The Dallas Cowboys did not make it to the Super Bowl.
It is a statement applicable to 30 NFL teams in any given year. But it’s been true of the Cowboys for 27 straight seasons, a span during which 21 of the league’s franchises have played on Super Sunday and 13 have lifted the Lombardi Trophy at least once.
and the cowboys are not any given franchise.
No other club, in any league, is known as “America’s Team.” No organization in professional soccer dominates or demands the level of attention from Dallas. Champions or not, the Cowboys are the flagship of the NFL – the Yankees, Lakers, Duke and Alabama can only dream of such a brilliant spotlight.
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But the downside for owner Jerry Jones and Co. is a downside, right? – is the scrutiny and handshake that comes with the annual autopsy.
So, as we dig into the residuals from the expired 2022 Cowboys, here are seven issues to address heading into the 2023 season:
Free space in the lid
For OverTheCapDallas basically has nothing in its free-agent coffers this year. That’s problematic on several levels, some of which will be explored in more detail shortly. Last 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 are owed a combined $65 million over the next two years, and turn base salaries into signing bonuses that can be redeemed in the future? Or expect other veterans like WR Michael Gallup and DE DeMarcus Lawrence to similarly renew their deals?
And it’s about time to take a long hard look at mainstay contracts like RB Ezekiel Elliott and OT Tyron Smith. Releasing Smith, who endured another injury-shortened season, from the final season of his contract would free up nearly $10 million, and that seems doable given the emergence of rookie Tyler Smith in 2022. Elliott’s guarantees are high, but he owes $52.9 million in base salary for the next four seasons. Releasing him would save roughly $5 million in 2023, but it’s probably for the best in the long run. And, according to The Dallas Morning News, it appears that Zeke, coming off the least productive season of his seven-year career, sees the writing on the wall and is open to a pay cut.
Renew Tony Pollard’s contract
A first-time pro bowler, the fourth-year running back was the spark of Dallas’ offense and has been a much more dangerous threat than Elliott for two years. Pollard just completed his first 1,000-yard rushing season, finishing second to WR CeeDee Lamb for the team lead in yards from scrimmage (1,378) and matching Elliott’s 12 TDs, though Zeke had the short-yardage opportunities. . Five of Pollard’s scores came from more than 30 yards, while only five of Elliott’s were from more than 1 yard (the longest was a 14-yard run). Pollard’s 5.9 yards per touch was 2 full yards better than Elliott’s.
While the leg injury he suffered Sunday is an obvious concern, assuming there’s nothing unusually alarming about his prognosis, it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys won’t at least franchise Pollard given his ability to open up the field for others when they’re not. is cheating pieces of yardage and/or putting the ball in the end zone. No brokers were tagged in 2022, when the year-long tender was worth $9.57 million. But negotiations with Pollard are sure to be tricky given the record-breaking six-year, $90 million extension (with more than $50 million guaranteed) Elliott received in 2019.
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Retain Dan Quinn
For the second straight year, the Dallas defensive coordinator is a candidate for another stint as head coach, three years after his divorce from the Atlanta Falcons. Jones should do (almost) everything in his power to keep Quinn on the payroll. He’s done a remarkable job evolving his scheme, creating great pressure, thanks Micah Parsons, and has produced a +24 turnover margin over the past two seasons, the best in the NFL. Could the Cowboys stop the run more effectively? Insurance. But affecting the quarterback and taking the ball away from him are probably the most important components of a championship-caliber defense. There’s no reason to mess with a hit formula here.
Make careful free agent decisions
Pollard’s tea priority and will probably require the use of a label. Otherwise, as much as Jones wants to keep his roster intact, his salary-cap situation dictates otherwise. Among the considerations:
► FS Donovan Wilson: Selected in the sixth round of 2019, he has been solid in his two seasons as a starter (2020, 2022). It would be nice to re-sign him, which would likely mean another year of backline security with Wilson and Jayron Kearse, who is a free agent in 2024. But this isn’t much of an imperative given Malik Hooker is already signed for 2023.
