NFL divisional round overreactions: Cowboys and Bills’ seasons crash and burn
Mackenzie Salmon ‘overreacts’ to the biggest storylines from this weekend’s divisional round action.
The Dallas Cowboys didn’t reach the Super Bowl.
It’s a statement applicable to 30 NFL teams in any given year. But it’s been true of the Cowboys for 27 seasons in a row, a stretch during which 21 of the league’s franchises have played on Super Sunday and 13 have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at least once.
And the Cowboys aren’t any given franchise.
No other club – in any league – is known as “America’s Team.” No organization in pro football commands or demands Dallas’ level of attention. Champions or not, the Cowboys are the NFL’s flagship – the Yankees, Lakers, Duke and Alabama can only dream of a spotlight this bright.
But the downside for owner Jerry Jones and Co. – it’s a downside, right? – is the scrutiny and handwringing that come with the annual postmortem.
So as we dig into the residuals of the vanquished 2022 Cowboys, here are seven issues they must address going into the 2023 season:
Clear cap space
Per OverTheCap, Dallas basically has nothing in its coffers for free agents this year. That’s problematic on several levels, a few of which will be explored in further detail shortly. Last March, the Cowboys restructured the contracts of QB Dak Prescott and G Zack Martin to free up about $22 million. Do they go back to Martin and/or Prescott, who’s owed $65 million combined over the next two years, and convert base salaries to signing bonuses that can be amortized into the future? Or hope other vets like WR Michael Gallup and DE DeMarcus Lawrence will similarly retool their pacts?
And it’s high time to take a hard look at the contracts of mainstays like RB Ezekiel Elliott and OT Tyron Smith. Releasing Smith, who endured another injury-shortened campaign, from the final season of his deal would free up nearly $10 million – and that seems feasible given the emergence of rookie Tyler Smith in 2022. Elliott’s guarantees are up, but he’s owed $52.9 million in base salary over the next four seasons. Releasing him would save roughly $5 million in 2023, but it’s probably best for the long run. And, per The Dallas Morning News, it appears Zeke, coming off the least productive season of his seven-year career, sees the writing on the wall and is open to a pay cut.
Re-sign Tony Pollard
A Pro Bowler for the first time, the fourth-year tailback was the sparkplug to Dallas’ offense and has been a far more dangerous threat than Elliott for two years. Pollard just completed his first 1,000-yard rushing season, finished second to WR CeeDee Lamb for the team lead in yards from scrimmage (1,378) and matched Elliott’s 12 TDs, though Zeke got the short-yardage opportunities. Five of Pollard’s scores came from beyond 30 yards while only five of Elliott’s were more than 1 yard (the longest a 14-yard run). Pollard’s 5.9 yards per touch were a full 2 yards better than Elliott.
While the leg injury he suffered Sunday is an obvious concern, assuming there’s nothing unusually alarming about his prognosis, hard to imagine the Cowboys won’t at least franchise Pollard given his ability to open up the field for others when he’s not ripping off chunks of yardage and/or putting the ball into the end zone. No running back was tagged in 2022, when the one-year tender was worth $9.57 million. But negotiations with Pollard are sure to be tricky given the record-setting, six-year, $90 million extension (with more than $50 million guaranteed) Elliott received in 2019.
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Retain Dan Quinn
For the second straight year, Dallas’ defensive coordinator is a candidate for another stint as a head coach, three years removed from his divorce with the Atlanta Falcons. Jones should do (just about) everything in his power to keep Quinn on the payroll. He’s done a remarkable job evolving his scheme, which generates copious pressure – thank you, Micah Parsons – and has produced a +24 turnover margin over the past two seasons, best in the NFL. Could the Cowboys stop the run more effectively? Sure. But affecting the quarterback and taking the ball away are probably the most important components of a championship-caliber defense. No reason to mess with a successful formula here.
Make prudent free agent choices
Pollard is the priority and will likely necessitate the usage of a tag. Otherwise, much as Jones might want to keep his roster intact, his cap situation dictates otherwise. Among the considerations:
► FS Donovan Wilson: A sixth-rounder in 2019, he’s been solid in his two seasons as a starter (2020, ’22). Be nice to re-sign him – which would probably mean one more year of back line security with Wilson and Jayron Kearse, who will be a free agent in 2024. But this isn’t a huge imperative given Malik Hooker is already signed for 2023.
