After Tony Romo got the Wally Pipp treatment, it was time for him to walk away from the Dallas Cowboys.
The 2016 National Football League season saw the Dallas Cowboys re-emerge as a power. The Cowboys went 13-3 which tied their franchise best mark which was set in 1993 and 2007. And just like 2007 when the Cowboys had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, they were one and done in the postseason. But even in defeat the Cowboys can hold their heads high as they were put in this position by a pair of promising rookies.
Running back Ezekiel Elliot was the fourth overall pick of the 2016 National Football League Draft and he delivered in a big way this season for the Cowboys as he had 1,631 rushing yards which led the league while also having 15 rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Dak Prescott didn’t come to the NFL with lofty expectations as he was a fourth round pick out of Mississippi State University. But when starting quarterback Tony Romo suffered an injury in the preseason, it opened the door for Prescott to become the Cowboys starting signal caller. Prescott was merely expected to keep the seat warm until Romo got healthy, however the wins kept piling up for the Cowboys with him under center and thus head coach Jason Garrett decided to stick with him.
And when the Cowboys faced the Green Bay Packers this past Sunday in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, before you blinked they were down 21-3 at home. However it was the combination of Prescott and Elliot who got the Cowboys back into the contest. With just over four minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys managed to tie the score at 28. Even when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was able to put Green Bay in position to kick to go-ahead field goal to make it 31-28 with 93 seconds remaining, Prescott drove the Cowboys down the field to give kicker Dan Bailey the opportunity to once again tie the contest. But with just 35 seconds left, Rodgers found a way to get his team into field goal position which was highlighted by finding tight end Jared Cook and a 36-yard completion on third-and-20 which set up kicker Mason Crosby to make a 51-yard field goal as time expired to win the game for the Packers, and dash the Super Bowl dreams of the Cowboys.
And now as the Cowboys are left to lick their wounds after their heartbreaking loss, it is up to team owner/president/general manager Jerry Jones to address his defense.
The Cowboys were 14th in the National Football League in total defense this season and plus-five in the turnover category which was tied for ninth in the league. Dallas also managed to tally 36 sacks which were 13th in the NFL, but as they had game changers on offense, they were missing that element on defense.
The Cowboys lacked an edge rusher that could consistently put stress on an opposing offensive line, a menacing linebacker, or a game changer in their secondary. And even though that the Cowboys entered the playoffs with the best record in the NFC, it wasn’t a slam dunk that they were going to make the Super Bowl due to their inefficiencies on the defensive side of the football. The Cowboys were able to score points to keep up with the Packers as their rally was sparked by an interception by safety Jeff Heath in the second half. But when Dallas needed their defense late in the fourth quarter to prevent the Packers to get into scoring range, they were missing in action.
As good as Rodgers is, under no circumstances should he be allowed to make a 36-yard completion on a third-and-20 situation as he had enough in the pocket time to make dinner reservations if he needed to. And this is something that the Cowboys must address in the off-season if they want to become a realistic Super Bowl contender.
Jones attempted to remedy this by using a second round pick on defensive end Randy Gregory in 2015, but he has more suspensions (three) by the National Football League for failed drug test than he does sacks (1) as he cannot help the team win games while he is rehab. Last spring the Cowboys selected linebacker Jaylon Smith in the second round of the NFL Draft, but a knee injury that he suffered in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl while playing for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish forced him to miss this NFL season. The Cowboys also attempted to acquire defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson from the New York Jets this season. But the two sides could not agree on the compensation as the Jets wanted a first-round selection for Richardson, while the Cowboys were only willing to part with a third.
Improving the defense must be the Cowboys top priority in the off-season as it isn’t a guarantee that Elliot and Prescott can have these kind of seasons in 2017 due to the fact that teams in the National Football League will now have a year’s worth of game film on them. You can’t also overlook that all three of the Cowboys losses came within the NFC East this season as this division is on the verge of once again being one of the best in the league. The microscope will be concentrated on Prescott as I don’t see any scenario in which the Cowboys will keep Romo next season as they’ll definitely look for a trade partner being that so many teams around the league are desperate to have a quality starting quarterback which means that it is Dak’s time.
Jones has once again created a buzz around his franchise as he has constructed the Cowboys in the same fashion which led to three Super Bowl Championships over a four-year span in the 1990s. But Jones doesn’t have those impact players on defense in the mode of Charles Haley, Deion Sanders, and Darren Woodson that could take over a game. And until Jones addresses this issue, his beloved Cowboys won’t get any closer to winning the Super Bowl than they did this season.
Bill Belichick-New England Patriots
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is a three-time National Football League Coach of the Year and he is in the running to once again win the award here in 2016. The deck was stacked against the Patriots to begin this NFL season as the result of quarterback Tom Brady being suspended by the league for the first four games.
But in typical Patriots fashion, they responded to adversity as only they could by going 3-1 without Brady. New England hasn’t had the services of tight end Rob Gronkowski that much as he has only appeared eight games this season, while he was placed on injured reserved last month. The Patriots also traded outside linebacker Jamie Collins last month and they haven’t skipped a beat.
With just one game remaining in the regular season, the Patriots are 13-2, and a victory this Sunday over the Miami Dolphins, or a loss by the Oakland Raiders will give New England home-field advantage in the AFC Playoffs.
Each of the last five National Football League seasons have seen the Patriots at least reach the AFC Championship Game, and as they’ve already secured a first-round bye, there is a good possibility to see them advance into late January.
