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The best and worst of the Dallas Cowboys’ 2017 campaign

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Wow, how time does fly in the NFL as we’re in the final quarter of the regular season. Though there are still games left to be played, revisionist history begins right now. Let’s look back at the best and worst takeaways from this season of Cowboys football.

Best - La’el Collins move to right tackle

The retirement of Doug Free and free agency departure of Ronald Leary left the Cowboys with two holes on their strongest unit. Continuity is among the most important aspects of offensive line play and a reshuffling was going to take a little patience.

Collins had some early struggles but ultimately this move has paid off. Collins has faced some of the league’s premier pass rushers and has done a nice job protecting and using his technique to win his assignments.

It’s been pretty incredible to see that transition take shape perhaps a lot smoother than many thought it would. Collins has really stepped up and has taken the reigns of that right tackle job for the foreseeable future.

Worst - Free Agency Failure

The front office can’t be pleased with how their free agent acquisitions ended up this season. They don’t go out and sign premier free agents but they do like to be able to hit on a few contributors that play roles for them. This year, it was one big miss after the other for various reasons.

Nolan Carroll was brought in on a modest three-year, $10 million deal but would find himself cut during the bye week. He couldn’t stay on the field and when he was playing, he wasn’t playing well.

Stephen Paea’s retirement has to be the biggest disappointment but it came to a point where his knee was too bothersome to practice. He was a good player for this scheme but a degenerative knee issue forced him out of this league.

Damontre Moore was one of the better players of the preseason but it’s always been his off-field judgement that has plagued his career. The Cowboys knew about a night club issue in Dallas and that was enough.

We’re going to mention Terrance Williams here too after he was re-signed in the offseason. Williams is over his amount of receptions from a year ago, but he’s lowered his yards per catch significantly while still looking for his first score.

Best - Finding a “War Daddy” pass rusher in Demarcus Lawrence

Every season someone emerges that you were probably not expecting. The Cowboys have been looking high and low for pass rushers since DeMarcus Ware left. The front office has to feel great about this one since they traded up in the 2014 Draft to get him. He came along strong in the postseason of that year after missing half the season with a foot injury.

Lawrence was able to record eight sacks in 2015 alongside the presence of Greg Hardy. It was following that year that he had his first back surgery and last season only played in nine games. He was suspended for the first month but he also battled injuries and only had one sack.

Finally healthy after a second back procedure, Lawrence has lit the league on fire and it’s been a huge help for the growth of a young defense. With two games left, Lawrence is a 1.5 sacks off the lead with 13.5 on the season, he also has four forced fumbles. What’s even better is that guys like David Irving and his seven sacks have helped give the Cowboys a legitimate pass rush. They have 32 sacks on the season, which is 13th in the league but they’re pressuring quarterbacks more consistently than in year’s past. Lawrence’s Pro Bowl-worthy season makes his a perfect candidate for the franchise tag in the offseason.

Worst - Defense dependence on Sean Lee

Sean Lee is a phenomenal player but his one big drawback has been his availability. Lee was on a pretty good run of health over the last few seasons. This season, he’s had hamstring issues that have kept him out of five games. In those five games, the Cowboys have gone 1-4, only beating the Washington Redskins.

In those five losses, teams have averaged nearly 30 points per contest without Lee on the field. You could also consider the Falcons game a miss too where Lee left the game early after re-aggravating that hamstring. In the games Lee has played, teams are averaging 16.8 points per game. He’s been a huge asset to this defense but he’s not someone you can depend on. Knowing this, linebacker has risen to the top of offseason needs with Anthony Hitchens’ impending free agency.

Best - Worth the wait in the secondary

The moves made in the secondary this past offseason were sort of a necessary evil but it was evident how risky that was from the beginning. The hamstring injuries to draft picks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis during training camp really hurt early in the season because veterans were getting dinged up too. Awuzie has been in and out all season, only playing seven games.

Lewis and Xavier Woods have played early and made the decision to cut Carroll much easier but none of this has happened without the growing pains. Overall, from where it started to where it is now, the rookies have outperformed some veteran counterparts. Though the veterans have more interceptions than the rookies, it’s been the young guys getting the nod by the coaches. It has to do with consistency, Awuzie and Lewis have done a better job at consistently covering their assignments. There are a few busts here and there but there are also far more pass breakups and tackling.

