Prescott's poise key to Cowboys avoiding yet another let down
For over 20 frustrating years the goal in Dallas has been clear - re-establish the glories that made the Cowboys 'America's Team'.
And, as the 2016 season revealed, the pieces may finally be in place for that mission to be achieved.
Indeed, for much of the previous campaign the Cowboys were perhaps the best team in the NFL, though for some their success was bittersweet, with Tony Romo, the man who had consistently put his body on the line and performed only for Dallas to either disappoint or come up short, struck down by a preseason injury and then forced to watch on as rookie Dak Prescott led them back to the postseason.
The playoffs ended in familiar fashion for the Cowboys, who went one-and-done with a failed comeback in the divisional round against the Green Bay Packers.
Since winning their last Super Bowl back in January 1996, the Cowboys have made the playoffs nine times, but have been immediately eliminated on six of those occasions.
But last year, despite the heartbreak that came with being on the wrong side of a 34-31 thriller with the Packers, Dallas ended the season with plenty of reason for optimism.
The perceived gamble of taking a running back with the fourth pick of the draft paid off substantially as Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing, while Prescott proved an unearthed gem with the ability to excel as a passer and a runner, displaying remarkable poise for someone of his limited experience.
With the best offensive line in the league, a dominant wide receiver in Dez Bryant and the ever-dependable Jason Witten at tight end, the Cowboys appear set to contend for years to come.
However, the Cowboys have consistently followed impressive seasons with let downs in the subsequent year.
Dallas has a 10-22 record in the seasons following their previous two playoff appearances in 2009 and 2014 and the signs that another slump back down to earth could be on the horizon in 2017 are there.
The saga surrounding Elliott's six-game suspension for accusations of domestic violence has hung a dark cloud over the team throughout preseason and the lack of his presence for over a quarter of the campaign is a significant blow for a team that is already missing defenders Randy Gregory and David Irving due to bans.
Pass rusher Gregory was banned for a year in January for substance abuse while defensive tackle Irving is suspended for the opening four games, which will see rookie Taco Charlton and DeMarcus Lawrence, who had just one sack in nine games in 2016, carry the burden of pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
They will be playing in front of a mediocre secondary that lost cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr and in free agency and is likely to need strong rookie seasons from cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis to make strides.
Dallas' defensive issues are in stark contrast to that of their NFC East rivals. The New York Giants spent big on the front seven last year in an approach that saved general manager Jerry Reese's job and provided them with an excellent defensive foundation from which they were able to claim eight of their 11 wins by a touchdown or less.
The Philadelphia Eagles' front seven has been a nightmare for opponents in preseason and, with Dallas - along with the Washington Redskins - seemingly lagging behind on defense, the Cowboys' hopes lie with Prescott avoiding the second-year slump many will expect and being the best quarterback in the division.
Cementing his position as the top passer in the NFC East may not be so difficult. Eli Manning appears in decline and is increasingly being propped up by the talent the Giants have put around him, Carson Wentz's rookie season in Philadelphia received plaudits but the fundamental issues with his footwork and mechanics that were on display in college still lingered.
It remains to be seen if Kirk Cousins' likely last season in Washington will be marked by the crunch-time turnovers that have dogged an otherwise promising career, but, if Prescott is unable to match his 2016 exploits and carry a team with a shaky defense through a spell without Elliott, then the failings of the opposing quarterbacks may not matter.
For Prescott to improve on a rookie season in which he threw 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions would be a significant ask.
However, his performances in preseason have been widely praised and Dallas' season rests squarely on him maintaining the poise that took them within a field goal of the NFC Championship game.
There is a strong chance the Cowboys' unwanted tradition of slumping back down to earth will continue should he fail in doing so.