The Morning After: Familiar Woes With New Names Attached

The Morning After: Familiar Woes With New Names Attached

Published Dec. 11, 2013 9:24 a.m. ET

Due to circumstances beyond my control that include ice in Dallas, cancelled flights in Guatemala City, customs in Miami, and the DVR not responding to my pleas, my normal "Morning After" column for Bears 45, Cowboys 28 does not exist.  I then had to choose whether to write it today as if it was yesterday, skip it altogether, or write what I have chosen to write this morning.  Next week, we will return to our normal routines and writing schedule.

The defense betrayed the Cowboys on Monday night in Chicago at levels that on one hand seem historic for their absurdities, and on the other hand resemble exactly the level of sub-standard play that we saw in New Orleans, Detroit, and of course, against Denver.   If we consider 360 yards to be a normal day and 400 yards to be a great day, then 475 is off the charts, right?  Well, with the Bears going for 490, this is the 6th time in 2013 that the team has allowed at least 475, or just as many times as the franchise had allowed 475+ from 2006-2012 combined.  
Now, we can go on and on about how Monte Kiffin has allowed the sport to pass him by (which is the easy narrative for those coaches with too much gray, but often times is unfair), or we can go on and on about the injuries that have made this defense implode yet again.  Instead, I choose to look at the bigger picture which has been written about year after year in this space.  
Here is what I wrote back in 2011 after the season collapsed in New York

This team fails in December for one primary and simple reason: The roster doesn't contain the quality personnel that is required to sustain the assaults of a 16-game campaign in the NFL. 
Think about it: When does the team fail? December. In a 4-month season, which month would best reveal your depth and quality down the roster that can compensate for fatigue and injuries? December. The truth is that the Cowboys have enough talent on the top of their roster to compete with some of the best teams in the league. Romo, Ware, Witten, Austin, Ratliff are a very solid "Top 5". Bryant, Lee, Murray, Smith, and Jenkins are a reasonable 6-10 on a roster. But, then the drop-off begins on the roster. And if the season was just 8-10 games long, they would likely be able to hang in there. Any Cowboys historian will confirm that the team certainly gets to Thanksgiving in great shape nearly every season. So, what changes? Is it really that turning the calendar to the month of December is what makes a magical spell fall over Romo and the team where they can no longer compete? 
Good teams in the NFL have quality from 1-10, but also from 11-53, too. When fatigue strikes Jay Ratliff, they have a player behind him who can bridge the gap. If Ware is being double-teamed, someone else can rise up. When the line is under siege, a solid veteran can do a reasonable job and protect his QB. The good teams have enough quality on their roster that they can construct a solid team effort for the regular season. Sure, they count on their stars to perform, but beyond that, there are starters and reserves that never find a magazine cover that do their job admirably. 

And then I spent a paragraph 2 years ago on the defense.  Just take out Rob Ryan's name and put in Monte Kiffin's if you want to enjoy the irony of this all:

And, then there is the defense. A change of coordinators and schemes disguised the truth for a period of time. But in the end, we see the truth again: The personnel on the defense has some top-side talent (Ware, Ratliff, and Lee) but not enough to compensate for a unit that has weaknesses in many other spots. Putting tape on a shot-gun wound will cause many to blame Rob Ryan, but I would love to see what coordinator could make sense of what he was given. No offseason. No upgrades. No help from the draft. No expenditures. Just take the worst defense in franchise history and fix it with your magical formula. Good luck, Rob. 

Yes, that is right.  2010 was the worst defense in franchise history.  Then, in 2011, the defense and offensive lines were exposed late due to the players who were left because of the "injury epidemic" that hit.

Here is a passage from what I spent time on after the 2012 season.  The theme is to fortify your defense so that you are not relying on "street free agents" late in the year ever again:

Remember that in 2012, the Dallas Cowboys signed an exceedingly troubling number of street free agents and inserted many of them directly into their lineup.  Charlie Peprah, Ernie Sims, Vince Agnew, Sterling Moore, and Brady Poppinga were all players who were completely unemployed in pro football who were all signed and put on the field by the Cowboys because of their lack of depth.  All teams have injuries, but when you are putting street free agents into your lineup, that speaks loudly that you have not fortified your roster with capable backups who are ready for an opportunity.  The object of the offseason is to find players who can be proper backups and play when called upon.  Then, you have practice squad call-ups replace injured players, not veterans who are out of work being pulled in during November.  It is both cost-effective and football smart, to only draw from your own organization for your needs that arise.  Then, you don't have to cram a playbook into their head and teach them your system.  You also don't have to pay veteran minimums and bypass your own talent. 

Feel free to insert the names of Nick Hayden, George Selvie, Everette Brown, Corvey Irvin, and Jarius Wynn if you would like up there on the list of this year's street free agents.  Everette Brown was actually opening up a yogurt store when the Cowboys called.  I admire the business plan, but this speaks to the real issues of organizational depth.

Wait a minute.  I thought this year had a historic number of injuries.  But, after 2010, 2011, and 2012, we wrote the same things about the coordinator, the injuries, and the street free agents?

Actually, if you consider the absurdity of Jerry Jones telling us all in April about how his defensive line is a position of strength, then you see how the miscalculations of the season are just more of the same.

