Why aren’t the Dallas Cowboys still playing? How did a 13-3 team a season ago fall from Super Bowl contenders to completely out of the mix?
“There’s a number of reasons,” veteran tight end Jason Witten said.
Yes, there is.
The easy answer (borderline excuse) is that this team simply couldn’t overcome the controversial six-game suspension handed to Ezekiel Elliott in the middle of the season.
Elliott is the Cowboys’ best player, the reigning rushing champion and a home-run threat every time the ball is in his hands.
Take away the best player from any team and they’re likely going to struggle.
The Cowboys running game fared all right with backups Alfred Morris and Rod Smith, but defenses didn’t game plan for them the same way.
The beginning of Elliott’s suspension happened to be coupled with All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith being sidelined with a groin injury. And Chaz Green had a disastrous game in Atlanta, while Byron Bell wasn’t a significant upgrade.
In the end, the offense went through a stretch of futility never seen before in franchise history – scoring single-digit points in three consecutive games.
The Cowboys responded by winning the final three games without Elliott, but it proved to be too little, too late.
Witten and the rest of the team refused to blame this season on Elliott’s absence.
“There’s a lot of teams that are going to be playing (in the playoffs) that had key players who missed games,” Witten said. “That’s been around this league for a long time.”
Outside of Elliott’s absence, it’s easy to point to Dak Prescott taking a step back. He struggled more than anybody without Elliott.
Prescott had 16 touchdowns to just four interceptions through the first eight games with Elliott, and the Cowboys were 5-3. Without Elliott, Prescott threw more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five).
Or how about star receiver Dez Bryant failing to produce a 1,000-yard season for the third straight year and seemingly losing his No. 1 threat status? Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley also had down years in a forgettable campaign for the receiving corps.
Defensively, it’s easy to point to Sean Lee’s injury issues as something that unit couldn’t overcome. The Cowboys lost consecutive home games to the Los Angeles Chargers and Green Bay Packers despite scoring 30 points.
Oh, and let’s not forget about that 42-17 whipping in Week 2 against a Denver team that finished 5-11. Or kicker Dan Bailey having the worst season in his career.
As Witten said, there are a lot of reasons the Cowboys are watching the playoffs from home.
Whether it’s the Elliott suspension, Prescott’s sophomore slump, Bryant’s regression, Lee missing games, the Cowboys simply had too many things go wrong than right in 2017.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed we’re not still playing right now,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I think in a lot of ways there were some good things that happened for our team this year and there were some things that obviously weren’t good enough.
“We’re going to start this process right now of evaluating everything, what we’re doing offense, defense, kicking game, evaluating players, we’ll go through that whole process and do everything we can as a coaching staff to get better into the ’18 season.”
Dallas Cowboys 2018 Opponents
Here’s a look at the Dallas Cowboys’ opponents next season. The schedule will be announced in April.
Home games: New York Giants, Philadelphia, Washington, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Detroit.
Away games: New York Giants, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Houston, Seattle.