3 & Out

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3 & Out: From 6-10 To Contention? Here's How

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FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics as we move toward Super Bowl week, and for the Cowboys, an offseason full of big decisions has already begun.

  • The Bucs' Rise
  • Defense, Defense, Defense
  • Senior Bowl

I Know…
you can't use the Buccaneers' Super Bowl path as a template for the Cowboys.

This time of year it's become customary, bordering on cliché, to ask, "What can the Cowboys learn from {insert NFC Champion} heading into next season?" This year, don't. Tampa Bay is a pretty unique study.

Before 2020, the Bucs had eight losing seasons in 10 years. In that span they drafted in the top 10 five times and 13th or better eight times. They had 22 picks in the top 50 that shaped an outstanding core: running back Ronald Jones Jr., wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, offensive tackles Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith, linebacker Devin White, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting.

The Bucs accumulated a ton of talent through high draft picks and added two important veteran defenders, Ndamukong Suh and Jason-Pierre Paul, in the last two years. They constructed a roster good enough to attract Tom Brady, who's still getting it done at age 43. Essentially, they dropped Michael Jordan into a lineup primed for a step forward.

And, oh yeah: Brady's GOAT cachet influenced Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown to join Tampa on one-year deals, too.

It's impossible to compare any NFL team to that kind of star-aligning scenario. The closest example is what LeBron James and the Lakers have built in the last three years.

So, there's no model for the Cowboys to follow here. Their path has been completely different. Compared to the Bucs' recent draft history, they've had two losing seasons in the previous 10 years. In that span they earned a top-10 pick twice and 15 total picks in the top 50.

I'm not making excuses. Obviously the Cowboys made several scheme and personnel decisions last year, particularly on defense, that didn't pan out. Combine that with some ridiculously bad injury luck, and 2020 was one of their more disappointing seasons in recent memory.

But it must be noted that the club has been more competitive over the last decade – granted, without a championship appearance to show for it — and now must find ways to retool the roster in an uncertain financial landscape.

I Think…
the Cowboys should improve in 2021, but it can't just be about a healthy offense.

Quarterback Dak Prescott and company were averaging the third-most points in the league (32.6) before his season-ending ankle injury. It's fair to argue they can reach that level again with Prescott, tight end Blake Jarwin and tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins back from IR. Don't forget Zack Martin, six-time All-Pro guard and part-time tackle, missed a career-high six games in 2020, too.

Yet, that alone won't be enough to contend.

Scoring skyrocketed across the league during the regular season, perhaps due in part to no tangible home-field advantage during the pandemic. But even this unprecedented NFL season has followed an annual trend:

Defense matters in the playoffs.

In 12 postseason games, the losing team has averaged only 19.7 points. Only one eliminated team, the Steelers in the wild-card round, topped 30 points. Brady and Patrick Mahomes get all the headlines, but the two teams left standing -- Bucs and Chiefs — are giving up 23 and 20.5 points per game through three rounds, respectively.

Aside from contract negotiations with Prescott, the Cowboys' biggest offseason storyline will be their direction and decisions on defense.

Depending on what they can get accomplished with a reduced cap, this might be a two-offseason makeover. We'll see. Cap space figures to be tight, but every team will face those challenges, and as a result, many free agents probably won't get the deals they would expect in a normal year.

Regardless, the draft will be essential, as will new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's ability to clearly implement and communicate his scheme. No question that was an issue for Mike Nolan without an offseason program.

Under Quinn, if the defense is simply more confident in their assignments from the jump, as players acknowledged they were in December, there's a real chance for improvement.

I Have No Idea…

exactly how much the pandemic will impact draft evaluations, but the Senior Bowl is still on — and it's been just as important to the franchise as the NFL Combine lately.

The annual all-star game in Mobile, Alabama is limited to the top senior prospects, but it has always been a good showcase for draft talent. In 2014, the Cowboys watched Martin go toe-to-toe with Aaron Donald. Three months later, they drafted Martin 16th overall.

In 2016, the Cowboys' staff got to visit with Prescott during the week, and as the coaching staff for the opposing Senior Bowl squad, they saw how coachable he was after playing in purely a spread offense at Mississippi State. Prescott was named MVP that week, got drafted by Dallas with a fourth-round compensatory pick, and the rest is history.

For COVID safety reasons this year, NFL teams are permitted to send only 10 members each to Mobile. But it's still an important step in the pre-draft process, especially this year with so many in-person scouting restrictions from now until late April.

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