The 2015 season will go down as one of the most painful in Dallas Cowboys history. The futility on the field has left the fan base torn between wanting a pride-salvaging win over Washington and hoping the team looks good while still losing to preserve the top four draft position. Mostly, we just want the pain to be over. What some may have forgotten, however, is that the turmoil for the Cowboys began long before the string of injuries that so degraded the performance on the field. And one small positive to carry with us as we start the new year, along with a high draft slot, is that things should be much less tumultuous in 2016.
It began with the DeMarco Murray drama. We all know how that wound up, with the Philadelphia Eagles throwing a ton of money and cap space his direction to lure him away, only to see him largely wasted in a scheme he did not fit. As it turned out, the move may have damaged the Eagles for several years to come, and it certainly played a role in finally getting the constant irritation of Chip Kelly's celebrated genius out of the division. What is often forgotten is that the Cowboys had an offer on the table that, according to all reports, Murray would have taken if the unexpected big payday from Philly had not come along. Had the Cowboys retained Murray, it is very likely that they would have made better use of his talent, and also would not have been as severely affected by the eventual meltdown of Joseph Randle. They would likely not have made a now-wasted trade for Christine Michael, and if the running game to start the season had been at all reminiscent of the dominant performance from 2014, perhaps we would not be looking at 11 losses and counting despite the other injuries.
One factor driving the decision to put a hard ceiling on what the Cowboys would pay Murray was the desire to have the cap space/money to get a long term deal done with Dez Bryant. While Dallas could have found a way to pay both, they made the decision that they would rather just have to manipulate contracts to get Bryant's deal in place. But things did not go smoothly or quickly with those negotiations. It would take until July 15th to get Bryant's name signed to what wound up as a five-year, $70 million deal with $32 million in guaranteed money. And the negotiations became a veritable soap opera of drama, with rumors of ill will and a chance of a holdout flying around. It also kept Bryant out of the offseason conditioning program, which did not help in getting him ready for the season. The broken bone in his foot that he suffered in the first game of the season may not have been avoidable had he been signed much earlier, but the question remains.
The third disruptive event was the signing of Greg Hardy. First came the tidal wave of outrage and criticism over the domestic violence incidence that had kept him off the field in 2014. Then there was the prolonged wait for the NFL to decide what to do about his suspension using their established method of reading goat entrails, consulting a Magic 8 Ball, and above all checking on public reaction every ten minutes or so. Then there was the appeal, and the renewed cries of injustice and calls for summary execution. There is little doubt that the four-game suspension that eventually was enforced was very detrimental to the Cowboys' defense, and Hardy was probably impacted somewhat in his performance.
A bit less obvious but still disruptive was the suspension levied against Rolando McClain for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. It was a bit out-of-the-blue for fans, but the team was likely aware that it was coming. McClain seemed much more affected by his suspension, and was never the player this season that he was in his first year with the Cowboys.
Also not as prominent was the brief holdout by Jeremy Mincey over his contract. Although it was resolved fairly quickly, it was just another distraction for the team.
Big issues, none of them directly related to play on the field, but indirectly affecting preparation and team chemistry. All involved top players or team leaders.
So far, 2016 does not have any of these issues facing them. The Cowboys don't have anything like the Murray/Bryant decisions to make regarding top talents. At the moment, there are no known suspensions looming (although those can always crop up with little or no warning). And even if Hardy is re-signed, the furor over him is receding with time and the other scandals that inevitably crop up in the league. At the moment, all indications are that Jerry and Stephen Jones are not anticipating major upheaval with the coaching staff, so everyone should be largely on the same page.
How much did the offseason chaos in 2015 contribute to the eventual collapse of the regular season? It is impossible to say, but it is also likely that there was at least some impact. Now the Cowboys should see a comparatively calm and orderly offseason. That is not guaranteed, but it seems almost impossible that this year would see a similar level of distraction and tumult. And perhaps a calmer process may lead to more success when the season comes. At least, we can hope so.