Sturm at Cowboys camp: Off to Oxnard 2014
JUL 24, 2014 12:19p ET
The blogging season begins again in earnest from 32,000 feet on the flight from DFW to LAX as my 17th Dallas Cowboys training camp has begun with the "state of the team" address without me on Wednesday Night. But, by the time you read this, I will be in my radio tent beside the practice fields and the latest version of the Cowboys will be on the field preparing for yet another season of Cowboys football.
With all due respect to the 2013 blog entry that was similarly named and written, here we go (again):
The 2014 NFL season represents the 19th year since Super Bowl 30 for the Dallas Cowboys. To this point, 18 seasons have been played since they won their 5th Super Bowl, and 297 games have been played during that stretch (regular and post season).
There have been some good times and some good teams, but given the unreasonably high bar that Cowboys' teams and eras of the past have set, the final results of each of those 18 seasons have left their vast fan-base with feelings of disappointment. They had become accustomed to better. It is not a matter of deserving anything, because that is not how sports work. But, if you would have told the millions of Cowboys fans on that glorious night in Tempe, Arizona, when Jerry Jones held a Lombardi Trophy that did not require Jimmy Johnson's (direct and immediate) assistance, that the next 18 years would include nothing but "break-even" football, it would likely not be believed.
But, here they are. Starting season 19 since their last Super Bowl and with those 297 games behind them, we look at the results to check that win total:
To be fair, if you deduct the playoff games (2-7), the record shifts to 146-142 through 18 seasons. That, of course, comes out to an average record of 8.1 wins and 7.9 losses per season year after year.
Since 2006, the year Tony Romo became their "QB1", they have a 73-59 mark (72-56 regular season) which equates to a average record of 9 and 7, and does account for one of those 2 playoff wins since Super Bowl 30 (the other being the wildcard round win against the Vikings in 1996 or year #1 post Super Bowl 30).
Jason Garrett took over as coach of the Cowboys at midseason of 2010. Since that time, he has coached the Cowboys in 56 games, compiling a record of 29-27. He has not been to the playoffs to this point in his coaching tenure, which stands as a large impediment to any progress he has made in solidifying a roster and building a program that might be heading in the right direction.
Results matter and the results for Jerry Jones, Tony Romo, and Jason Garrett have all been right around 8-8.
And so, with 2011, 2012, and 2013 all being 8-8 seasons, the Cowboys start another training camp with optimism in their words and a fresh start in their minds. They will talk about winning football and ideas on how this particular season will be different from the others. They will, Jerry, especially, even mention the Super Bowl as the final destination and goal and talk about a window being open and trying to keep it from closing and how they are closer than you think.
These are the things we do as we go to training camp with the Cowboys year after year. And in 2014, where optimism has been beaten down by the teams that have come before them, you actually can sense a fan base that has morphed into numb and at times, hopeless about the present condition evolving into that of a perennial contender.
* Author's note: The preceding 10 paragraphs of the 12 you see above are identical (save for updated statistics and wording) to the 2013 column to start training camp. I am not one to "mail in" a column unless there is a point to all of this. And the point, if you haven't already surmised is simple - nearly every last detail from 1 year ago today is right where we left it. As I considered how I felt about things involving this team that I attempt to follow as close as a team can be followed, it occurred to me that I already wrote those feelings down on July 19, 2013. Hilarious, if it wasn't so defeating.
There are some notable differences to the makeup of the 2014 Cowboys compared to its previous editions, which are difficult to fully sell as upgrades since the top several are about a historically bad defense losing 3 key components that would likely all be listed in some order as the 3 players who lead the entire unit in quality. DeMarcus Ware is a living Cowboys legend and will battle for the historical title of best Cowboys player of this generation. Jason Hatcher was a 8-year contributor who played his best football in 2013 and now plays in Washington. And, of course, the player that would be a strong candidate to lead any revival of the defense and perhaps be the very best player on the entire roster, Sean Lee, has been lost for 2014 to another dreaded knee injury from OTAs back in May.
The Cowboys hope to mitigate the loss of Hatcher with the signing of Henry Melton on the defensive line and this is a move of quality that should excite any fan of the team. He is younger, he is cheaper, and if his knee is right, he is a better player than Hatcher. I think Melton is capable of some significant things moving forward (all predicated on his health), and that addition of a proper 3-technique on the defensive line gives you a fighting chance.
The loss of Ware, as we have discussed, falls to finding more depth along the defensive line that starts with the pass rusher that they believe was worth plenty of trouble in the draft, Demarcus Lawrence from Boise State. He has quickness around the corner that should help quite a bit, but the comparisons that have already begun (nobody puts more public pressure on a rookie like Jerry Jones) that have identified him as the right defensive end or weak side defensive end does not seem to account for realistic views of a player trying to figure out the NFL for the first time. Surely, much will be written about his daily practice stats versus Tyron Smith which will either kill his confidence (given Tyron is now very difficult to beat for anyone in this league) or triple the DeMarcus v Demarcus comparisons between now and Labor Day.
Either way, the depth on the defensive line should help the Cowboys deal with the rotation better and eventual injuries. And Ware wasn't exactly Ware anymore (at least not his prime) so you can make the case that they might be ok up front - which simply means a Top 20 DL. Stay out of 32nd!
The issues with the defense are 3-fold, all of which we will elaborate on as camp carries on:
1) - What can be done to replace Sean Lee's ability since his injury happened after the draft and free agency finished and therefore all available replacements were gone and most available money was spent.
