The Dallas Cowboys have become the paper tigers of the NFC.
Every year, Jerry Jones loudly proclaims that this is the year. This is the year that the Cowboys retake their spot as a perennial contender and regain their status as "America's Team."
Of course, every year the Cowboys then lurch and sputter their way to a .500 record, missing the playoffs after losing a do-or-die Week 17 game.
Unfortunately for fans of the Cowboys, the stage appears set for similar disappointments in 2014.
Well, except that the Cowboys may be hard-pressed to even force that Week 17 game in the first place.
Now, this is the point in many articles like this where players start getting taken to task. In some respects, they have it coming. The Dallas defense was horrific on too many levels to count last year. And whether you love quarterback Tony Romo or hate him, there's no denying that he has a staggering propensity to pick the worst possible moment to do something stupid.
However, they aren't the problem. The team's owner and general manager are the problem.
It isn't that Jones' strategy where coaches and personnel are concerned is "win the Super Bowl." It's that that's it. That's the plan. Four words. There's no structure. No vision. Just an NFL team flailing in four different directions at once.
It's already started this year.
Even after a third straight 8-8 season, Jones made it clear that head coach Jason Garrett would return for the final year of his contract:
Jason Garrett will return as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. http://t.co/ESJ3SXSeLb— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 31, 2013
Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, on the other hand, wasn't so lucky.
And play-caller, despite the fact that ESPN's Calvin Watkins reported Callahan "opposes" the idea.
Now, it's completely within Jones' rights to hire whomever he wants to coordinate the offense, and Linehan's hire met with Garrett's approval according to Ed Werder of ESPN:
If Jerry Jones won't allow HC Jason Garrett to call own plays, at least now he's being empowered to hire the coach he wants to do it.— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) January 28, 2014
Still, it's not as if the Dallas offense was awful last year.
The Cowboys ranked a so-so 16th in total offense in 2013, but they were fifth in the NFL in scoring at 27.4 points per game.
This also marks the third play-caller the Cowboys have had in the past three seasons. Remember, we just went through this last year, when Jones stripped Garrett of play-calling duties and handed them to Callahan.
Back then, Jones told The Associated Press (via USA Today) Callahan was "an outstanding coach with the kind of experience that I really think is good for us right now."
Less than a year later, Callahan is apparently only being retained in case the Cowboys decide to sack Garrett during the season:
Why would the Cowboys deny Bill Callahan chance to interview with Ravens, Browns? Source says because he's potential interim HC if JG fired— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) January 28, 2014
Nothing says "offensive continuity" quite like three coaches who all simultaneously think they should be calling the plays and are in constant fear of being fired.
Never mind hiring the pass-heaviest play-caller in the NFL to run an offense with a running back who just led the NFL in yards per carry (among players with over 200 carries).
The Cowboys should be using DeMarco Murray more. Instead, now they'll all but certainly use him less.
Speaking of DeMarco Murray, the 25-year-old is entering a contract year coming off a career season, but there's next to no chance the Cowboys will extend his deal in 2014.
You see, the Cowboys are currently in the fifth circle of salary-cap hell.
As Chris Imperiale of Bleacher Report reported earlier this month, the Cowboys are more than $20 million over the projected salary cap for 2014.
Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News puts the figure at over $25 million. George predicts that the Cowboys will get under the cap, just as they always do, by converting salaries to bonuses in an effort to spread out the cap hit.
That way of doing business is a big part of the problem.
It's hard to have an issue with Jones being aggressive with his checkbook. It's good for everyone when owners spend money. Good for players, good for fans and good for the teams involved.
That is, when there's some logic to how the money is spent.
Years of throwing money willy-nilly at aging veterans has resulted in a ton of "dead" money on the Cowboys' books in recent years. It didn't stop Jones from spending, but it did force him to start robbing Peter to pay Paul. Thus began the shell game that the Cowboys play with the cap every year.
This year, Todd Archer of ESPN reports that the Cowboys will restructure Romo's deal.
The deal he signed all of one year ago.
|Player||Position||2014 Cap Hit (Millions)|
This exercise in how the U.S. government works doesn't just impede the Cowboys' ability to add impact free agents (which may be a blessing in disguise, since Jones has been mostly terrible in identifying them).
It's also going to make it that much harder to sign the talent they've developed in-house when the time comes.
Case in point: defensive tackle Jason Hatcher.
The 31-year-old was a bright spot for the Cowboys in 2013, thriving in the switch to the 4-3 to the tune of a team-leading 11 sacks. That was good enough for Hatcher's first trip to the Pro Bowl. It may well also be more than the Cowboys can afford in 2014.
If there's a silver lining in all this, at least Jones has learned his lesson.
Except of course, he hasn't even a little bit, according to what his son Stephen told George. "We’ll always manage through it," Jones said. "It limits you. It’s tight. At the same time, we can get done what we need to get done and get better."
Jerry Jones also indicated that he doesn't foresee a time with him at the helm where the salary cap won't be a major obstacle.
"That’ll always be there for us because we’re that aggressive with our dollars," the owner said.
Once again, the aggression isn't the problem. The lack of controlled aggression is.
Jones has, to his credit, done better in the draft.
|2013||31||Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin|
|2012||6||Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU|
|2011||9||Tyron Smith, OT, USC|
|2010||24||Dez Bryant, WR. Oklahoma State|
|2008||22||Felix Jones, RB, Arkansas|
|2008||25||Mike Jenkins, CB, South Florida|
Dallas traded away 1st-rounder in 2009
Granted, Morris Claiborne hasn't played well, and though Travis Frederick did, it was still a reach to take him in the first round. But in three of the past four drafts, Jones has taken a player in the first round who is now at least an above-average starter for the Cowboys.
Of course, those players are starting to come off their team-friendly rookie deals. It would help if the Cowboys had money to pay them.
And so it goes. The vicious circle keeps turning.
How many games will the Dallas Cowboys win in 2014?
The Cowboys will somehow sign a free agent or two this year, digging themselves into an even deeper hole down the road. Jones will laud the experience and innovation of his offensive staff, while somehow conveniently forgetting to mention that the power structure in Dallas is a muddied nightmare.
Except at the top, of course.
We'll see some new instruments in Dallas in 2014. A few new members will join the band. They may even add a song or two.
At the end of the day, though, it's the same conductor, and Jerry Jones isn't about to fix what ain't broken, even if it obviously is.
And so we're all going to be treated to the same show again in 2014, and unfortunately for fans of the Cowboys it's going to close with the same sad song.