Wyatt Nun and Wendell Shepherd- 23 Sports

Through eight games last season, the Dallas Cowboys held a record of 2-6. Through eight games this season, they have flipped those columns. America’s Team is boasting a pretty great resumé at the halfway mark of 2021. Why is that? How did a team that finished third in the NFC’s worst division find themselves in Super Bowl contention 12 months later? 

Overall Team Assessment 

Defensive Improvement 

The biggest jump from the Cowboys 2020 campaign is their defense. During the time of former Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan, the Cowboys allowed 386.4 yards per game on average, ranking them 23rd overall. This offseason, he was replaced by Dan Quinn. Quinn, the former Falcons Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator of the Legion of Boom in Seattle has been a major upgrade. His defense is currently averaging 371.5 yards per game, a slight improvement from last year. However, the most substantial indicator of his skills comes in points allowed and turnovers. While last year’s team gave up 264 points by the halfway mark, this unit currently sits with 192 points alloweda 27% decrease. Additionally, Dallas is sporting 14 total turnovers on the year. This defense is by no means perfect, but their improvement has taken the pressure off the offense and kept competitive games close. 

Offensive Consistency 

Coming into Week 5 of last year, the Cowboys ranked in the top five among all offenses in the NFL. However, when quarterback Dak Prescott hurt his ankle, things went south. With his return in 2021, it’s like he never left. The offense is functioning just as well, or potentially better than before. They currently rank top five in every offensive category: fourth in passing, third in rushing, and first overall in yards per game. With the exception of this past week’s matchup against the Denver Broncos, Dallas had 375+ yards in every contest. That includes two 500+ yard performances against the Giants and Patriots. This can be attributed to the Offensive Coordinator, Kellen Moore. Moore is showing a nice mix of traditional plays and more complex downfield schemes. Standouts at the midway point include Prescott, Elliott, Pollard, Lamb, Cooper, and Schultz, who all place highly in their respective statistical leaderboards. These rankings all but confirm this offense has no plans on slowing down in the back half of the season. 

Outstanding Performers  

Dak Prescott – QB 

Following the season-ending ankle injury he sustained in Week 5 of 2020, Prescott is making his case for Comeback Player of the Year and MVP in 2021. In the seven games he’s played this season, Prescott has thrown for 2,045 yards, 18 TDs and only five INTs. So far in year six, Dak has proven how vital he is to the Cowboys’ success following a season in which three different quarterbacks took snaps in his absence. Prescott will look to continue his efficient play (69.4 CMP%) as the Cowboys remain in the hunt for the #1 seed in the NFC. 

Micah Parsons – LB 

On the night of the 2021 NFL Draft, most Cowboys fans weren’t expecting their team to select a linebacker with the 12th overall pick. However,  Parsons has made fans quickly forget their draft night doubts. The Penn State product is off to a historic start, becoming the first rookie to record over 50 tackles, 10 TFL and five sacks through his first eight career games. Since the release of  Jaylon Smith, Parsons has become a do-it-all player in Dan Quinn’s defense, playing at ILB, edge, as well as dropping into coverage. Parsons has played a huge part in the transformation of the Dallas defense and is in the conversation for the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. 

Trevon Diggs – CB 

This section would be impossible to write without mentioning Diggs. Many have questioned Diggs’ validity as a lockdown corner, but the numbers don’t lie. The second-year corner leads the league with seven interceptions, two of which were returned for TDs. Diggs has 12 passes defended to accompany his INTs. The Cowboys forced 14 turnovers this season which have been key in their defensive improvement and Diggs has played a huge part in that. 

Osa Odighizuwa and Chauncey Golston – Rookie Defensive Linemen 

In the absence of several staple D-Line figures, 2021 3rd round picks Odighizuwa and Golston have been forced to take on significant roles. Odighizuwa has been stellar throughout the first half, ranking in the Pro Football Focus’ top 10 rookie pass rushers. Odighizuwa and Golston have combined for 34 tackles and 2.5 sacks. With veterans Demarcus Lawrence, Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill on IR, Odighizuwa and Golston have prevented any sort of dropoff. The rookie duo has been putting QBs under heavy pressure each week. The D-Line will be both a very strong and deep unit when the veterans return in the coming weeks. 

Jayron Kearse, Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee – Off-Season Secondary Acquisitions 

In an abysmal 2020 defense, the safety position was one of several weak points. The front office elected not to pick up any safeties in the draft, instead opting to bring in safeties Jayron Kearse, Damontae Kazee and S/LB Keanu Neal. Neal, a former Falcon under Dan Quinn, has been a key piece of the new LB unit, racking up 24 tackles and two TFL in the six games he’s played. Kazee has given Dallas some much-needed help on the back end, contributing 20 tackles, one  INT and three PDs. Many expected proven veterans Kearse and Kazee to be the primary contributors amongst the new faces, but Jayron Kearse has far and away been the biggest non-draft acquisition. Recently assuming mic duties, Kearse has been a leader both on and off of the stat sheet. The 27-year-old leads the team in tackles with 54 to go along with three PDs. 

Looking Forward 

Halfway through the season, the Cowboys’ schedule hasn’t seemed particularly challenging. Due to a weak division, that won’t change in their last nine games. Only four of the Cowboys’ remaining games are against teams with records currently above .500: Nov. 21 at Kansas City, Nov. 25 v. Las Vegas, Dec. 2 at New Orleans and Jan. 2 v. Arizona. Barring any significant losing streak, Dallas likely has the NFC East title locked up, but they will need to win the aforementioned games to capture the elusive first round bye. For a team that has shown occasional defensive lapses, Dallas needs to get a high seed to avoid a potential first-round road game against familiar playoff foe Green Bay or reigning champion Tampa Bay. 

Despite the embarrassing loss at home against the Broncos, the Cowboys have gotten off to an excellent start in 2021. The defense has greatly improved and the return of franchise QB Dak Prescott has given Cowboys fans everything they could’ve imagined. Overall, Dallas is an immensely talented team and a force to be reckoned with in the NFC title race.