Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys season a tale of two halves, a wolf cry, the Amari trade, and Zeke being Zeke

Dak Prescott celebrates Wild Card win over Seahawks

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and teammates celebrate their win over the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday, January 5, 2018, to advance in the NFL playoffs.
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Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and teammates celebrate their win over the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday, January 5, 2018, to advance in the NFL playoffs.

The Dallas Cowboys’ 2018 season was one of the odder campaigns in recent memory.

It can clearly be split into two halves: 3-5 and 7-1. 

After acquiring receiver Amari Cooper from Oakland on Oct. 22 the Cowboys’ offense was redefined and unquestionably improved. But issues remained. Chief among them on the offensive line where Dallas was without their All-Pro center Travis Frederick for the entire season with Guillain-Barre syndrome and injuries to three other starters.

The defense, with rising star linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, along with sack leader DeMarcus Lawrence and cornerback Byron Jones, finished in the top 10 in the league for the second consecutive season.

Here’s a look back at the season that was for the Cowboys:

Sept. 9: Panthers 16, Cowboys 8

The Cowboys couldn’t slow down Cam Newton in the first half as the Panthers took a 10-0 lead. They led 16-0 early in the fourth quarter before the Cowboys’ offense finally woke up. It was too late, however, and the blue print for much of the first half of the season was set.

Sept. 16: Cowboys 20, Giants 13

Tavon Austin gave an early glimpse of what he could offer the offense with a 64-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott on the third play of the game. But a groin injury a month later would force him to miss nine games. The defense showed what was in store by holding the Giants to 255 total yards.

Sept. 23: Seahawks 24, Cowboys 13

The Cowboys’ offense got off to another slow start and fell behind 17-3 at the half and 24-6 early in the fourth quarter. Three turnovers, including two Earl Thomas interceptions stalled drives, the last coming off a deflection of tight end Blake Jarwin in the red zone with 5:30 left in the game. Ezekiel Elliott had his first big rushing day with 127 yards on 16 carries, but Prescott was sacked five times.

Sept. 30: Cowboys 26, Lions 24

The offense finally showed something but the red zone issues became clear. Dallas had their only 400-plus yard game in the first half of the season but had to rely on four Brett Maher field goals, including a 38-yard game-winner as time expired to escape the Lions. Elliott rushed for a season-high 152 yards on 25 carries and also led the team in receiving with 88 yards and a touchdown.

Oct. 7: Texans 19, Cowboys 16 (OT)

One of the more demoralizing games early for the Cowboys because the win was there for the taking. The defense allowed a season-high 462 yards but was stout in the red zone, holding the Texans to four field goals and a touchdown. The problem was, the offense was still scuffling and seven penalties for 72 yards didn’t help matters. Prescott threw two interceptions, including one deep in Houston territory and another that set the Texans up for a field goal in the third quarter. Maher hit field goals from 43 and 48 yards but after electing to punt at the Texans’ 42 on 4th and 1 (a long yard, according to Garrett) in overtime, the Texans won it with a 36-yard field goal.

Oct. 14: Cowboys 40, Jaguars 7

The Cowboys put it all together for the first time, routing the Jags in dominating fashion. Dallas led 24-0 at the half and 37-7 early in the fourth quarter. Cole Beasley had a season-high 101 yards receiving on nine catches, including two touchdowns. The defense held Jacksonville to 204 yards and a season-low 10 first downs. Maher made the Cowboys’ front office look like geniuses with the move to go with him over veteran Dan Bailey by hitting four field goals, including from 46, 50 and 55 yards.

Oct. 21: Redskins 20, Cowboys 17

This was another agonizing loss. A better word for it might be annoying. With a chance to get above .500 before the bye week, the Cowboys let another one slip away. Although they outgained and had more first downs than the Redskins, the offense couldn’t get out of its own way most of the time. Rookie Michael Gallup had 49-yard touchdown catch right before the half to tie it at 7-7. But besides a 47-yard Maher field goal, the offense was AWOL until Prescott scored on a 1-yard run with just under 2:00 remaining. By then, it was too late. Elliott had a season-low 33 yards on 15 carries.

Nov. 5: Titans 28, Cowboys 14

This was clearly the Cowboys’ low point of the season. After a bye, they came out on fire for this Monday night game against the equally average Titans. But after an explosive start in which they forced two fumbles, it netted just seven points. Maher missed a 38-yard field goal on the opening possession and after a Prescott interception in the end zone, the Titans drove 80 yards on 14 plays (8:55 minutes) to tie it at 7-7 lead. They drove 69 yards on seven plays for a touchdown on their next possession as well to take a 14-7 lead. Dallas tied it at 14-14 at the half but were shutout and out of gas in the second half. Tennessee had the ball nine more minutes than Dallas and was 11 of 14 on third downs.

Nov. 11: Cowboys 27, Eagles 20

With their season on the brink of disaster, the Cowboys came up huge on a Sunday night in Philadelphia. The offense seemed to be working with an immediacy, although it still had to settle for two early field goals, one of which was set up by Leighton Vander Esch’s first-career interception. Amari Cooper, in his second game with the Cowboys after being traded from Oakland, led the team with six catches for 75 yards. Prescott led three 75-yard touchdown drives, including two in the second half that answered Eagles’ touchdowns. Vander Esch had 13 tackles, including a highlight-reel, third-down stop on a screen pass to Corey Clement for a loss of five with two minutes left in the game. Vander Esch fought through a block and made the tackle all in one burst.

