DALLAS — 2020 didn’t turn out to be a pleasant year for the Dallas Cowboys. The season began with a controversial loss against the Los Angeles Rams and ended with a bitter defeat to the rival New York Giants which knocked Jerry Jones’ team out of playoff contention.
The games in between weren't much better. A 6-10 record was the opposite of what people were anticipating from Dallas in a year where the Cowboys were supposed to be NFC contenders.
Injuries plagued the team for much of an unusual season, but ultimately poor play overall doomed them to disappointment.
Nevertheless, hope springs eternal in the NFL and especially for the Cowboys ahead of 2021. The squad gets their quarterback and leader Dak Prescott back to try to help the team live up to its promise.
But there are question marks remaining for a team that was only 2-3 in games started by Prescott last season. While Prescott’s return could reverse the fortunes of the franchise, there are also areas for pessimism in Dallas.
Here are three reasons for concern about the Cowboys ahead of the 2021 season. Ironically, these causes for skepticism are mostly tied to the reasons fans could feel positive about the upcoming year as well.
The injury bug
Prescott looks to be on track by all accounts and should be ready for the season. They don’t make many athletes like Prescott, who is as mentally tough as they come.
However, Prescott did have a major injury, and no one is 100% certain how his ankle will respond when big, strong defensive players tackle the courageous QB. It’s possible that Prescott will be just fine, but it would be foolish to just accept beforehand that he’ll come back the same player he was before the injury.
It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Prescott need some time to get back into a football rhythm after being away for so long and incurring a long rehab. Prescott might get through the year fine, but it might take him a bit to get back to full health and ability.
The NFL season is only 17 games long and the Cowboys could start slowly until Prescott finds his groove. Since every game is critical, Dallas might not recover in time to make the playoffs. Time will tell just how much the injury will affect the Cowboys this season.
Dallas is also asking a lot for an offensive line that has had trouble staying healthy in the last few years. It’s potentially an issue for the line to stay whole and be able to protect the returning QB.
Left tackle Tyron Smith hasn’t played a full season in five years and has neck issues, which rarely get better, and right tackle La’el Collins’ return from hip surgery that cost him the entire 2020 season is something to watch as well.
It was no secret that the Cowboys needed a defensive overhaul after last season's debacle. As a result, Mike Nolan was replaced by a much stronger defensive coordinator when Dallas hired Dan Quinn.
The resume for Quinn speaks for itself as a defensive mind that has taken his team to the Super Bowl three times, but it could take time for the defense to adjust to a third scheme in three years.
The team did have the benefit of a normal offseason which should help, but it’s difficult to know how well the defense will react until seeing them on the field.
Most defensive players have spoken glowingly about Quinn and his approach; however, the coach can only be responsible for so much. The Cowboys needed more talent to help turn around the defense.
The offseason has seen a plethora of added defensive pieces through free agency, and the draft was almost entirely concentrated on the defense, so the commitment to improving was there.
However, there are questions about whether the Cowboys invested wisely or if they missed the boat on players that they could have added.
Did the organization add the right players? Did they draft the best talent available? Why didn’t they sign higher quality free agents?
It’s possible that the Cowboys didn’t do enough or will regret some of the decisions that they made in regards to the defense again this offseason and it could lead to a bumpy road in 2021.
An unusual schedule
When glancing at the schedule, it doesn’t appear to be too daunting for Dallas. The Cowboys don't play many of the league’s best quarterbacks, which is always a good sign, and the team has one of the easier schedules according to last season’s winning percentages.
However, this is a whole new year and what happened last season won’t necessarily happen again this season. Starting off on the road for the first two weeks against the Super Bowl champions and an upstart Los Angeles Chargers team is a tough task. The Cowboys also have visits to New England, Minnesota, Kansas City and New Orleans, which are among the toughest places to play in the NFL.
The December and January months are particularly challenging for Dallas, where they play four of their final six games on the road, including three straight in December. The Cowboys finish up the season on the road against a Philadelphia Eagles team that won’t have to board a plane over the final six weeks of the schedule.
It’s never easy to win games and the amount of traveling late in the season could set the Cowboys up for failure.
Is your glass half full or half empty about the Cowboys’ chances to contend in 2021? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.