One year ago, Troy Aikman sauntered away from a Q&A session with a media throng at the Miami Beach Convention Center, just days before he broadcast Super Bowl 54 on Fox.
But a handful of reporters trailed him as he exited the sprawling convention hall. They peppered the Hall of Fame quarterback who led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s with last-minute questions.
“Were they as talented as we thought?” one reporter asked of the Cowboys, who finished 8-8 in 2019 and parted ways with coach Jason Garrett.
Aikman didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah. Yes. Without a doubt,” he said. “I would talk to coaches around the league and … there’s not many coaches that wouldn’t have traded their roster with the Cowboys.”
Fast forward a season to a very different scene surrounding Super Bowl 55. The injury-riddled Cowboys lost 10 games in 2020, Mike McCarthy’s first season at the helm a far cry from what owner Jerry Jones and family advertised when hiring the Super Bowl-winning coach.
Jerry Jones' Cowboys lost QB Dak Prescott to a broken ankle five games into the 2020 NFL season. (Photo: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports)
Aikman revisited the question: How talented are these Cowboys?
“They’re a more talented team, certainly, than what their record indicated this year,” Aikman told USA TODAY Sports over Zoom. “There were a lot of coaches, a lot of personnel people that would have probably traded rosters with the Cowboys. I think there are some holes that they’ll need to address – they know that – through free agency and through the draft.
“But overall, I just don’t believe that when healthy, this is a team that’s in rebuilding mode.”
The 2020 decline
Quarterback Dak Prescott, undoubtedly, was the most significant loss to injury this season. He had started 72 straight games, including playoffs, from the time he was drafted in 2016 until he suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle on Oct. 11. He was carted off the field and immediately taken to a hospital for surgery. The Cowboys did not win another game for 42 days.
Prescott joined a star-studded rehab group at the team's training facility. Left tackle Tyron Smith underwent season-ending neck surgery after appearing in just two games. Right tackle La’el Collins’ hip surgery eliminated his entire year. Tight end Blake Jarwin’s Week 1 ACL tear ended his season after a single catch. Calf injuries to right guard Zack Martin and running back Ezekiel Elliott accounted for seven more lost starts of perennial Pro Bowlers.
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All are expected to be healthy and available before the 2021 season begins.
“He looks good, he’s walking around the house,” Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb told USA TODAY Sports of Prescott. “It’s great to see, especially when you seen him go down. You saw the look in his eyes. You saw how sad he was and how much this game meant to him.
“Just to see him smiling again, happy again being with his guys, is a great deal.”
Cowboys QB Dak Prescott at JerryWorld, where his college coach Dan Mullen competed in Cotton Bowl tonight:pic.twitter.com/SgylZkvUNU
That camaraderie and cohesion Prescott engenders in the locker room further Aikman’s belief that the Cowboys should re-sign the quarterback, who has played the last two seasons on expiring contracts.
One playoff win in five seasons hasn't met Prescott's expectations or the team's. But he and his representation argue his value by way of a 42-27 (.609) regular-season record; the 106 touchdowns he’s thrown compared to 40 interceptions; his 17,634 yards passing, and 24 rushing TDs. Even Jones acknowledged he wasn’t sure how Prescott could have more leverage given Dallas often looked lost after his injury.
Now, after two seasons of failed negotiations for a long-term deal, the dance begins again.
Aikman said he’d be surprised if the deal doesn’t close this offseason. But he also figured it would materialize before Prescott played 2020 on a franchise tag worth $31.4 million.
“I think he’s really talented,” Aikman said. “When he came into the league, (he) was regarded as somewhat of a project. Was not expected to have to play right away and had never taken snaps from underneath center, play-action passing game, some of those types of things that they were doing at the time. And yet, he took to it really quickly, and it’s because he worked so hard at it.
“I’ve not been around anyone who’s spent time with Dak or watched him that didn’t feel this guy is a franchise quarterback. And they’re hard to find.”
Troy Aikman on Cowboys QB Dak Prescott’s future: “His big payday, multiyear contract is coming. And I’ll be the happiest person around for him.”
More via @usatodaysports 👉 https://t.co/s3NkSu5ibGpic.twitter.com/XFqxV8VLyp
Aikman should know. The No. 1 pick of the 1989 draft watched Dallas struggle to replace him in the five years following his retirement after the 2000 season. Eventually, undrafted Tony Romo took the torch in 2006 before passing it to Prescott, a fourth-rounder, a decade later.
“To be able to have that kind of carryover at that position and yet not having invested more than they have with draft collateral is a real fortunate position to be in,” said Aikman, speaking in conjunction with Frito Lay’s Hall of Famers Super Bowl commercial.
“The Cowboys have been real fortunate.”
The question lingers: What’s missing from a team that hasn’t competed in a Super Bowl – or even a conference championship – since the 1996 season? Dallas’ offensive line depth must better account for injuries in 2021 after seeing what disjointed play yielded in 2020. Its defense, which will be coordinated by ex-Falcons head coach Dan Quinn rather than Mike Nolan, must drastically improve after a historically bad season in several areas – particularly an inability to stop the run.
McCarthy and the Jones family view the COVID-19 challenges, head coaching change, injuries and sudden death of strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul in November as the perfect storm that unhinged the team. They don't view a roster overhaul as necessary.
It might also be unrealistic given Dallas has $18.4 million available to spend, per Over The Cap, but would have to come up with nearly $38 million if Prescott winds up franchised a second time. And yet competing in the NFC East, won by the Washington Football Team with a 7-9 record in 2020, doesn't seem like an especially high bar.
Aikman considers the logic.
“I know that in Jerry’s mind, they’ve never been in rebuilding mode,” he said. “That’s the optimist that he is. But I would agree him with right now. You get Dak back, you get the offensive line back – and with the skill players they have on offense?
“Find a few pieces on defense, and they should be right in the thick of things next year.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
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