I know Cowboys fans don’t want to hear this, but it’s something they need to hear: Dallas’ deflating 17-9 loss to the Eagles on Sunday was for the best.
It’s frustrating, sure. The Cowboys were the better team all season. By point-differential, they’ve been one of the best teams in the NFC. But, let’s face it: This team wasn’t winning a Super Bowl, and Jerry Jones did not need any excuse to keep Jason Garrett around for another wasted season.
If the Cowboys make the playoffs, he’d have one. Getting wrecked by the first good team they played would not have been worth another season of this…
I know losing to the Eagles hurts, but it’s better this way. Trust me.
Jones has put himself out there as the face of the organization, so a lot of this will fall on him. I just don’t know how fair that is. He did his part and gave the coaching staff a talented roster. This lost season, like many before it, ultimately falls on Garrett. Look, Dallas was never going to take the next step with him maniacally clapping on the sideline. The Cowboys needed a new coach. This massive underachievement will force Jones’ hand.
As bad as things are now, the Cowboys are actually in decent shape going forward. They’re sitting on about $85 million in unused cap space for 2020, and they can easily get that number up near $100 million with a few moves. The financial flexibility is there. Dallas still owns all of its top draft picks. If Jones and the front office play this correctly, it’s not hard to imagine this team taking a leap next season.
Step 1: Clean out the coaching staff
From top to bottom.
Garrett obviously has to go. His zeal for settling for field goals and his lack of situational awareness cost this team too many points in 2019. The Cowboys ranked second in both offensive DVOA and Expected Points Added but they’ll finish outside of the top-five in points scored. Somehow, Dallas has scored fewer points than a Patriots offense that hasn’t looked right all season. Coaching has been the difference.
(Yes, New England’s defense has scored a ton of points, but still … it shouldn’t be this close.)
You’ll undoubtedly hear out-of-touch media types wonder why Dallas didn’t lean on Ezekiel Elliott more this season and accuse offensive coordinator Kellen Moore of abandoning the run too often, but, if anything, the Cowboys were TOO committed to the run this season. Here’s Dallas’ dropback rate vs. the rest of the NFL based on win probability, via the excellent @CowboysStats:
It’s not until things really get dire — when their win probability drops below 15% — that the Cowboys abandon the run. In neutral game states, the Cowboys are actually running more often than most teams, which makes little sense considering how effective the passing game has been compared to the ground game…
Garrett’s warts were on full display in Philadelphia. The Cowboys found themselves in several fourth-and-short situations (including a fourth-and-1 with Dallas trailing by 11 in the fourth quarter) and every time, Garrett elected to kick, leaving points on the board in a game that came down to one possession. That’s been the theme of this season for Dallas.
Playing by the book has always held Garrett’s Cowboys teams back, and we may have seen the worst example on the game-deciding play. Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb were sitting on the sideline for the key fourth-down play.
Instead, the team trotted out Jason Witten’s corpse, Blake Jarwain and, holy crap, is that Tavon Austin? It is!
Why weren’t two of Dak Prescott’s top targets on the field for the most important play of the season? Garrett was playing things by the book…
Why weren’t Amari Cooper & Randall Cobb on the field for the Cowboys 4th down chance to tie the game? Jason Garrett said both players were on the fieledfor a lot of plays in 2-minute offense & neeed a rest. Cooper said it was part of normal rotation.
— David Moore (@DavidMooreDMN) December 23, 2019
As bad as the offensive coaching staff was on Sunday, the defensive staff may have been worse. Sure, the Eagles only scored 17 points but they moved the ball at will despite playing their C-team on offense.
Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard called a dreadful game. They insisted on playing soft zone coverages instead of challenging an underwhelming set of receivers at the line of scrimmage.
I’m miffed by the amount of zone the Cowboys have played today vs a depleted Eagles’ offense. Giving away yards w/o challenging backups on the perimeter. Doesn’t really make sense
— Bucky Brooks (@BuckyBrooks) December 22, 2019
That allowed Doug Pederson to create some unfavorable mismatches.
How about Greg Ward against a washed-up linebacker? Sure.
Dallas Goedert against Jeff Heath one-on-one in space on a key third down? You bet.
It was all too easy for an Eagles passing game that has had to grind throughout the season. Per Next Gen Stats, Carson Wentz finished the game with an expected completion percentage of 71.2.
Seventy. One. Point. Two. Only two starting quarterbacks finished with a higher number.
As bad as the coverage calls were, this goalline call on third down was one of the worst I’ve seen all season…
Look at that hole!! pic.twitter.com/1Y7Yi4jn7E
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 22, 2019
Fire this coaching staff into the sun.
Step 2: Do whatever it takes to hire Lincoln Riley
And I mean whatever it takes.
