The 2020 Cowboys season is over. The fans knew it the moment Dak Prescott went down. The players certainly acted like they knew it in their last two games. And now, it seems, Jerry and Stephen Jones know it too.
Tuesday’s decision to jettison underperforming Everson Griffen, accompanied by word on Wednesday that both Dontari Poe and Daryl Worley will no longer be with the team, sent a message about the Cowboys: they’re being realistic.
All three of those players were added in the offseason with the idea that they’d be under-the-radar moves. Griffen was a force to be reckoned with off the edge in Minnesota for 10 years, accumulating 74.5 sacks during that span. Poe was a monster of a man who had been disrupting pockets for years in Kansas City before injuries marred his three years between Atlanta and Carolina. And Worley brought experience and production at cornerback, as well as the ability to flex to safety.
All three turned out to be major busts. Griffen often looked lost on the field, Poe routinely got bullied by linemen half the size of him, and Worley got beat by receivers so often that it was surprising whenever he wasn’t the one giving up a big catch. So the Cowboys moved on from all three, and will allow more playing time for their younger players.
It’s a very strange sight to see for a team that was billed as Super Bowl contenders before the season started. Few could’ve predicted the rash of injuries that would happen, though, and even those who bet money that Andy Dalton would end up starting a game before season’s end didn’t see Ben DiNucci also starting a game, much less before the bye week.
It’s just been one of those years for Dallas, though. They’ve experienced similar years in 2010 and 2015. Maybe this is just a thing that happens every five years for the Cowboys? Either way, things are different this time around. In 2010, the Joneses placed the blame on Wade Phillips and made a change at head coach. In 2015, the Joneses stuck by Jason Garrett but learned the importance of good backups, which led to the drafting of Dak Prescott (and almost Paxton Lynch or Connor Cook instead!).
This time, the Joneses seem to creating a long term plan with a vision crafted by both Mike McCarthy and Will McClay. The second part of that makes sense, as McClay’s influence has been growing every year since that terrible 2010 draft. But McCarthy, a brand new coach in Dallas, seems a little surprising. Yet Jerry Jones gave a passionate defense of McCarthy, describing him as “my guy" on Tuesday.
On most teams, a public vote of confidence from the owner is usually the first step towards their firing. But in Dallas, where the owner will - and has - straight up criticized a coach’s decision on air before, a vote of confidence means something.
It’s no surprise that Jerry’s defense of McCarthy coincided with Griffen’s trade, and shortly thereafter we learned that Poe and Worley are on their way out. Also on Tuesday, Albert Breer dished on the perception of Jaylon Smith, another habitual underperformer on this defense:
A well-established fact within the walls of the Cowboys’ facility: LB Jaylon Smith hasn’t played up to his contract over the last year and a half. In fact, I know people there have been alarmed how often he’s at the heart of big plays made against the Dallas defense. I believe he’s got a pretty important couple months ahead, and it wouldn’t shock me if he’s gone after the year, regardless of who’s running the defense.
This sends another message: McCarthy is blowing up this defense, and who can blame him? We all knew coming into the year that the offense would be good, and sans turnovers they were playing very well to start the year. Injuries decimated that unit, but guys will be back next year. The defense, on the other hand, has problems with their starters. And Dallas is no longer willing to hold onto them in hopes they can improve.
That’s certainly a reflection of McCarthy’s general approach to football. Back in 2018, when McCarthy was still coaching the Packers, they traded away Ty Montgomery after he fumbled a kick return on what could’ve been a game-winning drive for Aaron Rodgers. It wasn’t the first mistake Montgomery had made for the Packers, but it was certainly his last.
That mentality of dumping players when they’re no longer contributing to winning football is often one that can alienate players, but it can also endear you to the truly competitive ones. It’s something that rarely happened under Garrett’s watch, but things are changing.
McCarthy and McClay understand that trying to win the division with practice squad players on offense and apathetic players on defense is a fool’s errand. Magically, they’ve convinced the Joneses of the same. So this year is a wash from a competitive standpoint, but it’s going to be invaluable from a team-building perspective. Specifically, it’s going to give McCarthy a chance to trim the fat on defense and find out which of these younger players are worth building around going forward. The offense will be healthy again in 2021, but this year has to be about fixing the defense. Let’s see what the new brain-trust can do.