The National Football League can’t quit the Dallas Cowboys. It’s a relationship built on one of the world’s most reliable aphrodisiacs: money.
Aren’t sappy love stories the best?
The league and this franchise have been joined at the hip over the last four decades because the Cowboys have consistently delivered monster television ratings, compelling story lines, and star power. Think Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett, Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson.
We’re not sure Dak Prescott is going to be great. But because he’s the Cowboys quarterback, he’s one of the NFL’s most marketable players. As an athlete, coach, or front-office executive, to be associated with the Cowboys is to achieve an elevated status amid the NFL’s already rarefied air. Name another team whose owner is as famous as any of its players. That’s the magic of the Cowboys.
Like him or not, you have to tip your cap to Jerry Jones, the rascal in chief who took over a great brand in 1989 and made it even stronger and more resilient. They’ve won only four playoff games in the past 24 seasons, but the Cowboys’ mystique is based on more than the mere winning and losing of football games.
So it should come as no surprise that the NFL chose to pencil in Dallas for the 2021 regular-season opener on September 9, pitting the Cowboys against the defending Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quarterback Tom Brady. The game is sure to be a textbook example of NFL excess in all its extravagant, prime-time glory—patriotism, celebrity, music, parades.
Roll your eyes if you like. Swear you’ve had it with Jerry and his handling of the Cowboys’ roster. Countless fans have done the same throughout Jones’s three-decade reign over “America’s Team.”
But once you’ve blown off that steam, you start thinking about Prescott’s return from injury and all the offensive talent the Cowboys surround him with. Then you start talking yourself into new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as a smart coaching hire, and the notion that Jerry shored up some of the team’s weaknesses through the NFL draft and free agency creeps into your head.
That’s all it takes—you’re hooked! Now, you’re counting down the days to Cowboys-Bucs in the fall.
The NFL had other options for the opener. It could have gone with Tampa Bay at New England—Brady’s first trip back to Gillette Stadium and the most interesting game of the 2021 season. (Instead, that one’s on the books for October 3). But the NFL chose to come out swinging with the Cowboys, a team that went 6–10 in 2020—and to anyone who follows football, the decision makes all the sense in the world.
Opening night won’t be the last you’ll see of the Cowboys. They’re one of ten NFL franchises scheduled to play five prime-time games in 2021, with the San Francisco 49ers being the only other that didn’t make the playoffs last year.
If you’re looking for contrast between Texas’s two NFL franchises, start here: while every fan in the state keeps an eye on the Cowboys, the Houston Texans couldn’t operate in more anonymity if they tried.
This isn’t about winning and losing, either. In the past ten seasons, the Texans have had seven winning records and made six playoff appearances, compared with four winning records and three playoff appearances for the Cowboys. Over the same stretch, the Texans have six division championships and the Cowboys have three.
Still, you care more about the Cowboys because your dad cared, your grandfather cared, your best friend cared. Fifty years ago, you watched your dad in his Sunday best twisting a television antenna to find a station in Waco or Texarkana carrying the game. And if you’re too young to remember that, you remember your parents telling you about it.
Sure, the Cowboys and the NFL have had their share of lovers’ spats over issues like revenue sharing, corporate sponsorships, and a contract extension for commissioner Roger Goodell (which Jerry once tried to block). In the end, they’ve always worked things out and continued making the NFL our national pastime.
And the Cowboys have reasons to feel optimistic about 2021. NBC’s latest power rankings place them smack-dab in the middle of the league at number 16 overall. But at least Dallas is ranked higher than the rest of the NFC East teams, with Washington, Philadelphia, and New York clocking in at numbers 20, 28, and 29 among the NFL’s 32 teams.
Hope springs? Last year, Prescott’s gruesome ankle injury in week five ended his season and whatever hope the Cowboys had in 2020. But so far, he has passed every off-season test we know of and his recovery appears to be on track.
The Cowboys’ offensive line, which was all but wiped out by injuries last season, also appears to be nearing full strength heading into the fall. Prolific wideouts CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper are expected to ease the pressure on running back Ezekiel Elliott, who looked worn down last season while averaging a career-low 4.0 yards per carry.
As for the Dallas defense—who knows? Quinn’s hiring garnered favorable reviews from Hall of Famer Troy Aikman and others around the league. Then Jerry used his first six draft choices—and eight of eleven overall picks—on defensive players, including Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Kentucky cornerback Kelvin Joseph, both of whom could start immediately. Others—UCLA tackle Osa Odighizuwa and LSU linebacker Jabril Cox—are expected to help improve the Cowboys’ defense.
The team also added an assortment of mid-level defensive talent in free agency, but the bottom line is that Prescott’s return is the biggest reason the Cowboys will be better in 2021.
Now, remember those NBC power rankings? The Texans are number 32—dead last in the NFL and starting over after a string of bad trades by former coach and general manager Bill O’Brien, plus the apparent loss of quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was demanding a trade before he was sued by 22 women accusing him of sexual assault and harassment.
The Texans’ new general manager, Nick Caserio, is stripping the franchise down to its studs and beginning a reconstruction that’s likely to take at least two years. The Texans didn’t have a first- or second-round pick this year, but Caserio has added dozens of players via free agency, trades, and the draft. There aren’t any stars among that group, and given the franchise’s state of disrepair, Caserio probably wasn’t looking to sign splashy, big-name players. Instead, he added depth at every position, a ploy to create a competitive training-camp atmosphere that might help the Texans uncover diamonds in the rough. John McClain of the Houston Chronicle estimates that Houston could see 70 percent roster turnover by the season opener.
Watson’s future hangs over every move the Texans make. The three-time Pro Bowler will be traded eventually, but fans could find themselves waiting the entire 2021 season for a deal. The NFL is still investigating Watson, with a potential punishment from the league looming as the civil lawsuits against him make their way through the court system, and the uncertainty over Watson’s future will hamper the Texans’ attempts to move him.
When they do trade Watson, the Texans hope to land multiple first-round picks in the swap, because Watson is talented enough to turn the right team into a Super Bowl contender. But that’s presuming the “right team” would be willing to place its future in the hands of a player whose behavior appears to have been, at best, horrific, and at worst, criminal.
In the end, the 2021 Houston Texans could turn out even worse than last season’s four-win team, but the franchise’s decision to embrace a rebuild provides fans some peace of mind. At least their team has a strategy.
Into this situation steps first-year head coach David Culley, who, despite never having held a coordinator position, won over Caserio with his passion, football acumen, and communication skills. In a perfect world, Caserio and Culley will ride out the tough times together, build a winning team, and have a great run.
Until then, the Texans are trying to build a team that competes hard and occasionally offers a glimpse of better days ahead. Maybe, someday down the road, they’ll even field a team worthy of a prime-time date with the Dallas Cowboys.