FRISCO, Texas -- When the Dallas Cowboys' 2015 season mercifully ended, coach Jason Garrett used a phrase that summed up what went wrong in a 4-12 finish one year after the team went 12-4: “We didn’t handle the adversities of the season well enough.”
That season the Cowboys had Tony Romo for just four games and started four different quarterbacks. Wide receiver Dez Bryant missed seven games with a foot injury. They didn't have cornerback Orlando Scandrick at all because of a knee injury. Only the 1-15 record in 1989 has been worse in Jerry Jones’ tenure as owner and general manager.
After a 13-3 finish in 2016, the 2017 Cowboys are looking a lot like the 2015 Cowboys: without any answers to the adversities of the season.
The spiral includes the six-game suspension of running back Ezekiel Elliott, the loss of left tackle Tyron Smith for two games because of a groin strain and the loss of linebacker Sean Lee for four games (including the last two) because of a hamstring strain.
“We haven’t handled them that well these last three weeks and we have to continue to bang away,” Garrett said. “Continue to look at solutions as coaches and look for options of guys we can put in there who can take advantage of the opportunities. And we’ll continue to do that.”
Last year, the Cowboys overcame Romo's back injury in the preseason and thrived with Dak Prescott. They also lost starting left guard La’el Collins (toe) after three games and saw tight end Geoff Swaim miss seven games because of a torn pectoral muscle.
This season, the Cowboys have not lost a significant player to an injury. Their injured reserve list includes defensive linemen Stephen Paea (knee), Brian Price (knee) and Charles Tapper (foot), tight end Rico Gathers (concussion) and cornerback Duke Thomas (ankle, knee).
The New England Patriots are on their way to the playoffs once again despite missing 11 significant players due to injury for varying lengths, including two starting offensive linemen (David Andrews, Marcus Cannon) and linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Closer to home, the Philadelphia Eagles have thrived despite losing three key players in left tackle Jason Peters, running back Darren Sproles and linebacker Jordan Hicks. If the Washington Redskins beat the Cowboys on Thursday at AT&T Stadium, Philadelphia will clinch the NFC East. Even if the Cowboys rise up and win, it seems to be only a matter of time before the Eagles clinch the division.
Good teams overcome adversity. The Cowboys are succumbing to it.
In the 12 games without Romo in 2015, the Cowboys scored more than 20 points just three times. In four games they did not score more than seven points.
While the running game is averaging 99.3 yards per game without Elliott, the passing game is stagnant. The Cowboys have just three pass plays of 20 or more yards the past three games. The Elliott-less Cowboys have scored 22 points in their past three games. For the first time in franchise history, the Cowboys have gone three straight games without scoring at least 10 points.
“I mean, yeah, it’s frustrating, it’s shocking,” Prescott said. “You look around and you see the Pro Bowlers and the talent you have, it’s almost a loss for words on why it’s happening. But it just shows you this game is tough.”
Where the 2017 slide is different from 2015 is in the competitiveness of games.
Those Cowboys had five losses by six points or fewer, including two in overtime. These Cowboys have lost three straight games by 20 or more points, and overall four of their six losses have been by 20 or more points, marking just the third time in Jones’ tenure with that many blowout losses in the same season.
“Since I’ve been here, it’s been very up and down,” center Travis Frederick said. “I was here in  and things didn’t really go great [8-8].  was awesome, ’15 didn’t go great, ’16 was awesome, ’17 things aren’t on the right track that you want them to be. I don’t know what causes that and I don’t know what’s to be done from here. I think you just look to take advantage of that experience that you have in situations like this ... and pull some of the younger guys that haven’t been there before up. You’ve got a lot of young guys that come in here from college and successful programs and you don’t lose. Then in the NFL losses are, unfortunately, kind of part of the deal. Everyone’s really good. So sometimes guys aren’t experienced in losing games like this. You never want to be OK with losing, but you have to be able to learn from it and put it behind you.”