Six Steps For Fixing The Cowboys
By Matt Mosley
Special to FOX Sports
Hall of Famer John Elway made the call Tuesday to let someone else make the football decisions for the Denver Broncos. In Dallas, it is highly unlikely that another Hall of Famer will make that same move anytime soon.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has retained himself as general manager for the 32nd season. It's why a culture change is absolutely out of the question with this organization.
However, in the fourth installment of our "How To Fix The Cowboys" series, we're here to present a blueprint for a better tomorrow.
The first season of Mike McCarthy has done little to offer hope for the future, but Jones has to try to make this work. On Tuesday, the Cowboys owner was crowing about setting a "world record" for attendance during a pandemic. This is the man who will borrow Wade Phillips' old "Mr. Fix It" title and try to turn the page on another embarrassing season.
The Jones blueprint is fuzzy and perhaps still being formulated, so we're to help him out.
Here are the moves Dallas needs to make this offseason to return to the top of the NFC East:
1. Sign quarterback Dak Prescott to a long-term contract and stop letting this situation cast a shadow over the organization.
As we discussed in Part 2, this is the Offseason of Dak. The Cowboys have to come to an agreement with the quarterback, who is one of the team's 17 free agents in 2021.
Jones played the "poor ol' Jerry" card Tuesday, suggesting he was in a bad negotiating spot. I've been around the man way too many years to buy this initial stance, but it did bring a smile to my face.
"I don’t know how you could have any more leverage," Jones said of Prescott on the team's flagship radio station 105.3 The Fan. "(Dak's) evolving into an NFL quarterback has been nothing short of a perfect picture.
"He has great ability in my mind to win games. He’s talented. He certainly has experience. And, so, he has all the things as substantiated by what we’ve offered Dak."
Prescott, whom the team could franchise-tag for 2021 at a price of $31.4 million, and his agent, Todd France, know they're in a good spot, and they don't need Jones to remind them. This is the sort of flattery Jones wants to use to set the tone for negotiations.
Jones will act as though Prescott has him over the barrel, but the owner is nowhere close to folding. He already has used the uncertainty of COVID-19 as an excuse for not reaching an agreement with Prescott last summer. Now, it becomes a legitimate reason as the salary cap will not expand as usual.
Still, it's way past time to get this done.
Jones will stick with this tactic until we get closer to April's draft, when he will suddenly dabble in the quarterback business and talk about how the franchise needs to insure itself in case a deal can't be reached with Prescott. I believe Jones truly wants Prescott to be his quarterback of the future, but he is still in disbelief that an enormous offer for a five-year contract didn't seal the deal.
2. Unleash this offense, which is supposed to be elite. If McCarthy is not high on Zeke Elliott, consider releasing him. With that being unlikely, find a way to use Elliott and Tony Pollard in a more dynamic way, like the Ravens do with their tailbacks.
Let's channel Bill Parcells and get some "Fire" and "Ice" going in the backfield.
Dallas looks really bad on Elliott's contract. The running back played chicken with the Cowboys and won big. Prescott plays a more important position and can help the team for much longer than Elliott, who likely will play just one more season for the Cowboys, unless he somehow turns back the clock in 2021. Elliott's only chance of doing that would be the Cowboys' offensive line returning to form.
Part of the blueprint has to be finding the right balance between Elliott and Pollard. Elliott will be better late in the season if he shares carries throughout the year. And by all means, he has to secure the football.
3. Find more playmakers on defense via free agency or the draft. Another cornerback and a couple defensive tackles are needed. Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II is already on the minds of Cowboys fans.
If the Cowboys are able to sign Prescott at, say, $37 million per season, they won't be able to afford any big-ticket items on defense. And this defense needs an overhaul. The linebackers are either old (Sean Lee), injury-prone (Leighton Vander Esch) or ineffective (Jaylon Smith). What was supposed to be a strength has become a major weakness.
The Cowboys need to spend another premium draft pick at cornerback. Trevon Diggs appears to be a solid player, but he needs help. His former teammate at Alabama, Surtain II, is already a favorite of Cowboys fans, but who's to say he'll be available at No. 10?
This defense needs more players, and this is one of the most important parts of the blueprint.
The good news is that former second-round pick Randy Gregory is finally looking like a consistent playmaker opposite defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. Gregory, who was out of the league due to substance abuse issues in 2019, had three forced fumbles in a win against the Philadelphia Eagles and seems to be in a good place off the field.
The Cowboys improved at defensive tackle with the rise of rookie Neville Gallimore, but this is not a group that compares to the Washington Football Team or Eagles. They were blown off the ball for much of the season, leading to pitiful numbers against the run.
