Phillips: Taking The Next Step Won't Be Easy; 5 Reasons It Can Happen

FRISCO, Texas – Monday wasn't the customary players' day off. Monday of NFC Championship week was their final day at The Star for the 2016-17 season.

The Dallas Cowboys held a final team meeting at noon. Then vacation started.

For most, Sunday's 34-31 divisional-round loss to the Green Bay Packers – a postseason epic decided by Mason Crosby's 51-yard field goal snaking inside the left upright – probably hadn't sunk in 18 hours later.

"I don't think I've seen any moment in my career where as soon as the season ends everybody's ready to go back to work," defensive tackle Jack Crawford said, "because we've got that determination and that hunger."

Yet, this is the harsh reality the organization knows all too well: there are no guarantees they'll be back next year with the same opportunity.

Last year's Super Bowl participants, the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, didn't make this year's playoffs.

In the last five years of the 12-team postseason format, here's how many teams made repeat appearances from the previous season: six in 2016, eight in 2015, seven in 2014, eight in 2013 and six in 2012.

The previous two times the Cowboys made the playoffs – 2010 and 2014 – they finished the 2011 and 2015 seasons with a combined 10-32 record and watched the games at home.

"Destiny waits on no man," said tight end Jason Witten, who has made six playoff trips in 14 seasons. "It doesn't, especially in this game."

It will take a major commitment from the returning group to get back to this point. But the team left The Star on Monday with the belief that Sunday marked a beginning, not an end.

There indeed are reasons for fan optimism. Here are five:

  1. One of the best Cowboys rookie classes in recent memory should improve. Head coach Jason Garrett says the best possible experience is game experience, and there's no reason to think Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott won't benefit from a full year in the starting lineup and the leadership roles they assumed at their age (23 and 21, respectively). Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown also started 14 and nine games, respectively, and Collins missed nearly the entire training camp and preseason with a foot injury. Think what a full offseason could do for him.
  1. This team does have a 'fight' gene. Garrett, normally measured and precise at the podium for his daily press briefings, nearly dropped an F-bomb Monday when describing how much Elliott loves football. The best thing Garrett likes about this team is they compete. It's the foundation of the program, and it's really never cracked in Garrett's six full seasons as head coach. How many times have the Cowboys simply gotten blown out in a game during that stretch?
  1. The offensive line. Other than quarterback and defensive line, it's probably where most teams start first in building a roster. Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin made the All-Pro team together for the second year in a row, and the Cowboys' line as a whole was again the team's biggest strength. They're the tone-setter for the offense, helping control the pace of the game. That shouldn't change in 2017.
  1. Personnel improvements. Typically a third of the roster changes year to year. That's not always a good thing; free agency can hurt a team as much as help it. The Cowboys were dynamic on offense this season and solid on defense, though for the second straight year they'd like to improve on their takeaway and sack totals (20; 36). During the playoff bye week, team owner/general manager Jerry Jones said he envisions the team addressing defensive help in the offseason. A healthier Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence would help. And perhaps 2016 draft picks Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper can make an impact after a redshirt rookie season.
  1. Maybe a little extra luck? To be clear, the fact that this team won 13 games despite losing the first two quarterbacks on their initial depth chart says a lot about the way they handled adversity. To win a championship in professional sports, you mostly have to make your own luck. But hey, think about the franchise's last two playoff games. Couple bounces here and there, and the outcome might have been different. Dez Bryant* technically* didn't catch it in 2014. Sunday, if Jared Cook doesn't make the catch of the playoffs, maybe the Cowboys win the game in overtime. They played both those games to a near-standstill. At some point, 21 years since the franchise's last NFC Championship appearance, the football gods might decide they're due to take another step. Right?
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