Issues the Cowboys must fix to become a legit Super Bowl contender


Another year, another way the Dallas Cowboys have found a means of sawing off their own ankle as if being tied to a 12-5 record with potential to win the Super Bowl was the same as being chained to a bathtub with Jigsaw talking to them from the other room. An abysmal end to a once-promising season landed when they mostly laid an egg against the San Francisco 49ers on NFL Super Wild Card Weekend, losing 23-17 in a game that again proved all they had to do was be somewhat awake and they would've walked away with a win.

But as infuriating as it was for owner Jerry Jones and Co., they've opted to keep things steady atop the coaching pyramid -- settling that discussion before it grows any legs this offseason. That doesn't mean they can sit back and simply hope for the best in Year 3 of McCarthy's five-year deal, however, because there is much work to do and no time to waste in getting it done. 

Unsure of the future of their two coordinators, Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn, another major shakeup in the coaching staff could send ripples -- if not shockwaves -- throughout the staff beneath McCarthy and the roster beneath them all. That leads me to the very real question of where exactly do the Cowboys go from here, as both a team and as an organization?

If they want to finally break the curse and land a sixth Lombardi trophy anytime soon, they need to listen up, because here's the blueprint for 2022 and beyond:

End the 'my guy' approach

I'm not going to say McCarthy needs to be fired, because that's both knee-jerk reaction and one that serves only to pander for clicks, so no thanks. The reality is I've seen enough improvement over year 1 to warrant giving him one more chance (and only one) to avoid forcing Prescott -- whom you signed to a multi-year deal -- to learn a third head coach in as many years, something that could actually have the opposite of your intended goal, so we're going to be much more scientific here and leave the feelings for Valentine's Day. 

Also, be careful what you wish for, seeing as some of you wished for Urban Meyer in 2020. Hell, even Kliff Kingsberry. 

Let's focus. 

Now let's talk about what McCarthy has to get better at, and yesterday. There can be a lot of good that comes with the changing of the guard at NFL head coach, particularly if the organization making the move is parting ways with a long-stale regime and installing a coach atop the totem that's proven, respected and has a clear direction for the future. Luckily for the Cowboys, they were able to sidestep mistakes in hiring Matt Rhule and the landmine that is Meyer, and for as much flak as McCarthy will justifiably take over the next several months, the fact he's actually gotten the organization back to winning games is a huge plus -- along with the fact he doesn't hang back to party at bars while getting handsy with the patrons (i.e., things could be better in Dallas, but they could also be so much worse). 

McCarthy is not without obvious flaws, however, and one is in his evaluation of assistants in his regime. You could easily label him an old-school kind of guy and, to that point, he tends to lean more heavily toward implanting his guys than having the open-mindedness needed to actually build what would be the most productive staff available. To that point, during the ousting of Jason Garrett, there were a couple gems on Garrett's staff that were sent packing as well, despite having done well at their jobs.

I'll identify the three that matter most and who's absence is being felt in a major way:

Marc Colombo - former Cowboys offensive line coach

Gary Brown - former Cowboys running backs coach

Jon Kitna - former Cowboys quarterbacks coach

Wholesale changes needed to be made in the coaching staff, undeniably, but the Cowboys threw out the baby with the bath water in trying to give McCarthy everything he wanted. Allowing him the power to build his own staff is key, and retaining Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator was a great indication he could be convinced to stick with the assistants that were performing well at the time, but not enough was done to put a bug in his ear about Colombo, Brown and Kitna, who were replaced by Joe Philbin, Skip Peete and Doug Nussmeier, respectively, the latter two simply changing roles within the organization.

In looking at the recent and now-consistent downturn in production across the offensive line, the running backs room (injury fueled this as well) and in the team being unable to get Prescott back to form, it's time to begin wondering about the incumbents. For example, the offensive line struggled mightily during the back end of the season -- even with All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith on the field -- and again in the playoff loss to the 49ers, in what devolved into nothing more than a turnstile party. 

When Colombo was promoted from assistant line coach to the lead role in 2018 in the wake of an abysmal decision to try Paul Alexander at the helm, the offensive line burst to life and was again one of the best in the league.

Granted, he also had the benefit of Travis Frederick in 2019, but not in 2018, with the All-Pro center missing that entire season after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. They were near the top in all offensive line metrics under Colombo, who was dismissed to install Philbin, but Philbin's two-year body of work now has many more blemishes than not. Colombo had a brief stint with the New York Giants in 2021 -- following Garrett to Big Blue -- but a well-publicized spat with the now-fired Joe Judge led to Colombo walking away from the situation. Seeing as he's available at the moment and never wanted to leave Dallas in the first place, it might be time to send him the "you up?" text.

