FRISCO, Texas – For the last 20 seasons, right here on Dallascowboys.com, on this day, the Friday before the season opener, was time for my season prediction. Just explain myself for throwing out the well thought-out season record. Maybe go as far to predict their final standing in the NFC East and if they were a playoff contender.
But now, in the crazy days of this Brand New World, disrupted with something called COVID-19 we had never heard of, crowding our vernacular with words such as pandemic, coronavirus, quarantines, cancellations, postponements, masks, social distancing, bubbles and giving new meaning to six feet, other than a height most of us wish we at least were, times have changed.
We have become a more sensitive people, focus raging, and rightfully so, on social injustices, all seeping into our sporting world. Protests saturating the country as if this were 1969, the commonplace words back then becoming civil rights, assassinations, Vietnam, campus unrest, The Beatles, wacky weed, Woodstock and the shoulder-length hair putting a cramp in my father's barbershop business.
Media used to be a noble profession back then. Journalism meant Walter Cronkite, Woodward and Bernstein, but now this term social media has blurred the lines, and far too many times there are those who really aren't very _social_ at all. Or honest. Accuracy has given way to eyeballs.
And with this Cowboys season about to begin at 7:20 p.m. Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams in a vacant SoFi Stadium, minus what a conventional offseason would provide – lacking OTAs, minicamps, a lengthy training camp, Oxnard for the Cowboys and preseason games – seems hard to go on and on qualifying why this Cowboys team, one with new head coach Mike McCarthy and basically an entirely new coaching staff adding an extra level of intrigue, to boldly say the Cowboys will go 11-5 this year, win the NFC East and at least reach that playoff step of being one win away from the NFC title game. Again, for the fourth time in seven seasons.
See, would like to qualify that record by expounding on an offense seemingly geared to reach new heights, and what first-round pick CeeDee Lamb brings to the table. Then again, throw up a caution flag for the first month of the season with starting right tackle La'el Collins on injured reserve, the quality of his backups unknown.
Would like to tell you, even with the departure of Jason Witten, how the tight end position might even improve, or how much better Ezekiel Elliott might be not having missed an entire training camp as he did last year. Or having an improved offensive coordinator with Kellen Moore having a season under his belt calling plays for the defending top-ranked offense from 2019, by the way.
Or maybe emphasize the potential of this defense line, with the addition of Everson Griffen, Aldon Smith, Dontari Poe and potentially down the road Randy Gregory, too, to mainstays DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Trysten Hill and Dorance Armstrong. Or how much better the linebacking unit looks with the neck-surgery-recovered Leighton Vander Esch now in the middle, though the secondary somewhat of an unknown.
And yes, if training camp means anything, the Cowboys kicking situation appears improved with the addition of veteran Greg Zuerlein, having gone 30-for-31 in camp kicking sessions we've seen.
But how to gauge the unknowns that come along with a new head coach, and new defensive and special team coordinators, yet an entire staff operating without the preparation normally provided a new staff in the offseason and preseason.
Yet, here are two items we do know, and make me thing all will be well in this Cowboys world turned upside down.
First, Dak Prescott. If he wasn't impressive enough during training camp, if his teammates are anything like me, after what's taken place over the past couple of days, with the fifth-year quarterback coming clean on the offseason depression a combination of his brother Jace's suicide and this pandemic isolation caused, they, too, will be willing to run through a wall for the undisputed leader of this team.
And the nerve of anyone to criticize him for being real, somehow figuring his vulnerability exposes a lack of leadership skills. Seriously.
This reminded me of the 1972 presidential election, the first time I was eligible to vote. Going to college at the University of Missouri, I became a fan of young Missouri state senator Thomas Eagleton, the vice presidential selection on George McGovern's ticket, running against President Richard Nixon. Only 18 days into the campaign, issues with previous bouts of depression and revelations of psychiatric counseling became prominent, causing his removal from the ticket. This infuriated a young, growing idealistic college student. My protest, since darn sure wasn't going to vote for Nixon, was to abstain from voting, period. And did no good, since the elected Nixon was eventually impeached.
