Every week we try to learn from the game the Dallas Cowboys just played. But after the disheartening, frustrating beatdown at the hands of the Buffalo Bills, it is hard to see anything new that we have been taught. The case for a change at head coach certainly got stronger, but it was already bordering on the inevitable. Except for not having a slow start, the problems were much the same: Turnovers but no takeaways, inability to sustain drives or stop the other team, bad special teams play, and some questionable coaching decisions. If there was anything new, it was that Dak Prescott had an atypically bad game.
Truthfully, the game just raised more questions.
Does the record reflect the true strength of the roster?
Most of us were convinced of the depth and talent of this roster. Twelve games into the season, that looks like an absolute lie. Based strictly on performance, the Cowboys have mediocre talent that is totally stymied against good teams, and can only beat bad ones. Unless, of course, they have a really bad outing and lose to one of the latter.
The majority of the offensive line are All Pros, and La’el Collins is, according to many analysts, having a very good year. Yet when Xavier Su’a-Filo had to come in for an injured Connor Williams, two plays later Ed Oliver beat Su’a-Filo to force the fumble that led to the go-ahead touchdown for the Bills, and the Cowboys would trail the rest of the way. Ezekiel Elliott is the highest paid running back in the league but opponents seem able to nullify him at will, and he has not had a 100 yard game in the past four outings. Dallas now has DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn, and Michael Bennett to rush the passer, but it has hardly slowed opponents down. The secondary seems largely incapable of interceptions. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Randall Cobb should be one of the best receiving trios in the league, but they have too many drops and, like Elliott, seem to be easily stymied by good defenses. The linebackers have been soft in too many games. The presence of Jason Witten has not made the tight ends more effective. And now Prescott seems to be trying too hard to pick this team up, leading to more mistakes and some reversion to the bad footwork that he has suffered in the past.
There seem to be a lot of good pieces. They just don’t seem to fit together, like trying to combine parts from a Ferrari and a Porsche. And a few players that might add more are just not used enough, like Tony Pollard and Blake Jarwin.
Is the entire concept of this being a strong roster really just a figment of overoptimistic imaginations? We have been obsessing about how the Cowboys can keep all the players that are free agents after this season, but that concern is looking more erroneous every day. They have to keep Prescott, and Cooper has been too good to forego, but as for the rest, maybe it would be better to let them go in free agency and focus on bringing in new players that hopefully suit the needs of the team better. There are too many contracts already done to really rebuild things, but some serious remodeling may be in order.
Or is it just the way the players are being used? That turns the focus back to the coaches, and it is not just an indictment of Jason Garrett. Kellen Moore and Kris Richard also have to be scrutinized. There is of course the question of just what Garrett directs his assistants to do, especially Moore, but the way the offense fizzled out after the opening drive on Thanksgiving raises some questions about how Moore is doing things as well. Richard just has not gotten much out of his defense all season.
Will a change at head coach make things better?
It is a mandatory move at this point. The infamous process is falling apart, and it is hard to imagine the team suddenly getting its act together and making a run. The Cowboys now only have slightly better than even odds of making the playoffs as NFC East champs, and are slumping. There is just no real justification for bringing Garrett back.
So everyone is throwing out names for the next head coach, while wondering if Moore and Jon Kitna might somehow be retained on the new staff. Well, it’s time to throw some cold water on things with a simple, ironclad fact.
It is more likely to get worse, at least for a couple of seasons, than it is to get better.
Do you want a proven success like Sean Payton? There is no assurance he can work well with the Jones family. Even if he does, he is going to want to make some significant changes, and it could take a while to get things working correctly. Looking for a hot assistant from a successful team? The NFL is littered with guys like that who have failed. How about an innovative or incredibly successful college coach? Nick Saban and Chip Kelly remain cautionary tales.
Most new head coaches in the NFL are around for a few years, then get fired because they don’t win, or get figured out after some early success. It is just as likely to happen in Dallas. Partly it depends on Jerry Jones and his key advisers like his son Stephen making the right call. This is the same Jerry Jones, remember, who insists that Garrett is the most likely coach to salvage things the rest of this year.
A new head coach may turn things around right out of the gate. It has happened. Usually, however, it doesn’t get the desired results. And with the questions mentioned above about the roster, it may actually be harder in Dallas than most places, especially with the new coach having to deal with the ownership that has been instrumental in putting this roster together, and seems to have the same preference for proven veterans that Garrett has shown, often to poor effect.
What in the world has happened with the special teams?
This has been a personal concern of mine for most of the season. While the offense and defense have had their major failures, they have also had times and even entire games when they looked good. But special teams has been one long, depressing failure all year. There are almost no highlights from them, just cringe-worthy play after cringe-worthy play.
#Cowboys ST ranks through Week 13:— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) November 30, 2019
27th in PR average
29th in FG %
32nd in KR average
32nd in Gross Punt average
32nd in Net Punt average
T-32nd in Kicks Blocked (offense)
T-32nd in Return TDs
T-32nd in Blocked Kicks (defense)
Even throwing out the last three, which are rare occurrences, the others are so bad that you have to wonder how a team can be that incompetent. I have been pointing out how Dallas loses the field position battle almost every week, and usually by a significant margin. We have been blaming coordinator Keith O’Quinn and Garrett for this mess, but you almost have to wonder just how bad the players involved are as well.
This is basic football, and it is like the staff and players just decided to skip preparing for this part of the game. That is of course an obvious exaggeration, but it is hard to fathom just how terrible things have been.
Is it all too broken to fix?
The danger of not even making the playoffs is now very real. Even if they scrap their way in, winning a playoff game would frankly surprise almost all of us. So from that perspective, yes, this certainly looks to be a lost cause this season.
So fixing it means next year. (You may now give a deep, soul-scorched sigh.) And it is not going to be a simple thing, either. Even if the new staff has answers, they are probably not going to be things that can be done in one offseason. It may take three or four years just to get this team on a winning track. By then, this will be a very different roster.
Will it get better even then? That is the real question, and involves a simple reality. The ownership isn’t going anywhere. That means the general manager is not, either, or the position will simply pass from the patriarch to his heirs. This year has given new fuel to the question of just how much of the problem lies with the Jones family. What has transpired points in a very negative direction.
Look, I hope that this team will find answers. I’d love to see it happen over the remainder of this season. I just have almost zero hope it will. I will pull for whoever inherits this mess as head coach and his staff to make this a better team. I will not believe it until it happens, though.
There are just far too many question in my mind about that.