Jones said, “In no way do I think [Jay] Ratliff has injury issues. He did last year but that was pretty unique. I think [DeMarcus] Ware’s an exception. Spencer and these guys are young 30-year-olds. Don’t get me wrong, I’m interested in long term but I’m real interested in what’s happening in the next 24-36 months. That’s really what you ought to be looking at.”
We feel like defensive line is a position of strength for us

That quote is from the April 26 edition of the Dallas Morning News and in about 15 seconds he said that Jay Ratliff has no injury issues, and that the defensive line is a position of strength.  Then, to prove it wasn't rhetoric, they used exactly 0 picks on strengthening a defensive line that we all knew was a position of considerable weakness given their poor play in 2012 and the fact that the entire new scheme was predicated on getting consistent pass rushes from your front 4.  If you do not get consistent pass rushes with your front 4, then even Kiffin will tell you that his scheme does not fit well.

This is all why I have a hard time forgetting the past when looking at the present.  It is dangerous in my business to assume that because things are always a certain way, then that must mean that things will never change.  I have said here a number of times that I do believe the Cowboys are in a much better space personnel-wise than they were a few seasons back.  I thought the combination of Jerry Jones and Wade Phillips set this franchise back a long, long ways.  The new combination of Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett is better, and in some ways much better.  But, that doesn't mean that things are fixed or that things are going to get fixed.

It simply means that to turn all of our angst to Monte Kiffin is to forget about 2010, 2011, and 2012 and to fall for the shell game of Cowboys football.  Each year, they promise to serve you up a new victim to get mad at and therefore we can continue to address the symptoms but never the disease.

Kiffin this year.  Rob Ryan last year.  Rob Ryan's scheme the year before.  But never the actual issues which continue to be paying for wasteful drafts, horrible "all your eggs in 1 basket" trade ideas (I am looking at you, Roy Williams, and you, Morris Claiborne) and salary cap mismanagement that leaves this team with a 1-deep depth chart and roster when the powers in the league seem to have a 2-deep.

Then, we can get mad again at Jason Garrett and Tony Romo and Monte Kiffin and Jeff Heath for why this team is where it is - which is getting humiliated on national TV again.

I was planning on writing today about how the offense is getting off too easily in this particular chapter of Cowboys football.  For yet another year, the offense has enjoyed decent health and with the depth they received from nearly monopolizing the entire 2013 draft, they have had more than enough weapons to not have convenient excuses ready.  And that is why I must tell you that I don't share many's opinion about the offense not needing to absorb some blame for their role in this.

I promise I have talked to too many Cowboys fans who have told me "we scored 28 in Chicago, that should be good enough to win a game!"

Please.  The offense scored 28 on technicalities which include 14 meaningless points in the 4th Quarter where both teams just wanted to get out of town.  They were down 42-14 and while the defense was doing no favors, the offense had 7 drives in the first 3 Quarters (when the game was actually a game) and only 2 of them went anywhere and possessed the ball for more than 2:03.  So, if your defense can't get a stop and can't catch their breath, the worst thing the offense can possibly do is throw 3 straight incompletions and send the tired and thin defense right back on the field.  29 minutes of possession for Chicago and 16 minutes for the Cowboys demonstrates that the offense is doing the defense no favors whatsoever.

And, then, in a fantasy football world where Tony Romo threw for 3 Touchdowns and a passer rating of 109, it is easy to think he played well enough to win.  But, I would heartily disagree with those sentiments as well.  He passed for 95 yards before the Cowboys were down 42-14 and could not afford to miss on throws in a few key spots including a crucial miss to Dez Bryant on a 3rd Down where points can cut the lead to 27-21 late in the 3rd Quarter.

Remember those yardage totals up at the top of the page?  400 is a great day, 360 is about average, and anything less than 325 is a failure?  The Cowboys' offense has 1 day of 400 yards this season (Denver) and 3 games of 360 (Denver, Rams, and at Eagles).  Dallas amassed 328 yards of offense in Chicago after Kyle Orton tacked on 75 yards to what was barely 250 with 4 minutes to go, and the other sub 325 yard games?  At Kansas City, At San Diego, at New York, at Detroit, Washington and At New Orleans.  Sense a trend here?

This team is built with smoke and mirrors on large parts of their defense, and huge money at QB, WR, and TE, with many premium picks all around.  They were supposed to be led by their offense with opportunistic defensive turnover moments that puts them in a position to win.

And yet, they put 2 drives out of 6 (the 7th was a knee at halftime) on the board and barely 250 yards against a poor and battered Chicago defense and people want to say the offense is blameless?  Let's be serious.

To whom much is given, much is to be expected, and the Cowboys offense has been given everything and their production has been unacceptable and that needs to change post haste.  The good news is they are much better at home.  And they can play 3 of their next 4 in Arlington if they keep winning.  The bad news is that eventually, they are going to have to go on the road again and it will be cold and windy and the offense looks hopeless in those situations, but let us all be so lucky as to have to worry about a January trip to Seattle.

This column feels like an obituary, but the news is still good.  The Cowboys are at 7-6 and I still feel like 9-7 wins the division.  I think they will win the NFC East by just winning their final 2 home games and that would have to be considered a successful year from just about any angle.  Get in the playoffs and give yourself a home game and a chance.

But, for this franchise to move forward, they are going to have to stop kidding themselves and address a roster that still lacks for real depth and sustainability as games 11-16 reveal your true ability to survive attrition.

And that requires leadership at the top of the organization to stop playing shell games and start being honest with the man in the mirror or we can do this same nonsensical exercise in 2014.

I know which of those two scenarios seems more likely to me.