How Can the Cowboys Get Back to the NFL Playoffs in 2021?

  • Andy Dalton
  • Dak Prescott
  • Dan Quinn
  • kellen moore
  • La'el Collins
  • Mike McCarthy
  • Tyron Smith
  • Zack Martin
By Campbell Keating January 31, 2021 0 Comment
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After an unimpressive season in 2020, how can the Cowboys make their way back to the playoffs in 2021?

In 2020, the Cowboys faced a slew of challenges. They had an offense decimated by injuries and a defense that couldn’t stop anybody. The Cowboys finished 6-10 in a terrible NFC East division, securing themselves the tenth overall pick in the process. So what happened? How can the Cowboys move on with better hopes for their future? There are a couple of things to be considered.

Dak Prescott

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Before going down in week five with a dislocated, compound fractured ankle, Dak Prescott was playing well. Through four and a half games, Prescott had posted a 68.0% completion percentage for 1,856 yards and a 9-4 touchdown to interception ratio. Although Dalton managed somewhat well in Prescott’s absence, there was a clear drop off in play. Dalton, with nearly the exact same weapons, had a 64.9% completion percentage for 2170 and a 14-8 touchdown to interception ratio. Dalton threw for only 314 more yards in over double (11) the games that Prescott played (5).

So the question now arises for Jerry Jones, Mike McCarthy, and the entire Cowboys organization: How much is Dak Prescott worth to the Cowboys? The answer should be the “market rate.” For years, the salaries of quarterbacks have been rocketing up, and recent history is no different.

Although the injury brings down Prescott’s price, he is still worth well over $30 million a year. The simple truth is that the Cowboys can’t afford to go quarterback searching. Great quarterbacks are few and far between and no prospect can be sure-fire. The Cowboys simply don’t have the time to search through the draft and the Bengals tried to win with Dalton for years and never could get past the wildcard round if make playoffs at all.

The Cowboys have no option except to pay Prescott if they want to win.

Mike McCarthy and the Coaching Staff

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In his first year as head coach of the Cowboys, Mike McCarthy led the team to a less-than-spectacular 6-10 record. Although it was a bad year, there were some bright moments for McCarthy and the coaching staff. Keeping Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator was important. Moore returning in 2021 provides stability in the offensive scheme and room for Prescott to continue to improve.

Mike Nolan, the now-former Cowboys defensive coordinator, tried to switch up the defensive scheme but the players didn’t fit in as well and it showed. His scheme used players in ways that their strengths simply didn’t fit. This offseason, Dan Quinn, former Atlanta Falcons head coach, was hired to replace Nolan.

Dan Quinn’s defenses in Atlanta were mostly league-average or worse. But Cowboys fans don’t need to panic yet. Many analysts attribute Quinn’s defenses’ lack of talent to his lack of ability to draft well. In Dallas, Quinn will have far less say in the war room. Itt should be his schemes, which fit the Cowboys much better, that show up on the field to judge his success.

McCarthy himself was a disappointment this year. After he was hired, McCarthy spoke highly on new-age football and the usefulness of analytics. But in practice, McCarthy seemed to revert back to his old ways that had led to disappointment in Green Bay.

While McCarthy was disappointing, Cowboys fans have to take everything into perspective. This was only his first year with the team and in a year like no other, McCarthy may improve with experience under his belt.
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Offensive Line

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La’el Collins, the starting right tackle, spent the entire season on IR. Tyron Smith, 4x All-Pro left tackle, was in and out of games before joining Collins on IR. Zack Martin, 6x All-Pro right guard, went to the IR before the season ended. Travis Frederick retired due to health concerns, and his replacement, Joe Looney, was injured a few weeks into the season. Connor Williams, coming off an ACL tear, was the only consistent starting offensive lineman in Dallas this season.

With Collins, Smith, and Martin all returning for the 2021 season, the offensive line should be much improved. The question that needs to be asked is will these players be healthy enough to play a full season. Primary, Tyron Smith has had lingering head and neck injuries that have required surgery. To address this, the Dallas front office will hope that Smith is able to recover but must prepare by finding a swing tackle later in the draft or in free agency.

The Defense

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There were a lot of factors that played into the Cowboys’ atrocious defense this year. Mike Nolan scheme-fit and the injuries to the back-end were primary factors. The linebacker corps did not play well, especially with the injury to Vander Esch. The injuries really showed the lack of talent in the depth of the defense.

The Cowboys should benefit from Dan Quinn’s 4-3 Cover 3 defense. Demarcus Lawrence fits better with his hand in the dirt where he can be more involved in stopping the run and rushing the passer from a three-point stance

The secondary was suspect with the loss of Byron Jones and once Chidobe Awuzie went down a couple of weeks into the season, the secondary looked like swiss cheese. Fans have been waiting for Xavier Woods to have a breakout year for three seasons now, but it doesn’t seem like it will ever happen.

Young stars like Trevon Diggs and Donovan Wilson capitalized on their snaps. They proved that they have promising futures in Dallas, though adding to the secondary will be a must for the Cowboys early on in the draft.

Jaylon Smith regressed…a lot after Leighton Vander Esch went down a couple of weeks into the season. Smith just couldn’t carry the load without his running mate next to him and teams took advantage of it. The hope is that he is able to return to form next season.

Overall, the Cowboys need to draft defense early and often, because that is the unit that ultimately lost them games. It should be the primary side of the ball that gets upgraded.


While 2020 was a terrible year for the Cowboys, there is still talent enough to get this team back to division champs. Here’s to hoping that coach McCarthy, Moore, and Quinn are able to fix the problems this offseason.

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I cover, report, and write about the Dallas Cowboys. I am an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis studying on the premed track with a major in Mathematics and a minor in Anthropology.


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