Analysis

Dallas Cowboys chosen for 'Hard Knocks': Four storylines to watch on HBO's five-episode series

When the Dallas Cowboys hit training camp this summer to don their iconic helmet star, they'll also be starring in the 20th-anniversary edition of the Emmy Award-winning series Hard Knocks.

HBO Sports' and NFL Films' groundbreaking docuseries returns on Tuesday, Aug. 10 (10 p.m. ET on HBO) to provide an all-access look over five episodes at the training camp of one of the league's most renowned franchises. The selection of the Cowboys for the 2021 edition of Hard Knocks was announced Friday, marking the third time the club has been featured (2002 and '08 being the previous two) in the show's history.

"The Cowboys are one of the most storied franchises in NFL history and a team that elicits strong reactions from fans around the world," Ken Rodgers, vice president and senior coordinating producer at NFL Films, said in a statement. "Tens of millions of fans love them, but just as many people love to hate them. Either way, when the Cowboys show up people watch, which makes them perfect for Hard Knocks. This year, their high-profile status as 'America's Team' is paired with uniquely interesting storylines. We can't thank [Jerry] Jones and [Mike] McCarthy enough for letting us tell the story behind what we hope is the beginning of an exciting year in Dallas."

Dallas enters the 2021 season bent on securing redemption for a disappointing, injury-riddled 2020 campaign that saw the 6-10 Cowboys finish third in a downtrodden NFC East. The most notable setback, of course, came in Week 5, when quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Prescott is back with a new contract in his pocket, on track for a clean bill of health in time for the 2021 regular season. Coach Mike McCarthy also returns for his second season at the helm of the trademark club and is looking to right a ship that wandered off course in 2020.

With the identity of Hard Knocks' focus now known, let's take a look at the top storylines we can expect to follow this summer when the Cowboys journey west for training camp in Oxnard, California.

1) Dak is back

As mentioned above, Prescott returns to the field to lead the Cowboys following his gruesome ankle injury suffered in a season in which he was playing under the franchise tag. The uncertainty of his future was addressed by his four-year, $160 million deal signed in early March, but the allure doesn't stop there. Prescott's new deal places him among the league's highest earners, and after his 2020 absence seemed to show everyone his immense value to the Cowboys, it's time for the quarterback to prove what we deduced is actually true. With a healthy Prescott, the Cowboys should be a contender. And with a receiving corps that includes Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and second-year standout CeeDee Lamb -- expect Lamb to also receive the profile treatment -- Dallas' ceiling should be pretty high. The biggest remaining question: Can Prescott return to a form that earned him his lavish deal? And can he prove he's healthy enough to hit the ground running when training camp begins?

2) Putting the 'D' back in Dallas

Mike Nolan's lone season in Dallas proved to be a failure, with the Cowboys landing in the bottom third of the league in yards allowed per game. (They were even worse against the run alone.) It's no surprise, then, that the 'Boys spent their first six picks on defensive players in the 2021 NFL Draft. Atop that group is first-round selection Micah Parsons, who joins a linebacking corps that includes Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, meaning the rookie will have to prove his worth rather quickly, starting with this training camp. Parsons was a star at Penn State, where his athletic ability was impossible to ignore, and he figures to be an immediate starter for the Cowboys. But he's just one part of a massive effort to revitalize Dallas' D, and after last year's nightmare, the Cowboys will need all 11 starters (and then some) to raise their performance to help this franchise become a top-notch contender once again. New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn joined the fray in the offseason after being fired by the Atlanta Falcons following a six-season tenure as head coach, and he's out for his own bit of redemption. Can Quinn work with his new additions and returning contributors to achieve the goal of becoming a unit worthy of respect? This effort begins in Oxnard.

3) Ezekiel's expectations

Ezekiel Elliott received the lavish extension he so desired in 2019 and followed it with a 1,357-yard, 12-touchdown season. Then 2020 hit. Elliott lost his quarterback, and his numbers plunged to career lows. Elliott posted the fewest yards gained per carry during his time in the NFL, picking up an even 4 yards a pop in 2020. Also, he failed to break 1,000 yards for the first time in a season where he played at least 11 games. He scored on the ground just six times and devolved from headlining threat to frustrated bell cow. With Prescott back, Elliott figures to have a bounce-back campaign; we learned in 2020 that his production is tied to who is playing quarterback. While Elliott is secure contractually, he needs to be better than he was a year ago.

4) Can McCarthy return the 'Boys to prominence?

McCarthy's presence in Green Bay grew stale, leading to his firing in December of his 13th season with the Packers and a one-year sabbatical commonly known as unemployment in the NFL. He mounted quite a comeback effort in his year off and was rewarded with the prestigious position in Dallas. However, he failed to deliver in his first year, finishing behind Washington (7-9) and New York (6-10) in the atrocious NFC East. Prescott's injury was a convenient crutch, but with the quarterback now back in the fold, there's no more time for excuses. A television series known for humanizing these gridiron gladiators and their generals will likely take an equally personal look at McCarthy, an affable character who had to spend the 2020 season patrolling a sideline behind a mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With a nod to the rapper Future, it's mask off time for McCarthy. We'll begin to learn who's truly behind it when Hard Knocks debuts on Aug. 10.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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