Ezekiel Elliott was back Sunday, but couldn't get the ball on the goal-line.
Ezekiel Elliott was back Sunday, but couldn't get the ball on the goal-line.
Keith Allison

What the Cowboys Have to Get Right to Contend In 2018

Like the 2008, 2010 and 2015 Cowboys, the 2017 Cowboys were supposed to be different. They'd learned the lessons of a largely successful yet bitterly disappointing 2016 and were ready to play in the Cowboys' first NFC Championship Game since the 1995 season. They weren't different. The 2017 Cowboys, doomed by a thousand cuts and finished off by the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, missed the playoffs, just as the Cowboys have following their previous three playoff appearances.

The Cowboys haven't made the playoffs two years in a row since 2006 and 2007. Jason Garrett, somehow in his seventh full season coaching the Cowboys, is on the verge of going 8-8 for the fourth time. As currently constructed, the Cowboys roster is talented, young and relatively salary-cap friendly. Several glaring problems, however, threaten to doom the Dak and Zeke years to the same, accolade-free fate as Tony Romo's decade in Dallas.

First, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones needs to recognize that the Garrett era is over.

There's a reason Garrett's the longest-tenured head coach of the Jones era. It's not his record. Garrett's been to the playoffs twice, never further than the divisional round, and doesn't bring anything innovative to the Cowboys' scheme or locker room. He's not a players' coach, like Seattle's Pete Carroll, or a master tactician, like Bill Belichick. Instead, Garrett is a front for the Jones family, willing to accept limited control over personnel decisions and parroting the company line in exchange for job security and $6 million a season.

That's OK, to a certain extent. Since Stephen Jones has taken over the day-to-day operation of the Cowboys from his dad, the team has gotten its salary-cap house in order and become one of the better drafting teams in the NFL. Personnel management isn't what's holding the Cowboys back. The biggest thing the Cowboys need from their head coach is an ability to make aggressive, winning decisions on game day.

Garrett's not the man for the job. Throughout 2017, he's repeatedly failed to adjust to unexpected circumstances within games. The Cowboys Nov. 12 game against the Falcons is the most glaring example. Adrian Clayborn, Atlanta's good but not great defensive end, managed to rack up five sacks against backup tackle Chaz Green before Garrett pulled him. Sunday against the Seahawks, Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan melted down with the Cowboys desperately needing a touchdown while behind nine points in the fourth quarter. They failed to hand the ball to Elliott, the NFL's best short-yardage back, a single time after securing a first-and-goal with about six minutes left in the game.

The head coach's lack of aggression on fourth downs and frequent clock mismanagement are inexcusable in an era when every kid with an Xbox controller and a copy of Madden 18 knows that going for it, more often than not, is the right decision. There isn't room for playing not to lose in the modern NFL, especially with short-yardage weapons like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

The Cowboys need a new No. 1 receiver, too.

Dez Bryant isn't finished, but he isn't good enough to be the focus of the Cowboys' passing game anymore, either. Thanks to years of giving everything he had physically to the Cowboys, Bryant no longer has the speed to be a consistent downfield threat — his 12.2 yards per catch this season is the lowest average of his career. He's still a capable red zone and possession receiver, but the Cowboys need to seek a new primary wideout to stretch the field and take advantage of the play-action passing opportunities created by Elliott.

DeMarcus Lawrence needs to be re-signed.

For the first time since DeMarcus Ware's departure in 2013, the Cowboys had a legitimate Pro Bowl pass rusher in DeMarcus Lawrence. Lawrence's emergence allowed the Cowboys to pressure quarterbacks without blitzing, something that's been essential to the development of the team's young secondary. Lawrence is going to be the best pass rusher on the free-agent market this off-season, and it's imperative the Cowboys lock him in long term.

The Cowboys must repent for the sins of the past by picking up depth at offensive line and linebacker.

More than anything, more than Elliott missing six games, more than Garrett's stumbles, the things the kept the Cowboys out of the 2017 playoffs were the mid-season injuries to left tackle Tyron Smith and linebacker Sean Lee. Smith's absence might have singlehandedly cost the Cowboys their games against the Falcons and Seahawks, while the Cowboys defense went from awful to almost-good in games in which Lee was able to get on the field. While replacing All-Pros with equivalent injury fill-ins is impossible, the Cowboys have to do something to smooth out the drop-offs from Smith and Lee to their understudies, given their injury histories.

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