Why 2014 Should Be a Do-or-Die Year for the Cowboys' Core and Coaching Staff

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 22, 2014

In the half-century-long history of the Dallas Cowboys, only one head coach has missed the playoffs in four consecutive seasons and retained his job. Surprisingly, that man was Tom Landry, who went 18-46-4 as head coach during the first five years of the franchise's existence. 

The circumstances have changed quite drastically since then, though, which is why Jason Garrett shouldn't be given the same opportunity. If Garrett's Cowboys miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year in 2014, time will have come for owner/general manager Jerry Jones to blow things up, top to bottom. 

Frankly, it's surprising Garrett has retained his job to this point. Even if we don't hold a Wade Phillips-driven six-win 2010 campaign against Garrett, this Dallas team is far too talented to go 8-8 in three consecutive seasons.

Longest playoff droughts in Cowboys history
1960-19645 yearsTom Landry
1986-19905 yearsLandry, Jimmy Johnson
2010-20134 yearsWade Phillips, Jason Garrett
2000-20023 yearsDave Campo
Pro Football Reference

Tony Romo might not be a Hall of Famer, but he's still a top-10 quarterback in almost every respect. Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten and Tyron Smith are all elite players at their respective offensive positions, and they've continually failed on defense despite the presence of big investments like DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. 

Ware, Spencer and Jason Hatcher are gone now, and I know they haven't won the lottery in the health department, but at some point you run out of excuses. Here's why this has to be viewed as a do-or-die season, not just for Garrett, but for much of the nucleus currently in place at Valley Ranch. 


Garrett will eventually lose these guys

Coaches rarely if ever last half a decade without putting together a single successful season because the players often start tuning them out. It doesn't appear as though that has happened yet in Dallas. The 'Boys played with quite a lot of fire down the stretch the last two years, battling through injuries to at least earn a Week 17 elimination game. But with a poor 2014 showing, you have to think the locker room will start to question whether Garrett is the guy. 


Garrett's contract is up

Jones' allegiance to Garrett has been somewhat dumbfounding. He's trying not to be a knee-jerk reactor, which is understandable considering his former reputation. But if he's dead set against firing Garrett, an easier route is to simply let his contract expire.

Very few head coaches are forced to work as "lame ducks," but it appears that's exactly what will happen with Garrett this year. That's yet another reason why it'll be hard for him to hold the locker room's focus if the team struggles. 

And if indeed that happens, the Cowboys can let Garrett walk in the cleanest possible way, replacing him with one of his coordinators or an outside candidate as part of what should be a franchise-wide makeover. 


Romo is becoming too expensive

Romo will turn 35 next offseason and his salary cap number for 2015 is slated to be $27.8 million, which would be tops in the NFL. No way you keep a guy around at that age and that price unless he's winning playoff games for you. 

Top projected salary cap hits, 2015
PlayerCap hitAge
1. Tony Romo$27.7M34
2. Drew Brees$26.4M35
3. Darrelle Revis$25.0M28
4. Larry Fitzgerald$23.6M30
5. Peyton Manning$21.5M38

Even if they restructure Romo's deal again next offseason, it'll be extremely hard to keep key pieces Bryant and Smith, both of whom are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next offseason. If they let either of those guys go in favor of Romo after five years out of the playoffs, they'll be sorry. 

Investing in Bryant and Smith over Romo and, say, Jason Witten, isn't easy, but Witten will turn 33 next spring and Bryant (25) and Smith (23) are young and talented enough to be the leaders of the next nucleus. 

I understand that windows are only open for a short time and that the Cowboys might be tempted to chase a championship with those older guys in 2015 and 2016, but when you keep failing year after year, you eventually have to make tough decisions, sacrificing the short-term for the long-term. 


The defense may need special attention

If the Cowboys once again fall short of the playoffs in 2014, it's probably safe to assume that a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL in 2013 will factor in negatively. Top 2012 draft pick Morris Claiborne is well on his way to becoming a bust, Lee and Carter can't stay healthy or produce on a consistent basis and Carr hasn't lived up to his $50 million contract. 

If those trends continue in 2014, they'll have to invest seriously in revamping the D, which could mean money that otherwise would have gone to vets like Romo and Witten will be spent on the opposite side of the ball. 


There are too many cooks in the kitchen

It's nice that Jones is giving Garrett the ability to control his staff, but the Cowboys keep adding coaches without subtracting anyone. As a result, the staff is loaded with big names who are used to having more control than they likely will with the 2014 Cowboys. 

Among the five men now employed as part of what we call the Cowboys' inner-circle of coaching, three—Scott Linehan, Rod Marinelli and Bill Callahanhave tried and failed as head coaches, another—Garrettis currently failing as a head coach and the fifth—Monte Kiffinwas the oldest coordinator in the NFL last season.

The crowded kitchen in Dallas
Jason GarrettHead coach48
Scott LinehanPassing game coordinator50
Rod MarinelliDefensive coordinator64
Bill CallahanOffensive line coach57
Monte KiffinAssistant head coach/defense74
Brad Gagnon

If gambling on that quintet of coaching retreads doesn't pay off this year, the Cowboys have to break it up. Garrett should be canned, Callahan should be set free, Kiffin should "retire" and Linehan and Marinelli should have their statuses reviewed based on how their respective units performed in 2014. 


Will Jerry pull triggers?

There are already clues that Jones and his sons are thinking this way. Cutting bait with Ware and Hatcher couldn't have been easy, and at least the ownership isn't bending over backwards by giving Garrett an extension to avoid an odd lame-duck season. 

Will Jones and Co. have the gall to cast guys like Romo, Witten, Claiborne, Carr, Carter and maybe even Lee aside next year? Do they have the guts to fire the entire coaching staff and start from scratch? Dallas fans had better hope so, because if this team can't finally put it all together in a wide-open division in 2014, anything but an overhaul will only serve to further cripple an ailing organization. 


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