You can’t have the kind of season the Dallas Cowboys did in 2020 without some individuals bearing the blame. While there are varying degrees of responsibility throughout the roster, here are the five Cowboys who saw their value decrease the most during this disappointing season.
Yesterday we looked at five players who still managed to impress and increase their worth despite the negativity swirling around the team. But they were exceptions; most either maintained their perceived value or saw it go down as the Cowboys finished 6-10 and got humiliated here and there throughout the year.
One group that won’t be included in this discussion are players whose performance got them released prior to the end of the season. You could certainly make cases for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Dontari Poe, Daryl Worley, and others when it comes to most damage done to their reputation, but we’re more concerned now with individuals who are going into the offseason still part of the Cowboys.
Let’s start with the player who probably did the most damage to himself this year:
Jaylon Smith, LB
It’s been a tough two years for the Cowboys’ supposed star linebacker. After he and Leighton Vander Esch looked like the second coming of Briggs and Urlacher in 2018, Jaylon’s play declined last season and then took an even steeper drop in 2020.
While his 2018 play was better than 2019, Smith made it to his first Pro Bowl last year as an alternate and was still seen as one of Dallas’ top defensive players coming into this year. But while he did lead the Cowboys in tackles by a wide margin in 2020, Jaylon’s overall impact on the field and with some of his comments to media brought him a lot of scorn and a major hit to his value.
Smith was credited with 154 tackles by one source which more than doubled the next closest teammate (Xavier Woods’ 74 tackles). He also had an interception, two fumble recoveries, and 1.5 sacks for the occasional big play.
But anyone who watched the games can tell you how hollow Jaylon’s gaudy tackling numbers were. While they were gold for your IDP fantasy league, Smith’s tackles were mostly occurring after a runner had already gained 5-7 yards and the opposing offense was marching easily down the field.
Along with these empty stats came Jaylon’s major breakdowns in coverage and some costly penalties. The bad from 2019 escalated and the things that he did well were fewer and farther between.
Perhaps even more damning, though, were Smith’s celebratory antics after plays and comments off the field. Early in the year he blamed the defensive struggles on the complexity of Mike Nolan’s scheme, seemingly shrugging off personable accountability. Then a few days ago when questioned about his future with the Cowboys, Jaylon responded to, “watch the film.”
The film shows a player who seemed to have forgotten how to play composed, smart football. It also shows a guy who thought stopping players after they’d already gained first downs was worthy of his now-reviled “swipe” celebration.
With Tyrone Crawford’s contract finally expiring after 2020, Jaylon Smith may now have the worst deal on the Cowboys’ defense and perhaps the entire roster. His did a lot more to hurt the team than help it this year, and it may mean his time in Dallas could be over sooner than we’d have ever imagined a couple years ago.
Speaking of bad contracts….
Ezekiel Elliott, RB
Zeke’s case is a tough one to assess because of everything else that happened this season on offense. Just how much can you take a running back to task when the starting quarterback goes down in Week 5 and four of your five starting offensive linemen missed most of the season?
Heck, even the fullback was missing this year after a COVID-19 opt out.
But these excuses, however legitimate, can only go so far with a player of Elliott’s status. That is the burden of being one of the most expensive RBs in the game.
With just 979 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 15 games Zeke’s 2020 was easily his worst season so far in the NFL. Even when he missed six games in 2017 due to his bogus suspension, Elliott still had 983 yards and seven touchdowns to at least validate that he was still one of the best in the business.
But now, for the first time in his career, Zeke is going into an offseason with many questioning just how valuable he truly is to the Cowboys. And that huge contract, once arguable given his overall impact to the offense, is starting to look like one of the biggest salary problems Dallas has.
Zeke did manage to put some respect back on his name with his performance in the final two weeks of 2020. After sitting out in Week 15 to recover from a calf injury, Elliott returned with a big 100-yard day in Dallas’ victory over the Eagles and then showed his toughness with gritty, something-out-of-nothing running in the loss to the Giants.
Still, those late glimpses of the old Zeke weren’t enough to outweigh all of the issues seen throughout the year. But with 2022 being the first year that Dallas could reasonably get out from under the contract, Elliott’s return next season is assured.
The Cowboys will have to hope that getting the rest of the offensive pieces back in 2021 will allow Zeke to return to his usual production rate. But until we see it, many will continue doubting Elliott’s current value and seeing him as a hindrance to Dallas’ success.
Xavier Woods, S
After 2018 Woods looked like a rising star in the Cowboys’ secondary; a rags-to-riches story as a former 6th-round pick turned starter. But after not building on that hype last year and a rough 2020 season, Xavier may wind up not even getting a second contract from Dallas.
Woods went from a hard-hitting playmaker to a non-factor and coverage liability this season. 2020 was the first year that Xavier didn’t record a single turnover, though he did rank second on the team in tackles.
