Week 17 Notebook: Cowboys' future, Chip Kelly's undoing, more

NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his exclusive Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

Before we start to pick apart the Dallas Cowboys' 2015 season -- there's a lot to get to -- it's probably smart to first make clear where Jason Garrett stands going into 2016.

"He's safe," Cowboys executive vice president/COO Stephen Jones said over the phone early Tuesday night. "Change isn't always the right answer. We're not big believers in it. Jason, a year ago, everyone thought he hung the moon. That's the terrible thing about this business: You take one year, and change everything. This doesn't faze us, it won't faze us.

"We're totally in with Jason. We're totally in with our staff."

OK, now that the big piece is out of the way, we can get to all the shattered little pieces of a lost season.

Expectations are always high in the Metroplex, but this felt different. Last year, with the Joneses and Garrett and personnel chief Will McClay helming the ship, the Cowboys were one questionable call away from their first conference title game in 19 years, and the foundation looked as sturdy as it has at any time since that 1995 season, when Dallas won its last Lombardi Trophy.

On Sunday, against the NFC East champion Redskins (let that sink in), the Cowboys will try to avoid standing alone with the franchise's worst record since the 1-15 1989 campaign, Jerry Jones' first season of ownership.

"I think you have to look at everybody," Stephen Jones said. "I'm accountable. Jason's accountable. We're 4-11. It's up to us to do something about it. We had injuries, yes, but Jason doesn't want to use that as an excuse. I don't want to use that as excuse."

Still, the cold fact here is that Tony Romo only played in four games, and finished two, before going on injured reserve last week due to his twice-broken collarbone. And to be clear, no one's under any illusion in Dallas that these Cowboys are ready to win big without No. 9 in the lineup.

But to Jones' point, that hardly justifies what happened -- which, after Romo went down, was not much of anything. The tougher thing to swallow is that this really isn't a new problem, either. Dallas is 78-49 with Romo in the lineup since he became the starter and 7-19 without him, and the Cowboys average almost twice as many touchdown passes per game in the former circumstance vs. the latter.

"There's no way we shouldn't have won three or four more games, especially with the division we're in," Jones said. "Teams win games in those situations, and we're taking accountability for that. We should be able to win games without Tony. One question that's fair is if we have a system in place that's not good for other quarterbacks. How come we can't adapt when Tony's not in the game? It's the same group of coaches, the same cast from a top-five offense, but we don't have the same stats."

And while some of it might be about the investment, or lack thereof, in backup quarterbacks (we'll get to that), Jones was quick to point out how Brandon Weeden getting his first win of the season as a starter on Sunday -- as a Houston Texan -- was sobering. And not because they believe going with Matt Cassel over Weeden a couple months ago was the wrong call. They don't. It just begs the question, in Jones' words, "Why does Brandon go down to Houston and do fine? Ours is a system that's 'Romo-friendly,' but is it not 'other-quarterback-friendly'?"

In other words, because Romo is a different kind of quarterback, and a sophisticated one, does that system become hard to adapt to someone new, in the way the Texans adapted theirs to Weeden?

Then there's the question of who will be the backup in 2016. Cassel's contract expires after this season, while Dallas can bring back Kellen Moore on the cheap. Maybe the Cowboys add another 30-something journeyman like Cassel or Weeden. But as we mentioned a few weeks ago in this space, the franchise is also ready to draft one high.

Romo turns 36 in April. That's how old Tom Brady was when the Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo and how old Peyton Manning was when Denver took Brock Osweiler, and it's a year older than Brett Favre was when the Packers picked up Aaron Rodgers. Which is why taking a quarterback in the top 10 is something the Cowboys will consider.

"Yeah, we gotta look at that," Jones said. "Obviously, it's a bigger deal now, with Tony injured. And I'm sure he'd understand it. But if we draft the guy in the first round], we're drafting him to watch. And that's the hard thing. He could be watching for three years, but that's not all bad. It can be a good thing for them. Tony got to watch for a long time -- it helped him. Steve Young, [Aaron Rodgers, players like that -- guys that have stepped in and played great -- got to watch."

Now, all of this isn't to say the handling of the quarterbacks was the only issue this fall.