► TE Dalton Schultz: Nice player, but he should be grateful he raked in nearly $11 million on the franchise tag in 2022. The Cowboys should be fine moving forward with Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot, rookies in 2022.
► LB Leighton Vander Esch: The former first-rounder had what was probably his best season since his rookie year in 2018. If he’s willing to play for something close to $2 million again, it’s worth retaining him.
► G Connor McGovern: He started 29 games over the past three seasons but should only stick around at Dallas’ price point.
► K Brett Maher: Very nice regular season, when he tied for third in the league with 137 points, making 29 of his 32 field-goal tries while going 50-for-53 on extra points. But that effort was marred (Mahered?) by his disastrous playoff showing, which clearly affected Dallas’ strategy in the divisional round loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Kicker isn’t necessarily a position to cut corners on financially, but overinvesting in Maher seems like an obvious risk.
► QB Cooper Rush: He could be Dallas’ second-most important free agent. Clearly, if another team swoops in and wants to give Rush the opportunity to start while paying him accordingly, the Cowboys will have to make alternate plans for their depth chart. But few will forget Rush kept this team afloat early in the season, winning four of his five starts while Prescott recovered from thumb surgery. It would obviously be nice to extend an insurance policy you trust.
Move on from OBJ
Jones told USA TODAY Sports in December that free agent WR Odell Beckham Jr. was “going to join us.” Never happened. Now? Probably shouldn’t. Would OBJ, assuming his surgically repaired knee is healthy, add another dimension to this offense? Of course. But the Cowboys are essentially tied to Gallup financially for at least one more year and must start working on an extension for Lamb, a two-time Pro Bowler. Hard to see how Beckham, 30, fits in with such salary constraints – especially when Jones can almost certainly re-up WR T.Y. Hilton, who was a solid contributor on and off the field after joining the team late in the season, at a much more sensible price.
Talk to Sean Payton
Jones indicated after Sunday’s loss to San Francisco that head coach Mike McCarthy’s job is safe, and that’s not an unexpected sentiment given Dallas has shown steady progress in his three seasons – including its first playoff win in four years. But wouldn’t Jones be remiss to not at least have dinner with Payton, who’s been linked to this job regularly in the years since he served on Dallas’ offensive staff under Bill Parcells from 2003-05? If nothing else, maybe Jones gets some valuable outside insight into his own team from someone with both an incredible offensive mind and admirable leadership qualities. But if there’s an opportunity for more?
Let’s be honest, if McCarthy isn’t going to be here in 2023, this job immediately becomes the most desirable of the NFL’s current openings. And if Parcells could figure out how to coexist with Jones, even if only for four years, surely the 59-year-old Payton could find common ground – if Jones wants to shift gears and is willing to potentially surrender the 27th pick of this year’s draft to the New Orleans Saints. Anyway, reservations for 9 p.m., Jerry?
Fix Dak Prescott
It should be the primary item on Dallas’ agenda. And, yes, Prescott is only a week removed from playing what was widely hailed as the best game of his career, when he fueled the 31-14 wild-card runaway from Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Prescott becoming the fourth player in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) to throw at least four TDs and run for at least one in a playoff game.
But Sunday was a reversion to his largely disappointing season, including two more interceptions after he tied for the regular-season lead (15) despite missing those five games. And maybe we’re not privy to the Cowboys playbook – to be clear, we’re not – but it’s simply difficult to fathom what he’s looking at when he lets fly with some of these ill-advised throws. Whether the issue is physical, mental, mechanical, philosophical or a combination thereof, Prescott has to do better and can – his 3.8% interception rate in 2022 is nearly double his career average (2.0%).
Prescott has flashed the ability to be an elite quarterback and is certainly compensated like one. But his performance in 2022 suggests that if he’s a top-10 quarterback, he’s 10th at this point – and much closer to the Carr/Cousins/Garoppolo end of the spectrum than the Allen/Burrow/Mahomes elite tier.
If Prescott isn’t better in 2023, the Cowboys simply can’t be.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.