The loss to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs capped off a season defined by a whirlwind of emotions. Nonetheless, it was a season to remember following the 2015-16 season, certainly a season to forget. After finishing the 2015-16 regular season with a 4-12 record, the worst record since 1989 when Jerry Jones first took over as owner, the Cowboys entered the off-season with glaring needs on both sides of the ball.
However, from the outset, the Cowboys did not address any of these needs, failing to sign any big names in free agency and receiving a measly “C” grade from ESPN and NFL insiders following the draft. The front office did indeed cash in on their first-round pick Ezekiel Elliott, but critics at the time wondered if the Cowboys brass should have drafted cornerback Jalen Ramsey to bolster a horrendous secondary. Furthermore, rumors swirled saying that Jones tried to trade back into the first round to draft quarterback Paxton Lynch, a decision that would have appeased critics and fans alike. Instead, Jones elected to draft Jaylon Smith early in the second round, a linebacker who received a top-10 draft grade but who also had a checkered bill of health entering the draft.
Fourth-round pick Dak Prescott still provided the depth needed to an aging Tony Romo, but analysts perceived the selection as weak since Prescott was the 14th-highest-graded quarterback per Pro Football Focus. Plus, it seemed as if the front office invested too much in defensive players with questionable production and/or durability.
Either way, fans were energized that Tony Romo was back and better than ever to lead the squad to another NFC East title—until he wasn’t. Romo went down with a broken bone in his back after suffering a brutal hit in a meaningless preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks. The beginning of the end fell upon the Cowboys, and the 2016-17 season had not even started yet.
Enter Dak Prescott. The dazzling rookie immediately took the reins and proceeded to run away with them with the intention of never giving them back to Romo. Prescott pairing with Elliott, the rookie duo soon became arguably the most explosive duo in football, not to mention the most fun-to-watch duo. Prescott did not throw an interception until Week 6 against the Packers, breaking Tom Brady’s record for most pass attempts (162) to start a career without an interception with an eye-popping 177 pass attempts. Furthermore, Prescott tied Ben Roethlisberger for the most regular season wins by a rookie quarterback with 13 wins. To put the icing on top, Prescott had the best passer rating (104.9), completion percentage (67.8), and TD-INT ratio (23-4) by any rookie in NFL history. Conversely, Elliott led the league in rushing yards (1,631) as a rookie, something that had not been seen since 1999 with Edgerrin James.
At times, the Cowboys looked unstoppable—even the defense was light years better than the atrocious defense of the past. A healthy and dangerous Sean Lee anchored the defense throughout the entire year for the first time in his career, and underrated players thrived on the defensive line and in the secondary. Rookie defensive tackle Maliek Collins and rookie cornerback Anthony Brown exceeded their draft projections, tallying five sacks and nine starts respectively. During the first half of the season prior to his injury, cornerback Morris Claiborne finally looked like the first-round pick that he was back in 2012, and defensive line attacked the quarterback week in and week out with a league 13th best 36 sacks.
Offensively, the line lived up to the hype of being the league’s best offensive line—left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, and right guard Zack Martin all received invites to the Pro Bowl. Although inconsistent at times, all-pro receiver Dez Bryant came through when he needed to, and fellow receiver Cole Beasley emerged as one of the most reliable slot receivers in the game.
Regardless, the Cowboys had two Achilles’ heels all season: the Giants and Aaron Rodgers. The offense never found a way to dismantle the vaunted Giants defense in their two losses to the division rival, and the defense gave up 649 yards, three touchdowns, and one too many remarkable throws to Rodgers in both matchups combined.
All in all, Prescott, Elliott, and Bryant left their heart on the field against the Packers, heart that will fuel an even bigger and better 2017-18 season for the Dallas Cowboys.
Photo: Jon Durr (Getty Images)