Is this Jason Garrett’s last chance?
That’s what Texas media have been insinuating about the Dallas Cowboys coach as the 2018 regular season approaches. The seventh-longest tenured NFL head coach has led the Cowboys to only two playoff berths and one playoff win this decade.
But the red-haired Princeton product leading America’s Team seems clear-minded when talking about what’s ahead.
Garrett wasn’t kidding. The Cowboys have only two players older than 30 on the roster, and one is the long snapper.
But some players who aren’t on the field — whether on the sideline or off the team altogether — could define how the season goes for one of the Washington Redskins’ biggest division rivals. (The Cowboys visit Washington Week 7 and host the Redskins on Thanksgiving in Week 12.)
Due to the simultaneous departures of wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten, more than 57 percent of Dallas’s 2017 receiving yards need to be replaced. As different as the two men are, they were two rock-solid Cowboy veterans who carried the offensive attack for years before the Ezekiel Elliott era began.
But now Witten has retired, and the little-known Geoff Swaim is the projected starting tight end. He caught all of two passes in 2017. The Cowboys released Bryant, who has yet to land with a new team, and signed Allen Hurns and former first-round bust Tavon Austin to join Terrance Williams in the receiving corps.
Dak Prescott had the sophomore slump that division rival Carson Wentz avoided in Philadelphia. After a surprising rookie season from the fourth-round pick, his interception total rose from five to 13 while his completion percentage, yards per attempt and QBR all fell.
It’s also become cliched and perhaps outdated to say the Cowboys have the best offensive line in the NFL. Prescott was sacked on 6.1 percent of dropbacks last year, ranking in the middle of the pack league-wide. Now, All-Pro right guard Zack Martin is starting the season sidelined with a knee injury, and All-Pro center Travis Frederick has not played or practiced since being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder called Guillain–Barré syndrome.
Both are huge blows.
On the bright side, Elliott has been able to put the suspension-and-appeal drama of last season behind him. The former fourth overall pick will be back carrying the bulk of the Cowboys’ running game.
The D will keep Dallas in games, too, particularly a rush defense that ranked eighth in yards allowed last year. They added first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch, an inside linebacker, to a front seven led by Sean Lee and pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence. Lawrence — whom Dallas traded up with the Redskins, of all teams, to draft 34th overall in 2014 — had a breakout year with 14.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Opponents like Washington will have to try to beat Dallas through the air. Most of their starting defensive backfield are light on experience, and a long-rumored trade for Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas has yet to materialize.
Chatty team owner Jerry Jones said in July that 2018 is not a “playoffs-or-bust” season for Garrett’s job security. If that is true, that may be good for the coach to hear, because the unit that propelled Dallas to a 13-3 record and No. 1 seed in the NFC two years ago is no longer intact, and some new players will need to step up if the team will compete for a playoff berth.
Garrett, for his part, believes his team has been committed to improvement since last season ended, when he would look down from his office and see his players working out on their own time during the winter months.
“I think it’s just a testament to the kind of guys that we have on our team,” Garrett said. “They love football, they want to be part of something special and they’re willing to work at it. That’s veteran players, that’s young players. That started well before we could start having offseason workouts with them, a couple months before.”
Coming Tuesday: Giants preview.
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