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Cowboys can’t seem to go to playoffs in back-to-back years, which is exactly what the NFL wants

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Parity is a desired goal for the league, and that is what they have.

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys
Both the Cowboys and Giants made the playoffs last year - and both would be out if the season ended today.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

With Ezekiel Elliott suspended as well as Tyron Smith and Sean Lee both likely to miss at least the Sunday night matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys are facing an uphill battle to reach the playoffs. This is a continuation of a trend over the past four years. The Cowboys reached the postseason easily in 2014 with a 12-4 record, slumped to 4-12 in 2015 as Tony Romo missed most of the season, and rebounded to take the top seed in the NFC in 2016, led by rookie stars Elliott and Dak Prescott. In an article at the Ft Worth Star-Telegram, Clarence Hill Jr. wrote:

The team appears to be headed for another step-back season, which proved to be the norm during Romo’s roller coaster era.

From 2006-2015, the Cowboys never posted back-to-back, double-digit win seasons and only made the playoffs in back-to-back years once.

Injuries, controversies and limited depth were to blame then just as now for a team that is trending down in 2017 after last year’s 13-3 season.

Hill referred to it as being “stuck in neutral”. But it is really more than that.

It is exactly what the NFL has been trying to achieve for years. Pure parity that leads to real turnover each year in the playoff participants, and very few real dynasty teams.

For some time now, the playoffs have seen roughly half of the teams that made the postseason in one year fail to make it the following year. And it is much more pronounced in 2017. The AFC is right on track for a 50% turnover, with 2016 playoff teams the Houston Texans, the Miami Dolphins, and the Oakland Raiders all on the outside looking in. (It is also worth noting that the AFC as a whole has fallen on hard times, with ten of its teams currently below .500 in the standings.)

The NFC is looking at even more turmoil. Of the teams that advanced out of the 2016 regular season, only the Seattle Seahawks are currently in the top six to make the playoffs - and they are clinging to the last wildcard spot.

That is eight teams that would be new to the postseason bracket if the standings don’t change in the next seven weeks. The Cowboys are just undergoing something that affects almost all NFL teams, with the exception of the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who keep playing into January most years and benefit from weak division competition.

Not having back-to-back playoff years is the not-so-new normal in the NFL. There are three factors that play into this, two of which are by design.

The one that is not caused by league rules is the impact of injuries on teams. There is an unavoidable element of chance there, and the loss of Smith and Lee at once by Dallas, along with the previous injury to Dan Bailey, shows just how much it can set a team back. The offense, defense, and special teams all suffered as a result of those injuries. They contributed largely to the loss to the Atlanta Falcons, making the task facing the Cowboys the rest of the year much harder. There simply aren’t enough NFL level players for teams to have good enough depth to overcome injuries to multiple stars. The Elliott suspension also hurts, but suspensions are not common enough (despite how much we want to deride Roger Goodell) to be a major factor in the league overall.

The second is the draft, the main vehicle for replenishing and improving talent each year. A bad record is “rewarded” by high picks the next season (provided teams have not traded them away). It has a direct effect on weaker teams getting stronger, while teams with double digit wins face having to work harder to identify talent later in rounds. It is a system specifically designed to help level the field each season.

Perhaps the biggest factor is the hard salary cap the NFL imposes. It forces many teams to let good players go because other teams will pay them more than their old team can afford without creating problems down the road. In 2017, the Cowboys chose to part ways with Ronald Leary, Brandon Carr, and Barry Church. All had to be replaced by players that have generally performed at a lesser level or not been available (Chaz Green/Jonathan Cooper, Anthony Brown/Chidobe Awuzie, and Jeff Heath/Xavier Woods). It is certainly arguable that Dallas would have been better off if they could have retained all three. (They also parted ways with Morris Claiborne, but he had the misfortune to see his season cut short by injury - again.) The Cowboys will likely reap a nice haul of compensatory picks for the free agent losses, but those come after the team has lost the services of the players for a year.

Of all the teams in the NFL, only the Patriots, with Bill Belichick as coach, seem to have found a way to just reload and move forward season after season. And Belichick seems to be a special phenomenon, one of the best coaches ever. He is certainly the best of this century.

The rest of the league has to struggle with the swings in fortune each year. Dallas fans have a sometimes unrealistic level of expectations, based on the long-term success of original head coach Tom Landry, when things were different (a smaller league that didn’t dilute talent so much and no salary cap) and the short but brilliant success under Jimmy Johnson that led to a large measure to the creation of the salary cap, which seemed to have as a major objective to break up the Cowboys.

We don’t have to like the way things are going, but it is simply part of the reality of the NFL. If Dallas does find a way to close out the season and claw back into the playoffs (they currently sit 10th in the standings, due to tie-breakers, and have very little margin for error), it will represent a major comeback. But the odds are against them. And that is to a large degree exactly how the NFL wants it.