As I close the book on 2011 for the Dallas Cowboys, there are some topics needing further discussion and scrutiny before we delve too deeply into things like pre-Combine mock drafts and signing 30 Free Agents so Dallas can solve every talent problem overnight and become football's version of the 1927 Yankees. In fact, it's high time we shed light on some widely held, but largely unfounded 'myths' about the Cowboys and replaced them with facts.
Myth: One lockout-shortened year is enough to eradicate the deeply-rooted, flawed culture of the Cowboys
Fact: Culture change is an evolutionary process and it takes time and a certain degree of patience
Having personally led corporate organizational performance turnarounds, some with several hundred employees, my experience (and every book, Harvard Business Review case study and success story I've ever heard of) tells me that there is no "easy button" available to Jerry, Stephen and Jason to make this happen quickly. The uniqueness of the Cowboys situation is that the poor performance which this team has suffered through has extended into every area of the organization. The player personnel has declined to a level unseen since Dave Campo was trying to make Larry Lacewell's drafts pay off, and we know how that worked out. The accountability in the locker room was so absent that players possessed voices louder than their coaches. The offense, defense and special teams all had their own unit-based silos to operate in and there was no cohesion in the team's goal-setting. Let's also not underestimate the fact that any changes the coach(es) wanted to make had to pass through a complex organizational decision-making filter that is unlike any other in the NFL. Only now do Jerry and Stephen combine with Garrett to make up an unlikely Holy Trinity with a more democratic process that looks a lot more like a typical NFL franchise. This isn't like turning a motorcycle, it's more like turning an aircraft carrier.
Opponents will point to turnarounds like the one in San Francisco and it's hard to knock Jim Harbaugh (he was my pick for the opening in Dallas) and what he has accomplished there in a very short time. But SF was the beneficiary of many years of terrible records and top 10-15 picks, and many of their investments were made on offensive and defensive linemen. Over two seasons, they invested high picks on their offensive line and have made it into one of the most highly touted in the league. They had young, solid, if unspectacular, personnel on defense. They don't have an erratic, politicized decision-making process and they just needed a singular personality to rally around. Dallas' problems, as stated, are much more complex and widespread. Garrett needs 2 more years before we will be able to properly judge his performance.
Myth: Rob Ryan is a sub-par Defensive Coordinator
Truth: Schemes can cover up a weakness, but they can't cover up being weak
Ryan has to contend with a dearth of talent at key positions along the defense that have been addressed over the years about as well as the Greek economy has been. Kenyon Coleman was a 5th round pick by the Raiders in 2002, Jason Hatcher was a 3rd rounder in 2006 and Jay Ratliff, who is out of position in a Ryan defense, was a 7th rounder in 2005. Cowboys fans sometimes mistake that group for Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren and Richard Seymour. When they don't see the same kind of pressure from our defensive line that those Patriots generated, they want to be accountable. Unfortunately, that someone ends up being Ryan. Bad drafts can kill a team. The 2009 draft had a boatload of players that were supposed to play roles on the 2011 defense. That didn't work out so well. Blame Ryan. It doesn't matter if he wasn't here or not, blame him. The annual joke that is the Cowboys' glaring hole and thus, the need to draft ANOTHER outside linebacker to pair with DeMarcus Ware is surely Rob Ryan's fault. 2007's 1st round investment in Anthony Spencer hasn't panned out, but it must be Ryan's inability to pound that round peg into the square hole that's the problem here. Sure, that's it. Who cares that he's been here a matter of months and Spencer has been here 5 years (just writing that was painful) and done nothing to fulfill the promise of becoming the kind of bookend pass rusher that we seem to fall prey to every December. With Bradie James hanging on for dear life, the LB's are a 50-50 proposition. How about those DB's? Once the Josh Thomas project ended, we ended up with the usual suspects at CB. I'm not going to waste anyone's time reciting Terrence Newman's inability to turn his body in a space smaller than that of a navy battleship or Mike Jenkins' in-again, out-again, injury history and inconsistent play. The secondary has been and continues to be a known weakness. It's hard to know which unit is going to struggle each week. But we expect this collection of future football legends, that Ryan didn't draft, to play like and be all-pro's.
Guys like Dick LeBeau, Dom Capers and others have been given time to become what we know them as today - defensive masterminds. Along the way, they benefitted from drafting personnel to fit their systems. Pittsburgh has guys like Polamalu, Harrison, Woodley, Taylor, and Hampton. Capers has Clay Matthews, but he also has the best young NT in the game in BJ Raji, AJ Hawk, a budding star in Tramon Williams and an up and comer in Morgan Burnett. Dallas goes barely three deep with top talents on defense and that is if you give more credit to Sean Lee and Jay Ratliff than they are due. Just think how much better this defense would be with the kind of nose tackle (aka the bigger kind) and bona fide pass rushing presence opposite Ware, whether it be a DE or an OLB, to act as the counterpart that almost all of the elite defenses have. How much better would this team be with a playmaking safety that could help mask some of the weaknesses of our CB's? If Ryan only had to cover up for one unit's underperformance, few experts believe that he couldn't do that. But nobody should be expected to cover up weaknesses up front, in the middle and in the secondary. This too needs some time, and maybe even more importantly, some better talent before we formulate a fair assessment.
Myth: Dallas is a contender
Fact: Dallas is building a contender
Last time I checked, NASCAR drivers had the opportunity to change their tires while at a pit stop. The expectations in the NFL don't afford head coaches that same luxury. They put the best tires that they can find on their cars before the race starts and then they have to change the tires on those cars while driving at top speed DURING the race. No pit stops. No way to push pause on the remote control. This is the reality of their world. Now, I'm a huge fan of unrealistic expectations because I'm a Dallas Cowboys fan and that's what separates me from a Bengals fan or a Lions fan or a...wait for it...Eagles fan (ooh, that felt so good). I'll admit it. I'm spoiled. Chances are, you are too. I'm not going to apologize for it. But what may be missing in the way that some fans approach the time in between periods of greatness is the joy and excitement that comes from seeing them improve and develop. This isn't Madden 2011. There are no quick fixes. Watching your team stumble and learn from their errors is something we should all treasure. I love the fact that I can say I saw how the 90's teams were formed, and was able to appreciate the changes that were taking place from 1989-1991, and how they came together to become one of the all-time best.
Sometimes, we have to regain our composure when it comes to our Cowboys and take some joy from that well executed block on the O-line that we could never execute before, or that great catch by the 3rd string tight end that could be the future for us at that position or just that high draft pick on a guy who plays a non-glamour position. This is year 1 of the Holy Trinity and it's a lockout-shortened year at that. While Dallas may not have achieved the ultimate goal that some had for them this year (and every year), they've made progress and, in the final analysis, that is what will serve to heighten expectations for each successive year as they add the right pieces necessary to contend. It renews our license on hope.