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Who Is Responsible For The Cowboys' 2015 Debacle? The BTB Staff Debates

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While there is a clamor for Jason Garrett or others in the coaching staff to pay the price, is that really where the problem lies?

Is his job in danger?
Is his job in danger?
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

It is no surprise that the topic of Jason Garrett being on a hot seat has found new life. With the complete reversal of fortune for the Dallas Cowboys this season, it is natural to look for the head coach to take the fall, especially given that the owner, Jerry Jones, is not likely to fire his general manager, Jerry Jones. Garrett and his assistant coaches surely are bracing for some rather testy post-season discussions of just what went wrong. It is not out of the realm of possibility to think that those discussions may wind up being exit interviews if Jones decides he needs to make some changes.

And that probably would be a mistake. Because the disaster that this season has become was set up almost entirely by decisions made about personnel, which is largely outside the control of the coaching staff.

To be honest, blame may not be the right word here, because at least part of the chain of dominoes that fell were set up by doing some things correctly. A better way to put it is that the responsibility for things falls primarily on the front office, which also includes Stephen Jones and Will McClay. The coaches certainly could have done better, but they were hamstrung by the material they were given to work with.

We got into a heated discussion of this around the BTB virtual watercooler. There were so many good ideas flowing around, we decided I would just bring you the best parts of it to share with you.

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It all started after Dawn Macelli turned in her post on whether this was the last chance for Tony Romo and Jason Witten to get to the Super Bowl. (I have taken some liberties with editing some extraneous remarks out and rewording a few things for clarity.)

Rabblerousr: This is what hurts most about this season. They wasted one of Romo's few remaining elite years (perhaps the last one) and a peak-of-career season for Bryant.

Dawn Macelli: This year was so much waste. I am not sure they can recycle what they have.

James Scott: I don't think it's too bad.  They are in good cap shape, they are going to have a high draft pick. Romo is a year older but I think that, like Peyton when he joined the Broncos, he has about two good years left. Dez will be Dez for a few more years as well. Witten has slowed a bit, but he'll be able to be that security blanket guy till he's 40. It hurts to burn this year, but the team is much more talented than it showed this year.  The defense has come into it's own. The offense is built around the threat of Dez and his non-factor year killed them. He should be back next year... unless they just made a mistake with him, in which case, yeah, they're doomed.

Dave Halprin: I agree with the assessment that Dallas is not in bad shape, this year was bad, but I can't help thinking they are much more talented than they showed. I also think this year will light a fire under the organization once they get over the mourning period.

One Cool Customer: But they can't carry on as if nothing happened.

Jerry was so (irritated) he didn't even go to the locker room after the Bills game and didn't talk to the press (!!!). 

Something has to happen, and I'm not at all convinced Garrett is safe yet.

Me: The thing is that I don't know that the coaching was the problem. Frankly, Jerry should be (irritated) at Jerry for the QB/RB/WR/Hardy/RoMac issues that had a lot to do with the issues this year.

James: I honestly don't feel that there was much to be done about any of those things and many of them are, IMO, non-issues anyhow, RoMac struggled early, but has been good lately. It really does look like an injury. I'm not sure what could've been done about the loss of Romo and Dez simultaneously, or the fact that Dez has never been right all season, for whatever reason. Hardy has been a strong player. I'm not sure what everyone's beef with him has been. The off the field stuff has been much ado about nothing and, frankly, would've been completely overlooked if the team was winning. Running back play has been solid. The offensive woes can all be traced to a lack of Dez, and non-Romo QBs not being good enough to make up for not having Dez be a threat. It's really hard to overstate how much difference there is between having Dez the game-breaking play maker and having Dez the possibly crippled guy who catches one out of six passes that hit him in the hands for 9 yards out there. It's also really hard to figure out how much the injury is affecting him, but he's definitely not the player we paid for... he's not even been close to that guy for more than a play or two all year.

