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Offseason | 2023

Spagnola: 2023 Season starting off at base camp


This Dallas Cowboys 2023 season preview appears in The Star 2023 Training Camp Preview magazine, along with a position-by- position breakdown, a feature story on newly added receiver Brandin Cooks and the 2023 schedule pullout poster, all available HERE.

FRISCO, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys finished the 2022 season with a 12-5 record, second place in the NFC East, earning the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs, going on the road to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-14, but losing to San Francisco on the road in the second round, 19-12.

The Cowboys finished the 2021 season with an identical 12-5 record, but this time good enough to win the division title for the third time in six seasons, earning the third seed in the NFL playoffs. Unfortunately, they were at home when losing in the first round, again to the San Francisco 49ers, 23-17, after time ran out during a mad scramble at the Niners' 24-yard line with Dak Prescott unsuccessfully trying to spike the ball to preserve one last play.

So then in the past two years the Cowboys have constructed a combined 24-10 regular season record, qualifying for the playoffs in back-to-back campaigns for the first time since 2006-07, putting up consecutive winning seasons for just the second time since a string of five straight from 2005-09, chalking up double-digit win totals in each year for the first time since 1995-96 and compiling a 1-2 playoff record over these past two seasons.

But this just hasn't been good enough. Not in their minds and for sure not in the minds of the long-starved fans yearning for a return to the franchise's ninth Super Bowl and for sure at least the 17th NFL/NFC Championship Game in club history.

Now, here we go again, 2023, the Cowboys on July 24 embarking for training camp in Oxnard, Calif., with their sights set on a third consecutive winning season for the first time since 2016-18, and for sure a third straight playoff berth, something they have not accomplished since qualifying in those six seasons from 1991-96. My gosh, that's 27 years ago, spanning four decades and now encompassing five presidents and three quality franchise quarterbacks, of course Hall of Famer Troy Aikman in the 1990s, Tony Romo from 2006-15 and now Dak from 2016 to the present.

"I think the things that got us to the back-to-back seasons are the things that dictated my thinking as to the offseason moves that we've made," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "And make no mistake about it, we've done some good things these last two years, but there are things that we can significantly do better."

And that's where this dichotomy slides in for 2023 and is something NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo wrestled with publicly after his Milwaukee Bucks were eliminated in the first round of this season's NBA playoffs while refusing to say the team's season was a "failure" when asked after the early elimination.

"Michael Jordan played 15 years, won six championships – the other nine years was a failure?" Antetokounmpo reasoned. "There's no failure in sports. There's good days, bad days; some days you're able to be successful, some days you're not. Some days it's your turn, some days it's not your turn. And that's what sports are about. You don't always win. … This year, somebody else is going to win, simple as that."

And that's what the Cowboys must wrestle with, having put together two of the best back-to-back winning seasons they've had in quite some time. Should the success be heralded or the failures in the playoffs become a stigma.

First, head coach Mike McCarthy, starting his fourth year with the Cowboys, having spent 13 seasons as the head coach in Green Bay, including when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV right there in AT&T Stadium. Eleven times he has led his teams into the playoffs.

"I think it was the first eight or nine years, I would never use the word lose or failure because we were a young team," McCarthy said. "And just like anything, when a team comes together and you do have thresholds you're trying to get over, always trying to stack success and build off the winning attributes of your performance because obviously the result is not always a win.

"But just like anything, I think there is a lot of value in results that you don't win, so I think you miss that opportunity to recognize what failure can bring to the future of your program. So I think there is so much to be learned when things don't go well, and that's the one thing that has been 100 percent for me as a head coach. And that's why I loved the theme last year of resilience because I think a National Football League player is as resilient of a person as I've ever encountered. It's in their DNA."

And defensive coordinator Dan Quinn weighed in on the subject that seems to haunt these Cowboys when they are unable to advance through the playoffs. The franchise has been confronted with this reality of posting double-digit win totals seven times from 2007 through 2022 yet have never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, earning an overall 4-7 tournament record during that span.

