The Dallas Cowboys have hit the halfway pole at a disappointing 3-5. Jason Garrett has now coached exactly 32 games, or two full seasons, and sits at 16-16. How did this happen?
The inestimable OCC has already shown that the early performances by the Cowboys indicate that this team is likely to struggle to get to .500 for the season. Even before that, the consensus of the reasonably objective sports media community (i.e., those who try to cover the whole league and not take sides, like this one) was that the Cowboys did not have much of a chance of making the playoffs. In other words, before the 2012 season, most of the analysts just did not see Dallas as being a very good team. In general, they felt the continuing problems with the offensive line and the fact that maybe the Dallas skill players really aren't all that great were going to hold the team around .500 or worse. And it turns out they may have been right. All we have to take comfort in is that many of them picked the Philadelphia Eagles to win the division, and that doesn't look like it's going to happen anytime soon.
(I know, many argued that the team would likely be 8-8 or worse, especially in light of the schedule this year. Consider yourself validated.)
Among the Cowboys faithful, we see the team draft some new players, sign some others in free agency,and hear what sounds much more like adult supervision coming out of the coaching staff, and we convince ourselves that the NFL should go ahead and just deliver the next Lombardi to Valley Ranch. If you have been around here a while, you may have noticed that I might have been subject to a wee bit of optimism about things myself at times. Not to mention that it did not exactly put a damper on our enthusiasm when the team came out and clearly outplayed the defending Super Bowl champions right off the bat.
But that turned out to be more of an aberration than indicator of how the season would play out. It just wound up blinding us to some harsh realities that I think explain what is happening to our favorite team.
We have forgotten how incredibly dysfunctional the team was before Jason Garrett arrived. I'm not going to get into a bunch of stats, or recount the list of players who were dragging the team down. Just one number tells the tale here: 1-7. A team that had just gone 11-5 and put up the only playoff win since the Super Bowl run in the nineties came completely and totally apart. There was enough pride and talent for the team to give Jason Garrett a 5-3 start to his head coaching career - but then the process of tearing down much of the team had to ensue.
When things are as messed up as this team was following things like the 2009 draft and the Roy Williams trade, it is going to take a while to right the ship. The cries for Jason Garrett's scalp have gotten much louder after the past two weeks. His failure to fix the Cowboys after two years of coaching is seen as a clear indication he is not the coach of the future. Garrett had been given partial control of a failing organization and was expected to turn it around. (I say partial, because Jerry Jones is still the owner and GM.) Garrett's process is about a long-term approach to building the team. He has more than just hinted that this was likely a three-year project for him and his staff. It feels like he is being condemned because he dared give an honest assessment of the situation, and then he's turned out to be right.
No matter how hard Jason Garrett works or how much he does, he still works for Jerry Jones - which is why he may keep this job for a long time. The recent news that the NFL had voided Sean Payton's contract extension with the New Orleans Saints led to immediate speculation that Payton would be hired to replace Jason Garrett at the end of the current season. This leaves out one important question: Why would Payton want the job? Given the white hot scrutiny the coach of the Cowboys must endure while having to deal with Jerry Jones, what would make Payton so eager to bolt a team where he already has a Super Bowl ring? Even if he is eager to get out of New Orleans, I still wonder just why he would want to go from the media circus of the bounty suspension to the media extravaganza that is the Dallas Cowboys.
The fact is, despite his various and sometimes confusing statements, Jerry Jones likes Jason Garrett as a head coach. And based on the history of Jones' ownership, Garrett may be one of the very few people who could be successful as a long-term coach in Dallas. He seems more able than just about anyone to manage Jones - and the ability to do that is always going to be crucial to succeeding as the coach in Dallas.
There is no magic solution for the head coaching position lounging around outside the gates of Valley Ranch, waiting to be summoned to save the day. It's just like the idea that Tony Romo should be shown the door. Who exactly would take his place?
I have always been a Garrett supporter. I think he needs another year to get this team in a really competitive situation. I also am now on board with the idea that he needs an offensive coordinator. In this, he is like Jerry Jones. JJ thinks no one can do a better job as GM than he can, and I suspect JG has the same attitude about calling plays. This is one area I would love to see Jerry meddle a little, and pressure Jason to consider turning the play chart over to Bill Callahan, and also putting Tony Romo in the no-huddle more. If he doesn't do something this year, he definitely needs to do it in 2013. Other than that, I think Garrett is doing the right things. I can't answer why they don't work out so well. But I can speculate a bit.
The offseason was not so good for the Cowboys. Many of us, including me, were very excited by the offseason. The team was active in free agency, aggressive in going after Morris Claiborne in the draft, and had many intriguing new players coming on board. And Jason Garrett, Rob Ryan and Joe DeCamillis finally would get a full pre-season to get the team ready.
Except that so many of the new players were out for one reason or another. Surgeries and injuries in practice, including at last count 514 hamstring pulls, served to make training camp more a matter of scraping up enough players to practice than getting the system polished up for the regular season. The biggest issue again was the offensive line, where the starters simply did not get a chance to work together and get used to each other. It also meant that the team may have not made a really good evaluation on one or two of the new players. While Nate Livings does seem to be working out at guard, Mackenzy Bernadeau has been disappointing. Dallas' scouting department has looked like it was doing a pretty good job lately, but he may be an exception. Looking at the offseason as a whole, the team either did not get what it thought it was getting with the new talent, or injuries kept the talent from developing and getting integrated into the team. The team did not face an excessive number of major injuries, when you compare what other NFL franchises have faced, but the disruption seems to have been particularly bad for the Cowboys. Maybe that is just the homer in me, but I don't think any other team had the issues on getting its offensive line together that Dallas did, or saw all but one of its draft choices miss significant time with injury. It all combined to put Dallas way behind the learning curve and with the restrictions the CBA puts on practices, it is very hard to catch up once you get behind.
And then there is the little subject of a missing $5 million in salary cap . . . but I will say no more about that, so I can maintain some semblance of decorum and self-control.
Maybe it's no real surprise that the Cowboys are sitting at 3-5, particularly when you look at the W-L records of the teams they have faced so far this year. But the anguish and disappointment continue. And in my next post, I'm going to talk a little bit about why it is so hard for us to deal with.