The Dallas Cowboys’ 2015 season has been a dismal failure. Experts and fans alike are going to offer their reasons for this disaster. Here’s my explanation.
I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan, first and foremost. My first memories were the Roger Staubach led team of the 1977-78 season, which had the #1 offense and the #1 defense in the league. I’ve been a fan through the ups-and-downs ever since. One of my favorite seasons was the 1989 team which went 1-15, because I could see Jimmy Johnson was starting to build something special.
So I hate to complain, but the team needs serious change which I don’t think is going to happen. That’s why I write this open letter to Jerry Jones to list the reasons the Cowboys failed. While it won’t reach the deluded mind of Jerry Jones, it will make me feel better venting in this way. Hopefully, it helps other disappointed Cowboys fans make sense of this mess.
Let’s begin with a place fans often start: with the onfield coaching staff.
1. Jason Garrett Is Too Conservative
My complaints about Jason Garrett has to do with his approach to the game. The Cowboys are a team without playmakers besides Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, yet Garrett doesn’t feel the need to “coach them up”, i.e. put them in a better position to win. He wants a simplified and conservative game plan, taking no risks.
Jason Garrett’s Football Pedigree
It has to do with basic assumptions. Jason Garrett was a backup quarterback on the 3-time Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys teams of the 1990s. Year after year, he was a part of a team which went with vanilla offensive and vanilla defensive schemes. Jimmy Johnson’s plan was to get players in the right place, allow superior talent to take over the ballgame, and grind the opponents into dust with an efficient passing game, a bonegrinding running game, and wave-after-wave of pass rushers.
It worked to perfection at times, and became the pattern on which Jason Garrett coaches. The problem is, Jason Garrett doesn’t have Hall of Fame talent here in 2015. A vanilla game plan with an emphasis on “no risk” and no mistakes doesn’t win with the team he has assembled. It keeps them in games, as testified by the 7-game losing streak. Besides the Patriots game (which was close for 2 quarters), the Cowboys were in each ballgame at the end. Two of them went to overtime. But in each case, the Cowboys needed a play. They needed a playmaker to emerge. Without Romo or Dez or Sean Lee on the field, no such player emerged. One doesn’t exist on this roster.
That is what this losing streak revealed to me. If Jason Garrett had a world class set of players who were head-and-shoulders above the opponents they faced, his philosophy would work. But then, a whole bunch of philosophies would work in that case. His results are likely to be directly proportional to the talent on the field. That might be the case with most coaches, but with Jerry Jones supplying the talent, most Cowboys fans realize it’s not going to work.
Here’s what Cowboys fans are concerned about:
Jason Garrett is 6 years into his rebuilding program. Garrett talked about team culture throughout his term here, but with Greg Hardy and Dez Bryant receiving special treatment, the team culture is just as bad as it was the day Garrett took over. It might be worse.
2. Tony Romo Is Not the Answer
Also, Tony Romo’s better days are behind him. When the season starts next year, he’ll be a 36-year old quarterback with a history of 2 back surgeries and 3 broken clavicles. He’s missed significant time 3 of the last 4 seasons. Little shows he has the constitution to make it through a full NFL season anymore.
The team is likely to have a Top 5 pick, maybe a Top 10 pick at worst. If they end in the Top 5, this would be the team’s best chance to build for the future by drafting a top talent at quarterback.
On Drafting a QB in the 2016 NFL Draft
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you must draft a quarterback in 2016. What I’m saying is that all options must be on the table. You have to give serious consideration to the idea. You have to scout and scheme as if getting a quarterback is a real possibility, and not an afterthought.
I’m assuming you won’t have the #1 pick overall. If you draft 5th overall, you won’t be getting a no-brainer pick at quarterback. If they were a can’t miss QB, they would have been drafted 1st or 2nd overall, even if a trade-up was required to make it happen. Even 1st and 2nd picks overall are not fool-proof: look at RGIII. So I’m not saying this is a 100% must option, but it should be in the discussion.
