When we put the finishing touches on analysis for the 2017 Cowboys season -- and try to sort out just how well the defense played -- I think we should consider a few of the following numbers:
-- The Cowboys were 9-0 when they held opponents under 21 points.
-- Therefore, they were 0-7 when the opponent scored 21 or more points.
-- They were eighth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed. In a league where games saw the average team gain 334 yards per game, the Cowboys allowed 318.
-- Dallas was eighth against the run (per game), 11th against the pass (per game) and 10th in yards allowed per play. Flirting with top-10 status in all of these departments is pretty solid.
-- The Cowboys also were second in negative plays! That is a huge development that we will explore a bit later. Sixth in conceding explosive plays, second in opposing field position (not really a defensive stat, but it does really matter), and second in the entire league at winning on first downs.
-- They were 13th in the NFL in points allowed. League average was 21.7 allowed per game, and the Cowboys conceded 20.8. Right about at the average. They also finished with 21 takeaways, which was slightly off the league average of 22.
-- Dallas was average in sacks per pass attempt (16th) and first downs allowed (16th). Rushing yards per play, it ranked 18th.
-- Finally, the Cowboys were at the bottom of the league in interception rate (27th); third-down defense (29th); successful plays allowed (30th); against third and short (32nd); and second-down rushes (32nd).
That all adds up to about what you would expect.
Decent defense. Promising developments at some spots. Still lacking a few premium playmakers, but there are some pieces in place that suggest there is some good stuff happening below the waterline.
The Cowboys missed starts of significance because of the following: David Irving missed eight games (four to suspension/four to injury), Orlando Scandrick missed five, Sean Lee missed five, Anthony Hitchens missed four and Chidobe Awuzie missed about 10 (if we consider him a starter, which I think we should). Add in one absence for Jeff Heath, and this cumulative total of 33 missed starts (out of a possible 176 for defensive starters) may not sound like anything extraordinary, but in a hard-capped league where depth is rare, 81 percent attendance is not considered excellent. For instance, the Minnesota Vikings have the best defense in the industry -- but also the healthiest. They had 98 percent attendance from their 11 starters this season, which certainly demonstrates some luck that their offense did not receive.
But for the Cowboys, it seems rather clear. When you don't have blue-chippers all over your defense, you need those you do have to stay on the field. A dependence on Lee was likely the difference between making and missing the playoffs this year, from a defensive standpoint. And, without question, losing a destroyer like Irving for all of September and all of December pretty much sunk their ship.
WEEKLY DATA BOX - AT PHILADELPHIA
I really don't want to spend too much time on the defensive play from Sunday. The Eagles had no quarterback play at all and did not seem too concerned about anything other than getting the game over with. The Cowboys certainly padded their stats for the year and left feeling great with a shutout.
They ended the year with seven different performances in which the opposition did not even pierce the 300-yard mark, which is some very impressive work, to be fair.
Again, this shows you how no linebacker finished in the top seven in snaps. That is a real issue because the defensive line is not trying to get high snaps, but rather a deep rotation. We are used to defensive backs dominating snap counts, but not this much. And Irving played significantly fewer snaps than Taco Charlton and Benson Mayowa.
BLITZ RATE BY WEEK
Just when you thought the Cowboys hardly blitzed, they took it down even further and further this season -- 17 percent is a new low, even for a team that already never blitzed. In a league where the average sits at about 30 percent, blitzing is just not something Rod Marinelli is interested in doing.
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 17
Not sure we have ever seen this, but the drop from DeMarcus Lawrence to the rest of the team was absurd in 2017. It didn't help that the next two players -- Irving and Lee -- each missed significant time. It also may demonstrate that the Cowboys have a lot of players on defense, but not a lot of playmakers. So when you are missing your two difference-makers, the defense becomes ordinary very, very quickly.
The story of the 2017 Cowboys defense is this: It had three playmakers and two missed significant time.
