The Dallas Cowboys are clinging to hopes for the playoffs by their fingernails. While there are still two games to play (and for fans to sweat out), it is the time of year to start thinking about what the team needs to do to get better. This is especially true for teams that face a high probability of getting eliminated from the postseason, and as much as we hate the fact, that describes the Cowboys exactly.
There have been several things that have not gone well, or that show a clear need of attention. Some will take a lot of work, like correcting the precipitous drop-off in wide receiver production this year. Others, like how to handle the absence of Sean Lee when he can’t get on the field, may have solutions on the roster already (in this case Jaylon Smith and Anthony Hitchens, although the team will have to find a way to re-sign the latter if they elect to go with him). The most evident issue this year, the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, is hopefully a one-time problem that will not reoccur. And a couple of questions, like fixing the secondary, the pass rush, and right tackle, seem to be coming along well.
But there is a looming problem that the team has no real answer for at the moment. Left tackle Tyron Smith is starting to have regular issues staying on the field, and the latest may make him unavailable for the last two games this season. This knee issue is not one that has a great threat of long-term problems, but it comes on top of a much more worrying injury history with his back. Dallas fans are all to familiar how an ongoing problem with the vertebrae can end the career of highly talented players - like one Tony Romo.
Tyron Smith is one of the most important players on the offense, and an argument can be made that he is just as crucial to success as Elliott or Dak Prescott. He protects on passing plays and often leads the run. And his absence at the start of Elliott’s suspension may have been the real issue that sent the Cowboys on the three-game slump that might cost them the season, because the team’s plan to fill in for him was completely and totally inadequate.
Our own Dave Halprin (with an assist from One Cool Customer) made the case that using Chaz Green to replace Tyron was the worst decision made by the team all season, especially with no real help to protect the quarterback. We all remember how Adrian Clayborn had a career night sacking Prescott, and as OCC notes:
I don't think it's a coincidence that that single decision marked the beginning of a three-game stretch in which the offense scored just 22 combined points as everything seemed out of kilter on an offense that had scored an average of 28.3 points per game in the first 8 games, and has scored 29.3 points on average after that three-game stretch.
Since that debacle, the coaching staff has promoted Byron Bell ahead of Green on the depth chart, and also decided that maybe throwing a little help that way when Bell has to fill in is not such a bad idea.
But that hardly means that they have a real solution to the problem. Bell is not a reassuring substitute for Smith. That was why Green was drafted in the first place, but he has either proven to be ineffective as the swing tackle, been ruined by the coaching decisions, or maybe a bit of both. The Cowboys built their current offense around the line, and Smith was the first piece acquired. He was a superb choice, becoming a perennial All Pro. He is a rare specimen on the O line, with a far more athletic build than the vast majority of linemen around the league. And he brings an incredible mix of intelligence, technique, strength, and agility to his position. There is a reason why he is on a contract with a total value in excess of $100 million. And, like with so many of the higher-paid players in Dallas, he has seen his contract constantly restructured, converting base pay ($10 million for the next three years) into bonuses for cap space. Of course, that means he would cause a significant amount of dead money if he had to be released due to health issues.
And that is the concern. Although he is only 27 this year, his recent injuries force the question of whether his body is starting to break down. Linemen are often able to play at a high level well into their thirties, but knee and back issues, both of which Smith is dealing with, are two of the biggest reasons why some careers are not so long.
The immediate problem is whether the Cowboys can win the final two games without him. They must do so to have any realistic chance of making the playoffs, and that task is going to be harder without Smith, even with the return of Elliott. If they do manage to squeeze into the postseason, they almost have to have 77 back on the field to be competitive.
Right now, there is no reason to expect Smith to not be healed up for next season. But he will require management (such as taking Wednesday off) and the threat of another injury will loom over every snap he takes, whether in practice or games.
That means the Cowboys have both a short-term and a longer situation to address. They need a better swing tackle next year, and they need someone who can be groomed to replace Smith if he is forced out of Dallas entirely by his health. This may be answered by one acquisition, or it may take two - and that is if they get it right this time, unlike with Green.
OT is suddenly a need for the Cowboys. That includes both free agency and the draft, although we are well aware that they are highly unlikely to spend much on a proven veteran. But they need to bring more than one candidate to camp. And they really need to focus on who can play the best, not protecting their draft investments the way they did when pushing Green over Jonathan Cooper at LG to start this season.
All teams have players that are key to their success. Left tackle is a pretty common one across the league. The Cowboys have invested a lot of resources, both in the draft and in cap space, in Tyron Smith. But they have to be very cautious about letting that influence their decisions. No player lasts forever (sorry, Tom Brady, but time will even catch up with you one day). Dallas has a choice. It can work to get ahead of this issue, rather than just hope that Smith gets healthy and stays that way for several more years. Or it can take that risk, and likely wind up having a season go downhill because of poor play at LT.
Of all the questions facing the Cowboys going into 2018, this one may be the most important to answer right.