If I had a nickel for every time I asked myself whether the Cowboys were actually good over the past 20 years or so, I’d be…well, poor, because nickels aren’t worth much and I’d have needed to ask myself that question 20 million times just to make $1 million. But I would probably have $10 or so, which corresponds to about 200 instances of that question.
For example, in 2006 when Tony Romo unexpectedly took over for Drew Bledsoe, I thought, “are the Cowboys actually good, it’s just Drew Bledsoe that’s terrible?” Or the next season when the Cowboys went 13-3 but then lost in the divisional round against the Giants (who, to be fair, went on to win the Super Bowl that year), I thought the Cowboys might actually be good. In fact, in the last 20 years the Cowboys made the playoffs seven times, losing two wild card games and five division round games. The Cowboys are currently 3-1, sitting alone in first place in the NFC East. Interestingly, in the past 20 seasons (not including this one), the Cowboys have started 3-1 six times (2003, 2007, 2008, 2014, 2016, and 2019). However, were any of those teams good?
The Ghost of Cowboys Past?
The 2003 Cowboys finished 10-6 and lost in the wild card game. A solid defense had no support from a Quincy-Carter-led offense that was pedestrian on the best of days. In other words, the 2003 Cowboys, who began the year 3-1, were not good.
The 2007 season was the first full season with Tony Romo at quarterback, and the 3-1 start progressed to a 13-3 finish in the regular season, including two impressive wins over the Super Bowl champion Giants and a win over the Packers, who also finished with a 13-3 record. The Cows lost to the Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs, and any football player will tell you it’s exceedingly difficult to go 3-0 against any one team in a given season. By the time the Cowboys and Giants faced each other in the playoffs, each team had finished the normal 16-game slog of a season and had seen each other twice. The Giants won a wild card game and, while theoretically more tired than the Cowboys, were also less rusty when they met in Dallas in January 2008. Of course, the Giants also got hot at the right time and eventually beat Tom Brady’s Patriots in the Super Bowl. TL;DR, yes, the Cowboys were good in 2007.
How about 2008? The season began 3-1 for the second straight year, but bad losses to the Cardinals, 49ers, and Ravens meant the Cowboys finished third in the NFC East and missed the playoffs. So no, the 2008 Cowboys were not good.
After quite a slump, the 2014 Cowboys also began 3-1, finished 12-4, won the NFC East, and capped the year off with a divisional playoff loss to the Packers after a Dez Bryant reception was ruled an incompletion. That was so maddening that the rule was clarified the following season and there is still an #ItWasACatch movement among Cowboys fans. On a personal note, I was in law school watching that game from a Buffalo Wild Wings in Lubbock with a friend of mine who happened to be a Packers fan, and when it became clear the Packers were going to win primarily because of bad officiating on a bad rule, we decided as a group to skedaddle quickly and not give any rabid Cowboys fans an opportunity to throw something at us. The 2014 Cowboys also just looked good. They looked smooth, like a well-oiled machine, getting heavy contributions on offense from reliable Romo, quick Demarco Murray, sure-handed Dez Bryant, and the ever-consistent Cole Beasley, who in addition to being a great slot receiver also looked like the kind of guy who would sell bootleg Lynyrd Skynyrd concert tickets outside a 7-Eleven. The 2014 Cowboys were actually good.
Then there’s the 2016 Cowboys. This was a weird year because Tony Romo didn’t play until week 17. Dak Prescott came in and led the Cowboys to a 3-1 start and 13-3 finish, winning the NFC East. It was bittersweet for Tony Romo fans who had watched him go from humble, exciting backup to team savior, but by then Tony was old by NFL quarterback standards (excepting, of course, Tom Brady), and Dak was the future. The Cowboys got an impressive win against the Packers in the regular season before losing to them (again) in the divisional round of the playoffs. This same team also featured Zeke Elliott and a healthy defense. But was this team good? Eeeehhhhhh, I’m not so sure. Talented, sure, but good? I don’t know. They were young and inexperienced and even though the playoff loss was a close one (34-31), the Cowboys also played in the weak NFC East and also had one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. Were they good? I honestly don’t know.
Finally there’s the 2019 squad. I’ll save you some time and just tell you that this team was not good. Sure, they started 3-1, but they finished 8-8 in a bad NFC East and failed to make the playoffs.
What About This Year?
So what about this year? Are the 2021 Cowboys good? Here’s what we can say for sure: Dak Prescott appears to be fully healthy with no lingering issues with his ankle. He is hitting receivers, and receivers are making good catches. Zeke Elliott looks like he did in 2016 and seems to have gained a spring in his step that was lacking in 2019 and 2020. The offensive line is healthy, the defense is healthy, Trevon Diggs might be the best cornerback in the NFL right now, and even the Cowboys’ tough opening loss to Tampa Bay didn’t show a lot of bad play. If anything, the coaching has been the problem. A few clock management issues (such as giving Tom Brady the ball back with 90 seconds in the opener) have had fans and analysts scratching their heads, but play on the field has been consistent and good thus far.
I know I’m going to regret this, but I think the answer is that yes, the Dallas Cowboys are good. I think that if ever there was a time when the Cows could make a deep playoff run, this is the year. The NFC is pretty stacked, though. In addition to the Cowboys, the Cardinals, Rams, Packers, Buccaneers, and Panthers are all 3-1 or better, and the Cardinals look especially deadly. But the Cowboys have already shown they can hang, having beaten the Rams in Week 2.
That’s the fun of football though, right? We never know what will happen. Right now the Cowboys look good, and I think it will continue. I hope it continues. I don’t even have a particular liking of the NFL, but I grew up just outside Dallas and I root for the Cowboys almost as some sort of congenital condition. I want the Cowboys to win just like I always want the Mavericks, Stars, Rangers, and even FC Dallas to win.
How ‘Bout Them Future Cowboys?
I’m already pressing my luck and tempting a jinx by proclaiming the current Cowboys good, so I’m not even going to touch the future Cowboys.