FRISCO, Texas — The words are there for all the Dallas Cowboys to see every day: Carpe Omnia.
Coach Mike McCarthy chose the Latin phrase “seize everything” as the Cowboys’ motto for 2023. It’s surrounded by a collage of images in the main hallway outside their locker room.
In the upper-left corner is a huddle full of Cowboys and the Vince Lombardi Trophy hanging over the group. In the middle are photos of the Cowboys’ five Super Bowl champion teams. A blank spot is left in the middle for the 2023 Cowboys.
“Credit Mike for making that the theme of this season, and it’s been something that we’ve pointed to at different parts of the year — and right now it’s bigger than ever,” quarterback Dak Prescott said.
If not now, when?
This is their best chance in years to recapture that Super Bowl magic, in part because there isn’t an Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Drew Brees to go through. But when considering the Cowboys’ salary cap, impending free agent decisions, the draft, front office and coaching futures, this is an all-in postseason for Dallas.
That doesn’t mean the Cowboys will fall apart in 2024 and beyond, but windows of opportunity last only so long.
“This is why you play the game,” said cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who is back in the postseason for the first time since 2019 after winning a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots in 2018. “It’s do or die now.”
THE COWBOYS ARE back in the playoffs for the third straight season. They have not done that since the 1990s dynasty teams that delivered three of the franchise’s five Super Bowl wins with Hall of Fame talents such as Troy Aikman, Charles Haley, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith.
But what are the 2023 Cowboys?
They traded for two players with Super Bowl experience — receiver Brandin Cooks and Gilmore — in hopes of getting over the massive hump that seems to be the divisional round of the playoffs.
But while this roster might be ready to compete for a Super Bowl, maintaining this level of talent for the long term won’t be simple.
THE COWBOYS HAVE serious salary cap issues to solve. According to Roster Management System, they have roughly $258 million committed to 48 players against the 2024 cap. While the 2024 salary cap is not set and typically rises from the year before, 2023’s cap is $224.8 million.
Prescott carries a $59.4 million cap figure. An extension of his contract would solve almost all of the potential issues. But if the Cowboys don’t make a Super Bowl run this season, should they commit to what could be the richest contract in NFL history for a quarterback who has not gotten to a Super Bowl in his first eight years as the starter?
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones, as well as executive vice president Stephen Jones, have consistently said they want Prescott to be the quarterback well into the future. Prescott, who turned 30 in July, had his best season — an NFL-leading 36 touchdown passes and nine interceptions after tying for the league lead in interceptions with 15 in 2022 despite missing five games — but will this be the year he puts together a postseason as good as his regular season?
Jerry Jones is not worried about the cost.
“That really has not crossed my mind. Just as when we were wanting him to have more success, or to exhibit more success, [that] I thought about it driving down the price,” Jones said. “[Worrying about paying Prescott] doesn’t cross my mind.
“I’m here like everybody else, wanting him to be the Most Valuable Player in the NFL. That would go against everything we’re about. We’re trying to win the Super Bowl, and obviously we’ve got a better chance to win it if we have him as the quarterback playing at that level.”
Beyond Prescott, the Cowboys would like to sign Lamb and Parsons to contract extensions that would make them the highest paid — or at least close — at their positions. Lamb is signed through 2024 after his fifth-year option was picked up last offseason. The Cowboys will pick up Parsons’ fifth-year option for 2025 this spring.
AMONG THE KEY roster decisions the Cowboys will have to figure out during the offseason is what to do with Tyron Smith. The left tackle was drafted in the first round in 2011 and is the longest-tenured Cowboy. He is also one of 17 players set to become unrestricted free agents during the offseason.
While that number might not be much larger than recent years, they have more starting or key contributors on that list, such as running back Tony Pollard, center Tyler Biadasz, defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, Gilmore, safety Jayron Kearse and cornerback Jourdan Lewis, as well as defensive ends Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler Jr., and defensive tackle Neville Gallimore.
Other questions linger.
What do they do with Pollard, their leading rusher? They don’t have a left tackle ready to take over for Tyron Smith, especially if their desire is to keep Tyler Smith at left guard. They don’t have a center ready to take over for Biadasz, who has started every game he has played the past three seasons.
Gilmore, 33, has been solid, but what kind of contract will he command as he enters his 13th season, and how much would the Cowboys pay, knowing cornerback Trevon Diggs is coming back from a torn ACL in his left knee?
