Todd Payten has taken charge at North Queensland planning to revamp the club's attacking structures and get some seasoned stars back to their best.
There was a buzz of excitement heading into last season for the Cowboys following the signing of Valentine Holmes. But the fullback's return from the NFL was slowed by injuries and the team suffered.
Making matters worse, captain and on-field general Michael Morgan only played six games due to shoulder and calf issues.
After Paul Green departed as coach midway through the year and Josh Hannay took the reins for a club that finished 14th, Payten now has the job of pushing North Queensland back up the ladder.
He is familiar with the set-up, having been on Green staff's when they won the 2015 premiership before departing after 2018 to join the Warriors.
The best of Holmes' first season at the Cowboys
Payten has emphasised speed and intensity - reacting quickly, running hard, playing direct - to better mesh the side's style with the free-flowing game under the six-again infringement rule.
Once criticised for being too robotic and predictable, the Cowboys seem set to play more "eyes-up" footy in 2021 - a game-plan that Payten will hope unlocks the best of Morgan and Holmes.
The 2021 outlook
Payten aside, not a whole lot has changed. Young winger/centre Kane Bradley has moved to Townsville, but a shoulder injury will keep him sidelined until about round four.
Forward Lachlan Burr has followed Payten from the Warriors and the coach has said the 28-year-old will provide support to hard-working middles Jason Taumalolo, Josh McGuire and Jordan McLean.
Cowboys focus on back three
Outside back Javid Bowen, who was let go by North Queensland after 2019, has rejoined the Cowboys.
There are spots up for grabs with veteran second-rower Gavin Cooper (retirement), skilful prop John Asiata (Broncos) and centre Tom Opacic (Eels) moving elsewhere.
An away clash with 2020 minor premiers Penrith will start North Queensland's campaign, but they only play another two of last year's finalists until round 10. Just one five-day turnaround will be welcomed given the Cowboys travel more than most.
The burning question
Can Payten's shake-up kick Morgan and Holmes into gear?
For North Queensland to do well, it's no secret that their two most lethal attacking weapons will need to fire. At their peak, both men are among the top players in their positions. To have Australian Test representatives like Morgan and Holmes not just performing but combining is a scary thought for opponents.
Payten ramps up training
The stat that gives you hope
Six - the number of Cowboys debutants in 2020.
The scoreboard rarely finished in their favour, but one positive from a character-building campaign was the NRL exposure gained by some of North Queensland's emerging players.
Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Tom Gilbert, Daejarn Asi, Connelly Leumelu, Emry Pere and Ben Condon all got a valuable taste of first-grade and will be better equipped to handle adversity going forward.
What you need to know NRL Fantasy-wise
Jason Taumalolo ($827k) is set to get reduced minutes this year but will be a player to pick up once his price drops a little, and likewise Tom Gilbert ($434k) looks good value if he regains a starting spot when he returns from injury.
Val Holmes ($498k) is a popular option but will need to be picked at fullback to be worthwhile in Fantasy, while Esan Marsters ($386k) is a decent smokey in the centres if you back him to improve on last year's underwhelming performances.
Analysing the Cowboys' 2021 draw
A cleanout is looming with a stack of players unsigned for next year. Payten has explained he will mostly hold off on handing out new contracts until he can judge player performances.
Scott Drinkwater is one man the club is keen on locking down, but the likes of Jake Granville, Ben Condon, Javid Bowen, Ben Hampton, Corey Jensen, Connelly Lemuelu, Francis Molo, Justin O'Neill, Murray Taulagi and Shane Wright will effectively be playing for their futures.
Halfback Jake Clifford has already signed with Newcastle for 2022, but Payten said that won't affect his selection chances.
The breakout player to watch
"The Hammer", the 19-year-old with cheetah-like pace, agility and footballing instincts, produced enough highlights despite the team's struggles in 2020 to suggest he's got a bright future.
His 14 games have been split between the wing and fullback, but Tabuai-Fidow has reportedly spent time training at centre this pre-season as Payten weighs up how best to inject him.
Wherever he plays, the teenager looks sure to become a strike weapon as he gets more game-time under his belt.
Everybody’s heading to Magic Round
"I want to peel back the structure and the mindset that we've been stuck in here for a little while. It's about getting our eyes up, reacting to ruck speed and capitalising on opportunities that may present themselves rather than sitting back, waiting for the next play. That's going to take a little bit of time, I understand that. But that's our philosophy moving forward as coaches." - Cowboys coach Todd Payten on how he wants the team to play
The good, the bad and the likely
The good: The Cowboys adapt to their new style from the get-go, and with Holmes, Morgan and Jason Taumalolo in fine form, they storm up the ladder and back into the finals.
The bad: Teething problems arise with the new systems and direction at the club. More injuries to key players don't help North Queensland's cause and they suffer through another subpar season.
The likely: The team take solid strides forward and lay the foundations for future success, but fall short of the playoffs. Still, such a result should be considered reason for optimism.
Cowboys in 2021
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