Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys hope Dak Prescott's return, improved defense spark playoff push

March 27

The Dallas Cowboys were lost without Dak Prescott.

But even with the quarterback on the road to recovery, with a massive new contract in hand, what does the Cowboys’ path to the playoffs look like?

On Thursday, Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy addressed the media for the first time since Prescott’s signing, and he sounded optimistic.

"Dak is the keystone of this team," McCarthy said. "I'm excited about Year 2 on offense. In a lot of ways, we didn't feel like we got to have a Year 1."

That’s more or less true. In his first year in McCarthy’s system, Prescott had an amazing start to the 2020 season before things went sideways.

Through five games, he had completed a career-best 68% of his passes for 1,856 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. That had him on pace to pass for nearly 6,000 yards. His previous career high was 4,902 yards in the 2019 season.

All of that promise, though, was scuttled when Prescott went down with an ankle fracture-dislocation during Week 5. That ended his season and put him on a lengthy rehab program. From there, the Cowboys lurched along to a 6-10 season.

When it comes to Prescott’s recovery, all signs suggest that things are going well. The Cowboys wouldn’t have signed him to a four-year, $160 million contract if that weren't the case.

As far as long-term health, FOX Sports Injury & Performance Expert Dr. Matt Provencher said there is no reason to think Prescott can’t overcome any lasting effects of his injury.

"There is no denying that Prescott endured a significant injury, but I expect that because of the prompt and high-quality treatment he received, the ankle bones will heal well, and he can go on to a long career in the NFL," Provencher wrote.

That’s great news for the Cowboys. The question is how good will Prescott have to be to lead his team back to the playoffs?

Recent history shows that the Cowboys will need him to be excellent, as they have been up-and-down since drafting Prescott in 2016. Dallas was great in his rookie season, going 13-3 and winning 11 games in a row, but was ousted by the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs.

After going 9-7 and missing the postseason in 2017, the Cowboys returned in 2018, beating Seattle in a wild-card game before being ousted by the Los Angeles Rams. Dallas returned to mediocrity in 2019, going 8-8. That led to the end of the Jason Garrett era and McCarthy’s entrance as head coach.

Of course, even if Prescott returns to his best form, it won’t matter if the Cowboys can't stop anybody. They were pretty poor in that area in 2020.

Dallas allowed 2,541 yards on the ground last season, more than any other team except the Houston Texans. The Cowboys surrendered 34 touchdown passes, tied for third-most, and only four teams intercepted fewer passes than the 10 Dallas managed to pick off.

NFL Insider Dan Graziano addressed this issue Friday on ESPN’s "Get Up."

"They think that offense is going to be excellent," he said, "and you can see their offseason focus so far has been on defense."

The Cowboys have made a number of moves to address their defensive shortcomings. One of those was the signing of former first-round pick Keanu Neal, a linebacker/safety who is an immediate upgrade.

They also signed edge Tarell Basham, a free agent who had 32 pressures and 17 defensive stops last season, and a pair of defensive tackles in Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins.

If that weren't enough indication of where the Cowboys’ focus lies, free-agent safeties Jayron Kearse and Damontae Kazee are also coming on board.

After free agency comes the NFL Draft on April 29, and the Cowboys are expected to focus on defense there as well. Multiple team officials, including McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, were on hand to watch the workout of safety Patrick Surtain II at Alabama’s pro day.

FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst Rob Rang projected Dallas to target Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye with the No. 10 overall pick.

Will all of these defensive additions, as well as Prescott's return to form, lead to a march to the playoffs for the Cowboys?

McCarthy is confident they will, and he sees Prescott as the missing piece to bring it all together.

"We have a great vibe going on. I love the way the locker room is put together," he said. "That’s the way we’re going to push forward with it, too. The quarterback touches the ball every play. But also, his presence and his natural leadership ability is something that will continue to grow. I think you’ll see that in the locker room."

The pressure is on Prescott — and McCarthy — to make it happen.

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