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It’s no secret the Dallas Cowboys’ fan base is tired of the same beat skipping over and over again like a broken record. For three consecutive seasons, the fate of the Cowboys’ season has come down to the regular season finale, a win or go home game, a game that decided the outcome of the NFC East division.
division. And they’ve come up short against every division rival starting with the New York Giants in 2011, the Washington Redskins in 2012, and the Philadelphia Eagles this past season at AT&T Stadium.
Just when you thought a Week 16 clutch Tony Romo performance that kept the Cowboys’ season alive, with a do or die game-winning touchdown pass to DeMarco Murray on fourth-and-goal from the Washington 10-yard line could turn the tides over as a momentum-builder for the division crown, the “Gypsy Curses” arrived at their doorstep once again. Although this time, it wasn’t going to be a late-game Romo-blunder like the previous season at FedEx Field, a game Romo threw the decisive interception with the Cowboys trailing by only three, 21-18, with a chance to tie or punch it in the endzone for the go ahead score.
A back-injury ended Romo’s season in one of his memorable 4th quarter performances, banged up and carrying the team on his back. Without Romo under center for the divisional title game, it was left up to backup Kyle Orton with the season on the line. Orton threw for 358-yards and 2-touchdown passes, but of his two interceptions, the second was the decisive game-ending turnover that ended the Cowboys’ season and crowned the Philadelphia Eagles as NFC East champs.
Same ending, same kick in the stomach, same heartache, and the days go on and on. Disappointment always waits for Dallas fans at the end of the road. No more pot of gold, no nothing but an offseason of remembering how they blew it again. From poor coaching to mistakes in critical moments, the saga in the life of being a fan of “America’s Team” has turned into a cold-sweating nightmare that’s left an extremely-large and loyal fan base bewildered, who once witnessed the ultimate-success to now being stuck in a rut, with only 2 playoff victories since January 28, 1996, the last time the Dallas Cowboys captured the Lombardi Trophy.
And when the results always end in negative-fashion, you need to make changes, financially, in the front office, coaching and personnel-wise to give your organization a better plan going forward.
So what have the Cowboys done post another regular-season-ending heartbreak?
Jason Garrett was given some juice to make changes to his coaching staff. And for once, changes weren’t made by the mighty hands of Jerry and son Stephen. The defense was historically putrid in 2013, and Monte Kiffin was demoted after his first season as defensive coordinator and was replaced by the promoted from defensive line assistant to new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. I like this change in having a more upbeat personality that’s been a defensive line coach for the majority of his 40-year coaching career. His defenses performed at a high-level in Chicago between 2010 and 2012, and the team is currently in need of rebuilding a defensive front that will be without DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher.
Clearly, the club knows they must tackle defensive line in the draft, and the upcoming draft presents a good deal of lineman to choose from. In my opinion, Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald will be the best selection and proper fit for the 3-technique. I’m not banking on Donald to be around at 16 when the Cowboys are on the board, so they will likely have to trade up if they really want him. This is where Will McClay comes into play that’s in charge of putting together the draft board. McClay is entering his 12th season with the Cowboys’ front office. He’s mostly been the director of football research and was promoted to assistant director of player personnel in June. McClay understands what the team needs and how to build.
If you want to build a dominant front in a base 4-3 defense, depth will be needed along the defensive line to build a 7-to-8 man rotation. The team is looking to get younger and faster and find value in the upcoming draft.
A couple of months ago, McClay revealed the plan going forward during a radio interview on 105.3 The Fan.
“You want to be able to find value in those lower rounds in guys that can come in and help you,” McClay said. “That’s where we are as an organization and as a team right now. We want to build depth and we’ve got to hit on as many picks as possible.”
“As you build the team, in this day and age this game is played in space, so you need speed,” he said. “One of the first things we look at is speed. You’ve got to be a good football player and the character has to fit into what we do and in our environment, but we’re looking for speed. We want to build the team speed and the depth with good football players.”
The back and forth switching of offensive play-calling between Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan has now been turned over to new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Although the offensive side of the ball isn’t mostly where the concern is, the Cowboys believe that Linehan will bring more creativity and get everyone on the same page to eliminate situational football dysfunctions that has haunted the team. In Detroit, Linehan’s offense was ranked 3rd in passing and 6th overall last season. Dallas’ offense took a step back in 2013 finishing 16th overall, unlike the previous four seasons of being ranked in the top 10.
Linehan is more of a pass-first guy, but he hasn’t really had a running back that can carry the load like DeMarco Murray since his days in St. Louis. With Steven Jackson as his ball-carrier, he had a 1,500-yard back. The club has been emphasizing the need to establish the running game and got the most out of Murray in his 3rd year with the team for 14 games, unlike his rookie campaign where he started only 7 and 10 in his second due to injuries. In 2013, Murray averaged 5.2-yards per carry, rushing for 1,121-yards, 9-rushing touchdowns, 53-receptions, 350-yards receiving and 1-receiving score to give him a total of 1,471-yards from scrimmage and 10-touchdowns in his most productive season.
