The crushing loss to the Atlanta Falcons showed that the Dallas Cowboys are suffering from an old bugaboo. They have a very good, perhaps great, starting roster, but when some key injuries happen, they don’t have effective depth to compensate.
And this is a failing that falls largely on the top management for the team. Specifically Jerry Jones has to take responsibility for this. There have certainly been some misfires in the acquisition of players, but this is one area where Jones’ approach to that has shaped things. Now it is threatening to drop the Cowboys out of the playoffs altogether.
The big issues in that 27-7 drubbing were the absence of Tyron Smith and the loss of Sean Lee at the end of the first quarter. In both cases, Dallas had no answer. The coaches certainly made some errors along the way, both in preparation for the game and in not finding ways to adjust adequately. But in hindsight, it is clear that the coaching staff was hamstrung (pun intended) by the lack of the right personnel.
Exhibit A has to be Chaz Green. He was a monumental failure as Smith’s backup. He was simply awful, and it seemed to be both a lack of technique and physical ability. Adrian Clayborn had a career game. It was so good, he really should tip Green.
This is called a great day at the office: Falcons DE Adrian Clayborn’s 6 sacks Sunday earned him a $750,000 incentive, per source. Clayborn has a $750K incentive for eight sacks in season and he entered game with two. Two more gets him $1.25 million. Cha-Ching.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 13, 2017
This is particularly galling because Clayborn stated after the game that he only uses one real pass rush move. And he used it over and over against Green. Yet Green was unable to adjust or compensate. The result was that Dak Prescott was hammered and harassed throughout the game. Additionally, the team ran exclusively to the right, behind Zack Martin and La’el Collins. That indicates that the team knew there were problems with Green’s game, but still they went with him as the starter.
Green’s meltdown seems puzzling in light of him having a couple of good games last year in relief of Smith, but that was also with Ronald Leary still playing left guard. That may have made a big difference. It is still unquestionable that Green looked completely overwhelmed against Atlanta. The team finally threw in the towel on him and inserted Byron Bell, who looks to be the fill-in for Smith going forward as there is a possibility that the All Pro will miss at least one more game.
If Tyron Smith can't play this Sunday vs. Philly, look for Byron Bell to be the Cowboys' starting left tackle— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) November 13, 2017
The thing is that Green always has had some significant question marks about him. He had a significant injury history at Florida. He missed four games in 2011, two more in 2012, and a torn labrum cost him the entire 2013 season. Yet the Cowboys selected him in the third round of the 2015 draft. This was one of several draft picks that Dallas has made in recent years with high risk in an attempt to cash in on high-stakes gambles. Green’s injury issues continued in the pros, and led to him being replaced at left guard by Jonathan Cooper earlier this season.
Despite all this, the Cowboys stuck with him as the swing tackle once Cooper secured his hold on LG. This was in spite of him having focused on guard all through training camp. That was always a questionable move. But the Cowboys (admittedly like most teams) factor in draft capital invested in making roster decisions. That is something that comes from the top. The coaches could only play the cards they were given, and were almost certainly influenced by the GM and his son.
The same issue played a huge role in the reliance of the defense on Sean Lee. Excluding the first real disaster of the season against the Denver Broncos, the defense has been completely different when Lee is on the field. All three of the losses outside the Broncos one came when Lee was injured. The Cowboys have a hard time stopping opposing offenses without him on the field, making the defensive play calls, getting everyone into position, and generally providing excellent individual effort, especially against the run.
Yet two years ago, the Cowboys took another huge gamble on Jaylon Smith, who as we all know severely injured his knee in his final college game. While there is still hope that Jaylon will turn into a valuable part of the defense, he has clearly not been very effective when called on to fill in for Lee. He is not only still limited physically, but on many plays has simply looked lost on the field.
@SportsSturm @NotJackKemp the difference in Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee boiled down to one play. pic.twitter.com/lge1vmJpwW— Blake Slaughter (@bslaughter71) November 13, 2017
Again, the Cowboys swung for the fences and used a second-round pick to draft Jaylon, despite the risk he would not be ready to play effectively for more than just his rookie season, and the magnitude of that gamble is now being seen on the field.
Dallas has had some very good draft picks in recent years, including 2016, but that was also Jaylon Smith’s year to be taken. There are times that the Cowboys just get far too clever in trying to steal a player they think will develop beyond what seems really apparent. That has Jerry Jones’ fingerprints all over it. He loves to take a risk (remember how he was the only one in the draft room arguing for Johnny Manziel) because he has scored big on some of his bets. But like most gamblers, he has a selective memory and conveniently forgets the ones that went south, like say a Greg Hardy. Now the Cowboys have too many players that they invested heavily in, only to get less return than they needed. Green and Jaylon Smith are the two prime examples, and they happen to be backups for two of the most important players on the roster.
The team is playing the price, especially because there are also some serious questions about how well the coaches make adjustments when adversity strikes.
You may wonder about why the backup running backs are not part of this discussion, but that is an area where the team did a lot to try and be prepared for Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension. The trio of Alfred Morris, Rod Smith, and Darren McFadden is actually a good set of replacement runners. There are not many available backs, either as free agents or rational trade targets, that would improve the group.
And that is reflective of the overall situation in finding good backups. There really aren’t enough quality players out there to put 46 good, active NFL level players on the sideline every week, especially as the inevitable attrition sets in. But teams have to try, and seasons can hinge on having players who can step up when called upon. Sometimes you just get your actives wrong, and the Cowboys probably regret sitting linebackers Justin Durant and Justin March-Lillard on Sunday. They may not have been much better than what Dallas had to roll with when Lee went out, but they probably could not have been much worse (outside Anthony Hitchens, who was one of the few bright spots in the game.)
You certainly can’t afford to invest too much in players who may not ever reach their potential because of injury. That is exactly what the Cowboys have done. And that falls squarely on the management of the team.