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Schultz: Cowboys must navigate tricky offseason to reach next level

Randy Litzinger / Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

It may have been championship or bust for Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, but this season was hardly a failure despite Sunday's 19-12 loss to the 49ers. The club put together a second consecutive 12-5 season, made the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 2006-07, and won its first road playoff game in 30 years.

Dallas is projected to have precious little cap space going into free agency, which means a lot of hard decisions will have to be made. Let's examine three key aspects of the Cowboys' outlook for 2023.

Dak Prescott

As stellar as Prescott was against Tampa Bay in the wild-card round, the Cowboys quarterback was equally poor against San Francisco, tossing a brutal first-half interception on either side of his one touchdown drive in an overall effort he called an "unacceptable."

Prescott tied for the league lead in interceptions this season (15) despite missing five games. Against the Niners, he became the first Cowboys quarterback since Troy Aikman in 1998 to throw two or more picks in a postseason contest.

Let me be clear: Dak's a good quarterback - sometimes very good - but he's not going to topple the league's best defense in a do-or-die game. He's not Patrick Mahomes or Joe Burrow - and that's OK. But he needs more help. CeeDee Lamb is an elite young receiver, but Prescott needs another dude that can command the football in the passing game. (That dude's name would be Amari Cooper, but that's another story.)

Complicating Dallas' roster-building in the offseason is the huge pay increase Prescott has coming in 2023. He had a $19.7-million cap hit in 2022, but that balloons to $49.1 million in 2023 and $52.1 million in 2024. Jones has been adamant in the past that No. 4 is the guy. But is he the guy when he occupies 20% of the salary cap?

Tony Pollard

In his first season as a feature back, the fourth-year pro proved he could handle a heavy workload and deliver game-breaking plays on a weekly basis. He had 232 touches this season for 1,378 yards, including 1,007 on the ground. Adding in his pass-catching, Pollard's 5.9 yards per scrimmage touch led all running backs who had at least 150 scrimmage touches. He trailed only Nick Chubb, Derrick Henry, and Kenneth Walker in 20-plus-yard runs (nine, which tied him with Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, and Miles Sanders).

Pollard's an electric talent whose game is built on speed and agility. He has a smaller frame, but the former Memphis standout clearly showcased the capacity to carry an offense. Despite suffering a fractured fibula against San Francisco, the 25-year-old will remain a top priority for Dallas. I'm told either a long-term deal or a franchise tag are realistic options. The Cowboys "love Pollard," a league source said.

Mike McCarthy

Consecutive 12-win seasons are nothing to scoff at, but failing to advance past the divisional round is not good enough. McCarthy's clock management at the end of the Niners' game was inexplicable - a common theme throughout his career as a head coach dating back to his Packers tenure.

Jones has already said his bench boss is safe, but that doesn't take away from his gaffes against the 49ers. After a Prescott sack led to a quick three-and-out with 2:50 left in the game, McCarthy astonishingly let 39 precious seconds tick away before punting. The Cowboys eventually got the ball back with 45 seconds left but had no timeouts and 94 yards to gain - an all-but-impossible task.

The job of a head coach is to put his players in the best situation to succeed, and McCarthy didn't do it. These are the little things that make the difference, and we've grown accustomed to seeing McCarthy botch them. How much longer Jones will tolerate it remains to be seen.

Then, there's the matter of current defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who is in the running for the head coaching vacancies in Arizona, Denver, and Indianapolis. Losing Quinn would be a devastating blow to McCarthy's staff. In McCarthy's first season, before Quinn took over the defense in 2021, the Cowboys gave up the most points in franchise history (473 points, 29.5 per game).

Quinn's philosophy is built on cultivating trust and love between his players and coaching staff, hence the successful "Brotherhood" he built with the Falcons. To summarize what his former players and even former Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff have told me, he's a leader of men who knows how to maximize talent with on-field schemes and motivational tactics while simultaneously building a championship-caliber team from the ground up.

Jordan Schultz is theScore's NFL insider and senior NBA reporter. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.

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