The question is just eight words: “How do the Dallas Cowboys fix their problems?” But that one query has already led to an already huge and steadily growing mountain of opinions, suggestions, demands, and complaints. Here is just a partial list of some of the things that have been put out there.
- The team needs to fire Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan, Rod Marinelli, or some combination of those three.
- Jerry Jones needs to give up his control (yeah, that ain’t happening).
- Throw out/completely overhaul the current playbook/scheme.
- Cut Dez Bryant/Terrance Williams/whoever the originator chooses.
- They need to target a wide receiver/edge rusher/linebacker/defensive back in free agency and do what it takes to sign them.
- They need to draft player/position X in the first round, Y in the second, and Z in the third (the names given often are all players that some have first round grades on).
- With a bevy of draft picks, and compensatory picks being available for trades now, the team needs to move up/move back in the first round/later.
- Make re-signing free agent A, B, and/or C the top priority for the offseason.
Whew. So many “suggestions.” Many times, each is pointed to as the one thing that has to be done to get the team back to the playoffs.
When you look at some of these things, there seems to be a lot of binary thinking, where a given decision is right or wrong. But the reality is that there is a true butterfly effect for the Cowboys, just like for all NFL teams. Every decision impacts all those following.
Most of the moves are still to come, but we do have a pretty good idea how the team is likely to approach them. Additionally, some of the plans have been discussed. So to cut through the noise, here is a look at what has been done and what seems most likely.
The coaching staff has been changed, but not in the way we expected (or perhaps wanted)
Given the fairly high number of new faces and familiar ones in new jobs, the team clearly felt that part, if not most, of the blame for the failings of 2017 belonged on the shoulders of the coaching staff. However, rather than kick Garrett and everyone else to the curb, or boot Linehan out (since the offense really was the biggest issue), the team went with what has been described as “creativity from the bottom-up”. The team knew that some of their assistants were departing, like Derek Dooley and Matt Eberflus, and elected to part ways with others such as Frank Pollack and Wade Wilson. Still, hoping to fix some really significant issues in this matter is still, shall we say, an interesting way to go.
However, there are some things that have a bearing on why the team went this way. There have been some reports that Garrett, Linehan, and the ownership felt that the players were not being properly prepared for game day, which is a responsibility that falls more on the assistant level than that of the head coach and coordinators. And then there is the whole Chaz Green debacle. We don’t know who made the decision to force him as the left guard, which created the whole ugly domino effect for the offensive line. If it was Pollack, then he is certainly a logical coach to change. If it came from the top, as in Jerry and/or Stephen Jones wanting to get a return for his draft cost, then Pollack is being scapegoated, while Garrett and Linehan are not. And if it came from Garrett and/or Linehan, then again Pollack is being scapegoated and not going higher in the food change with the terminations is even more a questionable path.
In any case, the Jones family clearly still values continuity and has faith in Garrett. With word that the team is narrowing the search to fill the tight end position to Bobby Johnson, formerly of the Oakland Raiders, the coaching staff is nearly set.
That takes us on to the future moves.
The self scouting has to be done right.
One result of the multiple changes to the coaching staff is that the team is not as far along with looking at last year’s roster as usual. There are two sides of this. First, players under contract have to be evaluated to determine if any of them should be released. Second, pending free agents require a decision as to who the team will try to retain - and how much they are willing to spend to do so.
The former group of players has at least one that is being hotly debated, Dez Bryant. There are many who call for his release. Others demand he take a pay cut to stay in Dallas. However, the fact remains that his contract can be restructured to free up cap space with no real impact on the team’s cap situation or the money he will receive. And those who think the team can just go get a new featured wide receiver in free agency or the draft that can step right in and replace Bryant are operating under a misconception. There are likely to be several players released in the coming weeks, but don’t bet on Dez being one of them.
The second group actually segues right into the next thing to consider.
Free agency is always approached with great caution by the Cowboys.
Every year, the loud complaints arise about how Dallas does not make big plunges in free agency. This year, those are not going to be any quieter after the Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl (believed to be the third sign of the Apocalypse) with major contributions from a large contingent of free agents. But the Cowboys are less likely to be influenced by them than their own recent history with outside free agents, which has been rather dismal. Last year, the biggest free agent signing was Nolan Carroll. He was hardly a star signing, but he could not even keep his spot on the roster once the season started. And farther back, there are the experiences with Brandon Carr and Greg Hardy.
And saying Dallas never spends on free agents misses a bit of nuance. The Cowboys have handed out some big contracts to free agents - their own. They focus on retaining homegrown talent, and this year is no different, with DeMarcus Lawrence about to get paid. Don’t worry about them letting him get away. If they should do something that really seems unthinkable with what we know about the team and let him wind up with another team, then any faith in the ownership can just about be eliminated.
More problematic are players like David Irving, Anthony Hitchens, and Alfred Morris. Irving is one that the team may well mess up. Hitchens is hard to figure out, given how much he is likely to cost. And Morris is probably not going to be retained, although if he was available for a relatively low cost, he would be a cheap bit of insurance.
Expect the team to continue to wait until the second or third wave of free agency and then go bargain hunting, like they have in the past. It doesn’t produce big impact, but helps fill the holes in the roster.
The only big move to bring in outside talent that seems a possibility at all would not be to sign a “splash” free agent but to trade for Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks. And that is going to be very intriguing with his former coach Kris Richard now hanging his hat in Dallas. Still, as much as it appeals to us, it doesn’t seem all that likely.
The big deal in Dallas is always the draft - but how will they approach it?
It is no secret that the Cowboys strongly favor drafting and growing their own players. The question is what they will do about addressing the issues the team has. And that is always one of the hardest things to predict.
Despite the frequent citing of “best player available”, need still dictates which players are viable options or not, especially in the first three rounds. That means the decisions about retaining players as well as any acquisitions in free agency are going to affect things. Now, there are some new voices on the staff that will bring the much desired new perspectives, particularly Paul Anderson on offensive lineman, Sanjay Lal for wide receivers, and Richard for just about anything to do with the defense. The draft board has to be built, and like the evaluation of the roster from last year, that has barely even begun.
Then comes the really frustrating part. You can only draft who isn’t taken before you go on the clock. That is what makes so many mock drafts kind of amusing, because there are some names taken in places that make no real sense. But there are also some players who fall every year, especially when you work from the viewpoint of a specific team.
The draft has become a season of its own for the NFL. There is a long way to go, but eventually, we will find out who the Cowboys take, and know at least who will be brought to camp to sort out the regular season roster.
And then it all has to be put together.
You take the talent you have mixed together from the various sources. You install the scheme and the plays, which are likely going to see more changes than we have in the past between the “Dak-friendly” focus and the addition of Richard as passing game coordinator on defense. And then you have to see who fits, who doesn’t, and make adjustments as needed, including going out and finding more free agents to sign as the inevitable churn starts in camp and into the season. (Don’t discount that part of things. That is exactly how the team found Irving.) Plays will be tried and discarded, while others will become staples. New starters will emerge as camp battles play out, not to mention that dreaded “I” word.
All of the things mentioned in this article, and more, are part of fixing the Cowboys. That is why firing a given coach or signing a given player never is the solution. It takes all of it, and how all those parts finally fit together. What may work under one set of circumstances can fall quickly apart if other things change.
Football is a simple game of infinite complexity. Never forget that last part. Or, as long-time Cowboys reporter Mike Fisher likes to say, there are a thousand links in the chain.