DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys play a regular season football game for the first time in 249 days on Thursday, but fans of the team have been waiting for this one since last October.
The Week 5 contest from last fall feels like the last time that there were aspirations for the franchise, even after a poor start to the 2020 season. On that day, the Cowboys still had their MVP-caliber starting quarterback, which gave them a chance.
That all went away when Dak Prescott went down on Oct. 11 against New York.
A new year and the return of Prescott brings renewed enthusiasm. The Cowboys haven’t been to a Super Bowl 26 seasons, but that doesn’t mute the belief that this could be the year. Owner Jerry Jones leads the optimism brigade and, with a return to health from several of their key players, it’s easy to buy in once again.
It’s nice to hope again. However, reality hasn’t often been kind to the Cowboys in recent years. Did Dallas do enough this offseason to improve? Competing for an NFC East title would be great, but the goals are much bigger for the team and a fan base that is starved for the kind of deep postseason success that used to define the franchise.
Offensively, the Cowboys are stacked at the skill positions and they should be as good as advertised if everyone stays relatively healthy. The offensive line could be the downfall in that regard. Dallas has to hope that injuries don’t rob the group of too many games because they don’t have enough depth to withstand another casualty filled season.
Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem. It is once again on the defense to prove that they can help win games. Dallas earned the moniker of having one of the worst defenses in team history last year, but the team is selling that the talent overhaul and arrival of new coordinator Dan Quinn will be difference makers. There wasn’t much evidence in the preseason to offer many certainties, yet logic tells us the Cowboys’ defense should be better.
Will all of that in mind, here are some predictions for the Cowboys’ 2021 season, including some bold declarations:
Cowboys will win the NFC East and finish at 12-5 - It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Cowboys win the division. They have the best QB in the NFC East and that usually wins out over the course of an NFL season. A moderate amount of improvement from the defense will put Dallas in position to win a lot of games against a weak trio of rivals.
The schedule isn’t too difficult and the Cowboys don’t play many of the league’s upper echelon quarterbacks throughout the year. Things might look a little rough during the first few weeks as the team gets acclimated, but 12 wins isn’t out of the question.
Ezekiel Elliott will return to rookie form and challenge for the league rushing title - There’s been a lot of talk about Elliott becoming a plodding runner instead of being able to break off long runs like he did when he first entered the league. Elliott heard those concerns and lost weight in preparation for getting back to becoming an explosive runner.
With Prescott and the offensive line back, Elliott will feast again while challenging for the rushing title. Expect the star runner to approach 1,500 rushing yards and double-digit touchdowns.
CeeDee Lamb takes over as the top receiving option - This isn’t to slight Amari Cooper, who will still be great, but Lamb will excel in his sophomore campaign. The Cowboys are now moving Lamb around and lining him up at all of the receiver positions, making him difficult to stop.
Lamb has enough talent to take off in his second season; his numbers will exceed 1,200 yards receiving and double-digit scores.
Defense improves to a top 20 unit - No one should expect the defense to do a complete turnaround in one offseason, but modest improvement would be a huge help. Going from one of the worst units in the league to middle of the pack should be all Dallas needs to compete.
The Cowboys will be good enough to work their way into a top 20 defense, helped by rookie Micah Parsons’ presence.
Parsons wins Defensive Rookie of the Year - The talent is there for the 2021 first-round linebacker and the Cowboys have gotten Parsons ready to align all over the defense. Parsons will make an impact with his speed and athleticism, so expect to see the rookie fill up the box score with tackles, interceptions, and sacks.
With the youngster in the spotlight, Dallas will win enough games for Parsons to grab the top rookie honors.
Randy Gregory leads the team in sacks - It’s been a long time coming for Gregory, who finally gets unleashed after suspensions and being forced to be away from the team for most of his career. The veteran DE will finally get a full season to reach his potential and lead the Cowboys in sacks.
Gregory getting to double-digit sacks is not far-fetched as he lines up as DeMarcus Lawrence’s bookend partner on the defensive line.
Cowboys will end their championship drought - To be specific, Dallas will end their streak of failing to appear in the NFC Championship game. Since 2000, the Cowboys are one of three NFC teams to not make the NFC title contest, a fact that frustrates the franchise and fans alike. That ends this season with Dallas in the final four with a trip to Super Bowl LVI on the line.
Do you think the Dallas Cowboys will live up to their lofty goals in 2021? Share your thoughts and predictions with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.