|Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo (left) and owner Jerry Jones haven't made the playoffs since the 2009 season.|
There's good news and bad news for the Dallas Cowboys.
The good news: They won't have to hear the familiar refrain this season that they're once again underachieving and failing to live up to their incredible talent.
The bad news: That's because the Cowboys are the flat-out worst team in the NFC East and one of the four worst teams in the conference. It's not even up for debate.
Owner Jerry Jones has gone about managing his coaching staff the wrong way. Dallas has yet to make a single offseason addition that will either shore up a major hole or strengthen the roster. It's a recipe for disaster.
What's to like about the Cowboys? Where are they strong?
Yes, linebacker Sean Lee will return after going on injured reserve in late October with a toe injury. That's a big deal. Dallas also smartly applied the franchise tag to Anthony Spencer, ensuring that the pass rusher will be back after a great season in which he notched 11 sacks.
But perhaps there's a reason executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones indicated that striking a long-term deal with Spencer isn't the team's first priority. The Cowboys rightly fired overrated defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, but then they replaced him with Monte Kiffin, who is returning to the NFL after a pretty poor stint in college with his son Lane at Tennessee and USC. Kiffin isn't going to run the 3-4, which means Spencer is going to have to play end in the 4-3; the transition will be a new challenge for both him and DeMarcus Ware. What was once a strength of this team now becomes a question mark.
There are other issues on the defense. Some rival executives tell me they wonder if cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are suited for Kiffin's scheme. The safeties aren't special. The front seven doesn't stack up.
For all of the criticism quarterback Tony Romo endures, he is the strength of the Cowboys. Yes, I remember the ill-fated fourth-quarter pick that helped hand the division title to the Washington Redskins in a Week 17 loss. But Romo had what I will call his best season, featuring the best stretch of his career before those season-ending follies. Romo would be a much better and more even player if he had help on both offense and defense. Locking Romo up with an extension would be a must even if the Cowboys' dire salary-cap situation didn't make it crucial to get him under a more cap-friendly contract.
Dallas' offensive line is weak. Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are, in theory, a dynamic 1-2 punch at receiver. But Austin has had injury and availability issues, while Bryant, who also battled injuries last year, seemingly doesn't prioritize football and the little things it takes to win. Thanks to the poor line play and running back DeMarco Murray's fragility, the ground game is spotty.
The Cowboys will never truly beef up the talent base until Jones removes himself as the general manager and brings in a true football guy to run the show. It's the biggest part of the problem.
Pedestrian or oddly matched talent can be maximized by great coaching, but they don't have that in Dallas. We've documented Jason Garrett's consistent play-calling and game-management issues. Though Jones has made comments that have sparked ambiguity regarding this point, he wants to pull the play-calling duties from Garrett and hand them to offensive coordinator and line coach Bill Callahan. Shortly after Jones declared that he wanted this offseason to be "very uncomfortable," John Garrett (Jason's brother) left the staff.
One wonders if Callahan, Kiffin, defensive line coach Rod Marinelli and Co. are waiting for Jon Gruden in 2014. I feel for Garrett; he's been neutered.
The New York Giants are the best team in the NFC East. General manager Jerry Reese has had a very strong offseason, signing three likely starters in pass-catching tight end Brandon Myers, versatile defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins and former Cowboys linebacker Dan Connor. Reese also added a fourth receiver in Louis Murphy and brought back old friend Aaron Ross at corner.
I love what Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles have done, upgrading with defensive end Connor Barwin, cornerback Cary Williams and safety Kenny Phillips on defense, as well as tight end James Casey on offense. Kelly, as we've penned before, is the right coach at the right time for Philly.
If the Cowboys were in the NFC West, they'd be in fifth place, behind the conference's two most well-rounded squads in the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, as well as the St. Louis Rams (love the addition of Jake Long) and Arizona Cardinals (I told you they were going to sign Drew Stanton to play for Coach of the Year Bruce Arians).
Sean Payton is back; thus, so are the New Orleans Saints. The Atlanta Falcons are better than Dallas, obviously. So are the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and -- now that they have Greg Jennings -- Minnesota Vikings.
So congrats, Dallas. You are lumped in with the Detroit Lions (who have work to do, as much as I loved the Reggie Bush signing), Carolina Panthers (who must significantly improve their defense, offensive line and receiving corps) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who aren't quite there yet, though of course we can reconsider their status if and when they land Darrelle Revis). You are behind St. Louis. Your owner has made your coach a dead man walking.
The Cowboys are a mess. Don't blame Romo. He's the only reason Dallas isn't ranked 16 out of 16 in the NFC.
Buckle in for a long season.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.