It is a weird time for the Dallas Cowboys. The chances to make the playoffs in this tumultuous season remain slim, but still have not gone completely away. After getting outscored 92 to 22 over a horrid three-game stretch in November, they bounced back to win the next two games by a combined points total of 68 to 24. But the losses all came against playoff contenders, while the wins were over a couple of division rivals that are going nowhere fast. The hope of fans is that the team has finally overcome whatever was plaguing them and is now at least building some confidence for the future. The concern is that all we have seen is that the Cowboys can beat up on bad teams while not being able to stay on the field with good ones.
Which is it? Is this a bad team with some good talent in places that sometimes rises to the occasion, or is it going to have another bounce back year in 2018 following a down one as it has the past few seasons?
Well, I certainly don’t know if I can provide any definitive answers to those questions. But that is not something that we here at BTB allow to stop us from trying.
An NFL team is a complex entity with a lot of parts that combine to make the whole, and Dallas is probably more complicated than most. It has a unique management structure where the owner and his son serve as the GM and top personnel officer. That is not going to change. Everything else is subject to alteration, so here is a breakdown of the various components and how they appear - at the moment.
Despite the chorus of calls for his dismissal just a couple of weeks ago, Jason Garrett is probably safe. He has the support and confidence of Jerry Jones. And there is no reason for Rich Bisaccia to feel threatened as the special teams coordinator. His charges have generally been very good, at times the only phase of the game that has done well this year.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli are in much more tenuous positions, however. Linehan could not get anything done during the first three weeks of the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, complicated by injury issues along the offensive line. Marinelli’s bend but don’t break approach has too often broken late in games. There is clearly a relationship between the two, because the overall scheme for the Cowboys relies on ball control to protect the defense, and the offense also has to take advantage of stops by the defense. It is very likely that there will be some real soul searching involving the Joneses and Garrett about whether one or both of the OC and DC need to be replaced. The final three games will factor heavily into that. The choice between standing pat with one or both versus bringing in some new blood has to be right. We will find out in a few weeks what the team is going to do.
The biggest story to come out of the game against the New York Giants was that Dak Prescott has seemingly gotten out of his funk and is once again making good throws and smart decisions. While the team struggled for the first three plus quarters on Sunday, those were largely due to some big dropped passes and not anything Prescott was doing wrong. That is clearly a plus, since Dallas has committed to him as the franchise QB. The backup position is still a big question mark. Cooper Rush looks like the QB2 going forward, but he is completely unproven at this point. It may be a bit risky to think that the team can strike gold twice in a row with a new quarterback, but very few NFL teams have a dependable backup. The Cowboys have to hope Rush can be a good replacement, as this season has shown just how suddenly the starter can be lost, and how disastrous that can be. Still, having a more-than-capable starter, even though the argument can be made that Prescott is very much a system QB, is vital, and there, things do look good in Dallas - as long as he doesn’t have another bout of regression.
The assumption is that Elliott will return from suspension after the next game and pick up where he left off. Hopefully, that will be true, because the offense is designed around him. If he doesn’t return to form, it will be a major, perhaps crippling, issue.
There is some hope that the team can find other solutions, however. Both Alfred Morris and Rod Smith started to show that they can provide at least adequate relief when Elliott is not available or not playing well. The biggest question there is whether Smith’s breakout game in New York was a fluke or something sustainable. The team has one more week to see what it has in the backups. If Smith continues to play well, he is likely the QB2 going forward. He is better as a receiver than Morris, and Morris is a free agent after this year. Meanwhile, Keith Smith has established himself as a capable fullback in the Dallas system. If nothing unexpected happens with Elliott, and he keeps out of trouble, things should be in good shape here.
Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin continue to play at a very high level, and La’el Collins seems to have gotten through his growing pains at RT. That only leaves the LG position in some question. The team has to decide if they are comfortable with Jonathan Cooper going forward, or if they need to devote resources for a replacement.
Once Martin gets extended (which will almost certainly get done in 2018), and LG is decided, the starters are in good shape. Backups are another matter. The issues Tyron Smith and Collins have had with their backs just emphasize the need for a good swing tackle, and there is serious doubt that Chaz Green or Byron Bell will work out there. The team has to address the depth, but the starters look to remain one of the best groups in the league for a while.
