In the end, the return of a leaner Ezekiel Elliott meant absolutely nothing for the Dallas Cowboys.
This season went amiss a long time ago.
The passing game struggled before Elliott, the star running back and focal point of the offense, began a six-game suspension.
So it’s probably fitting that the Christmas miracle the Cowboys hoped for melted down into a lump of coal, courtesy of two turnovers by quarterback Dak Prescott and one by Dez Bryant in a 21-12 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
“We’re disappointed,” owner Jerry Jones said. “You can’t do the kinds of things we did out there, no matter what the effort. You can’t do those kinds of things, make those kinds of mistakes against teams like this. We did, and we lost a game that probably we all thought could have gone the other way for us.
“We obviously did benefit early from Zeke being there. I really thought that would carry us. It’s very disappointing, very disappointing.”
The Seahawks scored touchdowns off each of the three turnovers, including a 30-yard interception return by Justin Coleman, who mocked Elliott and the Cowboys by jumping into the Salvation Army Red Kettle in the back of the end zone.
It was one of two interceptions by Prescott in the third quarter as the Cowboys blew a 9-7 halftime lead. A Bryant fumble in second quarter led to Seattle’s only other touchdown.
What it means is that the gift the Cowboys were given before the game — losses by the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions, giving them a chance to make the playoffs if they won their final two games and the Falcons lost their season finale — has been turned over to the Seahawks.
The Cowboys (8-7) saw their three-game winning streak and playoffs hopes end. They close out the regular season at Philadelphia next week.
Prescott completed 21 of 34 passes for 182 yards with two interceptions. He was sacked four times. Elliott rushed for 97 yards on 24 carries. His longest run was 9 yards.
Normally reliable kicker Dan Bailey made four field goals in the game, but also missed two in the fourth quarter that could have put the Cowboys within striking distance.
Again, it was fitting for a season that had long gone awry.
The Seahawks (9-6), who won the game despite just 136 yards of offense, remain in the playoff hunt. Russell Wilson passed for 93 yards and was the Seahawks’ leading rusher with 29 yards.
The Cowboys’ hopes of a run to the playoffs being sparked by Elliott’s return proved to be nothing but a pipe dream.
Elliott did his part early, rushing 15 times for 73 yards in the first half.
But it did not open up the struggling passing game that has been a season-long issue, becoming even more acute during Elliott’s absence.
The Cowboys likely will forever second-guess a crucial series in the fourth quarter when they had a first-and-goal at the 3, down 21-12.
Instead of running Elliott, who had been the only successful option for the Cowboys all day, Prescott called a run-pass option on first down, gaining 1 yard on a scramble.
On second down, another pass play was called by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Prescott threw incomplete and tight end Jason Witten was called for holding.
Prescott was then sacked and the Cowboys had to settle for a 34-yard field goal that Bailey shockingly missed with 5:39 to play.
That pretty much ended the Cowboys’ chances.
“The first-down play was one of those run-pass options that we had,” coach Jason Garrett said. “They had it loaded up in the box. The second-down play was one we liked. Zeke is a great player and played well. When you look back on those plays and they don’t work out, it’s very easy to [second-guess]. In that particular case, it didn’t work out for us and that was a big part of the game.”
Prescott said the Cowboys lost because of poor execution and poor decisions when they were in scoring territory. He won’t second-guess Linehan for putting the ball in his hands. But he said he has to find a way to get the team into the end zone.
“It makes me respect this league,” Prescott said of his sophomore struggles. “Having a first year like I did, I think you almost want to take things for granted. And then you come into your second year and a lot things just go against you and it’s tough. I’ve given my all. I will learn from it and get better.”
Prescott’s rookie season proved to be the best of any quarterback in NFL history, when he threw for 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
But 2017 has been a struggle. He has been intercepted 13 times this season, including the two on Sunday. Four of them have been returned for touchdowns.
He has been intercepted nine times in the past seven games. Prescott has seven games this season with less than 200 yards passing, including four in the past seven weeks.
The two interceptions Sunday were bad throws — an overthrow of Elliott and a pass behind Bryant that was tipped into the hands of linebacker K.J. Wright.
“It’s frustrating. I’ll get over it at some time,” Prescott said. “It didn’t go our way. I did a poor job of going with my pre-snap plan. I was off-balance, tried to throw over people.
“On the second one, I have to throw him a better ball.”
It was another bad game from Bryant, who dropped a pass in the first quarter to go along with his second-quarter fumble. He has 11 dropped passes this season. The tipped interception was a pass that Bryant probably should have caught.
More to the point, it was a continuation of a frustrating season for the Cowboys’ No. 1 receiver, who makes $14 million annually. Bryant had three catches for 44 yards Sunday and has not had a 100-yard game all season.
But questions about the future have now risen to the forefront and need to be discussed.
A season that began with concerns about a seemingly overmatched defense is now ending with major issues on offense. That was most evident Sunday.
This was the first time in franchise history that they lost a game after giving up just 136 yards.
Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher in 2016, should be on the field for all 16 games in 2018, but Sunday’s playoff-ending loss proved that the Cowboys need more if they hope to achieve their ultimate goal of becoming Super again.
For the fourth time since 2007, the Cowboys have followed a double-digit win season by missing the playoffs. The Cowboys still have just two playoff wins since 1996, and no trips the Super Bowl since 1995.
Jones didn’t want to address any questions about Bryant’s future, simply saying that he is still under contract. But there is no question there is a chance the Cowboys could ask him to take a pay cut or be cut in the off-season.
Jones, however, made it clear that Prescott and Garrett remain big parts of the team’s future.
“Well, are you talking about — I’m excited about our future with Dak at quarterback,” Jones said. “I’m extremely excited about our future. There’s no qualms or no issues if you’re talking about any place else relative to anything to do with the coaching — within certain boundaries, but specifically at the top. We’ve just got to get it done better.
“Well, just so we’re clear about it. I do understand frustration right after you lose a game that has such meaningfulness as this ball game. But I get to look at a lot of different things and have been around a lot of head coaches and coordinators, so I feel good about our head coach.”