Photo via Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Although the Dallas Cowboys were down 23-19 with 1:53 to go in the fourth quarter on the road against the New York Giants, there were signs of life. The team trekked down the field and found itself in a first-and-goal situation. All signs on the momentum pendulum pointed at Dallas pulling through in their final regular season game and putting itself in a prime position to play postseason football.
Then came a Leonard Williams 10-yard sack to Dallas quarterback Andy Dalton on the strong side.
Then, two plays later, Dalton out of the scramble, chucked it into the end zone, only for the pass to be intercepted by Giants’ rookie safety Xavier McKinney.
And, just to add insult to injury, the Giants fumbled the ball on the corresponding drive, only for it to remain in their possession and seal the Dallas defeat.
All in all, Dallas went home as the losers of a 23-19 bout to drop them to a final record of 6-10, their worst record since finishing 4-12 during the 2015 season.
The results from start to finish, whether from an in-game or general perspective, sung the same tune as the season crept onward. A team, once considered to be NFC East favorites with potential Super Bowl aspirations, slowly slumped away quarter after quarter and game after game.
It all started with the defensive woes. Although the defense was going to be a question mark under newly minted defensive coordinator Mike Nolan anyway, many expected it to be a “bend but not break” unit, which would be just enough to garner wins when coupled with quarterback Dak Prescott, his arsenal of weapons and his nigh-impenetrable wall of burly offensive linemen. Instead, the defense proved to be more of an issue than once thought, as the unit allowed 146 points through the first four games of the season. If not for a 40-39 Cowboys’ Week 2 comeback victory against the Atlanta Falcons, Dallas would have been sitting at 0-4 heading into their first inter-division matchup against New York.
Although Dallas would come out ahead by a score of 37-34 against the Giants on Oct. 11, it did not come without its most bittersweet price as Prescott would suffer a season-ending ankle injury.
Losing a star quarterback (and, at the time, the NFL’s leading quarterback in terms of passing yards) would hurt any team, but especially Dallas. The team, despite showing signs of light here and there, would go on to drop its next four games. The once stout offensive line began to see fractures. Running back Ezekiel Elliott would not find his usual seams to exploit. And Dalton, the backup signal-caller, now thrusted into the starting role, would be unable to make a difference in terms of picking up wins.
A 31-28 win against the Minnesota Vikings after the Week 10 bye week would be followed by two losses against the Washington Football Team and Baltimore Ravens. Again, same story, same tune.
Even still, Dallas found itself in a playoff hunt, which was only emphasized more after Dallas won three straight games. The defense looked more aggressive. The wide receiving corps, led by the likes of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, rookie CeeDee Lamb and even tight end Dalton Schultz (who subbed in after tight end Blake Jarwin suffered a season-ending injury in their Week 1 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams) were getting the job done. Running back Tony Pollard made noise.
While there were signs of hope in a season marred with adversity, it would not be enough.
Collectively, the defense allowed 29.6 points per game, which ranked in the bottom five in the entire NFL. The offense, while intriguing at times, scored only 24.7 points per game, 17th in the entire NFL. Elliott rushed for 979 yards, his first season without 1,000 or more since his 2017 season (983), when he was suspended for six games. The Cooper-Gallup-Lamb trio combined for a very pedestrian 15 receiving touchdowns. The offensive line, once known as a strength, allowed 44 sacks, which was tied for the seventh-most in the entire NFL. Head coach Mike McCarthy, seen as the everlasting solution to the Cowboys’ playoff issues, was unable to overcome the plethora of problems the team brought forth as the season progressed.
And so, the Cowboys find themselves at the crossroads once more. Improvements will be needed. Holes will have to be filled. With the 10th-overall selection in the upcoming NFL Draft, the Cowboys have the opportunity to fix them. Will it be enough? Will Dallas see the postseason once more? Will Prescott return? Will Elliott bounce back? Will the offensive line rebound? Will McCarthy be the short and long-term answer?
Whatever the weather, all of these questions will need to be answered should momentum swing back toward Dallas in the future.