The season is now complete for the Cowboys, who missed out on a chance to sneak into the playoffs.
With or without the injuries, a 6-10 finish is disappointing for a Cowboys team that had so much hope for the 2020 season.
As we shift into the offseason, here are five points of emphasis.
What's the Cowboys' DNA?
Every great team has an identity. If quizzed about the team's DNA, coaches, scouts, and players should be able to rattle off a few key descriptive phrases that enable the football world to envision what a team is all about. Leaders will tout characteristics "smart, fast and physical" or "tough, hardworking and competitive" to describe the ideal players while also offering up a mission statement that defines the team.
After watching the Cowboys this season under Mike McCarthy, I don't know the team's identity or the core traits that they covet in potential players. The Cowboys' style doesn't stand out on tape and their top players don't echo "coach speak" sentiments when asked to describe the team's culture. Perhaps the players have been advised by their coaches and executives to keep the culture private but most teams are quick to let the football world what they're all about.
With that in mind, I wonder if the Cowboys reallyknow who they are and what traits define their culture. Has the vision of the team been clearly defined by the leadership? Moreover, I wonder if the coaches and scouts are on the same page when it comes to building the team, and the players targeted in free agency and the draft.
Without a clearly defined vision for the team and the prototypical players that comprise it, the Cowboys are a rudderless ship going nowhere.
Mike McCarthy needs to shake off the rust.
The one-time Super Bowl champion was expected to take the Cowboys to the next level after refining his coaching tactics during a one-year hiatus. McCarthy was expected to have a strong command of to direct a team and compete at the highest level while displaying natural instincts for the game. With 16 games on the record, it is apparent the Cowboys' head coach was a little rusty with game management skills and tactical decisions.
From the team's fourth-down follies to reluctance to challenge a controversial catch in the season finale, the veteran head coach made a series of regrettable mistakes that likely cost the team some games. McCarthy should review the film and the play by play sheets to see how he can improve as a decision-maker on game day. In a league in which most games are decided by seven points or fewer, coaching decisions matter, and McCarthy's frequent gaffes might've kept the Cowboys from reaching the postseason tournament.
It's still Dak's team.
The noise outside of The Star frequently suggests that the Cowboys should consider moving on from Prescott due to his salary demands and recent injury history. However, the 2020 season provided the Cowboys with an opportunity to see how the operation functioned without the QB1 and that should spark a greater appreciation for his skills as a player and leader.
Without Prescott on the field, the Cowboys' offense didn't display nearly the explosiveness that we witnessed the first four-plus games of the season. Despite playing behind a leaky offensive line, he consistently shredded defenses with a barrage of pinpoint throws to his playmakers on the perimeter. In addition, Prescott masked the team's biggest flaws on both sides of the ball (pass protection and team defense) by elevating his play to keep the Cowboys in games via shootouts.
The dazzling individual performance from much-maligned QB1 confirmed his ability to thrive as a playmaker without a perfect environment in place. Moreover, the drastic drop off in production after his departure confirmed his importance as the Cowboys' franchise quarterback.
The outside world will spend the bulk of the offseason debating whether Prescott is worth the money as a franchise player but after seeing the Cowboys fall apart without No.4, there is little doubt that he should be the team's QB1 for the foreseeable future.
Let the tweaking begin.
We've heard plenty of excuses regarding the defense's historically poor performance. From an ill-fitting scheme that didn't mesh with the personnel to complex coverage tactics that appeared to befuddle the secondary, Mike Nolan and the defensive staff missed the mark in 2020 with the defense.
As the coaching staff huddles up in a meeting room to determine how to proceed after the disaster, the establishment of an identity and culture should be the top priority. After studying 16 games of All-22 footage on this unit, I still don't know what this defense is all about. I've heard Nolan discuss the importance of taking the ball away but I don't see 11 defenders committed to the process. There are too many defenders giving lackluster effort to generate turnovers on gang tackle-induced fumbles or interceptions on tipped or overthrown balls. The lack of hustle signals a complacent environment in which defenders can get away with subpar effort on the field.
Although the energy and effort improved down the stretch, the lackadaisical play from the defense must be addressed and rectified next season.
From a schematic standpoint, the Cowboys need to figure out if they are best suited to play a 4-3 or 3-4 based on their personnel. Despite Nolan's preference for a three-man front with standup edge defenders, the Cowboys must determine whether their defensive ends have the capability to attack from a two-point stance and play in space as underneath pass defenders.
The coaching staff also needs to make decisions on the type of interior defender that best fits the scheme. Is a big-bodied plugger desired at nose tackle and the three-technique or would the unit benefit from an upfield penetrator on the inside?
The Cowboys will need to ask similar questions when examining the secondary and their performance. Is this coverage scheme the right fit for the personnel? Do the defensive backs possess the ball skills to excel in zone coverage?
Mike Nolan and Co. have a lot of questions to address this offseason. And they must start finding solutions starting today.
With the 10th overall pick, the Cowboys select…
The Cowboys have an opportunity to add a blue-chip talent to the roster with a top ten pick. The 2020 draft class is quarterback-heavy but there are some big-time players at positions of need for the Cowboys. The cornerback class features a handful of long, rangy defenders with speed, quickness, and ball skills. From Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley to Alabama's Patrick Surtain, II to South Carolina's Jaycee Horn to a few wild card prospects, the class is loaded with plug-and-play starters on the island.
If the Cowboys opt for an offensive tackle, the 2020 class is full of big-bodied ballerinas with refined technical games to excel on the edges. Whether it is Northwestern's Rashawn Slater to Virginia Tech's Christian Darrishaw to USC's Alijah Vera-Tucker, the Cowboys will have options if they opt to address the offensive line based on Tyron Smith's injury history and the desire to upgrade the depth along the frontline.
It is early in the process and free agency will certainly change some of the team's priorities but landing a five-star player should be the focal point of the pre-draft process.