With one game to go, the Cowboys could still end up with a winning record in back-to-back seasons for the first time since they had a five-year run from 2005-09. Yet, by failing to make the playoffs a year after leading the NFC with a 13-3 record, there’s no question 2017 has been a disappointing season.
Who disappointed the most? A top 10.
Dak Prescott had a season for the ages in 2016. In 2017, he’s looked overmatched far too often. Some of that can be attributed to a more porous offensive line, especially when Tyron Smith has been out with injury. But Dak has also made a lot more mistakes this year, with 13 interceptions (with a game to go) versus four in 2016. Look at the stats (with 2016 first):
- Yards per game - 229 v. 209
- ANY/A - 7.86 v. 5.71
- Quarterback rating - 104.9 v. 86.7
- QBR - 81.5 v. 66.7
- Completion percentage - 67.8% v. 63.3%
- Sack percentage - 5.2% v. 6.3%
In addition to the loss of protection, Dak had to play without Ezekiel Elliott for six games. Cole Beasley went from a consistent security blanket who converted first downs into an invisible man, and the Cowboys never figured out a solution. Jason Witten continued his slow decline. And the Dak to Dez connection didn’t work most games.
Dez Bryant has the biggest cap hit for the Cowboys, but he’s not producing anywhere near his contract level of $17 million. His catches are up from 50 to 66 (with a game to go), but that has netted only 19 extra yards (815 v. 796) and two fewer TDs (6 v. 8), for a pedestrian 12.3 yards per catch.
With so many balls going off his hands, and too many of those going to the other teams (even though he’s also saved a number of picks by fighting for poorly thrown balls), the stomping around on the sidelines, and the inability to gain separation against even single coverage so much of the time, there’s no question Dez is not producing like an elite receiver any more.
The coaches - Jason Garrett - Scott Linehan - Rod Marinelli
The coaches all looked brilliant last year, with Jason Garrett earning Coach of the Year after leading Dallas to a 13-3 record when Tony Romo was lost in preseason. This year, they all seemed to lose their luster. In Denver, they came out flat and were steamrolled. They lost games at home to the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers despite having big first half leads. Game after game the team got crushed in the second half, with teams seeming to score on the opening drive of the third quarter over and over again. Yet Dallas persisted in taking the opening kickoff if they won the toss. Cole Beasley was turned into a non-factor, and the Cowboys had no adjustment. They held out Rico Gathers instead of giving him a chance (if he was healthy enough) to provide a boost late in the season. (Chidobe Awuzie did, though he missed just as much time.) These are just a few of the ways the coaching staff disappointed.
Other than the Denver game, Zeke came to play each week. But you have to lay some responsibility on his shoulders for the six-game suspension, even if Roger Goodell’s system of disciplining players is arbitrary and needs to be scrapped. His other off-the-field actions didn’t help his cause as the suspension was being decided. We have no way of knowing how different the season might have been without that distraction and loss.
Cole Beasley went from being the Cowboys leading receiver in 2016, with 75 catches (on 98 targets) for 833 yards (11.1 ypc), to 36 catches on 63 targets for 314 yards (8.7 ypc), yet he was active for every game. The catch percentage dropped from 75.6% to 57.1%. Dak Prescott certainly had a role in this dropoff, but so did the coaches and Cole Beasley. Teams decided to take Cole out of the game, and did so with relative ease. Wes Welker, whom Beasley has been compared to, was remarkably consistent for six years in a row in New England. Granted, he had Tom Brady throwing him the ball, but he also had the New England system. Dallas never adjusted. It leaves us all wondering whether Beasley can regain the magic next season.
It was a bit of a miracle that Jaylon Smith was able to suit up this season, so perhaps you might think he couldn’t be a disappointment. He was also the only linebacker who was healthy every game. Yet, when he was in the game, he often looked completely overmatched, especially in run defense. He had no physical impact on the game, often took bad angles, got washed out by blockers, and didn’t seem to understand where he should be. His play was so bad at times you had to wonder whether he can ever come close to achieving the promise he showed in college. At the end of the year, he looked better, especially in pass defense. But it seems clear the Cowboys need to re-sign Anthony Hitchens to pair with Sean Lee, and cannot go into 2018 expecting Jaylon Smith to be a force on defense. For a top-of-round-two pick, that’s a serious disappointment.
Sixth-round pick Anthony Brown was a revelation in 2016. This year, he was often the weakest link in the Cowboys’ secondary. Can he right himself in 2018? The good news could be that he won’t have to play the number of snaps he played in 2017 now that Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie have a year under their belts. The Cowboys need quality cornerback depth, and to have it, they need Brown to rebound.
Awuzie played very well once he finally got healthy. The problem is he wasn’t healthy and able to play significant snaps until the 12th game of the year. Since this was a soft tissue issue with his hamstrings, you have to put most of the onus for this problem on Awuzie himself. Better hydration, better conditioning, better stretching should have been done to get himself on the field.
Maliek Collins and Benson Mayowa
As a rookie, with almost no training camp and no preseason, Collins was a bright spot on the Cowboys defensive line, with four sacks from the defensive tackle spot. He was so good, he pushed Tyrone Crawford outside. This year, one might have expected him to make a leap forward with a full training camp and preseason under his belt. But he largely disappeared. He has 2.5 sacks, but none since the third game. Benson Mayowa went from a team-leading six sacks to just one, which he got in the last game. Sure, his snaps were down, but not that far down. Given his cap hit, he may be an offseason cut.
The Cowboys made every effort to try to get some value out of their third-round pick. After all, he’d done well in 2016 for the games he had to sub in for Tyron Smith. They tried him at left guard, where he failed and then got hurt. Then, once Jonathan Cooper had seized the guard slot, they tried using him as Tyron Smith’s sub when Smith missed the Atlanta game. The result was one of the worst performances by a left tackle in Cowboys’ history. It nearly got Dak Prescott killed, and certainly rattled him. So, even though one might have had very low expectations for Chaz Green, he managed to perform below them.
Next: Who were the biggest Cowboys surprises for 2017?