And while Peete has done what he could, Brown had Elliott and Pollard doing amazing things under his tutelage, and Elliott simply hasn't consistently been the same without a coach he also viewed as family -- Elliott also winning two rushing titles under Brown, who is now the running backs coach at Wisconsin after recovering from a major illness. As for Nussmeier, well, Prescott thrived indeed, but when it came time to coach him up and back to form, the failure(s) is evident. Kitna is easily a key reason for the version of Prescott the NFL enjoyed before the uneven play began on the back end of the 2021 season, and though he's currently taken his talents to high school football in Burleson, Texas, he's been known to return to Dallas a time or two to help save the day.

Just saying.

In all, it's worth imagining how well the Cowboys might be doing right now if McCarthy mixed the best of his incoming staff candidates (e.g., Joe Whitt Jr., Al Harris) with the best of what was already in the building. The decision to hire Mike Nolan was as much of a spectacular failure as the Paul Alexander hire was by Garrett, and we still aren't sure if the addition of ousted-Giants head coach Ben McAdoo as a consultant was additionally responsible for the disappointing finish to a strong but uneven season that left plenty of meat on the bone. There's also a conversation to be had about special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel, but mostly because of his dedication to a declining Greg Zuerlein (hey, there's that "my guy" thing again), who helped cost the Cowboys games in 2021.

McCarthy is a good head coach, I do still believe, but until he begins considering Nolan might not have been the only mistake he made on his staff, his days in Dallas will have a rapidly approaching expiration date. Just because someone is "your guy" doesn't mean he's the "right guy," and just because someone is "the other guy's guy" doesn't mean he isn't exactly what you need.

Rebuild the offensive line

Speaking of the offensive line in Dallas, my oh my how the mighty hath fallen. This was a unit that was literally once the best in the entire NFL -- a concrete wall opposing defenses dreaded going up against. It was so dominant that it manifested into an ongoing narrative for those who can't fathom the unit as anything but world-beaters, but they're as close to what they used to be as a hyena is to being a lion. Sure, they both have fur, four legs, a nose and eyes, but they're still two entirely different animals. So while assessing the need for a potential change at offensive line coach, the Cowboys have to throw some firepower at that front this offseason. 

It's non-negotiable at this point, following a year that saw Smith again miss several games, adding to his tally of six consecutive seasons in which he hasn't played an entire season, along with a neon-colored list of issues on the interior. The experiment that saw Connor McGovern try his hand at starting left guard left shrapnel in the face of Prescott, Elliott and Pollard, and it's why Connor Williams was re-installed as LG1 after being benched only because McCarthy felt the lineman was being targeted by NFL officials -- not due to any perceived issues in his play. 

As Williams readies to head into free agency, himself having struggled mightily on Super Wild Card Weekend, and with center Tyler Biadasz taking a step back in his bid to try and succeed Travis Frederick at center, there's much work to be done on the offensive line in Dallas. It starts with seeing what Josh Ball and Isaac Alarcon can be, particularly the latter, who is now entering his third season with the Cowboys, and if Philbin can't get a talent like Alarcon where he needs to be, well, see above for a solution in Colombo. 

From there, add a more consistent veteran swing tackle to the mix in free agency and/or work to determine if Terence Steele will be that going forward, which means turning an eye to using a top pick on an offensive lineman in the 2022 NFL Draft.

There will be options to make that happen in April, e.g., Tyler Linderbaum of Iowa, but with other needs as well and sitting at 24th-overall in the draft order, the Cowboys better get creative to allow the dug-in Will McClay a chance to again work his magic. It's not yet time to force Smith to hang up his cleats, but it's time to identify his definitive successor in addition to bolstering the interior beside Zack Martin. It's an offensive line that has long gone from being a concrete wall to simply a panel of sheetrock being propped up by only one or two steel beams (Zack Martin and La'el Collins).

"You have to coordinate"

The late John Witherspoon knew -- he knew. Circling back to coaching for a moment, it's time again for the Cowboys to figure out what their staff will look like, something that's now becoming an offseason tradition in Dallas after the decade-long reign of Garrett. The divorce from Garrett created a vacuum of change for the Cowboys, and they're still working to get things settled two years later, even more so now if they lose defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and/or Kellen Moore to head coaching positions. With McCarthy expected to stay put, there's a chance they simply look inward and promote an assistant like Nussmeier or Philbin to the position or, and pardon my [additional] dry heave here, even McAdoo (who is now garnering interest from the Panthers as their potential OC).

