The Dallas Cowboys are officially eliminated from playoff contention.
For the last 25 years, Cowboys fans have had every season end before the ultimate goal as the mountain of heartbreak and disappointment continues. It’s the first time since 2013 that this Cowboys team has missed the playoffs in two consecutive seasons. And in both cases, they entered the regular-season finale with a shot to get in only to not have things go favorably in Week 17. While the actual winner of the division is still up for grabs, we now know it will not be the Cowboys.
This season is even more disappointing for a handful of reasons. The NFC East has been a train wreck as no team in the division finished with a winning record. With more lives than a cat, the Cowboys still couldn’t muster enough good football to finish ahead of all their divisional foes. The NFL even added an extra playoff spot this season, but even with seven teams from each conference going to the postseason, the Cowboys never even sniffed a potential Wild Card spot.
This year will get slapped with a big old asterisk as the team was decimated with injuries. The biggest injury that hurt the most was Dak Prescott breaking his ankle in Week 5 and missing the final 11 games of the season. The offensive line endured a season of injuries like no other. Travis Frederick retired, La’el Collins never saw the field, and seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith only played two games this season. Even Zack Martin, who has been an All-Pro every year entering this season, did everything he could to help the team even if it meant moving to right tackle, but an sidelined him for six games.
Despite this monstrosity of injuries to the Cowboys offense, the backups did an admirable job filling in. Andy Dalton took a bit to get a feel for things, but down the stretch he was playing better than any Cowboys quarterback not named Tony Romo or Dak Prescott has over the last two decades. Despite frequent criticism, the backups along this offensive line performed well enough to give this team a fighting chance, which is rather amazing considering just how deep they had to go. Young, inexperienced players like Brandon Knight (9), Terence Steele (14), Connor McGovern (8), and Tyler Biadasz (4) have combined for 35 starts this season after collectively having just one NFL start between them entering the season (Knight started one game last year). It would have been nice if Dalton and the offensive line had one more good game in them, but it wasn’t meant to be.
As bad as it’s been for the offense, the real problems this season for the Cowboys have been on the defensive side of the ball. The team lost key defensive starters in free agency as both Byron Jones and Robert Quinn left for big paydays. The front office failed miserably in finding viable replacements through their own free agent acquisitions during the offseason. Their five most expensive free agent defensive investments proved little to no value to the team as none of them remained on the team by the end of October.
To be fair, we never got a chance to see Gerald McCoy in action as he suffered a torn quadricep that ended his season before it even started. The team hopes to be able to bring him back if the veteran defensive tackle can get healthy.
The defense endured several trials and tribulations that not only resulted from underperforming free agents, but also struggles learning a new scheme that came with the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Through the first 13 games of the year, the Cowboys defense was dead-last in points allowed, surrendering nearly 31 points a game. The unit struggled in all areas, but for different reasons.
Despite the team’s attempt to beef up their interior defensive line via free agency, this group was forced to rely on the services of Antwaun Woods, rookie Neville Gallimore, and veteran undrafted free agent Justin Hamilton. These guys played okay, but between rawness and overall talent, it was still an area of weakness for the team.
Another group that hurt the defense was the cornerback position. While the team had a slew of quality defenders, the unit was hit will injuries that kept their top four corners out of action at different points in season, often making the secondary vulnerable on any given week. The group consisting of Chibobe Awuzie (8), Anthony Brown (6), rookie Trevon Diggs (4), and Jourdan Lewis (1), missed a collective total of 19 games this year. This forced the team to call upon some very underwhelming corner options this season.
The biggest surprise from this defensive unit came from the poor play of the once-touted star-caliber linebacker tandem of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. For reasons still unknown, the impressive 2018 versions of this duo have transformed into a very ineffective group. Fans can only hope that this regression dive is attributed to the coaching changes and that the ability we once witnessed from these guys will eventually return.
The uncertainty of what lies ahead brings about a lot of uneasiness for this ballclub. Sure, we all should feel good about the improvements coming on offense. Next season will inevitably bring about a healthier offensive line as both their starting tackles, Smith and Collins, return from injury. The team also has some intriguing interior line options with the promising play of Biadasz and McGovern. Of course, the biggest spark will come in the form of Prescott’s return as we all cross our fingers that this agitating contract battle finally concludes with the promise of Dak wearing the star for several years to come.
Defensively, things remain very challenging. Many suspect Nolan’s days in Dallas are over, so regardless of how that plays out, the Cowboys will be facing a lot of uncertainty of whether the defensive coaching gets better. Not only that, but the team will enter the offseason with several key defensive backs hitting free agency. The 2017 draft class of Awuzie, Lewis, and Xavier Woods are all unrestricted free agents.
So, what’s next for this Cowboys team? It’s hard to know for sure as there are reasons for optimistic, but also reasons for pause. At least we can finally throw dirt on this dreadful 2020 season.
It was a painful season with a painful ending, but the Dallas Cowboys now get a top 10 pick with a very good player personnel department.— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) January 3, 2021
The long offseason may have officially begun, but it's going to make for a lot of fun for the draft junkies.