Cowboys Camp Opens: Top 10 Questions Needing Answers
FRISCO - The Dallas Cowboys pop the cork on their 2020 NFL training camp today, July 28, not in Oxnard but rather in "stay-at-home'' fashion here at The Star in Frisco. It's an unusual setting; the opening moments are about virus-testing and strength-and-conditioning stuff. But ... it's "camp'' of a sort.
The Top 10 Questions they hope get answered in this unique COVID-19-forced camp setting ...
1) How quickly does new coach Mike McCarthy mesh with Dak Prescott? McCarthy is known as a "quarterback coach.'' Dak is known as "coachable.'' Still, it remains odd that once McCarthy replaced Jason Garrett, he didn't immediately reach out to his franchise QB. And while we'll keep arguing about Prescott's true emotions right now (pending his own comments from camp) it rings true that Dak was a Garrett fan.
If this does not work - if this question isn't answered properly - none of the rest of them matter.
2) Can the re-built D-line stop the run? One of the reasons the Cowboys have never quite gotten up and over the hump in recent years: Their defensive front gets pushed around in the running game.
That Dallas at Rams playoff contest a couple of years ago? Yes, that still stings the pride of guys who were virtually helpless to do anything about it.
Along comes a new tandem of interior defensive linemen, Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. Both have first-round pedigrees and Pro Bowl skins on the wall. They both have get-upfield traits, which is key.
But if they don't help Dallas stop the run? The rest of the Cowboys' "loaded'' roster will fail to reach its potential.
3) Is Ezekiel Elliott still the bell cow? Those arguing that two-time rushing champ Elliott, now 25, isn't a "top-10 NFL running back'' are embarrassing themselves. This is an elite player, in his prime, with the decision now on management and the coaching staff how to best get the most out of him for the longest period. Does that mean fewer carries? Or the same amount of touches, including more usage as a pass-catcher?
Those things can change; it won't change Elliott's excellence.
McCarthy's tenure in Green Bay did not often include a single bell cow. But a) the Packers never had a Zeke and b) When McCarthy was in New Orleans as the Saints offensive coordinator, he absolutely fed the ball to Ricky Williams.
The role might shift slightly. The numbers might, too. But Ezekiel Elliott remains a consistent and dangerous offensive weapon.
4) Will Aldon Smith replicate Robert Quinn? Dallas struck gold last year with a relatively cheap acquisition of Dolphins end Quinn, trying to revitalize his career. The Cowboys are convinced they'll do the same now with Smith - though to say his successful return is only a "revitalization'' would be to sell it way short.
Smith's behavioral issues kept him out of football for a half-decade. But now 30, there are reasons he can reclaim some of what made him a pass-rushing phenom in his first two NFL seasons, just as Quinn (now in Chicago) was. It's a highly worthy project, and a fascinating one.
5) Will there be "Dak division''? "Dak distraction''? DeMarcus Lawrence recently said last year's Cowboys were "distracted and divided.''
We're looking forward to visiting with Tank and probing that further.
But in general, how do such "distractions and divides'' occur? They can occur, for one, when an organization mishandles its franchise player. They can also happen with the franchise player mishandles his position within the franchise.
I see no solid evidence that we're on the brink of that.
But I didn't see evidence that the 2020 Cowboys were "distracted and divided,'' either.
6) Is there a difference-making acquisition to be made? CowboysSI.com readers already know my answer to that: There is no salary-cap-related reason - no, not even Dak's tag contract - that precludes Dallas from making more moves.
The Cowboys presently have in the range of $7 mil to $11 mil in cap room. That can come in handy in a variety of ways. One of those options was to keep eyes and minds open to the status of disgruntled Jets safety Jamal Adams. He's now heading to the Seahawks. But while he was the most talented idea, he's not the only one.
7) Can two rookies become immediate starters? First-rounder CeeDee Lamb is already penciled in alongside Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup as getting first-team snaps at receiver. But what about second-rounder Travon Diggs?
During NFL Draft time, Cowboys officials swore Diggs was a consideration with their first-round selection, That should mean he's a starting-caliber player. And with the departure of No. 1 corner Byron Jones? Yes, this secondary could use a No. 1 corner.
And yes, you can throw a parade for yourself on Draft Day ... but if your take doesn't net you starting players, the parade veers into the ditch.
8) Are takeaways about more than just talk? New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan rolled into town emphasizing the importance of takeaways. The talk is "fresh,'' but it's not "new'' - because every coach mouths those words.
How is the Dallas defense, and particularly the Dallas secondary - traditionally one of the NFL's poorest in this department - going to actually become ballhawking? "Talk'' won't be enough.
9) Is McCarthy "better'' than Garrett? With the Packers, McCarthy went to the playoffs nine times in 13 years and made it to the conference title game four times. Oh, and the Super Bowl. Garrett, in 10 years, er, didn't.
Does that mean McCarthy is "better'' than Garrett? He'll be coaching a similar-enough roster to the one Garrett left him. That'll be the test.
10) Can the Cowboys stay healthy - and not just injury-wise? It's a game of attrition, always. But in a COVID-19 era?
Can Dallas out-talent most teams? Yes. Can McCarthy and company out-scheme most of them? Hopefully. But in 2020, it's possible nothing will matter more than which teams avoid catching the coronavirus. Typical of the fear: If one O-lineman tests positive, given the closeness and proximity of his position group, how many more might get sick? How would a team even assemble an O-line on Sunday in the event of such a breakout?
The NFL is scrambling for answers there. But one way or another, if the Dallas Cowboys wish to greatly increase their chance at the Super Bowl, they would be wise to greatly decrease their chance of getting sick.