For my money, any of those options would be a significant mistake and one that strikes at the heart of my original point: kill the "my guy" approach and let it die a watery death in Davy Jones' Locker. Enough of the close-minded comfort that comes with simply turning to the next guy sitting on the same couch as you and saying, "Since you're here...". Nussmeier might do well, but odds are against him when looking at his offensive production at the University of Florida and the downturn of the offensive production (also attributable to Moore and poor execution by players) by the Cowboys in 2021. 

And as for McAdoo, who we're still working to ascertain the correct level of blame for when noting his weekly consultation sessions with McCarthy, one need look no further than his stint with the Giants to know there's mold on that cheese.

Ideally for owner Jerry Jones, both Quinn and Moore will remain, and he'll open the checkbook to try and make it a reality. If that happens, this discussion ends abruptly, because Quinn is a treasure and despite Moore's struggles, he's still probably their best option at OC unless, and hear me out on this point (again), they step outside of their comfort zone and take a look around both the NFL and NCAA at potential options who could take over the offense in Dallas and get things popping like Redenbacher's finest in the nearest microwave.

There's something to be said for opening a dialogue with Gators' coach Dan Mullen to see if he'd be willing to reunite with Prescott, his protege from their time together at Mississippi State, seeing as Mullen as proven he can get the absolute best out of Prescott with no equivocation. I know what you're thinking, though. Why would he leave a head coaching role -- assuming there's another lined up at the college level for 2022 after parting ways with Florida in 2021 -- to become a coordinator? 

To pose that question is to miss the context surrounding the answer, because you're asking Mullen to leave a collegiate head coaching position to take a coordinator position in the NFL and on the most visible team in all of sports, for an owner with pockets deeper than the nearest black hole and with as much gravitational pull. 

It's the same logic that kept Moore from becoming head coach at Boise State, and if Mullen ever wants to finally try his hand as an NFL head coach, he could easily parlay a successful run as Dallas coordinator into that achievement -- as Moore will presumably do soon. It would also remove the stigma NFL teams have about hiring a collegiate coach with no NFL experience, etc. etc. This is not to say Mullen is the only option, instead noting he's one in particular if they're so inclined to do due diligence on the matter.

Flipping the coin to the defensive side of the ball, losing Quinn would be a gargantuan blow to the Cowboys, but there are at least viable options on-staff like Joe Whitt, Jr. or George Edwards (a favorite in 2021 to take the role before Quinn became available), which doesn't change my stance one iota about expanding the search radius. There are other impressive candidates to be had there, with Vic Fangio leading that pack for me. (Brian Flores isn't happening folks, so let's not spend time contemplating that one.) 

You could debate a reunion with Mike Zimmer, and that's a solid ask, but I'd counter with wondering if he's simply in need of a fresh start or if he's losing his touch as it relates to stopping the rapidly-evolving NFL offenses nowadays -- not to say he won't succeed, but consider everything and not just what crutches your point, is all. Whomever assumes the role, they better be equipped to keep talent like Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs operating at an elite level, if not a higher one, because taking a step backward defensively after having seen Quinn drag the unit out of the belly of Hell in 2021 would be a downright unforgivable. 

A key in helping to make sure that regression is avoided will be to do all you can to keep the band together, on the field.

Avoid hemorrhaging in free agency

I'll dig a hole from here to China in a lengthy column to come that dissects who's heading to free agency for the Cowboys and who needs to be retained, but let's just say the list of the latter is lengthy. They have a headline talent in wideout Michael Gallup -- who is now recovering from a torn ACL suffered in December -- but the organization is still all-in on keeping him around, but at the price they deem palatable. Gallup might be open to taking less money to stay with the Cowboys, particularly given his relationship with Prescott (something that helped keep Amari Cooper in Dallas and out of the hands of the Washington Football Team), but that's to-be-determined once March rolls around. 

As mentioned, on the offensive side of the ball, is also the coming free agency of Connor Williams, but that's not in the same solar system, galaxy or universe as the situation with Gallup, so allowing Williams to walk wouldn't be the end of the world; but it would be problematic if there's no solution in place to succeed him at left guard. Similar to Gallup, albeit not equal, is the status of Cedrick Wilson, who was tasked with stepping up in the absence of Gallup in 2021, doing so time and again but also dampening his stock a bit with mistakes that killed drives (see the weird right-handed lateral attempt to his left against the 49ers). Wilson will command a strong dollar this offseason, and might price himself out of Dallas, although that would leave more money on the table to slide toward Gallup.

And seeing as Wilson was a sixth-round pick, McClay might feel if the Cowboys "did it" once there, they can do it again -- also having a chance to re-sign Noah Brown on another one-year deal to have him compete for the role alongside a promising and speedy upstart in Malik Turner. After all, finding an impact WR4 isn't nearly as difficult as finding a 1,000-yard receiver who can change entire defensive schemes like Gallup can. Then comes the defense, who'll see Randy Gregory and a catalog of talent standing at the door waiting to see what the Cowboys offer to keep them around. 

