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Offseason | 2024

Mick Shots: Nothing comes easy for this season


FRISCO, Texas – Thought about time to offer another reminder of just how difficult this upcoming 2024 NFL season will be for the Dallas Cowboys.

And this has nothing to do with a lack of salary cap space.

Nor has anything to do with that lack of cap funds tying the Cowboys hands in free agency, unable to fiscally afford to replenish a roster having lost a combined 11 significant players, either starters or prime rotational guys, due to free agency, retirement or still unsigned.

And really nothing to do this offseason with all three quarterbacks on the roster heading into their final contract year or the head coach doing the same. Or CeeDee Lamb heading into the final year of his contract, choosing to skip these "voluntary" workouts while angling for negotiating leverage.

Nope, this has to do with the Cowboys' 2024 opponents since the NFL official schedule release is nye upon us this middle of May. So as if there hasn't been enough concern already going forward, here is a refresher course on just who the Cowboys will be playing in 2024, home and away. The difficulty has been ratcheted up thanks to the luck of the rotational draw and the Cowboys facing a first-place schedule after winning the NFC East for the second time in three years at 12-5, in case all these snowballing downers have created 2023 amnesia.

Let's go, and realize this is the year the Cowboys will play the teams from the NFC South, the AFC North, corresponding first-place finishers from the NFC North and NFC West and the 17th game vs. the AFC South winner.

Home opponents:

  • Philadelphia (11-6)
  • NY Giants (6-11)
  • Washington (4-13)
  • New Orleans (9-8)
  • Tampa Bay (9-8)
  • Baltimore (13-4)
  • Cincinnati (9-8)
  • Detroit (12-5)
  • Houston (10-7)

Away Opponents:

Philadelphia (11-6)

NY Giants (6-11)

Washington (4-13)

Atlanta (7-10)

Carolina (2-15)

Pittsburgh 10-7)

Cleveland (11-6)

San Francisco (12-5)

Now then, if 2023 results mean anything, here is what might give you a 2024 difficulty-quotient pause.

  • The Cowboys will face opponents finishing the 2023 season with winning records in 11 of those 17 games.
  • The Cowboys will face opponents qualifying for the 2023 playoffs in nine of those games, including division winners San Francisco, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Houston.
  • The Cowboys will face three of the four teams advancing to the 2023 conference championship games (San Francisco, Detroit, Baltimore).

And when it comes to strength of schedule, opponents in those 17 games finished 146-143, for a .505 strength of schedule, tying the Cowboys for the 12th most difficult with the 49ers, Rams and Jets. But that is a tad misleading since the Cowboys must play the team finishing with the worst record in the NFL last year, Carolina at 2-15. And then two other games against the 4-13 Commanders, tied for the second-worst record in 2023.

If you factor out those three games (10-41, a winning percentage of .196) then the other 14 games are against opponents combining for a 136-102 record, or a .571 winning percentage. That's tough. That's rough, figuring the Cleveland Browns will face the toughest strength of schedule at .547.

Plus, how about this: Five of the six teams with the highest strength of schedule all play the Cowboys, that 12-5 record of last year boosting the SOS of those clubs – Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Houston and the Giants two times.

So going forward, when that schedule finally comes out and we know the order of games, including dates and times, you will better understand the difficulty factor facing the Cowboys.

As if that factor hasn't been high enough already.

