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State of the Franchise: Pressure on Cowboys, McCarthy to win it all

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Cowboys organization, Cowboys fans around the world and those who watch Friends religiously on Nick at Nite because the 1990s were the best decade ever: 

The story of the NFL cannot be told without the Dallas Cowboys, one of the league's most iconic franchises. But it's time to stop looking to the past and instead bask in a potential glorious future for this team. Big changes came to Dallas this offseason. No longer will fans have Jason Garrett to kick around. The longest-tenured coach in Cowboys history aside from Tom Landry is out. Mike McCarthy is in, with one goal in mind: Win a Super Bowl.

How the Cowboys got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Getting off to a hot start. The Cowboys won three consecutive games to open the season. They scored 31 points or more in each of those contests.
  • Setting franchise records on offense. Dak Prescott led the team to 6,904 total yards and 4,751 passing yards, both all-time Cowboys highs.

The lows:

  • Enduring a three-game losing streak in Weeks 4-6. Riding that three-game winning streak to open the season, they were felled in New Orleans by the Drew Brees-less Saints, 12-10. After suffering a defeat at the hands of the Packers a week later, the skid was extended to three in an embarrassing loss to the New York Jets. The Cowboys had a chance to tie the game against New York in the final minute, but a failed 2-point conversion attempt sealed their fate.
  • Losing four of their final six games. The Cowboys just sort of floated along to an 8-8 record that ultimately led to Jason Garrett's firing after nine and a half seasons at the helm.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Mike McCarthy. When I think of McCarthy, an established hire who was not necessarily the hottest name available, I think of Taco Bell late night. I mean, it might not be your first choice. But you could certainly do a lot of worse. And in some cases, you wake up the next morning and realize that it was one of the best choices you have ever made.

That is no disrespect to Taco Bell. The Doritos Locos Taco is one of the greatest inventions of our time. Taco Bell is good. Mike McCarthy is good. He's proven to be a successful head coach in the NFL, winning 10-plus games in eight of his 13 seasons with the Packers and leading Green Bay to victory in Super Bowl XLV -- which, coincidentally, was played in Dallas. If you're a Cowboys fan, you point out that many coaches have won Super Bowls during their second stints, like Bill Belichick, famously, or Pete Carroll and Gary Kubiak. It's not unprecedented for coaches to win a Super Bowl in Chapter 2 of their careers. That's the good part of the decision to hire McCarthy.

The potential bad side is, there are numerous examples in the NFL of Super Bowl-winning coaches not being able to have the same success in their next coaching stop. Take Jimmy Johnson. Many of you are probably too young to remember that, after building the Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s, he tried to recapture the magic with the Miami Dolphins. It wasn't the same. Kind of like listening to Angels & Airwaves. Sure, it's nice to hear Tom DeLonge's voice. And some of the songs are catchy. But it's not summer at the Warped Tour.

And I don't want to have to be the jerk who points this out, but McCarthy's only ever had Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, who I'm told are very good, as his starting quarterbacks in his head coaching career. And yet, he's won only one Super Bowl, and to get that one, he needed a lot of help (and an injury to Jay Cutler in the NFC Championship Game). All right, my bitter-Bears bias might have shown in that last quip. But there is no denying McCarthy has been spoiled by great quarterback play. The good news is, he has one of the best in the game on his roster right now: Andy Dalton.

Stop. I'm just kidding. Some of you need to lighten up. That said, McCarthy does have a pretty good quarterback.

Quarterback: Dak Prescott. I will say it again, but seriously this time: Prescott is one of the best quarterbacks in the game. I don't know why he's not talked about that way. Maybe it has something to do with the impressive quarterbacking lineage he has to live up to with the Cowboys, who have enjoyed Hall of Famers like Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. And Tony Romo might join them some day -- at the the very least, he's this generation's John Madden. Dak is like the son of a famous father. And he can either go in the direction of Jakob Dylan (no disrespect to The Wallflowers) or Dwayne Johnson. Well, I see Dak in the category of The People's Champ. (And I'm old enough to remember when people HATED The Rock. It was a weird time.)

Prescott has won 40 games, tied for the fifth-most in a quarterback's first four seasons in the Super Bowl era. Only Tom Brady (47) has more wins than Prescott since he entered the league in 2016. The Cowboys have never had less than eight wins under Prescott, who also notched seven games last season with more than 300 yards while helping the Cowboys set those franchise marks for yards and passing yards. Dak is a good quarterback. He's been the rock of the offense, that's for sure. Fine, I'm not helping myself out by using those puns. But Dak has been great. There is no denying that. His contract situation has become a thing that people have focused on this summer, with the franchise-tagged Prescott still working on a long-term extension. Not to go all Teddy KGB, but pay the man his money. He's earned it.

