The Dallas Cowboys, largely under the guidance of Will McClay, have done a good job of adding talent these last few years without breaking the bank. It was ultimately Jason Garrett’s downfall, because after the rebuild he oversaw the team became too talented to underachieve. The thought in moving on from Garrett was that they just needed someone who could turn that talented roster into a talented team.
That’s easier said than done; just look at the Cleveland Browns. The 2018 season was supposed to be their year, adding Baker Maydield and Nick Chubb in the draft and trading for Jarvis Landry, along with stars all over their defense. But after starting 2-5-1, Cleveland fired head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. They went with Freddie Kitchens, their interim offensive coordinator, as the head coach for 2019, which was again supposed to be their year. They traded for Odell Beckham Jr. to help Mayfield take the next step, but he regressed horribly and Cleveland fired Kitchens after a 6-10 finish. Now they’re 5-2 and look to finally be putting things together.
It was never a lack of talent in 2018 or 2019, though. It was more a reflection of the importance of having a winning culture. Jackson took over the Browns in 2016, and he brought with him a sudden surge in analytics in Cleveland’s front office. The idea was simple: tank the next couple of years to acquire great talent, and then Jackson (at the time heralded as the best head coaching hire that season) could lead their young stars to greatness.
The problem ended up being the same we saw with the Jaguars a few years prior, or the 76ers in the NBA: when you’ve been okay with losing for so long, it’s hard to learn how to win. Jackson underestimated this, and Kitchens was in way over his head to begin with.
The Cowboys are now experiencing a similar problem, though the issue isn’t being okay with losing so much as it is complacency. Garrett oversaw a massive roster turnover his first few years as head coach, and it coincided with a culture change as well. Under Wade Phillips, the Cowboys had experienced success unlike they ever had in the 21st century: they won a playoff game. But Phillips’ relaxed approach allowed players to get overconfident, leading to the awful 1-7 start that got him fired in 2010.
Garrett took a more disciplined approach. Players started wearing pads in practice to make them tougher for games, and Marion Barber was reportedly fined by the team for not wearing a suit on the team plane before a game. Garrett started using talking points based around fight, with the idea that if guys were just competitive and never gave up, they’d eventually win.
It’s great stuff when you’re still building a team. It keeps players focused on effort and working towards something. But when you build that team and it’s time to take the next step, it’s time to evolve the mantra. Garrett never did, and his players became okay with doing just enough. They knew that as long as they kept up the fight, Garrett wouldn’t turn on them, and this allowed them to become complacent and be okay with coming up short in the big moments.
This is not a unique phenomenon. John Fox did something similar in Denver, building the Broncos into contenders but being unable to get them over the hump; Tony Dungy did it Tampa Bay, amassing a wildly talented defense but struggling to capitalize on it. Both were replaced with guys who could do what they couldn’t: Gary Kubiak won a Super Bowl with the Broncos in his first year, while Tampa Bay got Jon Gruden from the Raiders and immediately won a ring, too. The common theme: both were veteran head coaches who came from winning cultures in the past.
So when the Cowboys opted not to bring back Garrett, they went out and got Mike McCarthy, who fit that mold. He had coached for 13 years in Green Bay and won a Super Bowl. Unlike Garrett, McCarthy knew how to run a team and he knew how to win a ring. In Green Bay, McCarthy was known for his tough locker room culture that placed winning above all else. If you weren’t going to get things done, you wouldn’t stick around; McCarthy said as much in his decision to trade Ty Montgomery after the running back made a crucial error late in a close game.
Of course, that kind of culture is going to have casualties. Montgomery was an obvious one, but it also added to the tension with Aaron Rodgers, known for his mercurial personality. McCarthy’s devotion to doing whatever it takes to win meant occasionally calling out Rodgers for poor play, as well as not pumping up his ego unnecessarily. For someone like Rodgers, that can fracture a relationship, and it did. With someone like Dak Prescott though, who’s known for being extremely team-oriented with a laser-focused work ethic, it’s a perfect match.
But when McCarthy came to Dallas, nobody understood just how much of a culture change would be needed. Unlike the aforementioned Fox and Dungy, who had spent a combined total of 10 years with their teams before being fired, Garrett had been the Cowboys head coach for 10 years alone, as well as an additional three years prior to that as offensive coordinator.
In other words, the culture that Garrett had instilled over that decade plus wasn’t going to just wash away overnight, especially when players weren’t exactly calling for him to leave in the first place. Add in the lack of a real offseason for McCarthy and his players to get to know each other, and the hard-nosed approach of the new head coach couldn’t have come as anything less than the shock it’s been.
So it’s not really all that surprising for anonymous players to start trashing McCarthy and his staff when things go sideways; these players are used to Garrett patting them on the back and saying it’s okay as long as the fight was still there, and now this new guy is telling them that their fight doesn’t matter because they lost a game they easily should’ve won. The players who want to go back to the way it was will naturally push back in that scenario, and can easily justify it by pointing out how things were never this bad under Garrett.
But if the Cowboys are going to become legitimate Super Bowl contenders under this core, that attitude must be eradicated. The sense of entitlement - the idea that they’re just a little fight away from turning it on again - must go. And nothing will do that better than being repeatedly embarrassed week after week in lopsided losses.
Going through something like this season will change a player dramatically; they’ll either shed the complacency and become as laser-focused on winning as Dak and McCarthy are, or it’ll break them completely. The players in the first category will make up a really fierce team in 2021, while the players in the second category will (hopefully) be shown the door.
The reality is this season is over from a competitive standpoint. But it offers a critical moment for growth and change in the post-Garrett era. This is the time to build a championship mindset for the future, and in a roundabout way, all of these losses will end up being a good thing in the long run.