The Dallas Cowboys have not reached the Super Bowl.
It’s a statement that applies to 30 NFL teams in any given year. But that’s been true of the Cowboys for 27 consecutive seasons, a period during which 21 league franchises have played on Super Sunday and 13 have lifted the Lombardi Trophy at least once.
and cowboy it’s not any particular privilege.
No other club – in any league – is known as “Team America”. No organization in professional football commands or demands the level of interest Dallas has. Champions or not, the Cowboys are the NFL’s flagships – the Yankees, Lakers, Duke and Alabama can only dream of shining a spotlight like this.
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But the downside to owner Jerry Jones & Co. – it’s a downside, isn’t it? – is the examination and manual inspection that comes with an annual autopsy.
So as we dive into what’s left of the undefeated Cowboys 2022, here are seven issues they must address going into the 2023 season:
Clear the cover space
for every OvertheCapDallas has nothing in its coffers for free agents this year. This is an issue on several levels, a few of which will be explored in more detail shortly. This past March, the Cowboys restructured the contracts of QB Dak Prescott and G Zack Martin to free up about $22 million. Do they go back to Martin and/or Prescott, who owe a combined $65 million over the next two years, and convert base salaries into signing bonuses that can be amortized in the future? Or do you hope other vets like WR Michael Gallup and DeMarcus Lawrence will retool their compacts similarly?
And it’s time to take a closer look at the contracts of mainstays like RB Ezekiel Elliott and OT Tyron Smith. Releasing Smith, who endured another injury-shortened campaign, from the final season of his deal would free up nearly $10 million — and that seems possible given the emergence of rookie Tyler Smith in 2022. Elliott’s guarantees are high, but he owes $52.9 million in base salary during the next four seasons. His release will save him close to $5 million in 2023, but it’s probably for the best in the long run. And according to the Dallas Morning News, Zeke, who is coming off the least productive season of his seven-year career, appears to be seeing the writing on the wall and is open to a pay cut.
Re-sign Tony Pollard
For the first time, the fourth-year tailback was a spark for the Dallas offense and was a much more dangerous threat than two-year-old Elliott. Pollard just completed his first 1,000-yard rushing season, finished second to WR CeeDee Lamb for the team lead in yards from scrimmage (1,378) and matched Elliott’s 12 TDs, despite Zeke getting short yard opportunities. Five of Pollard’s scores came from over 30 yards while only five of Elliott’s scores were over 1 yard (the longest was 14 yards). Pollard’s 5.9 yards per touchdown was 2 yards better than Elliott’s.
While the leg injury he sustained on Sunday is an obvious concern, assuming there’s nothing extraordinarily worrisome about his prognosis, it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys wouldn’t at least give Pollard the franchise due to his ability to open up space for others when they aren’t. Rips portions of yardage and/or puts the ball into the end zone. It didn’t show signs of backing down in 2022, when the one-year bid value was $9.57 million. But negotiations with Pollard are sure to be difficult given the record-breaking, six-year, $90 million extension (with more than $50 million guaranteed) that Elliott received in 2019.
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Keep Dan Quinn
For the second year in a row, Dallas defensive coordinator is up for another term as head coach, three years after his divorce with the Atlanta Falcons. Jones has to do (almost) everything he can to keep Quinn on the payroll. He’s done a great job developing his scheme, which generates prolific pressure — thank you, Micah Parsons — and has produced a +24 turnover margin over the past two seasons, best in the NFL. Can the Cowboys stop the run more effectively? Definitely. But impacting the quarterback and pulling the ball wide are probably the most important components of a championship-caliber defence. There is no reason to mess with a successful formula here.
Make wise free agent choices
bollard the priority and may require the use of a tag. Otherwise, as much as Jones might want to keep his roster intact, his cap dictates otherwise. Among the considerations:
► Donovan Wilson: A sixth rounder in 2019, he has been solid in his two seasons as a starter (2020, 22). Be nice to re-signing him — which would likely mean another year of backline safety with Wilson and Jairon Kerse, who will both be free agents in 2024. But that’s not a must since Malik has already signed the Hooker in 2023.
