The Dallas Cowboys were once America’s Team. In their 1990s heyday, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin won three Super Bowls, and no matter where you’re from, you knew at least one diehard Cowboys fan.
But 20 years of futility slowly changed that — until last season. With rookie sensations Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in the fold, Dallas started to look like a team that fans across the nation can embrace once again.
The duo of Prescott and Elliott, plus one of the most consistent offensive lines in the league, paved the way for the team’s 13-3 finish in 2016. The Cowboys were the top seed in the NFC but fell short in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Packers.
But with these two young, exciting players anchoring the offense, along with star receiver Dez Bryant, the Cowboys are set to compete for years to come.
Prescott and Elliott eclipsed expectations as rookies
A 4-12 season in 2015 landed the Cowboys the fourth-overall pick, which they used on Elliott. It’s a risk taking a running back that high nowadays, but Elliott is a special player.
He accounted for nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage, leading the league with 1,631 rushing yards. Elliott was also was third in the NFL last season for scoring behind only LeGarrette Blount and Jordan Howard. His 2016 performance even earned him six votes for the NFL’s MVP award.
Elliott’s teammate was even more of a pleasant surprise. The Cowboys drafted Prescott hoping he could develop into Tony Romo’s heir apparent. Prescott was a fourth-round pick and the eighth quarterback off the board, but he outperformed the others — including Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, the first- and second-overall picks in 2016.
It was Prescott, not Elliott, who won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after an injury to Romo during the preseason forced the young quarterback into action earlier than the team expected. Prescott was so good in Romo’s stead that the team had no choice but to move forward with him even when Romo returned.
Prescott threw for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns against just four interceptions. His first pick of the season didn’t even happen until Week 6 against the Green Bay Packers, and that put Prescott ahead of Tom Brady in the record books for the most passing attempts without a pick.
Prescott and Elliott are just fun to watch
Prescott and Elliott enjoy themselves on the field, and it shows. Elliott gave us some of the most entertaining celebration dances last season, including a memorable jump into a giant Salvation Army bucket:
Their rapport is obvious off the field, too. Last year, they entertained us with an epic prank war that started with Elliott shooting straw wrappers at Prescott during an interview. But then Prescott got his revenge by filling Elliott’s locker with M&M’s. Zeke also roasted his quarterback about his shoe choices, though Dak finally won Elliott’s respect for wearing a pair of Yeezy’s.
The horseplay hasn’t stopped this offseason as Elliott rocked a cowboy hat during an interview session:
There is a new Sheriff in town. Zeke rocking a Stetson hat. The company provided one for the entire team. pic.twitter.com/5zitnukLnn— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) June 14, 2017
Prescott seized the opportunity to crack a joke about it, though Elliott gave it right back:
Dak to Zeke: "Where did they find a [cowboy] hat big enough to fit you?"— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) June 14, 2017
Zeke: "I'm gonna give you this hat to cover your hairline."
Elliott and Prescott clearly have a good relationship, and it makes them seem more accessible to fans. That showed during Cowboys minicamp, when Prescott brought Raymond "Ray Ray" Melgarejo out onto the field to run some drills with the offense. Melgarejo, who came all the way from California as part of the Make-a-Wish program, got to hand the ball off to Elliott during drills, too.
The boost Prescott and Elliott have given to the team is measurable. The top-selling NFL jersey from July to October of 2016 wasn’t Tom Brady’s or Aaron Rodgers’. It was Elliott’s. Prescott’s no slouch. His jersey sales ranked fifth in the NFL over that timeframe.
And that hasn’t changed much since that time. Heading into their second season in the NFL, Prescott and Elliott are entrenched in the top five:
Top selling jerseys in May via https://t.co/39lry7l5lT:— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) June 12, 2017
1 Marshawn Lynch
2 Tom Brady
3 Dak Prescott
4 Ezekiel Elliott
5 Deshaun Watson
In an era when the league is baffled and concerned by declining TV ratings, the Cowboys were a lifesaver in 2016. People tuned in to watch the team’s dynamic rookies play, consistently giving the Cowboys the best television ratings in the league.
But Elliott and Prescott can’t do it alone
Defensive weaknesses would end up being Dallas’ downfall in the playoffs. The Cowboys’ pass defense was ranked 26th in the league last season, and it was lit up by Aaron Rodgers with 355 yards and two touchdowns in the divisional round. The secondary became a bigger need after Dallas lost Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr in free agency.
The Cowboys used back-to-back picks on cornerbacks, with Chidobe Awuzie from Colorado in the second round, and Jourdan Lewis out of Michigan in the third round. They also got a couple of late-round secondary players, safety Xavier Woods and cornerback Marquez White, in the sixth round.
The Cowboys brought in free agent Nolan Carroll, who previously played for the Eagles. Carroll was arrested for DWI this offseason and could miss time if the NFL decides to suspend him for it. These new players join Orlando Scandrick, who started 10 games for Dallas last year, and Anthony Brown, who had nine starts. There’s going to be a heated competition for starting roles.
Scandrick, who was slowed by injuries last season, doesn’t feel threatened by the addition of so much defensive back talent.
“Like I told them, I’m not going to give anybody my job and I’m going to come work every day,” Scandrick said, via the team’s website. “I want to be back to where I was, and until I’m back to where I was and I’m doing it Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, I’m going to keep striving. And then when I get back to where I was, I’m going to reach for higher.”
The pass rush should also be better this season. Dallas used the 28th overall pick on defensive end Taco Charlton and brought in Stephen Paea and Damontre Moore in free agency. Jaylon Smith, who could have been a top-five pick in 2016 if he hadn’t suffered a catastrophic knee injury at the end of his final season at Notre Dame, should be healthy and ready to go for next season too.
DeMarcus Lawrence was only on the field for nine games last season due to injury and a suspension, but he should be healthy. Benson Mayowa, who led the team with six sacks last season, will also be back.
With an offense that ranked fifth in the league last season for total yards and points per game, even a little improvement with the pass rush and pass defense will go a long way toward helping the Cowboys take a step forward next season.
Getting back to America’s Team status
The name first started circulating back in 1978, thanks to Bob Ryan, now the vice president of NFL Films. He coined the term for the Cowboys when writing the script for voiceover for the team’s 1978 highlight film.
“I noticed then, and had noticed earlier, that wherever the Cowboys played, you saw people in the stands with Cowboys jerseys and hats and pennants,” Ryan said. “Plus, they were always the national game on television.”
Under legendary coach Tom Landry, the Cowboys had 20 consecutive winning seasons, from 1966 through 1985. Over that span, Dallas went to five Super Bowls, winning two.
But Dallas hasn’t gotten past the divisional round since 1995, the last year the Cowboys won a Super Bowl. As Dallas descended into mediocrity, it’s only natural that casual fans’ feelings toward the team became lukewarm.
The Cowboys still get plenty of national exposure. They ended up with six primetime games during the 2016 season, and they’ve got four on the schedule for 2017. There’s a good chance some of their other games could get flexed to Sunday Night Football later in the season, too.
So when you get stuck with the Cowboys as the national game on any given Sunday, settle in and enjoy watching Prescott and Elliott. They’ve made Dallas a fun team to watch, and because of them, the Cowboys are on their way to becoming America’s Team again.