Up, down, round and round. That’s been the problem with the Dallas Cowboys for an exceedingly long time now. One moment they’re firing on all cylinders and decimating any opponent in their path, but the very next they’re one step away from taking a nap at the 50-yard line. It’s been that duplicitous nature that’s permeated the organization year in, year out, consistently being inconsistent en route to stellar seasons immediately followed by one in the doldrums.
Their latest failure is evidence of the continued pattern, ending the 2019 season with an all too familiar 8-8 record after leaping out of the gate with a 3-0 start that had many listing them as Super Bowl contenders. Only a few months prior, they were enjoying a wild card win over the Seattle Seahawks after a historic midseason turnaround but, as it has so gone time and again, they were unable to turn the corner and advance beyond the NFC Divisional Round.
Their loss to the Los Angeles Rams marked the club’s 23rd season removed from an NFC Championship Game appearance, with Jason Garrett having only two playoff wins in five postseason games over his 9.5 years as head coach (interim included) with the team. Despite a strong regular season record of 85-67 over that span to along with three NFC East titles in the previous five seasons, an inability to mount the troops in a must-win against a depleted Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16 ultimately became his swan song, and the tune it sang was grisly.
With a new era set to begin in Dallas for the first time in 12 years —— it’s paramount they make the necessary adjustments going forward to guarantee the next decade won’t be as disappointing as the previous two.
1. Swing big for a Jason Garrett successor
Although it’s easy to forget at times, Jerry Jones isn’t immortal. The 77-year-old is rapidly climbing in age and isn’t afraid to admit he’s staring down the barrel of his own mortality, and that’s a key motivator to the changes en route to Dallas. After going from minor tweaks in the coaching staff in to a more potent insurrection — i.e., release of Dez Bryant, the ousting of longtime offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, the trade for Amari Cooper, etc. — Jones is all out of excuses when it comes to Garrett. And while it might be exciting to experiment with a coach yet unproven in the ranks of the NFL, the Hall of Famer simply “doesn’t have time for a bad time”, as he so bluntly stated in early 2019.
This is why all indications are the Cowboys will do all they can to reel in a whale of a candidate to succeed Garrett in 2020. The list of potential replacements include more than one collegiate mind as a frontrunner, yes, but Jones needs to understand that before he moves down the totem in his interview process to those he might already have existing reservations about, he can’t leave any “what ifs” laying around. No matter how unlikely or implausible a “yes” might be, respective of the candidate — read: Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, Mike McCarthy, Mike Zimmer — not asking can’t be an option in this process.
That isn’t to say their other interests,, and Dan Mullen aren’t qualified, but instead, it’s to point out how this might be Jones’ last chance to hire the right coach and deliver the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl win before his bell tolls, as grim as that reality may be to accept.
2. Extend Dak Prescott in 2020, ignore the tag
Unlike Garrett, and Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz, and Jared Goff, and then pushed all the chips to the middle of the table to bet big on himself in 2019. For three-fourths of the season, it worked masterfully, and Prescott — if not for the other deficiencies on the team that cost them games they should’ve won., Prescott will be in a Cowboys uniform when the 2020 season kicks off. Having waved off several offers prior to and during the season to sign an extension with the club, the 26-year-old masterfully allowed the market to come to him with the closing of deals on
His numbers began to step back in December, and particularly late December, as he battled a sprained AC joint in his shoulder, but the message had already been sent to the organization; and it was received loud and clear. Prescott is the QB of both the present and the future, and the Cowboys could not be more all-in on paying him accordingly. The two sides will revisit talks in the offseason, but a franchise tag of $26.7 million is waiting if nothing can be agreed to. They can afford it, considering they’ll have upwards of $100 million in cap space this year, but it’d be more prudent to do all they can to get a deal done now to reduce the hit upfront.
Sources continue to confirm it’s not necessarily the money holding up the deal, but more the length, with the Cowboys wanting to run long while Prescott eyes a shorter deal that allows him to re-up in a few years. However it ends up being structured, the sooner they can stop worrying about the future of Prescott beyond 2020 — the better.
An extension also leaves both the franchise and transition tags available, and that’ll come into play with my next two points.
3. Secure Amari Cooper, tag optional
Like Prescott, Cooper played the market and bet big on himself in 2019. The landing of deals on Julio Jones and Michael Thomas worked in his favor, but he opted to hold off and prove he deserved bigger money than the offer(s) the Cowboys had on the table — the team describing his as a “top-five” deal. For the most part, Cooper was again one of the best wide receivers in the NFL this season, but injuries plagued him as early as August, and while he never missed a game and insists he’s “fully healthy”, if he is, there’s a much bigger problem to figure out.
There’s no doubting his ability, well, not if both sides of your brain are operational. His 1,189 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns are career highs, and 2019 marked the fourth time in his first five NFL seasons that he’s surpassed the 1,000-yard receiving mark. Also one of the best route runners in the league, Cooper can be a terror to defend when he’s completely on his game and being utilized effectively. Therein lies the rub, however, because December saw a lessened utilization that included him being pulled on key plays one more than one occasion, and Cooper has now voiced frustration with the scheme for the second consecutive season, despite the change at coordinator.
Time will tell if Kellen Moore — who does deserve credit for flipping one of the worst offenses in the league into one of the best in one year flat, but who also suffered growing pains in Year One — is retained, but keeping Cooper in tow has to happen. Even with the breakout year of Michael Gallup, the tandem is more lethal than the individual, as evidenced in Cowboys history with duos like Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper, or Drew Pearson and Tony Hill. Both the Cowboys and Cooper want to get a deal done, unequivocally, but the former does have newfound concerns that are warranted enough to pump the brakes on awarding him a historic deal.
