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Where have the Cowboys improved since Dez Bryant caught it at Lambeau Field?

We’ve traveled quite the path since January 11th, 2015.

Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Green Bay Packers Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Thursday marked an anniversary of sorts for Dallas Cowboys fans, that is, assuming you associate the word “anniversary” with a terrible event you wish never happened.

January 11th, 2018 served as the three-year anniversary of when Dez Bryant, in all his glory, defied gravity and definitely caught it at Lambeau Field. Yes, sigh.

We’re not here to dissect how Dez did catch it, we’re here to discuss the post-mortem. What have the Cowboys done since? Where have they grown? Where have they regressed? That is, assuming there is a denotable value to either.

2015: 4-12, Disaster of all Disasters

Dallas “pulled off” three first-round picks with their 2015 draft haul in Byron Jones (actual first-round pick), Randy Gregory (second-round pick who would have been firt-round pick but fell for off-the-field reasons), and La’el Collins (undrafted due to circumstances he’d be cleared of).

Three seasons in, what’s the temperature? Jones has never missed a game, has two career interceptions, and has been an athletic presence in the secondary, not to mention the occasional interesting big-play guy on special teams.

Gregory has played in 14 of 49 possible games, 29% is hardly anything worth bragging about. Yes, Randy serves as another example of second-round failures by the Cowboys, but as always, the hope is that he’ll turn it around and return to contribute.

Of the three, La’el Collins is the best of the bunch. He’s turned into, despite the team insisting that he never would, the right tackle of the future, another first-round talent on a unit that includes many of them.

Other than La’el Collins, did 2015 really bring anything worth talking about? It was the year of Greg Hardy, a move that came with plenty of off-the-field criticisms and concerns, and a lost season for Tony Romo. Dallas won one game without their franchise quarterback, foreshadowing potential life without him, and the season as a whole was one many wished to forget.

2016: 13-3, A New Era

Entering 2016 there were many draft fans that wanted the Cowboys to utilize the fourth overall pick, which they painstakingly earned in 2015, on a quarterback of the future. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were both contenders before Los Angeles and Philadelphia traded up to the top two overall picks to secure them.

Instead the Cowboys focused on the now, the immediate future. Instead of drafting a successor to Romo with their high-value pick they drafted another formidable weapon for him in Ezekiel Elliott. It was the ultimate move to place themselves back on the turf where Dez caught it, giving the Cowboys the elite runner they lost when DeMarco Murray left after 2014 for Philadelphia. The band, for all intents and purposes, was back together.

Perhaps the most questionable pick by the Cowboys in 2016 was linebacker Jaylon Smith, whom they selected 34th overall. The Zeke pick was of the “win now” variety, and considering Jaylon wouldn’t play at all that season the selection of him was more long-term. The two picks, back to back ones for Dallas, were conflicting in ideology.

An offseason of change for the Cowboys, they moved from the storied Valley Ranch to The Star in Frisco, foreshadowed the season ahead. After just one Romo-to-Zeke handoff, what was supposed to be commonplace became a collector’s item.

Dallas Cowboys v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

You know the story. Romo goes down, Dak Prescott goes in, and things are forever different for America’s Team. Prescott, a fourth-round rookie, was in fact only the next man up because the man in between them, Kellen Moore, broke his ankle in training camp. They say everything happens for a reason.

Dallas experienced a renaissance of sorts in 2016. It was an ode to the past, the present, and the future as Elliott and Prescott ran at will and dominated the middle of the field. Dez Bryant, who suffered his own share of injuries in 2015, missed three games, but he appeared to be the middle of the Venn diagram linking Romo and Prescott eras in Cowboys history.

The Cowboys rose and rose and rose all the way to a franchise-record-tying 13 wins. In the first full season by a quarterback not named Tony Romo in a while, Dak Prescott matched Tony’s own first full season with the 13 wins and home divisional round game against a hated rival.

