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Why injury excuses will top accountability once again for Dallas Cowboys

Who is responsible for this mess of a season, and are the Cowboys going to do anything about it?

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys - Wild Card Round

When you fire the head coach, it’s often because the entire organization failed, and not just the one guy at the top of the coaching organization chart. When you’re looking to fix that organization, you’re going to have to look at more than just the coaching. Because if you don’t, history suggests you’ll quickly find yourself back in the position you wanted to get out of in the first place.

Between the introduction of the salary cap in 1994 and 2019, 16 teams fired/exchanged their head coach after an 8-8 season, and only four of them improved on their record the following year.

Wins in season after going 8-8 and changing the head coach, 1994-2019
Wins 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
No. of teams 2 2 3 -- 2 3 3 1

Last year, Jason Garrett was fired after yet another disappointing 8-8 season. And while firing Garrett was the right decision, it also provided the Cowboys with a waaaay too convenient fall guy who would take the blame for everything that was wrong with the Cowboys, and thus provide a carte blanche for the Cowboys to continue doing business as usual elsewhere.

In Dallas, the general thinking was that changing out most of the coaching staff should be enough to (again) be a Super Bowl contender (despite the evidence above to the contrary). And as such it was okay to think that:

  • an offense that averaged just 17 points in its eight losses in 2019 and couldn’t get anything going when it counted just needed to establish the run a little more and everything would fall into place.
  • a defense that ranked 20th in defensive passer rating (in a league that’s all about the pass) and allowed the eighth-highest completion rate (in a league that’s all about the pass) could allow its best corner to just walk away in free agency (in a league that’s all about the pass).
  • a defensive line that had a semi-funny nickname but had trouble getting to the QB all season (ranked only 19th in sacks in a league that’s all about the pass) just needed to invest in some over-the-hill free agent defensive tackles and you’d be a lock for the next NFC Championship game.
  • switching defensive schemes would work without a preseason and without adding players suitable for the new scheme, and that sprinkling some Mike Nolan fairy dust on the existing player personnel would make it magically fit the new scheme.
  • a scouting department that would bring you Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Everson Griffen, Daryl Worley (all traded/released before Halloween) and Maurice Canady (opted out of the season) should continue to be entrusted to do whatever it is they are doing.

Massive organizational failures that are of course magnified by the benefit of hindsight.

But I doubt the Cowboys organization will show the type of accountability needed to fix these issues, because the excuses that will prevent full accountability have already become the 2020 narrative:

  1. INJURIES

There’s no doubt the Cowboys were hit hard by injuries this year. But the issues go way deeper than just Dak Prescott’s injury, or the Cowboys would not have started just 2-3. And who’s to say 30-year-old Tyron Smith will play a full slate of games in 2020, we can’t even rule out retirement if his neck issues persist.

And God forbid Prescott gets injured again. The 2020 Saints are 3-1 with backup Taysom Hill stepping in for Drew Brees, and not too long ago, the Eagles won their first Super Bowl with their backup QB. But the Cowboys are not the Saints or the Eagles; they are cooked without Prescott.

And that may be the single positive to emerge from this season, as Kevin Clark of The Ringer recently pointed out:

If there is any silver lining—any at all—it is that this season would seem to end the debate about Prescott’s value. His price tag increases each time the Cowboys play a game without him in which they look like they just learned about the sport earlier in the afternoon.

2. MIKE NOLAN

Mike Nolan is this season’s Jason Garrett: A convenient fall guy who will cover up the entire Cowboys mess.

Nolan will be gone after the season, but who suggested the Cowboys hire him? Who approved the hire? Who was tasked with putting together a roster for the new defensive scheme? Who picked the free agents the Cowboys eventually signed (and released)?

Cowboys fans have been conditioned from day one to blame everything that’s wrong with the Cowboys on Jerry Jones. And that is correct in the sense that the buck has got to stop somewhere. The guy at the top of the organization chart is the guy ultimately responsible of course, and Jerry Jones maybe more so than any other owner. But that narrow focus on Jones the Elder, while convenient, tends to oversimplify things and tends to absolve his lieutenants of responsibility.

Chief among those lieutenants is Stephen Jones, whose bio in the official 2020 Cowboys Media Guide reads as follows:

With 30 years of NFL experience, Stephen Jones has established himself as one of the brightest and most versatile executives in professional sports.

