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Cowboys need to get over themselves in dealing with free agency

The Cowboys think they are the place everyone wants to be. It’s time to face reality.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints
You aren’t the hot chick of the league anymore.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

With the NFL Combine now a virtual, dispersed event, the next big event of the offseason is free agency. There are also some veterans who are immediately available to teams, with J.J. Watt now the biggest name in that group. Multiple holes need to be filled by the Dallas Cowboys, so it would be logical that they should be eager to at least explore signing Watt, who would be a significant addition to the interior of the defensive line as a 3-tech, or to perhaps pursue a veteran defensive back like Patrick Peterson to shore up the secondary.

But, as has already been noted, there just seems to be the sound of crickets coming from The Star.

Death, taxes, and the Dallas Cowboys not being interested in big-name free agents during the early part of the calendar year. Again, what else is new?

In case you were wondering, the Cowboys reportedly haven’t reached out to Patrick Peterson’s representatives either. Some things never change.

There is little doubt that Watt would be an upgrade, and Peterson likely could be. That does not mean that the cost would be right for the Cowboys as they and the rest of the league still await clarity on the salary cap. Nor are we going to dive into stats and projections for individual players. The subject here is the maddening approach that Dallas, particularly Stephen Jones, takes to acquiring free agent talent. The management acts like the team is such a desirable landing spot for everyone out there, they don’t have to work to get players interested. Or, to put it another way:

There seems to be a disconnect from reality for the Cowboys’ brain trust. To expand on the metaphor from the tweet, the staff seems to think like an aging beauty who doesn’t realize their attractiveness is fading, and they are no longer the hot one in the room. But they still continue to act like they are, and wonders why the old ways of making the suitors work to get attention just aren’t working.

It’s easy to see how they got this distorted view of things, because Stephen and Jerry Jones certainly remember when they were the absolute hottest thing in the league. Just four years into their ownership, they had the first season of one of the best runs in league history, winning three championships in four years. And they believe they were responsible, which in a way they were. Jerry hired Jimmy Johnson, who did the heavy lifting, but some credit certainly goes to the man who not only made that critical hire, but spent heavily those early years, including one of the most effective free agency signings in franchise history, Deion Sanders.

However, you might have noticed that things have not gone quite so well since. It has now been a quarter of a century since the last of those Lombardi Trophies were claimed. During that time, leadership became disenchanted with free agency after some notable busts. They increasingly focused on the draft and developing their own players. While there have been some real successes, there is a strong argument to be made that they are overconfident and overestimate just how well they do in the draft. Without question, the two biggest players they have acquired since those glory days of the 1990s were pure and incredibly fortunate accidents named Antonio Ramiro Romo and Rayne Dakota Prescott. The former was a UDFA afterthought, and the latter was a consolation prize after the team planned but failed to draft Paxton Lynch and then Connor Cook ahead of him. They have certainly had many successful draft picks in the past several years, but they have their fair share of misses. Most crucially, they have passed on players that many of us longed for them to take, and the ones they chose instead have often been clearly disappointing, with the selection of Taco Charlton over T.J. Watt in 2017 one of the most commonly cited examples.

Now, after all the years of mediocrity and failure, Dallas is not nearly the prized destination that it seems to be in the minds of the Jones family. Yet they still give every indication they think it is. They even appear to be approaching the most crucial negotiation of this year, the Dak Prescott contract, in that way. While we cannot read their minds, there is certainly an impression that they are somewhat miffed that Prescott does not seem eager to give them a bit of a hometown discount, since being a Dallas freaking Cowboy is such a value in and of itself. Clearly all those endorsement deals Prescott gets are due strictly to the Star on his helmet and not the electrifying play he brings to the field or his evident personal charisma, right?

Yet for multiple years, the Cowboys have held out to get their way rather than pay Prescott what he and his agent felt he was worth, only to see the price tag go up and up. With what the Los Angeles Rams paid to get Matthew Stafford, and unload Jared Goff, it seems pretty clear that Prescott would get a huge and possibly record-setting deal on the open market. Still the Cowboys remain aloof, content to let things simmer and fester, making very little attempt to signal real eagerness to get a deal done. They claim they have to wait on that cap figure, and are already dragging out the “percentage of the cap tied up in the QB position” dead horse to flagellate. Indications from Prescott are that, unlike outside free agents, he clearly desires to be a member of the organization. Yet they still keep him at arm’s length.

Not only is the remote, superior stance on the negotiation risking a rift with Prescott, it sends very ominous signals to all potential free agents. They all prefer to land somewhere they have a real chance of contending for the title. A team that is showing it is at least somewhat open to the risk of losing their franchise quarterback hardly qualifies. Not does it bode well for the situation in the locker room should that happen. Fumbling the Prescott contract would lead to the team being confirmed as a wildly dysfunctional organization.

A key part of the Dallas way in free agency seems to be never, ever show any interest in potential signee, no matter how good or how well they would help the team, until the decision is made to go all in on one. It is a standard negotiating tactic, but far more suited to buying a house or a new car than running an NFL team. There is a certain amount of enticement that can help get a deal done in the offseason. It just does not fit the standoffish methodology of the Cowboys.

There is an underlying aspect of arrogance here. Despite failed seasons and only three playoff wins this century, the approach of the GM and his son/chief assistant shows no sign of real change. They have the most financially successful sports organization in the world. Perhaps there is a bit of confusion of that with winning on the field. For whatever reason, they keep taking the same approach with only the most minor of tweaks, searching for that elusive completely different outcome.

It is highly frustrating as a fan. We hope for Mike McCarthy and his staff to perhaps have some constructive input to this, but there is no clear evidence of that to date, and of course we can only guess what they really feel about all this. Nothing is going to change unless the ownership makes the change.

For now, the Cowboys continue to play hard to get with people who don’t really seem eager to get them.