Dave: I don't see RoMac and Hardy the same way. When Ro Mac is engaged and playing with proper technique, he can be very good, but sometimes he just disappears or makes really bad plays, I need more consistency from my middle linebacker.

And Hardy, he's here to punish quarterbacks. He hasn't done that. He hasn't been bad, and his play against the run is decent, but seriously, DeMarcus Lawrence has clearly outplayed him this year. That's not what we expect from a  player of Hardy's caliber.

Me: I think the fact that all but one of the "positions of great import" (I can never remember rabble's term) were missing from the field for at least four games this season (Romo, Dez, Hardy, and Orlando Scandrick). When your franchise QB, stud WR, the guy who was supposed to get the most sacks, and best CB are off the field for large chunks of the year, you are in real trouble. (Also, consider that Weeden's first two starts were with ALL of these names gone.) Also look at the difficulty of running an offense when you change your starting QB five times during a 16 game season (Romo, Weeden, Cassel, Romo again, Cassel again, Moore)

James: I don't think it's coincidental that Lawrence has exploded as Hardy has tailed off. Hardy is paid to do more than make other players better, but he *has* made other players better.

And he's within reach of achieving a bonus for getting 8 sacks. It would be kind of silly to say a guy has underperformed as you hand him an incentive bonus for productivity.

Me: Still, Hardy was not on the field for the first four games. RoMac not only missed the same games, but took at least another 3 - 4 weeks to get into decent shape. Those issues are not on the coaching staff.

Dave: We're just going to have to agree to disagree on this one Jim. 6 sacks in 11 games is not what I expect from an elite pass rush defensive end.

James: He's got more sacks than the 4 guys in front of him on the pay scale.  Sacks are a dicey thing, but even at that he's performing on a pace with the second tier (had he played as many games as the others, he'd be right there with DLaw at 8 to 8.5 sacks, 15-20th best in the NFL). has he been elite? No. Has he been very good? Yes.

OCC: We can't let the coaching get off scot free on this one. No way, no how.

Every game, the Cowboys have played like a team protecting a 14-point lead, even when they were hopelessly behind. There was no innovation on offense, hardly any trickeration outside of a few end-arounds, and a complete aversion to going for it on fourth down. 

Trading FGs for TDs is not just something that happened, each and every time it was a conscious coaching decision that had the Cowboys kicking instead of going for it. This was the most conservative coaching I have ever seen from a team that was fighting for its life each game.

You can run, run, pass when you're a 12-4 team in total command of the game, but this insistence on following the 2014 template is, imo, directly responsible for at least 3-4 losses this year. 

Garrett has become a prisoner of his own system.

James: "Every game, the Cowboys have played like a team protecting a 14-point lead, even when they were hopelessly behind. There was no innovation on offense, hardly any trickeration outside of a few end-arounds, and a complete aversion to going for it on fourth down. "

This, in essence, I agree with. I don't think more trick plays is necessarily the answer, but I do think the play calling was too conservative, especially in short yardage. Personally I'd like to have seen more Witten and Escobar there. I'd like to have seen more Escobar in general... he was open a LOT more than he was targeted. Not sure how much of that is coaches and how much is QB (including Romo) but at some point I thionk you have to tell your guy "just throw the damn ball to the big guy [meaning Escobar or Witten]"

rabble: To One Cool:

While I agree that the conservative game planning has led to several losses, it has also kept them in most of their games. More trickeration is also going to lead to more errors, big behind-the-chains situations, a one-dimensional offense, more pass rush, and, often, turnovers and bigger leads for opponents. In short, more games would have looked like that Carolina game.

If your offense is crap, do you "open it up," thus encouraging the possibility of being down by 17 (with an offense that has no chance of erasing that lead) or do you work to keep it close, getting points every drive you can, with the hope that you can pull it out at the end by making a play or two? The real problem seems to be the Cowboys' inability to make the "play or two" at the end upon which the strategy relies.

