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Three thoughts on the calamitous collapse of the Cowboys

How did it go so wrong? A shot at some answers.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints
Here’s a hint.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Talk about beaten down. The Dallas Cowboys are tied for the NFC East playoff berth but it sure doesn’t feel like it. It is hard to talk about being a champion or winner when the division is so bad and the chances are good that whoever goes to the playoffs from the East will be a .500 or worse team. The Cowboys still hold the tiebreaker over the Philadelphia Eagles. This should be a time to look for hope and possibilities despite the challenges. Yet all discussion is about what has gone wrong with the team this season. I do apologize for being a bit of a downer of late, but then, if you are a Cowboys fan, I’m sure your head is in much the same space.

It feels like there was a breaking point

Specifically, this team seemed to be shattered by one particular game, the 24-22 loss to the New York Jets in week six. They had won the first three games comfortably, although there was a noticeable downward trend already in evidence in several statistical categories. Then they lost a very close game to the New Orleans Saints, without Drew Brees, and then a more decisive loss to the Green Bay Packers. Both those were seen at the time as likely playoff teams, which has proven to be quite true. While there were some obvious things to work on, getting a win in their sixth game would get things right.

Only it didn’t happen. Instead, a woeful Jets team that has only won four other games this season embarrassed Dallas, particularly with the last four minutes of the first half. The Cowboys were trailing 7-3 at the time, and then Sam Darnold launched a 92-yard touchdown pass to open things up. That was bad enough, but not only did the Cowboys not answer offensively, they let the Jets march 65 yards on their next possession, in only 1:33, to push the lead to 21-3 at halftime.

The startling breakdown on defense plus the inability to move the ball even to keep it away from the Jets was brutal. It is oversimplified, but I think that span of less than four minutes of playing time was the point at which this Cowboys team cracked. They never truly recovered, despite what seemed like a redemption game the next week against the Eagles. As it turned out, that was far more about how poorly Philadelphia is playing this season than the Cowboys roaring back.

Still, we have to ask: Why was that such a fatal blow? Teams have breakdowns all the time and rebound. There have to be some underlying flaws that led to this.

Talent failure

Coming into this season, the consensus was that this was the most talented Dallas roster in years, perhaps decades. Either we were flat out lied to, or something has gone very wrong.

The use of the term “lied to” is not meant to imply a deliberate deception. It is more about all the reports we had from camp, plus the way the roster looked coming off the 2018 season. On paper, there was a lot of talent here. And everyone reporting on the team was impressed by what they were seeing. Were they all fooled?

I don’t think so. Instead, this looks like a clear case of squandering a team that, at the least, has some good players at most positions. It hardly looks like that. That in turn points to what is becoming the consensus problem: Bad coaching.

And it extends to all phases of the game. The offense has sputtered since that Eagles game. The defense has just started to fall apart, making average to poor quarterbacks look like Pro Bowlers. Special teams have just been a monumental level of suckitude all season.

That is why the team seems forced into wholesale changes on the staff. Of course Jason Garrett is seen as on his way out, and the problems on defense and special teams have been so pervasive, those coaches should join Garrett in cleaning out their desks.

The offense is a bit different. In a recent article here, David Howman looked at the offensive staff, and felt that many coaches on that side of the ball deserved to come back. He makes some valid points, especially about Jon Kitna, Marc Colombo, Sanjay Lal, and Gary Brown. But the situation with Kellen Moore is murkier. After a blistering start, the offense certainly fell off. More tellingly, the first-down run seemed to come back, motion became less frequent, and the play-action pass was less used as well. In short, things became more conservative, and opponents have just shut Dallas down.

Many are pointing the finger of blame at Garrett for this, but there is another possibility. Moore was the protege of Scott Linehan, who was run out of Dallas for being too conservative. Are we seeing Garrett throttling things back, or has Moore just reverted to what he was taught? The answer to that is the real indicator of whether Moore even deserves a shot at remaining.

All this may be moot, of course. Any head coach who takes the Cowboys job should make having full control over his staff non-negotiable. If he doesn’t he is basically setting himself up for another issue.

A crisis of culture

I had come up with the first two points here, but still felt I was missing something. Then, as sometimes happens on the internet, the answer was revealed.

OK, this may be more a theory than a definitive answer.

But it’s a good one.

For those with short memories, Marcus Spears played for the Cowboys at a particularly relevant time to make a judgment on this topic. He was on the roster when Garrett replaced Wade Phillips. He was part of a team that had lost its faith in the head coach, and now he sees the same thing happening again. And he puts the blame not on Garrett, but on who he thought was also the real cause of Phillips’ departure: Jerry Jones.

“We all know in sports, if the upper management, the head coach, or even captains on the team create an environment – we’ll find out real quick if you fit in it, and you will eventually root yourself out by default,” Spears said. “Right now, the Cowboys doesn’t have an environment. They don’t have a culture right now because the guy that’s at the top [Jones] is talking about the guy you’re supposed to listen to [Garrett].”

This, for me at least, was the final piece of this puzzle. It was a mystery trying to sort out just how this team was so brittle that a bit of adversity could just shatter things. Spears lays out a strong case.

In essence, Jones set all this up during the offseason when he opted to not give Garrett an extension. That is not to say that he should have done so, although in retrospect it might have solidified Garrett’s position and led to a very different team. No, the main issue is that Jones spoke at length, as he does concerning just about everything, about how this was a “prove it” year for his head coach. It was a steady pounding on the authority and control of his head coach, which just did not survive the constant undermining and implied threat to his job. When things started going badly, the faith the players once had in Garrett to right the ship was foundering. They know this season is teetering on the precipice. Even if they do back into the playoffs, it’s a big leap of faith for them to believe that they can stand up against the rest of the playoff field.

Admittedly, it may be a bit of seeing a desired result, but it would be highly apropos if the real cause of this failed season turns out to be the mistakes of the owner/GM. He made the mess, and now he’s going to have to try and clean it up. Sadly, there is no evidence that he understands what he did wrong, or is willing to take the steps necessary to fixing things.

But this way of looking at things at least brings a certain sense to what has happened.

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