Yawwwwwwnnn. Well, the 2017 Dallas Cowboys ended the season in a complete snoozefest. Dallas managed a 6-0 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the second lowest-scoring game in franchise history (the team’s 5-0 division round playoff victory over the Detroit Lions in 1970 still holds the record).
I guess we can cheer the fact the Cowboys managed a second straight winning season for the first time in 10 years with a 9-7 mark. And I guess we can get excited about a 6-2 road record and a 5-1 division record. But frankly nobody on either team (players, coaches, fans) seemed particularly enthused about Sunday’s contest. Philadelphia gave backups extensive time on both sides of the ball while Jason Garrett stuck with his top available players to the end. Nevertheless, let’s check out the grades.
The offense was horrific. Again. Dak Prescott was terrible. Again. Dez Bryant dropped multiple balls. Again. Special teams were poor with Dan Bailey missing an extra point and a chip shot field goal and Ryan Switzer repeatedly letting punts drop that ended up inside the 10-yard line. The defense, however, played a solid game, holding the Eagles’ B-team to 219 yards. This was the Cowboys’ first shut out of an opponent since... these very same Eagles on Jan 3, 2010 (that was the first of back-to-back defeats of the Eagles in week 17 and the wild-card round of the 2009 season). It was also the first time the Eagles had been shut out since that game, so there’s that.
I was somewhat baffled by Jason Garrett’s approach. Dak Prescott was indeed bad but he also got roughed up a number of times. Once LG Jonathan Cooper went out with a serious-looking injury the left side of the Cowboys OL consisted of replacement players. The results were predictable, with Byron Bell in particular getting beat several times and generating three holding calls. I absolutely do not understand why, in a meaningless game, Garrett would choose to expose the (assumed) future of the franchise to injury. In doing so he also bypassed a valuable opportunity to see what Cooper Rush could do in extensive action. Had Prescott or Elliott or Sean Lee or any noteworthy veteran who could have been sitting suffered a major injury hard questions would have to be answered.
Add the fact that while Garrett approached this like a regular game, his players played with all the passion of a training camp scrimmage. If the message to the players all week was this game meant something and we’re going to play it that way the message was not received.
Garrett stuck to conservative play-calling and decision-making throughout (except for the first series). Multiple times facing 4th-and-short near midfield he opted to punt. Why? You’ll have to ask him as that made no sense to me. It was a bewildering end to a season where Garrett never was able to find answers to the various challenges the team faced.
Scott Linehan, meanwhile, did himself no favors in avoiding the offseason hot-seat. The return of Ezekiel Elliott was supposed to right the Dallas offense. Instead, they scored 18 points in two games and continued to look inept. It’s hard to believe this offense averaged 29 points per game over the 24 games from week one of 2016 to the mid-point of 2017. Since then Dallas has averaged 16 points; that’s a penthouse-to-outhouse type of decline.
Prescott’s performance wasn’t quite as bad as last week against Seattle, but that’s feint praise. Dak was wildly inaccurate throughout much of the game. Early he twice missed an open Dez Bryant with bad overthrows. Later he missed a wide open Terrance Williams on what should have been an easy touchdown. He finally made a couple plays on the team’s only scoring drive, hooking up with Brice Butler first for a 30-yard gain and then for the game’s lone scoring play. Otherwise it looked like it has the past two months: indecisive, inaccurate and ineffective.
Dak Prescott had perhaps the best 24-game start to an NFL quarterbacking career since Dan Marino and was a marginal MVP candidate at the season’s midway point. Since then he’s thrown only six touchdowns to nine interceptions, barely averaged six yards per attempt and compiled a 73 passer rating. Most of us believed Prescott represented the franchise’s future but now it looks like 2018 will be a year for Prescott to again prove himself.
Offensive line: D
The Eagles rested most of their front-7 for most of the game. Yet the Cowboys vaunted offensive line struggled throughout. Early they were unable to open any running lanes and Prescott was under constant pressure. The Dallas offense failed on a 4th-and-1 on the team’s first drive then followed that up with seven consecutive punts. It was ugly; it was bad. Eventually the unit looked competent on the team’s 99-yard drive and later picked up a couple first downs. These were minor victories against a backup Eagles’ unit just trying to avoid injuries.
The Cowboys have multiple offensive line concerns going into the off-season: who will be the starting LG? And how much can the team depend on Tyron Smith? They need quality depth at the T position and that’s a luxury few teams can afford.
