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The list of fixes needed for a Cowboys rebuild is long, and will take time

It’s a strange time for the Dallas franchise.

NFL: OCT 25 Cowboys at Washington Football Team
It has to get better than this.
Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This is the strangest season for the Dallas Cowboys going all the way back since the days when Tom Landry was still trying to find a way to his first winning season, so that covers a lot of time. This has been a case of Murphy’s Law on steroids for Dallas, all wrapped up in the middle of a pandemic that would seem to be a badly written apocalyptic novel if we hadn’t lived through the bizarre reality of it. It’s hard to even list all the things that have gone so badly, much less come up with possible ways for the team to fix them.

This doesn’t get fixed by next season

It should be blatantly obvious to even the most casual observer that there were many, many problems for the Cowboys. They were covered up by a few things. The offensive line was the best in the league in the middle of the 2010s, and papered over a lot of flaws. While Jason Garrett and his different staffs had some flaws, we may have been putting too much emphasis on coaching mistakes and not accurately perceiving the manifold problems with the talent on hand.

But the biggest thing that masked the weakness of the team and a troubling softness at its core was the play of two remarkable quarterbacks, Tony Romo and Dak Prescott. Despite the unwarranted lack of respect both have gotten from NFL fans and many in the media, the way this team cratered in both 2015 and this year makes it hard to not admit just how much they picked the Cowboys up and carried them to many wins.

There was always an odd chauvinism involved with both. Neither had that first-round draft pedigree that often leads to quarterbacks not only being overestimated, but getting far more chances to succeed than their performance on the field could ever warrant. It’s almost like the collective football mindset is to not admit just how wrong they were in missing on how good Romo and Prescott were on draft day. Since neither have the skins on the wall that Tom Brady was able to bludgeon doubters with, the critics still kept downplaying how much they meant to the team, which in turn fed that overestimation of how much talent surrounded them.

Now, with Andy Dalton’s injury, the Cowboys are going to have to go with seventh-round rookie Ben DiNucci, which will let them find out in a hurry if there is hope for him as a long term backup. We fervently hope Prescott returns from his horrible ankle injury and is the same player. That is not a certainty, though. Even if he does, there are still so many other problems to fix for this team.

Getting at least back to competence on the offensive line

If 2014 through 2016 is the standard you have for them, then expect to be disappointed. Maybe forever. That was a fantastic collection of talent with the All Pro core of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin in their prime, and a couple of underrated players in Doug Free and Ron Leary. We are not likely to see their like again.

However, there is hope that it will be one area that can show great improvement next year. Smith will hopefully come back from his surgery and still be able to play at a high level. Despite his years of dominant play, he is still only 29, and could have several quality years left. His health is always going to be the biggest concerns, because his talent and skill are not. La’el Collins was on the verge of being elite at right tackle. We have to hope he also will come back healthy, if he does, the team will be in good shape at both tackles. Before he too was lost to IR, Brandon Knight showed that he may be the future at swing tackle, as well as an eventual starter if the team does not lose him in free agency. Martin is hopefully going to be back this week, and he was the best lineman they had on the field before his concussion. Tyler Biadasz may be the replacement at center they needed for Frederick, but is still early in his learning curve. Connor Williams is probably the weak link, but if the rest of the line is able to get back on the field in 2021, he is good enough to not drag the whole thing down.

For now, though, this is a patchwork affair, with the lineup very much in flux for the Sunday night game against the Eagles.

Running back is a quandary

One of the ongoing arguments in social media is about how much running backs actually matter. That vastly oversimplifies the issue, but the evidence this season is that they matter a lot less than the offensive line. Remember that Ezekiel Elliott’s dominant rookie year was the last one that incredible line was together for Dallas. Now he has more fumbles than any other back this season, and is only averaging 4.1 yards per carry, with almost no long runs. He is simply not providing commensurate value for his enormous contract.

That contract means that the Cowboys have to ride with him through at least 2021. After that, the team needs to take a very hard look at just how long they keep him. In 2022, although he still has a big $4.1 million dead money hit, releasing him as a post June 1 cut would save them $12.4 million in cap space, per Over the Cap. If the team finally faces the reality that you can get good running back talent deep into the draft for a very low cost, they would be wise to move on and use that cap space elsewhere. And by “the team” I mean Jerry and Stephen Jones. That is an open question, but this year’s collapse has a more than zero chance of finally slapping them hard enough upside the head to wake them up.

