The Grinch finally came for Jerry Jones and his 2017 Cowboys on Christmas Eve.
Dallas (8-7) finished its slide from its 2016 NFC East championship season to completely out of the playoffs, as it was eliminated from wild-card contention after Sunday’s 21-12 home loss to Seattle (9-6).
It was another frustrating, close defeat in most frustrating year. What said it all was the sight of a disappointed Jones getting up from his seat in the owner’s box at AT&T Stadium after reliable kicker Dan Bailey missed a chip-shot field-goal attempt to cap a disastrous red-zone drive in the fourth quarter.
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The return of running back Ezekiel Elliott from his six-game suspension was not enough to provide the spark needed to keep the Cowboys alive through Week 17. Elliott showed little rust with 28 touches for 118 yards from scrimmage, but unfortunately, he also provided a reminder that Dallas simply wasn’t a good enough team, with or without him, to qualify for the playoffs again in a loaded, topsy-turvy NFC.
Consider the Cowboys went 3-3 without Elliott and have gone 5-4 with him. They’ve been pretty much the same, inconsistent club all season no matter who’s been getting the work out of the backfield.
So Jones might may to put Papa John’s Extra Large blame on Roger Goodell and the NFL for its unusual punishment for Elliott as to why his team fell flat, but there were many things that went south for the Cowboys to fall hard from 13-3 and the conference’s No. 1 playoff seed.
Dak Prescott and a forced sophomore slump
Prescott resembled his efficient, rookie-of-the-year self in about seven of the Cowboys’ games this season. In the rest, regardless of Elliott’s availability, he was a mess, pressing and trying to make things happen that weren’t there. His decision-making and downfield accuracy took a few steps back. He wasn’t as relaxed and didn’t have the advantage of catching the entire league by surprise with his play.
The pressure of being the Cowboys’ unquestioned starting QB got to him at times. Prescott’s shay performance against the Seahawks (21-of-34, 182 yards, 4 sacks, 2 INTs, 75.9 rating) was a prime example. Dallas was put in a lot more uncomfortable situations with negative game flow, and after everything fell perfectly in place in support of Prescott in 2016, he was overwhelmed with a 180 into independence.
Not having Elliott for a stretch of the season made it tougher, but a bigger part of Prescott’s regression was tied to his not getting close to the kind of help from the guys protecting and catching the ball for him.
The offensive line and a tough transition
Left tackle Tyron Smith had to miss almost another whole game Sunday against Seattle, and although it didn’t quite turn into the Atlanta game with Adrian Clayborn operating his own turnstile, the Cowboys missed Smith greatly against the Seahawks’ swarming edge rush.
Smith, banged up for much of the season, wasn’t his same, elite self when playing. At right tackle, La’el Collins wasn’t an adequate replacement for retired stalwart Doug Free. Left guard had a shaky final answer in retreat Jonathan Cooper. A team that was used to having five studs up front was down to two, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin.
The run-blocking remained solid to prop up Elliott replacements Alfred Morris and Rod Smith, but Prescott faced more discomfort in key stretches of key games. The Cowboys were often rendered one-dimensional in the atypical way, as running from either their backs or Prescott sometimes was their only source of offense. In a complementary game, those issues were exacerbated by problems at another position.
Dez Bryant and an uninspiring receiving corps
Prescott still threw to Bryant often — more than last year — but the catches didn’t come close to matching the targets, and the big plays and red-zone scoring prowess were few and far between. As the Cowboys’ go-to wide receiver turned 29 in November, his decline continued through December. So much for being healthier and re-booted for Prescott in Year 2.
Terrance Williams has had only one good game as an inexplicably re-signed No. 2. Cole Beasley no longer was a secret in the slot and wasn’t as reliable. Tight end Jason Witten did his best to keep grinding for Prescott, but even Hall of Famers aren’t immune to Father Time. Brice Butler was a blip in the offense before injury kept him out of action.
Prescott didn’t get enough credit for making the best of what he had in his pass-catchers this season. But the Cowboys’ limitations and predictability caught up to them. This team needs to make overhauling the receiving corps a priority in the draft, much like the secondary was this past April.
The defense and consistent inconsistency
The Cowboys have seen cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis come on strong near the end of their rookie seasons. Early and in the middle of the season, they saw DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving lead a strong front-four pass rush. Early and of late, Sean Lee has been terrific against everything.
But because of injury, suspension and ineffectiveness, the Cowboys have had to do a lot of reshuffling, with Lawrence and safety Byron Jones among the few healthy constants. When all their best players were playing together, the all-around results were there. But in some games, they unraveled against the run, and in others, they couldn’t stop the pass. The cohesiveness was only there in short windows for coordinator Rod Marinelli. And with the offense having its issues, a few lapses or one bad matchup spelled doom for Dallas defensively.
In all eight of their wins, the Cowboys held their opponents under 20 points. In all seven of their losses, the Cowboys’ opponents scored 21 or more points, averaging more than 32. The bending was still there from last season, except this year it more often than not came with the breaking. It led to several blowouts, and otherwise several shootouts Dallas’ offense wasn’t equipped to win.
Jerry Jones and too much complacency
The Cowboys tried not to mess with the success of last year’s formula. That’s good for a clear identity, but Dallas needed to adjust, adapt and grow in order to keep up with the teams doing the same all the time. The Eagles, Vikings, Rams and Saints are new NFC front-running playoff teams because they upped the ante on what they were trying to do offensively. Status quo doesn’t work in the NFL from one season to the next, let alone one week to the next.
Jones’ and the rest of Dallas’ front office hit everything out of the park with the drafting of Elliott and Presott in 2016. But the follow-up work, limited by the salary cap, left much to be desired. The Cowboys were just trying to be a better version of themselves in 2017, but the competitive stakes were raised, and so was the level of adversity.
Ironically, with Morris and Smith, and seeing that Darren McFadden wasn’t an answer anymore, the Cowboys were best prepared for Elliott missing time. But their depth and mettle were tested elsewhere, and they failed to respond.
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The Cowboys aren’t alone in not being able to book a return trip to the NFC playoffs. The Giants, Packers, Lions are there with them. Soon, either the Seahawks or the Falcons will join. To some degree, all of those teams couldn’t handle some kind of change or unfamiliar situation, and that’s why they will be staying home in January.
In relation, the Cowboys had some good stability with their personnel and coaching staff. Not being able to evolve much beyond Elliott is what really cost Dallas in the end.