It was not a pretty season for the Dallas Cowboys in 2017. After winning 13 games in 2016 and losing on a last-second field goal to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, all signs were pointing up for the Cowboys. Especially knowing that Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott would be on the field for the foreseeable future. After all, both players surpassed expectations in their rookie season.
Elliott was drafted fourth overall and was immediately thrust into being a focal point in the offense, but Prescott’s path was quite different. After Tony Romo suffered another back injury in the 2016 preseason, Prescott was asked to guide the Cowboys until the veteran quarterback returned. What ensued from there has been a domino effect on how the team has directed its roster growth and the path of getting back to the Super Bowl. While their success in 2016 did not end in the title of champions, everyone saw enough out of Prescott for Romo to retire and for the Cowboys to retool their franchise around the Mississippi State product.
The expectations in 2017 were large and, probably, unrealistic. Despite having a roster that was budding with talent, there were some losses on the offensive line and the defense had a lot of youth with not a lot of depth to be considered dependable and durable. But the Dallas offense through the first part of the season gave reason for optimism. All of that joy and optimism took a huge cliff jump when Elliott was finally given his six-game suspension and star left tackle Tyron Smith was sidelined due to his nagging back concerns. For people who did not consider Prescott’s success warranted or did not quite see the hype, this was their perfect storm.
November 12, 2017: Dallas Cowboys @ Atlanta Falcons
Dallas was able to get the week prior to prepare for a possible playoff matchup between two teams that were struggling, yet were given huge expectations prior to the start of the season. In need of a win without some of their best players, Prescott and the offense faltered. Atlanta’s defense stole the show, led by seven sacks from Adrian Clayborn.
From that game on until the final snap of a meaningless Week 17 road matchup against the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, Prescott regressed. After the season and seeking answers, and going through perhaps a seven stages of grief process, the Cowboys mapped a plan to fix their offense.
The first move was signing talented, yet oft-injured Allen Hurns in free agency. For a few days, the Cowboys had a receiving group of Hurns, Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley. But when those few days passed, the Cowboys opted to part ways with Bryant, a staple of their offense since the team traded up and drafted him in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
To make matters worse, the Cowboys then lost another staple in their offense when Jason Witten decided to play his last snap and hang up his cleats.
In the draft, the Cowboys’ focus was mainly on the offensive side of the ball. The franchise used their second-round pick on offensive lineman Connor Williams, their third-round pick on wide receiver Michael Gallup, their second fourth-round pick on tight end Dalton Schultz, their fifth-round pick on Mike White, their second sixth-round pick on Cedrick Wilson and their seventh-round pick on Bo Scarbrough.
Critics of the Cowboys will argue that their downfall will be because of their receiving crew. But looking at the recent past Super Bowl winners, having a star-studded receiving crew doesn’t seem to be a requirement. And while Bryant and Witten will undoubtedly be Ring of Honor members in Dallas in due time, the reality is that the Cowboys’ offense is tailored towards running the football with success and sustaining long drives to bait the defense into leaving their secondary vulnerable. The Cowboys’ receiving crew is not other-worldly, but they have enough impact players who can win in tight space and against one-on-one coverage.
But the focus of the Cowboys’ transition on the offensive side of the ball should not only be on the wide receiving situation. Instead, the focus should be on how the Cowboys have positioned their offensive line to be the best in the league. Despite their reputation, Dallas’ offensive line was far from spectacular in 2017.
Dallas fans know what to expect from perennial All-Pro players Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. But in terms of the less solid positions, left guard and right tackle, Dallas fans should have optimism for the talent of the players that could be slotted in these spots in 2018. Williams has the looks of being an athletic mover at left guard and Collins, who already showed progress at the position down the stretch in 2017, should only improve with another offseason and another training camp at the position under his belt.
Knowing all of this, Prescott should look more like he did previously. Towards the end of last year, it appeared Prescott’s mental clock sped up, his accuracy decreased, and his fastball did not have as much bite. But with the line looking more formidable and his running mate coming back, all things have gone right for Prescott to be one of the more productive quarterbacks in the NFC. Dallas has the talent and the makeup for Prescott to prove that his stellar 2016 season was truly no fluke.