► T Dalton Schultz: Nice player, but he should be thankful that he made nearly $11 million in franchise tag in 2022. The Cowboys should be fine moving forward with Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot, rookies in 2022.
► LB Leighton Vander Esch: The former first baseman had probably his best season since his rookie year in 2018. If he’s ready to play for close to $2 million again, it’s worth keeping him.
► J Connor McGovern: He has started 29 games over the past three seasons but should only stay at the Dallas price point.
► K. Brett Maher: A very good regular season, when he tied for third in the league with 137 points, attempting 29 of his 32 field goals while being 50 for 53 extra points. But the effort was marred by a (skillful?) disastrous playoff showing, which clearly affected Dallas’ strategy in a divisional round loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Kicker isn’t necessarily in a position to limit himself financially, but overinvesting in Maher seems like a clear risk.
► QB Cooper Rush: He could be the second hottest free agent in Dallas. Obviously, if another team breaks out and wants to give Rush the chance to start while paying him accordingly, the Cowboys will have to come up with alternate plans for their depth chart. But few people will forget that Rush kept this team afloat early in the season, winning four of his five starts while Prescott recovered from thumb surgery. Obviously, it would be a good idea to extend an insurance policy that you trust.
Moved from OBJ
Jones told USA TODAY Sports in December that free agent WR Odell Beckham Jr. “He will join us.” It never happened. right Now? Probably shouldn’t. Will the OBJ, assuming his surgically repaired knee is healthy, add another dimension to this offense? Of course. But the Cowboys are essentially tied to Gallup financially for at least another year and should start working on an extension for Lamb, a two-time Pro Bowler. It’s hard to see how Beckham, 30, fits into such salary constraints – especially when Jones could certainly bring back WR TY Hilton, who has been a solid contributor on and off the field after joining the team late in the season, at a much more reasonable price.
Talk to Sean Payton
Jones indicated after Sunday’s loss to San Francisco that head coach Mike McCarthy’s job is safe, which isn’t an unexpected sentiment given that Dallas has shown steady progress in his three seasons — including its first playoff victory in four years. But wouldn’t Jones be remiss to at least dine with Payton, who has been regularly associated with the job in the years since he served on the Dallas offensive team under Bill Parcells from 2003-2005? If nothing else, maybe Jones will get some valuable outside insight for his team from someone with an amazing offensive mind and great leadership qualities. But if there is a chance for more?
Let’s be honest, if McCarthy wasn’t here in 2023, this job would instantly become the most coveted job in the NFL. And if Parcells can figure out how to get along with Jones, even if only for four years, then surely Payton, 59, can find common ground – if Jones wants to change gears and is ready to hand over the 27th pick from this year’s draft to the New Orleans Saints. Anyway, reservations for 9pm, Jerry?
Duck Prescott Repair
Should be a staple on the Dallas agenda. And yes, Prescott was only a week away from playing what was widely hailed as the best game of his career, when he fed a 31-14 wild card runaway from Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, becoming Prescott the fourth player in the Super Bowl era ( since 1966) to throw at least four TDs and at least one run in a playoff game.
But Sunday marked a comeback to his largely disappointing season, including two more interceptions after he tied for the regular season lead (15) despite missing those five games. And maybe we’re not familiar with the Cowboys’ playbook — to be clear, we’re not — but it’s simply hard to understand what he’s looking at when he’s allowed to fly some of these ill-advised throws. Whether the problem is physical, mental, mechanical, philosophical, or some combination thereof, Prescott has to do the best he can — his 3.8% interception rate in 2022 is double his career average (2.0%).
Prescott has flashed the potential to be an elite midfielder and is definitely compensated as one. But his performance in 2022 suggests that if he’s a quarterback in the top ten, he’s 10th at this point — and much closer to the Carr/Cousins/Garoppolo end of the elite-class Allen/Buro/Mahomes spectrum.
If Prescott isn’t better in 2023, neither will the Cowboys.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @tweet.