In all but two of Belichick’s 17 seasons as the head coach of the Patriots, his team has won at least 10 games in the regular season. And as the Patriots could finish tied with the Dallas Cowboys for the best record in the National Football League, it is a tribute to the culture that Belichick has established in Foxborough.
Adam Gase-Miami Dolphins
For Adam Gase he has walked into a very difficult situation and made the impossible, possible. Prior to this year the Dolphins have only made the playoffs once since 2002, while they hadn’t had a winning season since 2008. But in one year under Gase, the Dolphins are heading to the postseason and in a very improbable fashion.
The Dolphins began the 2016 National Football League season with a record of 1-4 and it appeared to be another lost year in South Florida. But since then the Dolphins are 9-1 as Gase has changed the culture there along with the team’s overall philosophy.
When Gase became the head coach of the Dolphins, he decided to stick with Ryan Tannehill as his starting quarterback. Tannehill was the Dolphins first-round pick in 2012, but he has been up and down during his time with the team. Gase decided to reduce Tannehill’s work load as the Dolphins have rediscovered the running game.
Second year running back Jay Ajayi has become a force for the Dolphins as his 1,213 rushing yards in 2016 are the fourth most in a single-season by a Miami running back. Ajayi’s emergence coincided with the Dolphins resurgence as his 204 rushing yards in Miami’s 30-15 victory in Week 6 over the Pittsburgh Steelers got the ball rolling.
Ajayi has been able to produce behind a Dolphins offensive line that is without the services of a center Mike Pouncey who is a three-time Pro Bowler, but it has been the overall attitude of this unit as well as the commitment to the running game that has turned things around in South Florida.
Overall the Dolphins are ninth in the National Football League in rushing and that will be important in the postseason as they will be without the services of Tannehill who is out with a knee injury. But the Dolphins haven’t skipped a beat with backup quarterback Matt Moore who is 2-0 as a starter.
The Dolphins also possess a ferocious defensive line that features Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Cameron Wake who tend to have a weekly meeting a the quarterback.
And once you factor in Miami’s ability to run the football along with a stout defensive line, they should be a force next month in the playoffs.
Jack Del Rio-Oakland Raiders
A franchise turnaround begins with a culture change and this is very evident with the Oakland Raiders. Once upon a time that Raiders were the gold standard of success in the National Football League as they were revered. But since 2003, the Raiders became the laughing stock of the NFL as they have had the worst winning percentage in the league over that stretch without a playoff appearance, or a winning campaign. But things have changed on the watch of head coach Jack Del Rio.
Del Rio in his second season as the head coach of the Raiders, and under him the team has returned to glory. The Raiders record of 12-3 this season is the second best in the AFC, while it is their best mark since they went 12-4 in 2000.
Del Rio has changed the culture in Oakland which wasn’t an easy task and in the process he has woken a sleeping giant in the National Football League. But Del Rio’s biggest task is still ahead of him as the Raiders will enter the postseason without the services of Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Carr.
Carr suffered a fractured fibula this past Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts which really put a damper on the Raiders postseason chances. Carr was in the running to be the National Football League’s MVP and now the Raiders will go into the postseason relying on backup quarterback Matt McGloin to get the job done. And if Del Rio and the Raiders find a way to advance in the postseason with McGloin under center, it will arguably be one of the best coaching jobs ever done in the history of the league.
Jason Garrett-Dallas Cowboys
After the Dallas Cowboys went 4-12 in 2015, they were expected to be an improved team here in 2016, but nobody expected what they have become. Through 15 games in 2016, the Cowboys are 13-2 which is tied with the New England Patriots for the best mark in the National Football League and they’ve already sewn up home-field advantage in the NFC.
But things looked bleak for the Cowboys in August when starting quarterback Tony Romo was sidelined with a back injury. And that meant that the Cowboys would go with an unproven rookie at quarterback in Dak Prescott.
Prescott has more than overachieved this season as he is completing 68.1% of his passes, while he has thrown 23 touchdown passes to just 4 interceptions. And typically a season like this would see Prescott as a shoo-in to be the National Football League’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he has some very stiff competition from his teammate in running back Ezekiel Elliot.
Whereas much wasn’t expected from Prescott who was selected in the fourth round of the National Football League Draft by the Cowboys, the same cannot be said for Elliot. Elliot was the fourth overall selection of the draft as he was expected to ignite the running game for the Cowboys which is what he has done. Elliot is leading the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards, and he has brought excitement back to that position in Dallas which has not been seen in Dallas since the days of Emmitt Smith.
Prescott and Elliot have benefited from playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the National Football League, while Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett has kept the game plan simple, but effective for his rookie quarterback.
And if Dallas continues on the pace that they are currently on, they could be in line for their first Super Bowl Championship since 1995.
Ben McAdoo-New York Giants
Ben McAdoo spent the last two years as the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants and he found himself being promoted to being the team’s head coach last January. McAdoo’s task was to get things turned around for a Giants franchise that had not reached the postseason since winning the Super Bowl in 2011.
Under McAdoo, the Giants began the season 2-0 for the first time since 2009 and their 10-5 mark has seen them qualify for the postseason. McAdoo’s Giants are the only team to defeat the Dallas Cowboys this season as they’ve done it twice. But it has been the Giants defense that has kept them going this season as they are 11th in the NFL in total defense, but third in points allowed at 18.3 per contest. McAdoo’s specialty is supposed to be offensive football, but New York has been stuck in the mud as they are 24th in the National Football League. However being that the Giants have improved after going just 6-10 in each of the last two seasons has to put McAdoo in the mix as far as being the NFL’s Coach of the Year.