The End Of A Futile Era In Dallas
The Cowboys Had High Hopes for Romo and Dez, But Left their Destiny in Green Bay
By Steven Toroni
The Dallas Cowboys have not won a Super Bowl since 1996. In the current two-decade plus drought that “America’s Team” has suffered through, there has only been one campaign worth speaking about in regards to meeting the high expectations of the organization and its fans. The 2014 season was the pinnacle of the Tony Romo era. It was the peak of the Cowboys success during the 10 years that the undrafted quarterback was the starter and Cowboys Nation was clamoring for a Super Bowl for most of that decade. The once-storied franchise with a reputation for success has now turned into a joke of an organization on the field while continuing to be a perennial money-making machine for the NFL. However, on January 11, 2015 the Cowboys had an opportunity to beat the mighty Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers to make their first NFC Championship game since their title run almost two decades prior.
Days after the release of superstar Dez Bryant, who was in many ways the last piece of the Cowboys that represented the success of the 2014 campaign, the team has a completely new identity.
Let's revisit the 2014 season and walk you through the timeline that has transpired since. This is the story of how the ownership, front office, and coaching staff has been content (dare I say stubborn) with sacrificing superstar players for the sake of sticking to the plan at hand. Sometimes pride is worth more than money, and in this case Owner of the Cowboys, Jerry Jones was willing to sacrifice talent with clear intentions in mind.
The brand of football that has been on display in “Jerry World” (that is, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas AND what Jones considers to be a competent and profitable product) on the field has no doubt changed since 2014 for Dallas. Is the owner hindering the progress of the Cowboys or has the organization’s direction over the last four seasons been a matter of circumstances?
Dez Caught it...Apparently
The 2014 season started like any other for the Cowboys under Head Coach Jason Garrett. They attempted to build through the draft after finishing 8-8 in 2013 for the third straight season. The Cowboys, who drafted center Travis Frederick the season prior, continued to bolster the offensive line by selecting guard Zack Martin out of Notre Dame in the first round. They also picked edge pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence, who was third in the NFL in sacks last season with 14.5. Martin would join Frederick and left tackle Tyron Smith to form one of the best offensive lines in the league in 2014.
9 + 88 = 50 ... touchdowns
— SportsDay Cowboys (@dmn_cowboys) April 15, 2018
Scouting and finding players with both talent and ability to fit into the Cowboys system had not been an issue for the organization in recent years and the .500 level of play was bound to skew towards the Cowboys favor. In 2013, the gritty offense led by Tony Romo, running back DeMarco Murray, and Dez Bryant finished the season fifth in points. However, they finished 26th in points allowed that season and lost five games by three points or less - most notably in a memorable 51-48 loss against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. The Cowboys offensive line became the driving force behind a 12-4 record, as they found a way to make up for their lack of defensive talent by finishing second in rushing with 2,354 yards. Murray had an extraordinary year, leading the league in rushing with a franchise record 1,845 yards.
The dominance that Dallas displayed rushing the ball allowed for Romo’s most efficient season as a passer as he finished with a career-high 113.2 percent passer rating and scored 34 touchdowns with only nine interceptions. 16 of those 34 touchdown passes were to Bryant. The three Pro Bowlers contributed mightily to the Cowboys first playoff victory since 2009 as they beat the Lions in the Wild Card game. That set up the infamous matchup against the Packers which will forever live in NFL history as controversial.
Rodgers, despite being under duress most of the game, was successfully able to pick the Cowboys defense apart, but the Cowboys controlled the clock and limited the Packers’ opportunities. The game changed leads multiple times until Rodgers threw an absolute dagger as he rolled out to his left and threaded two Cowboys to find Richard Rodgers in the back of the end zone for a 20-yard score with 9:12 remaining in the game. Romo and the Cowboys were not supposed to beat the Packers in Lambeau Field, but they would have a chance to take the lead once again in the fourth quarter. On fourth and two, the Cowboys decided to go for it even though they were only down 26-21 - electing to not give Rodgers a chance to extend the lead to two scores. Instead of going for the first down, Romo went for it all and lofted a deep pass down the sideline to Bryant for what seemed to be a completed pass at the half-yard mark with 4:33 to go in the game.
Of course, Bryant would lose control of the ball after he made contact with the ground, which was correctly ruled incomplete at the time. However, per the league’s newly installed rule change of what is considered a completed catch, the play would be ruled a reception in 2018. Nevertheless, the Cowboys went on to lose the game and would never be the same again.
Cash Rules Everything
The 2015 offseason was significant to the current makeup of the Cowboys roster. Jerry Jones hedged his own bet on the offensive line he invested draft capital in and elected to not offer Murray the kind of money he wanted after one of the best seasons ever by a Cowboys running back. It was clear that Jones deemed the running back position expendable and offered Murray, who was drafted by the Cowboys in the third round in 2011, an insulting four-year $24 million contract. One of the hottest free agents on the market, Murray was offered double that amount by some teams and decided to take the Eagles’ offer of four years for $47 million just two months after the divisional game against the Packers.
