Soul-searching begins for Cowboys

Jan 2, 2018 - 3:43 AM FRISCO, Texas -- After finishing 13-3 last year with a young core, led by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and rookie running back Zeke Elliott, the Dallas Cowboys thought they would be able to take the next step and improve by simply bringing everybody back.

The Cowboys made no discernable additions to last year's team and their 9-7 season in 2017 was a result of that just as running back Ezekiel Elliott missing six games under NFL suspension.

Sure, the Cowboys finished with a winning record in back-to-back seasons for the first time under head coach Jason Garrett.

But the Cowboys took a step back in that they missed the playoffs for the fifth time in seven full seasons under Garrett.

"I don't want to get into all of that," Garrett said, when asked if he considers this a disappointing season. "Obviously, we want to be in the playoffs and playing next week. That didn't happen for us. So that is disappointing.

"We'll pull back and look at everything. But I think at different times this year, I thought we fought and played well. Other times, we didn't play well enough. You have to improve and get better in all areas of the football team. Trust me, we will get back to work and start on that."

The Cowboys are going into an offseason that is ripe with questions and decisions about the team's future. Garrett will return in 2018, but the same can't be said of his coordinators, especially offensive chief Scott Linehan.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: A Cowboys defense that was supposed to be the weak link ended the season as the strength of the team, finishing 11th in the league. Credit defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence's breakout play up front and the steady leadership of linebacker Sean Lee. The Cowboys found players for the future in cornerback Chido Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis.

WHAT WENT WRONG: The season started out in chaos with running back Ezekiel Elliott's weekly battle against the NFL in federal court. His six-game suspension proved to be the difference in the season. The Cowboys went 3-3 in his absence. But poor play up front when left tackle Tyron Smith missed time with injury was just as crucial not to mention disappointing play of quarterback Dak Prescott and the passing game. Prescott had 13 interceptions after just four last year and had seven games in which he passed for 200 yards or less.

MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Receiver Dez Bryant led the Cowboys with 69 catches for 838 yards and six touchdowns. But he averaged a career-worst 12.1 yards per receptions, was among the league leaders in dropped passes and did not record a 100-yard receiving game. He also struggled with knee tendinitis since November. There is a chance the Cowboys could ask Bryant to take a pay cut from his $12.5 million salary for next year or be cut in what could be an offseason of changes.

MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence had no sacks as a rookie, eight sacks in 2015 and one sack last year. He broke out with 14.5 sacks in 2017. He would have had more if not for the officials missing a number of holding calls. He played his way into a big-money contract extension if not a franchise tag worth $17 million or more.

ASSISTANT COACH ON THE RISE: Running backs coach Gary Brown gets kudos for keeping the ground game going without Ezekiel Elliott for six games. Veteran Alfred Morris rushed 115 times for 547 yards. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Third back Rod Smith scored touchdowns in four straight games and proved to be a capable third-down option. Brown is in the last year of his contract. He will attract offers.

--Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli may or may not be back.

His unit is firmly IN his corner and it showed over the final month of the season.

The defense, with linebacker Sean Lee back on the field, put together its best month of the season. Four of the Cowboys' seven games in which they held their opponent to under 300 yards came in December. The Eagles were held to 219 yards in the season finale, their second fewest allowed this season. The last time the Cowboys pitched a shutout was against the Eagles in the 2009 regular-season finale.

"I think the last four games this defense has played really well and I think we showed we've improved as the year has gone on," Lee said. "(I have) extreme confidence in (Marinelli). He's a Hall-of-Fame coach, a defensive coordinator that we thrive being around. This system has proven to produce great players and produce great defenses."

After allowing a season-high 515 yards at home to the Los Angeles Chargers on Nov. 23 and a third consecutive loss, the Cowboys rebounded to finish the season 4-1.

"We just had to get back to our style of defense and play our system the way we're supposed to play it," defensive end Tyrone Crawford said. "I feel like Coach Marinelli did a good job of getting us back on track and getting us to the point where we're playing our style of defense again. It's crappy that it's over. I feel like we would have been a great defense in the playoffs. We have to live with that and use it as a stepping stone, a building block for next year."

Lee, who missed five games and saw limited action in several others because of hamstring injuries, hopes the sting of missing the playoffs spurs the team in 2018.

"It's a learning a lesson and understanding that things are very fragile. If you don't win close games, if you don't make plays that you need to make, when we don't have all of our guys, all of a sudden you can be in a position that we are right now," he said.

