*FRISCO, Texas – *The NFL Playoffs will begin this weekend without the Cowboys in the 12-team tournament to crown the next Super Bowl champion.
Ultimately, that was the team’s goal when training camp began more than five months ago. The Cowboys did secure their first back-to-back winning season since 2007, but their 9-7 record wasn’t enough to earn a wild-card spot.
Today, the DallasCowboys.com staff reflects on the ups and downs from a 2017 season that ended in disappointment:
Rob: Kansas City. Probably the most complete victory of the season. The defense held one of the NFL’s most dynamic offenses to 17 points and intercepted Alex Smith once. The offense didn’t turn the ball over, scored 28 points and achieved nearly-perfect balance: 33 passes, 32 runs, 4-for-4 converting touchdowns in the red zone. Everything changed the following week when Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension got reinstated. But at this point in the season, the Cowboys looked like formidable contenders for the second year in a row.
Nick: I’ll go with the Raiders win because of what it meant at the time. Let’s not forget the Cowboys had win-or-go-home games since Thanksgiving and the way they fought through adversity and made a goal-line stand to save the season was dramatic.
David: *Hard as it might be to believe, the Cowboys only had one real win against a playoff team (no, I’m not counting that awful season finale in Philly). So that’s got to be the best win. The Chiefs *rolled into Dallas with a 6-2 record, and the Cowboys went to work. Dak Prescott played one of his most efficient games of 2017, the ground game rumbled for 131 yards and the Cowboys’ receivers played their best collective game of the year. More impressive than that was the Dallas defense, which limited the Chiefs to just 17 points – 10 of which came on a fluky Hail Mary. It was a fantastic effort that reminded us what this team is capable of when all the cylinders are firing.
Bryan: Kansas City. At the time I thought the Chiefs were one of the best teams in the league. It was the most complete game the Cowboys played all season. They were outstanding in the way they dealt with the Chiefs’ weapons on both side of the ball
Rob: Atlanta, Elliott’s first game on the suspended list. The Cowboys couldn’t function on offense, plain and simple, due to protection issues without Tyron Smith at left tackle. The final score was 27-7, but Dallas trailed just 10-7 at halftime and had a long drive at the start of the third quarter that got derailed by one of eight sacks on Dak Prescott. Although the offense protected Prescott more consistently the following week against Philadelphia, they didn’t get back on track for weeks. It all started against Adrian Clayborn and the Falcons.
Nick: The obvious one is Atlanta because it changed everything from there. But they had their three best players out. What’s the excuse for the Denver debacle? Altitude? The Broncos proved to be really bad this year but they looked like Elway and Terrell Davis were saluting the crowd again. Never seen the O-line and Zeke get dominated like that.
David: Take your pick from about four, but I think the loss we’ll remember the longest is the one in Atlanta. It was just so inexplicable. Chaz Green had played so well in his brief stints at tackle in the past. And when he showed that he clearly wasn’t up to the task of blocking Adrian Clayborn, the Cowboys’ coaching staff did so little to help him out. The total inability to protect Prescott sunk the rest of the game plan. And with the offense doing nothing, the defense – which lost Sean Lee – eventually couldn’t do enough to limit the Atlanta offense. It was baffling at the time and it’s still baffling now.
Bryan: Green Bay. Had the Packers dead to rights and couldn’t finish them. Still believed that throwing the ball on the goal line was one of the worst mistakes they made all season. Only way they lose that game is giving the Packers time on the clock, and they did just that.
Rob: Jeff Heath’s forced fumble on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. Terrific hustle play that saved the season at that point, and a fitting climax to one of the most fascinating (and bizarre) finishes to a Cowboys game we’ve ever seen. Don’t forget Heath made a diving pass breakup one play earlier that kept Oakland out of the end zone.
*Nick: *I like Dak’s flip in Arizona and Heath’s game-saver in Oakland. But the best play to me was *Dak’s touchdown pass to Rod Smith *against the Giants. I loved the way he found the hole in the defense and motioned Smith to get the mismatch over the middle. That was just a great play – the longest of the year – to win a game the Cowboys had to have.
David: Nobody ever remembers the defense or the special teams at this time of year, so I’m going to give some love. Way back in Week 8, Nick Rose was lining up for a 36-yard field goal that would’ve given Washington a 16-7 lead just before halftime. Instead, Tyrone Crawford fought through the line and got a hand on the kick, knocking it to the ground at the Dallas 10-yard line. Orlando Scandrick scooped it up, found the corner and followed his blockers all the way to the Washington 4-yard line. Two snaps later, Dallas had a 14-13 lead it would not relinquish. A classic example of all three phases of a team contributing to a win.
