It is not a position that the Dallas Cowboys are used to being in recently. Although technically they still are not out of contention for the NFC East title, the combination of ineptitude by all of their division rivals required plus the need to somehow become a team that can win their remaining three games is so unlikely that only the most blindly optimistic can still think it will happen. Since Jason Garrett became the full-time head coach, Dallas has gone into the last game of the season with a real chance to make the playoffs. That just doesn't seem like it is going to be on the table this year.
Everyone is asking what went wrong, and what can be done to fix things? The problem is that the second half of that question is made so difficult because the answer to the first part is: Just about everything.
And when that is the reality, the truth is that any blame for the sad situation of the Cowboys has to be leveled on everyone at all levels. The ownership, the personnel staff, the coaches, and the players all have a role. While the biggest single thing is the crushing blow various injuries played in this debacle, the complete inability of the team to overcome those must derive from deeper issues that were hidden by the success of the 2014 season.
There is going to be ample time to dredge up the various things that went wrong, but given how depressing it is to try and look at the last three games of the season, we might as well dive in now.
The first thing that went wrong for the Cowboys was the absolute failure to make sure they had someone to run the ball. The defining characteristic of the 2014 season was the unprecedented success of DeMarco Murray, who literally ran away with the rushing title. The team knowingly put the load on his shoulders, and he amassed 392 carries while accumulating his 1,845 yards. And in that lay a problem. Running backs who approach 400 carries historically have a significant drop-off the following season. No one could reasonably expect Murray to have an Adrian Peterson-like followup to his record setting year. With their salary cap position and the knowledge that they also had to figure out what to do about a new contract for Dez Bryant, the Cowboys did not have unlimited money to spend on Murray. Still, they knew what a great fit he was for the zone blocking system the team was built for, and they had an offer for him, reportedly in the 5 to 6 million dollar a year range for three years.
Murray wanted to cash in, which he should in no way be blamed for. The career arc for the majority of running backs is well known. While Dallas' offer was a good one based on the known facts, Murray wanted that one big payday.
Enter Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles, who were willing to offer Murray $8 million a year and reportedly about twice the guaranteed money. The Eagles had tons of cap space to work with, and Kelly was spending it like a drunken sailor. The guarantee is the most important thing for NFL players, and it was simply an offer that he could not refuse. Ironically, the Eagles may have made a bigger mistake than the Cowboys as they took on a huge amount of potential dead money for a player that was a very poor fit for Kelly's scheme and who has been relegated to the bottom of the running back rotation. But for Dallas, it meant they now had a huge void to fill at running back.
The plan seemed to be to go with Joseph Randle as the new starter. He had certainly flashed at times in his limited relief work behind Murray, but he also had some serious off field issues that would only get worse. There is little doubt that the team totally misread him. He would go on to have further issues in a domestic incident. His demons would eventually lead to his being released from the team, and his future is now a complete shambles.
To provide some insurance behind Randle, the team elected to sign Darren McFadden, who had a checkered career with the Oakland Raiders. The problem with him was that he was not a ZBS runner. The team probably hoped that he could learn that, but during training camp, McFadden was hobbled by injury, hindering the evaluation of how well he could adjust. Our own Landon McCool and rabblerousr documented this problem well in their detailed and exhaustive reporting from Oxnard. Once Randle imploded, they were forced to rely on McFadden, which in turn meant they had to get away from the ZBS they had built their offensive line for. The results speak for themselves. McFadden has occasionally flashed as he did in the depressing loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, but in crucial situations like the many failed third-and-shorts that the team has suffered, the same team that imposed its will for most of the 2014 season was stuffed. Embarrassingly.
But the Cowboys still had the draft, and everyone knew that they would find a running back somewhere. It was seen as a deep position group. However, every round came and went with the team deciding to go a different direction based on their board. Subsequent reporting had the team targeting Thomas Rawls as an undrafted free agent, but the Cowboys were out-recruited, so to speak, by the Seattle Seahawks and Pete Carroll. What is most frustrating about missing out on a player who clearly proved he was an NFL level talent prior to his injury last Sunday is that the Cowboys could have taken him with a seventh-round pick. They wound up with three after trading to get the one they used on Geoff Swaim. Swaim has been all but meaningless for the team. It was a missed opportunity of improbably enormous proportions.
Instead, the Cowboys have gone through a series of desperation signings and trades to try and fill the need at running back, and only Robert Turbin shows any sign of having a future role to play for them. The sequence of decisions the Cowboys made all turned out to be wrong in the end. Yet at the time, there was some logic behind all of them. Partly it was because of unforeseeable developments, but most of the blame has to be placed on the decisions of the staff. They misread the data at every step.
Running back is perhaps the most egregious example, but others, such as the backup quarterback and the Greg Hardy signing, also would have unexpectedly bad repercussions. But those are for other posts.
Can the Cowboys learn from their unquestionable mistakes over the past year? That is going to determine the future success or failure of the team, so we have to hope so. But this litany of missteps cannot be repeated. It is going to be a long offseason this year, and hopefully it will not be another case of false hope like the seemingly bright future we all thought we were seeing just four and a half months ago.