2) - What can be done to fix the Cowboys 2 young and most highly-leveraged defenders - Morris Claiborne and Bruce Carter - who both appear to be on the path of Mike Jenkins or Felix Jones. That is a bad path, by the way. That means that they go from highly-touted building blocks or foundation stones to guys you don't even offer contracts to when their rookie deals expire. For Carter that deal expires this season and for Claiborne it will be 2015. But, if you had the make the call right now on whether you want to back up the truck and spend $20m (Carter) to $40m (Claiborne) to lock up their primes, you would likely pass on both. And that cannot happen for this team to continue to move forward, Those 2 must be fixed and by the holidays, our tune on both needs to have dramatically changed.
3) - What happens if the Cowboys cannot produce the same bounty of takeaways that they did in 2013? Somehow, the defense generated 28 takeaways and a fantastic +10 in the turnover differential in 2013. The previous 5 years, the NFL had averaged 28 for playoff teams, while the Cowboys had averaged under 23. This margin is huge, and if the Cowboys give back 6 or 7 takeaways in an effort to concede fewer 500 and 600 yardage disasters, you can see that they might be running in circles.
As I said, there will be time to give each of those topics their proper time and attention over the next 46 days until September 7th, when the Cowboys host San Francisco in the regular season opener.
Additionally, we will discuss the offense and the modifications there which have been far less disconcerting save for the issues regarding Tony Romo's back (Note: I will not be among those who think this is an over-stated and exaggerated issue. In fact, if you would like to get a feel for where I stand on this particular topic, you may review my thoughts from January by clicking here). Beyond that, offensively, we will look at the relative merits of power running and play-calling and Scott Linehan's effects. As well as discussing the replacements for Miles Austin, Mackenzy Bernadeau, and the expiration of DeMarco Murray's contract and what that means to the need for a RB for the future. I know Dez Bryant's contract is also expiring, but I figure by the last week in August that deal will be announced and the ensuing news frenzy will be loud and impressive. Rightfully so.
But, as I hammer out my first training camp blog from 2014, I am led back to my overall view of the story that will not be discussed by most I am guessing. While the mainstream media may talk about the energy level of Rod Marinelli relative to Monte Kiffin and how Gavin Escobar is the "breakout" candidate of the week, I would like to circle back to where I started last season.
On my way to camp in 2013, I was pretty sure that head coach Jason Garrett was under extreme pressure to produce a winning season of great substance or face the gallows. His life cycle had been nearing the point where either you show us that you are the next great architect of the Cowboys or you are replaced. He then oversaw a season that finished with the exact frustrating conclusion (lose 3 of 4 in December with a disappointing final death blow at the hands of a division rival) as 2011 and 2012 featured. Not only did this not result in his dismissal, but it almost seemed to fortify his position here. I was amazed.
There is no question that a reasonable search of this blog's archives would reveal that I have been a Jason Garrett supporter for much of his tenure. I think he is a very smart man who has plenty of ability and is certainly hamstrung with limitations his organization provides that are not his fault, nor does he have the ability to repair. And yet, a student of the NFL knows that the margins in this league are non-existent and to consider a 2013 season where games that were lost that simply should not have been lost again cost this team its prize seems to be a very problematic issue.
Over the last few weeks, I have reviewed 2013 and come to terms with the details and results. However, there are 2 games in that schedule that remain games that were "fireable offenses" as it pertains to a coach in his 4th season without a playoff berth. They were, at Detroit and home to Green Bay. I plan on reviewing the 2013 season in great detail as July and August carry on, but in short, the Detroit and Green Bay games are both won if the Head Coach simply plays the percentages and conventional thinking.
Taking a knee on 3rd Down in Detroit takes the clock to almost nothing. Instead, the Cowboys ran the ball, took a penalty, and stopped the clock - allowing for the Lions to have another chance against the horrendous secondary that the Cowboys had on the field that day against Calvin Johnson.
Meanwhile, the ability to lose a game in which you were ahead 26-3 at home against a Green Bay team that had seemed to quit and did not have Aaron Rodgers on the field would have been the end of many coaches with the dreaded phone call from the owner the next morning.
Win either of those games and your season changes. Win them both and the Philadelphia game would not have mattered as they would not have been able to catch Dallas. Instead, they lost them both and in my estimation, despite logical shared blame, the decisions made by the head coach too closely resembled the decisions that cost this team valuable games in 2011 and 2012. In short, it seemed that the Cowboys had a rookie coach making rookie coaching mistakes. The experience at the helm was not showing in the team's results.
And if he cannot be fired after that season, I honestly wonder how hot the temperature on his seat might be in 2014. Maybe not hot at all. Perhaps, he is simply blessed by having an owner that is determined for this relationship to work and will not alter his path at this stage of the game. I would have fired Garrett after the Washington loss in 2012, but perhaps Jerry will not fire Garrett even after a 2014 that disappoints. It seems to be my mistake to misread the urgency of the owner as badly as I clearly did.
Garrett is the 10th longest tenured coach in the NFL now, and nobody else in the Top 15 in coaching tenure lacks playoff wins or at least a division title. Garrett doesn't even have a playoff berth, let alone a win or a divisional title.
Is Garrett the man for this job or are the Cowboys spinning their wheels for another season of similar results? Are the issues deeper and not fixable by a coach, or are those deeper issues the reason that you must have a coach who is part of the solution and not part of the problem?
If this was my team, I would likely be introducing Mike Zimmer or someone else as my new head coach in 2014. But, I am clearly not in that position of authority.
Garrett is still the coach here, and he sits to the right of Jerry Jones as they meet the media on the tennis court in Oxnard.
We are back and so is he. For his sake and the sake of all Cowboys' fans, let's hope that experience will start to pay off.