  • Pretty Tight: Last week's Reliant Energy Home Run Derby raising $145,000 for The Salvation Army and various other charities focused a spotlight on just how tight the tight end position might be. Especially with lead guy Jake Ferguson, who excelled last season in only his second year, finishing second on the team with 71 catches, second with 761 yards receiving and his five touchdown receptions ranking third. Well, the Derby reminded of just how athletic Fergie is. The guy was cranking out home runs, not just over the provisional fence, but actual real homers over the outfield wall at Riders Field. In fact, a couple landed in the trees separating the stadium from the street. For real. But hey, the guy the Cowboys selected in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft out of Wisconsin was a three-sport high school letterman in football, basketball and baseball. And now with a healthy Luke Schoonmaker, last year's second-round pick, Peyton Hendershot back for his third season, expecting last year's rookie free agent John Stephens returning from a torn ACL in training camp and the addition of priority free agent Brevyn Spann-Ford (6-6, 260), this will be a group worth salivating over.
  • A Plus Already: Already explained the positives of signing Ezekiel Elliott back to the roster on a one-year, $3 million max contract, but the ninth-year running back has instantly shown he's all-in as a teammate. Now, it's one thing to participate in the voluntary Phase II workouts out here at The Star, but he also subbed in as a last-minute replacement in the Home Run Derby this past Wednesday. And you know Zeke when it comes to competing. Stepped up to the plate without taking any previous batting practice to hit several homers over the temporary fences. Once again, just a fun guy to be around.
  • Step Right Up: Didn't take long for veteran linebacker Eric Kendricks to step right into the team after signing his one-year, $3 million contract in free agency, showing he is taking a leadership role in that young room of talent. Not only participating in the offseason workouts, but the newcomer stepped to the plate in the Home Run Derby, too, and also explained why he decided to forego a chance to sign with San Francisco as probably a backup to instead come here to the Cowboys as the presumed starting middle linebacker. "I feel I've got a lot to give, and I wanted to be with Mike," as in new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Kendricks played for the former Minnesota head coach with the Vikings from 2015-21.
  • Fitz Sighting: Great seeing former Cowboys starting center John Fitzgerald (1971-80) coming through The Star on a tour, and we had a good laugh when showing him the locker room here compared to the Forest and Abrams facility he was in before the Cowboys moved to The Ranch in 1985. Because, as he remembers, those old wooden lockers had, of all things, ash trays screwed into the front-side edges. Gosh, and there were some guys as far back as 1984 still using them, too. Talk about, uh, smokin' in the boys room, a real thing back in the day in our high school bathrooms as well.
  • Shorter Shots: In case you are wondering, when it comes to the 2025 NFL schedule rotation next year, the NFC East teams will be playing teams from the NFC North and the AFC West, which should have the Cowboys playing their first game against the Raiders in Las Vegas … There still are three unrestricted free-agent Cowboys players unsigned: Stephon Gilmore, Jayron Kearse and Sean McKeon, and wondering if the Cowboys would keep an eye on Gilmore once he passes a physical (shoulder surgery) and if his asking price isn't out of their salary cap range … A former Cowboy is also still unsigned, now center Connor Williams, who left the Cowboys after four seasons playing guard to sign a free-agent deal with Miami. He started all 26 games played over the past two seasons before suffering a torn ACL in Week 14 mid-December of last year, having earned $13.8 million from the Dolphins … Since Mike McCarthy became the head coach in 2020, there are 22 drafted players still on the roster, all eight from last season, six of eight from 2022, six of 11 from 2021 and two from 2020 when seven of seven initially made the roster … Maybe this bodes well for Cowboys' third-round draft choice Marist Liufau (linebacker, Notre Dame), who attended Punahou (High) School in Honolulu, same as Cowboys' former Pro Bowl left tackle, the late Mark Tuinei (1983-97).

And for this week's last word, let's hear from Zeke, returning from a year's absence after spending the past season with the Patriots. He spent his first seven years in the NFL with the Cowboys, the fourth draft choice in the 2016 NFL Draft. Many are just assuming this season will be running back by committee and that Zeke will be a rotational player.

But just listen to how Zeke answers the question about likely having a reduced role this second time around during a break at last week's Home Run Derby.

"I think, at the end of the day, I'm a football player. I love this game," Zeke began. "I think I'm still a dominant guy. I've got to go out there and prove that. That's the motivation.

"But I think we all know how I feel about competing and leaving it all out there for my team."

Can't wait to see me some feed me.

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