One of the great things about being a Cowboys fan in recent years is that each season is filled with hope. Regardless of how it ends, each new year is a clean slate and there are always reasons to be optimistic about the team’s chances of contending. At least that’s the half-full glass of blue kool-aid some of us drink every day to help keep the blood pumping. Whether the team is being led by Tony Romo or Dak Prescott, the possibilities have been there and we enter each year with high expectations. This season will be no different.
Getting to the Super Bowl is hard. Over the last ten years, only one NFC team has made it to the Super Bowl more than once (Seattle Seahawks), which is an indication that success is hard to sustain. Despite the Cowboys not being one of those teams to make on the big stage over the last decade, they’ve been hanging around and are close to taking the next step. Will that next step be happening this year? If so, what pieces need to fall in place for the Cowboys to get a shot at the title?
Get Dak on track...for a big year
It’s weird to say that Prescott needs to get himself back on track because he never really fell off the track. Make no mistake about it, he struggled at times in the second half of the season as the offense looked terrible. During their three-game losing streak last season, Dak and the offense looked completely inept.
NUMBERS ARE UGLY FOR COWBOYS W/ OUT ZEKE -— Dan Hellie (@DanHellie) November 29, 2017
1) 1st team since 2009 to go 3 straight games scoring fewer than 10 points
2) Dak Prescott has 0 TD passes & 8 turnovers. No other QB in the last DECADE has had 0 passing touchdowns and 8+ giveaways in a 3-game span. @NFLResearch
We can talk about how Tyron Smith missed games and that caused Prescott’s cage to be rattled. We can also talk about Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game hiatus. And we can talk about how Dez Bryant struggled hanging on to the ball even when it was placed right into his hands. Those things are all true.
But Dak owns part of this, too. Some of his throws were into the feet of the receiver or sailed over his target’s head. The often accurate Prescott had his fare share of misfires.
The good news is the Cowboys have done a lot to fix many of the problems. The offensive line is revamped, Zeke is locked and loaded for a full schedule of 16 games, and they have filled their receiving group with a bunch of route-running specialists. Now, Dak just has to do is part.
Scott Linehan was under fire for some excruciatingly predictable play-calling last year. Sometimes it felt as if the defense was in the Cowboys huddle with them. But then there’s also that Linehan who has called some brilliant plays for the team that’s played a big part in the offense’s successful stints in recent years. So which is it? Is he good or is he bad?
While they were great in 2016 and in the first half of 2017, the Cowboys offense was all out of sorts in the second half as they couldn’t find ways to move the chains when they faced adversity. The team’s identity is running the ball and we should expect a good dose of that, but Dallas needs to be better in the passing game, too. The team has gone a different direction with new receivers and added a detailed route-runner instructor in Sanjay Lal. They’ve also traded for a crafty “web-back” in Tavon Austin. And even though he’s a late-round draft pick, it should be fun to watch rookie Bo Scarbough pound through a tired defense while Zeke is taking a breather.
The tools are there. Now, it’s on Linehan to use them.
Take the pass rush to the next level
It was great to see DeMarcus Lawrence emerge as a perennial pass rusher. And to watch David Irving average close to a sack a game was equally impressive. For the first time in a long while, the Cowboys pass rush was alive. That’s certainly a good start, but they need to be even better. If the team expects to go far in the playoffs, they need to have an arsenal of fellas getting after the quarterback. A repeat season from Tank is a must. Irving needs to be on the football field and playing at the same level he was last year. We need a deluxe Taco Charlton this year. And while it’s unclear how the interior of the defensive line will shape out, a big year out of Maliek Collins certainly would help.
There are actually a lot of wild cards when it comes to the Cowboys defensive line. The potential to be great is there. And that is not including the possibility that Randy Gregory might return. Kony Ealy, Jihad Ward... both these guys have upside. And even though Dorance Armstrong is just a rookie, you never know if he’ll flash some ability in the limited reps he’ll sees.
The Cowboys pass rush must be there if the team expects to be playing in January.
Stars Align at Linebacker
What if Sean Lee stayed healthy all season?
What if Jaylon Smith’s knee was strong enough to make him look like he did at Notre Dame?
What if Leighton Vander Esch is another first-round draft gem?
Sure, that’s a lot of if’s, but none of these things are unrealistic. Prior to last season, Lee was coming off two of the healthiest seasons of his career. Smith is already demonstrating great mobility in training camp. If this kid returns to form, look out. And in each of the Cowboys last two playoff seasons (2014 and 2016), their first-round draft pick ended up being an All Pro. Can they make it three straight? Now, that’s a tall order to place on a rookie linebacker, but he doesn’t have to breakout onto the scene to have a big impact for the defense. LVE is an athletic player who can be an asset in coverage. Considering this has been an area the linebacker group has struggled in over the years, having a player like Vander Esch is welcomed with open arms.
With the DLine clicking, the LB’s clicking, all that’s left is...
The Richard Effect
No Earl Thomas. No problem.
The Cowboys have a young group of defensive backs who are getting better with each new rep. It got off to a rough start last season as Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods all suffered injuries early, but once they were all back - the secondary looked sharp. The potential to be really good is there.
But it could get a little more difficult this season. If the Cowboys offense gets back on track, it’s going to put added pressure on the opposing team to keep up. These type of circumstances could challenge this young secondary as teams will take more risks. On one hand, this could work out great for Dallas if they are able to capitalize on miscues. But on the other hand, it could result in big plays. New defensive backs coach/passing game coordinator is no stranger to rolling the dice on defense and it may have been the reason Pete Carroll fired him.
Richard might have been calling the game more aggressively than Carroll prefers. Carroll’s scheme is based on not getting beat deep, keeping passes in front of the secondary and forcing teams to have to go the long way to march for touchdowns with the idea being that the more plays it takes, the more likely the opposing offense is to mess things up.
It was business as usual for Dan Bailey in the beginning of 2017 as he was knocking down every kick he attempted, but then something unfortunate happened - a groin injury. Midway through the season the injury changed Bailey into someone we didn’t recognize. It made him human as he started resembling regular NFL kickers who would miss field goals from time to time. So that’s what that feels like.
After connecting on his first seven field goal attempts prior to the injury, Bailey would miss five of his next 13 attempts. He would finish the season missing 25% of his field goals which would be a career low for him. Not only that, but he was one of the few kickers in the league who had never missed an extra point. Was. After a perfect 271 for 271 PAT streak, Bailey would shank two of them in the team’s final four games of the season. And when a kicked sailed wide from the uprights in the Week 16 game against the Seahawks, the Cowboys playoff chances also sailed away. It was a fitting end to a season where things were uncharacteristically not going according to plan. When Bailey is missing make-able kicks, you know it’s just not your year.
Not many people are worried about the team’s star kicker returning to form in 2018. For the better part of his career, Dan Bailey has been one of the best kickers in the league. And while this might seem little trite, being able to make kicks in this league is a big deal. How great did it feel in the 2016 playoff game against Green Bay when Bailey lined up for the game-tying field goal? Were you nervous? I wasn’t. But when those situations arise in the upcoming season, that warm sense of confidence might not be there as we all wait to see if Bailey is back to his old self.
What do you think it’s going to take for the Cowboys to be champions again?