I'm of the mind that we mustn't judge the process by the result. Given the inputs, I think the global strategy is correct; in a .500 league, where games are decided on a weekly basis by a play or two (and by bad bounces, officials' calls, a single digit out of bounds, etc.), the key, if you aren't good enough to open up and to maintain a sizeable lead, is to ensure that the fourth quarter will provide meaningful snaps, with a chance to take advantage of the above listed vagaries of the game.

The Redskins game is a great example of this strategy working successfully: kick FGs, keep it close, wait for DeSean Jackson to do something stupid. Or: keep it close enough to drive to the winning field goal. The problem is that, in all other close games, the team proved unable to do that (one key here is that they have been the unluckiest team in my 40-year fandom, by far).

And, I think this has been Garrett's larger strategy since 2011, ever since Dan Bailey emerged as Mr. Automatic: gameplan to give your best, most consistent player a chance to win the game for you at the end.

DannyPhantom: When I see the transformation that's occurred on defense - it's clear to me that the coaching is outstanding. First off, whomever is having the say when it comes to our draft decisions on the defensive side of the ball over the last couple years has been outstanding. DeMarcus Lawrence & Byron Jones have demonstrated some strong play for this team. And while his opportunities have been limited this year, I still think Randy Gregory has some good potential. Marinelli has done an outstanding job with this group. Sure, the turnovers completely disappeared, but I don't think it's a result of poor play. I still see those guys hitting hard and stripping away. I think the biggest reason that the turnovers have dropped so drastically is the fact that there are so few moments where our opponents offense has been forced to take chances.

And when I look at the offense, what could the coaches have done to make things better? We clearly wet the bed when it came to evaluating our QBs. They've been terrible. The two full games Romo played make up half our wins and he threw five touchdowns. Despite some shaky moments in a limited sample size, I think most of us are in agreement that the offense is still very good with Tony behind center. So the problem lies with how crappy we've been with our backups leading the way. The offensive line still run blocks well, they still pass protect well and when a QB can actually stay in the pocket and make a good read - a positive result occurs.

Our coaches haven't been able to make our backup QBs perform better. Maybe that's on them. And people see Brandon Weeden have success and they immediately think Houston's coaching is able to do something we couldn't. Fact of the matter is Weeden isn't throwing the ball over 200 yards with their team either. He's still the same Weeden. It just so happens that conservative little Weeden is good enough to beat a couple scrubby AFC South teams (worse than the NFC East, IMO). Having DeAndre Hopkins certainly helps and it should be noted that Weeden never had a shot to play with Dez this season. Not that it would have been much of a difference maker, but it should have helped him to some degree. So maybe our coaches couldn't turn Weeden into wine, so they did the next best thing - replace him. And they keep churning and churning, only to find the same shitty QB play crippling the offense.

I don't have a problem with the coaches. They didn't all of a sudden become lousy after their 12-4 season. They are still getting strong effort from players. As much as the media likes to make it look like the locker room is blowing up, our players still go about their business and go out and play hard. Even the hated Hardy and outspoken Dez have been quiet. And personally, I think that is a result of talks they've had with Garrett.

In the Buffalo game, there were a few really raw guys logging a lot of snaps - Deji Olatoye, Terrance Mitchell, and Casey Walker, yet somehow there were able to play hard with the rest of the group and be very effective. And I think that is a testament to good coaching. So for me, it all points to that one position that is screwing it up for everyone.

Just like last season, Dallas will identify deficiencies at attack them. And year after year, they've shown that they could do just that. The improvement that has been made on defense this season is proof. And I really think Garrett, McClay, SJones, as well as Marinelli & Linehan are the right guys to make those improvements.

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We'll let Danny have the last word here, although as you can tell we are not by any means all on exactly the same page. Who do you side with? Should the coaches stay and try to fix this, or is it time to put some blood in the water? Feel free to extend this discussion in the comments.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB