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The Cowboys are fundamentally broken, but it goes beyond the coaches and players

Will McClay is doing his best, but the guys at the top are failing.

Dallas Cowboys v Miami Dolphins

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And the 2020 Cowboys season is rhyming really well with the 2010 Cowboys season. Both teams entered as strong Super Bowl contenders, struggled out of the gate, and then became deflated when their franchise quarterback went down for the year. Reports that Wade Phillips lost the locker room during the 1-7 start led to his ousting at the midway point, and it seems players on the current squad are already questioning their head coach as well.

But Mike McCarthy isn’t new to this, His entire 13-year tenure in Green Bay involved their franchise quarterback glaring at him on the sidelines and constantly sparring with him in a passive aggressive manner. McCarthy may not have handled that as well as he should have, but he seems determined not to make the same mistake now.

“Well, I mean, first off, I haven’t heard any of those type of discussions,” McCarthy said on a conference call with reporters. “I think like a lot of things when you hit a part of your season, or any challenge where there is negativity out there and where it comes from and who it comes from, that’s something that I’ve never chased. I think you do have to recognize it. I just really go back to my first meeting with the football team. I’ve always stated that . . . it’s important to handle things as men.

I mean, if you do have something to say publicly that is of most important, I think it’s important to say it to the individual, or particularly in a group dynamic setting, especially in the game of football, especially for the Dallas Cowboys. I mean, that’s all part of the development our program, of the system that we’ve got going here. I think that’s just part of our flight right now. We don’t like the way we played last night. We had some areas that we struggled strong in. It’s definitely not what we’re looking for.”

Whether McCarthy’s approach works remains to be seen, but it doesn’t really matter in the long run. Nor do the injuries that continue to mount in Dallas, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Even though the Cowboys remain the favorites to win the NFC East - and I do believe they’ll win it, albeit with a terrible record - this season is a wash. Losing three All-Pro offensive linemen before Week 5 is bad, but then going on to lose your franchise quarterback is a debilitating blow.

It’s also impossible to judge this coaching staff accurately. When McCarthy took the job and assembled his coaching staff, he had no inkling of the injuries that laid ahead, nor that the offseason in which to implement broad changes to both scheme and culture was about to be drastically altered. As much as fans want to fire Mike Nolan or even McCarthy, it’s impossible get an accurate judgment of this staff right now.

But again, it doesn’t matter, because this Cowboys team is fundamentally broken. It’s got nothing to do with Dak being out, McCarthy not being a good coach, or anything else on the field. The problem is that the Cowboys as an organization are being run into the ground by two men - Jerry and Stephen Jones - whose model for roster construction is inherently flawed.

The Joneses have been (rightly) lauded in recent years for their more conservative approach to free agency and Will McClay has helped them unearth some great talents in the draft. Look no further than this year’s rookie class, which currently has five starters or frequent contributors to the team. But roster construction goes beyond getting good players; you have to build a good team, with players that complement each other’s strengths. Let’s break it down between all three phases of the game.

Offense

You already know where I’m going with this. The 2016 NFL Draft gave the Cowboys a choice between Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey. There have been whispers about who in the front office wanted which player, but Dallas took Zeke. On the surface, it’s hard to say that was the wrong choice, both players have made three Pro Bowls, been named to the first team All-Pro once, and are considered one of the best at their positions.

But the context is befuddling, at best. Going into the 2016 draft, the Cowboys were coming off a year in which 28-year old Darren McFadden had just rushed for over 1,000 yards and given Dallas the 10th best rush offense DVOA that year despite the overall offense ranking third from the bottom. McFadden had just proved the Cowboys’ model right that they could put any running back behind their excellent offensive line and still have an effective ground game without having to shell out big bucks to DeMarco Murray, who had struggled heavily that year in Philly. The Joneses stumbled their way into proving that running backs really don’t matter, and then immediately decided to ignore their own instructions.

Conversely, the Cowboys’ top two corners - Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne - were both entering the final years of their contracts and it was no secret that the team didn’t want either player back. As things played out, Dallas tried to replace their cornerback tandem with Nolan Carroll and Bene Benwikere heading into the 2017 season and ended up being forced into playing Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, and Chidobe Awuzie because Plan A failed so spectacularly.

If the Cowboys had understood the rules of positional value - wherein it’s a nearly objective truth that cornerback is more important than running back - they wouldn’t have wasted their fourth overall pick on Zeke, whose five fumbles this year leads the league, and could’ve instead taken a guy like Derrick Henry, who only has seven fumbles in his entire career.

But because they invested so much draft capital into Zeke, they suddenly felt the need to give him a massive second contract, even prioritizing him over their quarterback. The fact that the Joneses fell into this sunk cost fallacy is embarrassing enough on its own, but it’s made worse now that we’ve seen evidence that Zeke is not the straw that stirs the drink.

Then, because they tied up so much money in their running back, the Joneses started pinching pennies with their quarterback, giving further evidence that they have no idea how to build a roster. And while Trevon Diggs is getting baptized by fire as a rookie corner on a struggling defense, the Cowboys could already have one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, which brings us to the defense...

Defense

Wow, this defense. There’s so much that can be said. When the Cowboys retained Jason Garrett after his interim stretch in 2010, he picked up Rob Ryan as his defensive coordinator. Ryan had led successful units in Oakland and Cleveland, and his aggressive, blitzing defense used a lot of press man coverage. So after struggling through his first year with the likes of Mike Jenkins and an aging Terence Newman, Ryan was gifted two top-end press corners in Carr and Claiborne.

A year later, Ryan was kicked to the curb and the secondary that had been built for lots of press man was suddenly playing almost exclusively soft zone in Monte Kiffin’s hilariously outdated Tampa 2 defense. Rod Marinelli taking over in 2014 slightly helped, but it was still an ugly mismatch of talent. By the time Kris Richard came aboard, the Cowboys were transitioning from lots of Cover 2 to lots of Cover 3, creating a Frankenstein’s monster of clashing schemes that teams figured out real quick.

Enter Mike Nolan, who’s effectively trying to recreate many of the things Ryan did. Just from a schematic standpoint, the Cowboys have had three or four very radical changes in the last decade alone, and few rosters can keep up with that.

But of the rosters that can keep up with that, the Cowboys certainly are not one of them. Just look at the defensive line. Ryan’s defense called for space-eating linemen, but he was left to work with the undersized penetration guys of Wade Phillips’ one-gap scheme, including Jay Ratliff attempting to play a true nose tackle position. Marinelli’s one-gap penetration scheme fit that personnel, but it required a dominant 3-technique that Dallas never actually invested in, and now Nolan is trying to beef up his line with a way-past-his-prime Dontari Poe and, uh, Tyrone Crawford?

But the secondary is the most egregious offense. While the Joneses have been fairly good about paying their star pass rushers while they’re good, they’ve ignored the importance of a good secondary, even as data starts to support more and more the greater impact that good coverage has versus the pass rush. How many times have we railed on them for refusing to invest in a good safety, for example?

Let’s check out the top five defenses according to DVOA this year: the Buccaneers, Steelers, Colts, Ravens, and Bears. Tampa Bay drafted ball-hawking safety Antoine Winfield Jr. with the 45th overall pick, and he’s been a force all over the field. Pittsburgh traded a first round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick, who tallied five picks in 14 games and has become an anchor for them this year. The Colts took Malik Hooker 15th overall in 2017 and Julian Blackmon 85th overall this year, while the Bears got lucky with their steal of Eddie Jackson in the fourth round but smartly made him the highest paid safety in January of this year before Arizona’s Budda Baker - another example of the value of great defensive backs - eclipsed him.

The Ravens are the anomaly, as they haven’t put much into the safety position but have instead invested a lot into the cornerback spots. Baltimore traded for Marcus Peters and gave him a hefty extension, drafted Marlon Humphrey in the first round a few years back, and have long enjoyed the steady consistency of Jimmy Smith, another first-round pick back in 2011.

When was the last time Dallas spent a first-round pick on a defensive back? Byron Jones, and they refused to give him a second contract even after his ascension to the upper echelon of corners. Before him, it was Claiborne, who busted out of the starting lineup due to injuries and scheme changes. How many total defensive backs have the Cowboys even drafted in the top 100 since 2010? Just five players. Jones and Claiborne are two of them. The other three are Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Trevon Diggs. Awuzie and Lewis will be free agents this summer, and with the way things are going there’s little reason to think they’ll be brought back.

The Cowboys, through sheer incompetence, have utterly failed to invest at the most important spot on defense, and in the rare instances that they have, they’ve neglected to keep that talent beyond their first contract. Instead, they’ve used draft capital on things like off-ball linebackers or edge rushers that hardly registered a sack before being cut. Had Dallas played their cards right, they could have entered this year with a starting secondary of Byron Jones, Jalen Ramsey, Xavier Woods, and Juan Thornhill. Instead, we’re left with this mess.

Special teams

There’s not much to say here other than that the Cowboys’ approach to special teams prior to 2020 has stunk. Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach Dan Campbell was once quoted as saying that the 46 players you get to have on the active roster is so small that you better fill it up with guys you can actually use. In other words, if you’re on the active roster you better be able to contribute on offense, defense, or special teams.

Under Garrett’s tenure, that was rarely the case, and especially after Rich Bisaccia left the team. Backup spots were usually just that, and you were either a starter or you didn’t play. To the credit of McCarthy and John Fassel, that’s changed dramatically. Through these first six games, the Cowboys have never had three or more active players not get snaps, and for three of those games it was the backup quarterback not getting a snap, which you expect.

Prior to Fassel’s arrival, the only time the Cowboys have ever really put an emphasis on special teams was the dreaded Special Teams Draft of 2009, which was so bad that it paved the way for McClay to gain a louder voice in draft prep. McClay has done a good job when it comes to scouting, but there’s only so much he can do. Jerry and Stephen ultimately call the shots, and that’s a bad thing because their model for building a contender is inherently flawed. Nothing - not McCarthy as coach, Dak at quarterback, Anyone But Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator - can change that. These problems run deep, and they’ll continue to run this team into the ground unless the approach changes soon.