The Cowboys learned plenty about change, expectations and disappointment in 2020.
A 6-10 record and third-place finish in a putrid NFC East will have that effect. But for Dallas, a season of underachievement won't suddenly relegate the Cowboys to the abyss of irrelevance in the NFL. In fact, the result was quite the opposite.
The 2021 Cowboys will have NFL Films and HBO Sports lurking around every corner of their training camp. Such is the life of being America's Team.
The added attention is nothing new to the Cowboys, yet it seems Dallas is embracing the challenge of a brighter spotlight. Take Ezekiel Elliott, for example, a star running back who didn't look much like one in 2020.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy spoke with media members Wednesday and said Elliott has been around the team during most of the offseason preparing for the 2021 campaign. Elliott is taking matters seriously, attending not only his position group meetings, but quarterbacks and offensive line sessions, too, McCarthy said.
"He's been a great example," McCarthy said of Elliott, via CBS Sports' Patrik Walker.
Elliott is far from the only star with a camera lens trained squarely on his face. Dak Prescott is returning from a significant ankle injury that torpedoed Dallas' 2020 campaign, and he'll undoubtedly be a central focus of both Hard Knocks and media attention from the start of camp.
McCarthy believes Prescott is prepared for the challenge and is in a good place on his path back to the field as the Cowboys meet for training camp this week.
"I see for him to be a full participant," McCarthy said of Prescott's status for camp, via the Dallas Morning News' Michael Gehlken. "It's still a projection. We'll see how it goes. Obviously, we'll watch it."
The Cowboys' chances rest on the status of Prescott, whose departure forced Dallas to turn to Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert through the remainder of the ill-fated 2020 campaign. After delaying signing Prescott to a lucrative, long-term deal ahead of the 2020 season, Dallas quickly learned how important Prescott was to the franchise once he was no longer available.
The Cowboys applied their new lesson when they signed Prescott to a four-year deal that will pay him $40 million per year, bidding the lingering elephant in the room adieu well before the 2021 season arrived.
"I think Dak's rare," Cowboys VP Stephen Jones said Wednesday. "We made him the highest-paid player in the league for a reason. ... He's unique."
With that out of the way, Dallas now has a clear objective in sight: win a Lombardi Trophy.
"I'm not trying to be sacrilegious here but the facts are that I would, right now, if I could, and I knew had a good chance to do it, I would do anything known to man to get in a Super Bowl," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Wednesday. "That's a fact. And there's nothing, in my mind, that can have a higher priority than that."
If Jones learned anything from the pandemic-affected 2020 season, it was the value of the NFL in his life. After completing a season in which only a percentage of Cowboys fans were permitted to attend games at AT&T Stadium, and being forced to do so without a viable franchise quarterback available, Jones has a new perspective on his position as owner of one of the trademark franchises in the sporting world.
"I feel as driven as I was when I first bought the team," Jones said. "I was scared to death then and I'm scared to death now. I worry about what's happening out here in the economy, the COVID, and I worry about our place in it in the NFL and where the place is in sports -- I worry about that. But the thing that means the most to me, that I care about -- and I can probably be anywhere in the world -- I want to be here right now. I want to be here with our team."
Plenty of gratitude is expected to be shown by the Hard Knocks crew this summer, but while it's great to reinforce the nation's emotional connection to the game, results still matter more than anything. Dallas is acutely aware of this reality, investing resources in revamping a defense that was a sieve in 2020 and adding veteran coach Dan Quinn as the team's defensive coordinator.
Now, it's about putting it into practice and stacking victories. The regular season is still more than a month away, but the efforts begin now in Oxnard, Calif. Soon enough, the Cowboys will be back in Dallas, ready to embark on another pursuit of a title.
In that moment, their adventure truly takes off. We can only guess where it might land.