How Dysfunctional Are The Dallas Cowboys?

Guaranteed chaos? - Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows that the Cowboys are a highly confused and badly run organization, right? Or is that perception just a sense of frustration over a lack of making the playoffs?

How is it going to work for the Dallas Cowboys with Scott Linehan coming into town to call plays and make the offense more effective while the team hangs onto Bill Callahan despite a clear demotion as far as his responsibilities? This has become the topic du jour for jour after jour now for those covering the Cowboys. And it is cited as further proof that Dallas is the premier dysfunctional organization in the NFL.

Jerry Jones, after all, continues to be the highly visible, always voluble owner who also happens to serve as his own general manager, and he is responsible for everything bad that has happened since he, well, was the owner and general manager of a team that won three Super Bowls in four years, including bad drafts, foolish coaching hires, crippling injuries, global climate change, and Justin Bieber. Jason Garrett is a hapless puppet dancing on Jerry's strings who is now a lame duck.

Well (I am sure you will be surprised to know) I think it is not that simple. I think it is more about the fact that it is very difficult to build a successful NFL franchise than just throwing money at the problem (or, in some cases, refusing to spend one penny more than you absolutely have to). Jerry Jones has certainly made many mistakes and often has not really faced up to them. But things may be changing, and for the better.

With multiple reports that the Linehan hire is strictly a Garrett move that Jones finally gave him free rein to do, it seems that Jones is finally facing up to some of his shortcomings. Some like Calvin Watkins think that this has come too late. But that appears to me to be premature. After all, it was only a little more than three years ago that people were talking about how dysfunctional the San Francisco 49ers were. Now, they have a Super Bowl appearance and a NFC Conference title game in the past two years. If the Linehan hire and the reshuffling of defensive responsibilities by elevating Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator while retaining Monte Kiffin in more of a planning, training and perhaps advisory role get the Cowboys back to the playoffs, Dallas could be on a real upswing.

All that remains to be seen. For three seasons now, the Cowboys have been knocking at the door of the playoffs but come up short in the final game of the season. No other team in the NFL has been so near getting over that hump without doing it than they have. But many other teams have clearly been in worse shape, and that dysfunction term has been thrown around pretty freely. A quick search on Google threw up the Minnesota Vikings, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Miami Dolphins as candidates for the title of most dysfunctional franchise in the league. And we cannot overlook the Cleveland Browns.

As I said earlier, it is an incredibly difficult thing to put together a championship program in the NFL. You have to build a front office, a coaching staff, and a scouting/talent evaluation team that can work together. These people will have to find and draft/sign the right players, utilize them to maximize their talents, and, in recent years, find a way to pay and retain the ones you need while weeding out the ones you don't.

Dallas fans have been blessed with having seen two times in team history when this all came together. The first was when Clint Murchison, Tex Schramm, Gil Brandt and Tom Landry built the franchise from scratch into one of the premier teams in the league. Arguably Dallas became the flagship franchise in the NFL under their leadership and they somehow managed to work together for over two decades. But they were not always in complete harmony. The most well-known example of this is that Landry preferred Craig Morton over Roger Staubach for quarterback, and was more or less forced into giving the player who is in many minds the ultimate Cowboy a chance. That does not, however, detract from the fact that the four men maintained such a long and prosperous relationship and created America's Team. While the past 20 years have not done much to add to that heritage, it still persists, a testament to what those men built.

The second time, of course, was the brief and somewhat stormy partnership between Jones and Jimmy Johnson. It created a juggernaut so effective that it was largely responsible for the salary cap to prevent a free-spending owner like Jones from building a New York Yankees-type team of the best players money can buy. (Deion Sanders ring a bell?) What is notable is that this was so much a two man operation, and it was largely dominated by Johnson as Jones was still getting his arms around the idea of owning and running an NFL organization. In a recent interview on FOX with Curt Menefee (already covered in part by Dawn Macelli and myself), Johnson talks about how much of the load he shouldered, and the role it played in his decision to leave the Cowboys.

Curt Menefee: You won those back-to-back Super Bowls and you talked about you could have won more. So why leave?

Jimmy Johnson: It was no fun. I didn't have any time for my family. I was in charge of personnel. So as soon as the season is over with I’m traveling around the country looking at players. I’m getting ready for free agency or we had plan B, the draft, on and on and on. So I worked as hard after the season was over with as what I did during the season. It was 12 months out of the year. And on top of that, again, I had to be the bad guy. So it got to where it wasn’t any fun. I accomplished…I talked to some people the other day and they were saying about you know you left the Cowboys and you left a good team. I said I left…every place I ever left I left a good team. I left Pat Jones at Oklahoma State with Thurman Thomas and a team that won 11 games. I left Dennis Erickson a national championship team at the University of Miami. I left Barry Switzer a Super Bowl winning team. I left the Miami Dolphins…when I left the Miami Dolphins Dave Wannastedt won 11 games. So yeah, I left a lot of good teams. For me personally though, you know when I got to the point I wasn’t having any fun and I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish I wanted to move on.

The Jones/Johnson team put together a truly great team, winning two Super Bowls, and creating enough organizational momentum for Barry Switzer to win a third for Jones, even though no one thinks he was a truly great NFL head coach. But they were not able to last, partly because of Johnson's burnout, but also because two truly huge egos clashed too much over who was really responsible for the success of the team.

And there is a problem that all NFL franchises face. When you throw together billionaire owners, head coaches who almost by definition are true control freaks, and all the other members of the staff who often are trying to move up the ladder of NFL success, there are going to be clashes. It is a major accomplishment for any franchise to put together a group of high achievers who can function together without major conflicts and friction. That doesn't even take into consideration that, once promoted, many coaches and executives turn out to have great difficulty distinguishing between their posterior and an excavation at the higher level. And with the pressures on staffs of teams that are not making the playoffs (20 each year under the current arrangement), frequent change is inevitable.

For the Cowboys, the only unchanging element for the past 25 years has been Jerry Jones. He was, in a sense, cursed by the early success under his watch. It has taken a lot of time for him to start to see some of his own deficiencies. And there have been times his own actions have created some dysfunction. But that exists to some degree on every team in the NFL at times and arguably it exists every year in every single one. The important thing is if the team finds ways to learn from its mistakes and improve.

Is Dallas there? I don't know, but I think so. I have always been hopeful that Garrett would get the authority he needs to build the team his way, and the Linehan hire looks to be a clear step in that direction. I am always optimistic.

The question isn't really if the Cowboys are dysfunctional, because like with families, some dysfunction is inevitable. What matters is how they deal with it. If they can get Callahan to conform to his new role and do a good job, and if Kiffin and Marinelli work well, then the team has an opportunity to improve. And when 8-8 is the bar you must get over, any improvement may be enough to see the 2014 season extend into January.

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