As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Dallas Cowboys, who finished second in the NFC East.
What Went Right
Quarterback Dak Prescott is good enough to win a Super Bowl. For all of the disappointment in Dallas this season, Cowboys fans can take solace in Prescott. He entered Week 17 tied for fifth in touchdown passes (26), second in passing first downs (216), and seventh in adjusted net yards per attempt (7.7). He’s also seventh in completion percentage above expectation. More important than the numbers is how he’s looked. Prescott has been in total command at points this season, including late against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday Night Football in Week 10 and again in Week 11, when he shredded the Lions for 444 yards. Prescott’s pocket presence has greatly improved. Last year Prescott often held the ball too long and was subsequently sacked 56 times, the second most in football, and tied the league lead with 12 fumbles. Entering Week 17 of this season, Prescott had been sacked 20 times (29th most) and had fumbled just five times.
Prescott was more decisive in 2018 in part because his receivers were open more often. Nobody made a bigger leap this year in Dallas than receiver Michael Gallup, who stepped into the role of Dallas’s no. 1 receiver for the second half of the season. Gallup’s 77.6 receiving yards per game through 16 weeks led the team and ranked no. 9 in football, just behind fellow Texas receiver DeAndre Hopkins’s 77.7 yards per game. With Dallas’s season on the line in Week 17, Gallup caught five passes for 98 yards and three touchdowns. Combined with receiver Amari Cooper plus running back Ezekiel Elliott, this is one of the best skill groups in football entering 2020.
With Prescott and Gallup improving so much, Dallas improved from 20th in yards per play in 2018 to no. 1 this year, ahead of the Ravens and Chiefs. They also came into the week as the second-most efficient offense behind Baltimore, according to Football Outsiders. Prescott may not play like an elite quarterback all the time, but he’s flashed elite skills this year and has enough talent around him that the only thing between him and greatness is the coaching staff.
What Went Wrong
The Cowboys started the year 3-0 and quickly looked like the cream of a weak NFC East crop, but they rarely could get their offense and defense on the same page in the same game. They held a Drew Brees–less Saints team to 12 points in Week 4, but their offense scored only 10. They dropped a shocking game to the Jets in Week 6, got creamed by the Bills on Thanksgiving in front of the largest American television audience since the Super Bowl, and then were blown out in an embarrassing Thursday Night Football game to Mitchell Trubisky and the Chicago Bears in Week 14. Still, the Cowboys could have won the NFC East by beating a depleted Eagles team in Week 16, but Dallas showed up unprepared and head coach Jason Garrett got got outcoached by Doug Pederson.
It’s a disappointing end to a profoundly disappointing decade for Garrett, who will most likely not be retained now that his contract has expired. Dallas is one of the five most talented teams in the league but won’t be one of the 12 teams competing in the postseason. Jason Garrett has consistently gotten less out of his teams than the sum their parts since taking over as the head coach in 2010, and this season was the perfect example. Like each of Garrett’s first three full seasons, the Cowboys had the chance to clinch the NFC East in the final two weeks of the season, failed, and finished 8-8.
Some injuries disrupted Dallas’s season. Cooper dealt with plantar fasciitis in his foot all season and didn’t make nearly the impact he did in the second half of 2018. Prescott played through a shoulder injury in December. Left tackle Tyron Smith dealt with back and ankle injuries throughout the year that sapped his usual All-Pro level of play. On defense, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch suffered a neck injury that cost him the final six weeks of the season. These injuries to key contributors didn’t help, but considering the Cowboys lost the division to an even more battered team, this excuse isn’t buying any sympathy from anyone.
This is one of the most consequential offseasons the Cowboys have had in years. Jerry Jones will almost certainly need to hire a head coach, sign Prescott to a long-term extension or franchise tag him, and then figure out how to re-sign Cooper. Dallas may try to make a splashy move by hiring one of the college coaches du jour, whether that is Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, Baylor’s Matt Rhule, or free agent Urban Meyer. Whomever Jones hires, expectations will be huge.
The big winner of this offseason is Prescott. He is due to hit free agency in March, and though there is no chance he will get there, he has a ton of leverage to negotiate his next deal. Prescott reportedly turned down an offer of $30 million per year this offseason, and if the Cowboys use the franchise tag on him now, he’ll earn around $32 million. Tagging him again in 2021 would cost around $38.7 million. That means a two-year deal for $70 million is the floor for Prescott’s next deal, and if he reaches a deal with Dallas that number could be far higher. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes will likely sign a mega-contract this offseason that could crack $40 million annually, and Prescott could ask for at least $35 million a year just by inhaling that second-hand smoke. Prescott may not be as good as Mahomes, but he may have more leverage: Mahomes is under contract for two more years whereas Prescott’s deal is up. Jerry Jones wants Prescott to be a Cowboy, and the rest is just details.
“Listen, Dak is the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys,” Jones told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas last November. “He’s young, and he’s going to get extended.”
Not only does Dallas have to deal with Dak, but they also have to sign Cooper. He may not have been the team-altering force he was in the second half of 2018, but Cooper is still capable of being one of football’s best receivers. Dallas gave up a first-rounder for him, but keeping him will be complicated alongside Prescott’s negotiations. Receiver Julio Jones completely changed the receiver market with a three-year deal paying him $22 million annually, with $64 million of his $66 million deal guaranteed. Nearly fully guaranteed deals simply did not exist for a nonquarterback before Jones’s deal. Now they do. Cooper is five years younger than Jones and could ask for a range of tough-to-swallow contract options for Dallas based off Jones’s deal. Normally the Cowboys could franchise tag Cooper, but if they have to use their tag on Prescott, Cooper will have even more leverage with the ability to negotiate with other teams.
A number of other players are likely to leave Dallas, including receiver Randall Cobb, tight end Jason Witten, defensive ends Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett, cornerbacks Byron Jones and Anthony Brown, and linebacker Sean Lee, all of whom have been key contributors at reasonable prices (except Witten, who was given a golden parachute from Monday Night Football). Retaining any of those players will require some huge sacrifices. Dallas already has the league’s most expensive offensive line and the league’s highest paid running back, so how much more cash the Joneses decide to pour into their offense will be fascinating. Dallas could end up with the most expensive offense in football history. That makes the decision of whom they hire as head coach all the more important.
Dallas has needed a safety for years, and LSU safety Grant Delpit falling to the Cowboys at no. 17 would be a godsend. Delpit’s teammate, cornerback Kristian Fulton, could also be an excellent pick for the Cowboys if they lose both Byron Jones and Anthony Brown in free agency. Back in 2012, they used the no. 6 pick on LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.
Whether Dallas loses Cooper, Cobb, or both, they might be wise to draft a receiver in this year’s extraordinarily deep class. Clemson’s Tee Higgins or LSU’s Justin Jefferson would be steals in the second round. Texas’s Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay could both be available when the Cowboys pick in the third round.