The days right after the final game of the season are when NFL teams are all about coming up with a free agent plan, getting full swing into the draft, and coaching meetings to figure out what the plan is going forward.
Well, almost all teams. The Dallas Cowboys have been rocked by some strange things that have put the spotlight on what has been going on at the very top of the organization. And none of what is being seen is good. While two specific events in the last few days were shocking in different ways, the clarity of hindsight shows that the Cowboys may have just been living on borrowed time before things went off the rails. The term “dysfunction” is being applied more and more to Dallas, and when it has been going on for as long as it has, it almost always comes to an inflection point.
Frustration is just one of the reactions fans have to this, because they all have some effect on the team. Most are very easy to see, but even the most indirect are symptoms of the overall chaos underlying things.
In a roughly reverse chronological order, here are some of the things that are dragging a once proud franchise down. Jerry Jones and his family are the common thread in the issues.
The recently reported cheerleader incident
The lengthy report from ESPN about a settlement paid by the Cowboys to four members of their famous cheerleading squad was disturbing. There was nothing good in that report and reflected very poorly on the franchise and management.
The McCarthy feud
Immediately after the season, in a series of media appearances, Jerry Jones made comments that undermined his own head coach and appeared to be a clumsy attempt to put Mike McCarthy on notice about his job. Then on Tuesday, McCarthy went on the Rich Eisen show and fired back. It was a depressing display of an adversarial approach to running things by the owner and GM. It has created a rift between the two most important parts of the staff that has no good implications at all.
It is generally the incessant volubility of Jerry and his son Stephen that creates problems. As in this case, they take things that should be done strictly in house and put it out in the media glare, where it is spread by outlets locally and nationally. The loose-lipped behavior around any microphone has long been a trademark for the pair that run the operation. They have developed a love of the spotlight that has become a feedback loop. The more they say, the more they are covered, and the more they bask in their own celebrity.
Airing dirty laundry just spreads the filth around. It makes it harder to accomplish the already incredibly difficult job of winning games, which should be the only real focus from top to bottom of the team. Instead, friction just grows. That leads to more and more heat, and if it gets bad enough, things burn. And it is clearly not just the staff that is affected.
Stephen Jones’ fixation on the salary cap
As is becoming an annual rite with the EVP who does almost all the work on contract management, Jones began justifying possible future roster moves to get the team under the salary cap. This year, it was about DeMarcus Lawrence and Amari Cooper, two important parts of the puzzle in putting the team together for 2022. He talked about how their cap hits were hurting the team in a not so subtle hint that they could well be expendable.
Paradoxically, the Cowboys have long been manipulating the cap to do what they want. While the cap does impose some limitations on what teams can do, the ever growing revenue stream, to which the cap is linked, means that costs can be pushed to later years without crippling the organization. You can make a case that bottom line thinking is trumping building a winning team. The Jones family usurps too much of the power over the roster that should be focused in McCarthy and the coaching staff, plus the scouting department under Will McClay.
Hampering game day decisions
One surprising revelation after the season concluded for Dallas was that Ezekiel Elliott played most of the year with a partially torn PCL. During this time, the running game for the Cowboys was mostly ineffective. Tony Pollard was demonstrably more efficient carrying the ball during this time, yet Elliott continued to get the bulk of the touches out of the backfield.
It is a persistent suspicion that Elliott was the more heavily-used back because of his large contract. The perception is that the ownership was not about to let such a big part of the salary cap sit on the sidelines. He was going to go out there and earn his money - even if he wasn’t really doing so. That twisted logic is just part of the way business seems to be done in Dallas.
Elliott, Lawrence, and Dak Prescott have something in common. All were involved in fairly acrimonious negotiations for their current contracts. All faced some hardball and very public negotiations. All eventually backed the team down and received big paydays. All are now part of that salary cap puzzle that draws incessant complaints from Stephen Jones.
Jones seems to think he is much better at hammering out deals than the evidence indicates. His problems with the salary cap are almost all self-inflicted.
We discussed these ideas on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
He also has taught the players as a whole that he can be beaten while the way he tries to use the media to influence the negotiations and the media coverage of them creates ill will. It is another negative cycle where each iteration just makes things worse. Now, with important free agents the team could really use for this season like Randy Gregory, we will probably see this wind up hurting the team.
Aversion to the free agent market
The roster-building philosophy of the Cowboys has been clearly stated. The draft is the most important part of it, and draft picks are gold. Free agency is not to be used to acquire top shelf talent, but focuses on bargains to fill holes.
That is not the approach taken by most successful teams over many years. The Los Angeles Rams have a shiny new Lombardi Trophy after spending a lot of draft capital to trade for Matthew Stafford. While free agency is always a gamble with some significant costs associated, there are examples every year of a big name helping a team get over the hump. But under Stephen Jones, Dallas has basically abandoned this approach. The only exception of late was the Cooper trade, which had elements of desperation. And now Jones is making noises of moving on from the player acquired by trading away a first-round pick.
It is like throwing an important and useful tool out before starting a construction project. You are forced into workarounds and compromises. There certainly seems to be an element of not wanting to admit a mistake and correcting it. Instead you keep doing the same thing you have done and expecting a different result, and there is a saying about that.
That hubris may the real thread that ties all these problems together. Dallas is the most valuable, most watched team in the NFL. There is no financial reason for things to change. That ever-growing wealth is all important. The fact that a more successful result on the field would likely enhance things is ignored in favor of sticking with the tried and true. Further, the success of the brand creates the false belief that the Jones family is smarter than everyone else. What they are great at is marketing and profiting off of ancillary ventures, like the way The Star at Frisco is much more than just a great training facility.
It leaves us with a team that is not really a team. It is an ownership set on doing things in its own stubborn but profitable way occupying the same building as a coaching staff and roster trying to find success despite the interference and even opposition they face.
It should not be this way.