FRISCO, Texas –The first round of the NFL playoffs not only provided some entertaining games, but likely gave the Cowboys and their fans added frustration as they sit on the outside looking in. Three opponents from the 2017 season played this past weekend, with the Falcons advancing to the divisional round.
This week, the DallasCowboys.com will try to answer some of the more pressing questions that surround this team, both looking forward and backward.
Today, the staff writers decide which absence hurt the team the most in 2017, likely picking from the trio of the injured Tyron Smith and Sean Lee and Ezekiel Elliott, who served a six-game suspension in the second half of the year.
Of course there's a compelling case to be made for both Tyron Smith and Ezekiel Elliott – but we at least saw the Dallas offense function, sort of, without those two. I've never seen anything like the Cowboys' defensive implosion when Sean Lee wasn't on the field this year. Case in point: Lee missed four full games for the Cowboys this season, and he left the field before halftime in a fifth. In those five games, the Cowboys allowed an average of 398 yards, 151 rushing yards and 32.4 points. That's 80 total yards more per game, 47 more rushing yards per game and 12 more points per game. It was literally a different unit when Lee wasn't available. That's staggering when you think about it. And that's why I think linebacker has to be considered one of this team's biggest needs heading into 2018.
Could go many different directions on this one and not be wrong but the loss of Tyron Smith at times hurt this club. The front office was never able to have a suitable answer when Smith was out of the lineup. Chaz Green and Byron Bell just were not good enough and that position held them hostage. They were able to get dependable play from Jonathan Cooper and La'el Collins during the year but not from the backups at left tackle and it cost them. Dak Prescott had too many snaps where he was having to deal from the opponents pass rush which affected the way that he threw the ball. Given Smith's medical condition (Back) and lack of quality play from the backups it's become an issue that the front office will be forced to address more likely through the upcoming draft more likely earlier than later. The team can't go through another season having so much instability at the position and expect favorable results.
Like the other guys, I know you really can't go wrong with either answer. The Atlanta game is proof of that because Zeke, Tyron and Lee were all out, and it was a disaster. But I just think the MVP of the team is Ezekiel Elliott. I think he's also the most talented player on the team so when he's out, it changes everything. I think Dak is a better player when he's there. I think the O-line is better when they're blocking for him and I know the receivers are better and more productive when he's out there. That's not to say the Cowboys have it figured out how to replace Lee or Smith. But to answer the question, I think the Cowboys were hurt the most by the six-game suspension of Zeke, and everything that came with it, which began at training camp and lingered all the way until Week 16 of the season.
What a tough question. Seriously, anyone could yell and scream for Lee, Zeke or Tyron, and I wouldn't dispute it. All three are All-Pros when active and healthy. If you're making me choose one … Tyron Smith. I have said many times that Elliott is the best player on the team, and there's no question opposing defenses played the Cowboys a little differently without his home-run presence on the field. But Smith's absence might have been more noticeable, particularly in the losses to Atlanta and Seattle. The offense simply couldn't function at times because of issues in pass protection. Of course the Cowboys missed Elliott. Of course Dak and the receivers can be better in the passing game. But when Smith is healthy, he stabilizes things in the run *and *pass game. The Cowboys need him for a full 16 games next year. At the same time, they'll likely take a long look at their offensive tackle depth in the offseason.