Even the most staunch Cowboys hater can admit that 2016 was a magical season for Dallas. Franchise quarterback Tony Romo went down during a preseason game in Seattle, resulting in most fans and experts writing the season off before it even started. Little did they know a fourth round compensatory pick out of Mississippi State would be poised to have one of the best rookie season’s in league history.
That was pretty much the theme of the Cowboys 2016 season – everything somehow just went the Cowboys way. From thrilling come from behind victories on the road, to overtime wins against division rivals, last season’s version of the Cowboys could do no wrong.
After a crushing defeat at the hands of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of last season’s playoffs, it was only natural for many to assume 2017 would only be better. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott would have another year to grow and acclimate themselves to the NFL game, second round pick Jaylon Smith would be coming back from a devastating knee injury, the core of a dominant offensive line would be returning – just a multitude of reasons to believe 2017 could be a special year for Dallas.
Well, eleven games into this season and the Cowboys sit at 5-6. The playoff ship has all but sailed. Many fans are left wondering what the hell just happened, and how can Dallas “get it’s groove back”. Before we tackle the latter, we must address the former.
So, what the hell happened to the 2017 Dallas Cowboys?
Aside from Tony Romo going down in the preseason, the 2016 Cowboys were a relatively healthy team at key positions for most of the year – namely Sean Lee. Lee played in 15 games during that season, amassing 145 total tackles while acting as the quarterback of the defense. Lee has the uncanny ability to turn a below average defense into one that many people believed was good enough to contend for a Super Bowl.
However this season has been the exact opposite. Lee has only started and finished six games, the Cowboys record in those games – 5-1. Their record in the five games he has missed – 0-5. Numbers never lie.
But Lee’s injury isn’t the only one that has derailed the Cowboys season. All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith has been battling a multitude of injuries all year, and is quite obviously not his world beating self. During his absence all aspects of the Cowboys offense has suffered greatly, most notably second year quarterback Dak Prescott’s comfort level in the pocket.
As if injuries to two of your best players wasn’t enough to send the season off the rails, how about we throw in a four month legal battle over a six game suspension for your star running back.
Ezekiel Elliott was first suspended back in August, he did not serve the first game of that suspension until the second week of November. Suspended, not suspended, suspended, not suspended, think about how tired you were of hearing about Zeke’s case in the media, and then imagine how emotionally drained and exhausted Elliott and the Cowboys must have been from living it. Regardless of what they may say publicly, the court case had a negative effect on the whole team after awhile.
While those are not the ONLY three things that caused the 2017 Cowboys to underachieve, they definitely played a huge role. So where does Dallas go from here? How can they get their groove back?
The road back to the playoffs may not be as far off as some may believe.
The first order of business is to change the defensive scheme. If that means firing defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, then so be it. The defensive game plan has been critiqued by opposing quarterbacks as “vanilla” dating back to 2015. Simply put, the opponent knows what is coming on almost every snap. The absence of one player (Lee) can not turn your season into a complete wash. Find a defensive coordinator who is more in tune with defending a 2017 NFL offense will do worlds for improving this defense overall, with or without Sean Lee.
Second, Dallas needs it’s players to stay on the field. I am not talking about injuries, those are unavoidable, I am talking about suspensions. The notion that any running back can have success behind this offensive line has certainly been debunked this season. Zeke is a special football player, and the offense is simply more dynamic with him on the field, duh. If you believe Elliott was innocent of domestic violence or not, his behavior since he has arrived in Dallas has certainly been questionable to say the least. He needs to stop putting himself in these compromising situations, regardless of his guilt or innocence. It doesn’t end with Elliott either, David Irving was also suspended this year for four games and multiple other Cowboys were flirting with possible punishment as well. This team is not deep enough to endure suspensions to its star players.
Which brings me to my third point – the draft.
Will McClay has done an admirable job in transforming the Cowboys drafting philosophies. Paired with Stephen Jones, the two have reigned Jerry in from making the unnecessary splash selection i.e. Johnny Manziel. However one area the front office can stand to improve on is their 2nd round selections. Draft picks in the 2nd round are expected to be key contributors to your squad fairly quickly. Selecting players like Randy Gregory and Jaylon Smith with huge question marks has really hurt the depth of this team, particularly on defense. This is why when one player goes down, there is such a steep drop off – there is NO DEPTH!
While these moves may or may not get the Cowboys back to the playoffs in 2018, one thing is certain, they simply cannot sit on their hands and do nothing or they will be one injury away from another disaster of a season next year.