As we watch the ongoing, full-speed train wreck that is the 2020 season of the Dallas Cowboys, it is logical to try to figure out what they can do to make things better. There is also a lot of meat for discussion about what they could have done differently to prevent this all from going to, um, crap. But the more you examine the situation, the more you wonder if this was an outcome that was basically beyond anyone’s control - at least those who are considered employees of the team.
There are certainly things that should have been done, and that can still be corrected. However, those likely would have not had significant impact on the state of the team. While we can argue about how badly the coaches have handled things or the failures of individual players, the biggest factors are things that no one can really affect, plus one thing that is just mystifying. It’s all my opinions, of course, but read on and see if these don’t make some sense.
A lot of people are tired of hearing this, but don’t think of it as an excuse. The idea here is to find causes, not give someone a pass. While all teams had to forego offseason activities, preseason games, and a truncated training camp, that had to have been a bigger issue for teams that largely changed out their staffs than anyone else. It seems more than mere coincidence that the NFC East, which has three teams in the Cowboys, the New York Giants, and the creatively named Washington Football Team that changed head coaches, is one of the most horrendous dumpster fires the NFL has ever seen. To be honest, the Philadelphia Eagles are squandering a great opportunity to just stroll into the playoffs, and if they can just get their act together, they should be able to overtake the Cowboys’ half game lead. After all, Doug Pederson managed to win a Super Bowl with Nick Foles. It’s hard to understand why he is not getting more out of his team now.
Obviously, no one could have predicted that this would hit the way it has. And after last season’s slow collapse, there really wasn’t an option to try one more year with Jason Garrett. While most probably won’t be willing to do so, we need to consider 2021 as the real first year for Mike McCarthy and his staff. Don’t be surprised, though, if there are not some significant changes to the makeup of the coaching group by then. There have been some apparent gross failures, and when things have gone this badly, heads are likely to roll, especially on the defensive side of things.
Injury upon injury
Just losing your starting quarterback is often enough to torpedo a season for many teams. Now add the total devastation of the offensive line, plus a handful of other starters off the field, and you have a situation that almost no amount of coaching genius can completely overcome. Throw in some highly questionable things that we have seen, again looking mostly at the defense, and the results so far should really not be so much of a shock.
Injuries are one of the most random things about the sport. If anything, they seem to be a bit more prevalent when teams are struggling in other aspects, perhaps because the players start trying too hard. Dak Prescott’s injury may be a great example of that. He was fighting for yards to get a badly needed win, and probably should have done the smart thing of going down rather than try to get that last yard for a first down. It was a first down play, after all.
Please don’t take that as a criticism of him, because you want that competitive fire, but we may now be learning just how much he elevated this team. He may have been trying to do too much because that is the way they were going to win games this year with all that has happened around him. Also, he had never missed a start before, although he played at least one game that he probably shouldn’t have the prior season. It was a freak thing, which is what a lot of major injuries are.
In any case, this has just created an obstacle that simply is insurmountable. No team can build enough depth to overcome the sheer volume of injuries Dallas has.
A plague of turnovers
This is mystifying. Prescott had a reputation for taking care of the ball, but was suddenly fumbling and throwing interceptions at a high rate. Ezekiel Elliott has just become a liability with his propensity to put the ball on the turf. Again, the pressure of how badly other things have gone may be leading to trying too hard - but that just doesn’t seem like a plausible explanation for why he is fumbling more than he ever has before.
A pet theory of mine is that the turnovers have directly damaged the defensive performance. You keep having to go out and defend a short field, and you are inevitably going to give up some scores. That can lead to doubts and a lack of motivation to try your hardest in a kind of snowball effect.
The Cowboys are a miserable minus twelve in turnovers, which over a season is enough to ruin any chances at being a winning team. When you do that badly in just six games, it is really a bit of a shock that you have any wins at all. For Dallas to flirt with even mediocrity, they have to clean this up. Having Andy Dalton behind that constantly changing offensive line does not seem promising. As terrible as it sounds, this could actually get worse. That means a lot more losses if it does.
The elephant in the owner’s suite
It can no longer be debated that Jerry Jones and his son Stephen are major factors in this debacle. There are two main reasons.
First, the Cowboys went into this season with a new coaching staff partly because they stuck so long with Jason Garrett. The reasons he was fired were things that had become evident several seasons ago. He just managed to sandwich enough regular season success among the bad years to keep the cozy relationship he seemed to have with the owners intact. Had the decision been made earlier, Dallas may have had an experienced staff that better understood their roster and been much more able to weather the other difficulties.
That roster is the second thing, because once again we have ample evidence that the team is just inept at evaluating and acquiring free agents. We are long past the point where the problems of having an owner who also serves as his own GM are glaringly obvious, but no one can do anything about that. Running the day-to-day operations is something that Jerry and Stephen are just too in love with. They have a ready-made GM in Will McClay, although he may not really want the additional responsibilities that come with it. In any case, the Joneses seem to become far too enamored of some players, like Elliott and Jaylon Smith, and their failure to get a long-term deal with Prescott done plus letting Byron Jones walk because he was not worth the cost in their eyes demonstrate that they have some strange ideas about cap management. This team may be mired in disappointment as long as the Jones family owns it, and there is absolutely no chance that is going to change.
While hiring and empowering a real GM would be something that might make a huge difference, it is also far beyond the power of coaches or players to affect. Like the other factors mentioned above, it is another thing that no head coach or most players can do anything about.
If you want solutions for this season, you may have to wait. These are issues that don’t have a ready fix.