EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Ask any Cowboys fan, any media member that covers the team or really, for that matter, just anyone who loosely follows the Cowboys to speak about next year's team.
I would guess 90 percent of the answers will start off with something like:
"Well, they'll get Dak back …"
So true. Certainly not wrong at all.
But to me, that's not where it starts – not if we're talking about this football team getting back to being a legitimate contender for the playoffs and more. To me, it starts where this season ended on Sunday ... with the offensive line.
Fix that O-line and the Cowboys will get back to being a team that can play with anyone, beat anyone and compete for more than just an NFC East cap and shirt.
But that's for next season. Sadly, next season became right now because the Cowboys simply couldn't handle the trenches on Sunday in a game they just had to have.
OK, so the Giants have a good defense. That's the best part of their game. But let's not act like Lawrence Taylor is rushing from the outside or Jason Pierre-Paul and Michael Strahan are screaming off the edge.
But at times on Sunday, you wouldn't have known the difference.
Every single time the Cowboys needed to get over that hump, they couldn't do it. And just about every time, the reason was the offensive line.
It's not like we don't know what happened this year. It's not like it's this mystery that we need Sherlock Holmes to solve. The offensive line lost Tyron Smith in the first game of the season. La'el Collins never played a single snap.
Swing tackle Cam Erving, who was signed to help alleviate the problem if something happened to Smith and Collins, got off to a slow start in camp and then finally got into the groove during the middle of the season before a knee injury on Thanksgiving Day ended his year.
And let's not forget that Zack Martin, arguably the best player on the line, if not the entire roster, only played about half the season.
Trust me, any team in the NFL playing with their fifth and sixth offensive tackles in the lineup are going to struggle. Not to mention the interior of the line wasn't really good enough all year as well.
Don't mistake this for an excuse. It's reality. We all saw it, and we all know it.
And if you watched this game Sunday, which I'm assuming you did or otherwise you wouldn't be about 20 paragraphs deep into this story, you could tell where the Cowboys lost this game.
Time after time, the Cowboys moved the ball a little, but went backwards in the clutch.
And I'm not just talking about the final drive of the game when the Cowboys had first-and-goal from the 7-yard line, needing a touchdown to take the lead and possibly get the win. But first down went back 10 yards because the Cowboys didn't block the Giants' best lineman, Leonard Williams.
Now, I've learned over the years not to assume blame right away. It looked like Terence Steele didn't block the right guy off the edge, but after the game, there was some talk about that being a protection call at the line, fearing the Giants might send more guys than the Cowboys had to block. But even at that, leaving New York's best rusher unaccounted for doesn't sound like a smart plan.
Yeah, you can blame Andy Dalton for not getting rid of the ball. But let's also remember, the Cowboys had to score a touchdown and you can't just throw plays away. Perhaps the tight ends needed to stay in to block and make sure there was time to get the ball out.
But there were other times in that game in which the offensive line just stalled the Cowboys' drive. In the first half, the Cowboys got down to the 11-yard line looking to tie the game, and a first-down run was stuffed for a 2-yard loss. Field goal.
Before halftime, the Cowboys were driving again, but gave up a sack, settling for a field goal. Late in third quarter, the Cowboys were down four and driving for the lead. But another first-down loss and another sack led to a field goal, and the Cowboys couldn't get over the hump.
The Giants swarmed the Cowboys up front and really bullied them from the start. Sure, they gave up six sacks, but Dalton was running for his life all game.
And let's be honest, he didn't have his best game at all. The first half was one of the quarterback's worst, but he did play better in the second half. Actually, once Dalton started running north more than east and west, the offense showed a little life.
But it wasn't good enough – just like this entire season.
Seriously, go back and evaluate all of the issues for this offense and there's a common denominator: Can't keep the QB upright. Can't run the ball consistently. Can't score in the red zone, especially in goal-to-go situations.
It all stems from the O-line.
The funny part is, I would put offensive line coach Joe Philbin near the top of the list in my rankings of assistant coaches and the jobs they did this year. I'm not talking out of both sides of my mouth here. Philbin had the dubious task of trying to work with Steele, Brandon Knight, Connor McGovern and even Connor Williams, who looks like a work in progress, too.
You have to respect the job Philbin has done with the line … it just wasn't good enough in the game they had to have.
The good news is this starting five might be the entire second-team O-line come next year. Maybe Williams stays at left guard or competes with McGovern. Maybe Joe Looney doesn't come back or battles with Tyler Biadasz at center.
Either way, what they were working with on Sunday is nowhere close to the standard this offensive line needs to be great. Get that back in order, and Dak Prescott's return will even be more magnified. The wide receivers will have even more time to get open and make plays. And Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard will have more room to run.
Do all of the above, and something tells me this defense won't look so bad next year, either.
Football indeed starts up front. But it can end there, too.
This game and this season can certainly attest to that.