It has been a tough few weeks for fans of the Dallas Cowboys. Heck, going back a little over a year, it has been really rough as three of the pillars of the team for almost a decade have now departed. Tony Romo was the first last year, then Dez Bryant was released, and now Jason Witten has officially retired to join the Monday Night Football broadcast team. Given the ages of the players and the length of their careers, it really shouldn’t feel so, well, tragic. But it does. Maybe it is because the three were far more than just veteran players.
Over 395 days the Cowboys saw their all-time passing leader in Tony Romo retire, their all-time receptions and receiving yardage leader in Jason Witten retire, and they released their all-time leader in receiving touchdowns in Dez Bryant.— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) May 3, 2018
That is a huge amount of offensive production to have gone in a little over a year. But as we get over the emotional gut-punch of the Witten retirement, on top of the somewhat surprising release of Bryant, it may be time to acknowledge something.
It was time. Maybe past time.
For Romo, his health had become a ticking time bomb that went off in a preseason game, opening the way for Dak Prescott to inherit the starting job. The past couple of seasons have made it evident to any who look objectively at the performances on the field that the skills of both Bryant and Witten were eroding, and not slowly. Just as important, last season showed us that the two, however important they were in the past, were not necessarily helping the team. As highly paid stars, they were the focus of too many offensive plays. And they just were not delivering anymore. Add in that they were players who fit the offensive model of a decade ago at a time when the league in general, and the Cowboys in particular, are moving towards a different path, and their departures may not only be best in the long run, but could help Dallas recover rapidly from the disappointing 2017 campaign.
After all, one of the most frequently voiced criticisms last fall was that the offense had become too predictable. That overlooks the turmoil surrounding Ezekiel Elliott and the impact of key injuries to Sean Lee and Tyron Smith during the season, coupled with a crushing lack of depth, but it still has some merit. Just having Bryant and Witten gone is an opportunity to correct that. When the Cowboys line up, especially on passing downs, who is the target for Prescott? Last season, you figured it was more likely than not for Bryant or Witten to be the first read, and often they were the the first two. Now, who will defenses focus on? Right now, it could be anyone. With additions Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Michael Gallup, plus a hopefully resurgent Cole Beasley, the options are figuratively wide open. (Hopefully, at least one will literally be so.) Add in whoever wins the starting tight end job, which may be a wide open competition in camp, and this is hardly going to be the same old Cowboys offense.
How well it all works remains to be seen. There certainly is a dismissive attitude towards the receiving corps as now constituted.
It's possible the #Cowboys have the worst wide receiver AND tight end corps in the league...We better be running for 200 a game.— Roy White III (@RDubThree) May 3, 2018
But is there talent in the group? I think so, and many who cover the team on a daily basis seem to concur.
It's interesting to me that, everywhere outside of DFW, the thought is that the Cowboys' WR situation is utterly terrible & screwed. Within the DFW market, prevailing thought is that WR is fine & other spots (LB, S) are more pressing problems.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) May 1, 2018
It'll be fun to see who's right.
However, what is inarguable is that the Cowboys have now remade both the defensive and offensive aspects of the passing game in just two offseasons. Last year, of course, was the gamble to move on in the secondary from Nolan Carroll. Barry Church, and Morris Claiborne while bringing in Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods. And now the receiving corps is in the process of being torn down and rebuilt.
Actually, the entire roster has been largely overhauled.
Life comes at you fast pic.twitter.com/GT6VfwJfWb— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) May 3, 2018
But that is life in the Not For Long organization. With the average career lasting only about three and a half years (at least according to that source), teams have to continually remake the roster - and a few bad seasons just accelerate the process. The Cowboys are hardly the only team to see such wholesale changes. Look at the Chicago Bears.
Ryan Pace's 4-year roster overhaul, in one image pic.twitter.com/MGpMn02eMm— Johnathan Wood (@Johnathan_Wood1) May 2, 2018
There is a term used for aging stars who are no longer producing, but still get a lot of snaps: Progress stoppers. That usually refers to holding back the development of younger players, like the seemingly endless string of tight ends that came and went while Witten was starting for Dallas. But it also can refer to holding back the entire team. No matter how much we love Bryant and Witten for what they accomplished while wearing the Star, it is certainly arguable that their presence on the field in the fall would have hurt more than helped.
Now it is time to move on with the new lineup. We have OTAs and the minicamp coming up, followed by the start of training camp. Then we will begin to see just what the coaches can forge out of the material at hand. It may not work out well, which will likely mean changes at the top of the coaching staff. Jason Garrett is clearly on the hot seat unless this year’s team wins more games than last season. It will probably take a real playoff run to make him and Scott Linehan safe.
All that is in the future. We can only hope that it works out. But for now, the departure of two iconic players has to be evaluated dispassionately. And the truth of the matter is that it was likely not only time. It may have been a bit overdue.