Chase Young, perhaps college football’s top defensive player last year, arrives with big expectations as the second overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. We’ve seen how a top edge rusher can affect a defense – see Nick Bosa for the 49ers in 2019 – and the addition of Young gives Washington depth and versatility. Young joins rising stars Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat, as well as underrated star pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan.
Washington’s defensive line is perhaps the best unit of any team in the league and if Young develops quickly, they’ll be a nightmare to deal with. The Cowboys still boasts one of the premium units in the league with their offensive line, which could make for intriguing battles this season.
However, it’s on the offensive side of the ball where Dallas retains an advantage over Washington. The Cowboys are hoping that remains the case in 2020 and beyond but 2019 first round quarterback Dwayne Haskins is the wildcard in the equation. If the young signal caller improves in his second year, his team has the potential to show a potent offense.
Washington is deep and talented in the backfield, led by future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson. The speed and elusiveness isn’t there like it was in his MVP season in 2012, but Peterson still averaged 4.3 yards per carry in 2019 and he’s the leader of the group. It’s a running back room that includes Derrius Guice, former Buccaneers RB Peyton Barber and third-round pick Antonio Gibson out of Memphis.
Former LSU standout Guice has talent, he hasn’t been able to stay healthy yet, while Gibson adds a dimension as a receiver that Washington lost by not re-signing Chris Thompson.
Washington’s biggest offensive threat, however, is at wide receiver. Terry McLaurin had an outstanding rookie year out of Ohio State, amassing 919 yards and seven scores in just 14 games. Now, McLaurin gets his college quarterback as the starter for a full season and has a year of learning the NFL game under his belt.
Second-year pro Kelvin Harmon, Trey Quinn and rookie Antonio Gandy-Golden round out a group that has the potential to give defenses fits. The Cowboys, who are suspect in the secondary, will have their hands full slowing down Washington’s passing attack.
Washington will be a much tougher team to handle with Rivera at the helm and with their star-studded young defensive line growing and improving. If Haskins turns out to be a quality NFL quarterback, the team from D.C. could surprise and rekindle the flames with Dallas as one of the NFL’s most storied rivalries.
Do you think Washington is turning the corner to becoming a viable threat in the NFC East? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.
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