"I would say there's a lesson there, but I wouldn't have to say it's all failure," Quinn said. "The lesson I'd say is if you don't learn from it, then that's a failure. Knowing where we were vulnerable, where we might have made a mistake or, quite honestly, where earlier in the season we might have stubbed our toe maybe to not have home field (advantage), some of those things. I like (Giannis') analogy … because there is a lot of learning that took place.

"You'd love for it all to go your way, but sometimes the best learning happens in those moments where, 'This ain't happening to me again, and I'm going to fight for it and get it right.' Because when you take responsibility to say, 'It wasn't as good as it can be,' then you want to say, 'I'm going to show it can be.'"

This most recent version of the Cowboys learned some tough lessons in the playoffs, causing an inability to celebrate two sterling regular-season records, the 12-5 in 2021 leaving the Cowboys in a four-way tie for the third-best mark in the NFL behind Green Bay and Tampa Bay at 13-4, and the 12-5 of 2022 ranking sixth among teams with the most wins.

But once the Cowboys lost that second-round playoff game to San Francisco, 19-12, that is what seemingly hovers overhead, stigmatizing a season during which they brilliantly managed to go 4-1 through the five games Prescott missed due to injury. And then when he returned for Game 7, Dallas finished the final 11 contests at 8-3 with two of the losses coming in overtime despite scoring 28 points against Green Bay and 34 at Jacksonville.

However, here is the rub: Sometimes a boulder gets in your way if tempted to rest on your previous laurels, assuming just because they won 12 games in each of the past two seasons, just because they qualified for the playoffs in consecutive seasons, that they simply

grandfather you back into the playoffs for 2023.

No, siree. Have to start from scratch. Have to earn it all over again, which sometimes can become an overwhelming burden for teams. Like, man, we've got to win them one at a time all over again.

"You have to choose the right language to do that," Quinn said when addressing the players. "One of the ways we do that is we're going back to base camp. Base camp means we're not going back to the bottom of the mountain, but we're not at the top either. I learned that early on in my career from Bill Walsh, that was one of the terms that he used, and it clicked for me, made sense. You're not going to the bottom of the mountain. There is a good nucleus of players that have the right stuff.

"Now it also means we're not just taking off where we left off."

Certainly, the Cowboys don't have the same team that won 12 games and a playoff outing last year. Offensively they decided to move on from Ezekiel Elliot, for now that is, since in early June Jones mentioned his name as a possibility down the road. Now entering the last week in July, Zeke still is as the Cowboys go further down that road.

They lose starting left guard Connor McGovern in free agency. Dalton Schultz, who has squandered money so far by not taking Dallas' three-year offer last year and then playing on the franchise tag, left for the Texans. Seems almost assuredly the Cowboys will not bring back kicker Brett Maher, proving during that playoff win in Tampa that there is no such thing as an extra point by missing four of those and now leaving the team searching for a replacement that likely will extend into training camp with the current likes of Tristan Vizcaino and the recently added from the USFL Brandon Aubrey.

Defensively, nothing so drastic. No veteran linebacker Anthony Barr but watch for second year 'backer Damone Clark to step into his role. No cornerback Jourdan Lewis for at least the start of training camp, still rehabbing his Lisfranc injury, nor veteran Anthony Brown, now a free agent recovering from his ruptured Achilles surgery. But last year's surprise fifth-round pick DaRon Bland will fill the slot nicely.

And for sure the two biggest moves the Cowboys made in the offseason were the trades for starters, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and veteran wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Gilmore will pair nicely opposite Trevon Diggs while Cooks will create a triplet of receivers for the Cowboys now that Michael Gallup appears to be the old Michael Gallup after struggling physically last year coming off a 2021 torn ACL. That is an impressive threesome, adding Cooks, who has put up 1,000-yard receiving seasons in six of his last eight, with Gallup and Pro Bowler CeeDee Lamb.