Projected 2020 MVP: Dak. Yes, I liked bringing Andy Dalton in as the perfect Cowboys backup, filling a position that has been a priority for GM Jerry Jones going back to the Steve Beuerlein days. But Dak is still the guy. He's going to determine if the team goes to the playoffs. One thing to point out, though: Dak didn't have a single game-winning drive in 2019. (That's bad, considering 33 quarterbacks had at least one last year.) Stil, that seems like an aberration to me, since Dak led the NFL with 14 game-winning drives from 2016 to '18.

Projected 2020 defensive MVP: DeMarcus Lawrence, defensive end. He had just five sacks last season after signing that huge extension last April. I'm willing to say he was occupying defenders so Bobby Quinn (11.5 sacks) could eat. But Quinn is gone now, so Lawrence needs to take a bigger role and get to the quarterback this season.

2020 breakout star: Blake Jarwin, tight end. I know, with the Cowboys adding first-round pick CeeDee Lamb to an already prolific offense, it's hard to believe there could be room for anybody else to have a breakout season. But what you need to realize is the departure of tight end Jason Witten and receiver Randall Cobb will open up 166 targets for the taking. I have a hard time believing that will all go to just one rookie wide receiver in Lamb, so Jarwin is a player that I'm keeping an eye on.

New face to know: Trevon Diggs, cornerback. I know who you were expecting to read about right here. And we'll get to Lamb in a moment. But one of my favorite picks of the Cowboys was Diggs, a talented cornerback taken in the second round out of Alabama. He allowed a passer rating of 44.5 while in coverage for the Crimson Tide last season, the seventh-lowest total among FBS players with 50-plus targets, according to Pro Football Focus. And for reasons we will get into in a moment, this is the most important draft pick for the Cowboys.

Before you ask: Yes, Trevon is the brother of Bills receiver Stefon Diggs. Trevon even said that he would try to dominate his brother one-on-one if given the chance. Before you ask again, no. The Cowboys do not play the Bills this season.

2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: EXTREMELY HIGH. That's an evergreen statement with the Cowboys. The expectation to succeed is always going to be there, and it's only going to be higher with a win-now coaching hire like McCarthy. The Cowboys organization looks at this roster as one of the best in football, and they expect to be in the playoffs again this season, at the very least.

Three key dates:

  • Week 3 at Seahawks. Mike McCarthy returns to Seattle for the first time since the Packers lost to the Seahawks ... in Week 11 of the 2018 season. I know, it would be a lot more impactful if this was going to be McCarthy's first time in Seattle since Green Bay's collapse in the 2014 NFC Championship Game. But we can't have everything. This team might be the one McCarthy wants to beat more than anybody (other than the Packers).
  • Week 8 at Eagles. I love both the Cowboys and Eagles this year, and I can't wait for this Sunday night game. The Cowboys will follow this up by playing host to the Steelers the following week before their bye.
  • Week 15 vs. 49ers. With only the No. 1 seed getting a bye this year, this game could have a huge impact in determining who gets that coveted week off in the playoffs.

Will the Cowboys be able to ...

Get the most out of their defense with new coordinator Mike Nolan? Plenty has changed for the Cowboys' defense, starting at the top with Nolan. (Fun fact: His father, Dick Nolan, was Tom Landry's defensive coordinator in the 1960s. That was fun, right? Well, at least it was a fact.) The unit was a statistical success last season, ranking ninth in total defense and second in third-down conversion rate, but seldom great on the field, seemingly coming up short whenever the Cowboys needed a huge stop in a big game. They were like that middle reliever for your favorite baseball team who piles up strikeouts but seems to give up a huge dinger whenever he's called from the bullpen in a high-pressure spot. That's why the Cowboys were 0-5 in games decided by seven points or less.

One of the problems for the Cowboys under Rod Marinelli was that they were a little too rigid and somewhat predictable. Nolan is looking to make this more of a "swarming" defense that can mix defenses and coverages to keep opposing teams off balance. And he'll be doing it with a significantly different cast of players. Dallas lost some big-time talent, like cornerback Byron Jones (who signed with the Dolphins), defensive end Robert Quinn (now with the Bears) and Maliek Collins (now with the Raiders). All three were major contributors last year, especially Quinn, who had a rebirth and played like a guy who wanted a long-term deal. The Cowboys will be looking to replace them with veterans Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. I already mentioned Diggs, but another talented player drafted by the Cowboys is Neville Gallimore, a third-round pick out of Oklahoma.

