The Dallas Cowboys are the most valuable sports franchise in the world. Led by Jerry Jones, they haven’t captured championships since the 1990s, but they have been able to seize headlines and remain relevant, albeit by being the sports equivalent of a Greek tragedy, euphoric jubilation before devastating despair. Countless years that have ultimately amounted to could’ve, should’ve, would’ve include the most recent disappointment of Dallas.
The Cowboys losing to the Green Bay Packers in the pitiful way they did has fueled an apathy the likes of which hasn’t been seen in some time. Sure, the fanbase has had a reputation for being fickle, but there’s not a time one could remember when most of the fans threw their hands up in disgust as if to say enough is enough. Many Cowboys fans will have a hard time buying in that the core of the team they’ve watched over the last few years can win at the sport’s highest pinnacle. Even though fans aren’t ready to buy in, Jerry Jones has that one thing to sell that he knows his fanbase can’t resist: hope.
“I would anticipate — with looking ahead at our key contracts that we’d like to address — we will be all in. I would anticipate we will be all in at the end of this year. So when you say is there any thought...we will push the hell out of it.”
“It will be going all in on different people than you’ve done in the past. We will be going all in. We’ve seen some things out of some of the players that we want to be all in on. Yes, I would say that you will see us this coming year not build it for the future. It’s the best way I’ve ever said. And that ought to answer a lot of questions.”
Those two words. All. In.
It’s enough to invigorate anyone desperate for something different or a straw to grasp. However, the words will ring hollow for others and will do anything but be a beacon of change. The utterance of those words will draw more questions. Such as, why now? As many are thinking, they’ll believe it when they see it. What’s taken this long to realize that their approach wasn’t working? Years of sitting idly by while their rivals have had sustained postseason success, and now is the time?
Could the years of external pressure have gotten to Jerry Jones? Seeing their former player, Dan Campbell, lead the Detroit Lions to the NFC title game has hit home. Dallas and the Washington Commanders are the only two NFC teams that have not made the conference title game since 1996. Maybe the embarrassment has finally hit its apex, and instead of waiting for the planets to align or the broken clock that has been their management style to be right again for the first time in over a quarter century, the Cowboys have decided to take matters into their own hands. Suppose this isn’t all talk and a calculated tactic to lure fans to hop back on the Super Bowl hype train again. What does “all-in” look like for the Cowboys, and what are the ramifications if the attempt fails?
The obvious example of the Cowboys pushing their chips to the middle of the table is to acquire external talent aggressively. The Cowboys have largely been absent from free-agent spending for the better part of the last decade. The last time the Cowboys chased a near top-of-the-market free agent was Brandon Carr in 2012. Since then, the Cowboys have been content with building through the draft and bargain-hunting throughout the free-agent process. If the Cowboys were to buck the trend and Jones opts to put his money where his mouth is, here are a few possible free agent names the Cowboys could move in on to prove they mean business.
Justin Madubuike, defensive tackle
Madubuike has steadily improved every season he has been in the NFL. The Texas A&M product set a career-high with 13 sacks as an interior defensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens and is still blossoming. He had the second-most quarterback pressures among defensive tackles with 33. Pairing his talents with Dan Quinn’s defense would open many more opportunities for Micah Parsons to see one-on-one matchups from the edge. Madubuike’s quickness and sudden first step will cost the Cowboys top dollar. Madubuike’s projected salary is predicted to be north of 19M annually.
Josh Allen, edge rusher
The name of the game is pressure. The Cowboys regressed in that area last year, and the defensive line wasn’t as fearsome as in 2022. DeMarcus Lawrence is still an adequate rusher but certainly long in the tooth. Dallas has been patient with Sam Williams, but going for it this season means the time is now. Patience on potential is procrastinating at this point. Josh Allen, the former Defensive Rookie of the Year had his best season, recording 17.5 sacks (tied for the second-most in the NFL) with 50 quarterback pressures. Like Madubuike, the arrow and cost point are trending upward. His contract value is estimated at 119M over five years.
