State of the 2022 Dallas Cowboys: Mike McCarthy needs to produce a playoff run, or else ...

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Cowboys organization, Cowboys fans around the world and those who just want to see the Cowboys win some playoff games again:

Dallas dominated the NFC East in 2021. Which, well, wasn't saying much, given the state of the division. But hey, the Cowboys posted a perfect 6-0 record against their closest rivals, winning the divisional crown by three games. They closed out the regular season with five wins in their final six contests. Once again, though, a promising campaign ended without a playoff win, much less a Super Bowl title. Dallas hasn't even come within sniffing distance of a Lombardi Trophy since the mid-1990s. Are the 'Boys any closer this year?

That's the question we'll explore in this file. But before we dive in, I want to mark the recent passing of former Cowboys running back Marion Barber III, who died in his apartment on June 1, just nine days before his 39th birthday. Miserable. Far too young. Barber spent his first six NFL seasons in Dallas, earning a Pro Bowl bid when he rushed for a career-high 975 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2007. But honestly, the best summation of his rugged, inspiring playing style comes via a random first-down carry appropriately dubbed "The Greatest 2-Yard Run of All Time." What a warrior. Rest in peace.

2021 rewind

One high from last season: The Cowboys beat the Vikings in Week 8 with Cooper Rush at quarterback. This was a classic trap game for Dallas, which was 5-1 coming out of its bye week. I don't recall people giving the Cowboys much of a chance in this Halloween night road contest with a backup quarterback, but they won the game. And started to make believers out of a lot of people.

One low from last season: Losing to the 49ers on Super Wild Card Weekend. There are Cowboys fans of a certain age who probably hate the 49ers more than any of their NFC East foes, based on what happened between the two franchises in the 1990s. And if you don't remember, then maybe Google that classic stretch of games, because it was pretty good. Losing to the Niners at home in the playoffs stings -- especially when you consider how the game ended.

2022 VIPs

Head coach: Mike McCarthy. I don't envy Mike McCarthy. He's head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, which is great. But really, how secure is he? I mean, it feels like he's the safety date of the hottest girl in school who is actually waiting for somebody else to come along.

Former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells famously said, "You are what your record says you are." And as far as regular-season records go, McCarthy has done pretty well over his career as an NFL head coach. His teams win games. They win divisional championships. Which is great. But Jerry Jones did not bring him to Dallas to win the NFC East. Cowboys coaches are measured in rings. And it's been a long time since Jerrah got one, with Dallas' last Super Bowl title coming 27 seasons ago. I mean, I took a risk a moment ago in mentioning the Cowboys-49ers rivalry of the '90s because it was so long ago. There are Millennials and Gen Z kids running around in Dak Prescott jerseys who have never seen a Cowboys championship! Jones showed a lot of patience with Jason Garrett, giving him plenty of time to get the Cowboys back on top. McCarthy might not have that luxury. Especially with Dan Quinn remaining on the staff, declining head-coaching interviews. It's not hard to imagine him sliding into McCarthy's chair if things don't go well for the Cowboys. And I'm not even going to bring up Sean Payton ...

Quarterback: Dak Prescott. Huge Dak guy right here. The guy bounced right back from an injury-shortened 2020 to play all but one game last year. Threw for nearly 4,500 yards, had 37 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He's a great leader. I have no issue with Dak. Just another in a long line of fine Cowboys signal-callers, from Roger Staubach to Troy Aikman to Tony Romo. And yeah, I don't want all of the Don Meredith and Danny White fans to get upset with me. Let's just say Dak is awesome and leave it at that.

Projected 2022 MVP: Micah Parsons, linebacker. The Cowboys nailed it with their 2021 first-round pick. So much so that Jerry has jokes at his son's expense. Parsons was a force of nature in Year 1. In addition to starring as an off-ball linebacker, he showed immediate pass-rushing prowess that evoked memories of guys like Julius Peppers and -- dare I say -- Reggie White? I mean, it's not outlandish. Parsons had 12 sacks in his first 13 games, tied for fourth-most by an NFL player in his first 13 career games, trailing only Peppers, White and Leslie O'Neal. Some might not know that last guy, but if you played Tecmo Super Bowl, you do. The guy was a beast.

New face to know: Tyler Smith, offensive line. The Cowboys' offensive line is going to look a little different this year. La'el Collins was released and found his way to Cincinnati. Connor Williams signed with Miami in free agency. The strength of the Cowboys for so, so long has been a dominant offensive line -- though it's taken many different forms over the past few years. First-round pick Tyler Smith will start immediately at left guard, but Stephen Jones said he will eventually replace Tyron Smith at left tackle.

2022 breakout star: Osa Odighizuwa, defensive tackle. The Cowboys obviously let a lot of talent walk during the offseason -- in addition to Collins, Amari Cooper is gone, too. The team also found a way to lose Randy Gregory, who initially agreed to an extension with Dallas, but somehow ended up in Denver. It's one of those things where your friend cancels on your tee time, but you see him at Top Golf on his IG and don't know what happened. The Cowboys do have some young talent, especially on defense. Odighizuwa looked like a find last year, and he'll be posted on the line along with newly signed Dante Fowler. And don't overlook Quinton Bohanna, either. The Cowboys' defensive front could be pretty good this year.

2022 roadmap

Three key dates:

Will the Cowboys be able to ...

... see Trevon Diggs hit another level? Diggs has become one of the most polarizing players in the NFL. You would think that a dude who had 11 interceptions last year (and 14 overall in his first two years) would be celebrated. The guy had more picks in 2021 than seven teams. But skeptics are quick to point out the big yardage and touchdown numbers Diggs yields with his boom-or-bust playing style. I guess it's kind of reminiscent of Joey Gallo, an all-or-nothing slugger for the Yankees, so he's clearly familiar to Cowboys fans. All that said, Diggs is still just 23, so I'm not doubting his ability to harness more consistency in 2022.

... replace Amari Cooper? With the dizzying amount of receiver movement across the NFL this offseason, you almost forget Cooper was dealt to the Cleveland Browns. And I don't know how you feel about Cooper, but I think his departure's a substantial hit to the offense. Even though I initially had my doubts, he was pretty good and elevated Dak's game. Sure, CeeDee Lamb appears poised for a monster season, but you need numerous difference-making pass catchers in today's NFL. Michael Gallup has shown plenty of promise in his first four pro seasons, but he's recovering from an ACL tear suffered in Week 17. Dalton Schultz is someone to watch. Fantasy folks are already clamoring about drafting him. Let's just hope frustrations with stalled long-term contract negotiations don't ultimately sap his production.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overthink: Ezekiel Elliott's viability. There's a growing narrative that Zeke's cooked. But man, as a fantasy dork who's been eyeing drafts lately, lemme tell you: It's tough to not look at Elliott in Round 1. There was a time when he was under discussion for the No. 1 overall pick. That time has passed. But the 26-year-old back still offers plenty in fantasy and reality. I mean, look at last season, which was apparently underwhelming to everyone. He still eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing and averaged 4.2 yards per carry (up from 2020's 4.0 mark). He caught 47 passes and scored 12 touchdowns. Yes, Tony Pollard looked like the more explosive player, but the 'Boys can't quit Zeke. And I think he'll provide his typical returns.

For 2022 to be a success, the Cowboys MUST:

  • Make a playoff run. I mentioned it when talking about McCarthy, but the postseason's paramount in Dallas. Not just making the playoffs, but winning some games in the tourney. Granted, the Cowboys still feel a notch below the defending champion Rams, Buccaneers and Packers in the NFC hierarchy, but I don't think Big D residents will be satisfied hanging their hat on a win in the Wild Card Round.

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