Therefore, you need to find more playmakers for this defense to have a chance to improve.
By the way, your only consistent playmaker who had consistent attendance in 2017 is now out of contract.
SPLASH PLAYS - SEASON TOTALS
We have known this for weeks, but here are your annual splash play champions since 2011, when I started tracking this number. We wondered if we would see our first 40-splash season, but Lawrence fell just short, tying DeMarcus Ware's 2011 season. But, look, he did it in 209 fewer snaps! That is clearly our tiebreaker, so, in the history of the splash play index, we have a new top season ever.
I don't believe there is any chance Lawrence goes anywhere this offseason. He will either get a long extension or get franchised. We should not rule out either because the Cowboys certainly could talk themselves into a short-term solution, but I would just get that four-year, $60 million offer out there and get it over with.
Lawrence is very good and Irving is right there with him. It is up to them to put their suspensions behind them and give this team a full 16 games next year and beyond, because those two, along with some nice pieces -- Charlton for one -- should have the defensive line in a spot where it just needs a run-stopper in the middle to bring it all together.
The D-line was one of the league leaders in negative plays. Lots of sacks and tackles for loss all season long. Really great stuff up front, but it was surrounded by too many situations when the opponent was able to recover and move the chains by kicking the Cowboys' rear on third downs.
The wild card remains Randy Gregory, but I will not discuss that at this time because there is so much unknown.
At linebacker, you have Hitchens without a deal and Lee in a familiar spot for him: one of the best in the sport for 10 games a year. It is a weird proposition and his is an odd career to evaluate. But, wow, does he make a difference when he is on the field.
And then you have the wild card of the linebacking corps, Jaylon Smith. He improved as the season went on and played a lot of snaps. It is reasonable to think his 2018 will be that much better, but if ever there was a wild projection, it would be that.
Then, in the defensive backfield, you have optimism stirred by Awuzie's final month and Jourdan Lewis' season. I have always rated Awuzie higher, but both are quite capable. Byron Jones is still a piece, albeit with a lower ceiling than we hoped for, it appears. Scandrick's future is in question, as his body has been through plenty and he is getting up there in age. They can still use a playmaker back there if the draft smiles down on them. Perhaps getting an "ace" back there (your own Earl Thomas-type) could make the whole rotation make sense.
You have pieces on defense. You need more. It is a league of extraordinary talent beating ordinary talent every week. The Cowboys simply need a little more extraordinary to bring this side of the ball together.
The 2017 Dallas Cowboys season ended in more disappointment. Sure, the record books will reflect it ended with a shutout win over a divisional rival that had a wonderful year, but let's not kid ourselves. That 6-0 win over the Eagles will serve to push the Cowboys down the draft order and do little else to soothe the wounds of a season that will be remembered as a massive underachievement.
As we look back to how the season will be remembered, I find it rather safe to point to the week of Nov. 5 as a good dividing point. And since symmetry makes things a bit more digestible, it should be noted that this halfway point in the season means eight games fall on each side of the dividing line.
On Nov. 5, the Cowboys smoked the Kansas City Chiefs (then 6-2) at home in a game that was thoroughly impressive. Everything they did that day seemed to work, and after dismantling one of the league's early-season contenders, Dallas looked more than poised to continue to challenge for a fine playoff spot and, perhaps, a run to Minneapolis.
Two things of great significance happened that week, with one getting all the headlines and the other drawing mostly crickets:
1.) Ezekiel Elliott's last motion for an injunction in his legal battle with the NFL was denied, and his six-game suspension was immediately reinstated that Thursday. He would miss the next six games in full and end up playing in just 125 (24 percent) of the possible offensive snaps the rest of the season.
2.) Tyron Smith aggravated his groin against Kansas City and missed five games either in full or in part through the remainder of the year. Sometimes it was the groin, others it was the back, and then the knee was listed on the injury report, but after playing in 529 snaps in the first half of the season, he would drop to 229 in the second and be replaced by some very poor performances from reserves.
