Now two games behind Philadelphia and Washington, and perhaps the Giants as well after tonight, I am confidently sticking a fork in the 2015 Cowboys. Their ugly loss in Green Bay yesterday cost a lot of ground in the comical NFC East division race. What’s more, the poor performance left no reason to think that they can suddenly pull off any kind of miracle.
I will soon turn my attention to offseason business: coaching changes, roster moves, and the beloved draft. But alas, painful as it will be, we have to have some final words about this season. I know Dallas is not officially eliminated, but I can’t abide this fantasy any longer. This just isn’t our year. It hasn’t been since the third quarter of the Week 2 game in Philadelphia, when Tony Romo got smashed into the turf and took our 2015 hopes with him to the injured list.
The Romo injury casts a fog over everything that happened this year and even in the previous offseason. How accurately can you grade the offense without its most important piece? How much was the defense hampered by the lack of offensive production and ball control? Even arguments about what Dallas could or should have done last spring are problematic because of the hindsight element. I’ll do the best I can, trying to push my frustration and sorrow away as I go.
My biggest takeaway from this season is that the Cowboys, particularly the front office and coaching staff, paid the price for hubris. There are a few key areas where this was evident:
Tony Romo went down on September 20th and the Cowboys traded for Matt Cassel on September 22nd. Brandon Weeden had been here for two training camps and played a little in 2014. That they made the Cassel trade so immediately speaks to how little faith they had in Weeden, and makes you wonder why Weeden was here to begin with.
Did Dallas reach out to Shaun Hill last March, as some were reporting? That has never been confirmed. Maybe it’s unfair to assume Dallas just blindly believed in Weeden and didn’t try to upgrade the position. We obviously don’t know every phone call that’s made between teams and agents.
What’s more, you can even make a case for why they felt sticking with Weeden for a second year was the best option at the time. Continuity and system familiarity are valuable things for all players, and none more than quarterbacks. But what changed between March and September? Why didn’t you find a fallback option during the offseason if you had so little confidence?
Maybe it comes down to Dustin Vaughan and their missed projection of his development. I could see the scenario where they hoped Vaughan would improve enough in his second year to push Weeden out the door. That didn’t happen, so now they were stuck with Brandy to start the year. They wouldn’t be the first or last team to base their strategy around an expectation that never materializes.
Backup quarterback is the ultimate hindsight position. Nobody criticizes your strategy if Romo never misses time. Once you have to break the glass, though, your handling of the position is put in the crosshairs. The bottom line here is that Dallas clearly didn’t love Weeden and, seemingly, didn’t do enough to try and improve the depth behind Romo.
As I said last March, I have no issue with Dallas’ decision to let DeMarco Murray walk. He wanted more than any team should pay for a guy at his age with a spotty history of both health and performance. Murray wanted to cash in on one epic season and, for once, Dallas was smart enough not be the ones writing the check. Even if he’d had a strong year for the Eagles that wouldn’t change my praise of how Dallas handled Murray.
The issue isn’t in letting Murray leave but rather how Dallas chose to replace him. Joseph Randle was a certified knucklehead already and Darren McFadden’s stock had dropped harder than McDonald’s. The run game was such a key to success in 2014 that you’d think they would’ve treated it with more care. It appears that the front office was far too cocky about the strength of the offensive line and the idea that anyone with two legs could produce behind it.
To their credit, they seemed to bet right on McFadden. He’s been more than productive enough given the lack of a passing game, even handling heavy loads of carries better than anyone expected. But they whiffed so hard on Randle, and had more than enough reason to be concerned going in, that it’s a blight on the front office’s evaluation skills.
There’s been a lot of hindsight complaining about Dallas not taking a running back in the draft, particularly in the Third Round. Obviously, getting Jay Ajayi, David Johnson, or Matt Jones would’ve been nice. Chaz Green became an afterthought after the La’el Collins pickup and his stint on the PUP list that makes it easy to look back with regret. I don’t go there, though, because Green could wind up being a very important pick if he replaces Doug Free in the neat year or two.
Still, there was a pretty clear need for another bullet or two in the chamber at running back going into 2015. They picked up Christine Michel but, apparently, weren’t able to deal with his issues any better than Seattle could. Dallas went to the scrap heap too many times with this position and, ultimately, ended up with mostly trash.