The coaches made a decision a few games ago to let the young guys play and that should continue regardless if they lose another game or not. Against Oakland, they held the passing yards to 171 while the rookie defensive backs combined for 15 tackles and three pass deflections. It’s been a process but these guys have started to get their feet underneath them and you feel better about the future with these guys.

Worst - Offensive futility

Despite having six games where they scored at least 28 or more points, the Cowboys have dropped from fifth in total yards on offense to 15th this season. They’re only averaging three points less per game than last year but points add up. Dallas scored 421 points last season and have only scored 336 in 2017. The Cowboys have really hit a snag in their passing game where they’re barely averaging 201 passing yards per game, nearly 30 yards less per game than 2016. They are also only getting 6.9 yards per pass opposed to the 7.9 they had last season.

In 2016, Dallas had 47 explosive pass plays (meaning 20+ yards or more) to only 38 this season. Though they’re third in rushing this season, they only have 13 explosive runs this season compared to 20 a year ago. When the Cowboys have won games, their margin of victory has been good at over 16 points but when they lose, it’s by 17 or more points. They’ve struggled to find consistency on offense and we’re all aware that Ezekiel Elliott is a big part of that.

The offensive plan of the Cowboys works when it’s executed properly but it’s fair to criticize Scott Linehan for lacking innovation at times. He’s good for a wrinkle or two like this past week’s flea-flicker but he doesn’t always carry them over to other games. Dak and his receivers have had their struggles too and finding another gear for the offense is a priority in 2018.

Best - Dak Prescott’s mental toughness

What’s impressive about him is his “always centered” mentality and how his teammates believe in him. In three terrible losses, Prescott was sacked 14 times while the offense completely fell apart. The Cowboys got help from other players but there is no way they get to 3-3 in these last six games without Prescott.

After a three-game losing streak, how many of us thought this team would win a single game without Ezekiel Elliott? Against Washington, he got some assistance from a tenacious defense and Alfred Morris. Still, Dak threw for 102 yards, his lowest outing, all the while tossing two touchdowns with a swollen hand. The very next week in New York, Prescott had his highest passing day with 332 passing yards and three touchdowns.

Against the Raiders, he struggled early with a pair of interceptions but he also bounced back with his feet to give the Cowboys 32 rushing yards and a score. When he had to stand in there and deliver, Prescott did that in bunches. He converted a fourth and one by a paper thin margin. He connected with Dez Bryant deep to put the Cowboys in field goal range that ended up being the deciding score.

So, he’s thrown two less touchdowns, is trailing his rookie passing numbers by 703 yards, and has tossed seven more interceptions than his rookie year. It’s amazing that he has this team at 8-6 with life in the playoff race. All adversity of this season considered, Prescott’s done nothing to suggest he’s anything less than a franchise quarterback.

Worst - Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension

Nothing derailed the Cowboys faster than the Ezekiel Elliott six-game suspension. We all know the Cowboys started slow but they were the hottest offense in the league after their bye week. Again, we’re talking six straight games of nearly 30 points per game, they were on a three-game win streak that was reminiscent of 2016’s offensive dominance. More importantly, they were finding their groove when it all came crashing down.

Dak Prescott had 16 passing touchdowns, four rushing touchdowns and four interceptions. He was really playing at an incredibly high level. Since then, Prescott has five passing touchdowns, two on the ground, and seven interceptions. Ezekiel Elliott was dominating the ground game and despite missing more than a quarter of the season, he still ranks fourth in rushing touchdowns at seven, the leader is at 10. Elliott averaged 97.9 yards per game, which is still first in the NFL. He was averaging 130 yards per game in the last three he played. Up until two weeks ago, his 783 yards still had him in the Top-10 rushers, now he’s 15th.

When Elliott was gone, it took a huge toll on the spirit of this football team. It didn’t help that they were missing four All-Pro players at the same time. The Cowboys had the worst three-game stretch in Jason Garrett’s coaching career, they weren’t even competitive as they were outscored 92-22 in that span. They’ve picked up wins in the last three weeks but reality is that with Elliott, they’re one of the best teams in the league, without him, they just aren’t.

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