The Dallas Cowboys enter a Thursday Night Football matchup with the Washington Redskins at 5-6, two full games behind for an NFC Wild Card spot with a host of teams to push through and an unfavorable tiebreaker situation.
Coming off a 13-3 season where they won the NFC East, that’s an understandably frustrating regression for the fans. With a dominant, young offense line and a pair of superstar rookies (Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott), it certainly appeared as if the franchise had opened up a sizable championship window.
In reality, they might still have those shots, but there’s value to be found in this disappointing season. Because the Cowboys are now forced to recognize a flaw that likely would have caused them postseason heartache over and over again anyway.
This roster simply isn’t deep enough.
The Cowboys have a lot of truly great players, but they haven’t put together 53 players who can withstand true adversity yet. That’s why they’re crumbling right now.
All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith missing time, Elliott’s suspension and a lingering hamstring injury linebacker Sean Lee (arguably the most important player in the organization) have exposed backups thrust into prominent roles. And while those kinds of losses would hamper just about any team, the truly great franchises tend to manage more effectively.
When the New England Patriots lost Dont’a Hightower earlier this year, Kyle Van Noy — who they acquired for next to nothing from the Detroit Lions in a 2016 trade — stepped in to become the defensive signal caller and has become an integral part of the lineup. Elandon Roberts has also stepped in and played admirably in Hightower’s absence and the Patriots defense is now playing some its best football.
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost Cam Heyward in 2016 just 7 games into the season, but Stephon Tuitt continued his emergence as a star and helped that franchise rip off 7 straight regular-season victories to end the year and then make it all the way to the AFC Championship.
But when you look at the players who the Cowboys were forced to ask more of, nobody was prepared to take on those challenges. Chaz Green and Byron Bell made a public spectacle of themselves by allowing 6 sacks to Adrian Clayborn in a critical loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Jaylon Smith and Justin Durant have struggled to pick up the slack without Lee.
None of those players were expected to match the superstars they replaced stride for stride, but Dallas certainly needed more than the complete and total failure they got. And those depth issues pockmark the entire roster.
Dez Bryant isn’t the dominant force he was prior to inking his five-year, $70 million, but he’s still a valuable playmaker in that offense. But where is the wide receiver depth behind that?
Jason Witten’s production has held up nicely at age-35 and he’s been an ironman throughout his career, but who else in that tight end room could make the chain-moving catches Witten provides if he were to get injured or, perhaps more likely, retire?
DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving have looked dominant along the defensive front, but who else do you think can be relied upon to blow up a backfield when they need it most without them?
In the salary cap era, nobody is putting together a roster with 53 stars. However, you do have to be able to stash enough talent and potential in the back half of the roster to be able to mask injuries or any other unforeseen circumstances (ahem, suspensions) that leave you without a key player.
The Cowboys haven’t done that and it should be their singular focus from this point through the start of the 2018 season. Yes, fans should still expect the team to do everything in its power to win and maybe somehow climb back into the postseason race, but the rest of this season should be a proving ground for younger players.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has to cull the hopeless optimism and figure out who is worth keeping and who needs to be shown the door. Then he’s got to go out and put together the draft class of his life and make the sort of shrewd free agency signings that can help transform a roster overnight.
Otherwise, all that big-name talent you’ve managed to acquire goes to waste and what we thought was a title window turns out to be a portal to making the playoffs regularly and accomplishing nothing. Which would essentially make them the Cincinnati Bengals.