Kick their offense into even higher gear with CeeDee Lamb? Well. The Cowboys were already pretty great before drafting Lamb, ranking first in yards gained last season for the first time since 1977. And things are looking pretty good for 2020, with Dallas' opponents combining to allow an average of 23.8 points per game (the most among any team's 2020 opponents). The Cowboys couldn't pass on Lamb, who had 3,292 receiving yards in three seasons at Oklahoma. He was second in FBS with a 21.4 yards-per-reception average (among those with a minimum of 25 receptions). And he forced 26 missed tackles in 2019, the second-highest total among WRs, according to Pro Football Focus. He joins a team that was already loaded at the position, with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup both topping 1,000 receiving yards last season. In all, Dak finished second in the league in passing yards. Ezekiel Elliott was second in scrimmage yards. Cooper was eighth in receiving yards. Gallup was sixth in receiving yards per game.

Get another great year out of Ezekiel Elliott? I'm curious as to the kind of offense we're going to get out of McCarthy, who rarely ran the ball with his West Coast offense in Green Bay. Only once in his 13 years on the job did the Packers finish in the top 10 in rushing. But he also didn't have a talent like Zeke, no disrespect to Eddie Lacy (well, maybe a little). Elliott has averaged 96.5 rushing yards per game in his career, the fourth highest mark in NFL history. But while Elliott was really good again in 2019, we did see some cracks start to develop, with Elliott posting the worst marks of his career thus far in touches per game (22.2), rushing yards per game (84.8) and scrimmage yards per game (111.1).I know, these are great numbers -- just below what Elliott has averaged in the past. Maybe it's just the fantasy geek in me who is worried; after all, only Christian McCaffrey had more scrimmage yards than Elliott last year. But I'm also thinking about the guys in front of him ...

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: There are legitimate reasons to worry about the offensive line. This unit was one of the most dominant in football for a long stretch. But the loss of Travis Frederick, who retired this offseason, is going to be significant. He was Pro Football Focus' second-highest graded center from 2013 to '19. That's a huge hole to fill. I mean, Dallas still has Tyron Smith (who is also turning 30 this season), Zack Martin and La'el Collins, so there are plenty of stars. It's like when you go to a Blink-182 show and it's still great because you have Mark and Travis in the lineup still. But it's not quite the same was it was back in the day. Still good, mind you. Just not what it once was.

... people are overthinking: Not drafting a cornerback at No. 17. Maybe I'm defending this because I'm a fantasy dork and I love watching offense. But I'll die on the hill of drafting CeeDee Lamb at that spot. It's like when somebody gives you a gift card; you don't use it to purchase groceries, you use it for something fun. And at any rate, I'm not sure the Cowboys would be any better off at corner if they'd spent a first-round pick on one. Consider the corners who were chosen between the 17th pick and No. 51 overall, when Dallas scooped up Diggs. Are we convinced Damon Arnette (No. 19), Noah Igbinoghene (30), Jeff Gladney (31) or Jaylon Johnson (50) would have had a bigger impact on the secondary than Lamb will have on the offense? Lamb seems like a safer pick. And hey, don't beat yourself up for wanting to splurge once in a while. You deserve it.

ANOTHER storyline people are overlooking: The Cowboys receivers drop a lot of passes. You see a lot of coverage on how Dak has played much better since Amari Cooper arrived via trade in 2018. Yes, we get it. But the Cowboys led the NFL with 43 drops last year, according to Pro Football Focus. And Gallup was the biggest offender with 13.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Cowboys MUST ...

Get to the Super Bowl. I mean, is this not why McCarthy was brought to Dallas? The Cowboys made it to the Divisional Round two years ago, then fell back to 8-8 last season. While I might say a normal team in that situation would be happy getting some wins and returning to the postseason, just getting to the playoffs is plainly not enough for Jerry Jones. The Cowboys have a Super Bowl-caliber roster, and competing for a Lombardi Trophy should be the expectation. This will be the 25th season since Barry Switzer coached the Cowboys to their last title, and most fans -- that is, those who were not worn into accepting mediocrity during the Garrett era -- are not going to be happy unless they win it all.

In closing

One of my friends recently texted me and implored me to talk down the Cowboys this year, because it seems like any time we football pundits start stoking the flames of the Cowboys campfire, it gets extinguished. But I can't help myself. The Cowboys have a good roster. The trick will be living up to the expectations set by the legendary groups that came before, just like the challenge faced by every new movie The Rock has put out since his masterpiece, San Andreas. It might not be fair, because it's hard to be perfect -- but it's the world in which you live.

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