Where will the Dallas Cowboys go from here? After a very exciting regular season, things came to a disappointing conclusion in the playoffs. Things look good for the team moving forward, but that was what we thought after the 2014 playoff appearance, and we all remember how that went. Are we looking at a serious falloff this year, a regression to the mean, or building on success?
Before the 2014 playoffs, I did a State of the Cowboys piece at the request of community member Bobby Chavez, and he reached out to me again this year to see if I would do another one. But unlike then, I wanted to wait until the final curtain had dropped on the season. Now that it has, it seems like a good idea to review things. So here is a take on where the Cowboys are, and what that might mean for the coming fall.
The front office continues to be one of the best in the league. I have already discussed the importance of stability at the top for Dallas, but how does that play into free agency and the draft as the team seeks to improve the roster,? The best thing is that the track record in the draft has been pretty incredible. Under the guidance of Will McClay, the scouting department has done arguably the best job in the league with first-round picks for several years now, but in 2016 they outdid themselves. In hindsight, Dallas had two top five quality rookies on the field in Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, plus two more rookies that proved to be starter quality in Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown. That is pretty incredible, but the 2016 class has the potential to be even better. Rico Gathers might become a quality tight end, Charles Tapper has insisted on Twitter that he is going to be a contributor going forward, and then there is Jaylon Smith. Although we still don’t know with certainty that his nerve is going to fully regenerate, all the talk from the staff and Smith himself is positive. If he does completely recover and plays the way his college career indicates he can, he would be another top five or ten level talent - and that would make this class one of historic quality.
Realistically, it is highly doubtful that the staff can come even close to that this year, but there is every reason to believe that they will do a good job in finding more talent to fill the holes the team now has.
Free agency is clearly the secondary path to improving things in Dallas, as the team makes no secret of its aversion to going after big name/big dollar free agents anymore. Don’t look for anything to change there. They will likely continue to look first to their own free agents, and then seek to find serviceable but unspectacular players to add on the open market. If you are still hoping for a top-level pass rusher to be brought in by that route, expect to be disappointed. That is just not the blueprint for the Cowboys.
We are seeing some signs of consistency - but it is not yet conclusive. Having two 12 or more wins in three years is noteworthy.
Here is the list of coaches who have won 12 or more games in two of the last 3 seasons. Bill Belichick. Jason Garrett. That is it.— Babe Laufenberg (@BabeLaufenberg) January 20, 2017
Having said that, there is still that disaster in 2015. The theory that the main problem was the lack of an effective backup quarterback was certainly bolstered by Prescott’s rookie campaign. Now the Cowboys have less worries about the health of the starter, but with the almost certain departure of Tony Romo, they now have to find another backup.
The anticipated retention of all or at least most of the coaching staff is also a key part of maintaining consistency. There are no new schemes to install, and returning players should be able to concentrate on improving rather than learning something new. That also should make integrating new personnel easier.
The roster. The completely unforeseeable success of Prescott means that the Cowboys have already accomplished the most difficult task in football: Finding a franchise quarterback. In Dallas’ case, they were seeking a way to make a smooth transition from one proven passer to another. It came about far more rapidly than they had planned, but now the team seems set at quarterback for a decade or more.
Offensively, the team has few concerns. Elliott also looks to have the running back position locked down for years to come, and the bulk of the offensive line is also young. The only concerns on that side of the ball are wide receiver depth, with Terrance Williams likely gone in free agency, and tight end, although Geoff Swaim is expected back. James Hanna is also supposed to return, but any time the term “bone bruise” is used to describe a player’s injury, it is best not to count on that. But Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley still give the team two outstanding receiving options, and somehow Jason Witten still continues to perform at a high level.
The big concerns are on defense. Smith is likely to solidify the linebacking (and possibly elevate it to elite status if Sean Lee has another season like 2016), but there is still no reliable answer at pass rush, and the secondary could be gutted by free agency. Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox are all UFAs, and the team is going to have to figure out which if any of those to try and re-sign. Claiborne’s health has always been a problem. Carr is the opposite, having never missed a game in his career, and the team may be able to come to an agreement with him on an affordable deal. Wilcox was possibly the most improved player on the roster last year, while Church is very reliable. But the Cowboys are unlikely to be able to keep both. They may not manage to retain any of these defensive backs, which would really be a significant hit to what was the strongest part of the defense last season. There is a lot of work to be done here, and the team is likely to have to use all options to fill the holes.
And there is still that elusive pass rusher. Nothing has worked in recent years. There is still some hope that DeMarcus Lawrence can get healthy, but the team still has to be looking to the draft to find a significant talent - or maybe two. Dallas is drafting late in each round, and has no fifth-round pick due to the trade to get Matt Cassel (and you have to think they wish they had that one back, as late as it is in the draft). There will be no compensatory picks this time around, either.
But, as mentioned above, the staff has been doing very well in recent drafts, except for that pass rusher thing. Now they have to keep it going and get the holes filled.
So what can we expect this coming season? There is a lot of concern that the team could take a big step back as it did after the 13-3 2007 campaign. But this is a very different team in just about every way from that one. The roster was aging back then. The front office had not yet gelled to the extent it has now. And Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett are almost polar opposites when it comes to getting the team to focus on the task ahead. A precipitous drop-off seems quite unlikely.
But so does reaching 13 wins again, because that is just incredibly hard to do in the NFL. Dallas also has a target on its back, especially against its NFC rivals. It also has to play a first-place schedule, and while that only affects two games, it means that the Cowboys have to play the two teams from the NFC title game, the Green Bay Packers and the Atlanta Falcons.
Even with that, it still seems that ten or eleven wins is not an unreasonable expectation. Defending the NFC East crown is going to be a real challenge. Washington is much more stable now, both in the front office and coaching staff. The Philadelphia Eagles seem to be doing a good job recovering from the Chip Kelly era, and the New York Giants frankly seem to have built their roster, especially on defense, with the express purpose of beating Dallas.
But the main factor that should give us hope goes back to those two Pro Bowl rookies. Elliott allows the Cowboys to continue focusing on a run-first attack, while Prescott has seemingly skipped completely over the first few years a quarterback usually has to work through and is more like a five-year veteran. It would seem that he is the class of the division. Eli Manning can be excellent sometimes, but he is also a proven interception machine. Kirk Cousins appears, at the moment, to be hovering between a low-end franchise-level quarterback and the kind that keeps you in quarterback purgatory, where he is good enough to keep the job, but not to take you to real success. And Carson Wentz may become a real star, but he looks to have a much more normal learning curve ahead of him.
The drafting of Prescott may be the most significant personnel move so far this century for the Cowboys, and that is not overstating it at all. The NFL is still a quarterback-driven league, and Prescott showed even in the playoff defeat that he can go toe-to-toe with the best. And Aaron Rodgers was pretty conclusive proof that a really elite passer can overcome a multitude of flaws. It is too early to declare that Prescott is truly in that elite category, but he is not far from being there after only 17 starts in the NFL. If he continues to grow the way he did since joining the Cowboys, and the front office continues to surround him with excellent talent, the state of the team is very good indeed.