DALLAS — The NFL made a big change this offseason to add another game to its regular-season slate, which now totals 17 instead of the 16 that fans had grown accustomed to. That change was coupled with the league’s decision to cut the preseason down to three games for each team.
For the Dallas Cowboys, however, the preseason will still consist of four contests since they will be competing in the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio. That’s good news for a team that struggled to adjust to a new coaching staff for most of 2020 and one that will be heading into the season with their third defensive coordinator in three years.
The good news is that, aside from Dan Quinn, the Cowboys kept most of their staff intact. That continuity should help Dallas as they prepare to rebound from a disastrous season.
A year ago, the franchise was heading into a new era. Former head coach Jason Garrett stewarded 10 years of mostly mediocrity in his pursuit to lead the Cowboys back to their glory days, with coordinator Rod Marinelli holding the reins of the defense for the last six seasons. After continued missteps, change was necessary.
Owner Jerry Jones selected Mike McCarthy to right the ship. The Super Bowl-winning coach retained Kellen Moore to handle the offense, brought in Mike Nolan to run the defense, and hired John Fassel to improve special teams. An entire overhaul of the staff gave new hope for a team that many expected to be in position to win behind franchise quarterback Dak Prescott.
The best-laid plans were sunk when the coronavirus hit, and the offseason was reduced to more virtual learning sessions rather than the traditional on-field work. Because of the Cowboys’ changed staff, they were supposed to be afforded extra training sessions, which has been the league’s practice for years. The real world prevented that transition for the new staff in 2020 and the coaches and players never gelled.
After a discombobulated and injury-filled season, the Cowboys are banking on things being different this time around. Much of the team and staff returns with a second chance to get it right and McCarthy’s aggressive style shouldn’t be a surprise. Those who remained from Garrett’s tenure likely saw a different approach with McCarthy at the helm.
Nevertheless, continuity will be key in 2021. On offense, barring any unforeseen injury or competition lost between now and the season, 10 of the 11 starters return. If Tyler Biadasz starts at center, all 11 players who started games in 2020 will return as starters in the upcoming season.
On defense, at least seven starters return from 2020, an amount that gets to eight if Anthony Brown is labeled as a starter. That number might not seem like a good thing for the sake of continuity but the defense was in need of a shakeup. A new defensive coach and improved depth should help that side of the ball.
A full offseason schedule will also help defensive end Randy Gregory as he will participate in an entire slate of training for the first time in his career. Couple these expected benefits with the knowledge that the team drafted a likely day one starter in linebacker Micah Parsons, and the defense is in for a boost.
Special teams also underwent a transformation last year and almost everyone will return for 2021. The main notable exception is the squad will have a new long snapper for the first time since the 2004 season. Jake McQuaide takes over snapping duties from L.P. Ladouceur. This is the kind of change that could lead to unforeseen issues, but McQuaide is a Fassel protégé from their time together with the Los Angeles Rams, so they enjoy some familiarity.
With the extra on-field work, the Cowboys should be in a better position to maintain consistency this season. They’ll get an extra preseason game to work out some kinks and, even though the injury worry is always present in playing the additional exhibition game, Dallas can take advantage of the additional training.
A new season will arrive this fall and the 2021 Dallas Cowboys should be better prepared in McCarthy’s second season with the team. There should be more stability this year for the Cowboys, who stand to benefit from the normalcy of an offseason and training schedule that they missed out on in 2020.
Do you think year two in Dallas will go smoother for Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.