FRISCO, TX – With the future of coach Jason Garrett in limbo, the Dallas Cowboys have other reasons to believe there will be plenty of change in 2020 — 23 of them, to be exact.
The Cowboys have 23 unrestricted free agents-to-be, headlined by quarterback Dak Prescott and No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper, after finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs in a season that started with lofty expectations.
There was no word by late afternoon Monday from owner Jerry Jones on whether Garrett would return for a 10th full season. Garrett has an expiring contract, and after missing the postseason in six of those nine years, his owner and general manager has a difficult sell for fans on keeping him.
“In reflection, I'm very fortunate to have spent the time that I did with coach Garrett,” seven-year center Travis Frederick said Monday in a locker room dotted with large plastic bags holding players' belongings. “Whether he's here next year or somewhere else next year, the group of men that he's going to be in front of will be better men and better players because of it.”
Prescott and Cooper almost certainly will be on the Dallas roster next season. Jones essentially said as much after Sunday's 47-16 win over Washington in the finale. The Cowboys were eliminated by Philadelphia's win over the New York Giants.
The question might come down to which of the two gets a long-term deal and which plays on the franchise tag. Either way, the cost will go up. In Prescott's case, it will be by at least $30 million after he played for $2 million in the final year of his rookie deal.
Prescott fell a yard shy of Tony Romo's franchise record of 4,903 passing yards in a season as the Cowboys finished with the NFL's No. 1 offense for the first time since 1977. But inconsistencies on both sides of the ball doomed Dallas.
“I didn’t make the playoffs, and I deserve to be second,” Prescott said. "As I’ve said, I don’t play the game for stats. I play the game to win. So, I’m OK with being there, being one yard short of him. It’s fine.”
WINNING TEAM ON PAPER
The Cowboys finished with a point differential of plus-113, tied for the second-highest all-time for a team that didn't finish above .500, according to Sportradar.
But with a chance to clinch the NFC East a week later, Dallas couldn't score a touchdown in a 17-9 loss to the Eagles that gave Philadelphia control of the playoff race. The Eagles finished it off with a 34-17 win over the Giants.
“I think the overarching explanation is we weren't consistent enough,” Garrett said on his radio show Monday before an afternoon meeting with Jones and his son, executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones.
“We weren't consistent enough throughout the year from game to game. We weren't consistent enough within games. We didn't do the things that winning football teams do.”
After coming out of retirement following a year in broadcasting to set the club record with a 16th season, tight end Jason Witten thought he was joining a team that could chase the one thing missing from his first 15 seasons — a trip to the Super Bowl.
Instead, the Cowboys fell into the “same old story” rut of 8-8 without a playoff spot. That was a memorable Witten one-liner during a stretch of three straight .500 seasons without trips to the postseason. Those were also Garrett's first three full seasons. Now the question becomes whether Witten will try again as a 38-year-old next season.
“I'll take a few days and figure out what's next,” said Witten, who is one touchdown catch shy of Dez Bryant's club record of 73. “One of the best decisions I made was to listen to my gut and come back and play.”
OTHER FREE AGENTS
After Prescott, the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Cooper, the next biggest names hitting free agency are cornerback Byron Jones, defensive end Robert Quinn and linebacker Sean Lee.
Jones missed the first game of his five-year career in the finale because of an ankle injury. The Cowboys might not be able to afford to keep him. Quinn led the team with 11 1/2 sacks in his first Dallas season following a trade with Miami. Lee, who will turn 34 just before training camp, was valuable late in the season because of injuries.
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT
For now, everything hinges on Jerry Jones' decision about a head coach. And that will lead to questions about the makeup of the staff.
The Cowboys might be inclined to keep the top of the offensive staff in place with young offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and QB coach Jon Kitna, a former NFL quarterback who got rave reviews from his star pupil. If so, it might be time for new leadership and a new scheme on defense after seven years under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Regardless of who's coaching the defense, Dallas needs a healthy Leighton Vander Esch at linebacker. His second season was cut short by a neck injury that will require surgery and could end up threatening his career. If Vander Esch can't come back healthy and productive, the Cowboys will be under a lot of pressure to hit on their defensive picks in the draft.