FRISCO, Texas – I've been trying to articulate this all week, but I think I really need a long-winded column to do it justice.
Of course you're upset if you're reading this website. You're a diehard Cowboys fan, and you just got done having your heart ripped out after one of the best seasons ever. Whether you've been following along since 1960 or you just hopped aboard the bandwagon, that season was one-of-a-kind.
It sucks that it's over. I get it.
In all walks of life, people try to rationalize why bad things happen. It's human nature. It applies to football games, and it applies to far more important stuff like death or sickness or war.
Sure, the Cowboys got hit with some questionable penalties. They made some questionable decisions. They appeared to forget about their Pro Bowl rookie running back. This all contributed to their loss to Green Bay on Sunday evening.
I'm going to touch on a few of those subjects later in my column, but I can't do that without first stressing an important point:
NFL teams play football games. Sometimes, they play amazingly good football games. A lot of stuff happens, and then a team wins and another team loses. One team gets to be amazingly happy, and the other team gets to be gut-punched and brutalized. This happens 16 times a year – and then a lucky few get to play with heightened stakes in the playoffs.
Sunday's loss to the Packers was an all-timer. I thought Robert Mays put it perfectly when he called it "a Frankenstein's monster of greatness."
It had everything you could ever want. One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play, scrambling and spinning and launching laser-guided rockets at receivers who contorted themselves like circus performers to reel them in.
The Dallas duo of rookies, Dak and Zeke, answered every bell. How about Zeke Elliott, spinning and leaving a Pro Bowl pass rusher grasping for air? How about a 23-year-old quarterback responding to a 21-3 deficit by chucking bombs at Dez Bryant – 61 total yards and a touchdown?
Speaking of Dez Bryant, how about the Cowboys' lightning rod receiver showing up big, doing Dez Things and embarrassing people for one of his best-ever days? How about Dan Bailey and Mason Crosby trading three (technically four) game-swinging field goals in the final 2:35 of the game?
It was painful. It's not an enjoyable memory right now. But man, was it incredible. It was a game that any player should be proud to have taken part in. It's also going to be a hell of a motivating factor for the Cowboys, who will have nine months to stew in it while they prepare for another attempt at the mountain.
In a weird way, it will also be a proud moment for any fan. I said this a few weeks ago, and I really think it rings true. You obviously devote the time and energy because you want the wins. But the devastating losses are almost as good. They hurt you, then they mold you, and then they reshape your perspective.
It's not something you appreciate right now, but years from now you'll smile ruefully when you think about that amazing game against Aaron Rodgers, and how it helped you appreciate the wins that much more.
1.To articulate my point even further: I just need everyone to let go of the officiating.
Yes, the refs were terrible. Yes, the unsportsmanlike conduct on Brice Butler was ridiculous. Yes, the "tangled feet" no-call on Jason Witten at the goal line was atrocious. Yes, Green Bay guard T.J. Lang had David Irving in a headlock on the fateful 3rd-and-20.
It's also true that Morris Claiborne got away with holding on multiple occasions – one of which saw Davante Adams' jersey ripped off his shoulder pads. There were at least three occasions where the refs could have extended a Green Bay possession with a flag, but opted not to.
I'm sorry, but I'm just not buying that the refs were the determining factor in that game. They were bad. Their calls affected the game. But the Cowboys had plenty of opportunities to swing the game their way and didn't.
2.Speaking of which – let's talk about Ezekiel Elliott.
I know I just wrote a ton of words about how you should appreciate a great game for what it was. But allow me to play armchair quarterback for a second.
Dallas Cowboys. You spent the No. 4 overall pick in the draft on the most talented, well-rounded running back in the class. He was the identity and the engine of your offense all season, en route to 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns on the year. He also got a substantial amount of downtime after logging 322 carries as a rookie.
He sat down for the entire fourth quarter of Week 16, as well as the entirety of Week 17. Then, he had a week off to rest before the divisional round of the playoffs.
I'm not an NFL play caller. I also know you can't just plunge a running back into a stacked front at the professional level. But I still don't think 23 total touches is enough for the best player on your offense – not in a do-or-die game.
The Cowboys didn't run enough in short yardage for my liking. They also only attempted to use Elliott as a receiver on one occasion – an ill-fated screen pass.
I'm not pretending to have all the answers. But the guy is dynamic. He's a game-changer. And he was fresh. He should have played a larger role in that game.
3.It's far too early in the process to get a real idea of what the Cowboys are going to do with their free agents and draft picks – but it's never too soon to try. So here's a quick of the trouble spots and how I feel about them. Starting with the:
Secondary:For my money, the most troubling aspect of the coming offseason. The Cowboys are set to lose two of their top three cornerbacks, as well as two of their four safeties – including a team captain.
Now, the more cynical among you could argue that they're not losing anyone particularly great. Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox have combined for zero Pro Bowl appearances and 18 total interceptions in the last four years.
Having said that, they've all proven themselves as capable players at one point or another, and losing that type of experience and production all at once could be painful.
Assuming the price is fair, I'd make it a priority to bring back Carr and Church – proven, reliable starters, who have also proven valuable to team chemistry. Combine those two with Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown and Byron Jones, and you've got a good starting point.
It goes without saying that defensive back is one of this team's biggest needs in the draft.
4. Offensive Line:I can't imagine a scenario where Ron Leary is back on this team in 2017.
That's unfortunate, but it's the cost of doing business in the NFL. You might remember that Jermey Parnell earned a three-year, $30 million contract after 2014 – and that was simply for replacing an injured Doug Free for a handful of games.
