Nearly four months ago, this reality was unthinkable to Jerry Jones. Even with all the defensive youth and the looming uncertainty surrounding running back Ezekiel Elliott, the Dallas Cowboys owner looked at his roster and had trouble speaking without unbridled optimism.
“I can honestly say I’m thrilled at where I believe this is going,” Jones said in August. “For quite a while now, what I’ve personally seen with our players and from our [coaching] staff is a lot of this.”
Jones locked his fingers and balled them together in a fist.
“Really, this team is truly this close.”
The message of that moment, in between Jerry Jones’ two clasped hands, could have been meant to signify any number of unifying concepts. And why not? It was training camp and Dallas was selling the hope of strengthened bonds, teased by a roster that had spent the balance of the offseason working together at the Cowboys’ palatial practice facility. But the NFL’s regular season wreaks havoc on an optimistic August sales pitch. And right about now, the past four months have transformed Jones’ clasped hands of expectation into more of a wishful prayer.
Particularly over the next two weeks, when a sizable chunk of the Cowboys’ future plans could slide into the abyss – right along with parts (or all) of the coaching staff. That’s what the outcome of the next two games represent: back-to-back tilts against the Washington Redskins and New York Giants, delivering a referendum on where Dallas fits in the malfunction continuum.
While the NFC East is essentially already lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas can and should still be able wrestle with the Redskins and Giants. Both are franchises with their own swath of problems, from injuries to maddening positional units to occasional (or consistent) coaching gaffes. Even without Elliott or linebacker Sean Lee, neither should overwhelm Dallas like the past three opponents have, a 92-22 romp at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons, Eagles and Los Angeles Chargers.
But Jerry still sounds solidly optimistic, hanging his remaining hopes on the next two weeks as he continues to vaguely support his coaches by saying he “feels good” about the staff. What Jones is really saying is this: He loved the staff when it pulled off a stunning 13-3 record last season; he loved it when the team had nearly perfect attendance in offseason practice; and he loved it when the Cowboys were a gritty 5-3 team in early November. But three straight ugly losses without Elliott has taken some of that shine off. Particularly when that dive has featured a lack of adjustment in the face of mounting issues.
Make no mistake, Jones’ affection and patience will have its limits – and losing to the inconsistent Redskins and drifting Giants would almost certainly exceed them. Maybe not to the point of firing head coach Jason Garrett, but absolutely to the point of shaking up the top tiers of the assistant coaching ranks. That’s not to say Garrett is unequivocally safe, mind you. Lest anyone forget, Jones was out of joint over Garrett’s coaching decisions in last season’s playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. But Garrett also won Coach of the Year honors and built a bond with quarterback Dak Prescott, which will earn him an extended line of credit. For Garrett to be fired, the Cowboys would have to essentially tank the final five games of the season, which is a possibility if Dallas loses its next two.
But if the Cowboys put up at least a semblance of a fight down the stretch, the onus for lingering failures will likely start and end with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Perhaps the blame could extend to defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, but his roster hurdles have been far more challenging than Linehan’s half of the depth chart. Regardless, both will draw significant scrutiny when the season ends without a playoff appearance.
And they should, considering the limitations on the 2018 roster. As it stands, the coaching staff is the most easily changeable piece of the franchise. With defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence due a massive pay raise in the offseason, there will be little salary cap wiggle to add significant foundational pieces via trade or free agency next offseason – unless the Cowboys pull something aggressive. Dallas could kick the financial can down the road and restructure contracts or simply cut wideout Dez Bryant, whose consistent lack of separation is becoming troubling.
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But none of that roster churn is guaranteed to solve some of the pressing issues piling up on the game tape inside the Cowboys’ facility. Among them? Prescott is still struggling to throw receivers open and requires the play-action pass to operate at a peak level; Bryant isn’t winning a lot of contested balls; the offensive line has little depth; the running game loses all consistency without Elliott; and the offensive coaching hasn’t schemed well to adjust without its centerpiece running back. And defense? The secondary is young and mistake-prone; the top three cornerback positions are too unsettled; and the middle of the defense loses its spine whenever Lee is out of the lineup – which still happens too much.
After all of that concern, there’s still Elliott, whose absence has become the sinkhole seemingly devouring everything. Regardless of how anyone feels about his domestic violence case, Elliott’s off-field issues are still of dramatic concern going forward – to the point that Dallas may need to invest more into the backup running back spot to protect itself.
For a team that was the toast of the NFC only one season ago, that’s a multitude of problems that seemed unthinkable only four months ago. And in the middle of it all is a head coach in Garrett and a staff that has been gifted seven full years of patience with fairly little to show for it.
At some point, that’s going to come to an end. Jones can talk all he wants about “feeling good” and “proverbial endorsements,” but he knows a wasted season when he sees one. The 2017 campaign is dangerously close to entering that category, and the next two weeks will have a lot to do with it.
Four months ago, this situation would have been unthinkable to Jerry Jones. When he clasps his hands together now and talks about how “close” his Cowboys are, he might as well be referring to the end of a disappointing season – and the employment of some of the coaches who were responsible for maintaining it.