After the 2014 season, Dallas Cowboys owner, general manager, and hyperactive spokesman Jerry Jones was named the NFL Executive of the Year. It is safe to say that he will not be repeating in that category after the unmitigated disaster that the 2015 season has become. In the clarity of hindsight, there seem to be many decisions made by the team that led to this. But is that true?
It is hard to argue against the fact that the Cowboys have become the NFL's exemplar of Murphy's Law, especially during the interminable seven game losing streak. It is easy to throw blame at Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett, but as has been well documented here, Dallas is run by a committee of those two, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay. The rest of the coaching and personnel staffs also play roles. Despite how blame is allocated, there are many decisions that look to have been wrong in retrospect, but were they really? Let's look at some of the things that have happened and consider just how bad they really were.
Signing Greg Hardy. Nothing that the team did has received the condemnation that this has. Hardy has been completely unrepentant about the domestic violence incident that he was involved in. The team knew that they would be criticized for the signing, but it is safe to say that they didn't full realize the downpour that would ensue. It certainly looks like the team greatly overestimated its ability to help Hardy deal with his personal issues.
The move was made out of desperation to get a more proficient pass rush, and that has been a mixed bag so far. Hardy is the most talented pass rusher on the team, but he is not consistent. This is not an unusual thing, since almost no players in the NFL are able to bring their best game week in and week out, but it is reasonable to say that Hardy has fallen far short of the impact the team hoped for. Most importantly, he has not lifted the rest of the rushmen, who still are not quite getting to the quarterback in time. Meanwhile, the media and public have been unrelenting in the harsh criticism of the Cowboys for harboring someone who is seen as a monster. Hardy has benefited from the legal system and the CBA in having his original conviction expunged and only serving a four-game suspension, but those are somehow held against him. It has turned into a no-win situation for the Cowboys. But he remains the best pass rusher the Cowboys have, and it is an open question just how bad it would be without him on the field. Given the situation Dallas faced when they signed him, it is hard to say if it was a true mistake or not. A lot depends on the personal views of the observer. As far as on field performance, Hardy was the most talented pass rusher available, and if Dallas had not signed him, he would be making headlines somewhere else. But not nearly as many, because, Cowboys.
Running back. When the Philadelphia Eagles bid the cost of DeMarco Murray to an unreasonable level, the Cowboys let him go. They believed the offensive line was the key element in the success of the running game. They signed Darren McFadden as insurance for Joseph Randle. In the draft, they never felt that the right back was available when they went on the clock. Now Randle has been released and McFadden is inconsistent. Christine Michael, acquired as further insurance, has shown little. Sometimes forgotten is the loss of Lance Dunbar to injury after he got off to a highly promising start to the season. The running game is a shadow of what it was last year, and that was most apparent in the loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
What should the team have done? The cost of Murray was prohibitive, and he has not been exceptional in Philly, although that is at least partly due to the scheme there. He may have been more effective if he had stayed in Dallas, but history said that was unlikely. Most of the running backs the Cowboys could have taken in the draft have not been highly effective. The one move that now looks to have been a clearly missed opportunity was signing Chris Johnson, who is averaging over 80 yards a game and who expressed a pretty clear desire to wear the Star. The team decided he didn't have much to offer at his age. On that, it looks like they were wrong. However, that is only clear in hindsight, and the team was making a call consistent with most of their personnel decisions. Still, there is little question that they failed to adequately handle the running back situation.
The Dez Bryant contract. One reason the Cowboys had to bow out of the bidding for Murray was that they needed the cap space to sign Bryant to a long-term deal. A top wide receiver is deemed much more valuable in the NFL than a running back. No one could anticipate his injury. He has been number two behind Hardy in generating negative press this season, and he let the team down twice during the Buccaneers loss. But it is hard to second guess this decision. Bryant is one of the best receivers in the league, and if the team is to have any chance of winning many games with Tony Romo back, they need him to make catches and spread out defenses.
Letting Dwayne Harris go. This seems like a minor thing compared to some of the others, but the question of whether letting him go was a mistake arose after the loss to the New York Giants when Harris' kickoff return for a touchdown was instrumental in the outcome. His performance against the New England Patriots where he caught six passes for 82 yards and a touchdown also raised this question. But as of this point in the season, Harris is only 89th among receivers in yardage, behind both Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams. And he has been working with a much better quarterback the past two months (as much as you may hate to admit it). This is one decision that is being questioned only because of the dismay over the Dallas losing streak.
The draft. In all the criticism of the front office, the draft is being overlooked. While some of the choices, such as that of the semi-mythical Chaz Green, are still certainly questionable, the team hit on the first-round choice, Byron Jones, who is now starting. And although he is technically a free agent signing, La'el Collins should be considered part of the draft work done by the team, which put in as much or more effort to vet him than any other team after the bizarre tragedy he was swept up in just before the draft. And Randy Gregory shows promise. The real grade for the draft is still to be determined, but right now it is hard to call it a failure.
Jason Garrett's new contract. Garrett reaped the rewards of the 12-4 season with a new five-year deal, but now many are placing much of the blame for the failed 2015 season on him. It is hard to defend him, because he clearly has not come up with any solutions over the past two months. But it can be argued that he is doing about all a coach can to try and overcome the myriad injuries and woeful quarterback play. Sometimes, you do everything right and it still doesn't work. Although many do not see it that way, I at least think that is what has happened. Garrett was instrumental in the success of the team last year, and it and this season taken together are really proof that success in the NFL is highly dependent on the talent on the field. You can only do so much with scheme and motivation, and when you team is absolutely gutted by injury the way the Cowboys have been, that just is not enough.
Those are some of the most evident things the team did in the offseason. Could they have done better? Certainly. But they could not predict the future. The Cowboys, as all teams, has to work within the constraints of the salary cap. That means compromises have to be made, and sometimes those just don't work out the way you hope. The margin between winning and losing in the NFL is often very narrow, and Dallas just keeps coming up barely short. It is hard to face what has happened after the rampant optimism of the offseason, but reversals of fortune are common in the NFL. A very few breaks in the past two months and the Cowboys would have won two or three games, and we would all be feeling rather good about them weathering the Romo injury.
Things didn't work out that way, and there is going to be a lot of pain over what might have been. But given all the things that have happened, it is hard to say that changing any of those decisions would have significantly changed the outcome this year.