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June 22, 2020

10 reasons the Cowboys will be a dumpster fire this season

Eagles NFL
USATSI_13619437 (1).jpg Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports


This week, all week long, we're taking a negative look at each of the teams in the NFC East, in detail. Batting leadoff, as always, will be the Dallas Cowboys.

To note, we will not be talking about the positives of any of the Eagles' NFC East rivals, because, well, that's no fun. This will be 100 percent vitriolic. And yes, we'll try to torch the Eagles as well at the end of the series.

1) It wouldn't be an NFL offseason without delusional Cowboys hype

With every new offseason, there's always renewed justification for why the Dallas Cowboys are going to be Super Bowl contenders. And then, every year, usually in December (and occasionally in January) we're treated to obligatory shots of Jerry Jones in the owner's box, realizing the season is over.

Like in 2012, after Tony Romo threw this pick in Landover, and Alfred Morris punched in a game-sealing TD run moments later. This is "blank stare Jerry."

Or in 2013, when Brandon Boykin picked off Kyle Orton to end something of an "NFC East Championship Game." This is "expletive shouting Jerry." Or did he trip while going to check out the replay, causing his upper body to lurch forward? It's hard to tell.

Or in 2015, when Jordan Matthews took this pass to the house in overtime. Technically, the Cowboys weren't going anywhere already this season, as this put them at 2-6, but was was probably the final nail in the coffin. This is "walkoff Jerry."

Or in 2017, I had forgotten about how their season ended, and it was hilarious re-watching it. They were down 9, and had 1st and goal at the 3, and then 2nd and goal at the 2. Then they got called for holding. Then they got sacked. Then they had a give-up play on 3rd and long (which drew boos), and finally, a missed field goal (chef's kiss). This is "stand up in disgust Jerry."

Or in 2019, when the favored Cowboys, playing the Eagles' practice squad, saw their season end when a 4th down pass was knocked down by Sidney Jones. It was hilarious that they even reviewed this play. This was "I'm not even sticking around to hear that this call is getting upheld Jerry."

Side note: After it was clear the Cowboys were going to lose in the playoffs against the Packers (twice, in 2014 and 2016) and the Rams (2018), the telecast did not show Jones. 

Anyway, that was fun, huh?

In 2020, the Cowboys are being hyped again, because of course they are. After the draft, they were landing in the top 10 of pretty much every power ranking you could find, and atop the NFC East as well. For example, a quick sampling:

Media outlet Cowboys' NFL rank Cowboys NFCE rank
 Sports Illustrated10 

On the betting circuit, only five teams have better odds to win the Super Bowl. Soooooo, yeah, once again, the Cowboys, a team that went 8-8 last year, a team that lost more than just a handful of good starters this offseason, a team that has gone 24 full seasons with no NFC Championship Game appearances (and only the Bengals, Washington team, Lions, Browns, Dolphins, and Bills have longer conference championship game droughts), are the favorites in the NFC East, as usual, I guess.

OK, so No. 1 on our list was less a reason they'll be bad in 2020, and more just a chance to take some easy shots at them. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. To be determined which "I know the season is over Jerry" we'll see in 2020.

2) Old man Zeke's odometer continues to rack up mileage

Ezekiel Elliott has only been in the league for four years, and he's still only 24 years old (he turns 25 in July), and yet, there are only five running backs currently on NFL rosters with more career touches than him. Trust me, that's accurate. Five. They are Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, Le'Veon Bell, Mark Ingram, and Todd Gurley.

  1. Frank Gore: Gore is sort of the poster child for RB longevity, but the reality is that he has steadily declined throughout his career. In his first five seasons, he averaged 4.8 YPC. In his next five seasons, he averaged 4.3 YPC. In his last five, 3.9 YPC.
  2. Adrian Peterson: His first seven seasons were amazing. Then he shredded his knee. Then he had one miraculous comeback season. Then he tore a meniscus, and has been mediocre since.
  3. Le'Veon Bell: Bell understood the pounding the Steelers were putting on his body, so he held out for a season rather than play on the franchise tag. He signed with the Jets, and in his sixth season he averaged 3.2 YPC.
  4. Mark Ingram: Ingram is still good at 30, but he has never rushed more than 230 times in one season, and has averaged a meager 169 rushing attempts per season over his career, thus keeping him fresh. By comparison, Elliott's low rushing attempt total for any one season is 242, in 2017, when he was suspended for six games.
  5. Todd Gurley: During the 2018 offseason, Gurley signed a four-year extension worth $60 million, $45 million of which was guaranteed. The Rams almost immediately regretted that, as his play fell off sharply, and two seasons later the Rams were willing to take on a dead money hit of $11,750,000 in order to release him.