The questions here are much harder to answer. Both Dez Bryant and Jason Witten are no longer at their peak, but replacing them would be a challenge. Both represent some significant cap savings if released, but both are also huge pluses in the locker room. (Ignore those who question Bryant there, because they are simply wrong.) This year, teams have found ways to largely neutralize Cole Beasley in many games, and Terrance Williams is a generally good WR2 who occasionally falters, but is not someone the team can move on from easily with his current contract. Brice Butler and Noah Brown have not shown much this year. The backup tight ends are serviceable, although James Hanna and Geoff Swaim both suffer from the fact that Witten just never leaves the field. Rico Gathers is the latest in a long series of unicorns whose future is both promising and uncertain.
This looks to be one area of the team that will need to be upgraded in the offseason, with training camp and preseason determining what the team will take into next season.
After years of fruitless search for a pass rush, the Cowboys finally seem to have a lot of hope for the future here. Demarcus Lawrence and David Irving have both been simply excellent this year (when Irving was available). Tyrone Crawford has been more effective than many realize, and Maliek Collins is also more solid than most appreciate. The jury is still out on rookie Taco Charlton, but the core looks to be solid.
What the team could still use is a real 1-tech, but that is not something that Marinelli seems to value much. This could be part of the argument for moving on from the DC. The team will have to make decisions on players like Benson Mayowa and Datone Jones going forward, and an infusion of more talent in the offseason is to be hoped for. But the rushmen finally have more than one real quarterback hunter to build on, and this should be an area of strength again next year.
There is a real wild card for the team in Randy Gregory. Depending on who you read, he is either really working hard to keep himself clean and get reinstated, or he is never going to see another snap in the NFL. All we can do is stay tuned.
Sean Lee is the most valuable defender on the team, and his absence has had a negative effect when he has been out. That is the problem with him. He is now 31, and the wear and tear make his availability always a question mark.
Anthony Hitchens has come on the past couple of games, and if the Cowboys could be assured of him and Lee on the field at the same time, they would have no worries at all at linebacker. But Hitchens is also a 2018 free agent, and his price tag might just be too high for the Cowboys to bring him back.
The answer for possibly replacing Hitchens may be Jaylon Smith. It is looking more and more like 2018 may be the year he really hits his stride, and he has also been playing much better of late, whether having to carry more of the load in Lee’s absence, or in limited snaps when he isn’t pressed into starting. While he was overshadowed by the standout days Lee and Hitchens had on Sunday (18 and 14 tackles respectively), Smith still was the fifth leading tackler for the Cowboys, though only playing 38% of the defensive snaps.
If the team manages to come up with the money to keep Hitchens, then the linebacking unit is going to be very strong. If not, it will depend on the health of Lee and Smith’s progression, plus whatever the team does to add talent in the offseason.
With Orlando Scandrick out Sunday, the young defensive backs really stepped up their game. It took a while, and getting through several injuries, but Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods all look like the real deal.
The #Cowboys trio of rookie DB's vs NYG— Jordan Ross (@CHQ_Jordan) December 11, 2017
1 QB Hit
The future is bright for the #Cowboys secondary... @ChidobeAwuzie @JourdanJD @its_hollyWOODS
Byron Jones was held to a more limited role, but actually had more tackles than Woods or Awuzie. Likewise, Anthony Brown seems to be more effective for the team coming off the bench, and Kavon Frazier keeps flashing good things.
Then there is Jeff Heath, who will look really bad at times, but still leads the team in interceptions. (Brown is second, by the way.) It is hard to say what the team should do with Heath going forward. But the rest of the secondary looks to be another real plus for the Cowboys.
Actually, the questions on defense are noticeably less than for the offense. How long has it been since we could say that?
Don’t worry yourself too much about the bad performance of Dan Bailey, playing in windy, cold conditions and coming off injury. He, Chris Jones, and LP Ladouceur are as solid a trio of specialists as you will find in the NFL.
Summing it up
There are always questions about the future, but at the moment, the Cowboys look to have most of them answered. Things could still get sour, but when you break it down, the positive trend seems more real than not. Of all the issues to be worked out, the coaching ones may be the most worrisome, and frankly the hardest to address.
Right now, the chances of another bounce back seem good, and Dallas still has a good chance of the first back-to-back winning seasons under Jason Garrett. Let’s all hope the team can build on things.