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Is organizational dysfunction killing the Dallas Cowboys?

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Stephen Jones’ comments just the latest example of unforced errors from team management

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This past week, it was just a normal day in #CowboysNation. First, we had Stephen Jones doing the thing that he and his father love more than anything else - talking to a microphone. This is some of what he had to say:

This led to a Twitter meltdown from former Cowboy Dez Bryant, with Bryant calling out everyone from the owner to the coaching staff and his former teammates:

This is yet another example of how dysfunction continues to plague the Dallas Cowboys and how that dysfunction starts at the top.

Stephen Jones’ comment was relatively innocuous. Asked about Dak Prescott’s need to improve he basically said Dak had both Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, two “greats”, whispering in his ear, wanting the ball. No big deal. It would have been one of thousands of comments SJ has made over the years that would have disappeared into the ether if not for Bryant’s reaction. Well, that and SiriusXM’s click-bait tweet that specifically tagged Dez Bryant while leaving out the mention of Jason Witten:

No one, however, made Jones make that comment. No one made Jones sit down for that interview. But he and his father seem genetically driven to speak to as many microphones as possible before their days are done. Doesn’t matter the venue, neither is capable of NOT speaking when given an opportunity. And every time one or the other needlessly and willingly opens his mouth there’s an opportunity for controversy.

This makes it harder for the Dallas Cowboys franchise to succeed. Only the day before we had Jerry Jones claim Cowboy players wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the locker-room during the National Anthem. Wherever you stand on that particular issue, there was absolutely no need for Jerry to say anything on the topic. Had he said nothing it wouldn’t have been a story. At all.

Same thing with Stephen’s comments. Had he not done the interview and not made the comment then Dez wouldn’t have reacted, we wouldn’t have the “Snake Lee” moniker and there wouldn’t be yet another distraction for Cowboys’ coaches and players to have to deal with while navigating towards a potential Super Bowl trophy.

Louis Riddick, who very likely has a front-office job in his NFL future, gave his thoughts:

For all their smarts and success, this is a lesson the Jones’ family has never learned. If the idea has ever occurred to them and it was quickly dismissed.

Engaging in behavior that satisfies some sort of personal, egotistical need while undermining long-term, strategic goals is a sign of dysfunction. The Cowboys have done much over the last eight years or so to get away from the dysfunction that plagued the Barry Switzer/Dave Campo and Wade Phillips era teams. Specifically, they’ve developed a sound draft-centric, roster-building strategy that has made them competitive throughout the last eight years.

But in the past year dysfunction has been in evidence in myriad ways, most of it emanating from the front office and the coaching staff. I’m going to lay out three examples:

Jason Witten never leaving the field

We all know Jason Witten will be in the Hall of Fame and the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor; for many Cowboys’ fans he’s the modern-day embodiment of what a Cowboys should stand for. And no doubt Witten is a man who prided himself on answering the bell; after all he played once with a broken jaw and once a week after rupturing his spleen.

But in 2017 he was a mediocre tight end. No longer able to get downfield, his pass routes were limited to short outs and his lack of speed resulted in virtually no yards after catch. Football Outsiders rated him 20th in overall value at the tight end spot and 24th in efficiency. And yet, Witten played 98.3% of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps last year.

A curious person might ask why a coaching staff would send a mediocre tight end on the field for every play in a league increasingly using no-tight-end alignments? And the answer would be the coaching staff wasn’t making the decision. Instead, the coaching staff chose to let Witten make the decision. I assume this was out of respect for Witten the person and the player and what he has given to the organization over the years.

But that’s dysfunction. There isn’t a single instance where coaches should give a player carte blanche to decide when and whether to come off the field. Ask them their opinion? Get their input? Absolutely. But the coach should be making the final decision, every time.

You know what you can’t do when you have a tight end in the game? You can’t run “10 personnel” packages (one running back, zero tight ends, four wideouts). You know what formation the Cowboys have already been practicing in Oxnard this training camp? Right, 10 personnel.

It’s very likely the Cowboys’ coaching staff’s dysfunctional decision to allow Witten to decide his own playing time limited the Cowboys’ options in personnel packages. Imagine being an opposing coaching staff and knowing you never had to even consider the possibility the Cowboys would line up with four receivers? It would make your preparations a lot easier, wouldn’t it?

The Dez Bryant release decision

It’s already looking like releasing Dez Bryant was a sound decision. His disruptive behavior in meetings, on practice fields and on social media wasn’t worth his declining productivity. Fine, good move front office.

But why did it take until April to release Dez? The delay in making the decision hurt both the player and the team. Maybe the team knew they were going to release Dez and pursued free agency with that in mind. If so, you have to wonder why they wouldn’t release Dez beforehand. Or you might argue they didn’t release Dez because they wanted to see who they picked up in free agency and if they didn’t acquire anyone they would keep Dez.

That doesn’t make sense because if you’re going to release him due to the facts laid out above, you’ve already made your decision. You move on from him.

Regardless, the end result was the team went about free agency with a muddled Dez Bryant situation. As for the player, he was denied the opportunity to ply his trade in an open market place and was left to compete in a market place where every team had already spent most of their money and found their players.

A lot of players, and player agents, probably noticed how the team treated Bryant and took note. Again, it just seems like there wasn’t a strong plan in place and the team sort of made it up as they went along. That’s not how champions are made.

Changing the Sergeants, keeping the Lieutenants and Colonels

The Cowboys would have been wrong to blow up the coaching staff after last season. The Cowboys weren’t terrible; they finished 9-7 despite three different All-Pro players combining to miss all or parts of 15 games. That’s not great, but it’s not a disaster.

So keeping Jason Garrett, and even Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli, is fine. But then they jettisoned pretty much every other coach. And I kind of get that too. Watching All or Nothing it was pretty evident Derek Dooley had no clue how to run a film room once Dez Bryant started interrupting. It’s also disconcerting that players are currently praising new wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal because he’s teaching them technique.

Up and down the team, the position coaches didn’t seem to be too highly regarded other than linebacker’s coach Matt Eberflus (who chose to leave) and special teams coach Rich Bisaccia.

The question, though, is why were these coaches allowed to continue coaching in an unsatisfactory manner? If Dooley was having problems in his meetings why isn’t Linehan or Garrett stepping in and making it clear to Dez and everyone else that disruptive behavior won’t be tolerated during meetings?

Why wasn’t Garret coaching the coaches so they could teach the techniques the team seems to now value? Bill Belichick is well known for coaching his coaches including, but not limited to, how they review film. Belichick is so committed to having his staff coach his way he prefers hiring inexperienced young guys over proven experienced coaches because the experienced guys might introduce competing ideas to his own.

Last I checked Belichick has five rings to Garrett’s zero.

In short, if these coaches weren’t meeting the expected standard why weren’t they given the guidance and assistance they needed? Maybe this is too harsh. Perhaps Garrett, Linehan and Marinelli took truly horrible coaches and transformed them into merely adequate coaches with their tutelage. Yeah, probably not.

That’s just three examples. The bottom line is if you add all these seemingly small things up they add up to a big thing: through dysfunction the Cowboys have to overcome more obstacles than a team that doesn’t exist with such dysfunction.

True, every team (and organization, for that matter) has some dysfunction. Everyone can’t be the best at everything. But when you have the team’s owners committing unforced errors on the airwaves and never pausing to rethink their love of the spotlight, only a dominant team is going to be able to overcome such dysfunction and win a championship. The Cowboys haven’t been a dominant team in 23 years and I doubt they are one now.