So that's what happens to running backs who get the ball a lot in the modern NFL. Note that none of the above five players remain on the team that originally drafted them.

In his four years in the league, Elliott has racked up 1,358 touches, or 340 per season. The next closest player over that span was Gurley, who had 125 fewer touches. And again, this is with Elliott missing eight games. Add in three playoff games, and he's up to 1,433, or 358 touches per season.

Anecdotally, Elliott just doesn't look as explosive as he did when he entered the league. The following video is of Elliott from his rookie season. He still runs with power, but does he still have this kind of explosiveness?

The numbers back up the eye test. In 2019, Elliott had a grand total of four rushes of 20+ yards, and a long rush of 33 yards. 23 NFL players had at least five rushes of 20+ yards. Some of the guys who had the same number of 20+ yard rushes include a slow quarterback (Jameis Winston), a wide receiver (Deebo Samuel), and Elliott's backup (Tony Pollard).

If your rebuttal is that big plays were never part of Elliott's game, that's incorrect. In his first three seasons, he had 30 rushes of 20+ yards, or 0.75 per game. Obviously, his four rushes of 20+ yards would be 0.25 per game, or a third of his previous career average. 

It's OK. You can admit it. He's not as good as he used to be. The falloff is already underway. The only question is whether it's coming fast or slow. 

Anyway, let's go ahead and update Elliott's Zelda-esque life meter:


3) New head coach, new defensive coordinator, no offseason yet

A yearly cause for celebration among Eagles, Giants, and Washington team fans was the announcement that Jason Garrett would remain the head coach of the Cowboys. Those days are over, as Dallas finally fired Clappy McClapperson, and replaced him with former longtime Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. 

However, Dallas has the misfortune of making a coaching change during a year in which there were no rookie camps, no OTAs, no minicamps, and likely some bastardized version of training camp as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

McCarthy compiled a 125-77-2 (0.618) record over 13 years in Green Bay, and won a Super Bowl in 2010. If you're a "glass half full" type, you might say, "Oh hey, that's great!" 

If you're a "glass half empty" guy/gal, you might be concerned with the following:

  1. McCarthy had Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers as his quarterbacks for 13 years, and only won one Super Bowl. 
  2. In his last two years in Green Bay, the team went 11-16-1, and he was fired during the 2018 season. The following year, without McCarthy, the team went 13-3, their best record since 2011.
  3. In an looooong, detailed article a year ago by Tyler Dunne of b/r, the anecdotes that produced the spicy headlines revolved around McCarthy becoming checked out on his team, often being absent from team meetings because he was getting massages, lol. But really, if I were a Cowboys fan, that wouldn't bother me as much as the constant reinforcement in the article that his scheme and his ideas had become stale in an evolving NFL.

I don't know. Maybe those massages cleared McCarthy's head and he'll come up with fresh material.


Meanwhile, the Cowboys also have a new defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan, who has been coaching in the NFL since 1987. The last time Nolan was a defensive coordinator was from 2012 to 2014, when he ran the Falcons' defense. His unit went from the 24th ranked defense in 2012, to 27th in 2013, to 32nd in 2014. Or if you prefer DVOA, his defense was ranked 12th in 2012, 29th in 2013, and 32nd in 2014.

So, the Cowboys' coaches are either experienced or stale, depending on your viewpoint. Either way, they'll get their first "grass time" with their players a month and a half before the start of the season, at best.

4) The quarterback still isn't signed to a long-term deal

Over a 15-day stretch in August-September of 2019, the Cowboys handed out lucrative deals to a running back (Ezekiel Elliott), an off-ball linebacker (Jaylon Smith), and RT La'el Collins. Somehow those deals got done before more important players like Prescott, wide receiver Amari Cooper, and CB Byron Jones.

The lack of a deal for Prescott is almost certainly going to cost the Cowboys, bigly, going forward. While the Eagles and Rams were busy getting new deals done for Carson Wentz and Jared Goff for approximately $32 million per year last offseason, Prescott played well on his crappy fourth-round rookie contract in 2019, and avoided injury, thus shifting leverage to his side of the bargaining table.

The Cowboys reportedly made a flimsy offer of $33 million per year (or maybe somewhat more?), which Prescott and agent Todd France rightfully turned down. Another report said that Prescott turned down a five-year deal worth $175 million. While that may sound like crazy money for a borderline top 10 quarterback, the reality is that there is logic to turning down a five-year, $175 million deal.

Why? Well, absent a new deal, Dallas was forced to slap Prescott with the franchise tag, which will cost them $31,409,000 in 2020 if a long-term deal isn't worked out by July 15. In 2021, if the Cowboys tag him again, Prescott will make 120 percent of that amount, or $37,690,800. If tagged a third time, he'll make 144 percent of his 2021 salary, or $54,274,752‬. Add it all up, and that's $123,374,552, or a little more than $41 million per season.

If at any point the Cowboys decide not to keep tagging him and he hits the open market, he would get a better deal than any of the deals he has reportedly been offered, as long as he's still healthy, and still a top 10-ish type of quarterback.

The Cowboys had the benefit of having a legitimate starting quarterback on their cap at an extremely low number for four years, and all they have to show for it was one playoff win. Now that Prescott is making over $31 million in 2020, the Cowboys had to part with some good players to make room for that extreme increase...

5) The offense lost some good starters

C Travis Frederick, retirement: Frederick has been the starting center for the Cowboys since they drafted him in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, racking up 96 starts along the way. He missed the entire 2018 season with a rare disease, but returned in 2019. In six years in the league, he had three All-Pro nods (one first-team, two second-team), and five Pro Bowl appearances.

He'll more than likely be replaced by Joe Looney. While Frederick was a "name recognition" Pro Bowl selection in 2019, this is still quite obviously a downgrade.

• WR Randall Cobb, signed with the Texans: Cobb was quite a productive player for the Cowboys in 2019, catching 55 passes for 828 yards (a very good 15.1 YPC as a slot receiver), and 3 TDs. He'll be replaced by rookie first round pick CeeDee Lamb.

I think this is an apt place to mention the Cowboys' 2020 draft haul, which was widely praised (hell, we gave it an A-). The Cowboys lost two good starters on offense, and three on defense, plus a few other not good starters, like Jason Witten and Jeff Heath. They really only replaced one of their good starters (Maliek Collins) with a good veteran (Gerald McCoy), and even in that case, it might be a downgrade. The rest were through the draft, which is fine, except that every team in the NFL also drafted new players.

A lot of teams got better in free agency (or at least didn't get worse by losing a slew of good starters), and then also added to their roster through the draft. The Cowboys decidedly got worse during the free agency phase of this offseason.

6) The defense lost even more good starters than the offense

• CB Byron Jones, signed with the Dolphins: Jones landed a $16.5 million/year deal with the Dolphins. He was easily the Cowboys' best and most reliable defensive back. His replacement could be anyone from Anthony Brown to Daryl Worley to Maurice Canady, to either of the two rookie draft picks, Trevon Diggs or Reggie Robinson. In any scenario, that's going to be a downgrade. 

• DE Robert Quinn, signed with the Bears: Quinn was the Cowboys' most productive pass rusher in 2019. In 14 games, he had 34 tackles (13 for loss), 11.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 22 QB hits. He'll be replaced by JAG Tyrone Crawford, or perhaps by a fine pair of upstanding young men in Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory, who are both on their 30th (estimated) chances in the NFL. (Note: Gregory is still currently suspended, but he might get reinstated? I don't know. Who cares? How long will that last if he does?)

• DT Maliek Collins, signed with the Raiders: Collins, who is still only 25 years old, played 61 games (55 starts) for the Cowboys in four seasons. Over his career in Dallas, he had 84 tackles (20 for loss), 14.5 sacks, 40 QB hits, and 5 fumble recoveries. He was a young, solid starter, who signed for the Raiders on a one-year deal worth $6 million, which is less money than his replacement, 32-year-old Gerald McCoy, who got paid more by the Cowboys than what the Raiders paid Collins. I don't understand that one.

7) Is Leighton Vander Esch the new Sean Lee?

Sean Lee will forever be known as one of those guys who was really good when he was healthy, but, you know, could never stay healthy. Lee's starting replacement, Leighton Vander Esch, is already beginning to follow that same career trajectory. Lee's ligaments were made of dandelions and papier-mâché, while Vander Esch is beginning to transform into Dee Reynolds (the "Aluminum Monster") from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.


Coming out of Boise State, Vander Esch had medical concerns stemming from a neck injury that cost him half of the 2016 season. That injury reportedly resulted in some teams removing him from their draft boards completely, or at a minimum, caused some teams to red flag him.

Vander Esch missed the last five games of the 2019 season with a bulging disk, made worse by a genetic spinal condition that he suffers from, called cervical spinal stenosis, which the Dallas Morning News explained in detail in December.

He has cervical spinal stenosis, a condition featuring a narrowed spinal column in the neck. One consequence for affected individuals is increased nerve sensitivity to a bulging or herniated disk, which can require surgery if more conservative treatment methods do not alleviate symptoms. Those can include numbness or tingling in limbs.

NFL teams were aware Vander Esch had the condition before the 2018 draft, when the Cowboys selected the Boise State standout with the 19th overall pick.

He plays with a neck collar to help protect the area.

“From what the doctors say, I was born with stenosis,” Vander Esch said following Sunday’s 17-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. “So it’s something you’ve got to deal with. Nothing was bothering me until I got hit in Week 7. I’ve got a new set of pads being built, and I’ve been running and practicing in those. So it feels good. ... We were just saving up for playoffs hopefully, but it’s out of my control.”

Vander Esch had surgery to repair the 2019 injury, and is "fully recovered," except that he's not "fully recovered" because it's not like his genetic condition has gone away. He is a fantastic player who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2018, but relying on him to be able to play 16 games is going to be a yearly cause for angst for the Cowboys.

8) But otherwise, the Cowboys have had excellent injury luck

In fact, they were the fourth healthiest team in the league, in terms of "adjusted games lost," via And they still only went 8-8. What's going to happen if they're not so lucky anymore?

9) They don't create turnovers

Over the last five years, the Cowboys have only picked off 43 passes. They have been consistently bad in that area for a half-decade now:

Year Cowboys INTs How many teams had fewer INTs? 

With consistently bad numbers like that, surely part of that was scheme, and maybe those numbers will increase under a new defensive coordinator. It will be interesting to see if a more aggressive scheme will result in more turnovers, or if a roster not used to making big plays on defense just isn't good at it, and will continue to have low takeaway production while also being more susceptible to big plays down the field.

10) Jerry Jones is speaking with his silence

In 2017, Jones suggested that players who are "disrespectful to the flag" could be benched. In 2020, should the NFL season actually happen, protests are going to occur on a far wider scale than they did three years ago.

Many NFL owners, coaches, players, media, and fans have become more enlightened as a result of protests, past and present, which of course have nothing to do with "disrespecting the flag."

A number of teams, and more specifically, their owners, have released progressive statements about the Black Lives Matter movement, as they all should. One owner that has been silent is Jones, and Cowboys players have noticed.

Gerald McCoy, a newcomer to the team as noted above, spoke publicly about his disappointment with Jones' silence in an interview on ESPN:

For those of you who would rather read than watch a video, McCoy's words: 

"The most recognizable franchise in the world is the Dallas Cowboys. When a situation like what’s been going on – which it has been going on; this is not new, it’s not new, it’s been going on – but now it’s been brought to major light with the tragedy of George Floyd, people are seeing, ‘Is this really what’s going on?’ Yes, this has been going on. This is not new. You’re just now seeing that this is how brutal it really is. 

Well, when you have a franchise as recognizable as the Cowboys, people listen when they speak up. And the owner, Jerry Jones, who is one of the most recognizable figures in sports history, when he speaks, everybody listens. Well I think that at this point in time, I feel that it would be great to hear him say something positive, or say anything. 

I love what he has meant to the sport. He’s been excellent to the sport of football. He’s a Hall of Famer. But at this point, it’s bigger than football. We need him to speak up about life. This is about human beings and equal rights, and that’s not what’s happening. It would be great to hear him say something. Anything."

The show's host, Max Kellerman, also posed the following question to McCoy, in regard to Jones.

"A couple of years ago, Jerry Jones was asked – I think it was 2017 or 2018 – he was asked by a reporter about his support for a certain political party. There are only two major parties in this country, so you can guess which one. And (Jones) said, 'Because that’s the way this country should be run.' Well, he got it. He got the courts and the executive branch, and the senate, so it’s being run that way, and we see the shape our country is in now. He has felt OK commenting about it at that time, but this time requires comment, and he’s silent. Does that not suggest to you where his sympathies may actually lie?"

To which McCoy responded: 

"It don’t look good. I’ll say that. It doesn’t look good. You can’t be silent at a time like this. I’m new to the Cowboys’ organization, and I’m blessed to be part of this organization, but when things are not going well for the team, you can hear him screaming. Well this is life. This is bigger than just football. It’s bigger than winning a Super Bowl, and something needs to be said."

Jones is going to have to comment eventually, but for now, he is speaking with his silence. I don't know what an accelerated rift between the players of this team and its owner looks like, but it's not good from a football standpoint, or as McCoy rightfully – and more importantly – points out, in real life.

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