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Cowboys need to be careful thinking injury returns are a cure-all

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Stephen A.: Cowboys are good at everything but winning football games (2:34)

Stephen A. Smith details the "ineptitude" of the Dallas Cowboys and why they should give Dak Prescott a contract extension. (2:34)

FRISCO, Texas -- As the 2020 NFL season went along, the Dallas Cowboys' training room had a Pro Bowl feel to it.

Quarterback Dak Prescott was in the room recovering from surgery for a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle. Left tackle Tyron Smith was in there rehabbing from a neck injury that limited him to two games. Offensive lineman Zack Martin was in there late in the season recovering from a calf strain. So was linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who had a broken collarbone in Week 1 and a high ankle sprain in the Cowboys' final two games.

Those four players combined for 16 Pro Bowl appearances since 2013.

The list of injured players above doesn't include La'el Collins, who had his best season in 2019 at right tackle and missed the 2020 season because of hip surgery. Nor does it include tight end Blake Jarwin, who signed a $22 million deal last offseason only to suffer a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the season opener, or defensive tackle Trysten Hill, the 2019 second-round pick, who tore his ACL in Week 5.

At one point during the 2020 season, the Cowboys had close to 40% of their 2020 salary cap on injured reserve. That was a big reason for Dallas' finishing 6-10 and missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons and the third time in four seasons.

The news on the return to health for all of those players, as well as for some under-the-radar types such as defensive tackle Antwaun Woods, has been positive so far, but that doesn't mean the Cowboys should think all of the team's issues will be cured in 2021 once their key players are back on the field.

"Some people here in the building seem to think as soon as we get everyone back in combination with some of the young players and individuals that played this year, that we'll be in great shape next year," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. "You can clearly understand where that opinion would come from."

But McCarthy knows not to be so naive as to think the path will be an easy one.

"We need to go back and start on page one," McCarthy said. "That is the way I have always done it. When you take things for granted you are really setting yourself up for failure.”

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Why Max is worried about giving Dak a big deal

Max Kellerman explains why Jerry Jones should be concerned about signing Dak Prescott to a long-term contract.

The Cowboys have faith Prescott will be 100 percent when he returns, but they also have a lingering long-term contract issue with the quarterback that has been tricky to finalize for two seasons now.

Smith has not played a 16-game season since 2015. Collins and Martin have been durable, but is this the start of injury woes for them? Vander Esch has had his past two seasons interrupted by injury.

Injuries are a part of NFL life. McCarthy likes to point out his Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV by relying on 77 players.

"I mean, all the speculators know what we lost this year," Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. "But also what we gained. And I mean if they ain't ready for the 2021 season, I'll make sure we're ready. That's all to it. You can expect us to give it our all, make sure we come out there and dominate each and every play and make sure we show y'all the type of men that we have in this locker room."

Vander Esch said he would take a two-week break before returning to The Star for workouts: "I'm on a mission, and I think all the guys should be, too."

Martin is entering his eighth season as a pro. He was a rookie when the Cowboys lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Packers in 2014, and was in his third season when Dallas lost to them in 2016. He has seen former Cowboys tight end Jason Witten retire, unretire and ultimately sign elsewhere in a quest for a Super Bowl.

"The saying that it goes fast, you don't realize it until you start getting a little older and you see how important these opportunities are every year," Martin said. "That's definitely the goal. When I came here that was the goal. Even more now, where I'm at in my career. I want to win a Super Bowl. I think everyone in this building's got that goal. Now it's time to take a step to working toward it."

The return to health of key players will certainly help. The return to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn should also benefit the defense. The Cowboys have the No. 10 pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft and could have up to nine selections, which will help.

The state of the NFC East also helps, as McCarthy is now the second-longest-tenured head coach in a division whose champion went 7-9.

It's easy to paint a feel-good picture of what 2021 could be for the Cowboys.

But, as Martin reminds, "I think on paper it looks pretty good. But that's on paper, so it's up to us to go out ... and I think obviously there's been a lot of talk about what we can do.

"It's time to put that into action and actually do it consistently over a whole season. That's on us as players to get that right and we're excited for next year."