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Do The Cowboys Have An Identity Problem?

The Dallas Cowboys have changed their defensive scheme and are making some significant adjustments to the offense. These moves have led to some criticism about the team lacking an identity. Is this a real issue, or just a false premise?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

It is the season of unbridled optimism for many Dallas Cowboys fans. New players to evaluate, new coaches who offer different and hopefully better approaches to things, and injured players coming back with promises of being ready to go. However, we have to admit there are problems to be solved (or otherwise we would not be so excited about those things I mentioned) and that the team has been stuck on the outside looking in during the past few post-seasons.

Jean-Jacques Taylor points out in an ESPN Dallas article what he thinks is an underlying cause for the recent lack of football success in Dallas. The team lacks an identity, like the ones it had in the halcyon days of Tom Landry, Jimmy Johnson and even Bill Parcells. He cites several arguments:

  • The switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 shows a wishy-washy approach and no clear direction for the defense.
  • He states that Jason Garrett talks up the power running aspect of the game, and then goes almost totally with the pass.
  • The approach to the draft was supposed to be all about getting the best players available, but they went through the first round circus we have discussed in detail and elected to forego drafting Sharrif Floyd.
  • And, basically, it is all Jerry Jones' fault.

As you may have cottoned onto by now, I bring this up because I disagree with his interpretation of things. First, to address his points.

Switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3. The basis for this seems to be a comment Jason Garrett made to the effect that if the Cowboys had beaten the Washington Redskins in the last game of the season, they might have kept Rob Ryan and still be playing the 3-4.

Sorry. That is a lot to put on one comment from a coach who is infamous for not saying anything of significance, and who frequently covers all sides of an issue without letting on which one he is going with. I think the problems Garrett and Jones had with Ryan were getting fairly significant by then, and there was a lot more momentum behind the move to the 4-3 than the head coach's comments indicate. For whatever reasons, injuries included, the defense seemed to be going badly off the tracks. Something had to be done, and sometimes a big change will be more effective than just trying to make adjustments in a current system. There are some risks, admittedly, but given who they got to coach it (and I get the feeling JJT is not really a Monte Kiffin fan), I think it was a very good move.

Not using the power run game. I agree that Garrett likes the power run game. However, I wonder if JJT noticed one thing about that aspect of the Cowboys' game last year.

It wasn't working. Not even close. They passed like crazy not out of choice, but out of necessity.

He does give grudging acknowledgement to the fact that, under Garrett, the team has used two of their three most recent draft picks on offensive linemen. He doesn't note that they also have drafted DeMarco Murray and Joseph Randle in those same drafts. Garrett hasn't shown a lack of commitment to the power game. He has just been lacking in the tools to make it work. With Travis Frederick coming to play in the interior of the line, and a plug-in replacement for Murray if he misses playing time, the team has taken some big steps towards fixing that issue.

The bad process on the first day of the draft. Yes, that was an issue for me, as well. We have discussed that a great deal already, and I am not going to rehash that. I will say that I don't think it was all Jerry and Stephen Jones making that decision. I see a lot of Monte Kiffin's influence there, based on Floyd's paltry sack production in college (which would not seem to fit at all with what Kiffin does) and the statements the defensive coordinator has made regarding the strength of Dallas defensive line.

Jerry Jones is to blame. Consider what JJT says about the recent coaching changes.

These days, Jerry Jones is so desperate to win that he changes philosophies every few years when he swaps out coaches. It's impossible to win with that approach.

Given the meltdown the team was going through in 2010, I am wondering just what part of the philosophy under Wade Phillips JJT wanted to keep? While I can see that there might have been a mistake in going from Parcells to Phillips, that was not Jerry deciding he needed a change. That was Jerry having to replace a head coach who chose to leave. And in a sense, he was trying to keep part of the identity of the team under Parcells, the 3-4. So if that is part of maintaining the identity of the team, it didn't exactly work out so well, now, did it?

I disagree with the points that were brought up in the article, but what I really take umbrage with is the whole premise of the thing. You don't establish an identity in the NFL to win. You establish your identity by winning. The won-loss record of the Cowboys is one of the things cited for how the lack of an identity has hurt the team, but that is a case of being a bit confused about what order to put the cart and the horse in.

Think about it. What is the identity of the Kansas City Chiefs? St Louis Rams? Detroit Lions? Philadelphia Eagles?

Well, unless you thought of the word "Loser", I doubt you really came up with anything. They are all teams that have not been successful in recent years, and that means that they, like the Cowboys, are trying to find that winning identity. And just like the way I put it in that sentence, the winning comes first, then you find the identity that goes with it.

And the whole idea of an identity is not such an important thing, I think. In a piece I referenced elsewhere, NFL Philosophy discussed what makes the New England Patriots so great. The biggest thing: They evolve. They change. Their identity shifts to stay one step ahead. Just reading the article JJT wrote, you'd think an identity should be fixed, permanent. If that was the case, how would the Green Bay Packers have done keeping the identity of a team that runs the power sweep? Change is not just inevitable in the NFL, it is how you become and then stay a winner. It's not done by clinging to some particular image or style.

Players change. Coaches move on. And when you get a new starting QB, or a new coordinator, the identity is going to be impacted. You have to find what works. You can draft to fit a certain scheme, but the identity is going to develop and evolve. Besides, it's not like the owner or GM can decide in advance on an identity and then impose it, despite what Taylor says.

And it won't be a winner until Jones settles on a football ideology and keeps it through good times and bad.

The identity should be much more influenced by the coach and how he wants to win the game, and for most teams, it should morph and adapt over time. Jason Garrett has gone a long way towards establishing an identity with the concept of the Right Kind of Guy, but I guess that doesn't count. Instead, they will have to try to formula other teams have used: Go deep in the playoffs, and then let the chattering class decide what your identity is. Otherwise, you are going to have to try something different, because what you have isn't working. And why would you want to keep it in that case?

Besides, we already know the real identity of the Cowboys.

They're America's Team. Why else would the national media be so concerned about the starting quarterback's golf game?

More reading:

Are Cowboys Really "Playing Hardball" With Doug Free?

Cowboys 2013 Offseason: Assessing Roster Changes

In the Film Room: JJ Wilcox and the "Jump" call

Who Will Be The Cowboys' 2013 Breakout Player?

Tony Romo Cuts Back On Golf


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