WHEN IT COMES to the 2024 NFL draft, Dallas has a pick in each of the first three rounds and two in the seventh round. They could get two compensatory picks as well, but they don’t have their own picks in the fourth (Trey Lance trade with San Francisco), fifth (Eric Scott Jr. trade with Kansas City) and sixth round (Cooks trade with Houston).
They also will face a more difficult schedule next season with eight games against 2023 playoff teams and a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, who will have quarterback Joe Burrow back from injury. And if the NFC East’s two-decade streak without a repeat champion holds, the 2023 champion Cowboys’ path to the Super Bowl will presumably be harder in 2024.
The Cowboys did not get much regular-season production from their top three rookie picks, defensive tackle Mazi Smith, tight end Luke Schoonmaker and linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, who suffered a torn ACL in the preseason. Fourth-round pick Viliami Fehoko Jr. was not active for a game but spent time on injured reserve.
Will they be ready for the second-year jump McCarthy talks about?
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THE COWBOYS WILL have decisions to make about their coaching staff and front office too.
Will defensive coordinator Dan Quinn leave for a head-coaching spot? Could vice president of player personnel Will McClay go somewhere else to become a general manager?
The Carolina Panthers have requested an interview with Quinn, who has been up for jobs each of the past two years. Jerry Jones adjusted Quinn’s contract, per sources, but Quinn wants to be a head coach again. If the right opportunity presents itself, Jones might be hard-pressed to convince Quinn to stay.
And that leads to the question of McCarthy’s future, should the Cowboys not put it all together in the next four weeks: Would Jones move away from McCarthy if the Cowboys falter Sunday against the Packers or not make it to a conference championship game?
McCarthy has produced three-straight 12-win seasons, three straight playoff appearances, and Prescott just had his best season.
“What he’s done, the fact that we put ourselves in this position over the last three years, I think that does speak for itself,” Jerry Jones said after the regular-season finale win at Washington. “We’ve got a lot of football left, and in no small part, thanks to Mike, thanks to his staff and thanks to some really outstanding players around here. So we’ll see how each game goes.”
Read into all of that and the salary cap, roster and draft decisions what you want, but all of it suggests the 2024 Cowboys could look different than the 2023 Cowboys.
HAVING EXPERIENCED CHANGE and missed opportunities, players are leaning into the Cowboys’ Carpe Omnia motto.
“[This season] means more. I came in my rookie year , I was like, ‘I just can’t wait to get it next year,'” Parsons said. “Obviously, seeing a team disassemble the way it did this offseason, losing some great players and friends, you tend to appreciate the teams more, value the guys around you. And know what it means for everyone and their families.”
As a rookie in 2016, Prescott listened to veterans such as tight end Jason Witten and linebacker Sean Lee talk about the opportunity ahead of those 13-3 Cowboys and how they had to take advantage of it. They lost 34-31 in the divisional round to the Green Bay Packers — then coached by McCarthy — but at 23-years old, the veterans’ message did not really sink in.
Now in his eighth season, Prescott is the veteran telling the younger players to seize the opportunity.
“There’s three guys that have been here longer than me in DeMarcus [Lawrence], Zack [Martin] and Tyron [Smith], Prescott said. “One, just the turnover. And then two, after my rookie year, the way that wild phantom of a year was, thinking, ‘Ah, hell, this is easy. This is what the rest is going to be like.’
“To be sitting here now in Year 8, understanding that you don’t have these teams, you don’t have these opportunities as often as you would think,” Prescott said. “Overall confidence, belief in ourselves, we’ve got a special group right now. Things are laying up for us in the right way.”
As the No. 2 seed, the Cowboys could play at least two postseason games at AT&T Stadium, where they were 8-0 this season and have won 16 straight.
The only thing that matters now is winning.
Gilmore spent his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills and never made the playoffs. In 2017, he signed with the Patriots and made the Super Bowl his first two seasons, losing to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII and beating the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. He has been back to the playoffs once since.
He and Prescott talked about the sacrifices needed this time of year to succeed. More time looking at film. More time in meetings. More time thinking about football.
“You’ve always got to have a sense of urgency no matter what,” Gilmore said. “You’ve just got to take advantage of your opportunities because you don’t want to say, ‘I could’ve done this. Should have done this,’ and lose out on your opportunity.”