Jerry Jones is caught in his own assumptions, and the #1 assumption is that Tony Romo is the key to a Cowboys’ Super Bowl. Wedded to that idea, he closes himself off to other possibilities. When asked whether he ever considered adding Peyton Manning when he was a free agent 3 years ago, Jerry Jones said he was vaguely aware that Peyton Manning was free, but he didn’t considered it as a possibility, because Romo was the team’s QB. When you don’t consider a 36-year old Peyton Manning a possibility because you think Romo is better, that is someone married to a set of assumptions. The big problem is, now that Tony Romo is 36, Jerry Jones is still married to the same set of assumptions.
Reliance on Best-Case Scenarios
Maybe Tony Romo comes back next year and has perfect health. Maybe the team around him is good enough he gets them to the playoffs and has a chance to play for the Super Bowl. But if you assume those goals are attainable, you also have to assume other possibilities. It’s far more likely that Romo is going to miss large stretches of the season. Even when he’s in there, Romo is far from the best QB in the NFL, and you’ll lose some of those games.
So if you get a chance to draft a top talent at quarterback, it only makes sense to do so. If you think Romo is good enough to be the guy for another season or two, fine, do like the Packers did when they drafted Aaron Rodgers. Let him sit a year or two and learn. With Rodgers, the Packers won a Super Bowl pretty soon after he became the starter. Spending a 1st rounder on a backup QB didn’t hurt rebuilding, so long as you hit on other players. Unlike Rodgers, the Cowboys’ backup QB is going to be behind a brittle quarterback, so your young talent should have plenty of chances to prove himself and gain experience.
3. Elite Running Backs Are Made, Not Born
At a point, Jerry Jones became convinced that elite running backs are a result of their offensive line. I can see why Jerry’s scouts and coaches pounded this into his head. For the better part of two decades, he seemed to pay little attention to the offensive and defensive lines. Obviously, Jimmy Johnson built the 90s team based on excellent line play and excellent depth at those positions. Bill Parcells understood the value of a good pass rush and drafted Demarcus Ware early in his tenure. The rest of the time, Jerry looked for skill position players and ignored the line play, much to his detriment.
So Jason Garrett and the others around Jerry Jones made the point often that they needed to build the offensive line. They were so successful in that (and it was a huge accomplishment) that the team spent 3 of 4 first round draft picks on offensive linemen. In doing so, the Cowboys built one of the top offensive lines in football: maybe the top O-line.
Which brings us to Demarco Murray in the 2014 regular season. Demarco Murray isn’t the best running back ever, but he’s a really good one. In 2014, he set a Cowboys franchise record for rushing yards in a season. This is a franchise with the all-time leading rusher in its past. This is a team that’s had Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett, and Herschel Walker. They know great running backs, so it was a major accomplishment for Demarco Murray.
Demarco Murray or Someone Like Him
Jerry Jones was convinced Demarco Murray was a product of the offensive line. Frankly, I can see his reasoning. Murray had been injury-prone and average until 2014, when he had an offensive line in front of him. Demarco fumbled the ball too much, including the phantom fumble during the playoff game with the Green Bay Packers, which I still say was the key play in the game (not the Dez Bryant non-catch). And signing Demarco Murray would have extended him into a part of his career which might have been dangerous. I can see why the team didn’t want to pay Murray.
But if you’re not going to do that, you can’t simply ignore the position. You need to add a second-tier talent in free agency. You need to draft a player in the first 3 or 4 rounds or, at the very least, somewhere in the draft. You don’t rely on crazy Joseph Randle and a worn-down Darren McFadden. Those might be complimentary players, but not guys you go into the season relying on them to be Super Bowl starters.