Many might have been willing to excuse the the decline in Woods’ performance to the scheme changes on defense under Mike Nolan. After all, the entire Cowboys defense has to undergo this transition during the COVID-19 pandemic and missed out on a lot of the traditional offseason work that would’ve come with it.
But then in Week 5 after Dallas’ 1-3 start to the year, Woods shot his reputation in the foot with a comment to the media about a lack of effort from himself and his teammates. And while honesty is appreciated, it did more to kill the perception of Xavier as a future star or even a current asset with the Cowboys.
Also hurting Woods’ value was the ascension of Donovan Wilson into a starting role and a play-making presence on defense. But Wilson didn’t hijack the hype train from Woods; it had already left Xavier behind in October.
Now Woods is set to go into the offseason as an unrestricted free agent following the expiration of his rookie contract. The Cowboys could bring him back on a modest deal to compete for a starting role and at least be a versatile backup, but it’s a far cry from the kind of perceived value he had a couple years ago.
Tyron Smith, OT
This is a tough one as it’s more about availability than performance, but Smith’s 14-game absence in 2020 is an escalation of a disturbing trend over the last five seasons. While we never want to fault players for health issues in such a physical game, there’s no denying that Tyron’s value to the Cowboys is becoming increasingly problematic.
From 2016-2019 Smith has missed three games each season. While a couple of these have been for veteran rest in a meaningless game, most of the absences were due to chronic neck and shoulder issues that have nagged Tyron for years.
In 2020 the issue became more severe and ended Smith’s season after just two games. And with La’el Collins already missing the entire year with a hip injury, this left the Cowboys in a sad state at one of the most crucial positions on offense.
Smith just turned 30 in December and would have several good NFL years left by the usual logic. But you have to remember that he entered the league at just age 20 and already has a decade of NFL mileage from being being a full-time starter his entire career.
Tyron also has one of the highest salary cap hits on the roster at $14 million. If the Cowboys can’t count on him to play in the majority of their games anymore, that money would likely be better used elsewhere.
Dallas could save about $5 million in cap space if they release Smith outright in 2021 or $10.5 million if they make him a June-1st cut. That $10.5 million would go a long way to helping pay for Dak Prescott’s eventual deal, be it a long-term contract or a second franchise tag.
Of course, the Cowboys would rather have Tyron Smith on the field and providing his usual All-Pro work as one of the best left tackles in football. And perhaps being out most of 2020 and having surgery on his neck will allow Smith to return next year healthier than he’s been in some time.
But the discussion is still out there and that alone speaks to a decline in Smith’s value to the team. If Tyron could stay healthy then he’d be almost untouchable, but 26 missed games in the last five years is enough to call anyone’s worth into question.
Mike McCarthy, HC
There were other players that we could’ve talked about here; La’el Collins, Leighton Vander Esch, Jourdan Lewis, or Chris Jones can all be dishonorable mentions. But if we’re talking about damaged reputations then you can’t ignore Mike McCarthy and how rough this first year as Cowboys head coach was for him.
Now you might be wondering why I went with McCarthy and not Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan, who easily turned in the worst performance of all the coaches in 2020. But remember that this is about whose reputation took the biggest hits and there were many who questioned the Nolan hiring from Day One.
Nolan only validated the doubts that many already had in him. That’s why the real criticism goes to McCarthy, the man who decided to do his friend a favor and brought Nolan to Dallas.
Making Nolan his defensive coordinator might have been McCarthy’s greatest error in 2020 but it was hardly the only one. Throughout the season, McCarthy’s decisions on when to gamble with a high-risk plays and or go conservative were baffling and backfired more times than they worked out.
Comparisons to Jason Garrett were inevitable after the recent change in Cowboys head coach. While some loved to see McCarthy take chances that Garrett never would have, the perceived lack of focus and effort from the players at times was not something Garrett’s Cowboys were known for. Nothing about 2020 made this look like a better-coached team.
Of course, McCarthy’s ability to take control of the Cowboys and prepare them for the season as a first-year coach was hindered by the pandemic. But that didn’t seem to stop Ron Rivera (Washington) or Kevin Stefanski (Cleveland) from having positive impacts on their teams.
Mike McCarthy was supposed to be an upgrade over Garrett; a Super Bowl winner who could finally push Dallas over the hump. But while the pandemic and many injuries that plagued the Cowboys this year were out of his control, McCarthy’s performance in 2020 was still reproachable.
For whatever flaws he had as a strategist, Jason was an excellent leader. The perceived and even admitted lack of effort from the Cowboys at times this year goes back to the head coach.
Mike will get a chance at redemption next season and hopefully under more favorable circumstances. But while many saw him as the top candidate available in last year’s coaching market, McCarthy now goes into 2021 on the hot seat after one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.