The Mighty Mulligan: Do the Cowboys regret these 5 recent decisions?

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Zeke Barrera
·6 min read
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So much went wrong for the Dallas Cowboys in 2020, it’s impossible to pin the failures of a 6-10 season and missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year on any one specific issue. In golf, amateur players are granted a mulligan after a wayward shot, a chance to pretend the last one didn’t happen. That doesn’t exist in professional football, but it would be nice if it did.

If granted the chance for a do-over on any single decision made within the recent past, which one would have the biggest impact on the current Dallas team today? While hindsight is always 20/20, even in the moment some of these choices stood out for what they might one day mean.

Extending RB Ezekiel Elliott

(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Coming off his second rushing title in three years, Elliott held out until he negotiated a six-year, $90 million extension just days before the 2019 season began. Given the way NFL offenses were trending and evolving, investing that much in a running back raised huge red flags for many, but this was the path the Cowboys chose. Since the extension, Elliott hasn't hit the highs of earlier in his career, and Dallas has yet to appear in a playoff game. Last season was especially concerning, given that Elliott recorded a career-low in rushing yards (979), yards per attempt (4.0), and yards per game (65.3). It was the first season in which Elliott rushed for less than 1,000 yards since he was suspended for six games in the middle of 2017. Injuries to both Elliott and the offensive line undoubtedly contributed to the down year, and it's possible he bounces back in 2021, but either way, $24.5 million in dead money remains on his deal. He's scheduled for the highest cap hit among running backs this year. It's not hard to imagine what the Cowboys could add to their roster without those commitments, or what the offense could be without an always hungry throwback bell cow at RB.

Extending LB Jaylon Smith

(AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

No player on the current roster is more polarizing than Smith, in no small part due to the five-year, $63.75 million contract extension he signed also in the 2019 offseason. While he hasn't reached the lofty expectations placed on him, Smith's NFL journey has been impressive considering how it started. Since missing the entirety of his rookie season, Smith has played in all 64 games since 2017, starting 54 of them. For better and for worse, he's been an extremely active and featured member of the Dallas defense. Smith played 100% of the defensive snaps in 13 of 16 games last year, which allowed him to lead the team with 154 total tackles. Yet Smith also recorded the third-most tackles for loss (five) on the team, and also chipped in an interception, recovered two fumbles, and 1.5 sacks. He makes a lot of plays, in part because opposing teams frequently target and challenge him, but it's Smith's flair for the dramatic that also makes him stand out. Although it's questionable for a team to invest so much in an off-ball linebacker, the Cowboys have one of their main defensive playmakers under contract through the 2025 season, and can already escape from under it if needed. This one may feel like a huge mistake for a certain segment of Dallas fans, but that may not be the way the team feels about things.

Not extending QB Dak Prescott

(AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Another area where fans and team might disagree is the QB pickle the Cowboys currently find themselves. Last offseason seemed like a good time to extend Prescott. So did the one before that. Since 2019, Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Ryan Tannehill, Kirk Cousins, Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson all signed contract extensions with their respective teams; Prescott got a franchise tag. Of all positions to roll the dice with, QB is not the one. Yet given how the Cowboys have conducted themselves and built their roster, they don't seem to regret their choice much. Regardless of an extension, the 2020 season would've still been lost if Prescott suffered the same injury, but the context and dynamics of negotiations have definitely changed this offseason. Dallas still maintains confidence in Prescott's return, but surely there could've been an easier, less rocky way.

Drafting WR CeeDee Lamb

One of the few bright spots of last season, not many are likely regretting the Cowboys spending their 2020 first-round pick on Oklahoma's Lamb. He brings an element to the team all his own, scoring seven total touchdowns (five receiving, one rushing, one kick return) and one two-point conversion as a rookie. https://twitter.com/PFF/status/1330639338594574337 There's real value in a strong passing game, and Lamb gives Dallas one of the league's best receiving corps, but with their current holes and team needs, would they have been better served going in a different direction? Other players who were still on the board at No. 17 include OT Austin Jackson (No. 18), WR Justin Jefferson (No. 22), LB Kenneth Murray (No. 23), C Cesar Ruiz (No. 24), LB Patrick Queen (No. 28), FS Antoine Winfield Jr. (No. 45). Again, it's hard to complain much about Lamb's selection, which maybe was the highpoint for the Cowboys last year. Even if given a do-over, they likely go with him again.

Hiring Mike McCarthy

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Although Dallas publicly insists otherwise, if there's one spot they might be second-guessing, it might be at head coach. The dismissal of the DC and other assistants McCarthy handpicked is evidence the brass thought something had to change after just one year. One season isn't really a fair reflection of an NFL coach, especially in such a tumultuous year like 2020. Entering Year 2, McCarthy's team needs to take a step forward and continue their second-half surge. With better injury luck alone, this team is still well-equipped to contend. But some of last year's struggles must be attributed to McCarthy's re-acclimation to the NFL. Of the five new coaching hires last season, McCarthy finished tied with Joe Judge for the second-worst record at 6-10. Ron Rivera's Washington team beat him twice (combined score 66-19), using two different quarterbacks. Judge and Kevin Stefanski's teams also each had victories over McCarthy, whose previous Super Bowl victory was supposed to be a difference maker among possible coaching options. If they could get a re-do on their coaching hire, would someone else be chosen?

https://cowboyswire.usatoday.com/lists/cowboys-news-and-notes-friday-january-22-2021-mock-draft-miles-austin-free-agents/

https://cowboyswire.usatoday.com/lists/2021-free-agency-dallas-cowboys-targets-in-championship-round/

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