The 2021 NFL season marks the 26th since the Dallas Cowboys last made a Super Bowl, improbably giving a franchise known as “America’s Team” the league’s 11th-longest active drought. Through 1995, a Cowboys Super Bowl appearance happened once every 3.75 years on average … and sometimes even more frequently. (In its heyday, Dallas had two separate stretches — 1975 to 1978 and 1992 to 1995 — in which it made three Super Bowls in four years.) By contrast, the past two-and-a-half decades of Dallas football has largely revolved around owner/general manager Jerry Jones’s futile fixation on restoring the Cowboys to their former glory, through a procession of seven different head coaches and 10 primary quarterbacks. All have seen similar results: sporadic playoff appearances, few playoff wins and zero Super Bowls.
But — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — this year’s Cowboys might be the long-awaited group that ends the team’s absence from football’s biggest stage. After easily handling the shorthanded New York Giants on Sunday afternoon, Dallas is 4-1 this season with the NFL’s third-best points-per-game differential. It has been excelling on both sides of the ball — a rarity for this franchise in recent seasons — with quarterback Dak Prescott leading the NFL’s third-best offense by schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game, and the defense rising to sixth-best in its first year under coordinator Dan Quinn. In the EPA era (since 2006), we haven’t seen a Cowboys team this complete, nor perhaps one with a path to the playoffs so clearly laid out. The big question now is whether Dallas can convert its early success into the postseason run it’s been craving for over a quarter-century.
The Cowboys have had a few strong candidates to end their Super Bowl drought before (though none even made the conference championship game). The 2007 club started 12-1 on the strength of an elite offense — led by QB Tony Romo, WR Terrell Owens and TE Jason Witten — and a defense that featured dominating edge-rusher DeMarcus Ware, but Romo was outplayed by Giants QB Eli Manning in the divisional round of the playoffs. Romo led similarly talented Dallas teams in 2009 and 2014 as well, but the former was trounced in the playoffs by the Minnesota Vikings and the latter saw its season end in Green Bay as WR Dez Bryant was unable to hold onto a go-ahead touchdown catch in the final minutes.
Surprisingly, a back injury Romo suffered in the 2016 preseason led to perhaps Dallas’s most promising season of all. Standing in for Romo, Prescott — a rookie QB taken in the fourth round of that April’s NFL draft — was outstanding, ranking third in the league in Total QBR and leading the NFL’s fifth-best offense by EPA, with rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott also garnering first-team All-Pro honors for his 1,994 yards from scrimmage and 16 total TDs. Although their defense ranked just 20th in EPA, the 2016 Cowboys won and won and won. They started the season 11-1 and took 13 of 14 games at one point during the season, outpacing the Giants for the NFC East title. Dallas was favored at home in the playoffs against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, and though they fell into an early 21-3 deficit, Prescott and Bryant clawed their way back into a 31-31 tie with 35 seconds left in regulation. However, that was too much time to leave for Rodgers, and after two completions for 53 yards, the Packers won on a Mason Crosby field goal as time expired.
The Cowboys had come so close with their most successful team in a decade, only to fall short. But they’d also found a successor to Romo at quarterback and a dominant running back to pair him with, leading one of the NFL’s youngest rosters. Even so, injuries and a six-game suspension to Elliott for domestic violence, plus Prescott’s regression in his sophomore season, led Dallas’s offense to drop to 10th in EPA in 2017, while the defense remained among the league’s bottom third, and the Cowboys missed the playoffs despite a 9-7 record. The defense improved in 2018, but the offense — and Prescott’s QBR — dipped further, and although Dallas edged out the Seattle Seahawks for a wild-card win, it was unable to slow down the L.A. Rams in the divisional round.
The 2019 Cowboys should have joined the ranks of the franchise’s Super Bowl hopefuls. The offense rebounded to No. 3 in EPA, with Prescott putting up a great passing season, receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup each exceeding 1,100 yards in the air and Elliott delivering nearly 1,800 yards from scrimmage to go with 14 total TDs. Though the defense was suspect (18th in EPA), Dallas ranked sixth in overall EPA, fifth in average points-per-game differential and seventh in Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System. We would have expected a team with the Cowboys’ point differential to have won around 11 games, but instead Dallas went 8-8 with a 1-6 record in games decided by a single score, missing the playoffs by one game after losing to the Eagles in the penultimate week of the season.
That season also finally cost head coach Jason Garrett his job after 9½ seasons (and just two playoff victories) at the helm, leading to the hiring of current coach Mike McCarthy. And a lost 2020 that saw Prescott play exceptionally well (but go 2-3 as a starter) before a gruesome injury ended his season has led Dallas here, to a 2021 team that seemingly has all the ingredients that previous versions were missing.
For one thing, the offense is clicking as well as it has in either the Romo or Prescott eras. In addition to that No. 3 overall schedule-adjusted EPA ranking, Dallas ranks fifth in passing EPA per game and is fourth on the ground. Relatedly, Prescott sits fifth in our QB Elo ratings, thanks to the extremely efficient brand of passing he has shown off so far this season.
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The rushing duo of Elliott and Tony Pollard have combined for 777 yards already, giving Dallas the league’s only tandem of 300-yard rushers so far. And through the air, Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and tight end Dalton Schultz have amassed 946 combined yards, which also gives Dallas the fifth-most prolific top trio of pass-catchers of any team in football, trailing only Baltimore (Marquise Brown, Mark Andrews and Sammy Watkins), Tampa Bay (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown), Las Vegas (Henry Ruggs III, Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow) and Buffalo (Stefon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders and Dawson Knox). Add in an offensive line that ranks first in adjusted line yards and 12th in adjusted sack rate, and Dallas is back to the formula that helped make Prescott’s rookie season look so promising for so long.
But maybe the greater development is just how well Dallas’s defense has played this season. After finishing 29th in schedule-adjusted EPA per game last season under former coordinator Mike Nolan, the Cowboys are a strong candidate for the most improved defense in the league this year:
For a team that has finished 15th or better in defensive EPA per game just twice since 2010, this year’s effort — fueled by performances such as cornerback Trevon Diggs’s NFL-leading six interceptions and linebacker Micah Parsons’s 10 QB hits (and 2½ sacks) — could be the key to differentiating the 2021 season from the disappointments that preceded it in Dallas. (While remembering the caveat that team defenses are unreliable, of course.)
In the bigger Super Bowl picture — i.e., the only thing that really matters to Jones and the Cowboys — Dallas faces a crowded group of NFC contenders, including the defending-champion Buccaneers, the upstart Cardinals, the talent-laden Rams and the familiar foil of Rodgers and Green Bay. But the Cowboys do have one huge factor working in their favor: Their division continues to offer little in the way of viable alternatives. Dallas already has a two-game lead over Philadelphia and Washington, and our model gives the Cowboys a 77 percent chance of winning the NFC East. Only Buffalo (94 percent) has better odds of winning its division than Dallas, which explains a large portion of the Cowboys’ 85 percent playoff odds.
Though that doesn’t mean the Cowboys have a particularly easy schedule from here on — it ranks 13th-toughest in terms of its future opponents’ average Elo rating — the NFC East’s weak competition should give Dallas plenty of margin for error, assuming its key performers can stay healthy. And in concert with how well the Cowboys have played so far, that could give Dallas one of its best chances yet to return the franchise to the glory it was once accustomed to.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.
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