Has .500 Become Acceptable for The Dallas Cowboys and Their Fans?
By Matthew Postins
When most people look at a .500 record in sports, they generally feel optimistic. I mean, it’s no fun being mediocre. But when you dissect the season – and I’ve been a fan of and covered .500 teams from time to time – you realize that the team really wasn’t that far away from being a winner and, most likely, a playoff team.
It’s different in Dallas. A .500 season feels like a burden, a great weight that sets on your shoulders. Even the great Greek god Atlas might have a hard time carrying these Dallas Cowboys around.
A .500 record for the Dallas Cowboys is like 6-10 everywhere else. You feel like a loser. You feel like you wasted four months of your life cheering for these guys. You feel like something substantial should be done.
Substantial is in the eye of the beholder. To Jerry Jones, the owner and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, substantial is usually defined as money, as in paying players a lot of it. This year only one player was “shown” the money, and that was quarterback Tony Romo, to whom Jones delivered a $108 million contract extension that tethers the Cowboys to perhaps the most polarizing quarterback in the NFL for at least five more years.
Romo will have a job longer that President Obama, theoretically.
As the Cowboys open the season Sunday night against the New York Giants the expectations for this team are muted compared to past seasons. Jones hasn’t been front and center shouting about “glory hole” or talking Super Bowl. By Jones’ standards, he’s been pretty quiet. Fans, if I’m feeling the pulse correctly, appear to feel as if this season will likely be the same old, same old 8-8. The franchise has been defined by the mediocrity Jones reportedly abhors.
Optimism is not the watchword. It’s pessimism. Cowboys style.
Given how average the NFC East looks this year, the Cowboys could win this division. They could also finish fourth out of four teams. It’s hard to tell.
Substantial change in Dallas this season, the discomfort Jones claimed to want to create at Valley Ranch, took the form of philosophy shifts and coaching changes. Frankly that means the most important players in the Cowboys’ success or failure this season are the guys who sit on the sidelines. Sure, players make plays and have to execute. But Jones is pinning his hopes on his sidelines changes, not his personnel changes. Because, to be frank, the personnel hasn’t changed that much.
Jones is hoping that Jason Garrett responds to being a walk-around head coach the way Jimmy Johnson did. It’s a big shift for Garrett, who was so involved in the offense that some believed it was at the detriment of his game management skills. It’s still Garrett’s offensive philosophy (which, to be fair, has its roots in the Norv Turner system that led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s), but it’s being run by a different person.
Jones is hoping that Bill Callahan is the spark that moves the offense forward. The offensive coordinator is the new play caller and his rep is built around offensive balance, and the numbers put up by his former teams suggest he can pull it off. A better running game will make his life easier, but he must also feed the right plays to Romo and company in crunch time in the hopes it will limit those critical errors that seem to deep-six Dallas at the worst possible time.
To that end, Frank Pollack takes over the day-to-day tutoring of the offensive line. He’s a Callahan disciple. It’s up to him to whip this line into shape, even though, technically, Callahan is still in charge of the position group. If these young linemen get better – Travis Frederick, Ron Leary and Tyron Smith – then Pollack will have done his job.
Jones is of the belief that the promotion of Wes Phillips to tight ends coach will help elevate the players behind Jason Witten, namely James Hanna and Gavin Escobar. Now that the Cowboys are fully committed to the 12 package Phillips plays a leading role.
Jones took on Derrick Dooley, the former Tennessee head coach, as the wide receivers coach. Dooley wants a little career rehab. Jones and Garrett want their young receivers – Terrance Williams, Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley – developed. A future without Miles Austin depends on it.
Jones hired Gary Brown out of nowhere as running backs coach. But Jones hired him to help turn DeMarco Murray into a 1,000-yard rusher.
Defensively Jones sold out to a shift to the 4-3. Forget that most of the personnel was drafted for the 3-4. Jones hired Monte Kiffin to bring the Cover 2 to Dallas and counted on Kiffin’s vast expertise to help transition his roster and make it more likely to create turnovers. Kiffin has changed the mentality at Valley Ranch and crafted a defense that has forced two turnovers per game in preseason. The unit shows promise, but this team’s success or failure may hinge on how Kiffin’s system translates to the regular season.
Rod Marinelli, the new defensive line coach, is an astute hire. But he has a rough job whipping a group into shape up front that can’t stay healthy. He has to find a way to squeeze a competent pass rush out of this group, as the Cover 2’s success depends on it.
Jones hired Richard Bisaccia away from the college ranks to take over the special teams. His units have taken it on the chin during the preseason. But his history suggests his unit will be in the Top 10 by the end of the season. We’ll see. No Danny McCray this week will hurt his units.
Historically, mass coaching changes that don’t involve the head coach being fired illustrate impatience. Jones says that Garrett’s future isn’t tied to this season.
But does anyone really buy that? Jones is a results guy. The results he wants are playoff wins and Super Bowls. There are few outside of Valley Ranch that believe Garrett will survive a third straight .500 season, no matter how much Jones likes him.
These moves – which, to be fair, are much more Jones’ than Garrett’s – are designed to set the Cowboys up for a run to the playoffs and beyond. Jones is out to maximize the remaining years of the core of his team, the players that Bill Parcells drafted and signed during his four years in Dallas. Jones isn’t desperate, not just yet.
But he’s getting there. Jones believes it will be coaching that will make the difference this year.
After all, Jones didn’t transition Garrett away from play calling just so he could get better at calling timeouts. Right?