But this, during these times, 48 years later? Come on.
"I think that it is important to be vulnerable, to be genuine and to be transparent," Dak would say. "That goes a long way when you are a leader and your voice is being heard by so many and you can inspire."
One of owner Jerry Jones' better qualities is judging character, and he understands great football team leadership qualities, having been around Aikman, Irvin, Woodson, Glover, Ware, Witten and the likes.
"My point is, he has a way of sharing his experiences that just attracts people to him, and it's not just his teammates," says Jones, knowing how well Dak dealt with the death of his mother while still in college. "He's extremely gifted as a leader, and a part of it is what we're talking about today. It's the fact that he can articulate. He shares his vulnerability.
"This is just a humanizing aspect to see Dak this way, so humanizing, and anything else doesn't have much substance to it."
No wonder Dak's accuracy throwing a football is so high. He's a straight shooter.
So is McCarthy, a quality he cultivated as an Irish-Catholic raised in a Pittsburgh neighborhood where his dad was a policeman and fireman while owning a neighborhood bar where his mom did some of the cooking.
With a lengthy and impressive head coaching résumé from his 13 successful years in Green Bay, that included one Super Bowl title, McCarthy knew what the expectations would be if he took the job the Joneses were offering. These Cowboys aren't just another team. These are the Cowboys, 60 years in the making. Known worldwide. Maybe haven't added to their five Lombardi Trophies collected over their first 36 seasons, a drought entering the 25th year, yet still highly relevant with the fan base.
But no matter what, with this history and coaching the NFL's most visible and once again most valuable franchise according to Forbes ($5.7 billion), the expectations are annually Saturn high, no matter if the Cowboys have gone 13-3 the previous season or 3-13.
Ask Jimmy Johnson his first year. Ask Barry Switzer when he didn't coach a Super Bowl three-peat his first year. Ask Jason Garrett, having the nerve to only go 8-8 his first year after taking over a 1-7 team midseason the previous year that finished 6-10.
So Mike, facing these always suffocating expectations in 2020, taking over an 8-8 team having won three NFC East titles the past six seasons – one in each of the even numbered years beginning in 2014? Oh, and 2020 is even. You fear the expectations?
"Trust me, I knew the day I walked in this building what the expectations are and always will be at the Dallas Cowboys," McCarthy said, not shying away one bit. "I'm fortunate enough to having coached a football team with high expectations year in and year out, day to day."
He would continue: "To me, that's a given, that's part of the deal here, and I embrace that. I look at it as blessing to line up and have that opportunity to go out and win, especially when you are expected to win, because that's the only way you can go about the game of football."
High-five, er, elbow bump that. None of this "under-promise and over-deliver" malarky. No, poor-mothing, hiding in the woods.
Guarantee you that's what those guys heading out Saturday on that 3 p.m. charter flight to L.A. want to hear. And it's not bravado. It's just what it should be if you are coaching these highly-paid NFL athletes. They don't give out trophies for participation in this league.
So this may sound strange during a weird year, maybe even corny or naïve on my part, but that's OK. I've been called worse over these past 20 seasons, and maybe even over all the previous 36 seasons covering this franchise.
But I'll just base some of my prediction on the leaderships skills of these two guys, Dak and Mac, hmmm, nice rhythm to that.
See, at times, thought I'd seen it all over the past three and a half decades of Cowboys football. But it's time to see some more in a year neither the quarterback nor the new head coach are making pacifying excuses just in case.
"I'm not going to sit here and beat the drum and talk about what our expectations are, because to me, it's a given," McCarthy says. "I think some people are scared to say it, but there is no need to say it.
"At the end of the day, it will always be the expectation here in Dallas, and I love that."
And brother, you should, too.