There was also the makeup of the locker room, which was tense at times, and recalled 2008. That year, the Cowboys were coming off a breakthrough year and, sensing they were close, took splashy risks (Pacman Jones, Roy Williams), paid key vets ... and watched it all implode. They didn't have a quarterback injury like they did this year, but the other similarities aren't lost on the Joneses, particularly with Greg Hardy's deal up at the end of this campaign.

"That's fair," Stephen Jones said. "We'll look at those things, and we've talked about that. You bring in those players and you win, and they don't seem to be an issue. You don't win, and it becomes a focus. It's fair that it's brought up. It's something we'll take a look at."

There are smaller things to sort through, too. The running back situation is one (Darren McFadden has been great, but will turn 29 next August). The future of the secondary is another (Brandon Carr has a big cap number, Orlando Scandrick is returning from an ACL injury and Morris Claiborne is heading into free agency). The hope is Dez Bryant will come back healthier next season, but the team could use another weapon in the passing game, with Jason Witten turning 34 this coming offseason.

Still, the belief in Dallas is that there remains a rock-solid foundation under the rubble. Which makes the carnage of '15 all the more frustrating.

"You gotta be able to win with good players out," Jones said. "We have a lot of work to do. We will not stick our heads in the sand and say this is all a Tony/Dez deal. We gotta see how we're gonna do it." As such, Jones conceded that 2015 "will go down as one of the big, big disappointments for us since we've had the team."

The good news is, it'll be over Sunday. Even better: When that final whistle blows, Dallas can get on with making sure it doesn't happen again.

Four downs

1) Texans' survival game. Three teams have started four different quarterbacks this year, and two of them (Baltimore, Dallas) qualify as maybe the two biggest disappointments of 2015. Then there is Houston, sitting on the doorstep of the playoffs after dominating the Titans with, yes, Brandon Weeden under center, and after winning games with Brian Hoyer (coming back Sunday), Ryan Mallett (now a Raven) and T.J. Yates (on injured reserve) at the helm. How have the Texans made it happen? Well, part of it, of course, is that they don't have a $20 million QB like the Cowboys or Ravens do, so they're naturally less reliant on the position. But it's also a matter of coaching, which Stephen Jones alluded to above. Here's how veteran Texans receiver Nate Washington explained it to me: "Eleven years in the league, and this is the first year I've seen a coaching staff put a stamp on the team like this. ... Normally, on offense, a guy goes down, and the next guy is expected to do the same exact thing the first guy did. Not here. Every guy has different strengths, so they use every guy differently." If that seems only logical, well, of course it is. But it's not as easy as it sounds to do things that way, and it's certainly not that way everywhere. Weeden, after Sunday's game, told me that the built-in flexibility is a credit to both Bill O'Brien and first-year offensive coordinator George Godsey. "Our coordinator -- I'm not trying to be funny -- he's one of the smartest guys I've ever been around. Guy's a genius," Weeden said. "He expects us to be as smart as he is; I'll never even be close. But he prepares constantly, he demands a lot out of you, but he's so smart. He knows what he's working with, he knows how to call plays. He knows how to go about it. A lot of coordinators don't; they see plays as, 'I'm gonna run it.' " You hear Patriots-connected coaches talk often about being a "game plan" team. But that, per Weeden, is about more than the opponent. It's also about who you've got. So on Christmas Day, he and Godsey talked, went through what he liked and what he didn't, and streamlined the plan to fit what he was comfortable with. "I numbered them and he said, 'What do you think about this? Do you like this vs. that? What are you comfortable with?' " Weeden said. "And he said, 'We don't have to call it. There's plenty of stuff there. There's no reason to call it or even have it on there if you don't like it.' So we'd throw it out. ... And then we added during the week. On Friday, we added a concept that worked for us." Maybe this sounds like a little thing. But the truth is, it's not. The NFL in 2015 is very much a war of attrition. And so there's a lot of value in a system, like the one O'Brien has set up in Houston, that's built to absorb losses.

