Cowboys Aren't Good Enough to Hang with NFC's Elite as Title Window Closes

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 28, 2022

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 16: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) handles the football during the NFC Wild Card game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys on January 16, 2022 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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The expectations for the Dallas Cowboys are the same each and every year. Win the Super Bowl. Period. Anything less, and the season is a failure for all intents and purposes.

There are Texas-sized expectations in Dallas in 2022—the Cowboys are fresh off a 12-5 season and NFC East title. Last year no team in the NFL tallied more yards or scored more points per game.

However, while the Cowboys are a talented team and the front-runner to win the NFC East according to the oddsmakers at DraftKings, a compelling argument can be made that after an offseason dictated largely by the team's lack of cap space, the 2022 Cowboys aren't as good on paper as the team that was embarrassed at home by the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card Round last season.

With a roster inching in the wrong direction (and a Super Bowl window growing slimmer along with it), these Cowboys are flawed—too flawed to be considered a legitimate threat to NFC powerhouses like the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

At least one person disagrees vehemently with the notion that the Cowboys are a franchise heading in the wrong direction. Per Arnav Sharma of Cowboys Country, quarterback Dak Prescott pushed back on the idea that the Cowboys have backslid while speaking to reporters at OTAs.

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 16: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) looks on during the NFC Wild Card game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys on January 16, 2022 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswir
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"We definitely didn't take a step back," he said. "We're going to continue to get better and that's what this offseason is about.”

For his part, Prescott has held up his end of the deal. After eclipsing 4,400 passing yards for the second time in three seasons with a career-best 37 touchdown passes in 2021, the 28-year-old Prescott may well be the biggest steal in the NFL draft of the past decade. He's gone from a Day 3 pick to a high-end NFL starter and two-time Pro Bowler.

The problem isn't Prescott, though. It's the players around him.

The Cowboys have a budding young star at wide receiver in third-year pro CeeDee Lamb, who caught 79 passes and topped 1,100 yards in 2021. With Amari Cooper now in Cleveland, it will fall to Lamb to serve as Prescott's No. 1 wide receiver—a role that he told Rob Phillips of the team's website he is more than ready for.

"I've been ready," he said. "That's just me and my competitiveness. That's in my nature. It's kind of how we grew up playing football. I'm always ready for my name to be called. It's a dream that I've always wanted to live and now that I'm actually living it, I feel like it's my opportunity to fulfill it. So I'm looking at it as an opportunity."

That Lamb has the talent to be a No.1 receiver isn't in dispute. But neither is the fact that once you get past him on the depth chart, the questions start piling up fairly quickly.

The Cowboys brought back fifth-year pro Michael Gallup, but Gallup missed almost half of the 2021 season and tore his ACL in January. The player brought in to replace Cooper (former Steelers wideout James Washington) has never caught 45 passes nor topped 750 yards in a season.

One of the things that made the Cowboys so dangerous offensively a year ago was the depth of their pass-catching corps. If a defense focused on one guy, it meant another could take advantage of single coverage. But that depth has taken a sizable hit, especially if Gallup is out or limited in the early going in 2022.

It's not hard to imagine opposing defenses bracketing Lamb in coverage and essentially daring Gallup, Washington and tight end Dalton Schultz to make them regret it. It isn't guaranteed they will be able to do that.

If the passing game takes a step backward in 2022, that could put added pressure on Ezekiel Elliott and the rushing attack. Per Matt Howe of 247 Sports, after an injury-marred 2021 season, Prescott expects Elliott to rebound in a big way this year.

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 16: Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs with the football during the NFC Wild Card game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys on January 16, 2022 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by Robin
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"Nothing ever changes for my expectations of Zeke, of who he is, how he leads this team, how he approaches the game," Prescott said. "He comes in like a pro each and every day and does that, so I expect his best. When you do that and do it with the intentfulness he does, he's going to get better. When Zeke's healthy, I don't think there's a better back."

Now, it's possible that a (reportedly) healthy Elliott will bounce back from a 2021 campaign that saw the 26-year-old post a career-low 58.9 rushing yards per game. Even in that "down" season, Elliott gained 4.2 yards per carry and topped 1,000 rushing yards. And the Cowboys have a solid insurance policy against Elliott faltering in fourth-year pro Tony Pollard, who averaged a robust 5.5 yards per carry last year.

But it's equally possible (if not more so) that Elliott's 1,650 career carries are catching up to him, and while Pollard shined on a per-touch basis last year, he has never tallied more than 130 carries in a season.

The questions carry over to the offensive line, as well. Per Pro Football Focus, the Cowboys fielded the best O-line in the game in 2021. But that line lost two starters in free agency in left guard Connor Williams and right tackle La'El Collins. The Cowboys spent a first-round pick on a replacement for Williams in Tulsa's Tyler Smith, but he's not a sure thing and Dallas could have an issue at the right end of the line regardless. It's more than likely going to be a good line, but it's quite possible it won't be as good as last season's version.

It's not just the offense where the Cowboys could struggle to match last season's production. Dallas was decent (if unspectacular) at rushing opposing quarterbacks last year, tallying 41 sacks. But after Randy Gregory bolted Dallas for Denver, there's increased pressure on Micah Parsons to back up last year's rookie explosion and for veteran DeMarcus Lawrence to return to form after tallying just 9.5 sacks the past two seasons combined.

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 16: Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (90) runs during the NFC Wild Card game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys on January 16, 2022 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sport
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Dallas signed veteran Dante Fowler and drafted Ole Miss' Sam Williams to help on the edge. Still, Fowler was mostly invisible the past two seasons in Atlanta, and Williams is an untested rookie at a position where first-year players often struggle.

If the pass rush begins to falter in Dallas, that will leave the team's cornerbacks on something of an island—and that would be a problem. The Cowboys were 20th in the NFL in passing defense last year, and while cornerback Trevon Diggs paced the league in interceptions last year, he did so while allowing a whopping 907 yards in coverage and 16.8 yards per completion.

Dallas is an average defensive team, which only ratchets up the pressure on Prescott and the offense that much more.

All of those potential problem areas in Dallas probably aren't going to go against the team in 2022. Not everything will go wrong. But it doesn't have to, and it's every bit as unlikely that everything will go right.

That leaves the Cowboys in real trouble. The Buccaneers and Rams both did a mostly excellent job of keeping together rosters that lack glaring weaknesses. Dallas' division rivals in Philadelphia appear to have markedly improved their team.

For Dallas, meanwhile, the best-case is a team that's no better than the one that failed to win a playoff game last year. The worst is a team that's substantially worse and misses the postseason altogether.

The most likely outcome lies somewhere in between. A team that's good enough to get to the playoffs but not good enough to do any real damage once it gets there. A flawed team that will soon be one year closer to their Super Bowl window being shut.

And a team that won't be any closer to winning football's biggest game for the first time since 1995.