There hasn’t been much that is uplifting about the 2020 season for the Dallas Cowboys. The focus of this little screed is on things pro football, some specific to the Cowboys, and others just about the game in general. With the bye week and the slow flow of news, it’s time for a vent.
Loathing “play him because we pay him”
It’s an accepted thing for Dallas, and really for most franchises. If you have a player on a big contract, he’s going to get playing time, even if it is at the cost of giving those snaps to someone who may be more productive. There are three clear examples on the Cowboys right now.
Ezekiel Elliott is still the starter, including last game against the Pittsburgh Steelers when he was nursing a hamstring issue. He got 65% of the snaps, while Tony Pollard was on the field for 32% of the offensive plays. Yet Pollard had more yards rushing, due to him averaging 6.3 yards a carry to Elliott’s 2.8.
Raw stats don’t tell the entire story, of course, but it is notable that while Elliott has struggled to get many long gains at all this year, Pollard had two totes that went for 20 yards in the game. I’m no coach, but it seems mystifying why the team doesn’t put Pollard out there more to see if this is indicative of him just having more burst and ability to get through the hole. But Elliott represents a $10.9 million cap hit, and we can’t have that sitting on the bench. Or so the reasoning goes.
A second example is the stated intention to start Andy Dalton instead of Garrett Gilbert. Gilbert was much, much better against Pittsburgh than just about anything we would have imagined. Ownership cites Dalton’s career record after his almost decade as the starter for the Cincinnati Bengals, but at the moment, he stands at a pretty mediocre 70-63-2. While he certainly has proven he is not trash, and had some fairly bad supporting casts at times, he is not exactly overwhelmingly good. But his $3 million guaranteed salary seems to be a factor in the decision.
Linebacker Jaylon Smith may be making a ton of tackles, but he is also missing a lot of plays. He seems lost at times, and in other instances he just seems to freelance. But he also has a huge paycheck, and is on the field for almost every play. His performance should warrant less time, especially with Sean Lee healthy again, but that is not how he is being handled.
While Mike McCarthy may or may not agree with the approach, there is little doubt that it originates with Jerry and Stephen Jones. It permeates much of the league, and likely comes from the ownership in other organizations as well.
It has nothing to do with what is best for the team on the field. It is thinking driven by financials and sunk costs. If a team wants to win, it should always play the best players. If it is trying to figure out what it has for the future in a lost season, which is almost certainly the case for Dallas, then the younger players should be seeing more snaps as well.
Just because owners are billionaires with absolute money-printing machines in their teams, that doesn’t mean they are smart. Many are second-generation owners who inherited their teams and wealth. Others made their fortunes in other businesses. The skills or traits that led to their riches don’t necessarily carry over to the NFL.
The NFL is missing out by not having a developmental league
Here, Gilbert is a prime example of what could be. He was very successful in the short-lived AAF, and that seems to have carried over into his performance in his first NFL action after that. Before, he had not seen much action at all in the NFL. The AAF game him an opportunity to hone his skills, and he did just that.
The investment in supporting such a league would be fairly small in the overall scheme of things. And the AAF was a ready-made way to do just that. Of course, it would have come out of the bottom line of the league. Those owners I was complaining about above are very resistant to investing money in something that doesn’t contribute to the bottom line. But the AAF might have grown into a profit source, especially if the NFL had worked with broadcasters to give them a product for the offseason. Football is the ratings king of all pro sports, and given time, that could have turned into a nice secondary revenue stream.
It would be nice to have a ready pool of talent with on-field experience they can’t gain in the NFL. Some vision and innovation could pay big dividends. It just doesn’t seem to be in the cards, however, and that is a shame.
Officiating is still a major problem
This not to say the Cowboys were robbed of a major upset victory against the Steelers, but it was not made any easier by some of the questionable calls, or non-calls, by the refs. Amari Cooper was obviously interfered with/held on the interception that killed a great scoring opportunity for Dallas. And then a very marginal call against Jaylon Smith kept a Pittsburgh scoring drive alive.
A solution is hard to come by. Reviewing calls would slow the game down, and there is no guarantee that a review official would be willing to overturn the judgment of the zebras on the field. The experiment with making pass interference reviewable was a failure and died a deserved quick death.
Apparently there is a need for more training, and the idea of going to full time officials at all positions might be a step in the right direction. It’s another place that the developmental league I argued for would be a great way to get more reps for the referees, who would likely benefit just like the players.
But for some time, the Cowboys have been the team that is more penalized than any other in the NFL, and that seems to be something more than coaching or player discipline. If they were on the other side of this equation, then it wouldn’t be so galling.