That may lead to them tagging him and asking for at least one more season before breaking the bank, something Cooper wanted to do this season, but he admits he could’ve done better. Respectfully, the Cowboys might ask him to prove it, again, under either the franchise or transition tag, the latter being less expensive ($18.5 million versus $15.9 million, respectively). A transition tag would give them right of first refusal, which is the one I’d opt for, while the more expensive franchise tag outright handcuffs him to his seat and blocks out potential suitors altogether.
Either way, don’t let him out of the building.
4. Retain Byron Jones + select CB in 2020 NFL Draft
At face value, you’d think these two things work against each other, but that’s far from true. The reality is Jones has become a shutdown corner in the NFL, with the only knock to his prowess being a lack of interceptions. That’s fair, but the former first-round pick is so dominant in all the other ways that matter, and he could’ve been this impactful right out of the gate if the Cowboys had not opted to flex him into oblivion, constantly moving him from nickel corner to outside corner to safety, before relegating him to the latter for the entire 2017 season. They used his inhuman athleticism against him, albeit without malicious intent, and it robbed Jones of years wherein he could’ve ascended to prime form.
The Cowboys acknowledged as much by exercising his fifth-year option, giving him a chance to replicate his All-Pro success from 2018, and sans the award, he did just that. Retaining him is paramount for the success of a secondary that saw Chidobe Awuzie take a massive step back in Year Two, making a CB1/CB2 tandem of Jones and Jourdan Lewis that much more enticing in 2020, with Awuzie serving in rotation. The future of Anthony Brown looms — seeing as he’s coming off of injured reserve and will be a free agent — but letting Brown walk to give the young guard like Donovan Olumba a chance makes sense — and then addressing the position in the draft to potentially land an instant nickel starter (or draft a top outside corner to go opposite Jones and keep Lewis as dominant nickel).
Following this formula gives the Cowboys a chance to field impact corners in either a nickel (3CB) or dime (4CB) set, and that would go a long way to helping the team finally take the ball away in the air on a consistent basis. With Prescott extended, if one of the tags is used on Cooper, that leaves the other available for Jones — assuming a deal isn’t agreed to outright — but those are hefty prices for a cornerback. The franchise tag and transition tag at cornerback price out at $16.4 million and $14.5 million, respectively, making the more logical move being one that pays him around $13 million per year and call it a day. Both parties want to remain married, so print the prenup, read the nuptials and make it happen.
Either that or lose the best cornerback the team has had since Terence Newman, and one of the more pure athletes in franchise history — no exaggeration. The top three in-house free agents can get deals done and still leave a windfall in cap space available for the Cowboys, both now and later.
So, in the wise words of Nike: Just do it.
5. Try to trade for Jamal Adams, again
They wanted him. They tried to get him. They couldn’t, but not because they failed with their offer, but more so because the New York Jets tried to fleece them in the trade. There was never a chance the Cowboys were going to pay the asking price, with the Jets asking for three draft picks that included a first-round pick in both 2020 and 2021, along with a third-round pick on Day 2 in either of those drafts — . Considering the team gave up a first-round pick (only one of them, by the way) for Cooper, a player at a position they value much more highly than safety, the deal was over before talks ever truly began.
While many reported both sides were at one point rapidly approaching an imminent deal, that was never the case, but with talks of a trade now broached and Adams having openly admitted he’d love to play for the Cowboys — during the aftermath of the trade talks, before walking back the comments in a much-too-late fashion — those same sources affirm the team will take another crack at landing Adams before the NFL Draft rolls around. If they can’t land him for a reasonable ask, they’ll simply (and finally) bend to potentially selecting a safety high in late April.
They’d rather a proven, young talent like Adams though, so they need to go get him. The caveat here is obvious, in that the Jets have to play nice, or calling them will be for naught. Be it the acquisition of Adams or using a premium pick at the position, addressing the safety position in Dallas (especially with Jeff Heath now being a free agent) is no longer optional.
6. End the Jason Witten romance
The future Hall of Fame tight end stepped out of the booth — literally — and threw on a cape to save the day for the Cowboys in 2019, after seeing a corps of four tight ends fail to produce in his one-year absence in 2018. Witten’s return was hailed as an instant injection of production, and while he certainly had moments that harkened back to his youth, he simply was not the same player as years past. One example of that came in how many drops he had in 2019, and that’s a category he normally didn’t have a single issue with prior to his retirement. Even his fumble lost against the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving felt weird, and it should’ve considering how he rarely does it.
While Witten reeled in a respectable 529 yards receiving, it was also the second-lowest mark of his career, behind only his rookie season in 2003, and it cost backup tight end Blake Jarwin valuable snaps. Jarwin proved himself a playmaker in Week 17 of the 2018 season with a record-setting performance against the New York Giants, and again whenever he was thrown the ball in 2019. The problem was he was routinely held to the sideline, and Witten would be tasked with executing plays that had Jarwin’s name written all over it (namely those that required yards after the carry and elusive running post-catch).
on if he’ll retire for the second time in three seasons, but even if he doesn’t, the Cowboys need to have the intestinal fortitude to respectfully look their resident legend in the eye and say “no thanks”. It was amazing while it lasted, and Witten certainly deserves some sort of role with the team (not head coach) going forward, as a player, it’s time for the team to finally and successfully locate a successor; or to at least acknowledge Jarwin’s ability to be one, and then go draft a complementary piece.
The writing is on the wall. Read it, Cowboys.