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What the Cowboys can learn from their disappointing 2020 season

The Dallas Cowboys had a disappointing 2020 season, but there are lessons that they can learn from the tumultuous year as the look to rebound in 2021.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys cornerback Daryl Worley (28) and quarterback Dak Prescott (4) walks to the sideline after Prescott threw an incomplete pass in the second half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

2020 was a challenging year for the Dallas Cowboys, as they never really got their footing all season. Under new coach Mike McCarthy, the offseason was altered due to the coronavirus and without the extra time to adjust or play any exhibition games to see any new schemes in action. The team flopped, finishing with a 6-10 record and out of the playoffs for a second consecutive season.

The Cowboys weren’t good enough in any phase of the game, so handing out grades wouldn’t be pretty. Instead, let’s take a look back and see what we learned about Dallas this season and how that can be applied as they go forward into an offseason that should be filled with intrigue.

The Cowboys need Dak Prescott

This isn’t exactly breaking news. Every team in the NFL is better with their starting quarterback on the field. However, with the Cowboys dragging their feet on signing Prescott to a long-term deal, and watching how the offense was vastly different without him, it’s easy to see that they need to, as the kids say, “back the Brinks truck up” and pay him.

RELATED: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says QB Dak Prescott will have leverage in upcoming contract negotiations

The Cowboys have weapons all over the offense and especially at wide receiver, but they need Prescott to be the one throwing them the ball. Prescott has improved every season as a passer and bringing him back to lead the offense is a no-brainer. The future of the Cowboys is with Prescott, and Jerry Jones knows it.

The Cowboys need a better backup plan

Coming into the season, the Cowboys had one of the better offensive lines in the league. They lost center Travis Frederick to retirement, but they did have four other starters returning with several Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods between them. The unit also looked to have some versatility in case of injury.

Those injuries came quick and often, and the offense never had their full starting offensive line. Ultimately Dallas went through too many combinations for the group to be consistent. Starting right tackle La’el Collins never played, left tackle Tyron Smith played just two games before being lost for the season, All-Pro guard Zack Martin missed much of the second half of the season, and even starting center Joe Looney missed time.

RELATED: The Vent: Cowboys fittingly go out with a whimper in Week 17 at New York

It was a MASH unit for the Cowboys all season at virtually every position but none was hit harder than the o-line which saw Dallas play most of the year with two starting undrafted tackles. That’s less than ideal when trying to protect any QB and the team suffered for it.

With that in mind, while no one could have foreseen the depth tested to the degree that Dallas was tested in 2020, the Cowboys do need to have a better backup plan for their starting tackles at the very least. They can’t go through another season like they did in 2020, especially if they want to keep Prescott upright in his comeback season.

Smith in particular hasn’t played a full season in five years, and it’s time for the team to have a real Plan B ready if he’s hurt again in 2021.

The Cowboys need a new defensive coordinator

Mike Nolan’s hiring was met with skepticism and unfortunately, those fears came true. The Cowboys had one of the worst defenses in the league, and in team history.

Dallas allowed a franchise-record 473 points and the second-most yards (6,183) in franchise history this season. The defense finished next to last in rushing yards allowed per game and gave up nearly 30 points per contest.

That’s obviously not even close to being good enough to getting the job done, no matter what the offense is able to accomplish. We learned definitively that the Cowboys need a new defensive coordinator – perhaps one with fresh ideas not tied to McCarthy’s history – and that Nolan wasn’t the answer.

The Cowboys must stop shooting themselves in the foot

The Cowboys were racked with injuries, yes, but they also didn’t help themselves this season. There were too many dumb penalties that put them in a bind, especially on defense. It’s that lack of discipline that can make or break a team when it comes to needing a game or two in the standings to qualify for the playoffs.

However, where the team really shot themselves in the foot was the turnovers. Early in the season, the Cowboys couldn’t get out of their own way. Running back Ezekiel Elliott had five fumbles, four of them lost, in the first six games. By the end of the year, Dallas was tied for third in the league with 13 fumbles lost.

RELATED: Cowboys collecting turnovers is biggest takeaway from late-season surge

The Cowboys ended up minus-three in turnover differential in 2020 and if it weren’t for the final four games where the defense began piling up takeaways, it would’ve been much worse.

Dallas had eight games this season with two or more turnovers, and three games with three or more in the first six weeks. That won’t win many games and it needs to be fixed if the Cowboys want to win consistently in 2021.

The Cowboys need to make better game-day decisions

The Cowboys and McCarthy embraced the analytics that have become such an integral part of the game, but there were questionable decisions along the way. Not going for two and failing to challenge the Dante Pettis catch from Week 17 against New York are the fresh mistakes that will stick with fans, but there were many other instances where McCarthy and his staff made the wrong call.

RELATED: McCarthy not up for the challenge in crucial moment of Giants loss

It was a tough year to get used to a new staff and vice versa, but moving forward, the Cowboys need to have a better grasp on what they want to do in key circumstances where a game’s outcome hangs in the balance.

The Cowboys have an offseason to work on all these issues and will need to make some tough decisions about where they’re headed. If they learn from some of these lessons, they could be ready to prosper in 2021.

Do you think the Dallas Cowboys will bounce back for a playoff run in 2021? Share your predictions with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.