On Nov. 13, 2016, NFL fans were treated to an epic clash between two of pro football’s traditional powers. In a game that featured 13 Pro Bowlers, the Steelers and Cowboys exchanged the lead six times before Ezekiel Elliott’s 32-yard score with nine seconds left gave Dallas a 35-30 win. Elliott and fellow rookie Dak Prescott had breakout performances, while Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played exceptionally well in a losing effort. 

The 2016 Cowboys ended up winning 13 games before being upset by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Steelers, after a 4-5 start, won nine straight games before an injury to Bell proved too much to overcome in Pittsburgh’s AFC championship game loss to New England. And while both teams fell short of a title in 2016, the thought was that their Week 10 tilt could be a possible preview of a future Super Bowl. 

Things have certainly changed in the 1,454 days since the two teams last faced each other. The ’17 Cowboys, a team that did not have Elliott for nearly half of the season, failed to make the playoffs. Dallas had a brief resurgence in 2018 — winning the NFC East before before losing to the Rams in the divisional round — before another non-playoff season led to the end of Jason Garrett’s decade-long tenure in Dallas. The 2020 Cowboys’ season, once filled with promise, would already be over if the Cowboys played in any other division but the woeful NFC East. Injuries have decimated the Cowboys, along with a defense that is on pace to be one of the worst in league history. 

The Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott takes on the Steelers’ defense in their epic Week 10 battle in 2016.
Getty Images

Pittsburgh has been on its own four-year roller coaster. The 2017 Steelers were 9-1 and appeared destined for a AFC championship rematch with New England before Ryan Shazier’s injury. Pittsburgh then lost a Week 15 nail-biter to the Patriots before the Jaguars upset them in the divisional round. The ’18 Steelers, who faced as many off-field distractions as on-field opponents, failed to make the playoffs. They then lost Brown and Bell before losing Roethlisberger for most of the 2019 season. But after wildly underachieving in 2018, the Steelers wildly overachieved in 2019, going 8-8 with backup quarterbacks following a 1-4 start and nearly grabbing the AFC’s final playoff seed. 

Fast forward to present. At 7-0, the Steelers are the NFL’s last unbeaten team. Pending a big upset, Pittsburgh will be 8-0 when they leave Texas sometime Sunday night. And the Cowboys, even with a loss on Sunday, would not be completely out of the playoff picture. Though it appears it should be a foregone conclusion that the Cowboys will be a non-playoff team during Mike McCarthy’s first year in Dallas, in the NFC East anything could happen.

How did the Steelers, a team that appeared to be close to imploding less than two years ago, build a roster to start 7-0 during the Super Bowl era? Conversely, why do the Cowboys find themselves in such disarray? 

Steelers made smarter cap decisions than Cowboys

Pittsburgh, for one, has made smarter salary cap decisions. The Steelers declined to give Bell his desired amount of guaranteed money. And while Bell’s absence resulted in short term damage, the Steelers, in the long run, avoided overpaying at a position that the league has largely deemed expendable. And by parting ways with Brown, they saved themselves nearly $50 million in salary from 2019-21. 

How has Pittsburgh used that money? They extended the contracts of several key veterans, including Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey, defensive linemen Cam Heyward and Tyson Alualu, and cornerback Joe Haden. They signed tight end Eric Ebron, a 2018 Pro Bowler with the Colts, to a two-year, $12 million deal this offseason. The Steelers also absorbed a first-round salary when they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick, a player who has proven to be the missing piece to the Steelers’ defensive puzzle. 

Pittsburgh also decided to hold off on giving extensions to Bud Dupree, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and James Conner. Smith-Schuster and Conner are in the last years of their rookie contracts, while Dupree has developed into a Pro Bowl level player while playing under the franchise tag over the past two years. Pittsburgh did lose Javon Hargrave, a 2016 third-round pick who blossomed into a quality starter, to the Eagles this past offseason. The solid play of Alualu and Isaiah Buggs has helped offset that loss. 

Unlike the Steelers, the Cowboys paid their star running back, awarding Elliott with a six-year, $90 million contract in 2019 that included over $50 million guaranteed. This offseason, Dallas gave receiver Amari Cooper a five-year, $100 million deal with $40 million fully guaranteed. Last offseason, the Cowboys awarded linebacker Jaylon Smith with a five-year, $64 million with $35.5 million guaranteed. They chose not to re-sign Byron Jones, who became the league’s highest-paid cornerback when he penned a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Dolphins. The Cowboys have yet to fully commit to Prescott, who was playing under the franchise tag prior to suffering his season-ending injury. 