Bryan: Jeff Heath’s tackle of Derek Carr in Oakland saved the season for at least one week.
Rob: Keenan Allen’s 42-yard touchdown. Like each of the three blowout losses during Elliott’s suspension, the Cowboys really did have a chance to beat the Chargers at home on Thanksgiving. But Allen broke the game wide open with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, eluding four tacklers on his way to the end zone to give L.A. a 22-6 lead. It was symptomatic of Dallas’ massive struggles in the second half of those games.
Nick: I’ll go back to the Week 2 loss in Denver. What about the dropped pass by Dez Bryant, resulting in an interception to Chris Harris? Not only that, but you’ve got Zeke not hustling to make the tackle. Just a lot of really bad things happening during a really bad game.
David: I don’t know how you could pick a play other than Keenan Allen’s 42-yard touchdown to break open the Thanksgiving loss. The real kicker is that Allen only ran a 10-yard route. He caught a simple out route from Philip Rivers at the Dallas 31-yard line. What happened next defied belief, as he split two tacklers – neither of whom touched him -- at the Dallas 25-yard line. Two more tacklers had a chance to corral him at the Dallas 10-yard line, but he simply sidestepped them. Finally, one last tackler had a chance at him as he cut inside – but he shook that off, too. In total, Allen posterized half the Dallas defense en route to a touchdown that put the Chargers up, 22-6. I think it was the worst play the Cowboys put on tape this entire season.
Bryan: Keenan Allen of the Chargers running through the secondary for a 42-yard touchdown. It appeared that nobody in white wanted to tackle him. Just one of many “bad plays” that day.
Rob: Tyron Smith. Elliott is the best player on this football team, in my opinion, and he’s the foundation of the Cowboys’ offensive philosophy. But Smith’s absence to do injury might have contributed most to the offense’s struggles down the stretch. The running game was solid during Elliott’s suspension, but without Smith, Prescott got pressured too much and the offense as a whole wasn’t as efficient with the run or pass. Swing tackle figures to be an offseason focus.
Nick: It’s Zeke. He’s the MVP of the team and maybe the league. Yes, they went 3-3 without him but the losses were blowouts to some good teams and the wins were against non-playoff teams. This team isn’t the same at all without Zeke running the ball. It’s easy to see.
David: I expect the popular answer here to be Elliott, and that’s totally understandable. But in the grand scheme of things, the Dallas running game functioned effectively for the most part of his six-game suspension. It’s hard to say the same about the Dallas offensive line once Tyron Smith was injured. Prescott was only sacked 10 times in the first half of the season, and a whopping 22 times in the second half. This offense just didn’t function as well, across the board, when the All-Pro left tackle wasn’t healthy.
Bryan: Ezekiel Elliott. The offense wasn’t the same without him in the lineup. The threat wasn’t there and opponents played Prescott differently. I am still shocked that he didn’t get a carry on the goal line in that Seattle game.
Rob: DeMarcus Lawrence. He started all 16 games coming off back surgery. He tied for second in the league with a career-high 14.5 sacks. He was outstanding against the run. Lee has said he believes Lawrence is the Defensive MVP of the entire league, so D-Law has my vote for Cowboys MVP.
Nick: Sean Lee, of course. Not even a debate. Yeah, D-Law had a great year. But the team couldn’t stop anyone without Lee.
David: It can’t be anyone other than Sean Lee, can it? The Cowboys allowed an average of 100 more yards per game and 10 more points per game when Lee wasn’t on the field. He finished with an absurd 118 tackles despite missing four full games and the majority of another. That’s an average of 11 tackles per game. As we all know, the defense played at another level when he was on the field.
Bryan: Sean Lee. Really don’t need to say much about this. When he played, the defense was on point. When he didn’t, there was a great chance they were going to lose.
Special Teams MVP
Rob: Chris Jones. He probably didn’t make the Pro Bowl based on the obvious stats. (Six other NFC punters had a higher net average.) But Jones led the NFC in punts inside the 20, and he had the fewest yards returned against him in the entire league (75). He’s a terrific athlete, too – his fake punt and run was a huge play in the Oakland game.
Nick: It’s easily the punter, but I don’t want to overlook the deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur. He’s still the most consistent player on the team and has been for years. At his age, he’s not a liability running down on the punts, either, and had a big fumble recovery.