The receiving assets

Dallas is blessed with one of the best groups in the league. It is just the quarterback and pass protection issues that are keeping them from being a major factor. Not only do they have Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb to start, Cedrick Wilson has emerged as quality depth, while even Noah Brown has flashed at times.

There is still a question about whether one of those players might bring needed draft capital in a trade. Everyone but Lamb could be a possible trade chip for the team, although with the trade deadline on Tuesday, it is not likely to be one they would cash in this year. Next season is another question. If a team offered a lot for Cooper, even with his own massive contract, would it be worth it to trade him and hope to strike gold again in the draft the way they did with Lamb? Gallup would be more likely, given that he only has one year left on his contract and is very low cost. Wilson is likely gone in free agency, but he could bring a nice compensatory pick for 2022, when the team should still be looking to continue the rebuild.

Tight end should be one place the team is in good shape next year, as long as Blake Jarwin comes back from his injury to join Dalton Schultz, who is one of the few bright spots this season with his level of play.

Trying to find the right pieces on the defensive line

DeMarcus Lawrence may not have gaudy stats, but he continues to grade out as one of the best defensive ends in the league according to sites like PFF. The trade of Everson Griffen opens up snaps for Randy Gregory, Bradlee Anae, and Dorance Armstrong, giving Dallas the rest of this season to figure out what they have to work with and how badly they need to add to the group in the draft. They also will gather a lot of data on Aldon Smith and his future value. Likewise, the release of the vastly underperforming Dontari Poe lets them see what they have at defensive tackle in Neville Gallimore and Justin Hamilton, with Trysten Hill waiting in the wings. Hill was another rare bright spot before going on IR. Antwaun Woods also has the rest of the season to show if he is worth bringing back. He is a restricted free agent in 2021, which gives the team control. The team also can try to re-sign Gerald McCoy, who was released after his training camp injury.

We had such hopes that this would be the real strength of the defense going into the season. That was shattered, but there are still some intriguing pieces to work with. Which are worth keeping is still very much up in the air.

Linebacking collapse

There may be no bigger disappointment than the erratic and confused play of Jaylon Smith. He is another big contract for which the owners should be having lots of regrets. Leighton Vander Esch is having his own struggles after missing games with injury. It will be interesting to see if Sean Lee can return soon and bring some much needed leadership on the field.

But the biggest issue here is overinvestment. Vander Esch and Smith represent a first- and second-round pick respectively, in addition to the obvious overpaying of the latter. That is a glaring flaw in the roster building process, one that has to be corrected. There is some hope that UDFA Francis Bernard can get some playing time and make a contribution. We should all hope he does, because that would help to argue for getting away from spending high draft picks for the least valuable level of the defense.

A mess in the secondary

They let the best defensive back, Byron Jones, walk in free agency. The best remaining player, Chdobe Awuzie, is still trying to get back on the field from his injury. Trevon Diggs has shown some promise, but is also having some rookie struggles. The rest have been underwhelming, and the release of Daryl Worley was just admitting a mistake.

Meanwhile, safety is even worse. Donovan Wilson is perhaps the only one that may have a future, and he is not exactly a cause for excitement.

The Cowboys need to go into the draft looking for reinforcements, and they badly need to get over their aversion to spending capital on the safety position. They at least used a third on defensive tackle Gallimore, showing that maybe they are changing their view a little bit since that was another place they hated to use premium draft picks. Maybe with more ammunition this year, they can also invest in safety.

But they have a lot of needs this year. That is just one more reason that this is not going to be all fixed after one offseason.

Coaching

Mike McCarthy and his staff have not gotten much right so far. Joe Philbin is the only one that has possibly done a good job in having to piece together a new offensive line nearly every week with some scant resources. The rest have just struggled, although the offense has been more severely impacted by injuries, obviously.

There is the argument that they should get a pass due to the pandemic. Frankly, I have no idea how true that is. This was such an unprecedented situation, with so many players getting hurt, often lost for the year, and others just flat out not carrying their weight. Some may be due to the coaching, but the situation is so complicated that caution might be warranted before shaking the staff up again after the housecleaning of last January.

On the other hand, a firing or two might be a needed shock to that part of the system.

There are problems are all over the organization, starting right in the owner’s office. We are looking at a long, hard road ahead.