"We're 9-7, we were in a lot of close football games that we could've won and put ourselves in the playoffs. So I'm not using that as an excuse. We shouldn't use that. We have to understand that if we want to get back on track we've got to win those close games and make those plays."

--Wide receiver Dez Bryant had three catches for 24 yards and a drop in the 6-0 season-ending victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

It was another uneven performance in a season chock full of frustration for the Cowboys' No. 1 receiver.

He led the Cowboys with 69 catches for 838 yards and six touchdowns. But he averaged a career-worst 12.1 yards per reception, was among the league leaders in dropped passes and did not record a 100-yard receiving game. He also struggled with knee tendinitis since November.

There is a chance the Cowboys could ask Bryant to take a pay cut from his $12.5 million salary for next year or be cut in what could be an offseason of changes.

Yet, Bryant was all smiles after Sunday's game. He said he is happy the Cowboys finished with a win, but is ready to get to on to next year.

"I'm truly happy that we got this win," Bryant said. "I'm honestly ready to get back to work. Rest the body and just get back to work; 2018 is an extremely big year. We have to look at everything and get back to work."

He plans to use his struggles as motivation and said he is acceptable to whatever role the Cowboys have for him next season.

"Wherever they want me to be," Bryant said. "At the end of the day, I just want to win. That's all I care about."

NOTES: K Dan Bailey made no excuses for his struggles down the stretch of the season. He didn't blame a groin injury that sidelined him for four games. Instead, Bailey blamed only himself for the worst season of his career. He no longer holds the title for "most accurate kicker in NFL history." Bailey, 29, ended his season on a down note in the Cowboys' 6-0 victory over the Eagles on a frigid Sunday afternoon in Philly. He was wide left on his only point-after attempt, and wide left on a 23-yard field-goal attempt near the end of the game. It marked just the second time Bailey has missed an extra point in his career and just his second career miss from within 29 yards. Bailey had a streak of 273 straight point-after attempts to start his career come to an end earlier this month with a missed PAT in New York. He had made 47 of 48 career field goals within 30 yards going into the game. Bailey finished the season 15-of-20 on field-goal attempts. The 75 percent conversion rate is the worst in his career, almost 10 percentage points down from his previous low of 84.4 percent last season. All five of his misses came in the final four games. ... DE DeMarcus Lawrence is a free agent who wants to return. He had a career-high 14.5 sacks, marking the first time a Cowboys player has had double-digit sacks since Jason Hatcher in 2013. "I already know what my situation is," Lawrence said. "I don't really care about it because I know how the Cowboys feel about me and they know how I feel about the organization. My agent is going to take care of everything, and he knows how everyone feels. I know I'm not going anywhere." Lawrence is a strong candidate for the franchise tag, which would pay him roughly $17.4 million next season. But he wasn't ready to weigh in on that possibility. "I can't tell you if they're going to put a tag on me," Lawrence said. "We're just going to let the chips fall where they may. I don't have time to sit here and think about. I'm trying to figure out whether I'm going to Jamaica or Hawaii." ... LB Anthony Hitchens is headed to free agency with optimism. He wants to return to the Cowboys. But he will do what's best for his family. Hitchens has proven to be a dependable starter in the league, and should attract interest from other teams. The question is whether the Cowboys would make a strong enough offer given the progress Jaylon Smith has made. But Hitchens made it clear that his No. 1 preference would be staying with the Cowboys. "Yeah, I want to. The guys in this locker room are my brothers," Hitchens said. Unfortunately, it's not always like that, so I'm just taking it day-by-day and be ready for whatever. "It's a business. I knew that getting into it, so now it's just going to be more of a business," Hitchens said. "You never know it's a business until it hits you on a business side, but it's something that's out of my control. Hopefully, I'm back here. This is home for me and we'll go from there." ... CB Chido Awuzie intercepted Eagles quarterback Nick Foles in the first quarter on Sunday. It marked Awuzie's first career interception and the 10th of the year for the Cowboys. Awuzie, the Cowboys' second-round pick out of Colorado, has played well down the stretch. He battled hamstring injuries early on, but has started the past six games. Awuzie entered the season finale with six passes defensed and was credited with 24 tackles by the coaching breakdown. The Cowboys hadn't reached double-digit interceptions the previous two seasons. They had nine last year, and eight in 2015.

No one has shouted yet.
Be the first!