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Dallas, We Have A Problem: The Implosion Of The Cowboys' Defensive Ends

How did this happen, who should we blame, and what is the team going to do about it?

Not good news for Cowboys.
Not good news for Cowboys.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Some days, you almost wish you just stayed off the interwebs and missed out on some things. On one of the most hectic days of the NFL offseason, sandwiched between the surprising trade up by the Philadelphia Eagles when they basically gave up a ton of draft capital to have the most expensive quarterback unit in the league and the even more unexpected release of CB Josh Norman by the Carolina Panthers, the Dallas Cowboys got their own kick in the, um, pants. DeMarcus Lawrence is now facing a four game suspension for violating the NFL substance abuse policy. Coupled with the earlier announced suspension of Randy Gregory, the Cowboys now face the first quarter of the 2016 NFL season without their top two pass rushers.

You hardly know what to say. But it might be something along the lines of what these little fellows said.

The next thought that comes to mind might be "Just what in silver and blue blazes is going on in Dallas?" Coupled with the failure of the Greg Hardy experiment, the defensive end unit has self-destructed over the past few months. How did this happen?

First and foremost, the players involved are responsible. Hardy handled his situation about as poorly as can be imagined. He got off to a good start after serving his own four-game suspension last year, but once the photos were released from his domestic violence case, the ensuing renewed furor seemed to take something out of him. Add in his continued refusal to take any responsibility or make any apology, and he has become too much of a liability for Dallas to bring back, no matter how bad things get. Now, despite seeing what happened to Rolando McClain last year when he served his own four-game suspension for substance abuse, both Gregory and Lawrence have made the same kind of mistake in using a banned substance and in getting caught. (The league testing policy is structured so that players can avoid testing positive with a little foresight and restraint.) However you may feel about their offenses, you probably agree that some serious stupid was involved in more ways than one.

But that does not take the management off the hook. It was the front office that saw fit to take three troubled individuals, all of whom had a history of problems, and put them in the same room. Although it can be debated just how much influence they had on each other, it is just common sense that there is at least a chance of more issues when you have a group of people with problems working together day in and day out. The Cowboys have exhibited an almost arrogant belief that they can handle troubled players, and that hubris is coming back to bite them with big, nasty teeth. It may be time to stop looking for talent that falls because of off-field issues and start considering just how past behavior may predict future problems. There was no secret about any of the three players having issues coming in, and the best support system in the world will not stop someone who is determined to do what they want.

This is not on the coaching staff. There has been a suspicion for some time that Jason Garrett is not on board with bringing in such trouble-prone players. And while Rod Marinelli may offer a different opinion, the coaches should only be consulted on how they would use players and what they think of their talent and fit. The scouting staff almost certainly included the past incidents in their reports, and they were pretty much common knowledge, anyway. Assembling the roster is primarily the responsibility of Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay. While they have had some significant successes in recent years, this is clearly a failure on their part. And of those three, McClay is probably the least culpable, since final say rests with the ownership. They need to dig deeper into the personal side of players and quit bringing in the equivalent of sweating bottles of nitroglycerin.

Solving that issue depends on the Jones family, and that is a shaky proposition at best. But in the meantime, the Cowboys now have to figure out how to approach the season with the knowledge that their two best pass rushers not only are gone for the first quarter of the year, but could be gone much longer with one more misstep.

What they cannot do is panic and change their draft plans. Given that there are reports that the team has been aware for some time that Lawrence's suspension was coming, they should have incorporated that in the ongoing process of assembling their draft board. If they are putting more weight on pass rushers, it had already happened, and so far, reports are they they see the same thing most analysts do: This is a fairly weak year for EDGE rushers. They still can add some more bodies in free agency, but given that the few strong pass rushers this year were mostly getting contracts that were much more than Dallas was prepared to pay, the term "bodies" is probably all too accurate. Perhaps they have more (quite possibly misplaced) faith in players like Benson Mayowa, David Irving, and Ryan Russell to carry the load than most of us. Still, those first four games are going to be harder to win with Gregory and Lawrence both sitting at home.

The other options in the draft are to improve the back end of the defense and the offense. And that, oddly, circles back to the two players that have been emerging lately as fan favorites in the first round, Jalen Ramsey and Ezekiel Elliott. Josh Norman would also provide a way to upgrade the defensive back corps as a newly-minted free agent, but it is highly doubtful that the Cowboys would be willing to outbid the several teams still sitting on huge amounts of cap space that may go after him. As for Elliott, the recent reports that Marinelli was in favor of getting him in round one may indicate that the team was looking to reestablish the smash-mouth style of 2014 to take pressure off the defense. And if the trade up frenzy is not spent, the Cowboys might also trade back and stockpile picks in the middle of the draft, where the talent seems easier to find at the right cost in draft capital. They might even be able to do so and still get Elliott.

It is going to be a somewhat nerve-wracking time until we see how this plays out, and there is certainly a possibility that things could rapidly go south. But it is clear that some things need to change in the way the Cowboys acquire their payers. Whether it will remains to be seen.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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