The Cowboys need a spark in their backfield. Tony Pollard is likely not returning to Dallas after a mediocre season playing on the franchise tag. The options currently on the roster don’t inspire much excitement. Barkley to the Cowboys would give Dallas explosive playmaking from the backfield they used to have with Pollard. Barkley possesses the open-field speed to change a game in seconds. Signing Barkley away from the Giants would also strip them of their best playmaker and have an offensive core that would be comprised of Barkley, CeeDee Lamb, Jake Ferguson, and Brandin Cooks. Adding Barkley would be a big-time splash. His asking price should equal the 10M given to Pollard last season, if not cheaper.
A draft day trade
Free agency is one of many moves the Cowboys could make. It would be a surprise if they were to aggressively trade up in the draft to acquire an impact day-one starter. Suppose the Cowboys covet another weapon in the passing game and make a play to acquire another wide receiver. Michael Gallup could be a cap casualty, and the Cowboys may need to obtain a premier compliment to Lamb. If Washington receiver Rome Odunze fell out of the top 10 of the draft, Jones might pick the phone up to make a deal.
Ditto if they set their sights on Alabama edge rusher Dallas Turner. Also, you’d expect the team to make similar trades like the ones that landed them Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore this past offseason, but trades throughout the regular season, like the San Francisco 49ers trading for Chase Young. Stephen Jones has cited that the team is constantly looking at acquiring talent, and continuing to add proven pieces throughout the season by trading away middle-round picks would support that.
Who takes the blame if it doesn’t pan out?
What would it mean if the ownership did all they could in good faith to field the best roster their salary cap money could buy, and it still falls short of the ultimate prize? For starters, Mike McCarthy has failed to prepare his team in their last two postseason meetings against the 49ers, who have proven they are the class of the NFC. There have yet to be any talks to extend McCarthy’s contract beyond 2024, and it would appear that the team needs to see more from the head coach to be convinced he is worthy of reinvestment.
Place yourself in Jerry Jones’ shoes for a moment. You place the best team you could assemble since Jimmy Johnson was head coach and entrust that team to a coach who has already won a Super Bowl, only for that coach to lose in the divisional round, or worse, in the first round of the postseason. There is no reasonable way to justify keeping McCarthy after another failure with an even more talented roster, let alone have to give him a new contract. The Cowboys front gambling on this season for McCarthy to roll snake eyes in the postseason again would have to be the last straw.
That also goes for Dan Quinn. Suppose Quinn does return amidst interest from other teams to become their head coach. In that case, Quinn cannot have his defense perform so poorly against inferior competition as it did against Green Bay or a 49ers team they would have played for the fifth time in four years should they meet again in the postseason next year. If McCarthy is gone, rest assured that Quinn is going with him and likely most of the coaching staff.
The quarterback isn’t exempt from this, either. The fans’ exasperation with the past few years’ results mostly centers around Dak Prescott. While some of the discourse surrounding Prescott is unreasonable and lacks objectivity, games such as the one he had against Green Bay did him no favors in buying him grace with the fans. In one week, Prescott went from being a sneaky pick for NFL MVP to being a pariah among many fans.
Prescott carries a cap hit of $59.4M entering the new league year, and the Cowboys are projected to be $19M over the salary cap. Prescott will undoubtedly be the Cowboys’ quarterback this season, but for the team to make the moves they could hypothetically make to risk it all this season, they would have to reduce Prescott’s cap hit by way of an extension or restructure. If the Cowboys are truly going ‘all-in’ they may choose to just restructure his contract. Another terrible playoff outing by Prescott could spell the beginning of the end for his time in Dallas should the Cowboys give Prescott all the help they can, and it leads to the same result.
Any team that goes ‘all in’ opens themselves up to salary cap hell down the line. Signing expensive free agents usually results in some tough salary cap decisions down the line. The idea is that as an organization, and a fanbase, you are fine with that predicament as long as you come away with a Super Bowl. That is the real challenge of going ‘all-in’. It’s not making the decision to do it and then execute it, it’s to win the big one. If the Cowboys go ‘all-in’ and still fail, the future will be especially bleak.