Jerry Jones has this joke in the regular rotation where he likes to say that it’s embarrassing what he’d give up for one more Super Bowl ring. Sometimes the Dallas Cowboys owner adds a tease about what he’d pay or which limb he’d surrender. Other times he grins, winks and repeats that his sacrifice is too outrageous to say out loud.
The 2017 season is coming to a close. There is no Super Bowl opportunity at the end of it. And Jones is signaling exactly which valuable commodities he’s willing to concede in this trek.
Time and patience.
Much to the dismay of some of the fan base (or maybe all of it), Jones is suggesting head coach Jason Garrett will be granted more of both. More time to get this team where it needs to be. More patience to guide Dallas and Jones back to the promised land that has eluded the franchise since 1996. Whether Jones sticks with his backing of Garrett or is ultimately talked out of it remains to be seen. But at the moment, he seems locked into one core belief that has transformed him from the trigger-happy team owner of past decades into something almost maddeningly even-handed – that continuity wins out.
To be fair, Jones isn’t alone in this belief. A wide range of the best NFL coaches and owners subscribe to the idea that continuity and stability foster growth and deliver opportunity. It’s part of the reason New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has steadfastly groomed his coordinators and position coaches from within because they know his expectations and have a deep familiarity with the roster personnel he prefers. That understanding facilitates peak efficiency, and peak efficiency translates into growth.
This is what Jones is buying now. That keeping his coaching staff together after a middling season is the right thing to do. The message hasn’t changed. The methodology hasn’t changed. And the goal hasn’t changed. The Dallas flaw in 2017 – in Jones’ mind – had a lot to do with circumstances out of coaching and ownership control. Had it not been for suspensions and injuries, an 8-8 or 9-7 season might have been 10-6 or 11-5. And if you go 11-5, well heck, a couple breaks might even make that 12-4 or 13-3. In Jones’ mind, the gap between 8-8 and 13-3 isn’t as astronomical as it looks.
Considering the realities of the Cowboys season, he might be right.
This was a roster that lost far more than it gained last offseason. Jones knew it. The coaching staff knew it. And even when Dallas was filling holes with youth and inexperience, the brain trust was selling the idea that development at quarterback could cover some of the deficiencies. And it might have – in a perfect world.
But the Cowboys lived in an imperfect one in 2017, starting with the suspension and ongoing, draining courtroom saga of running back Ezekiel Elliott. And extending to key injuries, young players failing to take leaps forward and older players looking, well, older.
The result was a disappointment. More lost time. More lost patience. For now, Jones appears ready to endure that into 2018. But it won’t come without some changes. And there will be plenty to consider.
With that in mind, here are five things Jerry Jones needs to do if he’s going to achieve that outrageous tradeoff for just one more championship:
1) Leave Jason Garrett and the coordinators in place
This won’t be the popular sentiment. The rationale is that Dallas took steps backward, so someone has to take the hit. Here’s the problem with that rationale for Jerry Jones: If he believes that head coach Jason Garrett deserves a line of credit for going 13-3 in 2016 and then dealing with a litany of roster problems (most notably the absence of running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games), then how can he refuse to extend that line of credit to the coordinators?
Despite some undeniable problems tackling, Rod Marinelli’s defensive unit performed admirably with a young secondary and a front seven that still has holes. And while the popular opinion will be that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan should take the fall for the disappointing offense, he should have earned a pass for his hand in the 2016 success as well.
Here’s the hard truth that Dallas fans will have to accept: More often than not, players make the coaches.
There is evidence that the Cowboys roster was nowhere near deep or talented enough to handle the hurdles of this season. On the defensive side, the pockets of struggles were more understandable given the youth. But even on offense – which should have been the strength of this team – Dallas looked thin at times. Elliott’s six-game suspension aside, the conditioning of the Cowboys’ star running back wasn’t where it needed to be for much of this season. But it also wasn’t all Elliott. Wide receiver Dez Bryant’s tape shows a guy who isn’t consistently separating from defenders and is rarely winning 50-50 balls that aren’t perfectly placed. The chemistry of the offensive line was scuttled by injuries, notably the lingering back problems of All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith. Quarterback Dak Prescott’s accuracy wasn’t consistent enough in pressure situations and he didn’t always look as stone-cold confident as his rookie campaign.
All of that said, there have been coaching adjustment problems. It’s clear that Garrett and his coordinators have not always made the right tweaks in the course of games, particularly on offense. The Week 10 left tackle issues against the Atlanta Falcons were embarrassing for the staff. And zero goal-to-go carries for Elliott against the Seattle Seahawks last week don’t make sense, even against a stacked box.
At times, teams must move quickly to protect a failing player (see: Chaz Green against Atlanta), as well as let their best player have opportunities in the face of difficult odds (see: Elliott at the goal line against Seattle). So pin those on the coaching staff. But also remember, this is a team that will be 8-8 or 9-7 when the season wraps. That’s a step back, for sure but it’s not a cratering. And it’s surely not a collapse when the litany of roster problems and development that is still under way are factored in the assessment.
