When things go bad for a sports team, the fans are quick to get out the long knives (not that they really can use them, but they do anyway). Things have gone incredibly, stunningly wrong for the Dallas Cowboys. Their fan base tends to have very high expectations for the team, despite the last twenty years or so of mediocre at best results. The desire to find someone to blame and hold accountable for what has happened is taking over many.
You cannot really make drastic changes to the roster, so the primary targets for the growing ire are the people who run things. However, those who want to see a shakeup in Dallas are likely to be sorely disappointed, at least as far as the people at the top are concerned.
Before going on, let me state that this is one man's opinion of things, albeit based on my close observation of the team as one of the staff here at Blogging the Boys. I fully expect some to disagree, perhaps vehemently, but please keep in mind the site standards if you choose to comment. This is an emotional time for Cowboys fans, but we all are fans. Please be circumspect in how you express yourself and have respect for all here.
Ever since he bought the team, Jerry Jones has been disliked and even hated by a large contingent of the Cowboys faithful. He got off to a rocky start with the firing of legendary coach Tom Landry. The subsequent run of Super Bowl wins muted that to some degree, but did not completely silence it. And the ensuing struggles of the team quickly fanned the flames back to a conflagration.
Calling for the owner/general manager/eternally loquacious spokesman for the team to change are pointless. He and his family own the team, which is, based on the precise time you look at it, either the most valuable sports franchise in the world or just a spot or two below the top. Not only is there no conceivable way to get him to step down or sell the team, he would be incredibly foolish to do so. The Dallas Cowboys continue to be the most watched team in the NFL. While winning games is always better, the drama of failure does not appreciably hurt the brand. In some ways, it draws in the myriad NFL fans who enjoy seeing them stumble. First and foremost, the NFL is a business designed to make money, and Jerry Jones does that better than anyone.
Furthermore, he is not the dictatorial figure making rash decisions that many still believe him to be. He runs a collaborative leadership, with his son Stephen Jones, personnel guru Will McClay, and head coach Jason Garrett as the chief influences involved. All indications are that Jerry Jones is very pleased with his management/coaching team.
That means that those who want to see Jason Garrett get the ax are also almost certain to be left fuming in frustration. From Jones' viewpoint, Garrett is just about as close to a perfect fit for the organization as he could hope for. Garrett combines an unshakable belief in himself and his process with a remarkably understated ego. He is a master of revealing no more than he has to in his public statements, leaving the brunt of communicating about the team to the Joneses, which is exactly how they like it.
This leads to the question of just how much blame for the debacle of this season should be laid at Garrett's feet. While in hindsight, there were several things that might have been done better, it is also true that there is no magic formula for success in the NFL, despite some persuasive evidence that Bill Belichick has sold his soul for some kind of demonic ability to prevail despite whatever happens. Or maybe it was just for Tom Brady, but I digress. Yes, things like the backup quarterback, the running back situation, and acquiring Greg Hardy have turned out rather worse than we had hoped, but building an NFL contender is a complex business, and many times failure is the end result. And just as the Cowboys have fallen far short of expectations this year, it was just one season ago that things were exactly the opposite. Basically the same coaching staff and exactly the same front office defied all predictions to get to the playoffs in 2014. Garrett's main focus as a head coach appears to be building a culture in Dallas, and despite the dismal results on the field, that seems to be holding fast. Even as the last hopes for the season were broken asunder along with the collarbone of Tony Romo, the Cowboys continued to try on the field. The effort may not have been effective, but it looked like it was there. Contrast that with what happened to our beloved rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. Reports from outside observers, players for the Detroit Lions, and even one anonymous source on the team indicate that the Eagles gave up in the second half due to being fed up with Chip Kelly and his self-proclaimed revolutionary approach to the NFL. All indications are that Garrett still has the locker room. That will be key in staging a comeback in 2016.
Garrett's approach has evolved to relying more on his coordinators and assistant coaches, and there are more grounds for some criticism with them. Scott Linehan did not seem able to adjust well to Romo's absence. Now that the team knows Romo is gone for the season, he has five games to show that he can make something work with Matt Cassel at the helm.
One thing that was truly unexpected was how the performance of the offensive line tailed off. This raises an obvious question of whether the departure of Bill Callahan was much more of a factor than the team foresaw. Given his history in Dallas, there was no real way to retain him, but the role Frank Pollack played has to be examined closely. The line has four first-round caliber players on it, although it is becoming clear that right tackle Doug Free is now a weak link in both his play and the almost predictable false start penalties he causes. The O line is not bad, it is just far from the dominant unit that it was in 2014.
On defense, Rod Marinelli has not been able to provide the production that is required. His offensive scheme is based on getting sacks and turnovers, and Dallas is near the bottom of the league in both. They are dead last in forced fumbles, with only one the entire season. It is no coincidence that the defense was able to survive in 2014 because they did take the ball away with regularity, but is really struggling now that they just are not getting the ball from the opponent. One contributing factor is the reliance on press coverage rather than zone, which puts the defensive backs at a disadvantage in tracking and intercepting the ball.
After the success of the 2014 season, the Cowboys made sure that all the remaining assistants were under contract for more than this year. The goal was to achieve stability and continuity, but the exact opposite happened. There should be some nervous coaches on the staff when the team reviews this year. Some shakeup may be coming outside of the head coaching position, perhaps a lot. It may not solve the issues, but at this point it may be the only course.
At the top, however, it is unlikely there will be any changes. The one exception may be Will McClay, who could be lured away by the offer of a genuine general manager position. That would be a hard thing to deal with, because he is one of the strengths of the front office. It may come down to a battle between other teams and Jerry Jones' bank account.
The one thing that the Cowboys were completely unable to do this season was deal with significant injuries, aggravated by having two key defensive pieces sitting out four game suspensions to start the year. It is an open question just how much coaching could have done to ameliorate the problems, but clearly they did not. That is something the team will have to address, even though it is not certain how much they will be able to accomplish. But it is hard to see how the team can justify standing pat after this dismal season.