Five steps that Jerry Jones must consider should Dallas finish under .500 and/or out of the playoffs

By Matthew Postins

Dallas Cowboys logoThe Dallas Cowboys still have five games on their schedule. But their season, for all intents and purposes, is over.

At 5-6, they are two games behind the suddenly rejuvenated New York Giants in the NFC East. The Cowboys are, technically, just one game out of the second wild card spot. But this Cowboys team has won back-to-back games just once this season. It’s difficult to image the Cowboys doing it again this season.

So where does Dallas go from here? From this perspective the Cowboys are an under-.500 team. If they finish that way it would be the second time under .500 in three years. If that’s the case, then the Cowboys have things they must address on and off the field. That will be up to owner and general manager Jerry Jones.

If I had Jones’ ear, this is what I would recommend.

1. Fire Jason Garrett.  A few weeks ago I compared Garrett’s first 32 games to Wade Phillips’ last 32 games as head coach in Dallas. The numbers were eerily similar, including the overall record – 16-16 for each of them. While the basic offensive numbers are better, the things that Garrett sought to fix when he was elevated to head coach – consistency, discipline and accountability – are still major issues. The Cowboys are still one of the most penalized teams in the NFL, still one of the worst in the red zone and still one of the worst when it comes to hanging onto the football. Plus, Garrett may not be reaching this team anymore. The last two weeks they’ve been down 13-0 to Cleveland and 28-3 to Washington at halftime. These were two terrible defensive teams and the Cowboys managed just three points in the first half.  This team doesn’t appear prepared to play anymore, and that’s coaching. If progress were being made, I would say keep Garrett one more year. But everything points to this being the same Cowboys team they were under Phillips. And if that’s the case, then that means Garrett has to go.

2. Hire either Mike Holmgren or Sean Payton. This is where you tell me that Jones can’t work with a strong head coach and personnel evaluator. Here’s where I tell you that he can’t work with a strong head coach and personnel evaluator for very long. Deep down, Jones must know the benefits of working with Jimmy Johnson or Bill Parcells, even if he won’t admit it publicly. Consider the Cowboys’ record with Johnson or Parcells as head coach –78-66. During those nine seasons the Cowboys made the playoffs five times and won two Super Bowls. Now consider the Cowboys’ record in the 14 seasons without Johnson or Parcells – 120-104. The Cowboys reached the playoffs seven times and won one Super Bowl. But here’s the rub. I researched the season records after Johnson left and Switzer took over and the Cowboys recorded their first losing season after Johnson left in Year 4, or 1997. From there the Cowboys had just one winning record the next five seasons.

Guess when the Cowboys recorded their first losing season after Parcells left? Year 4, or 2010.

The talent is running dry and Jones needs to turn to a strong head coach with a strong personnel background before the team runs aground and has another protracted stretch of losing. Holmgren and Payton have both won Super Bowls and both have relationships with Jones based on past history, Holmgren on the NFL’s competition committee and Payton as an assistant under Parcells. Does it matter which coach Jones hires? Not really. Holmgren is available today. Holmgren left as the Browns’ team president officially on Sunday.

3. Extend Tony Romo for two more years and draft a quarterback. For all of the Romo haters out there – and I’m friends with several – there are two reasons you can’t let Romo go yet. First, there is no heir apparent. Even the Romo haters must admit that Kyle Orton is not better than Romo. Second, Romo counts $16 million against the salary cap. Even if the Cowboys release Romo they’re responsible for carrying that figure. The cap figure makes him almost untradeable. The Cowboys need to extend Romo because they need the financial flexibility, especially since NFL sanctions have eaten up $5 million of the Cowboys’ cap space for 2013. So the Cowboys need to sign Romo to a short-term extension so they can spread out the cap hit and spend a first- or second-round pick on a quarterback to develop behind him. There is not an elite quarterback in this draft, but there are plenty of good quarterbacks you can develop behind Romo. Holmgren and Payton have experience tutoring young quarterbacks. But it’s clear that Romo has hit his ceiling as a player and the Cowboys have no backup plan. It’s time to get one.

4. Fix the Offensive Line. From here, the only offensive lineman that might be considered “untouchable” is left tackle Tyron Smith, who still has the time and talent to develop into an above-average left tackle. But beyond Smith there isn’t a lineman in the bunch that is too talented to be replaced. The Cowboys sold out to fixing the secondary this past offseason and it’s hard to argue that the strategy wasn’t successful. The Cowboys need to spend 2013 selling out to fixing their offensive line. The root of most of Dallas’ offensive problems can be traced to subpar line play. Whether it’s via free agency or via the draft, the Cowboys need an upgrade.

5. Identify a high-end pass rusher opposite DeMarcus Ware. Ware may be the best pure pass rusher in football. He has 109.5 sacks entering this week’s game with Philadelphia. But he has spent the past several years without a dynamic opposite pass rusher. That was supposed to be Anthony Spencer, who hasn’t panned out. Entering Sunday Spencer, in his sixth NFL season, has 28 sacks. Here’s some perspective. Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney is a pass rusher in the Ware mold. He has 104.5 career sacks. He’s played opposite Robert Mathis for 10 years. Mathis has 90.5 sacks. One could say that the presence of a player like Ware or Freeney opens up opportunities for players like Spencer and Mathis. But it works both ways. Mathis plays at such a high level that it’s hard to double-team Freeney. Opponents have less of a problem with Spencer, so they can pay extra attention to Ware. In fact, it’s amazing that Ware has as many sacks as he has considering. The Cowboys need to find that dynamic opposite pass rusher to take pressure off Ware and to, eventually , take Ware’s place as the primary rusher.