Now, one could engage in some spirited debates over which one you would rather have, which one you are better equipped to replace and which one is an overall rare talent in today's NFL. But, know this, in any ranking of Cowboys assets, you would definitely place Smith and Elliott in the top five and, perhaps, as the top two. They are both in the top handful of players at their position and are both among the league's best players. One plays a glamorous position and does so with no fear of a camera, while the other seems to be far more anonymous in fan circles -- but make no mistake: they both are rare gems, and to lose them both will certainly be felt.
This much, though?
Above you see the realities of the two halves of the Cowboys season. Sure, they were only 5-3 through the first eight weeks and 4-4 in the second half, so books will not be written about the two halves being strikingly different. But if you watched the season -- as you no doubt did if you are reading this -- then you know they always appeared to be in the mix during the first half of 2017 and never seemed close once the Atlanta game kicked off, signaling the second half was beginning.
They easily were a top-10 offense and most of their offensive statistics in the first half of 2017 matched those in 2016. But then they lost Smith and Elliott.
Instead of playing a total of 993 snaps in eight games, the two talents combined for just 354 snaps in the next eight games. If you want to quantify the difference, it is all in that graphic.
They went from 28.3 points per game to 16. They went from being the eighth-most productive offense to 26th. They went from the second-best pass protection team to 25th. They turned the ball over, guys couldn't get open and drives were no longer sustainable.
Yes, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and Dak Prescott went from a reasonably able quarterback to a guy who didn't have a clue. He went from being a guy who had all the confidence a young quarterback could have to one whose fan base no longer believed he was glittering gold.
He had a 24-game track record of competence and then instantly lost all ability to play quarterback at this level? And you are telling me that quarterback can't play at precisely the same moment his two most valuable pieces vanished from his offense?
Is it possible the attendance record of his two most important offensive talents might have something to do with this? Can we explain much of the 2017 decline by the quarterback with the fact that, instead of getting sacked 10 times in eight games, he was sacked 22 times in eight games? Or that teams did not treat the understudies of Smith and Elliott the same way they would those two?
Smith missed two games against the Falcons and Eagles in which Prescott was sacked (often hard) 12 times in eight days. Is it possible that this affected him greatly -- his poise, composure, pocket presence and overall ability to orchestrate an NFL offense?
Look, I am not trying to tell you that Prescott is not a concern. I am not trying to tell you this offense is still one of the best in the sport. There are issues, and some of them are getting worse.
But you are telling me that I have 32 games of evidence with which to evaluate this offense. We have two groups: In Group 1, I have 24 games of evidence where almost everything looked really impressive and the offensive pieces fit together in a way that made us discuss their resemblance to the Cowboys' old dynasty (and they went 18-6) ... and in Group 2, I have eight games of evidence where the All-Pro left tackle and All-Pro running back were gone for almost all of it and the offense looked lost without a compass. Now, which should I weigh more heavily in my evaluation?
Before we decide to clean house and replace everyone as soon as possible, should we take a few breaths and consider things carefully?
I think there are some real issues. This team has been horrendous at generating big plays through the air and yards after catch over the past two seasons. That must improve. And for that reason, I think the coordination of the offense -- scheme and personnel -- should be looked at closely. That is an evaluation of 32-48 games that goes all the way back to the "Dez Catch," to be honest.
But to conclude that the "214" era of the Cowboys cannot work moving forward seems to miss the fact that when it is assembled, it has worked very well.
Smith and Elliott are wonderful talents. Losing one of them could wreck your offense's ability. Lose them both simultaneously, and perhaps you should expect everything to crumble.
I don't think we should spend too much time on Sunday's game, unless you wish to depress yourself further with the truth that as bad as the offense was -- and make no mistake, it looked absolutely atrocious -- it generated the third-best yardage production of the season's second half.