Nov. 18: Cowboys 22, Falcons 19

The impressive win the previous week meant little if the Cowboys couldn’t follow it up with another road win. For the first three quarters, the teams traded field goals and the Falcons led 9-6 going into the fourth. The Cowboys, however, put together two long drives, the first of which started in the third quarter and finished with a touchdown early in the fourth to take a 12-9 lead (Maher missed the point after). Vander Esch picked off Matt Ryan on the ensuing possession to set up another touchdown and a 10-point lead. But the Falcons tied it at 19-19 before Maher kicked a 42-yard game winner as time expired.

Nov. 22: Cowboys 31, Redskins 23

Proof that nothing ever comes easy in the NFL, the Cowboys found themselves in a tussle with Washington despite quarterback Alex Smith being out with a broken leg. Colt McCoy threw two touchdown passes, including a 53-yarder to Vernon Davis and a 10-yarder to Trey Quinn that put them up 13-10 early in the second half. That’s when Cooper stepped in and took over the game and became an instant fan favorite. On consecutive possessions, Cooper scored on touchdown passes of 40 and 90 yards to put Dallas up 24-13. After DeMarcus Lawrence’s interception set Dallas up at the Washington 17, Prescott punched it in from five yards for a commanding 18-point lead.

Nov. 29: Cowboys 13, Saints 10

The biggest game of the season had AT&T Stadium humming. The defense turned in its most complete game of the season, shutting down Drew Brees and the high-powered Saints’ offense. The Cowboys built a 13-0 halftime lead and then held on after Brees connected with Keith Kirkwood for a 30-yard touchdown pass with 1:08 remaining. Cooper and Michael Gallup both had 76 yards receiving and Elliott had 75 yards on 23 carries.

Dec. 9: Cowboys 29, Eagles 23 (OT)

The Cowboys were now rolling with a four-game win streak that put them in the driver’s seat for the NFC East title. Beating the Eagles, the defending Super Bowl champs, would seemingly (wrongly, it turned out) thwart Philly’s playoff chances and catapult Dallas into the division title. Dallas’ 576 yards are the most for any team in 2018. Cooper had 10 catches for a career-high 217 yards, including touchdown catches of 28, 75 and 15 yards. The first two came in the fourth quarter and the last won the game in overtime. Dallas built a 9-0 lead behind three Maher field goals, including a record 62-yarder in the second quarter, before the Eagles tied it to set up a back and forth final quarter. Prescott had career highs with 42 completions on 54 attempts for 455 yards. Elliott had 113 yards rushing and 79 yards receiving on 12 catches.

Dec. 16: Colts 23, Cowboys 0

Without a doubt the biggest dud of the season. With the NFC East title there for the taking with a win, the Cowboys laid an egg on both sides of the ball. Perhaps a let down was inevitable after an emotional, backs-against-the-wall five-game win streak, especially the previous two games, that not only put Dallas back in the playoff picture, but in the driver’s seat for the division title.

Dec. 23: Cowboys 27, Buccaneers 20

The defense responded to the dud the previous week with one of their more inspired efforts of the season. Jaylon Smith returned a forced fumble by Randy Gregory on Jameis Winston 69 yards for a touchdown late in the first quarter. Later, Gregory recovered a fumble at the Tampa Bay 4 to set up a four-yard touchdown pass to Gallup in the third quarter. The win clinched the NFC East title and secured home-field advantage in the wild card round.

Dec. 30: Cowboys 36, Giants 35

In a game that meant nothing to the standings or playoff seedings, the Cowboys sat Elliott and offensive linemen Tyron Smith and Zack Martin. Prescott, however, not only played, he played the entire game. He rewarded Dallas with a 387 yards and four touchdown passes, including three to tight end Blake Jarwin. Jarwin finished with a career-high seven catches for 119 yards. Prescott led a game-winning, 10-play, 70-yard yard in the final 2:35 in which he connected with Cole Beasley, who made a miraculous catch in the back of the end zone to pull the Cowboys to within 35-34. Prescott then his Gallup for the go-ahead two-point conversion pass with 1:12 remaining.

Jan. 5: Cowboys 24, Seahawks 22 (wild card playoff)

The Cowboys avenged with regular-season loss to the Seahawks but it wasn’t easy. After Seattle took a 14-10 lead late in the third quarter, Prescott led two, fourth quarter touchdown drives, including an 11-play drive in which he picked up a first down on 3rd and 14 with a 16-yard run that set up his one-yard scoring run that gave Dallas a 10-point lead with 2:08 left in the game. Seattle pulled to within 24-22 with a touchdown and two-point conversion with 1:18 remaining but its onside kick was easily recovered by Beasley and the Cowboys ran out the clock to secure the win.

Jan. 12: Rams 30, Cowboys 22 (divisional playoff)

Los Angeles gained 459 yards, including 273 on the ground to pound the Dallas defense into submission. Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson both rushed for over 100 yards a week after the Cowboys held the NFL’s top rushing team the Seahawks to 73 yards. The Cowboys held 11 teams to under 100 yards rushing in 2018 but had no answer for the Rams. Despite their dominance for much of the first three quarters, Elliott’s one-yard scoring run and Cooper’s two-point conversion catch from Prescott made it a one-score game late in the third quarter. The defense couldn’t slow down the Rams, however, who drove 65 yards on 12 plays for a touchdown and 15-point lead. Dallas responded with another 75-yard, 12-play touchdown drive to make it an eight-point game but the drive took 5:05 off the clock and the Rams’ offense ran off the final 2:11.

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Stefan Stevenson has been covering sports for the Star-Telegram since 1997. He spent five years covering TCU athletics, which included two BCS bowls, two trips to the college World Series and the move to the Big 12. He has covered the Texas Rangers since 2014 and started reporting on the Dallas Cowboys in 2016.