2) Shanny an option for teams next week? Earlier in the week, I put together a list of guys who could land head-coaching jobs in the coming weeks -- and I included Mike Holmgren, because he's quietly made it known he has eyes for the 49ers job. How about the guy who succeeded him as 49ers offensive coordinator back in the 1990s? It seems clear that Mike Shanahan still has the itch to get back on the sideline. And last year, he interviewed well enough in San Francisco to make CEO Jed York, according to sources, very seriously consider hiring him for the job that went to Jim Tomsula. He's 63, so that's a concern. Another would be the kind of staff he'd bring aboard. And his tenure in Washington didn't end on the best terms. But a closer examination of the roster shows he hardly left the cupboard there bare. He had reservations about the Robert Griffin III trade that he expressed to the team's brass, and he didn't do a bad job building the team around that. One major reason he was fired was because he told upper management he wanted to go with Kirk Cousins as his quarterback -- and that belief in Cousins has certainly been validated. His first two first-round picks (Trent Williams, Ryan Kerrigan) were handsomely rewarded with second contracts this past summer. And he brought aboard foundational pieces like Pierre Garcon, Jordan Reed, Kory Lichtensteiger and Alfred Morris. To be sure, general manager Scot McCloughan and coach Jay Gruden deserve all the credit in the world for getting Washington back not just to respectability, but the playoffs. Still, if you look at the players left behind there, and also in Denver in 2009, it's easy to see that Shanahan's work wasn't exactly all bad. And on a market that won't be overflowing with bona fide candidates, it's easy to see where Shanahan could be an interesting option for a team that's willing to hire an older guy, like Arizona did in 2013 and Minnesota did in 2014.

3) Tennessee's most valuable chip. The Titans' next couple moves will be fascinating, and important for this reason: They have the most valuable commodity you can get -- a promising young quarterback on a rookie deal -- as a carrot to attract decision makers to Nashville. Marcus Mariota doesn't turn 23 until next October, and his teammates clearly see the kind of game changer he can be for the franchise. "That's a real positive here, especially for me, coming from a situation in Washington] where there was always uncertainty at that position," [Brian Orakpo told me. "Now, to have a guy that's for sure a franchise guy, who has a lot of room to grow and get better, I'm very excited. Marcus has a bright future. He's just gonna get better, and they're gonna add weapons around him, and he'll blossom." Orakpo's usage of "for sure" there stood out, so I asked if he was comfortable concluding, after just one season, that the Titans nailed that pick. "Absolutely," he responded. "They did good with that one." If nothing else, even without the fate of GM Ruston Webster set, it should make Tennessee a player for coaches with multiple options. The issue, at least for now, will be uncertainty with ownership. Most of the Adams family lives in Houston -- including co-chairmen Amy Adams Strunk and Susie Adams Smith. Their eyes and ears on the ground in Nashville belong to Bud Adams' grandson, Kenneth Adams, who plays a big role on the business side, has a strong understanding of football and is in the office on a day-to-day basis. The setup is, to say the least, a little unconventional, and could create pause for some candidates. The one to watch here, of course, is Chip Kelly, given his relationship with (and confidence in) Mariota. Webster has a strong relationship with Ed Marynowitz, Kelly's hand-picked personnel chief in Philly, and so it's possible the GM could find a way to attach himself to the coach. Regardless, this much is for sure: Because of the presence of the young quarterback, the pressure is certainly on the franchise to get this set of decisions right.

4) Decision time coming for the Broncos on Osweiler.Brock Osweiler certainly hasn't set the world on fire over the last month, but his play in Denver's comeback win Monday night provides reason for the Broncos to stick with him. And in asking around to execs who work the pro side and defensive coaches, I had a hard time finding anyone this week who thought it was a good idea to go back to Peyton Manning now, no matter how healthy he is. The prevailing thought is to keep riding Osweiler. "If he plays well [on Sunday against San Diego], I think I would," said one AFC personnel exec. "They need to win for the division, so they should be throwing their fastball. So we'll see that. And last year, Peyton was trending down towards the end." An NFC pro scouting director added on Osweiler, "I like what I see so far. I don't think he's gonna be a 35-attempt-a-game guy, but he should be a good fit for [Gary] Kubiak's true system, which employs more balance." Indeed, Denver is 2-2 in games where Osweiler crosses that 35-attempt threshold and 2-0 in his starts where he threw it less than 35 times. And as much as anything else, the Broncos have found a rhythm in the run game around Osweiler, going over 100 yards rushing in five of his six starts after hitting triple-digits on the ground just three times in Manning's nine starts. So everything here points to the Broncos sticking to what's been their plan to stay with Osweiler. Maybe it'll get a little awkward. But it's what's best for the team, with Manning set to dress as a backup for the first time in 21 years. Add that to the Al Jazeera report of last weekend, and if this is it for Manning, all of it qualifies as a rough end for one of the game's all-time greats. But the truth is, these things rarely come to a smooth conclusion.