Let that soak in for a moment -- 301 yards of offense in that ridiculous game in Philadelphia was better than the offensive production against the Falcons, Eagles, Chargers, Redskins and Seahawks.
Everything seems broken right now.
Let's look at some season totals for the personnel groupings rather than give Week 17 anymore attention:
And then here's this chart from my guy, John Daigle, which shows how much they ran each grouping relative to the past several years:
The offense had a really tough year and slid back in many statistics. It has a rather stale scheme in terms of creativity and inserting new components/personnel, but as we stated above, stale is when you are losing. When you are dominating, we describe it as "sustainable and repeatable" and a battering ram that shows no mercy to opponents.
I don't think I can explain why Rico Gathers and even Ryan Switzer were not considered for much use. Hopefully we will soon be told the truth behind the Gathers situation. Was he concussed so badly that he disappeared completely, or are the Cowboys just reluctant to put him out there because they don't think he is that good? Switzer, even in the meaningless game against Philadelphia, showed he had an awful lot of elusiveness that should be used as a weapon moving forward. Basically, it looks like the offense lacks athleticism, but those two players are already in the building and seem to have athleticism for days.
I would strongly consider examining the play-calling and modifying route combinations to attack more horizontally and vertically. Everyone wants vertical, but horizontal attacks are needed just as much. Each play seems to result in hooks and comebacks, and those do not lend themselves to many yards after catch.
I also need better teaching for my quarterback. If that means veteran backups or a different quarterbacks coach, or just more deliberate methods that might include asking him to do less orchestration of the offense himself, then it is OK to slow down the desire to give him the keys to the Tony Romo offense. Let Prescott climb the ladder because in 12 months time, you must know if he is your quarterback or not for 2019-25, as he will get much more expensive then. You don't want to sign a regrettable $100 million deal with a guy you aren't sure about. The next 12 months need to make you sure.
You also need better depth on the offensive line and prepare for the possibility that Smith's most durable years are behind him. You can hope you are wrong, but you had better prepare to be right.
There is plenty of work to be done. But I would not reach for the dynamite.
On the very first morning of 2018, we gather to remember the Dallas Cowboys' 2017 season as it has been completed.
There will be no playoffs. That was made clear Christmas Eve. The Cowboys did, in fact, secure a winning record in Philadelphia on Sunday, which I suppose makes some people feel better. Evidently, those will not be the fans who seemed tortured by the entirety of the afternoon against the Eagles in which neither team seemed interested in anything but getting back inside on a very chilly day with nothing on the line.
The Cowboys finish the 2017 season with a record of 9-7. While I constantly assume that a 9-7 season will get you into the playoffs, that should be put to rest after doing the research. Twenty-eight times the Cowboys have finished a season with 10 or more wins and they made the playoffs all 28 of those occasions. But that leaves 30 seasons in which the Cowboys did not get to 10 wins, and they reached the postseason on just four of those occasions. In the 1982 strike season, 6-3 put you in the postseason. In 1999, you may recall the Troy Aikman-Chan Gailey Cowboys getting into the playoffs at 8-8. In 1967, they qualified easily with a 9-5 record. And in 2006, 9-7 also put the Cowboys in the postseason, which set them up for a trip to Seattle that you may recall ended with a Tony Romo field goal hold that went off the rails and retired Bill Parcells.
So, in five seasons of 9-7 records -- 1984, 2005, 2006, 2008 and now 2017 -- the Cowboys have actually only punched their ticket into the playoffs one time. So, for now, we will put down 20 percent as the likelihood that you make the playoffs with a 9-7 record, despite most of us thinking that this would "generally get you in."
We could certainly discuss the details of Sunday's 6-0 win over Philadelphia, but I will spare you the rundown that is in my notebook. It was slightly less interesting than your average preseason game and any hopes of seeing the Cowboys offense show us signs of life from a time before the six-game suspension of Ezekiel Elliott will have to wait until 2018. This offensive performance was what we now call "routinely unacceptable," which would not be a selected title of a season summary, but it would be an appropriate one.
