After the Dallas Cowboys recent three-game stretch, the Thursday night game against Washington is crucial. They have to win to keep even the slightest hope of sneaking into the playoffs alive, and at this point the coaching staff and many players could have their future with the team severely affected if they don’t right the ship.
Coming off last year’s surprising 13-3 season, the obvious question is: What went wrong? And the answer is pretty simple. Just about everything.
Fixing this is not going to be easy. You have to wonder at this stage of the season if it is even possible, or if the team is going to be forced to try and address things in the offseason after such a wasted opportunity.
Assigning blame is difficult, partly because there is so much to go around. The front office, particularly Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett and his staff, and many of the players have made serious mistakes. Maybe some of this could have been avoided or circumvented. But given the huge number of things that the Cowboys have faced, it might not have been possible to overcome.
Murphy’s Law states that if something can possibly go wrong, it will. This year, it certainly seems like that is really the case in Dallas.
Let’s go back through some of the issues that got us here, and where the fault might lie for some of those.
The first is one that has been going on for years. Under Jerry Jones, the Cowboys have long been willing to take risks on players with injury or character red flags. They hope to steal a talent with high upside, but in far too many cases that has not paid off to date. The two most glaring ones currently with the team (in any capacity) are Randy Gregory and Jaylon Smith. Both are incredibly talented players, but Gregory is now waiting to see if he will be reinstated after being banned from the league after a long string of violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Smith of course was drafted despite his severe and career-threatening injury in his final college game. His recovery to date has been nearly miraculous, but because of the draft, roster spot, and salary cap investment in him, he has been forced into playing more than he is ready for. The team has paid dearly for that. The last couple of games have seen some improvement in aspects of his play, but it is still very much an open question if he is really an asset on the field.
This obviously lies on Jerry Jones’ head. He just has to get away from these gambles and focus on spending his resources more carefully. Whether he will or not remains to be seen.
You can also include Ezekiel Elliott in the group of players who had some real character concerns when Dallas chose to draft him. That of course led to the excruciatingly long domestic violence investigation and suspension, including the bad blood generated between Jones and Roger Goodell over the former’s perception Goodell lied to him about the outcome of that investigation. The subsequent appeals and surrounding furor in the media as Jones went very public with his feud cast a pall over the team. While part of that issue is on Jones, the failure to come up with a viable plan for Elliott’s suspension, despite months of knowing it was almost certain to come at some point, is on the coaching staff.
You can add to that the apparent belief of the coaching staff that they could continue to operate with the same offensive philosophy once Elliott was out. This is despite the clear blueprint under Garrett to run the offense through Elliott as a truly elite running back. Yet no effective adjustments were made to the game plans to find a way to make things work with clearly lesser talents carrying the ball. Garrett seems very good at creating a scheme, but not very competent at adjusting that scheme when a key component is lost.
There were other decisions made during the 2017 offseason that have come back to haunt the Cowboys. First, they parted ways with some key free agents, most notably Ronald Leary, Brandon Carr, Barry Church, and Morris Clairborne, all due to salary cap considerations. Add in the retirement of Doug Free, and now Dallas had to undertake the reworking of the offensive line and a nearly complete rebuild of the secondary simultaneously. They did invest heavily in defensive backs during the draft, getting Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods, all of whom look to have real potential for the future. What they didn’t need was for all three to have injury issues during camp and the regular season that slowed their progress. They also brought in Nolan Carroll to help shore up things, but he turned out to be just what so many thought he was. Not very good. He is now long gone.
La’el Collins has taken Free’s place, and while it remains to be seen if he will be the long-term solution, he at least has not been terrible. But replacing Leary has been a convoluted thing, and that seems to be on the coaching staff. They tried to force feed Chaz Green as the new left guard, despite many observers reporting that Jonathan Cooper was outperforming him in camp and the preseason games. Green was the starter to open the season, but as many expected, he was soon injured. Cooper stepped in and has so far seemed to in fact be the better option. But you have to wonder how much his development was hampered by Green eating up so many snaps with the first team.
#Cowboys #FishTips 3) It's not about 'Halftime Adjustments' - though 72-6 SCREAMS otherwise. Really, it's about constant malleability. And the 'Chaz Green Thing' may forever haunt this staff. @1053thefan— mike fisher ✭ (@fishsports) November 29, 2017
The draft brought up another recurring issue with the Cowboys in the first round. They took Taco Charlton because he “fits the profile” they prefer. His play so far has confirmed the suspicions of many that they passed on other, better options like T.J. Watt who played in a different scheme or were not tall and long enough. Drafting is really an inexact thing, but Dallas certainly has not gotten the help they needed from their first-round pick.
Once the regular season began, things began going off the rails quickly. First was the debacle against the Denver Broncos. Then the Cowboys lost games they could have won against the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams. At that point, with Elliott still playing, the offense was still very productive, but the old bugaboo of the defense just not being able to get stops reasserted itself. Those two losses where Dallas had a real chance now loom very large in the team being on the cusp of missing the postseason.
Injuries inevitably play a part in most NFL seasons, and the Cowboys have had a rash of crucial ones. Sean Lee, who will miss another game against Washington, has been sorely missed by the defense. This has been the reason Jaylon Smith is being overtasked. Justin Durant is also not available for the game, adding even more stress to the thin linebacking corps. And Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Collins, who have all missed at least parts of games so far, are all questionable. All three are expected at this point to be able to go, but having three of your offensive linemen nicked up is not exactly optimal. A lack of depth is once again evident, something that had looked much better before the season began. Looks, of course, can be deceiving.
Most recently, one of the most unexpected things has happened. Dak Prescott suddenly looks like a struggling second-year quarterback. That, of course, happens all the time in the NFL, but it is surprising given how masterful he was as a rookie, and indeed earlier in this season. Now he appears shaken and uncertain, making bad decisions and worse throws. The beating he has taken as the O line has gone through its struggles certainly hasn’t helped. Nor has the falloff in production by all his receivers, although there is certainly a chicken or egg element there.
One thing that had been going very right for the Cowboys was the emergence of the pass rush, but that has also taken a nosedive during the last three games. Part has been the excellent play of the quarterbacks they have faced, and quick throws against the often porous secondary, but the fact is that the rush just has not gotten home in that stretch.
The odd string of 33 consecutive quarters without an opposing offensive lineman getting flagged for holding has led to a lot of conspiracy theories, but it is really more likely that this is just the clearest example of how that Murphy guy knew what he was talking about. What is unquestionable is that the multiple missed holds have not aided the pass rush at all, and led to the repeated and frustrating sight of opposing quarterbacks converting third down after third down, while Prescott just keeps failing to do the same.
The discontent the owner has expressed over the Goodell contract extension, again played out in the media, has also not helped.
Finally, as Todd Archer of ESPN has reported, along with others, both Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli have clearly stated that they do not believe there is a problem with their respective systems. Given how miserably those systems have failed, especially in November, that is not at all encouraging. It is hard to fix something if you just put your head down and act like it isn’t broken in the first place.
The calls are already loud for a major overhaul of the coaching staff. How Dallas performs against Washington will do a lot to show if those are justified. But even that will not address all the problems, many of which may never go away as long as Jerry Jones continues in his role of GM.
The season is almost lost. All we can really hope to learn at this point is just how broken the Cowboys really are. Once we know that, then we will see just how far the management and staff are willing to go to fix things.