FRISCO, Texas – I always save the intro to this column for after I've written the majority of it.
In my head, it allows me to build a theme, which I can then introduce at the top of the story. It feels like a super smart, intellectual "serious writer" thing to do.
The intro to this column was going to be all about COVID-19, and all the weird challenges and things that we've overcome to get to this point. But, as usual, I forgot that I'm a long-winded dweeb. This column, without fail, always runs longer than I mean it to – sorry about that.
So anyway, a long intro feels unnecessary when I've already rambled for so long in the following paragraphs.
You don't need me to tell you about COVID-19 anyway. As if any of us wants to read more about that.
So, yeah. Here's the Week 1 column – which, simply typing that is all the reminder I need about what a long road it's been to this season opener.
1. Let me start off by reminding everyone that I detest the idea of superstitions. It's become part of my schtick over the years.
In all walks of life, we tend to overvalue our own importance. And when it comes to things we have no control over – like the outcome of football games – people cling to any semblance of control they can find.
The Cowboys aren't going to win or lose because of what outfit you wear on Sunday night. Whether they're playing well or poorly has nothing to do with which part of the couch you happen to be sitting on. You can stop moving around so much, I promise.
2. With all of that said, I have to say it makes me awfully uneasy how the Cowboys have placed themselves squarely in the Super Bowl conversation before anyone has even played a game.
I'm not exaggerating. Peter King kicked off his first column of the regular season by picking Dallas to finish as the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Meanwhile, the fine folks over at ESPN ran a thorough simulation of the season. Their final projection had the Cowboys finishing 9-7 – and then making a run through the playoffs before ultimately losing Super Bowl LV to Kansas City.
This is the downside of being America's Team. Try as they might, the Cowboys are going to have a hard time sneaking up on anyone. The hype gained steam after they drafted CeeDee Lamb in April, and it kicked into a new gear after they signed Everson Griffen just two days before training camp practices began.
With the season opener just days away, you'd have a hard time realizing that this team finished 8-8 last season.
And that's totally fine! It's a new era, with a new head coach. The Cowboys undeniably employ a ton of top-notch talent. It's totally fair to be excited for what lays ahead.
Still, it's not always fun to enter a season with a target painted squarely on your back. That's not necessarily superstition, in my opinion – it's just common sense.
3. A thought dawned on me during Tuesday's episode of "Cowboys Break," and I've been mulling it over a lot in the time since.
For all the finality we seem to feel about the safety position prior to Week 1, I'm going to go ahead and keep my eye on it for a little longer.
Quick refresher: the Cowboys aren't currently interested in Earl Thomas. Xavier Woods looks as though he'll be healthy for the season opener, and Darian Thompson has been getting plenty of snaps alongside him in the secondary. The team also signed Brandon Carr, who played some safety for Baltimore last season, to help add depth after the departure of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Between the duo of Thompson and Carr, the Cowboys seem confident they have adequate personnel next to Woods, and they can go forward without any other additions.
I hope that's the case. I'm a big fan of Carr as a person, and Thompson has worked hard to earn this opportunity. For that matter, it would be fun to see where Donovan Wilson is in his development, if it comes to that.
But teams almost always feel good about their personnel ahead of the season. I'm old enough to remember when the Cowboys felt good about starting Allen Hurns, Darian Thompson and then-rookie Michael Gallup at receiver back in 2018. They traded a first-round pick for Amari Cooper less than two months into that season.
None of this is to say the Cowboys will wind up signing Earl Thomas. I genuinely don't think they want to. But playing games has a way of revealing the problems with your roster, and safety looks like a weak link. I'm curious to see how this conversation evolves once we've seen some games.
4. Let's not lose the plot about this running back conversation.
Another big topic of training camp is how the Cowboys plan to employ their two backs, Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. In these three weeks of practices, we've seen both utilized in a variety of ways as runners and receivers – and occasionally in formations that feature both of them together.
It's hard not to get excited when you hear stuff like Elliott's comment from Wednesday:
"I would say a bigger package, a bigger menu," he said. "I would say more plays, like what you saw me and Tony in there together last year."
That's all well and good. It sounds very fun to put two dynamic backs on the field together.
But even if that happens, it would likely only be a handful of times per game. It's hard to imagine the Cowboys trotting both Elliott and Pollard onto the field more than 100 or so times this season. And even that feels high.
That's fine, though. It was never about using them simultaneously. No, the hope for this staff is that they figure out how to use both of them creatively and efficiently.
