Overreaction rules in the NFL, especially in the social media era.
Fresh off the disappointment of another playoff-less season, this week's Cowboys headlines are dominated by commentary about how the Cowboys have fallen apart on offense, how the offensive play-calling is atrocious, why Jason Garrett should be fired, why Jerry Jones is Satan's Spawn, or why the Cowboys have to immediately cut all their stars - and preferably bring back Tony Romo in some kind of unspecified, but definitely messianic role.
As a fanbase, we have a tendency to overreact to everything. After a win we're booking tickets for the Super Bowl, a loss and we want to fire every coach on the staff, and just as precaution, fire everybody else who was ever on the Cowboys staff in the past, just to make sure.
Overreaction Monday is an actual thing in the NFL, where a win produces unbridled optimism, and where a loss results in a state of apocalyptic panic. And these Overreaction Mondays can linger. They can linger way beyond the season and well into the offseason, possibly even all the way to the draft.
At some point, you enter a permanent state of overreaction. In Cowboys Nation, that permanent state of overreaction has been in place for the last 20 seasons, only briefly alleviated by the occasional playoff appearance. Every perceived problem is magnified into an immediate crisis.
- The receivers: clearly in crisis. Can't get free, can't catch the ball, can't run past the sticks on third down.
- The running game: clearly in crisis, since the ground game isn't anywhere near where it was last year, and let's all be mad at Roger Goodell for coming after our Ohio State party boy.
- The QB position: clearly in crisis. Naturally, social media has an equally brilliant and simple fix for that - replace last year's NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with an unheralded UDFA who had a couple of good preseason games.
- The offensive line: clearly in crisis. Can't get it done on third-and-short, killed the QBs confidence, no depth behind the All Pros (depth that all other teams have in spades, of course), and Ronald Leary should have never been allowed to leave.
- The secondary: clearly in crisis and it's not even debatable (ranked 27th in defensive passer rating). Told you they should have drafted Jalen Ramsey.
- The linebackers: clearly in crisis every time someone gets hurt.
- The defensive tackles: clearly in crisis. Can't stop the run, can't rush the passer, can't not get hurt, can't not retire, can't not get suspended. Crisis, crisis, crisis.
Add coaching and the ownership to that list, and you basically have a year-round template for articles and soundbites from a DFW mediascape where many are more concerned with “establishing their brand” via outrageous hot takes that get their names into the headlines than with anything resembling serious football analysis.
For the Cowboys, the key to 2018 will be about not overreacting to the 2017 season, but keeping a cool head instead. Success in the NFL depends in part on an organization's ability to ruthlessly evaluate the talent on its roster, to identify and invest in the players and positions that are key to a team's success, and to move on quickly if the talent on the roster doesn't meet the franchise's requirements.
You could make a solid argument that the 2017 Cowboys, following up on a 13-3 season, avoided the crisis trap but fell into the opposite trap, the complacency trap. And just to make sure I'm not basing this on the benefit of hindsight, here's what I wrote almost a year ago, on January 18th, about what you can expect from a 13-3 team the following year:
But when you just finished 13-3, you have a tendency to see everything through rose-colored glasses. It makes you think that an offense that finished only tenth in 3rd-down efficiency just needs to run the ball a little more often and everything will fall into place. That a defense that ranked 24th in defensive passer rating and allowed the second-highest completion rate in the league just needs to cut a veteran or two and all will be well. That you are so good you are willing to let your All Pro backup QB leave town without compensation "because he deserves it." That a defensive line that had a cute nickname but had trouble getting pressure on the QB all season just needs an upgrade or two and everything will be just hunky dory.
If the 2016 Cowboys had finished 7-9, I promise you that you would not be comfortable with any of the things above.
And it's that sense of urgency that the Cowboys must attack the offseason with. Every team makes mistakes in the draft and in free agency. Not all draft picks pan out the way they were expected to. Not all free agents deliver a performance commensurate with the money you spent on them. And I would suggest that the better teams in the league are better at dispassionately identifying those mistakes, and are willing and able to correct those mistakes faster than the lesser teams do.
Just because you're 8-7 and possibly headed to another 8-8 finish doesn't mean everything stinks. Just as not everything is all peachy when you're 13-3. The Cowboys must attack the offseason with a sense of urgency, but also with a cool head.
Just because everybody is screaming for you to fire your coordinators doesn't mean you have to. Just because everybody will expect you to draft the fastest guy at the Combine doesn't mean that's what you should do. Just because every premier free agent wide receiver is linked to the Cowboys doesn't mean you have to sign one of them.
But you have to have a plan for how to address the issues you've identified. And yes, that plan includes addressing the offensive skill positions, the offensive and defensive lines, and the linebackers among others, just maybe not in the way the social media armchair GMs and the screaming headlines want you to.
If you're the GM looking at the 2017 Cowboys, you're seeing a team that came together on defense towards the end of the year, but completely lost the plot on offense, the part of the team you invested so much into. As the GM, you need to ask yourself what you need to do to make sure the 2018 offense can start scoring points in bunches again, and how you can make sure the defense can step up when Sean Lee goes down again.
You might be tempted to believe that most of the building blocks to a successful 2018 are already in place (after all, you put together the team that went 13-3 just a year ago, right?), and that the team just has to execute a little better. But that's pride talking. And you know what Marcellus Wallace said about pride.
Fixing the issues that are ailing this team will require some hard decisions. Hard decisions about the player personnel, the coaching staff, and the front office setup. But those decisions need to be taken with a cool head. And right now, there aren't many cool heads in Dallas.