Running backs: B
Zeke did exactly what Zeke is gonna do: run hard and effectively when given half a chance. Elliott ended up with 103 physical yards on 27 carries for a 3.7 yard average. He added another 38 yards on 3 catches for 141 total yards. I feel Zeke gave what was needed but simply didn’t have many opportunities early. Otherwise Alfred Morris netted a yard on two carries in what is likely his final game as a Cowboy.
Wide receivers/tight ends: C
The good: Ryan Switzer finally made an impact on offense performing his best Cole Beasley impersonation. Three catches went for first downs on a day when such things were hard to come by. The bad: Terrance Williams ran a 0-yard route on 3rd-and-3 so, naturally, Dak threw him the ball for a 0-yard gain. Williams jumping up and signaling first down was embarrassing; his lack of spatial awareness either laughable or disturbing. Ugly: Dez Bryant dropping two more balls. By my unofficial count that’s 15 drops on the season which has to be some kind of record. I know that something like 40% of Dez’s targets this year have been “uncatchable” but that means Dez has dropped around 25% of the “catchable” balls thrown his way this season. NFL wide-outs don’t survive long dropping 25% of balls thrown their way.
Jason Witten chipped in with two third down catches, each short of the third down marker and each with zero yards after catch. That’s pretty much what he offers at this point.
Defensive line: B+
The defense pitched a shutout, they sacked Eagles’ quarterbacks three times, harassed them throughout, drew multiple holding calls and limited the Eagles’ run game. Had the Eagles been playing their starters throughout this would have been an A grade. But they weren’t, so the B+.
Demarcus Lawrence again looked like one of the best edge rushers in the league. The rest of the crew did their usual high-motor act we’ve come to expect.
Let’s take a brief moment to congratulate Jaylon Smith on a successful and healthy 2017 season. Smith played in all 16 games. Yeah, he was exposed at times and didn’t flash the supernatural abilities he once possessed, but simply being on the field and healthy is a major accomplishment for the Notre Dame alum. I look forward to the 2018 version.
Both Smith and Sean Lee recorded outstanding tackles-for-loss, each looking like a heat-seeking missile on the plays. The two combined for 10 tackles. Anthony Hitchens added two more.
Chidobie Awuzie did what Anthony Brown never can and caught an easy off-target pass for his first career interception. He also popped Nelson Agholor with a strong hit. And, unfortunately, he finished the season as he started it, in the locker room with an injury. Which is extremely disappointing because in his brief period on the field Awuzie has easily looked like the best corner to play for the Cowboys since Terrance Newman. He’ll need to be able to stay on the field next year for the young Dallas defense to reach its potential.
Beyond that Xavier Woods and Jourdan Lewis continued to look like keepers as neither was particularly exposed. Ben Benwikere, who I didn’t even know was still on the team, also chipped in a couple good plays. And while Anthony Brown added a big sack he also was exposed a couple times (as is usually the case). Have to say, with as bad as Brown has been this season, it’s bewildering the coaches never bothered to try Benwikere (who couldn’t have been worse, right)?
Special teams: D
These are the number of kicks (extra points and field goals) Dan Bailey has missed each year he’s been in the NFL:
So, it’s somewhat mystifying that Bailey finished the 2017 season by missing his last four consecutive kicks, three field goals and an extra point. Two of the field goals were inside 34 yards and the third was from 47...so these weren’t particularly difficult kicks. Clearly something is wrong. And I think we’d all agree that had this Cowboys’ team somehow advanced to the playoffs a messed up Dan Bailey plus this offense wasn’t going to go very far.
Ryan Switzer also continued his up-and-down year as a returner, three times letting punts drop that he could have caught. Each ended up inside the Cowboys’ 15-yard line. I don’t know; my sixth grade coach taught me rule one as a punt return was catch the ball and too often this year Switzer has failed to follow rule one.
At least punter Chris Jones had a decent day in difficult weather.
A disappointing end to a disappointing season. On the one hand the young Dallas defense developed into what we hoped it would be by the end of the season, giving up an average of 12 points over the team’s last 5 games. A Lawrence/David Irving tandem up front plus a young, athletic secondary offers real promise for the first time in a long time.
However, what was supposed to be the team’s strength, the offense, has suddenly developed questions everywhere other than running back. Thus, for the 22nd time in a row, the Cowboys fail to advance as far as a conference championship.