Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones promised change was coming this offseason, and the first major ax fell earlier this week on defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Jones cited two specific games where the defense didn't play well in explaining the team's decision to fire Ryan. It begs the question: Was lackluster defense the biggest reason the Cowboys missed the playoffs again?
The defense was the least of the Cowboys' problemsRob Ryan coached circles around Jason Garrett, given the talent and injuries he had to deal with over the past two years. Garrett's offenses are so often sloppy and unimaginative. His game-day management also leaves a lot to be desired. Still, that's not the biggest reason the Cowboys missed the playoffs. Owner Jerry Jones -- general manager and enabler -- is the common thread running through more than a decade-and-a-half of disappointment in Big D.
Dallas needs a more established coordinatorYes, I think defense was Dallas' biggest issue. The Cowboys spent a lot of money and a high draft pick on that unit, but it performed worse in many ways in 2012. Dallas regressed in interceptions (from 15 in 2011 to seven -- an all-time low -- in 2012), takeaways (plus-four to minus-13), rushing yards allowed (1,585 to 2,003) and points allowed (347 to 400).
I know people talk about injuries, but one could argue that the Green Bay Packers had bigger injury issues on defense, losing key players like Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews, and they still won 11 games.
There were a lot of questions when Ryan was hired, considering that he'd never been a coordinator for a team with a winning record. He and coach Jason Garrett just have completely different personalities. The Cowboys had trouble with basic things like getting the right number of players on the field.
I think the Cowboys are going to go out and hire an established, older defensive coordinator. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Monte Kiffin is brought aboard. But that's just a wild guess.
Injuries hurt, but I'm fine with Jones' decision to can RyanThere has been a lot of debate about the firing of Rob Ryan. It's important to point out the massive number of injuries on that side of the ball. Obviously, those weren't the fault of Ryan or any other coach on the Cowboys staff. However, I don't have a problem with Jerry Jones' decision to move in a different direction following another disappointing season of playoff-less football.
Ryan's track record as a defensive coordinator isn't nearly as impressive as his reputation would indicate. He has produced just one top-10 defense in nine years as a coordinator. His scheme is very complex, and that becomes an issue when backups are forced into action. Now, though, Jones must find the right person for the job. That's the tricky part.
Cowboys' fundamental issues run deeperThere's solid gold, and then there's gold-plated. The former has great value, while the latter covers up whatever deficiencies lie beneath.
I think you know where I'm going with this. The 2012 Cowboys -- like their most recent predecessors -- were gold-plated. Topline stars like DeMarcus Ware, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten (not to mention the gargantuan stadium and shiny uniforms with the big star on the helmet) provide a luster that disguises an ugly truth: This team lacks some fundamental things like, y'know, an O-line with NFL-caliber talent.
The defense was so-so (as are all defenses led by Rob Ryan) and injuries were a big issue. Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the quarterback. Yes, Romopologists, your guy Tony Romo played terrific football in a lot of games ... but the fact is, with a playoff trip on the line in Washington D.C., he once again flamed out. That being said, Romo wasn't the biggest reason the Cowboys missed the postseason. Getting back to the question asked, the answer for the Cowboys is simple: get more good players.
Injuries were the Cowboys' biggest issueA number of starters missed time on defense. The defensive line was hit the worst, with Jay Ratliff being the biggest loss, while Kenyon Coleman and Jason Hatcher missed time, too. Both inside linebackers (Sean Lee and Bruce Carter) were also lost, and starting safety Barry Church was placed on injured reserve. DeMarcus Ware played hurt, and that limited him. I can see some of the issues with the inconsistency on defense, and that was a concern of mine all along with Rob Ryan's defensive philosophy.
On offense, the Cowboys' inability to consistently run the ball hurt them. DeMarco Murray is a 1,000-yard rusher who accumulated just 663 yards -- his lost time was a major issue. Tony Romo, meanwhile, has his inconsistencies as a quarterback.
Remember, the Cowboys missed the playoffs by one game. The team that beat the New York Giants in the opener was not the team that played the whole season.
Cowboys less than meets the eyeThe biggest problem with the Cowboys might be how we perceive them. The general consensus is that the Cowboys are one of the most talented teams in the NFL, but is that really the case? After watching that offensive line, "talented" is not one of the words I would use to describe the unit. The running backs, meanwhile, are skilled -- but often injured.
With a bad line and not much in the way of a rushing attack, the Cowboys' offense is already behind the 8-ball. If Tony Romo had the luxury of, say, the Cowboys' offensive line from the 1990s and a ground game, he might be able to shake the label that has hung around him like an albatross.
But here's the thing: While Romo does struggle behind a bad line, he's got to make plays when it counts the most. I get it: There were times when his receivers let him down and the line seemed to barely make an attempt to block. But Romo has to shoulder some of the blame. Look at those three picks in the decisive season-ending loss to the Washington Redskins. Those were on him. They weren't caroms or the result of receivers running bad routes. They were all Romo.
So to put this all on the defensive coordinator seems like a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to me. But when the owner is the general manager, I guess that's what it comes down to.
Dallas' biggest problem is a lack of leadershipWith Dallas, it's not all defense, and it's not all offense. It's not all about being 4-4 at home, and it's not all about Tony Romo's shortcomings. It's not all about DeMarco Murray's health, and it's not all about helping Jason Garrett call plays. And it's not all about the draft, in which the Cowboys have had big misses and big hits.
Some teams in the NFL have a greater sum that far outshines any individual parts. They have rosters that prompt you to say, "How the heck did this team win 10 games?" Then there are teams like the Cowboys, who just can't put it together, even though their individual talent jumps off the page. Over the past two seasons, they've dropped the final two games on their regular-season schedule and coughed up a playoff spot. Why?
To answer that question, I'll ask you this: Who's the leader of the Cowboys? The guy who, in tough times, is going to grab the Cowboys by the throat and make them win? Who's going to make sure they don't fall flat at the end of December? Who is it? Who belongs to the small group of players the rest of the team looks up to, the group that provides guidance in tough times? The answer: No one.
It's not about talent. It's about following someone -- or two or three someones -- who can show you the way when times are tough, when the pressure's really on. Jerry Jones has made it impossible for that person to be their head coach. As much of a success story as Romo is, meanwhile, he's just not that guy. After this many years, this is who he is. (Those waiting for him to change are like those who wanted Shaquille O'Neal to make his free throws after he'd been in the NBA for 12 years; it's just not going to happen.) Dez Bryant is growing, but is still learning what it means to be an NFL player. Their big defensive studs don't step up in that way, either.
Until Dallas finds a core of players who can do that, the Cowboys will be a mediocre team whose talent outweighs the results.