Black Monday has come in gone. Where should the change come in Dallas.
An uncertain future lies ahead for Tony Romo, built by his past of insecure and unpredictable play.
What transpired Sunday was so painful to watch, even after a month of painful personal tragedy on my part, and it was the natural conclusion to a season that started so well in the Meadowlands, and then soured so quickly at Qwest Field in Seattle. Nine teams made sweeping changes in the head coach and/or GM position yesterday, and Dallas has made just as many headlines by making neither of the two. The lesson of the season should be obvious:
- The offense has become susceptible to random mistakes, by Tony Romo and others like DeMarco Murray, and opposing defenses have learned how to exploit them. The interceptions on Sunday were just as much due to Washington knowing how to intercept a Romo pass, as they were about Romo choosing to throw one. Romo's defenders can say anything they want, but he handed the keys back to Shanahan in the first half, and that set up the next point. . .
- Despite what Jason Garrett and Romo stated with such self assurance only two weeks ago, it is wrong to believe that if the Cowboys are behind by one or two scores late in the 4th quarter that they are then at their best. Maybe they think they function better, but the objective is always to win a game, and to win it with authority, not to subject yourself to the maximum pressure time after time. A comeback win may be thrilling, but a team that plays 55 minutes of awful football and then 5 minutes of miraculous spectacles can't be called successful, it can only consider itself lucky that even reached .500.
- A great defense means a physically intimidating roster. One that has starters on the IR for over half of the season (Sean Lee and Jay Ratliff), and substitutes getting injured as well (Ernie Sims) is of course not even good on paper. The improvement of the secondary on Sunday against the pass (RG3 went 9-18 on passing with no passing TDs as opposed to 19-25 with four TDs) was completely cancelled out by a run defense that completely evapourated in the second half.
So come the draft in April, and the free agent season, I expect a grand departure on the roster from what we've seen, even compared to 2012's revamp of the secondary. As fans, we should be just as scared as we are hopeful, because as far as anyone can tell the person in charge of those changes is the same person who has been until now, JJ. So here are the main departments, not in order of importance:
Center Phil Costa. One holdover from 2011 whose final day in a Dallas uniform should be behind him.
Tony Romo was sacked 36 times in 2012, exactly the number he suffered in 2011. Every quarterback has to take some sacks, and some of those who are, let's just admit it, much better than him like Aaron Rodgers, have taken just as many or more both seasons. The issue that's unique here is that Romo has such a high incidence of interceptions, tied with Drew Brees for the lead and ahead of such luminaries as Mark Sanchez, Brandon Weeden, and Phil Rivers, that at least some of those have to be attributed to pressure put on him by blown blocking.
It is possible to succeed in the NFL with either a pocket passer like Warren Moon, a short passer like Joe Montana, or even someone whose best attribute is his mobility like Randall Cunningham. But in each case the player has to be surrounded by a good offensive line. Even a mobile QB like Michael Vick (rumoured to be headed to several teams after the disastrous Eagles season) cannot survive without a good front five.
Every player on the Dallas O-line has his drawbacks. None of them have ever made a Pro Bowl, while Doug Free has been a penalty disaster and Phil Costa earned notoriety not just for the same reason but also for his poor understanding of Romo's snap cadence.
Anthony Spencer is a UFA this season. Who may replace him, and what are the chances of him staying?
On paper the Cowboys' front in the 3-4 alignment should be among the best in the NFL, featuring Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer, and 4 time Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff, with rookie Tyrone Crawford, Marcus Spears, and Sean Lissemore as the main backups. But Ratliff had a well-publicized injury prone 2012 that included an alleged verbal argument with JJ.
Jason Hatcher made headlines in the 2012 off-season by not answering the question of who are the locker room leaders for the Cowboys. "That's a good question. I really don't know. . ." What is surprising is that there was never a real rebuttal to Hatcher's non-response. At one point current Denver Broncos linebacker was the on-field leader of the defense, but he did have something of a performance drop-off. Some would say that ILB Sean Lee has stepped into Brooking's shoes, but he was also hampered by injuries this season.
As somebody who isn't a draft pundit or a free agency expert, I cannot propose exactly who will be the best fit to supplement Dallas' D-Line. Among the most recognizable names are Richard Seymour of Oakland and Dwight Freeney (recently converted to linebacker) of the Colts, both of whom are up there in years. Those two would be able to add some leadership in the locker room though.
Buyer beware. Peyton Hillis (KC) may be a cheap acquisition this time, and for good reason. After a stellar 2010 in Cleveland, Hillis played keep-away with the front office over a contract extension dooming their season, then signed with Kansas City and registered only 309 yards in 2012. So he could be a good power back if Dallas changes his attitude.
DeMarco Murray may have the threat quality that Dallas needs, but not we could certainly use either a lighter back or a heavier blocking back. Lawrence Vickers, their current FB, is used mostly in blocking and short pass situations, and has played well as such. A number of attractive ball carriers are coming on market now, such as Jackie Battle of San Diego, and Rashard Mendenhall of Pittsburgh. Battle was at one point a practice squad player in Dallas, so keep your eyes peeled.
