Sports on Earth's NFL writers Mike Tanier, Dan Pompei, Russ Lande and Robert Weintraub will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most pressing problems facing each one and proposing the best solutions. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
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If I get to be Cowboys general manager for a day, does it mean that I get to be Jerry Jones for a day? Whoopee! Stephen, fetch my footstool! Charlotte, tell Dubbya to move back the tee time at Horseshoe Bay to 3 p.m., and he better not start cocktail hour without me! Jason, call Baby Dolls and have them rustle up Desiree Lee, Lacey Anne, Rihanna Sue, two bottles of Chivas, and a triple order of hush puppies. If the War Room is rockin, don't bother knockin'!
OK, Jerry Jones' offseason days are not quite that action packed. And the Cowboys GM role is a thankless task: brutal salary-cap debt, a defense on the skids and a superstar core that has slipped into its 30s without achieving any non-financial goals. Jones is doing the world a favor by taking this terrible burden on himself!
Now it's time to do Jerry a favor. No one but Jones can clean up all of Jones' messes, but the following guidelines can keep the Cowboys competitive in the short term and solvent in the long term, even if they prescribe some rocky times in between.
Solution: Put an expiration date on the Romo-Ware-Witten era.
Here is a tremendous breakdown of the Cowboys' cap problems by the gang at Over the Cap. The Cowboys are in a classic upside-down mortgage scenario, and every short-term solution they must use to reach cap compliance in the next three weeks -- let alone get themselves in position to sign their draft picks and wiggle a tiny bit for any necessary free agents -- will be the equivalent of opening a credit card to pay the old credit card, which was opened to pay the loan shark. An accelerating freight train of dead money is barreling down the Cowboys track. Worst of all: They actually have to make it worse this year just to field a team. After all, no matter how deep your debt and how desperately you want to climb out, you still need grocery money.
The Cowboys will do what little cap juggling is available to them. Tony Romo's deal will be restructured again, making it look like Exhibit A in a savings-and-loan scandal. Some mid-tier players will be cut, though releasing the likes of Mackenzy Bernadeau is the equivalent of selling the shower curtains to pay the water bill. They will keep Miles Austin until June 1, then release him so they can defer the cap ramifications from 2015. Eventually, they will limbo under the cap, setting the bar a little closer to the ground for 2015 and 2016. These are necessary financial evils.
What the Cowboys must do while playing credit roulette is pave the way for an "enough's enough" season. The Raiders had a season like that in 2013: They paid off all of their dead money debts at once and wiped the slate clean in one unwatchable season of Matt McGloin. There is no way for the Cowboys to avoid such a season, so they might as well plan for it.
Let's call 2016 the Cowboys Year of Reckoning. Romo, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware will all be over 33 by then; even Brandon Carr and Sean Lee will be pushing 30. The Cowboys are still financially and emotionally committed to saddling these guys up this year, and there is still a chance of a surprise season in a weak division. But by 2016, Jones will be far beyond kidding himself, and he has created a financial environment where rebuilding on the fly before then is completely impossible. So load all the dead money problems into 2016 while playing Cap Truth or Dare in the next three weeks, cut everyone at once in two years, absorb a nuclear winter of a cap hit, and start over.
Once Jones sets a salary cap expiration date, he can build other plans around it. If Jason Garrett is tenured faculty, Jones can keep him through the 2016 rubble year, then hire a new coach for the rebuild. The 2014 and 2015 draft classes can be organized with a cap purge in mind: lots of late-round picks to fill roster holes, for instance.
Putting off financial woes until tomorrow is usually a terrible idea, but once you have done it, the best thing to do is prepare to face that tomorrow with open eyes. Because it's coming. Boy is it coming.
Problem: A baffling coaching culture.
Solution: Seek young minds.
Garrett should have been fired after the 2011 season, for his own sake. It's not that he is a bad coach, but that we have no idea what kind of coach he is. Jones makes all of the personnel decisions. New coordinator Scott Linehan will call the plays, replacing Bill Callahan, who will still have a role on the coaching staff. Monte Kiffin handles the defense. When Garrett personally called Jon Kitna to rejoin the Cowboys as an emergency backup quarterback at the end of last season, it was the first decision in about four years that could be unequivocally attributed to the head coach.
As noted above, Garrett might as well be kept comfortable as a client monarch until the salary cap explodes at this point. But that does not mean the culture around him must remain the same. Callahan and Linehan are old coaching retreads. Kiffin is a legend, but it was obvious last season that the league has left him and his Windows 95 edition of the Tampa-2 defense behind. Kiffin's chief lieutenant is Rod Marinelli, a longtime Kiffin sidekick best known for coaching the Lions to an 0-16 season. If you are looking for innovative thinking, don't look to the Cowboys coaching staff. Of course, if Jones was really looking for innovative thinking, he would not fill the offices around him with other people whose last name is "Jones."
Let's quietly prepare Kiffin for retirement and send Callahan, Linehan and Marinelli packing as soon as possible. Let's replace them with some up-and-comers. Of course, it is too late to find any up-and-coming coaches in mid-February. Wouldn't it have been great to see Bill Lazor arrive from Philly as offensive coordinator or Jim O'Neil (Mike Pettine's right hand man) get scooped up as a defensive coordinator? There is always next year. The Cowboys should grab bright assistant coaches and college wunderkinds and give them a sandbox to play in. With Ware and Romo still in the sandbox, the potential for success is great enough for Jones to determine who is "next head coach" material.
