Cowboys' future appears bright despite falling short of ultimate goal

The Dallas Cowboys ended their season with a 30-22 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs to finish at 11-7. Here’s a recap of the season and what’s next:

Season grade: Above average. That the Cowboys made the playoffs for the first time after starting a season with a 3-5 record and won a playoff game is a positive, which means 2018 could have been viewed as an above-average season. They have one of the youngest teams in the league and a ton of cap space to keep their own players and/or add some players at key spots in free agency. The arrow is up for the future.

Season in review: The Cowboys’ season can be broken down into two parts: before Amari Cooper and after Amari Cooper. The Cowboys were 3-4 when Cooper arrived in a trade from Oakland, and they went on to win seven of their last nine game. There were several highs. Ezekiel Elliott returned to form and won his second rushing title in three seasons. The defense showed it was one of the better units, as well. The Cowboys went from inept offensively before Cooper to passable with him. It cost them a 2019 first-round pick to get Cooper, but the trade was worth it. There were some cracks this season, however -- such as on the offensive line, where Pro Bowlers Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin all missed time to injury (Frederick missed the entire season). Second-round pick Connor Williams struggled at times at left guard, and right tackle La'el Collins battled consistency issues. Considering the prices paid up front, the Cowboys need to get more out of the group in 2019.

He said it: "I don't recommend it to anybody, but one of the neat things is if you can dig a big hole and dig out of the hole, that’s a better story. Like I said, I don’t recommend it to anybody, and there was nothing deliberate about it. When we won our championships in the '90s, no one thought anything but that we tore that franchise up. But it made it nicer coming out of that hole." -- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, on starting 3-5 but making the playoffs.

Key offseason questions

Will the Cowboys sign Dak Prescott to an extension? Jones has made it clear he believes Prescott is the quarterback of the future. Prescott enters the final year of his contract in 2019 and will make about $2 million. He has not posted a losing record in his three years as the Cowboys’ starter. He has made key plays at key moments, but this season, he took too many sacks, fumbled too often and showed he needed a No. 1 receiver in Cooper to make the passing game go. Prescott got representation with Creative Artists Agency to maximize his earning potential. CAA represents almost all of the top quarterbacks and doesn't settle on contracts. The Cowboys don’t have to be in a rush to do a deal with Prescott, especially with some other spending situations they will need to resolve. It is possible they could let Prescott play out his rookie deal and then look to use the franchise tag on him in 2020.

Will there be coaching changes in 2019? A playoff win seems to have secured Jason Garrett’s role for 2019, and perhaps he could be in line for an extension before entering the final year of his contract. At some point, a fresh start might be needed, but Garrett has brought stability. Garrett has the second-most wins among coaches in team history, but he has two playoff wins, and this is a franchise that judges success on Super Bowls. Or at least it used to judge success that way. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan could be in trouble, although the offense performed better after the trade for Cooper. The red zone offense was a struggle, and Prescott‘s development has to be at the forefront of the team’s offseason thoughts. Secondary coach/passing game coordinator Kris Richard appears to be the favorite for the Miami Dolphins head-coaching job; his departure would create a big void.

How do the Cowboys keep DeMarcus Lawrence? The Cowboys put the franchise tag on Lawrence in 2018 after his breakout 2017 season in which he recorded 14.5 sacks. They wanted to see if he could repeat his success. At 10.5 sacks, his numbers were down, but he was just as productive in affecting the quarterback and playing the run. The Cowboys could put the franchise tag on him again, but that likely will not be met with the same greeting as it was in 2018 when Lawrence signed the tag right away. If he is tagged, he could stay away from the offseason program and threaten to miss games. The Cowboys have a history of getting deals done with their top talents. Without Lawrence, the Cowboys do not have an elite pass-rusher. Signing Lawrence has to be the Cowboys’ priority.