Dallas put a lot of eggs in the Tyrone Crawford basket, and rightfully so given how he played in 2014. Plenty of criticized the deal in retrospect but I can’t fault them for the decision based on the information they had at the time. What bothers me more is the way they handled the rest of the defensive tackles, including Nick Hayden as the other starter.
Hayden is not a bad player. He’d be an okay running mate with proven, elite talent around him but Dallas’s defensive line did not have that going into 2015. Once again, they were riding on hope that guys like DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory would breakout and that Greg Hardy would be a force after his four-game suspension. They’ve come up short on those projections, including their trust in Crawford. The result is that a guy like Hayden gets exposed far more.
With Hayden as the Cowboys “run-stopping” tackle they have ranked in the bottom half of the league three out of the last four seasons. Last year’s run defense statistics were greatly helped by the offensive efficiency and an easily-exploited pass defense. If you watched those games, you remember that teams had little trouble running on the Cowboys when they chose to.
Hayden is hardly the only culprit here but he was one of the easiest targets for an upgrade last offseason. Dallas put their money into Crawford and hoped that someone between Hayden, Terrell McClain, or Josh Brent would emerge. McClain ended up on Injured Reserve, where he tends to live, and Brent retired in May with his ongoing personal struggles.
I’m not saying Dallas should’ve gone and signed Ndamukong Suh but they couldn’t do any better than bringing back this same crew? Was their confidence in Rod Marinelli’s ability to “coach ’em up” too high? Was their faith in the upgrades at defensive end enough that they felt the interior line would be okay? Whatever they based the gamble on, they clearly bet wrong.
One of my biggest wishes of the last offseason, and one that I’ll wish even harder for next year, was improvement at safety. I was very excited when they drafted Byron Jones and hoped that he would emerge their, perhaps even taking a starting job by Week One. But Dallas kept bouncing him between corner and safety and ultimately sabotaged his ability to take over at either position.
The jury has been out on Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox since last year. Church is a tackling machine with no threat of making big plays in coverage. Wilcox is just another Roy Williams, big-hit obsessed safety with far less consistency, instincts, or talent. They are a horrible combination for this defense and yet Dallas didn’t make the moves necessary to improve it.
Jones was scouted as a potential safety ace leading up to the draft. He showed his spark for the job almost instantly in mini camps. Why hold him back as much as they did? I think it comes down to something that I’ve noticed about Jason Garrett, and that I view as his greatest weakness.
As a former player, Jason has plenty of insight into the dynamics of the locker room and the mentality of athletes. This serves him very well as a motivator and leader. However, I think it also gives him an overly cautious concern for disrespecting veterans. I think he defers too much to older players and waits too long to recognize when a young guy is deserving of an opportunity. He wants everyone on the team, and perhaps even the veteran himself, to clearly see and accept that they should step aside for the superior younger player.
Kickoff & Punt Returning
What about Cole Beasley’s history as a return man made you want to stick with him? Was it the lack of dynamic athleticism or the absence of any touchdowns?
As minor as this may seem compared to other areas we’ve discussed, this is one that really burns my biscuits. Garrett is an old school coach and, I know, has plenty of respect for field position. He’s a smart guy that knows how to play the odds, and odds are that a better return man is going to set you up for easier drives way more than he might burn you with a turnover because he takes chances.
Dallas played it safe with Beasley, assuming their great offense didn’t need help with field position. They trusted Beasley to secure the catch and that Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Joseph Randle wouldn’t need those extra ten yards.
How’d that work out for you?
I know elite returners don’t grow on trees but Dallas just so happened to find one on the street in Lucky Whitehead. His ability was clear in the preseason. He did have a fumble in the first game but otherwise was secure and consistently flashed dynamic ability. Lucky wasn’t heard from again on special teams until Week 5.
Once the Romo and Dez injuries occurred then that should’ve been the switch flipper. At that point you couldn’t let any opportunity to score or help your offense pass, and sticking with Beasley was either ignorance, arrogance, or more of the same “stick with your veteran” stuff that I talked about before. It was the least logical or excusable decision made all year.
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The good news for Cowboys fans is that the team is set up to make a run again in 2016. They will bring back all of the important pieces and have plenty of opportunity to improve with increased cap space and what are sure to be some high draft picks.
My only hope is that this season kicked away whatever complacency or hubris may have set in from the success of last year. They simply weren’t as talented as that 12-4 record, division title, and playoff victory led some to believe. Let’s hope that reality check is evident in the offseason ahead.
And if Tony could stay healthy next year, that’d be nice.