FRISCO, Texas – I can't say I've ever been in such a bizarre situation.
I'm wrapping up my eighth season covering this team, and this is only the second time in eight seasons that the playoffs don't feel like a legitimate possibility.
At the same time, this season doesn't feel quite as dreary as that 2015 season. Back then, we knew the Cowboys were out of the race by early December. And while I think we all agree that the playoffs don't feel likely in 2020, it's not yet mathematically impossible.
So here we are in this strange purgatory – which is honestly fitting for a year where many of us have been confined, trying to steal whatever moments of happiness we can during yearlong uncertainty. The Cowboys feel like they're out of the playoffs, but they aren't. So here we sit, not quite able to start planning for the future, but not quite sold on where things stand.
The only thing to do is watch what happens. But while wait to see if the Cowboys can keep their season alive, that's not going to stop me from musing about what might be in front of us.
- It's fun that San Francisco has finally popped up on the schedule, because I've been thinking about them all season long.
Not this matchup, mind you. It's been obvious for quite some time that this year's game wasn't going to pack the same punch that we'd prefer to see from these two proud franchises.
But if I'm looking for my rose-colored glasses and trying to imagine how the Dallas Cowboys can turn their fortunes around, then the 49ers are my blueprint.
It was only two years ago that San Francisco stumbled to a 4-12 record. Much like this season, they dealt with a rash of injuries. Most notably, they lost Jimmy Garoppolo to a torn ACL in Week 3, and they battled through iffy quarterback play for the reason of the season.
The roster wasn't as terrible as the record looked, but that record landed them the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. That pick became NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa, and they also used the 36th overall pick on Deebo Samuel. Those two high-impact rookies combined with a slew of healthy veterans in 2019, and the 49ers came just a couple plays short of winning Super Bowl LIV.
- I'm not crazy enough to suggest that the Dallas Cowboys are going to reach Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles in February of 2022 – which feels like 10 lifetimes from now.
Still, you can see some parallels here. As painful as this team has been to watch, I don't view it as excuse-making that they have roughly 40% of their salary cap stuck on injured reserve. It's a cold, hard fact that four of the Cowboys' 10 best players – Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith, La'el Collins and Zack Martin – are not currently available. It's impossible to say just how good they'd be with a better run of health, but I'm confident in my belief that they'd at least be alive in the playoff hunt.
- We're going to spend a lot of time in 2021 speculating about the health of various guys. But if we can trust for a second that the heavy hitters will be available next year, it gets awfully fun when you think ahead to the draft.
Let's be fair to this year's team. They aren't mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, and anything can happen. But with three games to go, it's looking like it's going to take a minor miracle to reach the postseason. The more likely outcome is that Dallas is going to hold a high draft pick of its own.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys are facing steeper competition for a top pick than that 2018 Niners team. Their highest realistic draft pick is likely No. 4 overall, and they could still fall further in the pecking order, depending on how many games they win this month.
Still, odds are good that they're going to finish with a top-12 draft pick – which in turn means they'll likely make three picks inside of the top 80 this spring. Factor in a clutch compensatory pick for Byron Jones, and the Cowboys are positioned to add four top 100 players to their roster.
The draft is a crap shoot, so there are no guarantees. But that's a lot of potential to add to a roster that already has solid talent. Much like the 49ers before them, it shouldn't take the Cowboys too long to return to the ranks of the competitors.
- I wrote a full-length story about this on Sunday afternoon, so I don't want to repeat myself too much.
But in a season that has been marked by highly-paid players underperforming, I think it's only fair to give a shout out to Amari Cooper.
Last week's outing wasn't even that noteworthy, as five catches for 51 yards and a touchdown is pretty normal by WR1 standards. But across this entire snake bitten season, Cooper has been remarkably consistent for a guy who has had to play with four quarterbacks.
With three games to play, the four-time Pro Bowler is sitting on 80 catches, which is just four catches shy of a career high. He's 247 yards short of a career high for receiving yardage – which might be a tall order, but is fairly doable.
The knock on Cooper throughout his Cowboy career is that you can't rely on him from week to week, but that really hasn't been the case in 2020. He might not take over every game, but Cooper has shown up and made an impact in 14 of 16 outings. His two bad games came on Oct. 11 against the Giants, when Dak Prescott went down for the season, and Nov. 1 against the Eagles, when Ben DiNucci was starting his first-ever NFL game.
Of course, Cooper is paid big money to do these things. I'm not asking anyone to pat him on the back too much. But the theme of this season has been bad contracts. We've spent the last three months wringing our hands about whether it was wise to pay Jaylon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence or Ezekiel Elliott. And those conversations will stretch into the offseason.
Cooper, meanwhile, has quietly gone about proving himself reliable – even while relying on backups, third-stringer and fourth-stringers to get him the ball. In a season full of negatives, it's a positive, at the very least.
The Cowboys will take on the Philadelphia Eagles in their last home game of the regular season on Sunday, Dec. 27 at 3:25 p.m. A limited number of tickets are on sale now. Get yours now before they sell out!
Details on all of the health and safety procedures you can expect at AT&T Stadium can be viewed at www.DallasCowboys.com/safestadium.