Jerry Jones oversimplifies things. He thinks an NFL running game is an either/or proposition. Either the running back makes the line or the blockers make the running back. In truth, championship teams find a way to have both. They need an offensive line performing at a high level, while they need a difference maker at running back to make the difference. In simplifying the equation, Jerry Jones plans to be an average team.
4. The Defense Needs More Talent
The Dallas Cowboys’ defensive unit is in serious need of playmakers. Their bend-don’t-break philosophy keeps them in games, but the unit wears down as the game progresses. Inevitably, they don’t have the werewithal to stop opponents at the end of the game, when the pass rushers are tired, teams are in 4-down mode, and the pass rush is most likely to fail a team. Meanwhile, the team is forced to rely too much on big plays from the offense, because no turnovers or sacks seem to happen. The other team gets one or two more big plays in a game and that is all the difference.
Coming into 2015, the Dallas sports media made a big deal about the team’s talented pass rush. Greg Hardy was a top NFL sack leader. Randy Gregory smoked too much marijuana, but otherwise was a top talent. Demarcus Lawrence still hadn’t shown what he could do, but he had clear talent. Jeremy Mincey had proven to be a team leader and an effective spot player at defensive end.
Release the Kraken: His Unconditional Release
The idea is these players represented a force in getting after the quarterback. That simply hasn’t shown itself on the field. Greg Hardy has shown flashes of major talent, but he’s also been a major distraction who expects special treatment. Whether he’s worth the trouble is a huge question.
Perhaps he’s still shaking off the rust, but you have to wonder if he’ll ever have the chance to get all the rust off. I was one of his supporters when he came to town, believing the contents of his 911 call showed he was set up by an unstable person. But I forgot that these things aren’t mutually exclusive, and are usually just the opposite. That is, crazy finds crazy.
Just because the woman he was dating seemed unstable, did not make Greg Hardy a good guy–they could both be unstable. After a few months of observation, Greg Hardy strikes me as unstable and unrepentent. Beware people who can never take responsibility for their own acts, who always look to blame others.
Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence
Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence has shown brief flashes of talent, but only time will show whether they can become consistent forces as bookends. I like Mincey, as a respected and much-used backup. The future is Gregory and Lawrence, but the team could still add pass rushers.
The defensive tackle situation still needs an upgrade. If a defensive tackle with Aaron Donald-like talent is sitting at the Cowboys’ 1st round draft pick, I’d be all for adding that player. The best way to help the edge rushers is to put a force in the middle of the defense. As it currently stands, opposing teams really only have to concern themselves with the edge rushers.
The linebacker corps needs an upgrade. Rolando McClain makes plays, but he’s not always reliable and he’s injury prone. Sean Lee is a playmaker, but he’s injury prone. You cannot build a perennial Super Bowl contenders with those players. Anthony Hitchens has shown something, but you could use linebackers.
The defensive backs need a huge upgrade. Despite that, I’m not suggesting Dallas should spend a high draft pick on one of these players. Roy Williams was a disaster as a Top 10 pick. Morris Claiborne has been a disaster as a Top 10 pick. Terrance Newman wasn’t a disaster, but he never quite lived up to the billing. Quite frankly, the team has not shown the ability to spot the real talents at defensive back high in an NFL Draft in the past 15 years. For instance, the year they drafted Roy Williams at safety, they passed on Ed Reed, who went to the Baltimore Ravens 10-15 spots lower. Such decisions are what Super Bowls are made of.
5. Jerry Jones Isn’t a Good General Manager
An often-repeated phrase in the DFW Metroplex is: “Jerry Jones is a good owner, but he’s a bad general manager.” I disagree with that idea, because a good owner gets rid of a bad general manager. The idea of leaving a failed general manager in power, year-after-year, completely undermines the concept of accountability in a franchise. If the key decision maker faces no consequences, then no one but those who displease him face consequences.
From that, all the other bad decisions of this franchise flows. Jerry Jones builds teams based around false assumptions: Tony Romo is elite, Jason Garrett’s plans work, the offensive line makes skill position players irrelevent, and we have improved the defense significantly.
