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Driven to distraction: Off-the-field issues still threaten the Cowboys

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If you thought things were going to be all unicorns and rainbows after a tumultuous 2017, you are probably wrong.

Dallas Cowboys v Oakland Raiders
Lingering questions about Dez’s future are just one looming problem.
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

After starting with high hopes, the 2017 NFL season soon turned into a real disappointment for the Dallas Cowboys. Suspensions, injuries, off-field controversy, performance and coaching issues, and at times a badly-shaken second-year starting quarterback, all combined to keep them out of the playoffs. Only a counterproductive win in week 17 against a marginally interested Philadelphia Eagles team focused on their pending Super Bowl march kept Dallas from slumping to another 8-8 record under Jason Garrett. Surely things have to get better this year, right?

Well, as someone once observed, don’t ever say it can’t get any worse, because that’s when worse will come in doing a Vince McMahon strut. While some things look to be at least on their way to being solved, that bevy of off-field issues that played havoc with the mental state of the team and their fans alike may not really be in the rear-view mirror. Some are hopefully gone, but already there are disturbing signs that more are sliding in to take their place.

First is one that is not only troubling, but that could easily have been avoided or at least not paraded about for the world to see. That is the uncertainty over the future of Dez Bryant and his contract. There still is no timetable for the team to sit down and discuss this with him and his representation, or make a decision on the idea of releasing him. This is despite the public questioning of his value going forward by Stephen Jones. As long-time Cowboys reporter Mike Fisher recently noted, there is a lot of evidence of a campaign within the Star that is opposed to Bryant.

Am I being unfair to wonder if Jerry is the point man for this foolishness, a backstabbing move given that he’s pledged -- to Bryant’s face -- to deal with him like a business partner? Am I being unfair to put this all at Stephen’s feet, contemplating whether he deserves the same “not-a-football-guy’’ scorn that I’ve long defended his father against? Am I being unfair to ponder whether Will McClay, a gifted in-the-building unifying power, has slipped up by having to put too many fingers in too many dike-holes? Am I being unfair to ask if coach Jason Garrett is so occupied with being “Red Man Walking’’ that he’s somehow forgotten the value of retaining his best players and of having their backs? Am I being unfair to think that new receivers coach Sanjay Lal, who I know for certain had a big voice in the lunacy of the Watkins pursuit, has preconceived notions about Bryant that are misguiding the club’s decisions?

Am I being unfair to contemplate whether offensive coordinator Scott Linehan so disliked Dez’ frank analysis of Dallas’ creativity-free offense that wants Bryant thrown overboard?

This is not to say that the team questioning what value Bryant and the cost of his contract has going forward is not justified. On the contrary, that is a necessary part of self-scouting and roster evaluation. But it should never have been put out in public, either openly as Jerry and Stephen Jones have done (often in a contradictory manner), or with “leaks” to the media.

The way things have been done are a part of the dysfunction in Dallas. The existence of such is not unique to them. Many teams have problems of a similar magnitude, and almost no organization in the NFL is free of these things. What is rather specific to the Cowboys is the role the Jones family play as owners, managers, and chief spokesmen for the team. This is just another way that has come back to bite them in the posterior, something we have become far too weary of watching.

And that ego-driven approach of the owners, particularly Jerry Jones, is another source of possible issues. The head guy in the building is far too proud of his over-sized influence in the league - something that has reportedly created a sizable amount of resentment among the other owners and commissioner Roger Goodell. The entire Ezekiel Elliott crisis last season was indicative of that friction. It wound up harming the entire team, not only in the loss of Elliott for six games, but in the disruption to the entire team’s psyche. Despite constant assurances from management that the team was not being affected by the stress of the issue, it clearly was.

Often overlooked because of the magnitude and coverage of the Zeke case is the suspension served by David Irving. While both those issues have now been (hopefully) resolved and will not re-occur, it is not unreasonable to believe that both those players still have targets on their backs. They will be watched closely for any misstep, with the Goodell discipline “system” ready to swoop in and drop a hammer again. The feeling that the NFL office comes down harder on Dallas than almost any other team may be just paranoia.

Now Randy Gregory is reportedly seeking reinstatement, and that will keep the scrutiny at a white-hot level. If the league is unusually harsh in making its determination on him, it will be yet another thing to insinuate itself into the minds of the roster and staff. Add in the fact that even the slightest hint of scandal involving the Cowboys is seized upon with glee by the media, and any connection to the team, however slight, is featured prominently with reports of trouble for other players, and it is clear. There is no margin for error this year.

In a sense, the Cowboys are paying the price for the huge stick Jerry Jones wielded with such abandon in the decisions on relocating the Los Angeles Rams, the Los Angeles Chargers, and the soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders. He ruffled a lot of feathers among the rest of the league ownership - and billionaires do not take kindly to that. Jones has far fewer close allies than he did a few years ago. Fortunately, the Rams are in the process of a significant turnaround since the long-overdue parting of ways with Jeff Fisher, and the Raiders at least have generated a lot of interest and publicity with the (admittedly questionable) hiring of retread coach Jon Gruden. But the Chargers are mired in their own struggles, and if the move from San Diego does not pan out, Jones is likely to get a large share of the blame, justified or not.

While it is not a specific act of defiance to the NFL, the recent move by the Cowboys to opt out of the Ticketmaster deal covering most of the league to instead go with SeatGeek is another demonstration of the sometimes maverick ways followed by the ownership. It will just put more money in the Jones bank accounts, money that doesn’t have to be shared with the other owners. Dallas already has stand-alone marketing rights that have reaped them a lot of unshared money. Additionally, the Legends hospitality and marketing firm owned by Jones is in line to handle luxury suites and other parts of the business at the new stadiums in both Los Angles and Las Vegas. That is just another part of the resentment over the arm-twisting exerted in putting the franchise moves together.

Add in the fact that the Cowboys are frequently cited as the most valuable team in all sports, and still carry the cachet of being America’s Team despite decades of on-field mediocrity, and it is not surprising that the Star the team wears is seen as something of a target.

Now add in that Jason Garrett is once again on a hot seat and likely has to at least get into the playoffs this year, and may have to get at least a win or two as well, and the odds of 2018 not having significant distractions are very small. That is concerning. Winning games in the NFL is hard enough without creating more stumbling blocks for yourself.

As if that wasn’t enough, we will also be “treated” to an up-close-and-personal look at what happened last year when the the 2017 Cowboys are the focus of the Amazon series “All or Nothing”. That is just going to open all the old wounds up. Maybe the team can learn something from having to relive all that. But, as our old friend K.D. Drummond observed in his recent take on this subject:

When All or Nothing premieres for Amazon Prime on April 27, expect all of these things to come to light. Have they learned their lesson?

Hell no.

All can be solved with victories on the field. But getting them may once again be harder than it should be due to what happens outside of the three hours or so each week when the team actually plays the games. The issues start at the top. And that means they are not easily going away.