Young team ready to gain from ex­pe­ri­ence

Houston Chronicle - - NFL EXTRA - By Schuyler Dixon

FRISCO — Dak Prescott and Ezekiel El­liott have their first play­off win and the same di­vi­sional-round block the Dal­las Cow­boys have been un­able to solve for nearly 25 years.

The star quar­ter­back and run­ning back fig­ure to lead the Dal­las of­fense for years with new No. 1 re­ceiver Amari Cooper, ac­quired mid­sea­son for the Cow­boys’ firstround pick in this year's draft.

Com­bined with a promis­ing young de­fense that was hum­bled in a 30-22 di­vi­sional loss to the Los An­ge­les Rams, Prescott and crew hope they can get the Cow­boys within a win of the Su­per Bowl for the first time since the fran­chise’s fifth cham­pi­onship fol­low­ing the 1995 sea­son.

But Dal­las has been here be­fore: six di­vi­sional losses since Hall of Famers Troy Aik­man, Em­mitt Smith and Michael Irvin last led the Cow­boys to more than one win in the same post­sea­son.

Two of the losses have been with Prescott and El­liott, the other to Green Bay as the NFC’s top seed when they were rook­ies two years ago.

“We have a lot of guys that have the right makeup to make sure that we get back here, and to hope­fully get past this round,” Prescott said.

After los­ing on some last-sec­ond magic by Aaron Rodgers at home to end the 2016 sea­son, the Cow­boys missed the play­offs last sea­son when El­liott was sus­pended six games half­way through the sea­son on do­mes­tic vi­o­lence al­le­ga­tions.

Dal­las re­cov­ered from a 3-5 start to win the NFC East with a 7-1 fin­ish, then beat Seat­tle 24-22 in the wild-card round. The new part of the ex­pe­ri­ence was a di­vi­sional game on the road. For one of the few times this sea­son, the de­fense had the big let­down for Dal­las, al­low­ing a Dal­las play­of­frecord 273 yards rush­ing.

“We’ll treat this sea­son just like those past sea­sons,” safety Jeff Heath said Sun­day. “It’s a tough les­son to learn last night of just how switched on you have to be in a game like that and how the mar­gin for er­ror’s so small when you’re on the road in the play­offs.”

The big­gest ques­tion on con­tracts for the core of the Dal­las of­fense is whether Prescott gets an ex­ten­sion be­fore the fi­nal year of the fourth-round pick’s four-year rookie deal. The Cow­boys are all but cer­tain to ex­er­cise the fifthyear op­tion on El­liott, which would take him through 2020, and the Raiders had done that with Cooper for next sea­son be­fore the trade.

Cole Beasley is an un­re­stricted free agent after prov­ing to be an ef­fec­tive slot re­ceiver on the fouryear con­tract he just fin­ished. Tavon Austin, ac­quired in a trade dur­ing last year’s draft, of­fers sim­i­lar skills with more speed.

With 15-year tight end Ja­son Witten’s re­tire­ment, re-sign­ing 2015 sev­enth-round pick Ge­off Swaim could be a pri­or­ity. Swaim has been plagued by in­juries, in­clud­ing a bro­ken wrist that lim­ited him to nine games this sea­son.

The more sig­nif­i­cant ques­tions in free agency are with their pass rush­ers, start­ing with DeMar­cus Lawrence. A year after fin­ish­ing tied for sec­ond with 14½ sacks, Lawrence hit dou­ble dig­its again with 10½ sacks play­ing on a $17.1 mil­lion fran­chise tag. The sides weren’t close in ne­go­ti­a­tions last off­sea­son, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of an­other fran­chise tag.

With the emer­gence of young lineback­ers Jay­lon Smith and Leighton Van­der Esch, Sean Lee’s fu­ture is in ques­tion go­ing into the fi­nal year of his con­tract. The Cow­boys have evolved into one of the youngest teams in the NFL. When the sea­son ended, ev­ery starter on of­fense and de­fense was younger than 30.

“A lot of dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences this year that we’ll grow from, we’ll de­velop from,” coach Ja­son Garrett said.

Tom Pen­ning­ton / Getty Images

The Cow­boys are re­ly­ing on run­ning back Ezekiel El­liott and quar­ter­back Dak Prescott, cen­ter, to ad­vance in the play­offs.

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