Football season is finally over and now we shift our focus to steps that will lead to the autumn of 2018. The Eagles finally added their first Lombardi to their trophy case, as Nick Foles and Doug Pederson knocked off Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in a back-and-forth offensive affair.
Can the Cowboys duplicate their NFC East brethren and make a deep postseason run in 2018?
After an up-and-down 2017 season, some confidence has been lost; however, this team still has the talent to make things interesting next season.
Here are three reasons why the Cowboys can make an exciting postseason run in 2018.
He’s baaack (full-time)!
Yes, I know Ezekiel Elliott played in the Cowboys’ final two games of the 2017 regular season. However, the latter of those two games was practically a scrimmage — as the Eagles already had the NFC’s top-seed locked up, while the Cowboys had no postseason hopes. And in the first of those two games, Elliott did not get a touch when Dallas was inside the five in the fourth quarter, a decision that still boggles the mind. The Cowboys ultimately settled for a field goal — only to see Dan Bailey miss, all but ending week 16’s loss to the Seahawks. Had the 2016 NFL rushing champion carried the ball at least once in that sequence, who knows what could have been different.
Enough of that, though. Now it’s time to look forward.
We all know how Zeke was forced to miss six games late last season. Additionally, it was an on-and-off affair with his status throughout the first part of the season. The Cowboys were forced to battle for a playoff berth without their All-Pro superstar. The Cowboys went 3-3 in the six games he missed, is it possible that Dallas would have won a game or two more with Zeke on the field? Possibly.
But now, Zeke has that weight off of his shoulders. He is not under an investigation, nor is he having to go appeal each and every decision the NFL makes about a possible suspension. It’s just football now for the young star tailback.
It can’t be overstated how important Zeke is to this team. He helps in just about every phase — the run game (obviously), his pass protection and receiving skills help the pass offense, and his ability to pick up third-and-shorts keeps his defense rested and the other offense on the sideline.
Even while missing six games, Zeke was only 17 yards short of reaching 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. He finished the 2017 season with the highest rushing yards/game with 98.3 — and that includes his nine carry, eight-yard performance against Denver.
The Cowboys now get Zeke back for a full season, with no distractions. We saw how exciting that was in 2016, can it be that way again in 2018?
Dak Prescott did not play up to his 2016 standard. In his rookie season, Dak set the league on fire and put together the best rookie season in the league’s history. His efficiency, decision-making, and leadership were all on display each week throughout his historic campaign. The 23-year-old was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and was selected to start the Pro Bowl for the NFC.
2017, though, was a different story.
Dak struggled. He played awful in week two against the Broncos in Mile High. He played terrible in back-to-back games against the Chargers on Thanksgiving Day and the Eagles on Sunday Night Football. He didn’t play well in week 16. He was missing on throws, rushing passes, and just wasn’t the same quarterback as he was in year-one. Some of that is because of accuracy problems, some of it is because of injuries to the offensive line, and some of the blame goes to Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett for the lack of adjustments.
Whatever the case is, Dak didn’t play great in 2017. But, it’s not like he was dreadful all season long. In fact, he was putting up MVP-caliber numbers at one point!
However, the Cowboys also have a quarterback that is putting up MVP-caliber numbers this season. Dak Prescott has been on absolute fire these past few weeks. Dak has accounted for eight touchdowns in the last two games (six through the air, two on the ground) and eleven scores in the last three. After putting together a historically great rookie campaign and taking home NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, the 135th pick of the ‘16 draft has been even better this season. Just take a look for yourself:
Dak (Wentz) this year - both at 6 gms: 63 (61)% Comp, 1,426(1,584) yds, 17(13) TDs, 4(3) INTs, 1(5) Fumbles, Sophomore slump (MVP candidate)— Dan Turner (@dtsturner) October 23, 2017
How soon we forget.
I know Dak’s second half of the season wasn’t up to par at all, but I mean, he still has more than enough talent to be a big time quarterback in this league. Personally, I believe the Falcons game got into Dak’s head. Dak had no time to make things happen against Atlanta (Adrian Clayborn had six of his 9.5 sacks on the year in that one game), and he seemed to lose a little bit of trust on the left side of the line when Tyron wasn’t in the game. Before that, he carried the Cowboys to a win against the Cardinals with a handful of ‘wow’ plays, went toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers for the third consecutive time in his young career, and knocked off the Chiefs — back when the Chiefs were still pretty good.
Now, Dak has a full offseason to get better. He knows what he needs to work on, and he has film of what defenses will try to do to him. Knowing his work ethic and how the Cowboys plan to rebuild the offense around him, I expect him to be more like the 2016 version of himself than what we saw last season.
The defense in Dallas has been heavily criticized for a while in Dallas, sometimes rightfully so, but other times unjustly. The Cowboys have been known to play a ‘bend-but-don’t-break’ style of defense, something that tends to be frustrating to watch. The Cowboys aren’t known for blitzing or being aggressive, and the team has struggled to force turnovers.
However, the front office and coaching staff were determined to change that through the draft. The Cowboys spent their first three picks of last April’s NFL Draft on defense: Taco Charlton in the first-round, Chidobe Awuzie in the second, and then Jourdan Lewis in the third. While Taco took some time to adjust to the NFL game and Awuzie battled with injuries, Lewis emerged as star in the defensive backfield. Once Chido was able to stay on the field, he also showed some exciting potential for the Cowboys. Even Taco began to progress as the season went along.
This defense still needs Sean Lee on the field, but we saw some bright spots during the latter parts of this past season. The secondary, notably Lewis, Awuzie and fellow rookie Xavier Woods, began making plays on the ball, Jaylon Smith was able to play a full season, and Demarcus Lawrence became a force off of the edge. It will be interesting to see how the Cowboys handle David Irving. It has been rumored that the Cowboys are seeking a second-rounder for the 24-year old defensive lineman, but it would be a shame if a special talent gets away from the silver and blue.
To explain what Sturm means, consider the numbers from 2017. In those eight games, Irving had seven sacks and six passes defensed (meaning batted down). That sack total is more than all but four other defensive tackles in the league. And all of those four played the full season. The league leader was Aaron Donald, widely regarded as the best DT in the NFL - and he had nine, only two more than Irving. The PDs are an even better stat for Irving, because none of the DTs ahead of him had more than three.
Had Irving played sixteen games and kept the same level of production, he would have had fourteen sacks and twelve PDs (you are welcome for having the complicated math done for you - and you thought algebra would never come in handy after high school). He would not only have been the top DT at getting to the QB, he would have been fourth in the league in sacks, and only edge rushers would have been ahead of him.
If the Cowboys elect to keep Irving, the Cowboys’ defensive line may finally turn into a strength. With the Tank expected to return, Dallas would have a dominant 1-2 punch in the trenches. Combine that with a young secondary that showed lots of talent this past season and the hiring of Kris Richard, and it looks like the Cowboys could have a fun defense in 2018.
Can the Cowboys make a run in 2018? Sure. It’s February 5th, so anything can happen between now and training camp, but the Cowboys could potentially be an exciting team next season. They won’t be playing a first-place schedule and Ezekiel Elliott is back.
How will the Cowboys handle Dez Bryant? Will the Cowboys bring back David Irving? Who is Dallas targeting in the draft? Will the Cowboys be a player in free agency? These are all questions that need to be answered before we have more of an idea, but the Cowboys still won nine games in a disappointing season in which it seemed like that when anything could go wrong, it did go wrong.
Obviously it won’t be easy, but the potential is there.