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The Cowboys need to escape football purgatory, but there are doubts they can

The Cowboys have some work to do this offseason.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints
Dak is one of the biggest sufferers.
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Purgatory. A place where past sins are burned away to let you go on to heavenly rewards. Let’s begin by explaining what is meant by “football purgatory.” It comes from “quarterback purgatory,” a related concept that has been around for a while. This is a term coined to describe a team that had a quarterback that wasn’t good enough to lead them to real success, but was able to play well enough to keep their team somewhat competitive. It is associated with the idea of being stuck in the middle of the pack in the NFL, where you don’t have the resources, mainly draft capital, to go out and find a clear upgrade. Instead the team just limps along, having mostly mediocre years without really cratering, but not able to do more than occasionally make a brief appearance in the playoffs.

The Dallas Cowboys have elevated that to a franchise level. They make the playoffs every few seasons, have losing campaigns that still are not bad enough to get to the top of the draft, but have not even sniffed a Super Bowl run in over a quarter of a century. And they are unique in a sense, because no other NFL team has been as consistently slightly-better-than-mediocre than them.

How has this happened? Why have the Cowboys become the exemplar of falling short of expectations? There are several things involved, of course.

We have to start with the one thing that has been a constant over that stretch of playoff futility. That is the owner and general manager. Jerry Jones took the GM title after the departure of Jimmy Johnson, who handled most of the personnel decisions during his time in Dallas. As Jones has pointed out, if he weren’t his own boss, he would have been fired from the position due to his unsuccessful performance. Over time, his son Stephen has been assuming more and more of the day to day GM functions, to the point that Jerry may be more focused on other areas. That has not led to any improvement in how things are conducted, and an honest assessment makes it likely that things have gotten worse as he has tightened his grip on things. Stephen is clearly the heir, at least for football operations, and that makes him just as immune to getting fired as his father.

Nothing is more of a problem in seeking answers to how a team can get better than having one of the two most crucial jobs filled by someone who is invulnerable to termination, no matter how bad things get. Whatever happens on the field, the thinking is going to stay the same for the GM. In all other franchises except for the Cincinnati Bengals, whose owner Mike Brown also fills the role, firing the general manager is a common answer for disappointing seasons. While it doesn’t always work, because mistakes clearly can be made in hiring, it often does. In any case, it brings a fresh set of ideas and approaches to the team. That has not happened for the Cowboys since last century. Decisions on personnel and the coaching staff are still being made by the same pair that clearly have not broken the code. Given how much the league has changed since Dallas won three Super Bowls with an offense that was very much centered around a dominant running game, that alone may doom the team for decades to come. The Jones used the fourth overall draft pick on a running back in 2016, and then caved in to giving him a $90 million, six-year extension. That is an overwhelming argument that they are still mired in a philosophy that is decades out of date. The way Stephen defended Ezekiel Elliott at the combine just bolsters that idea.

The Cowboys need to change. How much they can is inherently limited by the ossification at the top.

Roy White and I discussed this overall idea in greater detail 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.

The only thing that might finally pry the reins of control from the Jones family would be a Cleveland Browns type extended run of failure. But here, they have had too much good luck to get that ultimate reality check. First they found Tony Romo almost purely by accident. He was good enough to keep the team competitive despite a relatively weak roster around him for most of his tenure. The one year he had a lot of talent around him, Dallas was stymied in the playoffs by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Then they stumbled into Dak Prescott, who was their third choice for a quarterback in the 2016 draft. He arrived just in time as injuries truncated Romo’s career. But that year, when the Cowboys stunned the league in the regular season, they ran aground in the playoffs against the Packers yet again. Those were two of the three years in the 2000s that the team truly seemed to have a roster with enough talent to have a chance. The other was last season. Why they fell short yet again remains baffling. Now the personnel decisions being made by the Jones family seem to be degrading that talent rather than trying to build on it for a run this year. Future cap space and possibly targeting 2023 for a head coaching change take priority. The NFL is a win-now league due to the short windows for most players to be at their best and the always looming threat of injuries disrupting the most carefully laid plans. That is a lesson that has not been learned inside the Star, at least by those who matter most.

Another way good luck has had bad consequences is in the draft. CeeDee Lamb is now the plan for WR1 with Amari Cooper all but certain to be sacrificed on the salary cap altar. He was never expected to be available when the Cowboys picked in 2020. Then last year they drafted Micah Parsons, who has far exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. Both of those were incredibly fortunate for the team. They also snagged players like Trevon Diggs, Osa Odighizuwa, and Kelvin Joseph. Will McClay certainly deserves a lot of credit for the job he is doing as head of the scouting operation. However, the team is overconfident in its ability to sustain draft success. Every pick in the draft has an element of chance. No player is guaranteed to make a successful leap to the pros. The higher you pick, the better the odds. For the most part, the Cowboys are somewhere in the mid-to-late part of the draft order. They are due for a stumble. And the perception of their drafting prowess is subject to recency bias. They had a significant whiff with Taco Charlton, and Leighton Vander Esch is likely leaving after turning out to be much less than was hoped. If this is a year when things don’t go so well, they will take a further step backward. Further compounding things is that they seldom get to a second contract with some of their better players, another symptom of their obsession with cap space.

Last year saw another bit of good fortune that reinforces an unfortunate error in thinking. In the mind of Stephen Jones, free agency is a very poor way to use that precious cap space. He has what can only be called a “bargain bin” approach to signing outside free agents. After repeated years when the team failed to help themselves through that, 2021 saw remarkable success. Jayron Kearse was the big find, but the team also had significant contributions from Carlos Watkins, Tarell Basham, Demontae Kazee, and Malik Hooker, and Brent Urban would have joined that list if not for injury. That is an excellent batting average given the low cost of all of them. Stephen Jones now feels validated by that success and will probably continue his parsimonious ways. That fails to give the long history of failure its proper weight. It will likely just dilute the talent more than the expected departures of Cooper and DeMarcus Lawrence already will.

Finally, there is the fact that the rest of the NFC East is in pretty bad shape, and has been for some time. None of the rivals had competent quarterback play last season. That is one of the most crucial predictors of a team’s success in the NFL. The recent news that the Washington Commanders have traded for Carson Wentz does not change that. Ever since the Super Bowl year for the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas has pretty much had his number, and that is likely to continue. All of the rest of the NFCE are very much in rebuilding mode. Last season it resulted in the first time the Cowboys swept the division since the last realignment. They will probably dominate the division again this year. It could mean another playoff berth that only results in another late spot in the draft order.

Thus the cycle will continue. As mentioned, the Jones family already seems to be planning for a change at head coach. Mike McCarthy would probably have to break the string of futility in getting to the NFC Championship game to keep his job. This year would be a great time to go all in on things as Prescott is no worse than the third best quarterback remaining in the NFC following the departure of Russell Wilson, and was probably so even if Wilson had not moved to the AFC. The balance of power has shifted from the NFC, with only the Packers and the Los Angeles Rams clear powers. Instead, the offseason has seen the team inexplicably committing to taking steps back so far. The belief is that the Jones family is planning to lure Sean Payton back to coaching after a year off. That might be a glimmer of hope, since getting him to come to Dallas might entail giving him more control over the roster. Only two head coaches have had significant say there since Jerry Jones bought the team, Johnson and Bill Parcells. Both successfully restocked the team. However, it is an open question whether the Joneses can overcome their egos and surrender sufficient control. Barring that, the Cowboys may be doomed to more years in football purgatory while their errors cling to them, and we will be condemned to burn with them.