Wouldn’t it be great if the Dallas Cowboys went to the Super Bowl this season? Roll your eyes all you want. Groan if you must. Yes, we know how you feel about Jerry Jones.

On the flip side, life in Texas is more interesting when the Cowboys are playing well. Or at least when they’re respectable enough to win one lousy playoff game. That might seem like a small ask for the most valuable sports franchise in the world (worth $6.9 billion, according to Sportico), but the Cowboys have won just three of them in the last 24 seasons.

Because the Cowboys will be the subject we’re talking about in our corner bars, churches, and boardrooms, they might as well be at least respectable.  Love ’em or hate ’em, you won’t ignore ’em.

That, in a nutshell, is the genius of Jones, the Cowboys’ perpetually optimistic, occasionally bumbling owner. Once, when recently retired WFAA sports anchor Dale Hansen pointed out Jones didn’t hold his general manager—that would be Jerry himself—to the same standard as the coaches he’d fired, Jones had an answer ready: “Well, the good news is, I haven’t had to run off five or six general managers.”

Jones, the owner (not the general manager), has built a brand so valuable and so enduring that it’s bigger than wins and losses. The fact that the team hasn’t been very good for nearly a quarter of a century seems beside the point, if you define winning in terms of franchise values and television ratings. By that standard, the Cowboys are absurdly successful.

Last month, Dallas became the first NFL franchise to be featured three times on HBO’s Hard Knocks, an annual documentary-style peek inside a team’s training camp. Early in the third of this season’s five episodes, viewers are treated to a breathtaking drone tour of the Cowboys’ $1.5 billion, 510,000-square-foot Taj Mahal of a practice facility in Frisco. Later in that episode, Jones, in his customized helicopter with the Cowboys’ star on the tail, is filmed circling his other palace: Arlington’s 80,000-seat, $1.2 billion AT&T Stadium.

It should come as little surprise, then, that when the NFL opens the 2021 regular season on Thursday with Tom Brady and defending Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on center stage, America’s Team will be costarring on the other side of the ball. Brady, 44, may be the NFL’s ageless wonder and ratings gold, but the Cowboys bring their own intrigue to the table. Second-year Dallas coach Mike McCarthy is already feeling some pressure to lead the team back to the playoffs, and the Cowboys’ personnel department is looking to improve its reputation after some big misses in recent seasons.

But regardless of what McCarthy’s coaching staff and the franchise’s front office can do, the Cowboys won’t bounce back unless three of their biggest stars—quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, and pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence—bounce back, too. Prescott’s return from a gruesome ankle injury that cut short his 2020 season after five games is the first reason for optimism this year. If he’s completely healthy—and he says he is—the Cowboys have a shot at beating anyone, including Brady and the Bucs. But that injury required two surgeries, and then just as training camp began and the ankle seemed sound, Prescott was shut down by a shoulder strain.

His injury wasn’t the only reason the Cowboys went 6–10 in 2020, but losing the franchise quarterback was where everything else started to unravel. Without Prescott, the Cowboys’ injury-depleted offensive line took an even more savage beating, as did Elliott, who wound up carrying an unsustainable offensive burden. On defense, all of the weaknesses that the team had hoped would be covered up by Prescott’s high-scoring offense were exposed.

Prescott is 42–27 as a starter and has been the franchise’s centerpiece since leading an eleven-game winning streak in his 2016 rookie year. That season ended with a wild 34–31 playoff loss to the Packers in which Prescott brought the Cowboys back from a fifteen-point fourth-quarter deficit only to lose on a last-second field goal. The quarterback led Dallas back to the playoffs in 2018, but he couldn’t overcome a Los Angeles Rams team that rolled up 459 yards in a 30–22 playoff victory. At that point, it seemed only a matter of time before the Cowboys surrounded Prescott with enough defensive talent to get over the hump.

That hasn’t happened, and Thursday night’s season opener against Tampa Bay will be a big test. The Bucs return every member of a defensive front that put relentless pressure on Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes in Tampa’s 31–9 victory in last February’s Super Bowl LV.

After watching the Cowboys defense allow a team-record 473 points last season, Jones hired a new coordinator, Dan Quinn, and used the twelfth pick of this year’s NFL Draft on Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons. Parsons will be one of a slew of fresh faces on the Dallas defense, but he might be the only recent addition with a chance to step in and be an impact player. He’s that rare talent good enough to play almost any position on the field, and the Cowboys will move him around, looking for pass-rushing mismatches and other ways to make Brady uncomfortable. The Cowboys also remade their defensive front by signing veteran free agents Tarell Basham, Brent Urban, and Carlos Watkins, and by selecting rookie linemen Osa Odighizuwa, Chauncey Golston, and Quinton Bohanna in the draft.

All those reinforcements should allow Dallas’s All-Pro lineman, DeMarcus Lawrence, to move back to a traditional defensive end role instead of the hybrid assignment he’d been fulfilling. Lawrence is also healthy heading into this season, something he hasn’t completely been since he logged 25 sacks combined over his Pro Bowl years of 2017 and 2018. Like Elliott and Prescott, Lawrence didn’t play a down in the preseason.

If those pieces fall into place, the Cowboys will be able to reduce Elliott’s workload running the ball, after a season in which everything around him broke down and Elliott wound up averaging a career-low 4.0 yards per carry. This year, he arrived at training camp ten pounds lighter, and the Cowboys believe a combination of Prescott’s return and more time to rest will help Elliott rebound. “I think the hardest part about last year is you feel like you let your teammates down,” Elliott told reporters during training camp. “You don’t need more motivation than that.”

Every team begins a season with questions, and Dallas has some significant ones. But the team’s division, the NFC East, is one of the league’s weakest, and the Cowboys are due for a bit of luck avoiding injuries.

Opening the season with Bucs-Cowboys will produce the kind of TV-ratings bonanza that has become the norm for the NFL. Jones and his Cowboys love these big stages, even though they haven’t always excelled on them. And even when the franchise has failed on field, the Cowboys have always excelled at feeding their fans—and haters—hope. No matter how many years it’s been since that last Super Bowl win (for the record, it was 1996), Dallas always seems to be one player or one game away. 

That’s the beauty behind the Cowboys experience: no matter how Thursday’s game plays out, we’ll be talking about Dallas on Friday.