And just like that, it’s over. On Sunday, at the conclusion of an all-time great playoff game, only one team could win, and it wasn’t the Dallas Cowboys. After Aaron Rodgers pulled out yet another of the plays that he seems to conjure up like a magic spell, the Green Bay Packers won on a last-second field goal that ended the 2016 Dallas Cowboys’ historic season earlier than most people in the Metroplex (or Brownsville!) believed possible.
That’s the joy and torment of the NFL summed up right there. The game is the most exciting thing on television because every game, every play, every minute matters. But also: your entire season can come down to whether or not a tight end for the Packers managed to tap his toe on the turf before falling out of bounds on a busted play that somehow ended with a completion to set up the game-winning kick. The Cowboys fought hard in that game—it takes a lot of heart to come back from a 21-3 deficit to tie the game with seconds left on the clock—but ultimately, none of that matters come next Sunday, when the Packers will be playing the Falcons in Atlanta, and the Cowboys will be watching it from home.
Still, heartbreak aside, Cowboys fans should be ecstatic right about now. Heading into the season, the 2016 Cowboys looked, on paper, like the sort of team that could have gone 9-7 and maybe squeaked into a wild card slot. After Tony Romo was injured, they could have well gone 3-13 with Mark Sanchez under center. Instead, they went 13-3* and claimed the top seed in the playoffs after unearthing the future of the franchise in quarterback Dak Prescott, with rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott somehow surpassing the sky-high expectations after being named a rare top-five draft pick at his position. This Cowboys team didn’t fart out of the playoffs as a last-gasp team; rather, they exceeded their ceiling by a wide margin and set themselves up as a potential dynasty for years to come.
Fortunes turn quickly in the NFL, of course—ask the 2016 Carolina Panthers about that, or even just ol’ Tony Romo—but nonetheless, if you’re a Cowboys fan, you should be high-fiving your star-wearing brethren a lot right now. This season may be over, but let’s revisit some of the reasons to be excited about what these Cowboys are capable of.
After the NFL Draft in May, I asked the question: How good does Ezekiel Elliott have to be to be worth the pick?
At the time, I was skeptical that any running back was worth the number-four overall pick, given how fungible the position tends to be these days, and how highly-drafted RB’s tend to bust. The historic marker—established by Clinton Portis and Adrian Peterson—was that “we’ll know that he’s earned that status if he rushes for five-and-a-half yards a carry, manages somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 yards, and scores at least a dozen touchdowns.”
Elliott didn’t get to 5.5 yards per carry—he topped out at 5.1 yards—but surpassed the other two metrics with 1,631 yards and a whopping 15 touchdowns. And some of those touchdowns were like the one in the clip above, in the Cowboys’ win over the Steelers in week 10. There, the Cowboys needed to maintain control of the ball for one more attempt, in the hope of staying in field goal range to take the lead at the end of the game. But even with a kicker as accurate as Dan Bailey, those are never a sure thing, and Elliott eliminated the need for them to eve try by just going ahead and rushing for 32 yards to seal the deal.
Elliott had sky-high expectations, but he met them. Dak Prescott had zero expectations, and he turned in the sort of rare rookie season for a mid-round draft pick that would have been without precedent if Russell Wilson hadn’t done a similar thing a few years earlier.
Still, being one of two rookies to emerge from nowhere like that and take his team to the top of a tough division is a huge deal, and watching what he did throughout the year helps make clear how special a talent he is. Most quarterbacks will succeed when throwing the ball to Dez Bryant or Jason Witten. But Prescott elevated guys like Brice Butler, a 2013 seventh-round pick of the Oakland Raiders entering his fourth season, into a player whose jersey fans wanted. Watch the grab he made against the Lions in Week 16 for evidence of what he turned out to be capable of. Butler caught more touchdowns from Prescott (three) than he did throughout his entire career to that point (two), and he wasn’t the only Cowboy to shine with Prescott under center.
Cole Beasley has been a role-player for the Cowboys since 2012, but the slot receiver came into his own with Prescott as his quarterback. In previous seasons, he was—at best—a tertiary option for the Cowboys.
Playing with Prescott, Beasley caught 75 passes (eclipsing his previous career high of 52) for 833 yards and five touchdowns. When Cole Beasley starts looking like Dez Bryant, you know you’ve got a deep receiving corps, and when he refuses to go down the way that Beasley did in Washington in Week 2, it seemed to pre-sage the sort of heart that the team showed against Green Bay.
Also: Yeah, Green Bay. That game was a monster, and for Cowboys fans, it ended as a stunner. But if you they need something to celebrate there, how about the way that Ezekiel Elliott clowned perennial Pro Bowler Clay Matthews with a spin move that made Matthews look about 150 years old?
That wasn’t the only time Elliott played football like a ballet dancer, either. Hurdling defenders is usually bad business for running backs—it’s rarely worth the risk—but dude made it look easy throughout the season.
It wasn’t all Prescott and Elliott in 2016 for the Cowboys, either. The end of an era is upon the team, true—Romo is on his way out, and stalwart tight end Jason Witten, who’ll turn 35 in May, is likely to be an even smaller part of the team’s game plans in 2017 than he was this year. In 2016, he averaged 9.8 yards per completion—near the bottom of his career numbers, and he similarly seemed to be winding down in total catches, touchdowns, and yards. But when he needed to be there, he was, as this play in overtime to beat the Eagles showed, and that’ll probably be the case going forward, too.
Which shows just what’s so impressive about Prescott. He made his younger and less experienced receivers look better. He formed a tandem with Elliott that made them one of the most interesting combos in the NFL. He found the veterans on his roster when he needed them. And he was able to score on his own when necessary, pulling off impressive moves that made him look like—well, kind of like Tony Romo looked ten years and at least two broken backs ago.
The NFL is a heartbreaker of a league. A spectacular season can come down to one weird play at the end of a game. But the Cowboys are poised to stay near the top of the NFC East for years to come with the team they’ve assembled. There should be plenty of opportunities for fans to lose their minds the way that the dude who put this clip on YouTube of Prescott hitting a wide-open Terrance Williams in the end zone does, and that should make watching the Packers play the Falcons next week a little easier to take.
*Correction: A previous version of this article stated the Cowboys went 14-2. They went 13-3 this season. We regret the error.