Will ‘Hard Knocks’ help or hurt Cowboys in 2021? Here’s how every team has fared after being featured

For the third time in the show’s 20-year history, the Dallas Cowboys will star on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” 

America’s Team was previously the focus of the show back in 2002, when the team was coming off of back-to-back 5-11 seasons under head coach Dave Campo; and 2008, when the team was coming off a 13-3 campaign and a disappointing divisional round loss to the division rival New York Giants. 

There are, as usual, plenty of storylines and stars to follow with this year’s Cowboys team. It’s the second year of the Mike McCarthy era, which got off to a poor start in 2020 as the team slumped to a 6-10 record as it was ravaged by injuries — including a scary ankle injury suffered by star quarterback Dak Prescott. The show will follow Prescott’s comeback from that injury, as well as those of offensive linemen Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and Zack Martin, who combined to play just 12 games last season. The Cowboys are also incorporating a new defensive coordinator in former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, and they have stars on both sides of the ball in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Ezekiel Elliott, and Demarcus Lawrence. And of course, they have Jerry Jones. 

But we’re not here to predict training future camp storylines. Instead, we’re here to examine what has happened to previous teams whose training camps were the focus of “Hard Knocks” camera crews, to see if we might be able to glean some insight into what might happen once this year’s Cowboys actually take the field during the regular season. In their two previous “Hard Knocks” campaigns, the Cowboys went 5-11 (2002) and 9-7 (2008), failing to meet preseason expectations. But is that actually the norm for a “Hard Knocks” team? 

Well, yes. Kind of. 

Of the 16 teams previously featured on “Hard Knocks,” eight of them failed to surpass their preseason over/under, seven beat the number, and one met it exactly. On average, those 16 teams were expected to win 8.03 games, and actually won 7.66 games. Basically, the NFL and HBO have centered on teams expected to be almost perfectly average, that ended up being almost perfectly average. 

Some of that is likely due to the criteria established in 2014 for being on the show. The only teams eligible are those: A. without a first-year head coach; that B. did not make the playoffs in either of the prior two seasons; and C. have not been in the show in the last 10 years. This year, the only teams that met the criteria were the Cowboys, Broncos, Cardinals, Giants, and Panthers. (Teams are allowed to volunteer for the show, which is how the 2020 Rams wound up on it.) 

The NFL is, of course, moving to a 17-game schedule this season. The Cowboys’ preseason over/under at William Hill Sportsbook is 9.5, which means they are expected to be a slightly above-average team. If they can manage a 10-7 record or better as opposed to 9-8 or worse, they’ll have done a bit better than the average “Hard Knocks” team has done in the past, a lot better than they themselves have done either of the last two times they starred on the show.

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