Jerry Jones was vocal about where his priorities were in the 2015 offseason. He was adamant about committing his money to Bryant as Romo’s number one option. The duo had put up numbers that had not been seen before in the organization’s history over five seasons- and that is saying something considering the Hall of Famers that have represented Dallas in the past. The Cowboys went on to sign Darren McFadden to a two-year deal worth up to $5.85 million- a discount on what Jones believed to be a running back that could produce behind the stout offensive line. After saving money at the running back position, Jerry Jones was not bashful in paying his stud wide receiver $70 million over five years.
The logic of giving 35-year old Romo his wide receiver for the next five years with the offensive line in tact seemed feasible. What could go wrong?
Romo played four games due to two separate shoulder injuries in 2015 and Bryant played nine after requiring foot surgery following Week One. The Cowboys went 4-12 in a wasted season, but McFadden ran for just over 1,000 yards, which must have made Jerry smile to himself just a little bit.
The 2016 offseason was highlighted by the Cowboys drafting Ezekiel Elliott in the first round and quarterback Dak Prescott in the fourth round. Drafting Elliott made sense from a football perspective, but it allowed Jones to come out of the Murray non-deal looking brilliant, especially after Murray’s forgettable 2015 campaign in Philadelphia. To further commit to the run game for the long haul, the Cowboys signed Tyron Smith to an eight-year, $97.6M contract. If anyone still was not sure about the priorities of the front office, the writing was blatantly put on the wall with this blockbuster deal, making Smith the highest paid offensive lineman (per length of contract and including guaranteed money and incentives) during the time. That number has not been touched since- not even close. The next highest paid offensive lineman today is Trent Williams, who is currently under a $68 million contract with the Redskins.
Romo again injured himself, this time before the beginning of the 2016 season and Prescott was the Week One starter. Romo eventually was placed on injured reserve, which led to his retirement and Bryant played a total of two-and-a-half games with Romo after signing his big contract. Prescott and Elliott led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and Dez played 13 games and score eight touchdowns in 2016. However, the Cowboys lost to the Packers once again in the Divisional Playoffs, despite big stat lines from their stars, including nine receptions for 132 yards and two touchdowns from Bryant.
The Business of the NFL
The schedule of the Cowboys was one of the most difficult in the NFL in 2017 and the league had a year of film on Prescott to study. To boot, Elliott’s off-the-field issues eventually became a glaring distraction from OTAs until Week 9, when he was suspended for six games. The Cowboys offense became one dimensional and Bryant seemed to face an elite cornerback every week. The Cowboys finished with a 9-7 record and despite the odds being completely against him, Bryant managed to catch 69 passes for 834 yards and six touchdowns.
After a long offseason of stagnancy regarding Bryant’s future, the Cowboys released the eight-year veteran on Friday. Bryant was due $16.5 million next season and the Cowboys will only owe him $8 million upon his departure. The team that seemingly had years of success ahead of them in 2014 looks completely different today.
Bryant's contract was predicated upon Romo being the quarterback. With Romo forced into retirement prematurely, the Cowboys made the best of a bad situation and were fortunate to have Prescott to fill in at a Pro-Bowl level in 2016. In an attempt to cater to their new quarterback and an insistence that Bryant’s production did not live up to the amount of money the Cowboys were paying him, the franchise decided to move in a different direction.
Was the Cowboys front office justified in releasing Bryant? The backlash the team has received from its fan base and Bryant himself has been well documented. Is Jerry Jones a stubborn owner whose pride gets in the way of the team’s success or is he a businessman who simply has reacted to the circumstances presented in front of him?
The Answer is probably both.
While Bryant is still a capable receiver, the reality is that he was more productive with Romo behind center. The front office has adjusted its direction in the wake of Romo’s retirement and have fully embraced Prescott as their quarterback. The commitment to the offensive line is still paying off and they continue to be one of the best units in the league. With the line leading Elliott, perhaps the best runner out of the backfield in the NFL, Dak has thrived in pass/run options and does not utilize the outside receiver to limit the risky play. It is a style that has always suited Garrett well as he and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan call a conservative game.
2014 had the promise of greatness for the Dallas Cowboys. Since that year, the front office had to make some difficult decisions. They had to decide who was expendable and who was worth real money. While Jerry Jones and the upper management of the Cowboys staff may not have been fair to Murray and Bryant, they have stayed on the course of what the organization has deemed important to the success of the team. While Cowboys Nation is mourning the loss of its beloved superstar, they will find a way to put a competitive product on the field through the draft, as they have done since Garrett has been the Head Coach.
The Cowboys will replace Bryant, just like they did Murray. Prescott, Elliott, and their 2018 first round draft pick (assuming it is a wide receiver) will be the new triplets in Dallas only four years after the team – led by Romo, Murray, and Bryant- could have made a run at the Super Bowl.
One thing is certain: AT&T Stadium will be rocking come September and the entire world will be watching to see the results, which is a win in “Jerry World”.
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