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.