If you think back far enough you can trace the beginning of the end for this decade's Cowboys franchise to two tough breaks in 2015.
The first break came in week one of another win over the Giants thanks to late game heroics from Tony Romo. In that game, Dez Bryant, a guy whose signature hadn’t dried on a new five-year, $70 million deal left the game with a broken foot. He would miss the next five games and returned after the bye week.
The second break was Tony Romo breaking his collarbone in a week two win at Philadelphia.
Dallas would only win two more games that season and the Romo-Bryant connection that helped both of them receive huge paydays would only reconnect once more on November 22nd, in a 24-14 win in Miami. After Romo was re-injured a week later, that would signify the very last time the two of them would start an NFL game together.
We all know what happened from there. The Cowboys drafted with hopes to build an offense Tony Romo could flourish in, but his body wouldn’t hold up past the third game of the preseason. The Cowboys rode to a 13-3 season behind an electric rookie duo of quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. From that point on, everything in the Cowboys organization changed from the old guard to the new.
Last offseason, the Cowboys purged their secondary, allowing Brandon Carr, Barry Church, Morris Claiborne, and J.J. Wilcox to walk in free agency. They also said goodbye to two offensive line stalwarts in Ronald Leary (signed with Denver) and Doug Free (retired). The biggest goodbye was on April 4th when Tony Romo officially retired, making it the first time since 2002 that Romo wouldn’t be in Dallas.
The Cowboys would face a season full of ups and downs in 2017 as that magic that was there in 2016 was missing at different points of the season. Marred by off-the-field distractions, injuries to key personnel, suspensions, and declines on the field, the Cowboys limped to 9-7. Losing a Christmas Eve heartbreaker that officially knocked them out of the playoffs, this team was in for more change in the new year.
This offseason began with seven new faces on the coaching staff, with the three biggest changes coming with the hires of Kris Richard (secondary/ passing coordinator), Paul Alexander (offensive line), and Sanjay Lal (receivers). The Cowboys front office made it clear that tough decisions were looming for known commodities of this team. In March, the Cowboys released 10-year veteran Orlando Scandrick in a move that was expected after last year’s draft, which focused heavily on defensive backs. Less than a month later, Dez Bryant was driving away from the Star in Frisco no longer a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
After averaging 1,300 yards, 91 receptions, and 14 touchdowns the three years prior to Bryant’s extension, Bryant never came close to that production after signing his new contract. Bryant was now averaging only 50 catches, 678 receiving yards, and six touchdowns per season. It was clear Bryant was providing a bad return on investment, and the Cowboys were not interested in waiting out an unlikely comeback.
Before the second day of the 2018 NFL draft was underway, it was reported that Jason Witten, the 15-year veteran and likely first-ballot Hall of Famer, was considering retiring to take over the Monday Night Football gig with ESPN. Those considerations became a reality a week later. Now that Witten has hung up the cleats, the longsnapper, L.P. Ladouceur, is the only player remaining from the days of Bill Parcells. L.P. is also one of only three players on the roster over 30 years of age, along with Dan Bailey and Sean Lee. Most importantly, with Jason Witten’s retirement, the final face of the franchise over the last 15 years is gone. Over the last 14 months or so, this franchise has taken on a radically different look.
The average age on this team is 24 years. Jason Witten’s retirement symbolizes the final tug of the band aid, signifying what we already know, this team has been turned over to youth.
Nobody likes to see their favorite stars move on, whether it’s their own decision or not. Still, it’s rather easy to see the merit in every decision that was made by this front office over the past four months - even if those decisions come with a heavy heart, just as they did a year ago. Stephen Jones has stated that you would rather be a year early than a year late with these things. In today’s ever-changing NFL, he’s absolutely correct. Because in reality, there isn’t always a next year (and with it a second, third, or fourth chance) waiting in the wings.
The roster turns over every season and you start all over again. Though a common denominator of the past few seasons has been saying goodbye to eventual Ring of Honor members, it’s the necessary evil of staying competitive in the NFL. What Cowboys fans are experiencing now was set in motion two seasons ago. This revamp began with a renovation on defense, it continues now with a reset at receiver, a re-establishment of dominance up front, which brings a re-focused rushing attack, and finally a renewed commitment to the quarterback. The Cowboys just hope that all this labor will pay off with a resurgence that will carry them back into the playoffs.