David: I could go on forever about how underappreciated *Chris Jones *is. He doesn’t have the biggest leg in the league, but his ability to limit punt returners is amazing. This season, Jones punted 56 times, and only 14 of those were returned. Of the 14 that were returned, the returner averaged 3.9 yards per attempt. Fifty-two percent of his punts, or 29 in total, were downed inside the 20-yard line. To put it simply, the guy is a weapon. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that he hasn’t been named to a Pro Bowl.
Bryan: Chris Jones. Will not get the credit that he deserves for this season. His directional punting was outstanding at pinning opponents and made things easy for the coverage teams.
Most Surprising Rookie
Rob: Xavier Woods. Sure, Woods played some nickel slot at Louisiana Tech. But it’s pretty impressive that the sixth-round pick stepped in and earned snaps there as a rookie, recording 41 tackles, 6 pass breakups and an interception. He’s part of a trio of young defensive backs (Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie) that the defense clearly hopes to build around.
Nick: The most surprising rookie – on a positive note – was Jourdan Lewis. I didn’t expect a lot after he missed all that time due to injury and off-the-field issues. But he stepped right in and performed at a high level. He had his normal rookie growing pains but the future looks bright for him.
David: It’s hard for me to say I’m surprised by anything that Taco Charlton, Awuzie or Lewis did. Those guys were all expected to make an immediate impact. But how about Xavier Woods? The Cowboys traded up to get him in the sixth round. By Week 3 of the season, he was getting playing time not just at safety, but as a nickel corner – which I don’t think anyone expected. He was even credited with four starts – three at corner and one at safety. All told, Woods played 51 percent of the Cowboys’ total snaps this season and finished with 41 tackles and a pick. Not bad for a Day 3 pick.
Bryan: Xavier Woods. When they played him at nickel corner I was thinking that might be a bad idea. Woods wasn’t exposed one bit and gave me some hope that they can do more of that in the future. If he does need to improve in an area, it would be as a tackler. He wasn’t nearly consistent enough in the chances he had.
Rob: Kavon Frazier. The second-year safety earned a spot in the defensive rotation as a physical tackler, and he tied Byron Jones for the team’s most special teams tackles (11). His forced fumble in punt coverage was an early momentum-changer for the Cowboys in Week 7 at San Francisco.
Nick: Here’s where I’ll give Chris Jones some love. His ability to not only directional kick but to pin opponents down inside the 10 is amazing. If the Cowboys can improve on defense and take advantage of teams being pinned back, it’ll be even more of a weapon next year.
David: *I’m going to go ahead and throw *Chris Jones out there one more time. The guy was just a model of consistency, and it was easy to lose track of how many times he helped this team by pinning an opponent in an unfavorable position. In a season that was marked by inconsistent play, Jones never wavered. He played at a phenomenal level all year long.
Bryan: Anthony Hitchens. Like Chris Jones, he will probably not get the credit he deserves for how well he plays. I don’t know if they will be able to re-sign him, but he gives you everything he’s got each week. Doesn’t matter where he plays, position wise or his health – he’s going to get the job done. Not going out on a limb here, but I would guess that he’s one of the most respected players on the squad.
Rob: The first three games without Elliott. The Cowboys lost all three by a combined score of 92-22. They were outscored in the second half 72-6. You can argue that it was too much to overcome the loss of Elliott for all three, Lee for all nearly all three, and Smith for two of the three. But the Cowboys aren’t making excuses, so neither can we. They didn’t handle those absences well at all, and that poor stretch is what ultimately cost them a playoff spot.
Nick: I’ll go with those two home losses in October. The Cowboys still had Zeke and were trying to bounce back from that ugly Denver game. Both games they scored 30 but couldn’t get the job done at the end, losing to the Rams and Packers. They realistically should’ve split those because they had plenty of chances to win both games. Get one and you might be in the playoffs, but win them both and we’re not writing this story right now.
David: The entire receiver corps. I remember how much hype surrounded this group over the summer. Prescott’s entire receiver corps was coming back after a successful season, and surely the chemistry with Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams was going to be even better than before. On top of that, the front office invested a valuable draft pick in Ryan Switzer to add another element to the team. Not including the rookies, this was the third-straight season these receivers had all been together – but my goodness, it did not show. Week after week, it was always something – whether that be dropped passes, disappearing acts or something else. Prescott assuredly deserves some part of the blame. But it was just baffling the way that not one – literally not one – of the Dallas wide receivers put together a good season. Easily the biggest disappointment in a season that was full of them.
*Bryan: *Said it in August and I’ll say it again. *I wish Ezekiel Elliott would have just sat out the first six games of the season. *The weekly back-and-forth did not help this team. If they could have put this behind them earlier in the year, I believe that this team could have won enough games without him to make a run when he did come back.