Things could not have gone much worse for the Dallas Cowboys since Tony Romo was injured. Now they have a seven game losing streak, and a 2-7 record. Just in case you aren't aware, no team in the history of the NFL has ever made the playoffs after starting 2-7. And even though Romo is expected to return to the field next Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, the odds are incredibly long about the team being able to claw its way back to the division lead even if Romo plays the best ball of his career.
The calls are coming for drastic measures, such as firing Jason Garrett. But that is almost certainly not going to happen. He is just one year into his new contract, Jerry Jones really has a lot of faith in him, and given the collaborative way the Cowboys are run, it is hardly all Garrett's fault that things have gone so badly. He will almost certainly have another year to get things back on track - but if he has another season like this, all bets are off. However, even the best coaches sometimes have things come apart on them for a season or two.
While you can be sure that Romo is going to do all he can to win out the rest of the way, that is an incredibly tall order. And it is not unreasonable to expect him to have a bit of rust to shake off, so his return is no guarantee that the losing streak is over, as horrible as that is to contemplate. The way the team responds to him being back will be important for everyone who hopes to be back in Dallas in 2016.
There are some hard questions to face about the rest of the coaching staff. Scott Linehan has not been able to get enough out of either Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel, but that may simply have been trying to make silk purses with very porcine aural tissue. Rod Marinelli's defense has allowed late drives time and time again. Injuries are of course a factor, but both must be evaluated at the end of this season. It is hard to say if a change in either position would be a good move, but they should not feel safe at this point. Garrett had the play calling taken away from him, so that actually takes pressure off him for at least now.
But the main lesson from this season is just how important it is to have a franchise quarterback. Look at the current division leaders. All have a quarterback that is having a good season. While the problems the Cowboys are having cannot be solely pinned to Romo's injury, it is hard to imagine this string of futility with him still at the helm. This team is going to live and die with Romo for the foreseeable future. It is actually a bit scary that he will return against the Dolphins and their pass rushers. He needs to stay healthy for there to be much hope for next year.
This team is not going to tank, however. And it has a lot of other problems to address outside the quarterbacking.
First, it may be time to declare that the Greg Hardy experiment has failed. Hardy did not have a great game against the Bucs, and his presence has not elevated those around him. Given the obvious distraction that he is, the Cowboys should plan on moving on without him after the season. It is unlikely that he will be cut before the end of the season, but given his continuing penchant for saying and doing controversial things, it is not impossible, either.
This has been the season of almost but not quite for Dallas. Sacks that just don't quite happen, dropped interceptions, dropped passes, run plays into stacked boxes when the play should have been changed at the line, so many times the players have just not closed the deal on both sides of the ball. That makes it very hard to evaluate who should be part of the future for the team and who needs to be replaced, because almost everyone has had their "aw, crap" moments. It may be largely because of the mounting pressure they feel as the losses pile up. Tense players who have had their confidence shaken do not generally play their best. This is why this loss is so devastating, because each one just builds that doubt. If things don't turn around rapidly with Romo back, it could be really ugly by the end of the year.
The questions simply don't have easy or apparent answers. One Cool Customer talked about the remainder of the games being an extended audition for everyone on the roster, and that is more true now. While the head coach is not likely to change, almost everyone below him has to be evaluated for what they can bring to the table, and there could be some harsh decisions made. Right now, the fan base is just angry. It is not hard to understand. But anger does not play into finding solutions for the future. There are some good pieces on the roster and the coaching staff, but now they have to be sorted out. It is almost certainly going to be more of a remodel than a rebuild. There is not one way to go about this with all the different parts involved. We can only hope that the staff gets it right for next year, because right now, that is what the team is playing for. Hope for wins, but look for what needs to change.