One of the many, many frustrations of the 2015 season for the Dallas Cowboys was the fact that, despite the terrible performance of the team from the third week on, the faint hope of clawing their way into the playoffs lingered for so long. Fans clung to that faltering chance, constructing increasingly improbable scenarios for the team to find its way to the top of the NFC East. It was not until week 15 that Dallas was finally eliminated.
Had they somehow managed to find their way into the playoffs, it would have been a real disaster. Now, at least, the team can look forward to the draft with the knowledge that it should be able to get some valuable rookies to help them get back to the playoffs.
Just look at what transpired during the wildcard games this past weekend. There was almost universal acceptance that the NFC East and AFC South were the two weakest divisions in the league, and that was borne out in the results of the games. The Houston Texans were completely embarrassed by the Kansas City Chiefs, and Washington did not fare much better against the Green Bay Packers. The other games showed that the Minnesota Vikings and the Cincinnati Bengals at least belonged in the playoffs. The Vikings lost on a missed field goal, and the Bengals completely blew things with several totally boneheaded plays late in their loss. But Washington and Houston had their manifest weaknesses displayed, and now have to go into the draft with poor positions in the draft order. That is where the Cowboys could have been if they had stumbled into NFC East crown.
Now Dallas has the fourth overall pick, and corresponding positions in the second, third, and fourth rounds where the talent available is still good. Add in the expected four compensatory picks, and they should be able to find players to address the many needs they have.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity the team has is to find a potential successor to Tony Romo while he still has two or perhaps three effective seasons left. While taking a quarterback in the first round only to have him behind Romo on the depth chart flies in the face of conventional wisdom that says that a first-round pick should start immediately, it may be a much wiser course. And early indications are that there may be three legitimate NFL talents available in the draft in Jared Goff, Paxton Lynch, and Carson Wentz, which means that at least one should be there when Dallas goes on the clock. Even if they do not elect to take one and have the opportunity to develop them without the need to throw them right into the fray, they should get a strong player in the first round. It is a win-win situation for them.
The Cowboys' roster is getting younger, and as our own rabblerousr has explained so well, that is key to long-term success. With the chance to have a healthy Romo, along with other returning players such as Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick, Dallas will be in a position to build on a solid foundation rather than have to reconstruct one. And their draft position will allow them to bring in some very good pieces, indeed.
The 2015 result was a far cry from what we all expected during the heady optimism of last summer. As result, Dallas has a chance to get Romo's eventual successor in place which could make the transition when he eventually retires relatively painless. Or they may build the supporting cast while postponing the search for his successor another year, although that is possibly not the wisest way to go. However they approach things, they will likely continue to make serious upgrades while avoiding long-term, high cap cost free agent signings. The team has moved away from that strategy and shows no signs of reversing that trend.
Another positive for the Cowboys is that the collapse of 2015 came on the heels of the reasonably successful 2014 campaign. This led Jerry and Stephen Jones to decide to avoid making any drastic overhauls of the coaching and personnel staffs. While it is important to not confuse correlation and causation, there is clear evidence that continuity is also a major factor in long-term NFL success. We still have to see how it plays out, but based on the evidence year in and year out, it seems likely that pervasive changes to the staff would have hindered turning things around rather than helping.
It was very painful to get to this position, but now that it is done, it puts the Cowboys in a very good place to fix things. And the fix may have an immediate payoff in 2016. It is cold comfort for a fan base that only accepts more Lombardi trophies as the measure of success, but the reasons for optimism for the latter half of this decade are legitimate. In this case, a painful step back may have been what was needed to find the best way forward.