The Dallas Cowboys are officially moving on to next season.
Coach Jason Garrett remains disappointed about a 2017 season that gave him back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in his seven full seasons as coach, but left him out of the playoffs for the fifth time.
While some changes are likely, they don’t appear to affect the core of the team that went 13-3 in 2016 before slumping to 9-7 this past season.
Owner Jerry Jones has already assured Garrett’s return to being one of the league’s nine longest tenured coaches, including New England’s Bill Belichick, Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis, Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, Seattle’s Pete Carroll and Carolina’s Ron Rivera. Among the group, only Garrett and Lewis have failed to reach the Super Bowl.
Garrett, who has a 67-53 coaching mark, says Jones’ loyalty means a great deal to him and he works hard trying to reward him.
“He has been a loyal guy to a lot of people in this organization for a long time,” Garrett said. “He certainly makes you want to run through the wall for him. Each and every day, I wake up trying to be the best coach I can be for this football team. Making decisions and working the right way. I will just continue to do that.”
Garrett believes the 2017 season went off the rails during a 3-3 stretch without running back Ezekiel Elliott, who was suspended by the league for personal conduct issues involving a former girlfriend.
Elliott should be on the field for all 16 games next season and that should go a long way toward fixing the offense.
And Garrett is optimistic about the future of a young emerging defense that opened the season as the weak link and ended up finishing eighth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed.
“I thought there were some good things that happened for us this year, at different times we didn’t handle some of the adversities well enough,” Garrett said. “But I do think there are cornerstone pieces in place on our team, the guys on our offensive line, some skill players on our offense, the emergence of some players on our defensive line, some young players on our back end. I think those are all causes for optimism. The biggest thing we have to do is you take accountability for what happened here in this 2017 season everybody at every level and then you get back to work. That’s what we’re going to do.”
There will be changes with the position coaches and some players will not be brought back for various reasons.
But the core nucleus should remain the same.
Most important, Garrett has no concerns about quarterback Dak Prescott, who took a step back in year two, or the seemingly predictable schemes of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
Prescott was intercepted 13 times after just four a year ago. He also threw one fewer touchdown pass, 22 in 2017 after 23 as a rookie.
Prescott won less. He was less efficient. He made more mistakes and he passed for fewer yards.
Yet, Garrett said there is no question about Prescott’s status as the franchise quarterback of the present and future.
He said he is just as high on Prescott now as he was after the 13-3 season of 2016 when he fashioned the best rookie season of any quarterback in NFL history and won rookie of year honors over Elliott, the NFL’s 2016 leading rusher.
“Absolutely, I think he’s absolutely the right kind of guy to have as the quarterback of your organization,” Garrett said. “I think he’s demonstrated that time and time again. Now, if you pull back and look at what he’s done in his first two years of his career, he’s won 22 out of 32 games, he’s 22-10 as a starting quarterback in the National Football League. You reflect back at other quarterbacks as they have started their careers. No one has really had that kind of success like he has.
“Now, is he perfect? Absolutely not. Does he need to get better? Absolutely he does. We’re focused on that. But he’s done a lot of really good things in a short period of time for us. He’ll continue to grow because of the kind of person he is.”
Regarding Linehan and the offensive scheme, Garrett said it will be evaluated. But more from a self-scouting standpoint than a need for a complete overhaul at the top with the coordinator.
He believes offensive line injuries, namely of the absence of left tackle Tyron Smith for the better parts of five games, also played a huge role in the struggles of the passing game.
“Again, we always look at what we do in all our phases of our team,” Garrett said. “So you’re always evaluating the scheme first. What are we asking our players to do. And then you talk about the specific players doing specific things within your scheme. And hopefully your scheme is flexible enough to take advantage of the different things the guys are capable of doing. That’s always been our approach. We’ll continue to have that.
“Again, we’ll be very honest and direct in addressing what we think the issues are and try to make the necessary improvements as we move along.”
Bryant, 29, led the Cowboys with 69 catches for 838 yards and six touchdowns. But he averaged a career-low 12.1 yards per reception, was among the league leaders in dropped passes and did not record a 100-yard receiving game.
There is a chance the Cowboys could ask Bryant to take a pay cut from his $12.5 million salary for next year or be released in what could be an off-season of changes.
Bryant blamed a predictable scheme and a lack of creativity for his decline in numbers as well as playing through knee tendinitis since November.
Even owner Jerry Jones has acknowledged that the Cowboys need more from Bryant.
And Garrett refused to answer whether the team’s No. 1 receiver was the same threat as he was in the past.
“Well I think at times this year Dez did some good things,” Garrett said. “Other times, like we’ve been talking about, it wasn’t good enough. Dez also is part of our passing game and we’ve got to improve in those areas. I don’t think in general the passing game was consistent enough week in and week out to our level, to our standard, the standard that we’ve had around here for a long time. So he’s a part of it, we’ll look at it and hopefully improve as we go forward.”