The overall mood Sunday when Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Jason Garrett were paraded in front of the huge group of media was that what you would expect. They were coming off a 13-3 season with a young team that would seem to have its best football in front of it. They lost in the playoffs to Green Bay, but it doesn't take complex mental gymnastics to convince yourself that the Cowboys were the better team and were simply undone by a singular performance that would be difficult to duplicate. They certainly don't need to feel like they can't compete with the best teams in the NFC. Needless to say, there is optimism for 2017.
You may recall that July day. The Cowboys' "State of the Union" address that had them wanting to talk about building on their stunning 2016 with even more success in 2017. They had designs on reaching new heights, and the sky did appear to be the limit with all of these other flawed NFC contenders.
Incidentally, that logic was indeed sound. The other NFC contenders -- so we thought -- were all severely flawed.
Atlanta, which appeared a sliver from their first Lombardi Trophy leading 28-3 in February's Super Bowl, did squeeze into the postseason at the final bell, but their record-breaking offense and Matt Ryan's MVP performance of 2016 were not replicated in 2017. They repeat their berth into the postseason but do so as the final team to qualify in the conference and will be an underdog to survive wild-card weekend.
Green Bay, which had matched New England for the longest streak of playoff appearances (2009-16), now digs in for a long, frigid winter after falling victim to its talisman breaking his collarbone again. With Aaron Rodgers, the Packers look capable of anything. Without No. 12, they look incapable of anything. Their postseason streak ended without drama.
Seattle entered the season with massive issues on the offensive line and were unable to properly address any of them. The Seahawks continued to hope that their championship core could continue to do most of the heavy lifting, but as those players age from their prime into their 30s, they now are more expensive and less durable, which leads to a team that appears too top-heavy and makes depth a real problem. They continue to ask Russell Wilson to drag them to victory, which only sometimes works out.
The New York Giants -- after convincing anyone who would listen last year that they had purchased their way to the heavyweight division, it all came crashing down in a 2017 season that seemed doomed early with their diva wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., getting hurt in the preseason, healing, and then getting hurt again almost immediately (along with pretty much every other receiver they had). Their offensive line remained shambolic, Eli Manning remained in decline and their defense that did everything in 2016 returned to earth. The coach was fired, the general manager was fired and several players were suspended for general petulance.
As you can see, the Cowboys' belief that they should be in great shape relative to flawed rivals was spot-on. They finished level or above all of them except for the Falcons -- and they finished just a game behind them. If that was the entire field of NFC opponents, there would be no problems.
The issues, of course, would be that the NFC was in complete upheaval. Nobody knew the top five seeds in the NFC would all be new, but that is how it turned out. Philadelphia and Minnesota took advantage of the opportunity to put seasons together that now give them their returns to the playoffs after a rather lean five years, but they now find themselves with bye weeks and home-field advantages. The Eagles won't have to leave their home as long as Nick Foles can save them until the Super Bowl, and while the Vikings may have to visit them, Minnesota could very well return home to become the first team to host a Super Bowl.
They are joined by the Saints, Rams, Panthers and Falcons as the NFC South continues to represent so well in the postseason. Keep in mind the South represented the NFC in the Super Bowl past two seasons -- Carolina and Atlanta -- and now seems poised, with three postseason entries, to try to make it a third straight year.
So where does all of this leave the Cowboys?
Well, it puts them back in that familiar spot where they follow up their successful seasons by missing the playoffs.
After 2007, they seemed so close and ready to overcome that final hurdle in 2008, only to finish 9-7 and sad as they left Philadelphia to end the season in disgust.
In 2009, they won 11 games and had things headed in the right direction, only to return in 2010 with a 1-5 record before losing Tony Romo to a broken collarbone. This led to the firing of Wade Phillips and months of watching Jon Kitna play quarterback.