Three checkdowns

1) We'll probably all overreact to the veteran-player-acquisition process again in March and April. And that's OK. But it's definitely worth considering that among the 86 players selected for the Pro Bowl last week -- and, to be clear, I'm not saying Pro Bowl rosters are gospel -- only four went from one NFL team to another last offseason. Two of them were free agents (Jets CB Darrelle Revis and Cardinals G Mike Iupati) and two were traded (Jets WR Brandon Marshall and Bills RB LeSean McCoy). Revis had a deal that precluded the Patriots from franchising him. Marshall and McCoy were traded for reasons not related to their football ability. So the lesson here is one many GMs try to teach: Guys who are available in the spring are, almost always, by definition not core players.

2) The plans of three teams to escape to Los Angeles should heat up in the coming week. On Monday, teams can officially apply for relocation, with the window opening. It's presumed that the Chargers, Rams and Raiders all will before the Jan. 12-13 special meeting in Houston. The cities of San Diego, St. Louis and Oakland already submitted their financing plans for new stadiums to the league, outlining their efforts to keep their respective clubs. And now, it's up to the 32 owners to sort everything out. This, very clearly, wasn't what they wanted. The idea was to create an elegant solution and broker an everyone-wins conclusion, so votes on L.A. would be formalities. As it turns out, the resolve of each owner to get to the nation's second-largest market might have been underestimated.

3) Despite Sean Payton's best efforts to put out the fire, speculation regarding the New Orleans coach's future hasn't slowed down. One Saints source conceded that very few folks in the building know what to expect. So why would Payton leave? The cap situation the team is facing in 2016 would be at the top of the list. New Orleans has a quarterback, in Drew Brees, with the highest cap number in the league: $30 million. That's part of $153.6 million that New Orleans has committed to 41 players for the 2016 season. They'd save $20 million by cutting Brees, but that still leaves them snug to the cap projections with 12 spots on next year's roster needing to be filled out. And given all that, and how New Orleans drafted before putting together a promising class this year, a rebuild could well be in order. And the feeling out there is Payton might not want to stomach that.

Two college prospects to watch

1) Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly (vs. Oklahoma State, Sugar Bowl, Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): As a fourth-year junior, Kelly finally has started to deliver on all the potential his coaches have seen in him since high school -- completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 3,740 yards and 27 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. The things that kept him from that kind of production in the past usually weren't football-related. The nephew of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly lost his 2013 season to a torn ACL and was thrown out of Clemson's program in April 2014, after positioning himself to become the starter despite clashing with coaches. He instead starred that fall at East Mississippi Community College before transferring to Ole Miss earlier this year. "He's an idiot, but he's pretty good," said an AFC area scout assigned to the Rebels, with a laugh. "He's a very good athlete, he moves well, he can evade the rush, he's a threat when pulls it down, and can do special things if the play breaks down. As for his throwing mechanics and all that, he's inconsistent -- his accuracy is above average and his arm is slightly above average." Maybe the best part, the scout says, is that "he's really tough and competitive. I love the way he plays." His personality absolutely will come under scrutiny, as Ryan Mallett's did a few years back, and his off-field issues will require close investigation. Quite simply, there's a pretty thick file on the 21-year-old. But some of his skills, athletically, recall Jake Locker.

2) Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey (vs. Iowa, Rose Bowl, Friday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN): We'll have to wait until 2017 or '18 to see McCaffrey at the next level, so there's time to get a few more looks at the running back -- and he's worth the time to watch. Despite being listed at just over 200 pounds, the true sophomore rushed for 1,847 yards on 319 carries and caught 41 passes for 540 yards. Oh, and he broke Barry Sanders' 27-year-old record with a doesn't-look-real total of 3,496 all-purpose yards in 13 games. "He just makes plays," an AFC personnel exec said. "He has great feel and instincts." Asked if he could be an every-down back at the next level, the exec said, "It just depends on how he's used. He can catch, run, protect and return. He should be a solid player in the league with his instincts. You don't put that many yards up in a season because you're not good." An AFC college scouting director added, "He's an ideal third-down back. Good hands, very quick, very good speed. Danny Woodhead, but bigger -- I'd think more like a Brian Westbrook-type. Just a very good all-around player." Another thing that should help the kid is that he's already in a pro-style system, and, of course, comes from an incredible athletic lineage that includes his dad and former Broncos star Ed McCaffrey.

