If you just started following football this offseason, you would think the 2021 season is the most important in Dallas Cowboys history. The expectations are enormous. A significant chunk of offseason discussion has been dedicated to explaining why this season is essentially a Super Bowl-or-bust year for America's Team.
And I get why! I really do. Jerry Jones has a whole lot of money tied up on this squad. It's easy to get excited about what they would look like with a fully healthy Dak Prescott under center. Changes were made to address weaknesses in the team last year. Put all that together with the fact that they play in the worst division in football, and you get ESPN segments explaining why they need to beat the Bucs on opening night to earn homefield advantage come playoff time and who on the roster faces the most pressure to show out.
But just hear me out for one second: it would not be the end of the world if the Cowboys were mediocre in 2021. In fact, a reasonable argument can be made that it's the most likely outcome. It would be disappointing, but doesn't mean that the team isn't built to win in the future.
It is unfair to expect Prescott to be the same guy he was at the start of the 2020 season. He came out blazing hot and looked like an MVP favorite four games into the year. Then he suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle. It's a nasty injury, to be sure. It would be understandable if it took the quarterback some time to get back to his Pro Bowl self. Would anyone really be surprised if he looked like 2016 Dak Prescott instead of 2020 Dak Prescott for the first half of the year? The man snapped his planting foot in half. It would be awesome if he didn't miss a beat, but that shouldn't be the standard we hold him to for most of the season.
Then you have the defensive side of the ball, somehow a bigger problem for the team at large than the fact that Andy Dalton started 12 games. Dallas had one of the worst defenses in the league and gave up historic statlines to multiple offenses over the course of the year. To fix that, the Cowboys hired Dan Quinn to be the new defensive coordinator and drafted Micah Parsons with the No. 12 overall pick in the NFL Draft. They spent the next five picks of that draft on defensive players. They are otherwise banking on internal development from second-year corner Trevon Diggs and third-year corner Jourdan Lewis, among others, to boost the unit.
We once again return to the realm of reasonable expectations. Dallas gave up the second-most rushing yards and the 10th-most passing yards in the NFL last year. They didn't bring in any big-name reinforcements to help fix that. It takes a while for a defense to grasp a new coordinator's scheme and execute it to perfection. First-year linebackers are usually not difference-makers, even if Parsons is an elite athlete. Diggs was exciting as a rookie and Lewis has proven himself an NFL-caliber cornerback, but it's not likely they both turn into shutdown corners in one offseason. Getting anything out of a rookie second-round corner like Kelvin Joseph or a third-round defensive tackle like Osa Odighizuwa would be great but isn't terribly likely. Theoretically, Dallas only needs to be mediocre on that side of the ball to win games, but if Prescott struggles, they'll need to be much better, and banking on that is a longshot.
It would be disappointing if Dallas finished with a .500 record and bowed out in the wild card round or didn't make the playoffs at all, but that doesn't mean the current core can't win big games going forward. Prescott is excellent at his full powers and his supporting cast is one of the best in the league. There's reason to be excited about the talent on defense downt he road. It isn't a boom-or-bust year for the team yet.
If they do bust, be prepared for another offseason of Cowboys talk and questions about if they can win. In that case, Jones shouldn't bow to external pressure. This can be a good team. Not reaching those heights in 2021 shouldn't be the death knell for this version of the Cowboys.