Riley says he’s content at Oklahoma, and I believe him. It’s one of the best jobs in college football. But we’re talking about the Cowboys. I don’t know how much bigger it gets for a football coach from Texas. If Jerry busts out the checkbook — and we know he’s willing to do that — I don’t see how Riley could turn this opportunity down.
Dallas has a franchise quarterback, a good set of skill players and one of the league’s better offensive lines. Riley is not going to walk into a better situation. If he plans on making the jump to the NFL, this is the time to do it.
Also, and this is important, working for Jones doesn’t seem to be as daunting as it once was! Hell, Jones has kept Garrett around for a decade of mediocre football. so job security isn’t an issue. And Jerry and Stephen Jones have done a good job of building this roster and replenishing it with homegrown talent. Long gone are the days of Jerry spending money just to spend it.
I don’t think Riley will need much convincing, but maybe Jones will. Last week, when asked about Riley and Baylor coach Matt Rhule, Jones mentioned how hard the transition from college to the pros has been for most coaches.
Jerry Jones was very complimentary of Lincoln Riley and Matt Rhule on @1053thefan this morning. But then he pointed out “college coaches have the lowest percentage rate of success” taking over as NFL head coaches, adding that the Cowboys went 1-15 in Jimmy Johnson’s first season.
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 13, 2019
But he should look no further than Arizona to realize what a fresh, innovative scheme can do for an offense. In just under a year, Kliff Kingsbury has turned a historically bad Cardinals offense into an above-average unit. And he’s done so by running a diet version of Riley’s offense. Imagine what Riley can do with one of the NFL’s best offensive rosters.
As good as the Cowboys offense has been this season, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Garrett’s old school thinking has held the offense back for years. Riley’s scheme will propel it into the future.
Step 3: Re-sign Dak Prescott
This one is easy. By every advanced metric out there, Prescott has been one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in 2019. And all of those arguments people use to discount his success — the offensive line, Zeke Elliott, etc. — they’re all nonsense.
It’s not just the numbers, either! The tape also backs this up. Prescott has improved as a passer every year. There isn’t anything he can’t do.
The Cowboys have plenty of cap space and there’s no such thing as overpaying a great quarterback. There’s no need to play the franchise tag game here. Give Dak his money and move on.
Step 4: Re-sign Amari Cooper
This one is less of a no-brainer, but the Cowboys need to do whatever it takes to keep Cooper around. You can’t have enough good wide receivers, and Cooper is clearly a good receiver. Does he have a problem with drops? Yes. Does he take plays off? Also yes. But it’s hard to play offense without a true No. 1 receiver, as the Cowboys learned last season before swinging the trade with the Raiders. Cooper gives them a true No. 1 receiver. Not many teams have that.
Getting a long-term deal done would be the best move from a financial perspective, but if Dallas has to tag Cooper to keep him in town, they have more than enough cap space to do it. You don’t get better by getting rid of talented players at important positions.
Step 5: Cut Tyrone Crawford
Crawford is a useful player when healthy, but it’s been a while since he’s looked like a player worth nearly $10 million a season, and that’s what he’ll make in 2020. His dead cap number drops to $1.1 million next year, so Dallas can free up $8 million in cap space by letting him go. Get that money.
While they’re at it, the Cowboys can decline their club option on reserve tackle Cameron Fleming and clear an additional $4.5 million in cap room. With those two moves, Dallas would have about $98 million in cap space heading into the offseason.
That’s more than enough to make this next move possible — even after signing Dak and Cooper…
Step 6: Re-sign Byron Jones
So maybe Jones’ contract season didn’t go as well as he (or the Cowboys) would have hoped; but, in the long run, that may have been best for the team. Jones is a good player at an important position and his asking price won’t be as crazy as we expected before the season. As long as Jones isn’t asking for the moon, Dallas would be smart to pay him.
Step 7: Don’t overreact to 2019’s disappointing results
I usually wouldn’t advocate for a .500 team to spend a ton of money to keep its core together, but this is no ordinary .500 team. The Cowboys were terribly unlucky and a swing in luck, along with a new coaching staff, should be more than enough to get the team back in the playoffs.
Based on point differential, the Cowboys should have been a 10-win team. They’ve gone 1-6 in one-possession games. And with a minus-1 turnover differential, they aren’t getting any lucky breaks there. Regression — the good kind of regression! — should be coming in 2020.
There are still holes on the roster that need to be addressed. Dallas needs upgrades at safety, defensive tackle and tight end, but the’re mostly set at the most important positions on the roster. And they have the means to find those upgrades while adding depth and locking down the core of the roster.
Barring a complete disaster of an offseason, the Cowboys should be a good football team in 2020. But it all starts with the coaching staff. If Jerry Jones gets that right, the rest of the pieces should fall into place.
SOURCE: For The Win, Steven Ruiz