What’s wrong with the Dallas Cowboys? If that is what you are thinking, let me explain your error. The correct question should be: What ISN’T wrong with the Dallas Cowboy? It’s a much, much shorter list, although far harder to identify.
This is a broken team. They have mustered only six wins this year, four of them against the other teams in the NFC East, the undisputed worst division in the NFL. Basically every time they have had a challenge ahead of them that didn’t involve their fellow divisional losers, they fell short. And as the season has progressed, the shortfalls are just becoming worse.
The performance against the Chicago Bears on Thursday night should be understood for exactly what it was, a brutally accurate picture of one of the descending teams in the league. It is time to shut up about the talent level being wasted, because that talent was pretty much invisible. Maybe some of the players on the roster are very good, although that is now questionable in many cases. They are doing nothing right. That was true against the Bears, and it is something that has become more prevalent over time. Forget about correcting problems. First this team needs to figure out how to not get worse.
There has been a social media discussion on whether this team has quit on head coach Jason Garrett and the rest of his staff. Just in my opinion, it is something much like that, but not exactly. The apathy that we saw when Wade Phillips lost his locker room does not seem to be evident. I realize that this may be a bit too subtle a distinction, but this seems to be more a case of where the coaches have lost the team in a different way. Not in the sense that the team has truly given up or is not trying for them. It is more that the coaches no longer understand what the roster is capable of, or what they should be trying to do on the field. It is analogous to losing touch with reality, and it afflicts both players and coaches.
What is most disturbing about all this is that there are no clearly observable steps being taken to improve things. The current approaches are just not working, and have not been. It is not mere coincidence that the Bears game followed the exact same script as the loss a week earlier to the Buffalo Bills. Success on the opening, scripted offensive drive, followed by almost total ineptitude moving the ball until it was far too late. Defensive inability to get off the field. Poor special teams play, a true hallmark of this year’s team. Incompetent tackling. Stupid penalties.
The NFL is a world of small sample sizes, so care must be taken in drawing sweeping conclusions. Still, this looks like real evidence that the rest of the league has completely figured out the Cowboys, and comes into games with a way to effectively attack their defense while stymieing the offense. Special teams are just a bonus, because Dallas is all about unforced errors there.
Last year we complained bitterly about the predictability and staleness of the offense under Scott Linehan. I was certainly one who thought he was most if not all of the problem. Well, we may all owe Linehan a huge apology. After the first few games, the Cowboys have become consistently conservative. Motion has vanished from the offense, first down runs are again the go-to play, and play-action keeps declining in use. I don’t know if Kellen Moore is just as far in over his head as many predicted he would be, if he is being too restricted by Jason Garrett, if they are just putting too much on Dak Prescott, or if the rest of the offense is just not up to the task. Whatever the reason (and “all of the above” is certainly a possibility), things have failed miserably. It raises the question of just who really decided on giving Moore a shot calling plays? If it was Garrett, then he either failed to support Moore properly as the season progressed, or he made a bad decision to start. If Moore was more or less forced on him by Jerry and/or Stephen Jones, then they deserve the responsibility for creating a situation that had such a great chance for failure.
Meanwhile, it is obvious that offenses have a comprehensive grasp of where the vulnerabilities are on defense and exploit them with ease, even if they have average or worse talent. It is dumbfounding how so many teams that struggle to move the ball have outstanding games against the Dallas defense. It doesn’t matter if the quarterback can’t make reads or accurate throws in fifteen other games, all of them seem to turn into All-Pros for 60 minutes against the Cowboys. Anemic running games flourish. Receivers that can’t get open against anyone else find huge vacant areas of the field. Patchwork offensive lines become impenetrable in pass protection and road graders running the ball. And everyone breaks tackles. Everyone. EVERYONE.
Coaching often gets blamed too much in the league, and the individual failures of the players certainly factor into this relentless drive to irrelevance. But when things are so pervasive, when all phases of the game are failing, then you have to start looking to things like coaching, as well as management and culture.
Jerry Jones has been observably upset and angry after the past two losses. Maybe it’s time to start directing those emotions at something he can clearly fix, but just won’t. For many years, heavy criticism has been leveled at him for his insistence on being the general manager of his own team. He once famously said that he would have fired himself a long time ago for poor performance. If he truly wants to see the team succeed whatever it takes, he should step back and bring in a true general manager. That does not mean to hand the reins to Stephen, either. All evidence is that the son has the same errors in his approach to the job as the father. No, the team needs to consider either promoting someone from within, possibly named Will McClay, or if he prefers to stick to talent evaluation, go out and bring in someone else to oversee the staff and roster. Jerry and Stephen can still find plenty to do with contracts and cap management, as along as they do it to get the players they are told the team need. They also have their huge outside empire to run. It’s not like they need the hands on involvement. It is a luxury they should forego.
That’s what should happen. It won’t. I just had to vent a bit there. So we have to look to the next level to address the issues, which is to clean out the coaching staff. I don’t care how many reports there are that Jason Garrett is not on the hot seat. If he is retained next year, we have to question just whether Jones is in the slightest way competent to make football decisions. However, recent reports that the Jones family has already been in contact with Urban Meyer raise at least a faint hope that they are making the necessary decision. And the total sorriness of the coaching means that they need to forget dictating any current assistants be retained by the next head coach. Clearly they have done a poor job in that department so far, and need to give the next guy a free hand. We don’t know exactly how that will all play out, of course, but at least this is a possible, if not exactly probably, hope.
And then there is that culture. Garrett seemed to do a great job building one, but there has always been a bit of tension between what he preaches and the over-the-top optimism of his owner. Now that has reached a breaking point. Just like in letting the new head coach select the staff, the Jones family needs to step back and let him deal with the players.
Sadly, that is also not likely. Sometimes you have to wonder just how big being able to interact with the players is in motivating Jerry. It is highly unlikely he is going change himself. One reason Garrett stuck around for so long was that he could work around his bosses’ foibles and quirks. The odds are that the next guy ain’t gonna be as good at that.
Does that sound pessimistic? If it does, you are to be congratulated on your reading comprehension. I fully expect a coaching housecleaning, but don’t think that is enough for this team. And I haven’t even gotten to the roster.
Still, something has to give. The Cowboys are a truly shattered team. They need to be put back together as best they can, and replacing the coaches is the most achievable step. It may not be nearly enough - but it has to be done.