4. Find a defensive coordinator who will install a scheme that actually fits the talent.
Dallas likely will fire defensive coordinator Mike Nolan after a historically bad performance against the run. The team must find a new coordinator who marries the scheme to his players. It took Nolan 11 games to start turning the corner, which was unacceptable and a huge reason for the Cowboys' 3-9 start.
The team's transition to a 3-4 scheme led to some dismal performances that can't be overshadowed by late-season wins over bad teams. Come to think of it, why not bring the aforementioned Wade Phillips out of unwanted retirement? This man needs something to do other than entertain people on Twitter, and he is a tremendous coordinator. Just keep him in mind.
5. Remind McCarthy to stop experimenting and tap into what made him successful in Green Bay.
Jones has owned the decision to change schemes, but it's also a poor reflection on McCarthy. And the head coach was reluctant during the season to acknowledge the scheme's role in his team's failures.
I'm not sure there's anything Jones can do to help McCarthy with his game-management issues. He looked befuddled at times, and too eager to prove his new analytical theories. Asked Sunday if the team had struggled with game management, McCarthy answered, "No, not at all."
McCarthy seemed to want the benefit of the doubt based on his success with the Packers, but Cowboys fans don't care too much about his past. And it doesn't make him look great that his successor in Green Bay has another good shot at winning the NFC.
McCarthy is nowhere near getting fired, but he's definitely not on some Jason Garrett-type plan when it comes to Jones' patience. Cowboys fans were so sick of Garrett that anyone was going to look dynamic by comparison. But the McCarthy honeymoon ended quickly, like a Cowboys drive.
McCarthy might face the same thing that frustrated Phillips. (He is really on my mind). Jones has given young offensive play-caller Kellen Moore a three-year extension and seems to be enamored with him, just like he was with Garrett.
After the Cowboys went 13-3 in 2007, Jones convinced Garrett to turn down head-coaching offers to stay with the Cowboys, which effectively made Phillips a lame duck. That hasn't happened to McCarthy yet, but another poor season could do the trick. Jones is haunted, to a certain extent, by losing Sean Payton to the New Orleans Saints. He might believe Moore has similar traits.
McCarthy called plays nearly his whole time with the Packers, but he wasn't given that option with the Cowboys. McCarthy looks like a bad hire at the moment, but that could change.
He needs to quickly tap into the Green Bay McCarthy and snap out of this strange haze. Part of the blueprint for Jones has to be unlocking McCarthy's best self.
McCarthy has worked with an elite quarterback in the past. Maybe he and Prescott can form a close bond. If that's to happen, he better watch what he says leading up to the draft.
Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones told reporters how much McCarthy loved Jalen Hurts in last year's draft. Maybe it was just because the Cowboys were playing the Eagles, but I assure you Prescott took note of those comments. McCarthy expressed confidence Tuesday that a deal will be reached with Prescott, but it's unlikely he'll have any say in negotiations.
McCarthy needs to spend time this offseason remembering what made him successful with the Packers. I think he spent so much time during his season away trying to reinvent himself, he might have lost his way a bit.
What he deserves is a chance to have a full offseason program with his players. But even if that somehow happens, it's unlikely Prescott would participate while not under contract.
6. Calm down special teams coach John Fassel. He has a creative mind, but he has too much influence with McCarthy right now. Treat him like a special teams coach instead of your most trusted adviser. Let him do his tricks at birthday parties, not the fourth quarter of games on Thanksgiving.
I'd discourage McCarthy from spending so much time with Fassel. It's a buddy-cop movie in which Fassel is constantly trying to take McCarthy out of his comfort zone.
I'm told the Cowboys were good on special teams in 2020, but to my eye, Fassel is a bit of a showman, always wanting to reveal his next surprise play. I liked him more on "Hard Knocks" more than the guy who has shown up in Dallas.
There are plenty of fixes to be made, but this is not a place where head coaches make them. Jerry and Stephen are still getting to know McCarthy, and he hasn't made a great first impression. The best news I could share with him is the elder Jones is the eternal optimist.
By the start of training camp, the Cowboys owner will be convinced his team can challenge for a Super Bowl.
Jerry's optimism is good news and bad news for McCarthy. The downside is Jones nearly always believes he has put a great roster together. And with any luck, we'll get the owner's unvarnished opinions immediately following games next season.
Oops, there's another downside for McCarthy.
Matt Mosley has covered the Cowboys for The Dallas Morning News, ESPN, FOX Sports and Texas Monthly Magazine. He also co-hosted afternoon-drive radio in Dallas for 10 years and is now heard on ESPN Central Texas, home of his alma mater, Baylor. He makes regular appearances on "The Herd" on FS1 and Fox Sports Radio.