To be blunt, we didn't see that last year. We saw Zeke take 85% of this team's snaps, most of them coming as a bulldozer bell cow. Pollard, meanwhile, saw heavy use in the first three weeks during a series of lopsided blowouts. From there, he felt like an afterthought, receiving just 13.6% of the snaps the rest of the way.
Nobody is calling for an equal time share. Zeke is one of the few true feature backs in the NFL, and he's well deserving of a hefty workload. But it's very obvious that Pollard's speed and ability in space could be a valuable asset.
Between rushes, receptions and returns, Pollard averaged seven touches per game last season. I have to believe this staff can up those numbers closer to 10 or 12. In addition to making the offense more dynamic, it might just help keep Zeke fresh.
5. I guess I wouldn't be doing my due diligence if I didn't have something to offer about Deshaun Watson's new contract and the effect it will have on Dak Prescott.
The truth of the matter, though, is that Watson's contract doesn't mean anything we didn't already know. If you're still unsure of the type of contract Dak Prescott is going to demand in 2021, you're in denial.
On Saturday, Watson signed a four-year contract extension worth roughly $156 million – an average of $39 million per season over the course of the extension. Obviously, Watson still has two years remaining on his rookie deal, which should help the Houston Texans spread out the cost of the contract.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the timing of the Texans' deal with Watson has no bearing on Prescott. He doesn't have any years to work with. He's a free agent once again after this season, and he'll expect to be paid in accordance with the market.
Of course, the Cowboys have an ace up their sleeve. They can – and likely will – franchise tag him when this season is over. At the very least, they can use it as a placeholder until they agree to a new contract. Or, if this stalemate continues, they can use it to keep Dak in Dallas for another year, even if no deal is agreed to.
But the next franchise tag will cost the Cowboys $37.7 million – a number that's obviously quite close to Watson's salary figure. It stands to reason that Prescott and his representatives will be gunning to top Watson's number, and that's before we even know how he's going to perform this season.
Now take the Cowboys' offense into account. Prescott is surrounded by quality offensive linemen, an All-Pro running back and arguably the best receiver trio in the league. It's already been established that playoff success doesn't correlate to a quarterback's asking price – just ask Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr and even Watson himself.
The bottom line is that, barring some sort of catastrophic injury, Dak Prescott has positioned himself to top the $40 million mark. It's either that or play another season on the tag, setting the stage for an even bigger pay day in 2022.
Hopefully this saga doesn't play out that long. But one way or another, it's hard to imagine Dak Prescott losing.
6. Let it be known that I think the following things about the Cowboys' roster:
- It would be silly to project yardage totals for every player on the team, but I think CeeDee Lamb will improve on the numbers Randall Cobb posted last year. So, for the record, I'm calling for the rookie to catch more than 55 passes for more than 828 yards and more than three touchdowns. Seems doable.
- I want to officially put it into writing that I'm buying all the Blake Jarwin stock I can afford. I know it's going to be easier said than done because of how much talent is on this offense. But I think Jarwin is capable of catching 50 balls. More importantly, I think he's capable of averaging 12-14 yards per reception. Oh, and put me down for 7-10 touchdowns. I just have a feeling.
- It's probably not a good thing if Dak Prescott finishes second in the league in passing again, because it'd likely mean that the Cowboys aren't playing with a lot of leads. So I'm guessing he's not going to flirt with 5,000 yards again, like he did in 2019. That said, I do believe we're going to see the best seasons of Prescott's career. I'm looking for efficiency, good decision making and at least 35 total touchdowns – rushing and passing. Most importantly, I'm looking for that performance to translate to more wins. Because all the stats in the world won't mean anything without a playoff appearance.
7. Which, yeah – about that.
I already said at the top of the column that I'm disturbed by the hype surrounding this team. At the same time, I understand it. The Cowboys have the potential to be one of the best offenses in the league, and they've done enough with their defense to keep it from sinking them.
Still, this team has its flaws. I'm not sold on the secondary. And I'm not convinced the front seven is going to fire on as many cylinders as we might expect. Obviously, we're already seeing that the health of the offensive line might be a problem going forward.
I'm not sold that this is a 12 or 13 win team. Fortunately, the Cowboys play in the NFC East, and they shouldn't need that many wins to get to the postseason.
How about we say 11-5, a division championship and a home playoff game? That seems like a solid start to the Mike McCarthy Era.
Now, COVID-19 willing, let's see how it all plays out. After everything we've been through over the last six months, we owe it to ourselves to enjoy this football season – weird as it might be.