There is no real excuse for the Dallas Cowboys to be in the position they are in.
One season after going 13-3 and laying the foundation of a contender for years to come if not seemingly on the brink of a Super Bowl run, the Cowboys head into Sunday’s season final against the Philadelphia Eagles hoping to avoid their fourth 8-8 season under Jason Garrett.
Their season is essentially over as they will be home for the playoffs for the 18th time over the past 27 years, fourth under in seven full seasons under Garrett.
It has proven to be an all-too-familiar occurrence since their most recent Super Bowl title in 1995.
“Well, I think that we all are disappointed because we didn't meet our expectation,” owner Jerry Jones said. “We shouldn't have had the record that we had this year.”
Yet, Jones is looking ahead with optimism rather than looking back with anger.
He has no interest in making a move with coach Jason Garrett.
Garrett's presence allows Jones to be Jones.
But Jones also has a bigger and more convenient target for the team's failure.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell remains the boogeyman who stole the Cowboys season with the six-game suspension of star running back Ezekiel Elliott after supposedly telling Jones that there would be no discipline for allegedly assaulting former girlfriend Tiffany Thompson.
In Jones' mind, a Cowboys team that began the season 5-3 would be in the playoffs if Elliott wasn't sidelined. Elliott’s absence resulted in a 3-3 mark that put the Cowboys on the outside looking in even before being officially eliminated in last Sunday's 21-12 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in his first game back.
But blaming the team's season and ultimate failure on Elliott's is to be in denial about season-long issues that would have eventually derailed the Cowboys from reaching their ultimate goal of reaching the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995.
“Well, I think there's a number of reasons,” tight end Jason Witten said. “I don't know if I can answer that in just one answer. When you're really able to kind of unravel it all and start at the beginning of it and break it down, I think there'll be — on offense — we didn't have enough explosives in our passing game. We didn't execute well enough individually and collectively. Different times, we just weren't able to get over the hump.”
In regards to Elliott’s absence, Witten said, “Never allow that to be an excuse. He's a phenomenal football player and makes our team a lot better when he's out on the field. You never allow that to get in the way. You have key injuries and that happens year in and year out, and will continue to happen. If you don't, you're very fortunate to not experience those situations.”
What’s most concerning is that it was the offense, led by quarterback Dak Prescott, and not the team's suspect defense that let the Cowboys down in 2017.
It's not just that Prescott and the passing game did not show in discernible progress from what was the greatest rookie season by any quarterback in NFL history a year ago, it's that it seemingly took a huge step back.
After being intercepted four times in 2016, Prescott has 13 so far in 2017, including nine over the past seven games when the Cowboys season went kaput.
He has had four interceptions returned for touchdowns and had seven games with under 200 yards passing.
Prescott was pressed at times because of the pressure from the rush, has been indecisive and gotten away from his fundamentals.
Opponents were more familiar with Prescott in in second season, taking away some of the waggles and bootlegs that were successful in 2016.
“Somewhat that is a legitimate point,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said begrudgingly. “That is what people do. When you got a guy that moves around they were going to put more emphasis on that. That is just part of it. We have to continue to look at the direction we are going, both in the approach in the run game and the drop back pass game and the compliments in the play action passing stuff.”
The Cowboys must also find away to get Prescott protected when left tackle Tyron Smith is unavailable as his injuries and absence proved to be a bigger problem for the offense than missing Elliott.
And the receiver corps must improve from within. No. 1 receiver Dez Bryant was among the league-leaders in dropped passes, typifying an abject performance by the entire group.
Garrett said the Cowboys would re-evaluate their passing scheme
“Well, you’re always looking at what you’re doing in all phases of your team,” Garrett said. “You’re looking at what you’re doing, when you’re doing it, how you’re doing it and who you’re doing it with. We’re always trying to put our team in the best position possible, trying to put players in the best position possible where they can execute. Sometimes we’ve done a really good job of that, other times it hasn’t been good enough. We look at ourselves as coaches first, and then we look at the execution. We’ve got to get better, there’s no question about that.”
The play of the defense at the end of the season could be considered a source of optimism for the future — especially in the secondary with rookie cornerback Chido Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis and rookie safety Xavier Woods playing prominent roles.
Combine that with defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence’s breakout season and the stellar play of linebacker Sean Lee when healthy and the Cowboys have the makings of a solid unit.
It has Jones feeling good about the future.
“We have a team that I have a lot of promise for,” Jones said. “Talent-wise, on defense we've made some significant improvement over the past two years. And we have a chance for these young players to really, really be contributors in the secondary … So, with that in mind, our future does look bright.”
The present looks all-too-familiar and empty.