What about this year? Give Garrett his playcalling duties back: the man deserves a shred of dignity. Kiffin and Marinelli can keep installing their Tampa-2. It's out of date and does not suit the personnel, but it's too late to go fishing for something better. Like the cap situation, the coaching situation is too screwed up to fix in a day or a year; the best we can do is pave the way for a down-the-road solution.
Problem: A historically bad defense.
Solution: Whatever you do, DON'T TRADE UP
The news is not all bad for a Cowboys defense that allowed 6,645 total yards last season. Sean Lee's neck has been feeling better, and he should soon be medically cleared for offseason activities. Lee alone can make Kiffin's defense look much more viable. There is young talent scattered across the lineup: George Selvie on the line, Lee and Bruce Carter at linebacker, Morris Claiborne and some kids who were thrown right into the furnace last season (Jeff Heath, J.J. Wilcox) in the secondary. Jason Hatcher will leave as a free agent, but Ware and Carr will stick around. A little development, some better health, and one more blue chip piece …
Stop right now, Mr. Jones. Put the phone down. You are thinking of trading up to get that "one special player:" Hasean Clinton-Dix, Darqueze Dennard, even Jadeveon Clowney. (Jones is nothing if not ambitious.) Don't do it. The Cowboys defense is not one player away from contention. It is about five. Hatcher must be replaced. Better solutions than Heath and Wilcox must be found at safety. Depth is critical everywhere.
Clinton-Dix would be a pretty solid fit if he lands at 16. Now here is the hard part, Mr. Jones: Our weekend of work is not over on Thursday night! There is very good defensive tackle depth in this draft, and a behemoth like 350-pound Daniel McCullers would make a fine Tampa-2 nose tackle in the middle rounds. Cornerback is also a fairly deep position, and a size-speed prospect like Liberty's Walt Aikens would make a sound third-day investment. We need to address offensive guard in the draft as well, so we cannot spend all of our picks on defense, but we absolutely cannot squander them with the one-superstar-at-a-time philosophy.
Mr. Jones, are you listening? Put down that phone. I don't care what the Raiders are offering!
Problem: The Cowboys are weak at guard. Guard? GUARD!?
Solution: Apply a little Moneyball reasoning.
The Cowboys' late-summer struggle to fill the easiest-to-fill position on the football field was emblematic of the team's deeper problems. Decent guards can be found on the third day of any draft. Adequate professionals who will show up for practice on time and keep your quarterback from dying linger on free agent boards throughout the spring. But the Cowboys were reduced to begging Brian Waters to come out of retirement.
Waters is now 73 years old and heading back to retirement. (Oops, 37.) The Cowboys need a cheap replacement, but with their need so obvious, they will be tempted to grab Stanford's David Yankey or UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo in the first round. Yankey, in particular, would arrive ready to start.
The problem is that first-round guards are a luxury item, for the exact reasons cited two paragraphs ago: a player roughly 80 percent as capable as Yankey will be available for a fraction of the expenditure in the fourth round. The Cowboys made the mistake of drafting Travis Frederick too high to fill an immediate need last year. Frederick is a fine player, but if you keep drafting solid players at easy-to-fill positions in the first round, you run the risk of going 8-8 every year until your quarterback and marquee pass rusher get old and everything falls apart. And here we are.
The Cowboys actually do employ some data-driven executives who understand talent scarcity and the need to prioritize players at hard-to-fill positions. It's just not clear if Jerry Jones listens to any of those executives. The decision to extend kicker Danny Bailey, cramming even more chicken bones down the salary cap garbage disposal, was a textbook case of a team almost deliberately ignoring the concept of assigning dollar values to positions. Grabbing a Yankey too soon, with so many other needs, would be another example. A team with severe cap debt and a roster top-heavy with aging talent cannot afford to spend cash, cap space, and high draft choices on positions where talent is almost interchangeable, like kicker or guard.
So let's find a solid mid-round value for the Cowboys at guard. Here's one: Brandon Thomas. He was a left tackle at Clemson, but he does not have NFL left tackle athleticism. Move him to guard, and he will be quick and athletic, and he is a good finisher who keeps blocking until the end of the whistle. If you watch a lot of Tajh Boyd rushing highlights, you will see Thomas folding inside and picking off defenders at the second level. He is very good, and he will be there in the third round. Other players roughly as talented will also be hanging around. The Cowboys just have to do the dirty work of finding them.
That's what all of this comes down to: dirty work. Jerry Jones must settle his salary cap bar tab, but does not want to. He must replace the old-timers and yes men in his coaching staff with fresh minds, but does not want to. He needs to grind tape to find late round picks and rookie free agents, but he will spend April inviting Jadeveon Clowney and Sammy Watkins to team headquarters because he loves acting like a first-round wheeler-dealer. The Cowboys will get serious about winning again as soon as they are willing to get their hands dirty. If Jones doesn't want to do it, he must at least find the good sense to hire someone who will.