I think the firing of Rob Ryan and hiring of Monte Kiffin is a very good start to Dallas's offseason. When you dump a defensive coordinator whose best showing has been 13th in the NFL in points allowed, and replace him with a guy who only once ranked lower than 10th in points allowed in 13 seasons, that's an upgrade, plain and simple. I will be stunned if Dallas doesn't have a top-10 points Defense next season, something they've managed only twice since 1999. I would also expect our turnover differential to go from among the worst in the NFL to at least respectable, which by itself would be worth several wins.
But Dallas needs the same coaching overhaul on the offensive side. Jason Garrett's offense almost never scored on opening game drives. We averaged only 8 points a game in the first half. We spent 70% of the season, and every home game at some point, behind. We turned the ball over a ton in the season's first half, and then again in the playoff-critical last game. We were among the most penalized teams in the league. As a result, we spent another year outside the top-10 in scoring. It's not good enough.
So, if I were Jerry Jones/Jason Garrett, this is my first take on what I would do this offseason.
1. Replace Jason Garrett as play caller. In six seasons, the Dallas offense has been ranked in the top 10 in scoring only twice -- Jason Garrett's first year, when he had Tony Sparano on board to help him, and in 2010, when Romo was injured and Kitna played half the games. Otherwise, the Cowboys offense has not been competitive. Note that every playoff team this weekend scored a minimum of 28 points, something the Cowboys offense has rarely managed under Jason Garrett. If we can't get Sean Payton back, perhaps we could steal Pete Charmichael, Jr., the offensive coordinator in New Orleans. We need our offense (and defense) to rank in the top-5 in scoring if we want to win the Super Bowl again.
2. Replace Bill Callahan. In evaluating coaches, Callahan has to be rated as doing among the poorest jobs this season. Both offensive linemen he inherited -- Smith and Free -- were worse. Nate Livings was okay, but Bernardeau was terrible. And Ryan Cook was barely passable. This line was worse than last year's line, and it also broke down in the final playoff-caliber game. I'd like to see Tony Sparano back in this position, or in some other offensive coaching position other than coordinator. Plus, if you bring in a new offensive coordinator, Callahan has to go.
3. Jettison John Garrett. This would be a strong message that performance is required at Valley Ranch, not who you are related to. Tight ends have not been developed under Garrett. Marty Bennett is really a fine tight end, as the Giants showed. James Hanna might be even better. But we seem never to find out. I actually fault both Garrett brothers here -- John for not getting them to excel on the field, and Jason for failing to design an offense that uses two tight ends to effect. Here's another job Tony Sparano could fill better.
4. Re-sign Anthony Spencer. I have a separate post on this. This is Kiffin's call. But my expectation is that Kiffin is going to like having two DEs with speed who can rush the passer and chase down running backs and mobile QBs. Spencer was the most impactful player on our D, with 38 splash plays according to Bob Sturm, or 2.7 per game played. Ware was next at 30. Hatcher had 16.5. There's also a post that if the draft were redone, Spencer would have gone in the top-10. Dallas has doled out big money to players who don't live up to them -- Jay Ratliff and Miles Austin for example -- but I wouldn't put Spencer in this category. Let him rush 100% of the time and I expect he'd be able to maintain a 10+ annual sack rate while continuing his excellence in stopping runs.
5. Rebuild the offensive line the right way, with potential Pro Bowlers. We don't have the resources to land a bunch of free agents, but somehow, Dallas needs 3 new offensive linemen once again, and needs ones who have at least the potential of making the Pro Bowl. Smith and Livings are fine on the left side. The other 3 slots need new blood. On this score, I don't have answers yet. My suggestion would be: 1 free agent, 1 draft pick (first two rounds), 1 reclamation project from someone we have. And get a better O-line coach who can whip them in shape. This is where I would put Tony Sparano, unless someone knows of a great O-line coach on the market.
6. Extend Tony Romo. The Cowboys are in cap hell at the moment. One way to get out is to extend Romo's deal and cut his cap hit for 2013 dramatically. Cowboys don't really have much choice here. We have no replacement QB on the horizon, and Romo is good enough to get us to the playoffs and beyond with a line in front of him and a defense that generates some turnovers.
7. Restructure contracts, and make some tough cuts. Scarlet O has the cap situation in this post. A Romo deal could save $10 million in 2013. Brandon Carr's contract can be redone to save a ton. Doug Free should be cut. Dan Connor should be cut. Marcus Spears is not worth it; a rookie would be better. We can let go of a lot of free agents, including Coleman, Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Kevin Ogletree, Derrick Dockery, John Phillips, and others. I wonder about the value of Orlando Scandrick. Witten's contract might be reworked, as could Austin's. If we thought Jay Ratliff would be 100% next year, I'd probably keep him, as cutting him may not save much. Is Kyle Orton a luxury we cannot afford? He had no impact this year. The numbers will get clearer as we go forward. Aside from Spencer, the other place I would put free agent money would be one slot on the O-line. That may be all we can afford, although I would keep my eye out for bargains like Laurent Robinson wherever they may play on the field.
8. Draft from the inside out. We have consistently neglected the trenches and drafted for flash. So we have a weak core and then wonder why the team collapses late like a house of cards. Dallas is going to need to spend one of its first two picks -- whether or not it trades down -- on an O-linemen who can start in 2013. I would be inclined to spend the other one on a defensive linemen, and probably a DT rather than a DE. The reason? Ware and Spencer are going to last longer than Ratliff, and may last longer than Hatcher. Plus, Spencer and Ware are better than Ratliff and Hatcher. So the better upgrade chance is likely inside. The flip side is that we'll need backup DEs, and may not have them, whereas Lissemore and Crawford could play inside behind Ratliff and Hatcher.
9. In rounds 3-6, fill other needs. My priorities would be 1) durable running back, 2) safety, 3) linebacker, 4) O-line or D-line depth, 5) developmental QB, 6) CB. 1) RB. Since Murray has been injured both years, and Felix Jones, Dunbar, and Tanner were inept as backups, the Cowboys need someone they can rely on as a #1 back if Murray is hurt again. Washington got their's in the 6th round. We don't have to spend a high pick, but we need someone who can start and carry the load. 2) Safety. I'm less worried than many because I think Matt Johnson could emerge quickly when he's healthy. 3) We know we have two high-quality starters in Lee and Carter. And Albright might be the third. We just need depth here. Perhaps we keep Sims for the minimum. 4) Need to keep stocking the lines. 5) I think we spent too much on Kyle Orton, who isn't going to lead us anywhere. If we don't cut Orton this year, we need to next year. But we also need a rookie QB to be a second year by then so we have some confidence in him. 6) You can't have too many CBs. And if we got a good one, we might be able to let Scandrick go and put his money elsewhere.
10. Do our usual good job with UDFAs. You may have noticed that I have 6 other priorities and only 4 draft picks. Maybe we get a supplemental pick or two. Otherwise, we'll have to go with UDFAs and street free agents. I expect a few of these will make the roster. They always do. It would be nice to find another Tony Romo or Miles Austin, or guys of similar quality.
That's my list. Feel free to provide yours.