How the Cowboys Missed their Opportunity to Capitalize on Momentum Built in 2016

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) and quarterback Dak Prescott (4) are pictured during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. the Dallas Cowboys NFL football game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Sunday, December 18, 2016.(Staff Photographer)

It seems like only yesterday that a rookie quarterback and running back burst on the scene with unbridled joy to set the stage for a promising future. Hope and belief positioned the Cowboys as part of the championship mix for years to come.

After giving this more thought, was that yesterday or part of a bygone era?

Time moves fast in today’s NFL. If you don’t strike when the iron is hot, your crumpled remains get tossed in the pile with the rest of the laundry. Or something like that.

A 13-3 foundation has been followed by a 33-31 record. A franchise that reigned atop the NFC in the first season for Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott has exactly one playoff win five years later.

Kansas City is a poignant reminder of what the Cowboys haven’t done. The defending champions are playing in their second consecutive Super Bowl. The Chiefs have a 38-10 regular-season record and are 6-1 in the postseason since Patrick Mahomes became the starter.

The Los Angeles Rams went 24-8 and lost to New England in Super Bowl LIII in Jared Goff’s first two seasons as a starter with running back Todd Gurley.

Remember when Seattle won a title and was seconds away from another the following year? That all came in Russell Wilson’s first three seasons as the Seahawks’ quarterback.

Carpe diem? Sorry, the Cowboys’ Latin is a little rusty these days.

Dallas squandered its opportunity. A showdown with the NFL it was doomed to lose, the immediate aftermath of Dez Bryant’s release and a defensive decline that was inadequately addressed then compounded with personnel errors played roles. Throw in contract disputes that bubbled under the surface, one that still hasn’t been resolved, and it’s easy to explain how 13-3 unraveled.

The Cowboys’ moment has passed.

Do enough key players remain to recapture that unfulfilled promise? Can the Jones family piece this back together before next season?

The coming weeks and months will answer those questions. For now, let’s take a look at how Dallas got here.

Suspended animation

Optimism was high heading into the 2017 season, the second with Prescott and Elliott. That euphoria quickly subsided.

The league office continued its investigation into Elliott for reports of domestic abuse. Owner Jerry Jones was defiant, declaring publicly on several occasions that there was no evidence to support the allegations.

The NFL disagreed, announcing in August while the team was in training camp that the running back would be suspended for six games.

Rather than accept Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision, under powers clearly outlined by the collective bargaining agreement, Elliott and the Cowboys fought the suspension in court. Rather than sit out the first six games of the season, the club and its star player delayed the inevitable.

The dispute bounced from one court to another. There were weeks where the Cowboys didn’t know until Thursday or Friday whether Elliott would be able to play that weekend.

By the time Elliott exhausted all avenues and grudgingly began to serve his suspension, it was Week 10. The Cowboys responded with a 20-point loss to Atlanta. That was followed by a 30-point loss to Philadelphia and a 22-point loss to the LA Chargers on Thanksgiving.

The dispute defined the season. Dallas finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

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SOURCE: Dallas Morning News, David Moore