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.