Instead of Eli Manning it was Aaron Rodgers that walked into the home of the Cowboys in the NFL’s round of eight with his chest held high. Just like Eli, Aaron had lost every game he’d played against the Cowboys in the regular season (coincidentally Aaron also sort of lost to Dallas in 2007, too).

And just like Eli, Aaron did the Cowboys in, in heartbreaking fashion. The Cowboys lost in the divisional round, again, left only with a long and hard look in the mirror left. It would be okay though, right? With young franchise players like Elliott (who led the league in rushing) and Prescott (rookie of the year), Dallas would be in it for the foreseeable future.

2017: 9-7, Same ‘ol, Same ‘ol

We’re all still scratching our heads since the Cowboys finished 2017. They went 9-7, and in typical disappointing fashion failed to put together successful back-to-back seasons (although the team will tell you they finished above .500 two years in a row).

Their first-round pick was one of the least popular in a decade as Taco Charlton’s biggest crime to some Cowboys fans was that he wasn’t T.J. Watt. Young secondary players like Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods all showed promise (and still do), but they understandably had a few rookie woes and hiccups.

The season was marred by Ezekiel Elliott’s longstanding battle with the NFL in which he sought to vindicate himself of the six-game suspension, of which we’re all painstakingly well aware of the details. Ultimately Elliott lost out to Article 46, and the Cowboys, 5-3 at the time, were left to fight on without him.

Just like with Tony Romo two years earlier, the team seemed completely lost and inept without their best offensive player. Dallas dropped their first three Zeke-less games, failing to break double-digits in terms of points scored in all three in a row, a first in Dallas Cowboys history.

Dallas also failed to adjust for the absences of other stars, players like Sean Lee and Tyron Smith. It’s understandable that an NFL team would regress without its best players, but for the Cowboys it was another example of their inability to adjust.

Overall the season was a flop, somehow broken from the beginning. All Dallas was ever doing throughout 2017 was trying to resuscitate a lose cause, and their failure to score even a single touchdown when it was all on the line was when their energy finally gave out.

Where does this leave us now?

Since Dez Bryant caught it in Green Bay, what home-run, zero-issues, complete and total blue-chip prospect players have they added, whether in the draft or free agency?

Many would answer Ezekiel Elliott here, but the fact that he served a six-game suspension in 2017 (not to mention he’s now under heavy watch from the league) coupled with the offseason he had last year lowers his quality a bit. He’s an amazing football player, but his overall package was temporarily dinged.

A year ago Dak Prescott would have been eligible for consideration here as well, but a sophomore slump-type season knocks his value down as well. It really is quite difficult to find a player added between 2015 and now that any Cowboys fan feels completely safe about.

There have been additions, don’t get me wrong. There are many starters and role players that have emerged from the last three drafts, but there are also many concerns.

After three full seasons the jury is still out on whether the Cowboys will, really rather if they should, pick up Byron Jones’ fifth-year option. Randy Gregory’s status is still to be determined. DeMarcus Lawrence finally lived up to his hype in 2017. Sean Lee is still getting hurt. The secondary is full of young promise, but Orlando Scandrick seems ready to exit.

Three years ago we were all dumbfounded at what we just witnessed at Lambeau Field. Mouths agape, we couldn’t believe what we just saw, but considering Jason Garrett had finally put it all together in a division-winning campaign, we believed.

Since Dez caught it at Lambeau the Cowboys have gone 26-22 in the regular season and lost their only playoff game. It’s not .500, but it’s pretty close. The record is somewhat of a microcosm of who Garrett’s been since then, his three years prior had him at exactly .500, and he’s been marginally better in the three years since.

Dallas has upgraded at running back, downgraded at quarterback (Dak can still be good, relax), lost ferocity at the wide receiver position, and regressed along the offensive line since that 2014 season. Their defense isn’t as dependent on turnovers, boasting more talent, and overall they do show more promise than they did three years ago.

Is this where we all thought we’d be today, three years ago? It’s a tough question to answer.

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