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Cowboys hot topic: Looking for a 2020 vision

Dallas is still alive for the playoffs, but the team’s performance to date predicts a quick exit, with huge decisions looming about the future.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys
Whatcha gonna do, Mr. Jones?
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

It is a strange situation for the Dallas Cowboys. That includes the media covering them and the fans. They are still very much alive in the playoff race. Thanks to the unexpected loss by the Philadelphia Eagles to the Miami Dolphins, the Cowboys actually control their fate, if they can just start winning again. But that is one big “if” there. The Thanksgiving Day debacle against the Buffalo Bills has shaken confidence. Now they travel to face the Chicago Bears on a cold Thursday night, and have the Los Angeles Rams after that. All evidence points to those being a couple of tough games for this team. So while there is a lot of discussion about the various ways Dallas can still make the playoffs as the representative of the NFC East (it is hard to say “champion” when the division is so abysmal this season), there is also a lot of talk about what happens when the season does end, whether it is in December or January.

The big decisions for Jerry Jones, with the normal influential input from his family, are what to do about the coaching staff, and a lot of contracts to sort out.

In the offseason, Jones chose to not extend head coach Jason Garrett. That now seems like a truly prescient judgment. And it means that, as of now, the head coaching job for next year is vacant. It is a testament to just how disappointing the season has been that, even though the Cowboys still sit in first place in the division, almost no one expects Garrett to receive an offer to return. Stumbling into the playoffs is not enough to change the conversation. At the least, the team would have to claw its way to the NFC championship game to put Garrett back in the mix - and there is a strong argument that nothing short of a Super Bowl appearance would be enough. A plethora of problems have afflicted this team. To name just some of the most vexing, the team has had far too many slow starts, the special teams have been atrocious, and the defense seems incapable of generating turnovers. All can be attributed largely to failures in coaching, and that lands right in Garrett’s lap. Every meaningful assistant coaching position has been changed during his tenure, but we still suffer through these issues.

Naming a new head coach is a move always fraught with potential pitfalls, and absolutely no guarantee that it will be a successful one. At this point, however, Jones is backed into a corner. Short of a truly miracle run, he can do little else. While the New York Giants have proven in recent history that such a run is not impossible, it still is extremely improbable. The multiple ways the Cowboys have found to lose games just lengthen the odds.

So at a time when we should be focusing on how Dallas can correct its many issues and start getting those much-needed wins, we are speculating about who is going to get one of the most coveted head coaching spots in the league. Any arguments that the Cowboys job is not that are spurious. This is still perhaps the most glamorous job in the NFL, with the brightest spotlight, tremendous facilities, a great location, and an owner of famously deep pockets. While some candidates might balk at some aspects of the job, most are going to just try to see how much money they can get out of Jones.

Just about every available candidate is being mentioned as a possibility. Some are a bit more far-fetched than others, but there are many intriguing possibilities, including a couple of potential internal hires. As reported earlier here, things just got more interesting with the news that University of Washington head coach Chris Peterson is unexpectedly stepping down from his job to take another role at the school. What really makes you sit up and take notice is his job before coaching the Huskies. He was previously the head coach at Boise State, the well-known pipeline for Cowboys players. Current alumni on the roster are DeMarcus Lawrence, Leighton Vander Esch, Darian Thompson, and Cedrick Wilson. Even more interesting is that current OC and former player Kellen Moore was his quarterback when Moore was setting multiple records. Of course, we shouldn’t overreact.

OK, so do as I say, not what I (jokingly) do.

In any case, getting a new head coach hired and started on building his staff will be the first priority for the Cowboys. You really have to have the new regime’s input before you can get down to handling the multiple contracts that must be decided on.

And there are a bunch of those. Current players that will be free agents next year (as ranked by Sports Illustrated before the season) include:

  • QB Dak Prescott
  • WR Amari Cooper
  • CB Byron Jones
  • DT Antwaun Woods
  • DT Maliek Collins
  • LB Sean Lee
  • DE Robert Quinn
  • SS Jeff Heath
  • WR Randall Cobb
  • S Kavon Frazier

Plus Jason Witten, Tavon Austin, LP Ladouceur, and mid-season acquisition Michael Bennett, and others.

That is a ton. And despite the fairly large amount of cap space for next year ($87.8 million, according to Over the Cap), there is no way the Cowboys can keep all of them. Nor, probably, should they.

A harsh reality that has emerged this season is that the Dallas roster is simply not as good as we thought it was. That is what the 6-6 record forces upon us. Yes, coaching played a real role, but there have been myriad failures on the field as well. The Cowboys have locked up some players such as Ezekiel Elliott, Jaylon Smith and La’el Collins already. That still leaves a lot of hard calls to make.

Outside of Prescott and Cooper, there is no one who is truly indispensable on the list. That includes Jones, who is a great coverage CB but notoriously poor at getting the ball away from the opponent. The Cowboys will be looking for affordable deals, not a bunch more that will take huge chunks of space the way Prescott and Cooper are certain to. Then the team will have to figure out how to stretch free agent money and work overtime to have a solid draft to fill out the rest.

The next CBA may help with the cap situation, but that is still very much an unknown. And despite still having a good chance to get into the playoffs almost despite themselves, the Cowboys need to face the fact they are facing a massive remodeling job. Only the fact they have some key core players in place or, in the case of Prescott and Cooper, still somewhat under their control via tags, keeps it from being an outright rebuild.

That means that things are likely to get harder the next couple of years rather than immediately better. This is an extremely challenging course the staff has to map out, which just makes that head coaching search all the more crucial.

This is going to take a clear vision. It is the arguably the greatest challenge facing the Jones family since they bought the team. And recapturing the magic of the Jimmy Johnson era, in a radically different environment, is going to be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

As Cowboys fans, we live in interesting times. We must hope it turns out to be more blessing than curse.

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