The frenzy for the young passer who will be the next Russel Wilson or RG3 has begun.
No, the above photo of Collin Klein isn't an endorsement of drafting the senior Kansas State QB. It's just that with my poor vision the highlights of him passing in that purple and silver uniform while I'm passing by a TV sometimes seem like visions of a Dallas QB.
Tony Romo isn't spent as an NFL quarterback. His back-up, Kyle Orton, also had more gas in the tank but has the stigma of his disastrous end in Denver attached to him. It is hard to get people to forget you're the "guy that Tebow replaced", especially given the hilarious viral video series. It is unfortunate therefore that neither of them are going to have any public confidence going into next season's training camp. At the very least Garrett and JJ should have an open competition for the starting spot between Orton and Romo (assuming they're both still in Dallas come August), and somebody else. Russell Wilson was not anointed the starter at draft time, but rather beat out Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson.
I know a lot of you Romo fanatics will crucify me since I've called for his replacement since starting my fan posts in 2010. You've always said that the media is unfair to Romo. Well, the game of football is unfair, just ask Lovie Smith after he lost his job following another winning season. Romo hasn't led Dallas to a winning season since 2009, and other lingering QB's with past success, like Carson Palmer, aren't getting any better. As I stated above, his comeback victories only mask the fact that Dallas has no system to its play, and is built to depend on 11th hour heroics from an otherwise erratic leader. So topen competition is the fair decision.
Potential competitors abound: Matt Barkley, Johnny Manziel, Collin Klein, Michael Vick, blah blah blah. At this point speculation is pointless. But Tony Romo, despite all of his statistical accomplishments is the Dallas QB with the longest tenure at starter with the least post-season accolades. So the status quo cannot continue.
Front Office and Coaching Staff
Ozzie Newsome and John Elway. Two former stars who became front office assets to their franchises.
The autocratic regime of Jerry Jones has received plenty of criticism in the past three years, especially given the fact that Cowboys Stadium resembles a football version of Sacha Baron Cohen's palace in The Dictator. The clamouring for a real GM for the first time since Gil Brandt in 1988 has reached a crescendo, yet Jerry continues to hold on to power despite his own admission that that with his personnel selection record he would have been fired by himself already. It can only be assumed that Garrett will be back next year after he survived Black Monday.
Will Dallas ever have a GM, and how fast could that happen? It should be remembered though that every team besides Dallas has a non-owner GM, even the Raiders since the passing of Al Davis, yet plenty of them have been chronic failures. Just look at Mike Tannenbaum of the Jets who drafted Mark Sanchez following his junior year and then neglected to equip him with almost any offensive tools, or Buddy Nix of Buffalo who signed the pedestrian Ryan Fitzpatrick to a lavish contract but also failed to hold on to Marshawn Lynch. Here are some possible sources of talent for the GM department:
- Prior Experience: There certainly is a wealth of people in this department, from the recently fired Marty Hurney and Scott Pioli to the legendary Ron Wolf and Bill Polian. The current crop of fired GM's isn't that impressive, but the whole logic of hiring an experienced GM is that they usually have good contacts and can win over players or staff from their prior clubs.
- Subordinate to Head Coach or no GM: This isn't happening in Dallas, but in many cases like Andy Reid's Eagles and Bill Belichick in New England the GM position is almost a personnel advisory role to the coach. The main advantage of this working system is that the coach's system becomes completely synchronized with the personnel decisions, and there is no overlap of responsibility or clash of minds. Until this season the Redskins' Mike Shanahan's version of this (he is also VP of player personnel) seemed to be a dud until he hit the jackpot with RG3, Alfred Morris, and Pierre Garcon. But no one is under any illusion that this could happen with Jason Garrett in Dallas.
- Former Coach or Player's Redux as GM: This is often done in order to boost fan interest. A lot of times the owner will give a player a "consultant" role that is basically nothing but a corner office with a phone. Coming from Cleveland, this happens all the time with Jim Brown and Bernie Kosar. Both of those guys were edged out by former Seahawks all-powerful Mike Holmgren, himself an ex-coach, who was unceremoniously axed mid-season this year. But others were handed real responsibilities and brought results. Ozzie Newsome and John Elway were both brought in by their former bosses and have become respected personalities with perennial playoff teams. They had different roles, with Newsome having one of the best minds for the draft and bringing in such mainstays as Ray Lewis, Ray Rice, and Haloti Ngata. Elway is more of a senior executive with greater overall influence. He nevertheless has used his clout to pull off such blockbusters as the hiring of John Fox, the trading of Tebow to the Jets, and the signing of Peyton Manning. Other former players who were put in leading positions like GM didn't fair so well. Remember the Fire (Matt) Millen movement in Detroit?
So buckle up Dallasites. We're not gonna be looking at the same faces come August.