In 2015, an injury to Tony Romo derailed the Cowboys season. The coaching staff severely misjudged what they had for backups and the offense went into the toilet as both Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel offered them nothing. It was a complete mess and resulted in a disappointing year following a good 2014 season where the Cowboys went 12-4. Besides Romo, the team was also without several other players due to injuries and suspensions. Here are the key losses for the Cowboys that season:
This season has a lot of similarities to that disastrous season. Granted, finishing 9-7 and staying in playoff contention for most of the year is a far cry from the four-win season of 2015, but that’s more of a testament to how much better this team has become. Just like then, the Cowboys also had to roll without several players due to injuries and suspensions. Here are they key losses from this season:
Besides enduring an extensive list of players unavailable to the team, the most obvious common denominator in both those seasons is the play of the quarterback. A couple weeks ago we posted a piece identifying Dak Prescott as the single most influential determinant in the Cowboys success. Quarterback is an important position and it’s easy to understand how their performance would heavily influence the outcome of football games. The play of Prescott was a big issue for the team this year, but it wasn’t just him. Dez Bryant struggled. In fact, all the Cowboys receivers did. Offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan appeared to be at a loss for what to do at times. Even the head coach, Jason Garrett, couldn’t overcome these challenges and find a way to help his team win games. The odd thing about this is that all of these players/coaches in question have been really good in recent years, with 2016 serving as concrete evidence of that. Did they suddenly all just become bad?
While all of these problems are legitimate issues, the root cause can be linked to the absence of one player - Tyron Smith.
So what the hell happened? Well, easy, and let me tell you what happened to this offense:
Tyron Smith’s back happened. Tyron Smith’s groin happened. Tyron Smith’s sprained knee happened. Yes, Tyron Smith, the five-time Pro Bowl left tackle. The perennial All-Pro. The absolute best left tackle in football. He missed four games and part of a fifth with injuries. And here are the facts in those four games for the Cowboys:
Scored no more than 12 points in any of those games.
Averaged 8.5 points in those four games.
Dak threw one touchdown pass.
Team scored two touchdowns.
Cowboys go 1-3, and struggled to win that one, the final game of the season when the Eagles began resting for the playoffs.
Not having Smith available proved to be a costly situation that the Cowboys weren’t ready for. Just like the 2015 season, two different backup options were given opportunities and both failed miserably. Chaz Green, who played well as a backup in 2016, was terrible this season. Free agent, Byron Bell, was almost equally bad. Teams lose players to injuries all the time and sometimes those players are All Pro players. But it becomes excruciating when the next man up turns out to be really bad.
And here lies the problem for Dallas in 2018. They must take action to be better equipped should something like this happen again next season. Many fans are pushing their chips in the middle, calling for a large investment in the swing tackle position. Should they throw some good money at someone in free agency? What about a premium draft pick? These are just some of the things I’m hearing from Cowboys Nation, but I would temper those expectations.
After the 2015 debacle, many thought the Cowboys would push hard in the offseason to be ready in case something happened to Romo. Names like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum were mentioned, but they were pricey and the Cowboys don’t overspend in free agency. Then there was the talk about using some premium draft stock to acquire a quarterback. The Cowboys were heavily interested in trying to trade up to select Paxton Lynch, but the front office wouldn’t pony-up enough draft capital to seal that deal.
So what did the Cowboys ultimately do?
They went with Kellen Moore as their number two and used a fourth-round compensatory pick to select Dak Prescott. On paper, that wasn’t very much to give the team insurance at the position should Romo go down. But on the field, it turned out to be plenty. So much in fact, that it allowed the team to part ways with a healthy Tony Romo.
Maybe the front office was banking on Romo not being cursed with another costly injury two years in a row and just got lucky when Prescott turned out to be as good as he was? Will they roll the dice again this upcoming offseason hoping for Smith to stay healthy to where they don’t make any big moves to shore up the position? The Cowboys already have four of their starting offensive linemen in the top 10 in salaries paid out for the team. Do you really think another high investment in an offensive lineman is coming? Not likely.
Instead, expect the Cowboys to address this need like they do a lot of needs - look for a low-cost free agent as a fail-safe and find a young player in the draft they can develop. The good news is that with all the their compensatory picks, Dallas will be able to select six players within the first 140 players taken from the draft. There will be a good opportunity to throw some darts at the new class of offensive tackles, even if it’s not on the first two days.
Should the Cowboys suffer another injury at tackle, the team needs to have better options than they did in 2017. That doesn’t mean drafting an OT in the first round, but they have to take action to shore up their depth because the consequences have proven to be detrimental. An upright Dak with time in the pocket has shown to produce positive results. A Dak on the run, however, does not.
How do you think the Cowboys should address their swing tackle situation? Should they look to free agency and bring in a more experienced veteran? Or if you are looking to a rookie to be the answer, what round should they target him?