The Dallas Cowboys come off one of the most disappointing seasons since the stacked 2009 roster underwhelmed. It all seemed culminating to last season. Dak Prescott was back healthy, the roster looked impeccable on the offensive side, and the defense just needed to hold on. Instead, the defense carried the team, and it was the potent offense that lacked, particularly in the second half of the season.
Prescott suffered a calf injury, the severity of which wouldn’t be known until the offseason. But it was the inconsistent rushing attack and overall lack of creativity in that area that disappointed most. Last season was Dallas’ best chance, and now they enter training camp in 2022 with a less-talented roster. But if health remains on their side and they execute more consistently, the Cowboys can still be a contender in a seemingly watered-down NFC.
5 storylines to monitor during Dallas Cowboys training camp
In 2021, Dallas had massive expectations, particularly after the season started, and it appeared they’d found lightning in a bottle on the defense. And despite disappointingly finishing the season, they deserved that outcome. San Francisco was the better team that day.
With that said, there’s good news from last season and for 2022. Dallas finished seventh in offensive EPA per play and third on the defensive side of the ball. They finished at the top of Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.
While defensive performance is about as sticky season to season as a two-day-old bandaid submerged in water, a few factors suggest Dallas could replicate theirs this season. The Cowboys played relatively unhealthy on the defensive line last season, and their schedule is incredibly lenient this season.
But for Cowboys fans, the regular season matters little. Can they finish the job in January and make it to a conference championship for the first time in Gen Z’s lifetime?
How involved are the Cowboys’ offensive rookies?
The Cowboys have never been afraid to throw rookies directly into the fire and flames. If Dallas is to succeed in 2022, they’ll need to rely on their first three draft picks to varying degrees.
Tyler Smith will undoubtedly be stronger at the point of attack than Connor Williams. The Tulsa tackle moves inside to left guard, for now, and must learn quickly. But the Cowboys will arguably need even more production from their third-round rookie.
Jalen Tolbert must be on the field with the starters and immediately show competency in his role. Dallas will be without Michael Gallup for some time to start the season. James Washington should fill the role Gallup once had, being used as the designated downfield threat and intermediate target.
Tolbert has to somewhat fill Amari Cooper’s shoes. The more considerable burden will undoubtedly fall on CeeDee Lamb to elevate his play to the next level and for Dalton Schultz to continue being an efficient and target-rich tight end. But Tolbert must acclimate quickly, or Dallas’ passing attack will be in trouble.
Will Kellen Moore establish some identity?
Admittedly, this is a double-edged sword. Some would say that Kellen Moore is one of the best offensive coordinators in the league, while others would scoff at that notion. However, there shan’t be any debate about how impressive of an offensive mind the young play-caller is.
Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur, Andy Reid, and Sean Payton are all tremendous offensive minds. But unlike Moore, each has a very overt offensive philosophy, whereas Moore has spent years plucking concepts from the brightest offensive minds in the world.
Week in and week out, nobody knows exactly what to expect from the Cowboys’ offense. That makes them difficult to game plan against, which an offense should try to achieve. The other edge of that sword is the inconsistent execution of concepts, particularly between quarterback and receiver, who consistently were on different pages in 2021.
While the offensive outcomes in a 16-17 game sample speak for themselves, there’s a distinct lack of “go-to” when things aren’t going well for the Cowboys’ offense in a one-game sample.
Will we see more consistency from Moore this season?
Will Moore evolve the rushing attack?
You didn’t think we’d just skim right over this, did you?
This is easily more frustrating than any trick plays or lack of consistent thought from Moore. The rushing attack generally feels like an afterthought in this offense. It felt generally static last season.
In fact, Seth Walder showed just how little the Cowboys utilized motion at the snap, despite also showing the positive EPA effect on motion at the snap in both the pass and run game.
With weapons like Tony Pollard and Lamb, there’s no excuse for the lack of creativity in the run game. Being static at the snap is something that Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy battled in Green Bay. It’s continued here in Dallas, while Green Bay finds themselves in the top right quadrant in that respect now.
A cerebral QB such as Prescott probably has a say in this when it comes to the passing attack. Static offense means a static defense, which gives him a clearer pre-snap picture of what coverage the defense is looking to deploy.
But in the run game, there are no negatives. Motion at the snap brings misdirection and doubt into the minds of second-level defenders. It also gets the ball into the hands of receivers, who are more efficient than backs on designed carries, partially because of its novelty.
Oh, and let Pollard touch the ball more. Good things happen when Dallas does.
Tyron Smith’s health
Tyron Smith is one of the most physically gifted offensive tackles ever to play. There aren’t many 300-plus-pound men who look for every opportunity to take their shirts off, but he’s one of them. However, while he’s chiseled from stone, the All-Pro talent has endured wear over his 11-year career.
Since 2015, Smith hasn’t played more than 13 games in a season. His four straight 13-game seasons from 2016-2019 turned into just 13 games combined over the past two seasons. The bright side is that his injuries haven’t been caused by his back, which had been the issue for so long. Unfortunately, he still can’t seem to shake the injury bug. So like every time the Cowboys visit Oxnard, there will be eyes on the talented left tackle.
Micah Parsons’ location
There will be, or better be, a few on the Cowboys’ beat to chart where Micah Parsons is spending his time in Oxnard. Is he doing individual drills with the linebackers or defensive linemen? How much time is he spending at each? And where is he aligned during team drills and live action?
Parsons may only be an 88 in Madden, but he’s a 99 on the field. If he wasn’t lying and Parsons was playing with a lower-body injury for most of the season in 2021, we’ll be discussing him as the best player in the league after this season. But that is only accomplished if his usage remains similar.
Parsons won’t get that recognition purely off the ball. He needs the pass-rush productivity he found so easily last season. And with an entire offseason to focus on developing that craft for the first time since high school, we could see some terrifying things from the 23-year-old.