Garrett may have ties with Linehan and be excited to have him on board, but my concern with this hire is the fact that Bill Callahan isn’t the happiest camper about Linehan joining the staff. Callahan has been a good influence in improving the offensive line and getting a decent running game in place to build upon. But when you have a pass-happy type of coordinator now calling the shots, you have to wonder if this is going to be a 50/50 thing in having a balanced attack, especially when you have a defense that really doesn’t show enough proof or reason at the moment on why it will be better in 2014. With a bad defense that gives up big-plays galore, you’re likely to be trailing, in see-saw battles, and will be in come-from-behind mode. That calls for the offense to be more aligned on the percentage of (60-pass/40-run). That’s not good, considering Tony Romo coming off two back surgeries. I’m not calling for the offense to be gun-shy on the pass, but the more you pass, the more chance of your quarterback being brought to the ground. How much longer can Romo (34) play Houdini, evading pass-rushers coming his way? That candle won’t stay lit forever.
The front office has made wise decisions financially, creating flexibility for the near and futuristic plans.
Fixing the salary cap was a must, and to create space, the team first restructured the deals of Tony Romo, Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick. The next step was to make a decision on whether or not to keep one of the franchises best ever defensive players DeMarcus Ware. Ware was set for a base salary of $12.25 million, with a cap hit of $16.003 million. Jerry Jones made it clear, either Ware takes a pay cut or the team would release him to free up $7.4 Million. Ware didn’t take a cut and was released only to sign a 3-year, $30 million deal to join Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. And unlike years past, Jerry Jones didn’t jump the gun and dish out the big bucks on an aging veteran like Jason Hatcher, who had a breakout season in a contract year. Releasing the prone to injury Miles Austin as a post June 1st cut saved them $5.5 Million that will kick in after June 1, a move the team would likely use on signing their 2014 draft picks.
Cutting salary has given the organization some flexibility to stick to their plan of going younger and not signing players over 30 and beyond that’s snake-bitten them into cap-hell. Signing Terrell MClain and Jeremy Mincey was for depth purposes that came cheaply in looking to build a d-line rotation under Marinelli’s defense. The team hasn’t had a 3rd quarterback on the roster since 2011, and signing Brandon Weeden to a 2-year deal at the league minimum was one of the more healthy financial choices the team made in getting a quarterback with some starting experience at the cheapest price. Best move of all, the team was linked to reuniting DT Henry Melton with Marinelli this offseason and the Cowboys got him on friendly 1-year deal, with an option of 3-years if Melton can prove to the team that he’s fully recovered from his ACL injury and perform at the level that earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2012. Melton (27) is potentially the first piece of a building-block that will lead the Cowboys’ defensive line to become a dominant force, if they strike gold in the draft and build around him.
Let’s not forget about the days down in the Florida Keys, a time Jason Garrett and Troy Aikman spent with former head coach and two-time Super Bowl winner Jimmy Johnson. Garrett harassed Jimmy to the point of exhaustion on how to build a winner. Go young and fast, and apparently it’s kicking in the mindset of the front office. The Cowboys have 11 draft picks to use this May, thanks to being awarded three compensatory picks for losing Victor Butler, Kenyon Coleman, Mike Jenkins and John Phillips in free agency, while only picking up Justin Durant in 2013. You can’t trade your compensatory picks, but with extra picks, you have the luxury of being able to trade up or back in draft, more options, the better of finding your needs for depth, etc.
I like all of this in the avenue of understanding that football is a young man’s game. That’s what we have here with the Dallas Cowboys’ strategy in the near future. But even with a structured-plan in place, I still question Jason Garrett as a leader of men. The head coach has to be the guy that holds the club (my way or the highway) ground rules. Didn’t Jimmy Johnson create an atmosphere of (YOU CAN’T LOSE HERE) during the glory days of the 90’s? That’s what needs to change in Dallas. Jason Garrett needs to be the guy with the (Iron Fist) the players need to respect and fear.
Example of why Garrett lacks power from his throne: Romo switching out of the run and electing to pass that resulted in the first of two game-costing interceptions against Green Bay. Shouldn’t Garrett have stepped in at the moment as head coach and demand his quarterback not to switch anything? This lends me to believe that the players don’t truly fear their head coach and feel they can cut corners around him.
And recently Jerry Jones told the world that Garrett doesn’t necessarily need to lead the Cowboys to the playoffs to keep his job. Is that the message you want to send to your head coach and team for motivational-purposes? You see, everything always comes back to the man (Jerry). Even when things make sense, there always has to be something that spills out of his mouth that makes you think twice.
In the meantime, Dallas fans can only hope the changes at hand will be the lead-way and beginning of something good. Keep your fingers crossed, eat your vitamins and say your prayers.
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt