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Cowboys Winning Formula Missing Key Pieces

Jerry Jones

Teams have “winning formulas.” Tactics they tend to use over and over in order to attack the other club offensively, defensively and on special teams. This rule applies to every coach except Bill Belichick who can change his entire team’s scheme at halftime let alone from game to game or year to year.

After Jimmy Johnson left the Dallas Cowboys it took Jerry Jones awhile to figure out his “Winning Formula.” For the first 20 years, he experimented and the results were not good. Head Coaches came and went, the defense got moved to the bottom rung priority-wise, the offensive line got old, the superstars got petulant and the NFL Draft became a source of pride for Jerry, derision for pundits and frustration for Cowboys Nation.

Then came 2014 as Jason Garret, a coach in a unique circumstance that allowed him to successfully subsist with Jerry, saw his vision of a power running football team ripen to fruition. The front office (reportedly) under the combined guiding influence of Will McClay and Stephen Jones had reigned in splash moves in both free agency and the NFL Draft. The front office worked hard at replenishing the depleted Cowboys talent pool with players the coaches wanted and needed. It all fell together and it was a beautiful thing to watch. The offensive line was the lynchpin. A dominant power running back drove the bus. The running game allowed the club to protect the QB, the lead, the ball, and the clock while wearing down opposing defenses. A rotation of players began to emerge along the defensive line. The defense was “good enough” and finally had (for a year) the Brian Urlacher style player Rod Marinelli’s defense so desperately needs in mercurial MLB Rolando McClain.

The NFL claims Dez didn’t catch it and the season ended but after years of suffering the team and the fanbase saw and believed in the new (old) blueprint. Clarity was achieved and all the team had to do was wash, rinse, repeat. The “Dallas Cowboys Winning Formula” was defined. No one had the heart to tell Jerry this was Jimmy’s old scheme. Time to implement. What could possibly go wrong?

The Front Office

In 2015 the front office decided not to re-sign DeMarco Murray. The team stated any RB could run behind this line and like he did when Jimmy Johnson departed Jerry went out and got an older retread to replace a key cog and the team suffered. Darren McFadden had a fine year and was a 1k runner. He wasn’t a good enough cog to drive the “Winning Formula.” Don’t believe me? The team burned the fourth pick in the draft on the upgrade.

After 2014 all the team had to do was fill a few holes and (if possible) upgrade the defense. The NFL Draft was KEY to this effort. Then this happened:

For two consecutive years, the team burned premium draft picks on players with medical issues that precluded them from staying, hell, even being on the field.

Randy Gregory … ok, he “may” play for the Cowboys one day. Maybe. Chaz Green did play and after sitting for two years on the trainer’s table instead of gaining valuable experience was exposed so badly he gave QB Dak Prescott happy feet in the pocket for the rest of the season. MLB Smith and Tapper missed their first season. I was incredibly impressed with Jaylon Smiths level of recovery when he finally played. Was he the player that Jerry touted as a “top five talent” in the draft? Not even a shadow. Tapper missed his entire second season as well. You take chances in the draft in the later rounds (Rico Gathers in round 6) NOT with your premium picks Jerry.

Watching rookie players run around in the Super Bowl making plays that were available on the draft board when Dallas selected their injury prone “home-runs” at those positions was brutal.

In 2015, 2016 and 2017 the front office failed in finding a permanent “Brian Urlacher type” MLB to drive this defense. Sean Lee is indeed best at WLB. Rafael Vela and I were musing on this the other night how the entire D performs differently when a dominant guy is in the middle. Rolando McClain was that beast. A freak of nature with incredible wingspan and the ability to change direction on a dime while running sideline to sideline. This holds down the running game and protects the middle passing zone. Just like Urlacher used to do in Chicago. Thow in Sean Lee on the weak side with such a dominant MLB presence and you’ve got an entirely new ball game for the Cowboys defense.

Not the case however as purple-dank took McClain away and the team worked at replacing him with mid-round picks and players with devastating, career-threatening, knee injuries.Bottom line the MLB position has been woefully understaffed while “potential” players have watched from the trainer’s table or limped through a sub-par effort on the field. In the corporate world, they call that a fail.

Having both a competent WR1 and WR2 on the field for the Cowboys has been an issue for years. First, they had issues finding a dynamic WR2. Though I love Terrance Williams blocking that’s still the case. Now, however, they’re also looking for a dynamic WR1 as Dez, through a combination of losing a step, a more serious toe injury than has ever been revealed and a lack of chemistry with his QB is obviously not the answer for that role anymore. And people want to blame the QB …. how many WR3’s do you know that get double covered instead of their teams WR1? Exactly. Another big-time fail by the front office as they now need both WR1 and WR2 after not successfully addressing the need.

The team had to know that RT Doug Free was thinking about retirement. They certainly had to know they had zero intention of resigning All-Pro LG Ronald Leary. As the coaching staff later proved, the team really didn’t have the pieces to replace Free at the same level or Leary at all as the OLine, being the lynchpin for the entire scheme, was key in the “Winning Formula” falling apart. A fail of epic proportions.

The Coaching Staff

In 2015 the club didn’t have the pieces. Murray was gone, the underwear thief proved he was going to leave “plenty of meat on the bone” and the QB situation quickly turned ugly with Romo getting injured. You can butter that slice of bread up any way you want however going from 12-4 to 4-12 in one season is never a good thing.

I don’t hold the lack of talent against the coaches. However, ……

Inability to Quickly Adjust

There is a cliche: “Run it until they stop it.” It’s backed up with “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” and the coaching favorite “Dictate then Dominate.” To successfully manage a running game you have to stick with it. Plays that went for 2 yards in the first quarter will go for 4-6 in the fourth and may break open entirely. “It’s a process” as Garrett is so fond of saying and he’s entirely correct.

Sticking with the game plan is indeed a strength of his yet it’s also a glaring weakness. You have to know “when” to make adjustments be it at halftime or between games and even though Garret eventually makes proper ones, they are often too late.

His lack of halftime adjustments is clear for all to see. He has addressed that and (seemingly) has a better process in place now after making better halftime adjustments towards the end of the season, however, it’s not just halftimes as under Garrett the team has also been slow to adjust in regards to:

  • Choosing McFadden as the starting RB
  • Choose, develop a competent QB2 behind Romo
  • Choosing a starting LG

There are several other ones over the years (getting plays called in time) but the above three, along with the halftime adjustments, stand out because the rest of the league could seemingly see the need and yet the call was not made until critical damage to the season was inflicted. That’s on the coach. That’s specifically on the Head Coach. That’s on Jason Garrett.


The coaches have some issues, yet ultimately the “Winning Formula” is being severely hamstrung by the machinations of the Cowboys front office. When the coaching staff has the pieces on hand they have shown the ability to get the job done on game day. Great talent makes great coaches and there is currently only one Bill Belichick. Other fan favorites (Zimmer and Payton) have also proven to fail when they have severe talent issues to deal with and none of the three mentioned are likely to co-exist with Jerry Jones. Don’t forget, Jerry wants a “game manager” as a coach, not a strong, dynamic leader, so he can take all the credit if/when they win. It’s part of his “Winning Formula” and if he can’t win that way he will take his ball and go home. So pine for a Hall of Fame coach all you want. The Jones ego put that move on hold a long time ago.

The front office has to quit trying to hit injury-risk home runs with premium picks and give the coaches enough ammunition on game day to keep the “Winning Formula” viable. They need to address both the offensive line, linebacking and WR talent issues THIS offseason from within or without.

Despite Jones’ continued meddling, the Cowboys football minds have gathered the pieces to make a serious winning run for a few years. They have a solid base. Yet they need to find, replace, and/or obtain key pieces critical to their “Winning Formula” in order to have continuing success on game day. Football is the ultimate team sport. When pieces are missing the dominoes don’t fall like you planned. They just flop and the grand scheme falls flat. A car needs the right parts to win a race.

With any winning organization, it starts at the top. The Cowboys are in a unique position to leverage their talent base into a dominant NFC East run. Will leadership take this window seriously and deliver in both discipline and excellence? To be clear, they have done a fine job in getting the Cowboys a solid base to work with. Can they now prove they have the discipline and vision to replenish key positions so Dallas can do something besides watch the playoffs?

We’re talking to you, Jerry. You created this beast so ultimately, everything flows through you. You want “all” the credit when one day, it “all” comes together. Conversely, that means the last 20 years of failure are ALL on you. Time to pay attention to the football minds you’ve gathered around you and let them do their jobs. Time to become a “real NFL owner.” It’s time for you to fade from the front office. Let the football guys do their jobs. You can take the credit. The fans really, really don’t mind.

What say you Sports Nation?

Another Left Coast Sports Post: on Twitter – Steven Van Over

Steven Van Over

Steven Van Over

Senior Analyst, Editor, Photographer, Podcaster at SportsTalkLine
Senior Analyst, Editor, Podcaster & Photographer for @SportsTalkLine Network. Started covering the Cowboys on Moved to the same gig here and now head the NFL desk. Catch me on Twitter @StevenVanOver
Steven Van Over
Steven Van Over