Season grade: Below average. Expectations were high for the Cowboys coming into 2017 after they had the NFC’s best record in 2016 and a young team that appeared poised to be a contender for years in the NFC. It took time for them to find their footing in the first half of the season, and they lost Ezekiel Elliott for six of eight games in the second half. As a result, the Cowboys have to be considered one of the league’s biggest disappointments.
Season in review: The Cowboys’ biggest questions coming into the season revolved around their defense, but they found a pass rush, thanks to DeMarcus Lawrence, and believe they have key young contributors in the secondary. But the biggest issue was the offense, and not just because Elliott missed six games. With rules that favor the passing game, the Cowboys failed to throw for even 200 yards far too many times. Perhaps Elliott’s absence impacted coverages, but Dak Prescott was not able to repeat his rookie success. He had as many interceptions returned for touchdowns (four) in 2017 as he had total interceptions in 2016. The running game remained good enough without Elliott (121 yards per game), but points come from the passing game, and the Cowboys had four games in which they scored 12 points or fewer.
Biggest play of season: Trailing 28-24 with 1:24 to play and the ball at the Green Bay 11-yard line in Week 5, Prescott threw a fade to Dez Bryant in the end zone that fell incomplete. That was a play after Elliott ran for eight yards. If the Cowboys had run the ball again, they would have killed more time or forced Green Bay to use its final timeout. On the next play, Prescott used the zone read to score the go-ahead touchdown with 1:13 remaining. That proved to be too much time for Aaron Rodgers, who tore the Cowboys’ hearts out with a final-minute drive like he did in the 2016 playoffs. This time, he hit Davante Adams for the winning touchdown pass with 11 seconds to play. Had the Cowboys won, maybe the script to their season would have read a lot differently.
He said it: “We feel like we’re a team that should be competing in the playoffs every year. We didn’t play well through the year and we put ourselves in a tough position down the stretch. Then, when you play in tough games against good teams, the margin for error becomes small.” — Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee
Key offseason questions
Biggest draft needs: The Cowboys can go several different directions in the draft, but somehow they need to address linebacker, wide receiver, defensive tackle and defensive back. Some of it will depend on what they do with the players on their roster, such as Anthony Hitchens, Dez Bryant and Lawrence. The Cowboys have had better drafts in recent years but must continue to find players in the middle rounds to supplement the high prices they pay at the top of their roster.
Free-agency targets: The Cowboys have not been willing to jump into free agency feet first in part because of salary-cap space and in part because they don’t believe it is the best way to do business. But there is a difference in looking for bargains and setting the market on players. The Cowboys have to fall in between. Their biggest plan, however, will be to attempt to retain their own pending free agents, like Lawrence and Hitchens. Lawrence is likely going to be handed the franchise tag. If Hitchens gets an offer they can’t come close to matching, they will need to find a linebacker with experience because of the injury questions surrounding Lee and Jaylon Smith.
Coaching changes: Jerry Jones has indicated Jason Garrett will be back, but that doesn’t save the entire staff. There could be significant changes either through retirement, firings or mutual agreement. With Garrett entering what should be a win-or-else season in 2018, putting together a great staff could be harder than the Cowboys’ front office might think.
Help the quarterback: Through the first half of the season with Elliott, Prescott was an MVP candidate with 16 touchdown passes and four interceptions. But things fell apart in the second half. Jerry Jones lived in a “Romo friendly,” world for years. He now has to make it “Prescott friendly,” either through scheme or personnel, for the quarterback to succeed over the next few years.