► T.A. Dalton Schultz: Good player, but he should be thankful that he raised nearly $11 million on the franchise tag in 2022. The Cowboys should be fine moving forward with rookies Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot in 2022.
► LB Leighton Vander Esch: The former first-round pick had what was probably his best season since his rookie year in 2018. If he’s willing to play for something close to $2 million again, he’s worth keeping.
► G Connor McGovern: He’s started 29 games over the past three seasons, but he should only stay at Dallas’ price.
► K Brett Maher: Very good regular season, when he tied for third in the league with 137 points, making 29 of his 32 field goal attempts and going 50 of 53 on extra points. But that effort was marred (Mahered?) by his disastrous playoff showing, which clearly affected Dallas’ strategy in a divisional-round loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Kicker isn’t necessarily a position to cut financial expenses, but investing too much in Maher seems like an obvious risk.
► QB Cooper Rush: He could be Dallas’ second-biggest free agent. Clearly, if another team pitches in and wants to give Rush a chance to start while he pays him accordingly, the Cowboys will have to make alternate plans for their depth infield. But few 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 nice to put out an insurance policy that he trusts.
Skip from OBJ
Jones told USA TODAY Sports in December that free agent WR Odell Beckham Jr. “was going to join us.” It never happened. Now? It probably shouldn’t. OBJ, assuming your surgically repaired knee is healthy, would you add another dimension to this offense? Of course. But the Cowboys are basically financially tied to Gallup for at least another year and must start working on an extension for two-time Pro Bowler Lamb. It’s hard to see how the 30-year-old Beckham fits in with such salary constraints, especially when Jones can almost certainly move back up to WR TY Hilton, who was a solid contributor on and off the field after joining the team late in the season. season. More sensible price.
Talk to Sean Payton
Jones indicated after Sunday’s loss to San Francisco that head coach Mike McCarthy’s job is secure, and that’s not an unexpected sentiment given that Dallas has shown steady progress in its three seasons, including its first playoff win. in four years. But wouldn’t Jones give in not to at least have dinner with Payton, who has been attached to this job regularly in the years since he served on Dallas’ offensive staff under Bill Parcells from 2003-05? At the very least, maybe Jones will get some valuable outside information on his own team from someone with an incredible offensive mind and admirable leadership qualities. But if there is an opportunity for more?
Let’s be honest, if McCarthy isn’t going to be here in 2023, this job immediately becomes the most desirable of the NFL’s current openings. And if Parcells could figure out how to coexist with Jones, even if only for four years, surely Payton, 59, could find common ground: Yeah Jones wants to change course and is willing to potentially hand over the 27th pick in this year’s draft to the New Orleans Saints. Anyway, do you have reservations for 9pm Jerry?
Fix Dak Prescott
It should be the top item on the Dallas agenda. And, yes, Prescott is only a week away from playing what was widely hailed as the greatest game of his career, when he powered Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 31-14 wild-card breakout, Prescott became the fourth player in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) to throw at least four TDs and run for at least one in a playoff game.
But Sunday was a reversal of his largely disappointing season, including two more interceptions after tying for the regular season lead (15) despite missing those five games. And we may not be aware of the Cowboys’ playbook — to be clear, we’re not — but it’s just hard to understand what he’s looking at when he throws some of these misses. Whether the problem is physical, mental, mechanical, philosophical or a combination thereof, Prescott has to do better and he can: His 3.8% interception rate in 2022 is nearly double his career average (2 .0%).
Prescott has shown the ability to be an elite quarterback and is certainly rewarded as such. But his performance in 2022 suggests that if he’s a top-10 quarterback, he’s 10th at this point, and much closer to the Carr/Cousins/Garoppolo end of the spectrum than Allen’s elite level/ Burrow/Mahomes.
If Prescott isn’t better in 2023, the Cowboys simply can’t be.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.