To fire a head coach or even a very good coordinator like Linehan after a medium step backward isn’t a solution. It’s an overreaction. If anything, Garrett and both coordinators need to be put on notice going into 2018. It’s time to put it all together, or time to get out of town.
2) Get Elliott under control this offseason
Without wading into the many flaws of the NFL’s domestic violence investigation into Elliott, the truth is he did himself zero favors last offseason. Between his St. Patrick’s Day incident, his 100-mile-per-hour speeding ticket and the alleged involvement in a nightclub knockout, he wasn’t exactly going out of his way to avoid problems. And the fact that all those issues occurred while he was being investigated by the NFL shows a remarkable lack of self-control and/or maturity to grasp the microscope focused on him.
I hesitate to say Dallas should revisit the past ill-advised routine of having someone like team fixer David Wells keep an eye on players, but Elliott is a candidate for some kind of special measures. He entered the NFL draft with a reputation for partying and being a guy who would require a significant amount of maintenance. Unfortunately for Dallas, he has lived down to that high-maintenance billing in a mere 20 months.
Elliott is a grown man, which means he is likely to do what he wants. That means Dallas is going to have to get creative. If an adult babysitter isn’t an option, the Cowboys could start by bringing in a running back with the talent to carry some of the load behind him. Whatever the tactic, someone has to challenge Elliott to grow up this offseason.
3) Don’t panic with Dak Prescott
The Cowboys were spoiled with Prescott’s ball security his first season. With the offense pared down and the scheme flowing largely through Elliott, Prescott’s near-perfect play (for a rookie) set unrealistic expectations. Anything less than a Carson Wentz-like step forward was bound to be met with criticism.
Prescott played inside of perfection in 2016. His line functioned at a high level, Elliott played a full season, and Prescott was asked to make the plays that were available to him. Meanwhile, defensive coordinators lacked a full exposure to Prescott’s flaws. One season later, all of that changed and Prescott was expected to shoulder more of the offensive load. What resulted was a learning experience. And, unfortunately, it happened in the shadow of Wentz stunning everyone and taking a huge leap forward.
In totality, Prescott was hardly brutal, but he experienced growing pains under pressure. The result is a player who will spend the offseason working on everything. That places him on the typical track for an NFL quarterback. Year 3 will be vital, but Prescott has a history of being a hard worker. After a fast NFL start, he’s got some adversity and doubt to fuel him this summer.
4) Offer Dez Bryant a contract renegotiation or release him
For the third year in a row, Bryant has been something less than expected. The problem is that 2017 should be more concerning to the franchise, considering Bryant played 15 relatively healthy games and still lacked the consistent high impact his paycheck necessitates.
Part of it will surely be put on Prescott, but the Dallas staff hasn’t seen the kind of separation and contested-ball “wins” from Bryant that it would like. At this point, Bryant may just be a poor match for his quarterback – needing a perfectly placed ball to have the kind of high impact that justifies his salary slot. It doesn’t help that he’s still the same up-and-down emotional roller coaster, either.
With returns dwindling, the franchise will become less likely to entertain that aspect of his personality. It’s unlikely the Cowboys will get into the market for a huge free-agent signing at wideout (nor should they), but there is enough wide receiver depth in free agency to potentially replace or improve the depth chart with an aggregation of talent.
When asked Wednesday about taking a pay cut, Bryant told reporters, “I haven’t heard no talks about that, but if it comes, well, I don’t know. Probably not. Hell, no, man. I believe in me.”
5) Dedicate the draft to the lines and tight end
The offensive line needs quality depth at a cheap price. The defensive line could use more of everything. And a quality tight end could make a big difference for the entire offense.
Dallas has six of its own picks in the 2018 draft, but should see a solid boost in that number with compensatory selections, thanks to the free-agent losses (and subsequent performances in 2017) of guard Ron Leary, safety Barry Church, and cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. Where those picks land remains to be seen, but they could result in two additional selections in both the fourth and fifth rounds. That back-ended load suggests this class will be more about quantity than quality, but it’s often easier to find talented linemen later in a draft than skill positions. One way or another, Dallas is going to have opportunities to cast a wide net, or later-round ammunition if it’s looking to move up a few slots in the middle rounds.
What shouldn’t be expected is for a draft pick to come in and make a monumental difference – like Elliott and Prescott did in 2016. Next season’s success or failure will be more about growing the young talent that is already in place, and getting the coaching staff to perform at a higher level. And maybe most of all, keeping Elliott on the field.
Regardless of whether Jerry Jones stays the course with this current staff and roster, one thing is set: His window of patience is coming to a close. And if a whole lot doesn’t go right next season, plenty of jobs will be shuttered with it.
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