In truth, the Dallas Cowboys' offseason began when quarterback Tony Romo got injured in Week 16. The loss might have actually been a blessing in disguise. Had Romo played and the Cowboys won, it might have strengthened owner Jerry Jones' idea that this team is on the proper track to success.
They aren't. The Cowboys are much farther from being a long-term winner than they or even many of the fans realize. The foundation for sustainable success isn't in place.
Dallas is at a crossroads. It could continue on its current path and slowly become a perpetual loser, or it could alter its approach and begin the path to becoming a winner. How it handles this offseason will be a strong indicator of where it's headed in the seasons to come.
When a coach gets fired, the question many ask is "did he deserve it?" They analyze his team's win-loss record, the progression of the squad, and so on. But few ask the question that's really most important: Is there a better person for the job?
I was a big fan of Andy Reid when he was in Philadelphia. Even though I think Reid is a great coach, I believed he "deserved" to get fired because there was a better man for the job in Chip Kelly.
So the question we need to ask when it comes to head coach Jason Garrett's job is whether or not someone else out there could do it better. I think the answer is yes.
Garrett has been in Dallas seven years as a coordinator and head coach. He's had time to prove himself. He's directed an offense that's capable of acquiring a lot of yards but not a lot of points. He's shown a willingness to ignore the percentages and coach with his gut. He's proven to be risk-averse and incapable of evolving.
Don't get me wrong; I think there are things Garrett does well, too, including emphasizing intelligence and work ethic in prospects. That's important, but it's still hard to imagine there's not someone out there who can better lead the Dallas Cowboys.
So who can do a better job of coaching the Cowboys? I previously listed four coaching candidates that I would love to see in Dallas: Urban Meyer (Ohio State), Gus Malzahn (Auburn), Art Briles (Baylor) and David Shaw (Stanford).
Malzahn is my favorite of those. Here's what I had to say about him:
All Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn did in 2013 was take a team that didn't win a game in the SEC in 2012 to the national championship. Described by CBS Sports as "a nerdy savant," Malzahn transformed a stagnant Auburn offense that averaged 18.7 points in 2012 into a hyper-explosive unit that amazingly scored 40.2 points per game this season.
The main concern for Malzahn is that he has just one year of experience as a head coach at a major college. He spent 2012 at Arkansas State, helping them go 9-3, before this year's 12-1 finish in his first year as the head coach at Auburn. He was also the offensive coordinator during quarterback Cam Newton's magical run.
The name of the game for Malzahn's offense is the same as that for Chip Kelly: speed. During an important 81-yard drive in their win over Alabama, the Auburn offense ran a play every 18.2 seconds. That's near the norm for Auburn in 2013. Malzahn's ability to innovate and adapt would be a refreshing change in Dallas.
I also addressed the similarities among the coaches I prefer come to Big D:
All but Briles are under 50 years old. They also all coach college football, where I believe true innovations begin. Innovation is normally a top-down process in most other fields, but it's just the opposite in football, where college coaches have real incentives to try out unconventional methods.
In the NFL, there's little incentive for coaches to steer away from the norm. If they try something outside-the-box and it doesn't work, they can lose their job. In college, where the gap between the best and worst teams is so massive, underdogs need to get creative in order to compete. That's why many of the game's greatest innovations come from small college schools or even high school.
The Cowboys had one of the top young minds in analytics in Ken Kovash on their staff a couple years ago, but when Alec Scheiner left Dallas to become the president of the Cleveland Browns, he took Kovash with him.
Even though the Cowboys seemingly ignored Kovash's advice when he was in town, at least the initial analytics foundation was in place. Now, not so much.
The lack of analytics shows that the Cowboys aren't committed to a scientific and evolutionary way of running their organization. By embracing the numbers, you might not see Dallas horribly mismanage games, fail to attempt a play on fourth down until December, run the ball too much on first down, improperly utilize timeouts or draft the wrong player types, among other mistakes.
Quarterback Tony Romo has the highest 2014 cap figure, according to Spotrac, at $21.8 million. The Cowboys could very well shift around his deal to open up cap space next season, but Romo isn't going to take a pay cut.
Veterans DeMarcus Ware, Brandon Carr and Jason Witten, however, should consider taking less money. Those three players check in at second, third and fourth, respectively, in 2014 cap figures. Together, the trio will take up nearly $37 million of the Cowboys' salary cap.
It might actually be easiest to get Ware to accept a reduced deal because he has the least potential "dead money" if Dallas were to release him. They won't, but it's a different situation than Carr, who would cost $16.9 million against the cap if the Cowboys were to cut him.
If the 'Boys can restructure (or preferably reduce) these three deals, it could really help their future.
No matter how the Cowboys restructure contracts, they aren't going to have a ton of cap space to sign big-name free agents. They're going to need to find players whose perceived value is at its lowest point so that they can get good deals.
The 'Boys need to bypass players who have already broken out and are thus unlikely to provide a good return on the investment: defensive end Jared Allen and defensive tackle Lamarr Houston, for example. Instead, they should focus on low-risk, high-upside players like defensive end Willie Young or wide receiver Danario Alexander. The perceived risk is high, but in reality, the risk extends only as far as the monetary commitment.
The Cowboys have a lot of problems on defense, but they're all intensified by the team's inability to generate pressure. Veteran DeMarcus Ware's reign is finally coming to an end, while defensive end George Selvie, although promising, is nothing more than a No. 2 rusher. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher will be leaving Dallas via free agency and Nick Hayden isn't a starting-quality player.
As mentioned, undervalued players like defensive end Willie Young are options, but the Cowboys will need to find long-term help via the draft. Stanford defensive end Trent Murphy would be one heck of a first-round addition, for example.
Safety isn't nearly as important as defensive end or defensive tackle, but the Cowboys were absolutely killed by the free safety spot down the stretch. Second-year man J.J. Wilcox might develop in the future, but he can't be counted on right now. Jeff Heath showed he just doesn't have what it takes to cover in the NFL.
While pass-rushers typically take a long time to develop, safeties can contribute right out of the gate. If Dallas were to sign some pass-rushing help in free agency, it could address the free safety position early in the draft with a guy like Alabama's Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix. I've written on Clinton-Dix in the past:
The Cowboys have found their strong safety of the future in Barry Church, but now they need a ball hawk in the back end to complement him.
Alabama's Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix is that player. At 6'1", 208 pounds, Clinton-Dix has outstanding movement skills for his size. He had two picks at Alabama this year, but interceptions are notoriously fluky and thus a horrible way to judge prospects. All of the signs point to Clinton-Dix having what it takes to make plays as a "center fielder" type of safety.
Clinton-Dix is currently being mocked to Dallas in the first round by some analysts. In a weak safety class, it's unlikely that he escapes the top 32 picks.
Among the Cowboys' bigger free agents in 2014 are defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, defensive end Anthony Spencer, safety Danny McCray and linebacker Ernie Sims. All of those veterans are unrestricted and aren't worth bringing back (some due to talent, others due to cost).
The only free agent the Cowboys should retain is kicker Dan Bailey, and since he's restricted, it shouldn't be difficult to keep him in town.