With a top-heavy payroll, the Cowboys’ roster lacks adequate depth at several positions. Conversely, the Steelers’ roster, even with Roethlisberger’s $23.7 million cap hit, have had enough money to create a competitive roster that has played a significant role in the team’s early success. 

More reasons: The draft, coaching and GMs

The Steelers have also enjoyed more success in the draft. Of the 30 players the Steelers have drafted since 2017, 80% of them are still on the team, with eight players serving as starters. Conner, Smith-Schuster and outside linebacker T.J. Watt have each been named to the Pro Bowl. Watt, an All-Pro last season, has blossomed into one of the NFL’s best defensive players. Conversely, only two-thirds of the Cowboys’ drafted players since ’17 are still on the roster. And while they do have nine draftees currently in their starting lineup, Dallas has drafted just one player (Leighton Vander Esch) that has been selected to a Pro Bowl over that span. 

Stability and front office structure may be the biggest difference between the two franchises. The Steelers continue to be led on the field by Mike Tomlin, who on Sunday will have a chance to extend his streak of non-losing seasons to 14. The Cowboys, after years of disappointing finishes with Jason Garrett, replaced Garrett with Mike McCarthy, who, if you believe the unnamed Cowboys players, has struggled to keep his locker room together during what is looking more and more like a lost season. 

Jones, despite recent comments about how his team won’t go in the tank, decided not to do anything at the trade deadline. While teams shouldn’t make a trade just for the sake of making one, Jones did not think there was anyone out there that could help his team? While that’s hard to fathom, it’s easier to believe that Jones has determined that one or two trades wasn’t going to be enough to help a team without a quarterback, a healthy offensive line or a defense that is incapable of stopping opposing offenses.

While you can argue Jones’ effectiveness as a general manager, one can’t dispute the job Kevin Colbert has done as the Steelers’ general manager, especially over the last 20 months. Colbert, whose resume includes building two championship rosters in Pittsburgh, used one his two draft picks for Brown in 2019 to acquire Diontae Johnson, a player who has quickly become a key player in Pittsburgh’s offense. The other pick was used as a replacement for the second-round pick the Steelers gave to Denver in order to move up to draft linebacker Devin Bush, a necessary move as the team had still not found Shazier’s replacement. Pittsburgh also gave up a 2020 third round pick to move up to get Bush, a pick Colbert knew he’d get back in the form of a compensatory pick after losing Bell in free agency. 

Colbert continued to work his magic when the ’19 season began. After watching his team sink to 0-3 and lose Roethlisberger for the season, Colbert did the almost unthinkable when he traded Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-round pick to Miami for Fitzpatrick. At the time, not many people loved the move (a notable exception was Bill Cowher, the former Steelers Hall of Fame coach), given that the Steelers had not traded a first-round pick since the Johnson presidency. Colbert knew that, with Roethlisberger out, Pittsburgh would have to lean on its defense if the Steelers were to salvage their season. That’s exactly what happened. Fitzpatrick blossomed into an All-Pro, Pittsburgh’s defense became one of the league’s best units, and the Steelers were actually in the playoff picture until the final moments of the regular season. 

With Bush out this season, the Steelers pulled off another big trade before this year’s deadline, acquiring Avery Williamson from the Jets for a future fifth-round pick. And that first-round pick the Steelers lost in the 2020 draft? While they missed out on having the chance to draft several big name receivers, Pittsburgh is probably happy with the receiver they were able to acquire with their second-round: Chase Claypool, who currently leads all rookie receivers in touchdowns. 

It’s too early to know whether or not McCarthy will be successful in Dallas. We do know that Tomlin has proven to be an effective leader in Pittsburgh. While some of his critics feel that Tomlin should have more than one championship, only one active coach — Bill Belichick — has won multiple championships. No active coach that has coached as long as Tomlin has avoided a losing season as Tomlin has. Tomlin’s staff has also been rebuilt over the past few years. Quarterbacks coach Matt Canada has added new wrinkles to the offense, while Teryl Austin has helped improve Pittsburgh’s pass defense. Tomlin has also enjoyed long, successful partnerships with coordinators Randy Fichtner, Keith Butler and Danny Smith. 

For over a half century, the Steelers’ philosophy has been based on winning in the present while also being cognizant of the future. And while Jones and the Cowboys have also been hellbent on bringing a sixth Lombardi to Dallas, the Cowboys’ shortsightedness at times is among the reasons why their Super Bowl drought will soon reach 25 years … and counting. 

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