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How the Cowboys can fix their team

The Cowboys need some help, here’s how they can get there.

NFL: DEC 08 Cowboys at Ravens Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The big city in south Texas is featured in a very widespread meme: “Houston, we have a problem.” It is a saying that can be applied to the Dallas Cowboys, with a bit of modification. They have an absolute ton of problems, as former Dallas quarterback, Hall of Fame member, and current lead NFL booth analyst on FOX Troy Aikman observed.

That may seem harsh, but to develop a minor theme, it is time for some harshness. The Cowboys organization, from Jerry Jones on down, needs to start making the hard calls and tough decisions. This team is badly broken this year, and fixing it may well be a multi-season affair, as another storied alumnus of the Cowboys organization has observed.

That is a glum, but not an unreasonable, viewpoint. If we expect things to really turn around at the Star in just one year, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. There are so many issues that they would have to get absolutely right in their attempts it is just too much of a reach.

Still, they have to start somewhere. Even though they almost certainly won’t get everything right in the short term, they must try to improve across the board.

The coaching

This is where it has to start, because the staff has to provide crucial input to the other part of the equation, fixing the roster. In Dallas, the head coach is probably right behind a couple of people named Jones in what is done. An honest evaluation of the evidence of past years shows that Jerry and Stephen Jones do listen and heed what their head coach says.

Given the bizarre circumstances of 2020, plus what Jerry has stated recently, it looks like Mike McCarthy gets a mulligan, but he needs to be put on notice that it is strictly a one-year thing. If this team does not show marked improvement in 2021, his job should not be safe. That means there has to be a different approach than with Jason Garrett, who got more than one chance despite disappointing performances that would have ended tenures in other places.

Much of the offensive staff should also be kept. Kellen Moore has shown enough under extreme duress with the injuries he has to deal with to bring him back. He had the team putting up impressive numbers while Dak Prescott was on the field. It is fair to say he is not one of the major problems that has to be addressed. Joe Philbin has done yeoman work in patching together the offensive line with backups, in some cases even backups to backups. It makes sense to keep most of the offensive staff intact.

That’s good, because it looks increasingly like a major housecleaning for the defense is in order. The injuries on that side of the ball have not been nearly as severe, but the results have been far worse. Potentially, they will set some negative records this year. Mike Nolan has not gotten much of anything out of his players, Many times, the defense has not been aligned appropriately for the situation. That is on him and his assistants. Jim Tomsula is really failing with the defensive tackles, and the same can be said about the rest of Nolan’s assistants. It seems time to bring in a new coordinator and let him build his part of the staff.

Jim Fassel is a less clear call. He has come up with some clunkers on fourth down, but also has had a hit or two. And the return game has shown marked improvement. With the need to rebuild the entire defensive staff, Fassel is worth bringing back for another shot.

The roster

This is complex, and needs to be broken down into sub-compartments.

New talent acquisition

The Cowboys are on track for a top five pick, or close. They did well this year in the draft, and have a good track record with Will McClay running things. That should clearly be the main focus, especially if they should trade back to amass even more picks.

On the other hand, free agency was an unmitigated disaster this year, and has been largely that way for a long time. With the cap problems caused by the COVID restrictions this year and the need to eat up a big chunk of that getting Prescott re-signed, there is not going to be any real money to invest there anyway. This year, the huge number of players that are expected to be back from IR should be treated as a substitute for free agency, with just some bottom of the barrel hole plugs. It will dismay many, but there really is no viable way to really invest in free agents, outside of Prescott.

Offense

Assuming they don’t blow it again with Prescott, the Cowboys are good just about everywhere with the returning players. They should not be looking to make a lot of additions here, but as we saw with CeeDee Lamb, they should never pass on a truly outstanding player if one falls to them. Outside of that, they would be wise to also be looking for a good value at offensive tackle. Tyron Smith and La’el Collins both have injury worries, and while Brandon Knight and Terence Steele gained valuable playing experience, they should still be strictly looked at as depth options. An upgrade is worthwhile, and if they have a shot at a potential heir for Smith’s eventual replacement, they should take it. That eventuality looks closer than we would prefer.

Defense

There is a need for good players at all positions. Cornerback is always a wise investment early if the player is good enough, and it is also hard to pass on an outstanding edge rusher.

Defensive tackle and safety are positions Dallas has not valued in the draft, although the recent selections of Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore indicate that may have shifted for DT. However, what the team still has failed to acquire is an effective true nose tackle to shore up the pitiful run defense. If a big, athletic body is available in an early round it would be worth it, although not in the first. Safety might be somewhere a first-round pick could be wisely spent, however, and certainly needs to be addressed early.

Linebacker is a big issue at the moment. The team has unwisely locked itself in with Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch is not going anywhere this year with one year remaining on his rookie deal. Both have talent, but something has gone woefully wrong with their decision making and reactions. This is a position where the team has a tendency to overinvest draft capital as well. They should shy away from a linebacker in the first couple of rounds, but from the third on, they need to really look hard for a value.

It looks like the Cowboys could have a lot of picks to use, and there are enough positions of need that they will need all of them. They also have a lot of young players to evaluate in the final four games. It needs to be done wisely.

Kicker

This is a special case. The failures against the Ravens may have been just an aberration for Greg Zuerlein, but the staff needs to figure that out. He is 33, and there is a real risk that he is just aging out of effectiveness. He is a player that they can afford to cut with manageable dead money costs. Given how often the team has stalled in the red zone, they have to have a reliable kicker. This decision has to be made without Fassel’s fondness for Greg the Leg being a factor.

Those are broad objectives, and with so many issues, they are not all likely to be solved this year, but some must be handled. Improvement is mandatory for next season. If not, we will be revisiting this topic about this time next year.