Apparently, the Dallas Cowboys’ 2015 season never happened.
All has seemingly been forgotten about the 4-12 campaign.
No lessons were learned.
No immediate needs needed to be filled.
When the Cowboys look at themselves, they see the 12-4 team of 2014, the one that came within a whisper of reaching the NFC Championship Game before quarterback Tony Romo and receiver Dez Bryant were lost to injuries, again rendering 2015 moot.
Owner Jerry Jones refused to predict a Super Bowl run for the Cowboys, but he said the team is back to the same expectations they had coming off the 2014 season — expectations of a special, if not “super,” season.
“We are back in the two-years-ago business,” Jones said. “We are back in the expectations leaving last year into this year.”
That is the only explanation for their approach to the off-season and the NFL Draft, where the Cowboys took Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the first pick and injured Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, who will be sidelined for at least a year, with the second pick.
The Cowboys added players to help their team in the final five rounds, including Nebraska defensive tackle Maliek Collins in the third, Oklahoma defensive tackle Charles Tapper and Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott in the fourth and Purdue cornerback Anthony Brown, Central Michigan safety Kavon Frazer, Eastern Michigan running back Darius Jackson and former Baylor basketball player Rico Gathers in the sixth.
Only Elliott can be considered an immediate starter and impact player. Collins is the only other one who will make an early contribution. The rest can be deemed developmental projects.
This draft was about the first two picks and the Cowboys viewing themselves as instant contenders again with the return to health of Romo and Bryant.
“You can interpret it that way,” Jones said. “I certainly feel that way. I think this reflects a lot of that.”
While the Cowboys might feel a little better about the veteran talent on their roster than others, they are not in denial about their needs.
They know that this defense has needed pass-rushing help since the end of last season. The need was exacerbated by their top two defensive ends, Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, being suspended for the first four games of 2016 for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and the team’s decision to let go of veterans Greg Hardy and Jeremy Mincey.
Yet, a team that couldn’t get to the quarterback last year, a holdover issue that ultimately derailed the 2014 campaign in the divisional playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, refused to address the position with their two most impactful picks of the draft.
“This is as much about what we couldn’t afford to pass in these two players as it is a non-addressing of the rush,” Jones said. “It’s more about the caliber of the players. That mitigates the sting or the angst over not doing something with the rush.
“We didn’t have the opportunity, at the risk of losing Elliott, to do something about the rush. We wanted Elliott more than we wanted to go right in there and address the rush. We knew that going in. We were going to go past a top corner, a top defensive lineman. We needed to make that pick.”
The Cowboys would have taken Elliott over Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, who went No. 3 to San Diego before they picked at No. 4. They chose Elliott over Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who went fifth to Jacksonville.
The Cowboys believe Elliott is a generational-type talent who can help the offense and the defense while taking pressure off Romo. They hope he will allow them to go back to their success of 2014 with a balanced, run-based offense that wears defenses down and allows the Cowboys’ defense to play with a lead.
He is the one guy who could have the biggest and most immediate impact, Jones said.
Jones’ biggest regret in the draft was not the inability to get a pass rusher, but being unable to make a trade back into the first round to get quarterback Paxton Lynch. The Denver Broncos got Lynch by beating the Cowboys to a trade with the Seattle Seahawks.
Jones said he got about only three hours of sleep after missing out on Lynch.
“I was still mad about it the next morning,” Jones said. “When I look back on my life, I’ve overpaid for my big successes every time. I probably should’ve overpaid [for Paxton Lynch].”
To trade up for Lynch, the Cowboys would have had to give away their second- and third-round picks and probably more, meaning they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take Smith.
In the end, the Cowboys passed up opportunities to address the pass rush in the second round when they grabbed Smith. He was ranked in the top five on their board without the injury.
Like Elliott, the Cowboys believe Smith is a potential generational player and future franchise cornerstone worth the gamble to wait on.
Not only does he have to overcome torn ligaments in his knee, but he has nerve damage that is currently not responding to treatment.
The Cowboys have confidence Smith will make it back because his surgery was performed by their own team doctor.
“When we evaluated him, we were keenly aware we had as good of information about his recovery as we ever could have,” Jones said. “All that makes you comfortable. We were as comfortable as an old shoe.”
Comfortable as they were at the end of the 2014 season when they came within a whisper of the NFC title game appearance for the first time since 1995 and headed into 2015 as a trendy pick to make a Super Bowl run.
Let Jones and Cowboys’ draft tell it — those days are back.