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Soul-searching begins for Cowboys
After finishing 13-3 last year with a young core, led by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and rookie running back Zeke Elliott, the Dallas Cowboys thought they would be able to take the next step and improve by simply bringing everybody back.
The Cowboys made no discernable additions to last year's team and their 9-7 season in 2017 was a result of that just as running back Ezekiel Elliott missing six games under NFL suspension.
Sure, the Cowboys finished with a winning record in back-to-back seasons for the first time under head coach Jason Garrett.
But the Cowboys took a step back in that they missed the playoffs for the fifth time in seven full seasons under Garrett.
"I don't want to get into all of that," Garrett said, when asked if he considers this a disappointing season. "Obviously, we want to be in the playoffs and playing next week. That didn't happen for us. So that is disappointing.
"We'll pull back and look at everything. But I think at different times this year, I thought we fought and played well. Other times, we didn't play well enough. You have to improve and get better in all areas of the football team. Trust me, we will get back to work and start on that."
The Cowboys are going into an offseason that is ripe with questions and decisions about the team's future. Garrett will return in 2018, but the same can't be said of several of the assistants on the staff.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: A Cowboys defense that was supposed to be the weak link ended the season as the strength of the team, finishing 11th in the league. Credit defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence's breakout play up front and the steady leadership of linebacker Sean Lee. The Cowboys found players for the future in cornerback Chido Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis.
WHAT WENT WRONG: The season started out in chaos with running back Ezekiel Elliott's weekly battle against the NFL in federal court. His six-game suspension proved to be the difference in the season. The Cowboys went 3-3 in his absence. But poor play up front when left tackle Tyron Smith missed time with injury was just as crucial not to mention disappointing play of quarterback Dak Prescott and the passing game. Prescott had 13 interceptions after just four last year and had seven games in which he passed for 200 yards or less.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Receiver Dez Bryant led the Cowboys with 69 catches for 838 yards and six touchdowns. But he averaged a career-worst 12.1 yards per receptions, was among the league leaders in dropped passes and did not record a 100-yard receiving game. He also struggled with knee tendinitis since November. There is a chance the Cowboys could ask Bryant to take a pay cut from his $12.5 million salary for next year or be cut in what could be an offseason of changes.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence had no sacks as a rookie, eight sacks in 2015 and one sack last year. He broke out with 14.5 sacks in 2017. He would have had more if not for the officials missing a number of holding calls. He played his way into a big-money contract extension if not a franchise tag worth $17 million or more.
ASSISTANT COACH ON THE RISE: Running backs coach Gary Brown gets kudos for keeping the ground game going without Ezekiel Elliott for six games. Veteran Alfred Morris rushed 115 times for 547 yards. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Third back Rod Smith scored touchdowns in four straight games and proved to be a capable third-down option. Brown is in the last year of his contract. He will attract offers.