For years, even decades now, being a fan of the Dallas Cowboys has felt like watching a weird Star Trek episode, one where events just keep repeating over and over while the crew searches desperately for some way to change them. We feel trapped right along with the team. Every year we build up our hopes, only to have them dashed again.
I used the term “purgatory” in the title, because Dallas has never completely fallen apart. They may have a one year stumble where they put up a really bad record, but they at least bounce back to mediocrity the next season, and usually rebound more than that. Most years they are in the playoff hunt, and in six of the last ten seasons they have made the postseason, only to flame out. Lately, those have become spectacular crash-and-burns. But they keep winning the division or getting a wild card bid. The Cowboys are never irrelevant, just predictably soft when things get tough.
They also benefit most years from having weak division opponents. A large portion of their wins each year come from beating up on the weaker rivals. For several years now, both the New York Giants and the Washington Commanders, in all the latter’s incarnations, have been easy wins that pad the record.
There are reasons for this. Jerry Jones seems to have a knack for hiring head coaches who are good, but not good enough. The last bad head coach the team had was Dave Campo, who led them to three consecutive 5-11 seasons before getting the hook. It should be acknowledged that he had rather poor talent to work with as well. Since then, the four head coaches have all had winning records, and at least a couple of playoff appearances, with Mike McCarthy the most consistent with his three consecutive 12-win campaigns. Most franchises fire their coaches after bad seasons, usually several. But when the team keeps racking up wins until they crumple in the playoffs, it is not as easy to justify tearing down the staff and rebuilding. In fact, Jones has really only fired one head coach since Campo, Wade Phillips, who famously lost his players. Bill Parcells resigned after the frustration of the 2006 season, and Jason Garrett was allowed to finish out his last contract and just not offered a new deal. That is what Jones may be setting up with McCarthy. Part of this is that the owner has a history of being rather patient with his coaches and avoids the pain of actually giving them their walking papers as long as possible.
There also seems to be a talent element here. Dallas has a reputation for doing well in the draft, 2023 being a notable exception. They always have good players, but just can’t seem to get over the hump of having one or more weak areas on the roster that wind up failing in the playoffs. The counterpoint to the job Will McClay and company do in drafting and finding good UDFA players is that the team has completely abandoned the higher end of the free agent market since the perceived failure of going after Brandon Carr with a $50 million offer, which was a very big contract in 2012. That coincided with the ascension of Stephen Jones to become the contract guru for the Cowboys. This seemed to have created in him an almost visceral aversion to going after big name, big dollar free agents. Combined with his increasing use of the salary cap as a justification for low-balling players during negotiations, it has relegated Dallas to bargain shopping. The tactics of trying to justify not paying out big money when the team has obvious needs that can be addressed to re-signing their own players also results in having to dole out more cap space when they finally cave after some noticeable acrimony at times. It is an avoidable source of friction that Stephen does not seem to care about.
While Jerry Jones’ reputation as a meddler is overstated, one place he does intervene is in some of the key assistant decisions, most famously in requiring McCarthy to retain Kellen Moore as his offensive coordinator when he was hired. While McCarthy loyally said he was completely on board with the decision, that seems a lot more like being a good soldier than an honest account. This just seems to undermine his head coaches. McCarthy, and Garrett before him, seemed to overcome things after a few seasons, but you cannot help but wonder if things might have gone a bit differently had McCarthy not given up play-calling for his first three years.
All of this builds a picture of a lack of urgency for the franchise. The Jones family have built the Cowboys into the premiere brand of the NFL and a money-making juggernaut. This isolates them from the pressures most other owners face, where lack of success has a more direct impact on their pocketbooks. Even as frustration builds for the fans, the Jones family basks in luxury and the limelight. The latter seems especially important for Jerry, who has never met a microphone he didn’t want to speak into. Dallas is the most covered team in the NFL. While that coverage is very negative, especially on the more controversy driven outlets, the attitude at The Star seems to be that all publicity is good publicity. It is hard to argue with that take when the value of the franchise just keeps soaring.
This also affects the culture for the Cowboys, as Troy Aikman discussed at length in his recent interview at The Athletic.
Is there a sense of entitlement?
“I don’t know about a sense of entitlement,” he responded. “I think that when you play for the Cowboys, every national show leads off with the Cowboys. And there’s a lot of perks to playing for the Dallas Cowboys. There’s a lot of benefits to playing for the Dallas Cowboys. So I think the challenge for the organization and for the head coach is to be able to still keep the players with their edge. And so I think that’s the challenge of this job.
“In a lot of ways, there’s so many other things that are happening within the organization, it’s easy to get caught up in it. There’s tours going around the building and there’s a lot of distractions, if you will, and I think it creates another layer that a head coach and a staff and players have to try to compartmentalize so that they can go and be the best football players they can be.”
That certainly rings very true when you look at how the team has folded late in recent years, including the stretch of games at the end of last season that were full of warning flags most of us, including me, did not give nearly enough attention. Focus did not seem to be as much of a problem as just having some glaring flaws in the final few games they were unable to overcome, but it cannot be discounted, either.
All this looks disturbingly like the Marvin Lewis era with the Cincinnati Bengals. He was the head coach there for 16 years, with a 131-122-3 record. For years, he was just good enough to hang onto the job. Like the Cowboys since the glory years of the 1990s, the Bengals would post some good regular seasons, but famously lost every single playoff game under Lewis. Despite a couple of wild card wins, Dallas is at the same level of futility, and the fact they have a better W-L record in the regular season just makes the torment even worse. The Bengals finally moved on from Lewis after three consecutive losing seasons. That particular spur to shake things up has been avoided for many years by the Cowboys. It is not a good thing for a franchise that needs a real shock to the system to get serious about needed innovation and correction.
Now, as we continue to await the fate of Dan Quinn, Dallas could well wind up going into the 2024 season with no significant changes in how they do business. That is not the most likely way for them to change their fate. They remain mired in their own purgatory, and we are just along for the ride.