Extra point

Lane Johnson's characterization of Chip Kelly as being, to some degree, unapproachable to Philadelphia Eagles players helped a lot of headline writers and fed into a lot of narratives on Tuesday. Maybe more interesting is the idea that this particular in-house dynamic was, in part, an outgrowth of the power struggle that engulfed the franchise over the last calendar year.

Jordan Matthews, a second-year Eagle, explained it to me in the wake of Johnson's comments. And if you put the pieces together -- in real-life terms -- it actually makes all the sense in the world.

"It might not have been Coach Kelly as much as it was that person [going to him]," said Matthews, who added he was fine approaching Kelly. "When you know somebody has that much power over a part of the organization, you are gonna be a little wary about it. ... It's no different than having a boss. Are you gonna be in your boss' face all day? When you know he can decide if you'll stay in your job or fire you? Probably not, because he has that power. Maybe that's where some of that may lie."

Use that as the jumping-off point for the real story here: Kelly the GM crushed Kelly the coach.

Trading off, in essence, Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans for Sam Bradford, DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, Nelson Agholor, Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso not only didn't work -- it wound up robbing the team of its identity. Put simply, making the run game go is as important to Kelly's scheme as being right at quarterback is in most other NFL offenses. So if the Eagles couldn't run it consistently, the passing game and defense were going to suffer.

They couldn't, and each did.

As one Eagles source put it, "When you have a guy like [Marcus] Mariota or one of those guys, the run game is ridiculous because of all the different stuff you can do. When you have a quarterback that isn't a threat to run, it's a different type of run game. And we never got that solved."

Losing McCoy and Herremans and Mathis and even Maclin (as a threat to stretch the defense), and not getting enough from the new backs and the new guards and the new receivers was a big part of that, and that is where Kelly the GM failed.

And sure, there was skepticism in the locker room concerning all that. Johnson said himself that he felt like there was a trickle-down effect that the fracture in the front office created across the organization. After all, it's not like the players live in a bubble.

"Even though we play ball, we creep into that fan mentality, too -- I was a fan of LeSean McCoy before I was his teammate," Matthews said. "I was a fan of Jeremy Maclin before I was his teammate. I was a fan of DeSean [Jackson], even though I never played with him. We're people, too. So we could get in that same mentality. So when we see a guy like that leave, we can sometimes get into that, wanting immediate results, too, even if it's not the reality.

"Who's to say if those guys -- Ryan and DeMarco and all those guys -- have more time in Coach Kelly's system, they don't have the same success that LeSean had? Now, nobody'll know."

That, of course, is the other part of the flaw in Philly's 2015 strategy. Kelly churned the top of the roster, something that happens on an annual basis at the college level. And maybe the Eagles figured they could bring it all together in that fashion -- like Kelly proved he could at Oregon -- at the NFL level. It didn't happen, and guys on the staff will concede now that there's a fair criticism there, too.

You can also question whether or not Kelly narrowed the profile of what he looked for in players too much. The last three coaches to win it all -- John Harbaugh, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick -- have carried plenty of questionable characters on their respective rosters. The fact is, it's hard to win in 2015 with a team full of boy scouts.

So what happens if all the above goes the other way, Kelly's moves do work out and it comes together quicker than most expect, and the Eagles are 11-4 or 10-5 right now? Then, as members of the staff I've talked to see it, the locker room issues are either invisible or irrelevant.

Seattle's locker room, for example, has had its tough moments the last two seasons, both of which ended in the Super Bowl. Winning cures that stuff.

Kelly didn't win enough. That's the real problem. And if you want to really cut to the truth of all this, just ask someone like Matthews if he'd play for Kelly again.

"If they're paying!" Matthews said. "I mean, that's the god-honest truth. I don't have a problem with Coach Kelly. If the money was there, I'd play for him again. Of course."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.