For what seems like my entire life, I’ve heard the same phrase tirelessly repeated about the Dallas Cowboys: “The Cowboys are back.” Before every season, pundits and Cowboys fans alike declare “America’s Team” is finally ready to return to its glory days. Oddly enough, it hasn’t happened.
Dallas has not returned to the NFC championship game since 1996 — five years before I was born. In the interim, the Cowboys have had some success. But also in the interim, mediocre teams like the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings have played in their conferences’ title games. For such a prideful franchise, it is a tough look. Thankfully for Cowboys fans, I think the streak ends this season. Finally — and I hope this is the last time anyone has to say it — it’s the Cowboys’ year.
The Dallas offense began last season on a tear, averaging 31.5 points per game during its opening four games of the 2020 season. Despite this, the Cowboys started the season 1-3, thanks to their defense, which was among the worst in the NFL. Then, in Week 5, the unthinkable happened: Dallas’s star quarterback Dak Prescott went down with a gruesome ankle injury. The Cowboys lost their leader, as well as their season, finishing a disappointing 6-10.
But with almost a full year off to rehab, Prescott was ready for Week 1 of the 2021 season, and the Cowboys had reloaded around him. They invested heavily in their defense, most importantly signing new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who is known for getting the most out of defenses without a ton of top-end talent. While he had a lot of success as a head coach with the Atlanta Falcons, he is best suited focusing on the defensive side of the ball.
The Cowboys also tried to add some talent, using their first-round pick on versatile Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, who has looked like one of the best rookies in the league thus far. Dallas also signed converted linebacker Keanu Neal and defensive back Damontae Kazee from Quinn’s former team, the Falcons, to shore up some holes. Kazee has already made an impact, coming up with an interception in Week 2 and playing almost 90% of snaps on defense.
With the new additions and strengthened returning players, the Cowboys’ defense has improved this season. Dallas has been successfully forcing turnovers after struggling with them for years, and this Cowboys defense looks to have some real playmakers. Last year’s second-round cornerback pick Trevon Diggs already has five interceptions, and the Cowboys as a whole have forced 10 turnovers,second most in the NFL. The defense is no longer holding this team back, as Dallas has started this season 3-1, with just one heartbreaking loss to defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Cowboys offense is largely the same, except this time, it is healthy. Prescott is back to looking like his Pro Bowl self, the offensive line is in sync again, wide receiver Amari Cooper and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb are still lethal, and the reports of running back Ezekiel Elliot’s demise were premature. Dallas has come out on fire offensively, averaging 31.5 points through the first four games. And the defense has not let the team down, at least not yet. This Dallas team has the look of a real contender.
With a redoubled defense and offense, plus an easier schedule than other Super Bowl contenders like the Buccaneers or the Los Angeles Rams, the Cowboys have a good shot at a first-round bye. More than that, I think it is likely that for the first time since I’ve been alive, the Cowboys will be playing in the NFC championship game. And they will be hosting it. Then, we will never have to hear “the Cowboys are back” again — and all of our lives will be better for it.