Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys get high marks for surprising run to NFC East title, playoffs

No Dallas Cowboys team has ever won more games in a regular season (13) or in a row, as the 11-game winning streak was a franchise record.

In the end, the Cowboys still didn’t get it done.

They have yet to win more than two playoff games since 1995, which was also the last season they reached the NFC title game and the Super Bowl.

But the Cowboys head into the off-season looking at a bright future rather than looking back at what they didn’t get done.

The Cowboys are looking ahead because of the presence of rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who took over the team and the locker room, while supplanting injured starter Tony Romo, possibly for good.

They will look ahead because running back Ezekiel Elliott and the league’s best offensive line should keep them contending for years.

The key for the Cowboys is making improvements on defense and finding a pass rush that can slow the likes of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

But there is no question most expect that the Cowboys will be back.

“The biggest thing you have to do is learn from your experiences and you have to allow the disappointments to fuel the fire for what you want to accomplish in 2017,” coach Jason Garrett said.

“The youth in this team, it’s a building block,” Prescott said. “We’re going to get better from it. It’s going to make us better. We’ll make plenty more runs.”

Season grades

AQuarterbacks: Starter – Dak Prescott. Backups – Tony Romo, Mark Sanchez, Kellen Moore

The Cowboys opened the season with a punch in the gut when Romo suffered a fractured bone in his back during preseason and was lost for the first nine weeks. The Cowboys were 1-11 without an injured Romo in 2015. They had no reason to think this year would be different. But then came Prescott. He joined the Cowboys as a fourth-round rookie developmental project. He entered training camp as the third quarterback. Injuries forced him into the starting role and shockingly he never looked back en route to possibly the greatest rookie season of any quarterback in NFL history.

ARunning backs: Starters – RB Ezekiel Elliott, FB Keith Smith. Backups – Darren McFadden, Lance Dunbar, Alfred Morris

Elliott had the best rookie season of any running back in team history. Better than Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett, two Hall of Famers. He proved to be everything the Cowboys expected when they drafted him fourth overall, rushing for more yards (1,631) and more touchdowns (15) than any rookie in team history. Elliott proved to be a do-it-all back as a runner and receiver. He didn’t reach Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record, but he could challenge the 2,000-yard mark as an NFL sophomore. Keith Smith was solid in his transition from linebacker to fullback.

BTight ends: Starter – Jason Witten. Backups – Gavin Escobar UFA, TE Geoff Swaim, James Hanna

Witten showed no signs of slowing down with 69 catches for 673 yards and three touchdowns. He remains a team leader and continues to show a knack for getting open in the middle of the field. Look for him to return for a 15th season. Escobar lost his backup job to Swaim because of his struggles as a blocker and inconsistency catching the ball. He will likely walk in free agency. Swaim could return to the backup role. He will be challenged by Hanna. This is also a position the team will target in the draft.

BWide receivers: Starters – Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams (UFA). Backups – Cole Beasley, Brice Butler (UFA), Lucky Whitehead

Beasley, not Bryant, led the team in catches and yards with career-bests of 75 for 833. Beasley proved to be quarterback-friendly out of the slot for Prescott. Bryant caught 50 passes for 796 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns. He missed three games with a hairline fracture of his right knee that affected his numbers. Williams caught 44 passes and four touchdowns, but he remains an enigma because of his penchant for dropping passes. Butler also disappointed with key drops.

AOffensive linemen: Starters – LT Tyrone Smith, LG Ronald Leary, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT Doug Free. Backups – G La’el Collins, G Joe Looney, T Emmett Cleary, T Chaz Green, G Jonathan Cooper

The best offensive line in the league was led by Pro Bowlers in Smith, Frederick and Martin. They paved the way for the league’s leading rusher and made life easy for Prescott by allowing just 25 sacks. Leary filled in nicely for an injured Collins and will likely parlay that into a big free-agent contract. The return of Collins, who should be improved and more mature in his third year, could make the line better going forward. The question is what to do about an aging Free? The Cowboys were hoping that Green would be ready for a promotion, but he seemingly can’t stay healthy after two injury-filled seasons.

CDefensive linemen: Starters – DLE Tyrone Crawford, DLT Maliek Collins, NT Terrell McClain, DRE Demarcus Lawrence. Backups – DE Benson Mayowa, DE Jack Crawford, DE David Irving, DE Richard Ash, Cedric Thornton, DE Randy Gregory

Season-long concerns about the line were confirmed in the playoffs when they couldn’t get to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers without blitzing. It started at the outset of the season because Lawrence and Gregory were suspended. Lawrence returned, but was bothered much of the season by back injuries that now threaten his effectiveness going forward. Mayowa led the team with six sacks, followed by rookie Collins with five. Crawford had four and a half while Irving had four. Irving can play tackle and end. They need to target edge rushers in the draft and free agency.

BLinebackers: Starters – WLB Sean Lee, MLB Anthony Hitchens. SLB Damien Wilson. Backups – SLB Kyle Wilber, LB Justin Durant, LB Andrew Gachkar, LB Mark Nzeocha, MLB Rolando McClain, LB Jaylon Smith

Lee was the saving grace of this unit, and the defense. He was credited with a career-high 174 tackles to earn Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. More importantly, he got everyone lined up correctly, which played a huge role in the team not allowing a 100-yard rusher all season. The Cowboys are praying that Smith will be cleared to play next season after spending all of his rookie season on the non-football injury list. They need a play-maker opposite Lee.

BDefensive backs: Starters – LCB Brandon Carr, RCB Orlando Scandrick, SS Barry Church, FS Byron Jones. Backups – CB Morris Claiborne, CB Anthony Brown, S Jeff Heath, S J.J. Wilcox

That the Cowboys shockingly ended the season with the highest-ranked secondary in the league, per Pro Football Focus, speaks volumes to how well they played and how far they have come. Carr and Claiborne had career years. Scandrick rebounded from an injury-lost 2015 and Brown was a huge find in the sixth round of the draft. Church continued his solid play at strong safety. Wilcox was an enforcer. Claiborne, Carr, Church and Wilcox are all free agents. The Cowboys need to prioritize which two to bring back. Church could be heavily sought in a thin free agent safety market.

ASpecial teams: K Dan Bailey, P Chris Jones, LS L.P. Ladouceur, KR Lucky Whitehead, PR Cole Beasley

Bailey, Jones and Ladouceur are among the best at what they do. Bailey might need surgery for a herniated disc. He made 25 of 30 field goals and could be stronger next season. Jones averaged 45.7 yard per punt. The Cowboys need better returns and will look to upgrade Beasley and Whitehead.

Clarence Hill: 817-390-7760, @clarencehilljr

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