Yeah, sure.

This is the same guy whose petty insistence on a five-year contract has needlessly dragged out the Dak Prescott contract negotiations. In mid-2019, fellow 2016 draftee Jared Goff signed a four-year extension worth $134 million, or $33.5 million per year, and Carson Wentz also signed a four-year deal worth $128 million, or $32 million per year. Stephen Jones could have easily signed Prescott to a four-year extension just north of that. Instead, the Cowboys will get to sign Prescott to a four-year extension far beyond $40 million per year - if they are lucky. Jerry should take the difference out of Stephen’s allowance, just to make a point. But instead, there’s a lot of self-congratulatory backslapping going on for overpaying a running back.

The second lieutenant is Will McClay, who should probably be called Teflon McClay, because any type of responsibility for the Cowboys’ woes just slips off him like an omelette out of a non-stick fry pan.

McClay reports to Stephen Jones, but as Vice President of Player Personnel, he is responsible for both the draft process and pro scouting. McClay undoubtedly has delivered a strong pipeline of talent via the draft (mostly) and sometimes even via trades/free agency (Amari Cooper), but he is also responsible for Taco Charlton (McClay had the highest grade of anybody in the Cowboys war room on Charlton, including Rod Marinelli), and he is absolutely responsible for the free agency disaster this year. Has he earned a mulligan for that? Probably. But mulligans are also a a perfect way to avoid accountability.

And even if you absolve Teflon McClay of all blame, consider that even though the Cowboys have drafted well, they simply can’t win. When healthy, the Cowboys have more than enough talent, but the roster apparently can’t maximize the individual value of the assembled player talent. Blame it on the front office and coaching all you want, but you can’t not wonder about the roster building as well.

The third lieutenant is Mike McCarthy. There are five new head coaches in the NFL this season, and McCarthy ranks among the worst in terms of W/L record.

Coach Team 2020 Record
Kevin Stefanski Cleveland 10-4
Ron Rivera Washington 6-8
Joe Judge NY Giants 5-9
Mike McCarthy Dallas 5-9
Matt Rhule Carolina 4-10

A 5-9 effort is a performance you might expect from first-time NFL head coaches like Kevin Stefanski, Joe Judge, or Matt Rhule, but not from an experienced NFL head coach with a Super Bowl pedigree.

And it’s not like McCarthy can simply throw Mike Nolan under the bus and be done with it, as Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News explains in detail:

These defensive struggles were as predictable as a poorly disguised blitz. A question on this very topic was posed to McCarthy in the spring.

On May 27, in a conference call with reporters, McCarthy was asked the following: “Does anything need to be adapted in terms of your schematic install, given the lack of practice reps, the relative lack of practice reps? Does anything need to be simplified in any capacity, or are you just installing the same volume of scheme, plays that you would be otherwise?”

“I am excited because this is probably going to be the most experienced team that I’ve coached,” [McCarthy said] “so we’ll definitely rely on that. I think if we were going to push to one side or the other, we’d definitely push on the side of the volume because of our veteran experience.”

The challenge was there to see.

The Cowboys (4-9) did not adjust.

They say victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan. Accountability starts with acknowledging the role everybody in the organization played in putting this desolate product on the field.

There is no victory in having the highest attendance when your team is losing.

Accountability means that you don’t accept injuries as a convenient excuse for the next season. Accountability also means that fixing the defense isn’t just about firing the defensive coordinator, it’s about understanding (and fixing) how the entire organization allowed this to happen. Accountability also means ensuring that your roster doesn’t just look good on paper, on social media, or in ads, but also on the field. And finally, accountability also means defining a clear target for your head coach for the next year, and then pulling the plug on the guy if the targets aren’t met, regardless of how many years are left on his contract.

Normally, a season that’s been as disappointing as the 2020 Cowboys season would prompt most NFL teams to rethink their entire operation. Not so in Dallas. Because if you read the previous paragraph carefully, you’ll realize that the lack of accountability I described has been going on for at least the last decade in Dallas, and probably longer.

So it’s probably going to be more of the same in 2021, and as long as attendance is up and the Cowboys continue to play in prime time, that appears to be perfectly acceptable.