Mercifully for Cowboys fans, the 2017 NFL season is over. Like seemingly every Cowboys team with high expectations over the last decade — here's looking at you, 2008, 2010, 2015 — this year's team crashed and burned thanks to regressions from key players — hello, Dak Prescott and Dez Bryant — a series of off-the-field distractions bordering on the absurd, and a coaching staff lacking in aggression, direction and aptitude.
The frustrating thing, but the one that should give Cowboys fans hope, too, is that the team flashed brilliance several times throughout the year, especially during an early November demolition of the Kansas City Chiefs. The team retains enough talent on its roster that a deep playoff run in 2018 seems possible if one unfocuses his or her eyes and looks at the depth chart like a Magic Eye poster.
To keep 2018 from being known simply as the season that got Jason Garrett fired the Cowboys, here are five things the Cowboys need to do:
1. Solve the Dez Bryant problem.
Bryant's production, already vastly diminished from his peak as one of the best receivers in the NFL, fell off a cliff in 2017. Bryant had the fewest yards he's ever had in a full season and his lowest yards-per-catch average. He dropped 10 passes, several of which led to Prescott interceptions, and he never played like the game-breaking threat he's paid to be.
At his current salary — Bryant is slated to make $12.5 million next year — Bryant can't be kept on the Cowboys roster. He remains a weapon in the red zone, but that's it. He's a specialist at this point. If he takes a deep pay cut, Bryant might be worth keeping around, but he seems unwilling to do so, responding, "Hell no, man," when reporters asked on Dec. 27 if he'd consider restructuring his contract.
As good as Bryant's been, it might be time for the Cowboys to move on. Whatever the team decides, it needs to do so quickly so it can get on with the rest of its offseason plan, like figuring out how to re-sign breakout star defensive end Demarcus Lawrence without making the team's salary cap unmanageable. The longer the Bryant uncertainty drags on, the worse it will be for the locker room.
2. Get the draft right.
With their top two picks in April's NFL draft — at Jerry World, incidentally — the Cowboys have to address two of the team's glaring needs. If they can get a legitimate starting wide receiver to replace Bryant and depth for either the offensive line or linebacking corps with the 19th and 50th selections, Cowboys fans should consider the draft a success, but that's far easier said than done.
3. Keep Ezekiel Elliott in line.
Obviously, the Cowboys will struggle if Elliott, the team's star running back, misses additional games in 2018 because of suspension. As important as it is for Elliott to stay on the field, it's just as important for him stay out of the headlines in order to preserve the sanity of his teammates.
Last year, as the Cowboys stumbled to a 2-3 start, the team's focus remained largely on Elliott's legal battle, but they were struggling to win games with Elliott in the lineup during the appeal process. The Cowboys' week two loss in Denver, in which they fell, 42-17, to a bad Broncos team and Elliott ran for just eight yards, proved that 2017 was over almost before it started.
Given the draft capital the Cowboys spent on Elliott — no running back should be drafted in the top five picks in the modern NFL — he needs to stay on the field and produce like the best running back in the league. If he doesn't live up to those expectations, he could quickly become a liability.
4. Take advantage of a weak schedule.
Last year, the Cowboys entered the season facing one of the league's most difficult schedules on paper because of their first-place finish in 2016 and because it was the NFC East's turn to play the AFC West in interconference games. This year, the schedule looks much easier. While the Cowboys face the Saints, Panthers and Seahawks, they also get to play the comparatively soft AFC South, including the woebegone Texans and Colts. For the first time in three years, the Cowboys also avoid the Packers in the regular season.
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5. Win in spite of Jason Garrett.
While Cowboys management should've dumped Garrett after yet another mediocre season, it didn't. That means the Cowboys are going to need to win despite his conservative play-calling and complete failure to make in-game adjustments. Garrett's not going to get better, but plenty of terrible coaches — Barry Switzer, Jim Caldwell and John Fox, to name three — have inexplicably led their teams to Super Bowls.
Even Garrett came one missed Mason Crosby kick away from an NFC Championship Game in 2016, Prescott's and Elliott's magical season. If the Cowboys find a suitable upgrade to Bryant, the team's offense has a chance to be good enough that even Garrett won't be able to break it.
If the Cowboys offense returns to being the elite unit it was in 2016, the defense, assuming Lawrence gets re-signed and the Cowboys rookie cornerbacks continue to develop, should be good enough for the team to return to the playoffs. Then again, the team and its fans have been down that road before.