Leary has a knee condition that might make some teams skeptical, but he has proven himself as a quality starter at guard for three seasons now. He might not command top dollar, but he's going to get a better offer than what the Cowboys want to match.
For all of you that want to retain Leary and move La'el Collins to right tackle, I just don't see it happening. I think Collins returns to left guard after Leary's departure, and the Cowboys give Chaz Green every chance to prove he's the right tackle of the future in 2017.
5. Pass Rush:The good news is you have bodies, but the bad news is they haven't produced much.
Your core group of linemen isn't going anywhere. DeMarcus Lawrence enters a contract year. Tyrone Crawford, Benson Mayowa, Maliek Collins and Cedric Thornton are under contract for the foreseeable future. David Irving is an exclusive rights free agent, which means it shouldn't be remotely difficult to keep him around. Charles Tapper is also waiting in the wings after spending his rookie season on the shelf.
The Cowboys have decisions to make about Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford. Both guys had solid seasons, but the team's desire to keep them might depend on what they can command elsewhere.
There's a foundation here, and we know Rod Marinelli likes these guys. The trick is going to be bolstering the talent level – whether via free agency or the draft. The draft makes the most sense for me, although I do think it could be difficult to find premium talent at the back end of the draft.
6. Wide Receiver:I don't think either Terrance Williams or Brice Butler convinced anyone they need to be a priority this offseason.
That's harsh, but I think it's fair based on the body of work. Williams had a better overall season, catching 44 passes for 594 yards and four touchdowns, not to mention proving his abilities as a downfield blocker. Butler flashed moments of brilliance – touchdowns against Green Bay and Detroit – but his inconsistency and boneheaded mistakes were his lasting legacy for the year.
If Williams can be brought back on a team-friendly deal, fine. He has proven himself and is well-liked in the locker room. The problem is that I think his price tag will be too high, given the way NFL teams like to overspend in free agency.
Williams was a third-round pick in 2013 and contributed immediately. If push comes to shove, you can always find receiver production in the draft.
7. Tony Romo:I already said I don't know what's going to happen with Tony Romo. How can anyone predict a scenario with so many unknown variables?
But with the amount of cap money – not to mention the locker room and on-field ramifications – at stake, the Cowboys have got to figure it out. Can they trade him for a reasonable price? Are they comfortable releasing him? Is there a chance Romo wants to retire?
I don't know.
But there's no bigger puzzle piece for 2017 than figuring that out. I can't even begin to imagine what this team looks like until it decides what to do with Romo.
8.There's no such thing as an offseason. Want to know how I know? On Monday night, eight days after the Cowboys' loss to Green Bay, I'll be on my way to the Senior Bowl to begin the process of preparing for the 2017 NFL Draft.
I've talked before about the type of talents you can find in Mobile, Ala., this week. Dak Prescott was the MVP of last year's game – so say no more.
A few names that stand out among the roster:
Daeshon Hall, DE, Texas A&M –Hall is pretty monstrous, checking in at roughly 6-6, 260 pounds. He surely benefitted from lining up across from draft superstar Myles Garrett, but he's no slouch himself. Hall finished with 13 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks at left end for A&M. Most importantly, the Cowboys may have a chance to draft him. Picking 28th overall, they surely won't have a chance at Garrett.
Desmond King, CB, Iowa –King's draft stock shot up last year, when he won the Thorpe Award with 72 tackles and eight picks for the Hawkeyes. His senior season wasn't as terrific, but he still managed 13 picks in his final three seasons. He's also got solid size, at 5-11, 203 pounds.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama –There's no quicker way to upset a Cowboys fan than by suggesting they should draft a tight end, but hear me out. The Crimson Tide didn't utilize Howard that much, but his 6-6 frame and insane athleticism make him highly intriguing as an option in this offense. Gavin Escobar is a free agent, and Jason Witten just finished his 14th season. Witten has fought off incoming competitors on numerous occasions, but it's inevitable that he'll one day retire. Howard might be available when the Cowboys pick, and he could add a fascinating wrinkle to this Dallas offense going forward.
9. Green Bay at Atlanta, 2:05 p.m. Sunday:The Falcons looked awesome against Seattle, and their high octane offense could make me look stupid. But after what we watched on Sunday, I'm just not going to pick against Aaron Rodgers. I can't.
Rodgers doesn't have the same resume as Joe Montana, Tom Brady or John Elway – but I genuinely think he might be the most complete quarterback to ever play. His athleticism is insane, as is his accuracy. He can pull off plays that no one else can. He has that "it" factor that people gush about, but no one can quite pinpoint. I'm riding with him.
The Falcons are a better team than Green Bay overall. But so were the Cowboys. Rodgers is going to get the job done, or he's going to come damn close.
10. Pittsburgh at New England, 5:30 p.m. Sunday:The Patriots won this game comfortably back in October – when Landry Jones was starting for an injured Ben Roethlisberger.
I feel really stupid doing this, because I honestly think Pittsburgh is the better overall team. The Steelers are on a hot streak just as impressive as the Packers', and their trio of Ben-Bell-Brown is capable of beating anyone.
Maybe I'm simplifying it, but I'm not going to bet against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, at Gillette Stadium, in a playoff game. The Steelers are up to the challenge, but I just think New England will find a way to get it done.
Rodgers-Brady, Super Bowl LI, sounds like a football nerd's dream. It might not be as fun as watching the Cowboys in a Super Bowl, but it's a fair consolation prize.
Take a look at some of our favorite photos from the memorable 2016 season, courtesy of team photographers Jeremiah Jhass and James D. Smith.