As we head into the final games of the 2015 season, a season that has turned out to be a nightmare from which there is no escape, I offer two humble words of advice - don't panic.
It's not time to fire Jason Garrett. Or Scott Linehan. It's not time to declare the team irretrievably broken and that nothing but blowing it up and starting over will do. The Cowboys are 3-8, I get that, you get that, it's been nothing but misery ever since the game ended with the Philadelphia Eagles in Week Two. The win over Miami was just a brief respite before the darkness enveloped us again. Again - don't panic.
There are lessons to be learned for sure. Almost no one thinks the coaching staff did a good job this season. Almost everybody thinks they did a fantastic job last season. One bum season is not enough to start firing people, especially a season that comes with a large caveat. Losing Tony Romo and Dez Bryant to injury for significant portions of the season does not excuse everything, but it does make a fair evaluation sketchy at best. The coaches can learn from their mistakes just like people in any other profession.
(What comes below comes without saying "when healthy" every other line. Consider it said as a blanket statement since injuries are unpredictable. Sure, older players get injured more often, and take longer to heal, but the Cowboys are actually a very young football team.)
The Cowboys have a lot of very good pieces in place. Pieces you need to win big in the NFL. On offense, Dallas has an elite quarterback (Tony Romo), wide receiver (Dez Bryant), an aging but elite tight end (Jason Witten) and a young, talented offensive line. They need a running back and a complementary receiver (sorry Terrance Williams) to fully engage that side of the ball. And obviously they need a backup quarterback that can actually win games. You hope you won't need that, but sometimes you do. The pieces are there with a little work this offseason from the front office. This is an offense that can win in the NFL.
On defense, there's more work to be done, but progress has been made. They have a very good middle linebacker (Sean Lee), a burgeoning stud at corner/safety (Byron Jones), and some okay pieces at cornerback (Orlando Scandrick) and 3-tech tackle (Tyrone Crawford). They may have something in the pass rush department with Randy Gregory, but that's largely an unknown. The Cowboys are nowhere near being an elite defense. But they are getting closer to being a defense that can win consistently with an elite offense. Also, one move can transform this defense. It's not easy to do, but if the Cowboys can find an elite pass rusher their fortunes would greatly change. We thought it might be Greg Hardy, but that looks like an experiment that's almost gone bust. That is one huge question mark for the offseason.
We all know that fans of a team tend to overrate their team's talent. Guys we think are on the brink of something great are sometimes being propped up by our own hopes and dreams instead of cold, hard observation. Fortunately for the Cowboys, we've seen evidence that they can compete. It's not like the team that Jason Garrett created hasn't produced anything, they have. All those 8-8 seasons are not up to the expectations we have for the team, but they are also not 5-11 seasons. This team was an average team for those three 8-8 seasons. Last year, they were an above average team, one that felt like it had even more potential in it. I'm here to say they do. We thought 2015 would be the year, maybe it will just be satisfaction delayed until 2016.
The Cowboys have to finish the season, then they have work to do, but that's just like any other NFL team. There's no reason to think they need some big overhaul, or that they need some statement firings to happen. They just need to continue to work the problem. If Tony Romo and Dez Bryant are healthy next year, and the Cowboys lay an egg, then let the firings begin.
Until then - don't panic.