Jerry Jones Is Reactionary
In many wany ways, Jerry Jones is a reactive owner. He reacts to what’s happened recently. Many people like to mirror the trends and copy success. The problem is: Jerry Jones overreacts. When the Michael Irvin and Erik Williams scandals dogged the team in the late-1990s, he refused to draft Randy Moss, which proved to be a huge mistake.
Moss would have extended Troy Aikman’s career, and saved the team two 1st round draft picks they paid for Joey Galloway. That single decision had tremendous consequences for the team.
Later, he would overreact in other ways. He jump on the trend of the running quarterback by overdrafting Quincy Carter. After 15 years of drafting huge and immobile offensive linemen and shifty receivers, he suddenly changed to a West Coast Offense and its reliance on mobile offensive linemen and big receivers. He switched to the 3-4 defense, requiring years of drafts to get the proper talent. Then he switched back to the 4-3 defense, requiring years of drafts to get the proper talent (still incomplete).
One of my favorite quotes is from historian AJP Taylor: “We learn from our mistakes how to make new mistakes.”
I’ve found that true in my own life and very true in the case of Jerry Jones. Jerry overreacts to the latest supposed trend or piece of information, switching his very philosophy time and again. In doing so, he’s always relearning the old lessons, constantly making the mistakes of a novice or amateur.
Jerry Jones resents the charge he’s still an amateur. He likes to say, “After 25 years, I’m a FOOTBALL MAN.” That’s true. I’m willing to give him the fact that 25 years on the job means he’s learned the NFL system. I’m sure he knows how scouting and preparation, training camps and film sessions, league business and corporate deals work. He knows the business.
The thing is, he’s not a good football man. Some people learn a business and find they just aren’t good at it. With those people, one of three things happen. One, they realize they aren’t any good and find something else to do. Two, their boss realizes they aren’t good and fire them. Three, no one ever recognizes this is a bad idea and the same mediocrity is accepted, year after year. That’s what has happened with the Dallas Cowboys.
Most NFL general managers get where they are through accomplishment. They begin as a scout, a coach, or a player. They learn the business from the ground-up, showing a high degree of skill at some football-related discipline. Through hard work, knowledge, and success, they move up through an organization. Eventually, they get a job as a general manager. Some of these people, after years of proving they are good at scouting, coaching, or playing football, prove to be highly skilled. Others prove they aren’t very good NFL general managers. Maybe they had bad luck in their one big chance. Maybe they have the wrong temperament. Maybe they don’t have the vision, or the work ethic, or the eye for talent that’s needed. It’s likely some combination of the above.
Whatever the case, the ones who prove they don’t have the right skill set no longer get to be the general manager. In the case of Jerry Jones, he didn’t come up through the system. He bought the team because he’s a skilled businessman. Then he wanted to prove he’s a football man. He’s proven just the opposite, but he owns the business, so he refuses to be held accountable…or hold himself accountable. Thus, the franchise continues in perpetual mediocrity.
What Cowboys fans are really saying when they say Jerry Jones is a “good owner” is he’s a good businessman, skilled at making corporate partnerships, getting billion-dollar stadiums built, and marketing the Dallas Cowboys. Unfortunately, this is a sports franchise whose very existence is based around the on-the-field product. If the owner doesn’t assure that the product on the field is the best it can be, then he’s a bad owner.
#1 Reason the Dallas Cowboys Suck: Jerry Jones
Jerry Jones has failed in that task, consistently over time. He is obsessed with proving the 1990s Super Bowls were won because of him–not because of Jimmy Johnson. Yet with each passing year, it becomes more obvious he had little to do with that success. He was college roommates with Jimmy Johnson, so that’s who he hired. If he’d been college roomates with Rich Kotite, that’s who he would have hired. Jerry Jones’s success in the NFL comes down to luck.