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Even with other teams failing in the playoffs, there is no excuse for the Cowboys

There is no shame in losing a big game. Losing them over and over, however, is a real sign of dysfunction.

NFC Championship - Detroit Lions v San Francisco 49ers
If Dan Campbell and the Lions can make a leap, why can’t the Cowboys seem to jump at all?
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

I’m not trying to start an argument or anything, but we need to take in the whole picture. In this case, we are discussing the Dallas Cowboys and their now nearly three decades-long stretch of not making it to the Super Bowl. But that 28 year drought is much worse. They have not even made it to the NFC championship since then, racking up loss after loss in the wild card or divisional rounds. We have seen squandered byes and depressingly lopsided defeats year after year.

That is the perspective to highlight after reading my colleague R.J. Ochoa’s discussion about how there are so many other teams that have bitter disappointments, like the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions just suffered. He, too, was seeking to bring some perspective to things, and he is not entirely wrong. As the league is winnowed by first making the playoffs and then the win or go home games themselves, it is totally expected that some teams are going to be exposed, or just come up short in a game that is so dependent on luck and the bounces of an oddly shaped ball. (We won’t get into the whole problem of officiating quality today.) This is going to happen sometimes, and frankly, the more often you get to the divisional or conference round, the more often you are likely to suffer disappointment, unless you have an exceptional mix of coaching and talent like the New England Patriots did until recently and the Kansas City Chiefs have now.

But there is still the element of statistical trends, or the law of averages. Teams ebb and flow. While there can be long stretches of futility, things can also come together suddenly and the team can make a real leap into relevancy, like the Lions have over the past three years, or the Houston Texans did just this season with a rookie head coach and quarterback. If you get into the dance of the postseason, sometimes you lose, but sometimes you win. That is why just making the playoffs is the first part of the equation. Do it enough times, and you should eventually get some breaks that take you far.

Yet the Cowboys have made the playoffs thirteen times since their last Lombardi Trophy, and not gotten to the NFC championship game once. Mostly they have gone one and done, with just a scant handful of wild card wins. More disturbingly, their most recent exits have been frankly embarrassing.

If we look at those as symptoms, they point to a chronic condition that leads to more failures than that law of averages would indicate. There is something broken about the team, and the ownership seems to be incapable of finding a way to fix it.

There are a variety of theories about the real problem. The culture is soft and provides too many distractions and things that can be demotivating for the players who seem to be too coddled. The roster has a group of real stars, but the supporting cast is not sufficient. The coaches the arch-conservative Jones family hires are too heavy on old retreads, stifling the innovation that has brought more success to teams that hire up-and-coming talent. The roster-building approach has become totally dependent on the draft and re-signing their own free agents while eschewing the top of the outside free agent market. There are valid arguments for all of them, and it may well be a combination that led to the many disappointments of the past three decades.

It is all rather depressing. There is no indication that things are going to change, especially for the coming season. Dan Quinn might not get the head coaching job almost everyone thought was coming. He seems to be paying a real price for the defensive failures last season, especially from December through the debacle against the Green Bay Packers. It appears Dallas will go with almost the same staff they had for 2023, and it is rather foolish to expect the end results to change.

When you see a clear pattern of failure over such a long period of time, the logical thing is to look for what has been consistent over that stretch, and the answer is glaringly obvious. It is named Jones. Jerry Jones has kept the general manager job for himself for reasons that all go back to his personal ego, and has increasingly shared power with his son Stephen, who if anything is even more conservative than his father. Jerry once was willing to take the big swings, as he did with hiring Jimmy Johnson and his profligate free agent spending in the 1990s, but he has become more cautious with age. That has allowed Stephen to have more and more influence on how the team is run and constructed. The results are self-evident.

There is no stretch of the imagination that would let us think it is going to change. Full responsibility will eventually pass from father to son. Having final say over things will let Stephen lean fully into his salary cap conserving mindset, and he shows zero interest in taking a more innovative approach to coaching hires. There is no incentive for him to change as the Cowboys empire continues to generate staggering revenues. Jerry had the business acumen to diversify the brand into multiple revenue streams that have insulated the family from the repercussions of failures on the field. The brand is so pervasive that it is the most shining jewel in the NFL, which just increases the tremendous influence the Jones family has in the league.

It is hard for someone to fix things when the evidence all points to them as being the real problem, especially when you continue to believe you are the smartest person, or persons, in the room.

Football comes down to the players and coaches, but with the ownership clinging tightly to roster construction and the coaches thereby constricted in what they can field, there is only so much they can do. Barring a highly improbable level of success this coming season, we will see the staff blown up and rebuilt by an ownership that just has not shown the knack for building a great one. Even Will McClay’s reputation has taken a blow after the dismal performance of the 2023 draft class. Should he be replaced or decide to move on, that will be an opportunity for Stephen to have an even heavier hand in roster construction, something he probably would desire but that could well take us back to the dark days of the first decade of this century.

This is a massive dose of pessimism on R.J.’s attempt to paint things in a more hopeful light. He may well be right. However, there are too many counter indications to ignore. We both want the team to succeed. But this is just a caution that we have to keep the big picture in mind and be aware of the real challenges to our fanship ahead.

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