After a disappointing 9-7 season and a narrow miss of the playoffs, the Dallas Cowboys are having to ask themselves tough questions. This is a critical offseason for making sure the next generation of Cowboys players don’t suffer the ongoing disappointments of the last one. To accomplish that, the Cowboys need to keep looking ahead when it comes to their roster.
Emotional attachment to veteran players will not help us going forward.
The impetus for this article came from a tweet I got last night, in response to an article I wrote about Orlando Scandrick’s future with the Cowboys:
First off, I would love to legitimately call myself a beat writer someday. If any of you work for a major media outlet, get at me.
To Kevin’s point, though, the idea of “good players” is one fans seem to struggle with. Many of the same people who complain about ongoing disappointing seasons, and the Cowboys not being in the Super Bowl since Tom Brady was a freshman in college, seem desperate to cling to the players who are part of those failures.
Dez Bryant has dominated the headlines this week after Stephen Jones’ comments indicated the team may be taking a hard stance on Bryant’s contract in the coming months. It’s clear the Cowboys’ front office isn’t happy with the return they’re getting on the franchise-receiver money that Dez is making.
The thought of Dallas actually releasing Dez Bryant bothers many, and understandably so. Whether it’s your #88 jersey or throwing up the “X,” Bryant is one of the true faces of the team.
But that team hasn’t been to the playoffs much during his time. The few times it has, Dallas hasn’t made it past the second round.
That’s not to say Dez, Orlando Scandrick, Tyrone Crawford, or even Jason Witten have been part of the problem. Football is too big a game for that kind of simple analysis. However, veteran players with big contracts are very dangerous in the salary cap era.
Every team has to find the right balance between veteran leaders and their higher salaries, and the young guys on rookie deals or otherwise low contracts. They also have to make sure the development of those young players — who could emerge as leaders in third and fourth seasons, if not even sooner — isn’t being stunted by lost playing and practice time because of those lingering veterans.
Let’s take the greatest current Cowboy, Tight End Jason Witten.
Easily the best TE in team history and a worthy Hall of Famer, Witten is far from the offensive weapon he once was. He can still get open with his impeccable route running, but those windows are smaller now, and his ability to make plays after the catch is almost entirely gone.
Thankfully, Witten hasn’t been a burden to the team’s salary cap, thanks to some smart contract work and cooperation on both sides. Jason continues to accept restructured deals that keep him well paid and allow the team to not carry much of a cap hit.
That said, Dak Prescott is losing the opportunity to develop chemistry with a guy who he could rely on for the next decade. None of James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, or Rico Gathers are probably that guy. Even if they were, they wouldn’t be on the field enough because Witten still commands so much respect and deference from the organization.
That is the inherent problem with veteran leaders. You want their experience and influence, but many times what they actually offer on the field isn’t as good as you’d like. They can still flash greatness at times, but those flashes become fewer and a little dimmer every year.
The young core with Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, their offensive line, and a rising number of young defensive stars is a wonderful foundation for the next era of Dallas Cowboys football. But as this season proved, the Cowboys have plenty of work left to do. They can’t do that work without the cap space that some of these veterans are eating up, or the depth chart positions they occupy.
We all love Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and other longtime favorites. We appreciate what they’ve done and we hate that they didn’t get to bring a sixth Lombardi Trophy to Dallas. But in all honesty, that trophy’s never coming until the Cowboys truly move on from the last generation, and embrace the future.