Because of Gallup's struggles and the trading away of Amari Cooper, the Cowboys were always one receiver short in 2022. But with those three and a much more prepared Jalen Tolbert, last year's third-round pick who became overwhelmed once the lights came on, plus seemingly committed to getting return ace KaVontae Turpin reps as a wide receiver, that's a pretty nice fivesome.

That, too, will make life much sweeter for Prescott, who took a few too many chances last year trying to fit balls into tight quarters when his receivers weren't really open or when they were running poorer routes than he was anticipating pr dropping passes into deflected interceptions.

Cutting down on those 15 interceptions, nearly half not on Prescott, will make a potent offense averaging 35 points a game in 10 of the final 11 outings Prescott played during the regular season that more lethal.

Said Lamb of a few of those passing game struggles: "I feel like the biggest problem for us last year was we were never on, well, we were on the same page but not as often as we want. There was a ton of brutal mistakes."

No kidding.

So the unknown answers to the questions the Cowboys will be seeking once hitting the ground next week at their River Ridge Sports Complex in Oxnard are these:

· How well will running back Tony Pollard handle the load if Elliott indeed is not around, knowing that Zeke's 558 offensive snaps, only 11 fewer than Pollard's, and his 12 rushing touchdowns, must be replaced by either Pollard taking on more responsibility or by guys currently on the roster like Malik Davis, Rico Dowdle and sixth-round pick Deuce Vaughn.

· Then there is moving on from offensive coordinator and play-caller Kellen Moore, now with the Chargers. McCarthy is installing more of his type of offense and will be calling the plays for the first time with the Cowboys, assisted by new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. That change must be for the better.

· With a healthy veteran Tyron Smith back, along with Tyler Smith and at some point Terence Steele, the Cowboys must decide who plays tackle. And they did actually work at times in the offseason with Tyron at left tackle and Tyler moving in at the vacant left guard. But then much of that will depend on if Steele is ready for the start of the season following his ACL repair, and if he is, then do the Cowboys have a better alternative at left guard than what Tyron Smith has left at left tackle. And then there is right guard, where the financially disgruntled Zack Martin is threatening to withhold his training camp services trying to leverage his All-Pro availability into a pay raise.

· Then there is tight end, where the Cowboys don't seem too fazed by the loss of Schultz, feeling confident that fourth-rounder Jake Ferguson and rookie free agent Peyton Hendershot, both added last year, plus the versatile veteran Sean McKeon and the addition of 2023 second-round selection Luke Schoonmaker, will more than adequately handle the job.

· Alas, kicker, where the Cowboys finished the offseason with only Vizcaino before adding Aubrey, the former professional soccer player who has kicked the past two seasons for Birmingham of the USFL. But as special teams coach John Fassel said during the offseason when asked about the kicker conundrum, it's "Vizcaino and everybody else on earth not with another team." Consider Aubrey one of those candidates. Will be an interesting camp, especially during those special teams kicking sessions.

And then, we would be remiss if not pointing out where oh where will Micah Parsons be. He's an ace up the sleeve for Quinn, who knows he can rotate him from linebacker to defensive end to who knows where else since Parsons said he just might play "eight" different spots. And heck, who knows? Keep an eye on the goal line for one of those eight if there is no Elliott since the two-time defensive Pro Bowler Parsons was a 1,000-yard running back as well in high school.

So, another 12-win season? An even better offense? The defense taking the next step?

That's what we go to training camp to find out, and to see if these Cowboys are resilient enough to handle coming up short last year, probably a better way to classify the 2022 season than using the F-word. To see if they can handle starting out at base camp this time around still yearning to reach the summit.

Because as secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. puts it, "What we did last year really doesn't guarantee us anything for next year. What the 2023 Dallas Cowboys will be, we'll see."

And you can sure say that's so, Joe.

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