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.