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Cowboys coaches and players begin 5-game audition for 2018 season

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This year, the offseason starts early for the Cowboys, who can now start planning their January vacations and what their roster will look like in 2018.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Facility Tour Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of discussion here and elsewhere in recent weeks has focused on some of the individual mistakes and coaching decisions that have been key in almost all of the Cowboys' six losses and cumulatively may have been a big part of why the Cowboys have dropped to 5-6. That's not to say that Ezekiel Elliott's absence hasn't impacted the 2017 Cowboys, but Elliott's absence is far from the only reason the Cowboys are on a three-game skid.

On paper, the 2017 Cowboys should have been a continuation of the 2016 Cowboys. Yet this 5-6 team looks nothing like last year's 13-3 team. In hindsight, as many have been pointing out repeatedly since free agency, the Cowboys may have let too many of their free agents walk in free agency. And it didn't need any amount of hindsight or foresight to understand that the young Cowboys defense was going to struggle this year. All of which shouldn't have mattered, because the Cowboys offense was going to steamroll opponents and score 30+ points in every game.

But that isn't happening.

This week the Cowboys gather for practice knowing that they'll have to win the remaining five games to maintain a theoretical chance at the playoffs.

Since realignment in 2002, seven teams have made the playoffs with five (or fewer) wins after 11 games. And only two of those teams, the 2012 Redskins and the 2006 Eagles were able to win their final five games.

Year Team Record after 11 Games Record after 16 Games Playoff Position
2013 San Diego 5-6 9-7 Wild Card #2
2013 Green Bay 5-5-1 8-7-1 Division winner
2012 Washington 5-6 10-6 Division winner
2009 NY Jets 5-6 9-7 Wild Card #1
2008 San Diego 4-7 8-8 Division winner
2008 Philadelphia 5-5-1 9-6-1 Wild Card #2
2006 Philadelphia 5-6 10-6 Division winner

Be that as it may, the situation does not look good for the Cowboys' playoff chances this year, even in the unlikely event that they were to win out.

The two wildcard spots are likely going to be decided between Carolina, Atlanta and Seattle. Carolina (8-3) has a three-game lead over the Cowboys. Atlanta (7-4) and Seattle (7-4) have a two-game lead. Carolina would have to go 1-4 down the stretch for the Cowboys to overtake them in the wildcard race, Atlanta and Seattle would have to lose three of their last five games to finish behind the Cowboys. That's probably not happening.

Which means the Cowboys should use the rest of the season to evaluate their talent and their coaching staff for next year.

Players like DeMarcus Lawrence, Jonathan Cooper, and Anthony Hitchens headline a list of more than 10 players who will be unrestricted free agents after the season. They can use the remaining five games to audition for a new contract, in Dallas or elsewhere.

And the same is true for players still under contract for 2018. They also have five more games to show the team what their value to the 2018 Cowboys can be. And that value isn't necessarily on the field, it may just as well be in the form of draft picks received in a trade or cap space gained by a release.

Same thing goes for the coaching staff. Sometimes familiarity breeds complacency, and that's not just about the head coach. QB Coach Wade Wilson has been in Dallas since 2006, Rod Marinelli and Scott Linehan have been coordinators in Dallas since 2014, LB coach Matt Eberflus has been coaching in Dallas in various roles since 2011, and many other assistant coaches have been around for a while. Change for the sake of change is never a good strategy, but sometimes a personnel change can provide new impulses to an organization that may have gone stale.

Which is why if you're the GM, you're starting a five-game audition this week: who are the players on this year's team that you'll be able to count on next year, and who are the coaches that are going to turn this thing around?

One of the flaws of Jerry Jones the GM is that he seems to take his foot off the pedal after a good season, seemingly buying into the idea that a few changes here or there will automatically turn a 12-4 or 13-3 team into a Super Bowl contender the next year. But that only works on paper.

Success in the NFL depends in part on an organization's ability to dispassionately evaluate the talent on its roster and coaching staff, and to move on quickly if it sees that the talent on the roster doesn't meet the franchise's requirements.

Good franchises will err on the side of speed in identifying and correcting their talent acquisition mistakes, roster holes, and scheme deficiencies.

Let's hope that coming off a bad season, the Cowboys front office can be dispassionate and ruthless at identifying and correcting mistakes and/or needs, and do it faster and with more urgency than they seemingly tend to do after a good season.