In 2014, they broke out of the 8-8 spin cycle and took the NFC by storm with a 12-4 record and had the closest of calls at Lambeau Field in the playoffs, only to tumble down to earth because of yet another collarbone injury (and then another collarbone injury) in 2015, which led to a 4-12 season of disappointment.
And then, in 2016, with the dynamic duo of rookies Dak Prescott and Elliott, the Cowboys shocked the NFC for a 13-3 record before the dreaded playoff disappointment followed by a 2017 season filled with suspension, regression, and then depression.
We spent 2016 pointing out the historical significance and outright insanity of a quarterback being drafted 135th overall and then immediately leading his team to a 13-3 record as a rookie. We pointed out that it simply doesn't happen, and that we should soak in the rarity and understand what we are being treated to in this sense. Turns out that we should also moderate our excitement to reflect that he may return to earth at any moment if circumstances change. I still like the kid and think he has many characteristics to build upon, but if we simply saw normal regression to the mean because the sample size had grown larger, we should have known better.
The running back, of course, appears to be the real article -- albeit one who evidently can be his own worst enemy at times. He was available for just 10 games, and while nobody will want to hear this, he was less explosive in those games as the big runs were not as plentiful and his production dropped. Not significantly, mind you, but the view that he would show up and all would instantly be fixed in the Cowboys offense by merely handing him the ball has proven a bit flimsy. After a 14-2 start to his career as the starting running back, Elliott finished the year 5-4 in his last nine starts. The idea that they are simply unbeatable with his presence did not hold water this year.
We now await the fate of the coaching staff and, at the risk of rewriting last week's piece, I will simply link to it here so you can understand my feelings on the matter. In short, eight years is enough to get a feel for Jason Garrett's vision, and I would greatly endorse a fresh direction for this franchise and hope it could raise the bar here to the dizzying heights of back-to-back successful seasons.
There were some bright spots this year, for sure. DeMarcus Lawrence offered as good a year from a Cowboys defensive lineman since the other DeMarcus was in his prime. He was sensational. We saw gains from the young defensive backs who were drafted highly and the group looks like it will continue to get better with time. Jaylon Smith and Taco Charlton were heavy investments from the past two drafts and they underwhelmed early. However, as autumn turned to winter, they both had arrows pointing up for the future as well.
The Cowboys are highly leveraged in special players being special. They need Tyron Smith to return to dominance and must hope his back can heal so he may continue his prime years in full health. They need Dez Bryant to return to being a top wide receiver and not just a famous one who sells jerseys and fills talk show segments. They need substance far beyond the 53.5 receiving yards per game they have gotten out of him since he signed his big contract. He may not be the guy who can get you 82 yards per game anymore (like he did to get that contract), but they will need him to split the difference immediately.
They will need Sean Lee to find the fountain of youth, or they will need to get more realistic about what he can provide. He barely got to 600 snaps this year after hitting nearly 1,000 last year. They depend on him for everything and, while there is no question he gives it all he has, he will be 32 when next season begins, so the fault will be on the Cowboys if they continue to place all their eggs in his aging basket.
They have loads of work to do. There is no question the offseason will again be pivotal. They certainly have pieces in place, but they also have holes to fill.
The 2017 season will not be remembered well. Nor should it be. Once again, the Garrett Cowboys disappointed when they were asked to follow up on success.
Back to the paragraph I begin and end every season with -- updated for the 20 seasons I have completed in covering the Dallas Cowboys:
Twenty seasons, just eight (40 percent) resulted in playoff football on any level. You realize just five (25 percent) have been NFC East divisional titles. From there, in 10 playoff games over 20 years, two (10 percent) of those special years -- 2009 vs. Philadelphia and 2014 vs. Detroit -- did the team do so much as win a wild-card playoff game. And at no point in those 20 seasons have they even secured a spot in the final four (zero percent), let alone a Super Bowl (zero percent).
Now, yet again, they return to the drawing board. Plans are being drawn up for Season 21.