What’s going on with the Dallas Cowboys?
More specifically, what’s going on with Jerry Jones?
Maybe the famously quick-triggered Cowboy supremo is just mellowing with age. After all, even George Steinbrenner pulled his finger off the eject button later in his years as the owner of the New York Yankees.
Still, a younger Jerry Jones probably wouldn’t have stood for Dallas continuing to fumble around and blow chances at playoff berths. While it still might be a bit quick to pull the rug from under head coach Jason Garrett, on the job for only a year-and-a-half, Jerry was still expecting more than what we received a year ago, when the Cowboys missed the playoffs for a second straight year, succumbing meekly in the finale against the Giants to scuttle playoff hopes once and for all.
When the dust cleared, Dallas was only 8-8, losing four of its last five games. In the old days, that would have caused Jones to consider jumping off Reunion Tower, much less consider making coaching changes.
Garrett, however, has long been a Jones favorite and seems to have a longer honeymoon than what Cowboys coaches are used to receiving in the Jones era. Jerry famously didn’t give much rope to the likes of Chan Gailey or Dave Campo, and moved out Barry Switzer just two years after the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXX over the Steelers. Jones did, however, stick with Garrett predecessor Wade Phillips a bit longer (3½ seasons) than most envisioned.
Garrett aside, we are also a bit surprised that Jerry continues to ride with QB Tony Romo, who has won only one playoff game in six years as the starter. While Romo cannot shoulder the entire blame for the continuing underachievement, at least by Dallas standards), he has also proved as ineffective in "winning the big ones" as Don Meredith was once labeled in Big D.
There was talk that Jerry might make a run at Peyton Manning in the offseason, but that never materialized. With other pickings relatively slim in the free-agent QB market, all Jones did in the offseason to upgrade at the position was add ex-Bears, Broncos and Chiefs QB Kyle Orton as veteran cover behind Romo.
NFC East sources, however, are insistent that neither Garrett nor Romo have any more mulligans to use on their scorecards with Jones. Another playoff-less year in Big D likely results in major housecleaning in the offseason.
And, in truth, Romo cannot take full blame for another playoff miss in 2011, as his stats were among the best of his career. With 31 TD passes and only 10 picks, Romo performed beyond the call of duty for much of the season, especially with injuries hampering his receiving corps for much of the year. Not to mention himself, playing through a painful fractured rib and punctured lung.
Now, all Romo has to prove is that he can win some big games, which in Dallas has always been the litmus test of QBs and separated Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman from Meredith, Craig Morton, Danny White, Gary Hogeboom and others.
Jones thinks that 2nd-year RB DeMarco Murray is about to explode upon the scene after gaining 887 YR in an abbreviated rookie season, perhaps providing the best all-around threat in the Dallas backfield since the days of Emmitt Smith. Home run threat and ex-Arkansas star – those sorts are always dear to former Razorback Jerry J – Felix Jones is still in the mix, and could flourish in his preferred change-of-pace role.
The offensive line remains solid, strengthened by the FA addition of versatile Mackenzy Bernadeau (who can play guard or center) from the Panthers.
Jones also expects 3rd-year WR Dez Bryant to become a dominator this fall after hinting at such a year ago when catching 63 passes for nine TDs. As long as wideout comrade Miles Austin stays healthy, Romo has his secondary-distorting targets, while TE Jason Witten (who has led Cowboy receivers for the past six seasons) remains a state-of-the-art underneath target.
Most of the questions for the Cowboys are on the defensive side, where last season’s lockout prevented the platoon from having time to digest new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s 3-4 schemes, which were more complicated than the version used previously by Wade Phillips. Jones correspondingly went for defense with his first four picks in the draft.
The top selection, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, remained unsigned into late July, though most expect him to be in camp before long. As the top cover corner in the draft, Claiborne figures to break into the lineup sooner rather than later.
The recurring headache for the Dallas "D" in recent years has been at free safety, where a revolving door of DBs have tried and failed in recent years. Ken Hamlin, Alan Ball and Abe Elam have all underperformed the last three years, and Jones is getting worried about the latest candidate, FA addition Brodney Pool, who hardly impressed in OTA get-togethers during the spring. There are thoughts that 4th-round pick Matt Johnson, from Big Sky Eastern Washington, could even challenge for a starting role if Pool can’t deliver. Jones also added ex-Chief CB Brandon Carr in free agency.
If the Cowboys can shore up their secondary (and getting Claiborne and Pool to contribute will be key), the "D" might even flourish, with plenty of other playmakers in the mix. DeMarcus Ware is off another All-Pro season when he recorded 19½ sacks, ranking second in the league. On the other side, however, Jones might be running out of patience with Anthony Spencer and his $8.8 million salary. Another rookie, Wake Forest LB Kyle Wilbur, is expected to push Spencer in training camp.
Jones, Ryan and Garrett are also very high on another rookie, Boise State DE Tyrone Crawford, a third-round pick who is expected to compete for snaps right away and could team with holdover Kenyon Coleman as a forceful DE combo.
Dallas backers are also hoping for some pointspread improvement this season, as the Cowboys have sunken to a 10-20-2 spread mark the past two years. Room for improvement, to be sure.
Summary: Expectations are always high in Dallas, which makes 2012 a crucial campaign for Garrett and Romo, who are sooner or later going to have to start making the playoffs and winning once they get there to keep Jerry Jones happy. The NFC East remains an inhospitable neighborhood, but the pieces seem to be in place for a playoff run. If not, get ready for a very busy offseason in Big D.