Writer: Caleb Akpan
Last Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys played their most important game of the year with a chance to keep playoff hopes alive. With Atlanta and Detroit losing earlier in the day, most of the work was on the ‘Boys to win out and hopefully have the Falcons lose again in Week 17. A Seattle team in the same situation entered AT&T Stadium, setting up a must-win, regular season playoff game, the winner keeping their hopes alive and the loser hoping for better luck next year. With Ezekiel Elliot back from suspension and the Seahawks struggling in their recent contests, the Cowboys seemed to have the edge going into the matchup, but by the end of the day, the Seahawks were the ones still alive and the Cowboys season was over, with issues from the whole season coming to a boiling point over the course of the game. Let’s try and solve a few of those today or see if they truly need to be fixed at all.
The Cowboys secondary should probably be the team’s smallest concern at the moment. Their very young, which is an excuse, but when you have a young group you allow some of the mistakes that were made this season. What needs to change is just how young the core of the pass defense is. It’s great that the Cowboys are trying to develop some young talent, much like they did with their offensive line in the years prior, but they could really use some veteran leadership to help those guys grow. Enter Earl Thomas, Legion of Boom member and one of the best safeties in the league at his peak and possibly still today when healthy. After the Seahawks beat the Cowboys, he ran after Jason Garrett and told the Cowboys coach “If y’all have a chance to get me, come get me”. Pretty strong words and some that are hopefully enticing for the Cowboys. They could really use someone like Thomas to help show guys like Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis how to take their talents to the next level. Just as Thomas said, if the opportunity arises, Dallas would be dumb not to take it.
Offensive Play Calling
A new year is a new game in the NFL and if anything has proven that it’s the Cowboys’ offense from 2016 to 2017. Last year, Jason Garrett won Coach of the Year and OC Scott Linehan was being pegged as the next big head coach hire. Fast forward to Week 16 and most are saying owner Jerry Jones should fire both as players apparently are calling out the team’s “predictable” playbook. Dez Bryant rarely got opportunities and Ezekiel Elliott didn’t seem to get as many as he should have, especially when he was ignored on three consecutive end zone plays midway through the fourth quarter.
If the Cowboys hand off to Elliot in that scenario (down 21-12), maybe there’s still something to play for Sunday against Philidelphia, but instead we question how Garrett and Linehan could miss the obvious. Elliott is one of the best backs in the league when he plays, the fact that they wouldn’t even fake the ball his way is something to be seriously concerned about in season making or breaking moments like that. With Garrett having just won Coach of the Year, it makes some sense that Jerry Jones doesn’t want to pull the trigger on a firing just yet (though it’s still a bit of a head scratcher how Garrett survived multiple 8-8 seasons and no playoff appearances), but changes have to be made in who calls the plays in Big D. If Scott Linehan’s gotta go, then so be it, that one situation with Elliott is enough to show something’s not right, and there were plenty of examples outside of that in the game and throughout the season to support it.
The Wide Receiver Position
Dak Prescott and Dez Bryant have lacked a great connection since the now second year QB took over last season. Prescott’s passes always seem to be just a bit off when directed at Dez, and Bryant consistently disappears over the course of games, simply just not being targeted for large portions. With his lack of production, many are calling for Bryant to take a pay cut next year including former Cowboys great DeMarcus Ware, but maybe the change needs to be deeper than that. Bryant isn’t the only wideout struggling, in fact, the whole unit has been inconsistent and not nearly as good as their 2016 version this season. Cole Beasley and Dak Prescott’s automatic connection disappeared, Terrance Williams hasn’t caught a touchdown all season, and Jason Witten’s reliable hands weren’t looked at as much as they probably should’ve been. It might be time for Dallas to look at the draft or free agency to improve their receiving game, they may even need to make a trade. Or maybe the issue is at the quarterback……
Last year Dak Prescott was the greatest rookie quarterback of all-time, the Offensive Rookie of the Year, and an NFL superstar before his first season was even over. Going into this season, most had him poised to continue his excellence, one writer on this site even put him into the MVP conversation, pretty stupid of them in hindsight. Prescott showed what was hopefully his youth this season, rarely playing consistently and tripling his turnovers from last season. Many are calling Prescott a bust and saying that he can’t perform without a running back like Elliot behind him, but maybe there’s a middle ground between the two extremes that’s a bit more accurate. Prescott clearly isn’t some sort of team savior, but maybe his issues can be linked to those playcalling ones, with a better and more unpredictable playbook, you’d like to think Prescott’s play would improve. Or maybe he is a bust and he can’t handle a tougher playbook and that’s the reason why Dallas was so predictable this season. What seems to be clear is that Prescott needs more time before conclusions can be drawn, time that the NFL rarely offers, especially for a Dallas Cowboys starting quarterback.
There’s something there in Dallas. They wouldn’t have had such a good year in 2016 if there wasn’t, but changes definitely need to be made, especially when it comes to the offense. If they can figure out how to create a threatening pass game and bring Dak Prescott’s turnover numbers back to their 2016 form, their defense should grow by default with another offseason and the team should be back on track. If they stay complacent and just hope for a better year with the same pieces and playbooks, the Cowboys hype train will come to complete stop as it begins to slow down already.