Every season starts the same way for most teams; hope for big things ahead or big changes if we come away disappointed. But not every year has the same impact on franchises as others, and we don't have to think hard about what some of those pivotal points have been for the Dallas Cowboys. While only time will ultimately tell, 2021 is looking like one of those signature seasons.
2020 was memorable but for all the wrong reasons. And while Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan and some of his defensive players were left looking for new teams after, the overall course of the Cowboys remained relatively unchanged. We will look back on last year mostly for COVID-19 and Dak's injury than anything else.
You could make a case for 2019 as the last year of the Jason Garrett Era, but even before then we were starting to see a shift as Kellen Moore replaced Scott Linehan as Offensive Coordinator. We knew going into the year that Garrett had one life left and his dismissal after missing the playoffs was hardly shocking.
No, the last true “signature season” as I see it was 2016. We saw a youth movement hit warp speed as Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott became the new faces of the franchise, one by design and the other by circumstance. It was a sudden and unexpected end to Tony Romo's tenure and really the last great chance for Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and other Cowboys of their generation to contend.
I would also nominate 2014 as one of those pivotal years. Had it not been for Dallas' 12-4 record and their controversial playoff exit against Green Bay, that may very well have been the end of Jason Garrett's run after three 8-8 seasons. But Garrett bought himself enough rope that year to survive the horrors of 2015 and last another four seasons beyond that.
You could easily go down the line and pick out various years for reasons that they shaped the history and legacy of the Dallas Cowboys more than others. But today I want to focus on the present and what this 2021 season could mean for the franchise's future.
No matter what happens this year, we know Dak Prescott will still be the starting quarterback and the Jones Family will still own the team. But beyond that, how much can we really say is certain about this roster or coaching staff?
So many players with big contracts may have their futures hanging on their 2021 performance. You can easily point to Jaylon Smith but are Zeke, Amari Cooper, Tyron Smith, and DeMarcus Lawrence really all that safe? All of them present opportunities for Dallas to get out from those deals and reallocate those cap dollars elsewhere if they're not happy with the results.
The Cowboys also have numerous players with expiring contracts this year. We already know about Michael Gallup and Leighton Vander Esch but Connor Williams, Dalton Schultz, Cedrick Wilson, and others are right there with them. You also have the many free agents from this year who Dallas signed to just one-year deals: Keanu Neal, Brent Urban, Damontae Kazee, Carlos Watkins and others.
Could Mike McCarthy survive another disappointing year as head coach? Some of that depends on expectations and how we're defining disappointment, but I think we'd all agree that getting Dallas back into the playoffs as a legitimate contender is a reasonable point of security for McCarthy. Anything below that and he may not get a third chance.
Will Kellen Moore stay content as offensive coordinator, and especially if McCarthy does solidify his position in the big chair? Moore has already received head-coach buzz in the college and NFL ranks and it may be hard to keep him in Dallas much longer without a promotion.
If things do go poorly this year, could it be the turning point for Jerry Jones in how he runs the organization? He's already admitting to making mistakes with how he handled things with Jimmy Johnson, and there's about 30 years now of other failures he may be reflecting on.
For good or bad, 2021 feels like a season that will shape the Dallas Cowboys for the next several years. Success could keep this core group together for a while and disappointment could push things hard in a new direction. Whichever way it goes, it's a season that I predict we'll look back on with notoriety.