It's a no-brainer to get Gregory paid as well, him being the defensive counterpart of Gallup in this argument, because he has the potential to be a 10-sack talent opposite DeMarcus Lawrence and with Parsons patrolling behind them. From there, consideration must also be given to breakout talent Jayron Kearse (mid-level money?) and those like Carlos Watkins (low-level money), as they've helped become mortar for the bricks of the Cowboys defense.

Here's a quick look at the notable free agents in Dallas for 2022 (grouped by position):

Defense

Randy Gregory, DE
Dorance Armstrong, DE
Carlos Watkins, DL
Brent Urban, DL
Leighton Vander Esch, LB
Keanu Neal, LB
Jayron Kearse, S
Malik Hooker, S
Damontae Kazee, S
Maurice Canady, CB

Offense

Michael Gallup, WR
Cedrick Wilson, WR
Noah Brown, WR
Dalton Schultz, TE
Connor Williams, iOL

Special teams

Bryan Anger, P
Jake McQuaide, LS

Futures deals* (agreed to on Jan. 17)

Isaac Alarcon, OT
Aviante Collins, OT
Braylon Jones, C
Ben DiNucci, QB
Ian Bunting, TE
Robert Foster, WR
Brandon Smith, WR
Jaquan Hardy, RB
Ito Smith, RB
Nick Ralston, FB
Devante Bond, LB
Tyler Coyle, S
Kyron Brown, CB

*futures deals are already set to count against the 90-man offseason roster

You're beginning to see what the Cowboys are up against, and in an offseason that sees them entering nearly $21.28 million over the NFL salary cap -- per Spotrac -- based upon the expected boosted cap figure of $208 million for 2022. That means that along with the inevitability of being unable to keep everyone, they need to decide who is best to throw money at, and they'll of course had the added comfort of knowing they can pull several triggers (e.g., releases, restructures, pay cuts) to help get them where they need to be while still allowing for space to sign 2022 draft picks to the roster. 

They'll likely be priced out easily by the market for Dalton Schultz, but they love the potential of Sean McKeon, even if Blake Jarwin is unable to remain healthy (a point that might need to be resolved with a free agency addition or on Day 2 of the draft). It's a team that went 12-5 and was a couple sneezes away from being the top seed in the NFC, so asking for a complete rebuild of the roster would be asinine. They have all of the pieces they need to be successful, presumably able to become even better and take the next step if they can keep as many of the most important pieces around as they possibly can while sprinkling in remedies where they're most needed (ahem, the offensive line, as one example).

On special teams, not to be ignored, making sure Anger is in uniform next season is paramount after seeing him land an All-Pro nod on a one-year deal that followed years of struggles with a declining Chris Jones at punter. McQuaide was also key in helping Anger succeed, being perfect on his long snaps after an offseason that saw them split with the legendary and literally football-perfect L.P. Ladouceur, much to the shock of everyone (including Ladouceur). Don't shake the boat in the punting game, but grab the placekicker position with both hands and shake it like a Polaroid picture. 

Failing to add competition for Zuerlein in 2022 would be malpractice, period, considering his picture is fading as he enters the second year of his three-year deal. And before you start panicking about trying to keep many of the above who deserve to be kept, remember that not all money is equal. Many can be retained on very reasonable deals, while others have earned the big bag.

Selection reflection

After hopefully getting drunk off of the success of free agency, the plan above playing right into the Cowboys' want of retention versus fishing for outside whales and bass (especially in a year in which they have several whales of their own), it's time to slide the mug down the bar like Sam Malone in an episode of "Cheers" and focus in on the 2022 NFL Draft. This is where McClay absolutely shines, and you have to be excited to see what he might do as an encore for drafts that saw him add CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs, Neville Gallimore, Micah Parsons, etc. to the Cowboys roster. 

One of the biggest hurdles will be to help fix the offensive line, but it's not the only. Finding a complement for Parsons is mandatory, and while there might be one already in the building in Jabril Cox -- a fourth-round steal whose rookie season ended with a torn ACL -- Cox is returning from a major injury. Until he shows he's perfectly fine, you have to pretend he won't be. That way, if he is, you'll have that much more firepower at the linebacker position if you were wise enough to also grab one in this year's draft, and there's no shortage of talent available. 

There's Butkus Award winner and national champion Nakobe Dean and, yes, that might require moving up for a chance at the former UGA supernova, but he's not the only prospect who could tandem with Parsons to do very real damage. With Jaylon Smith having been jettisoned and Leighton Vander Esch having done just enough to garner a prove-it deal in 2022 (at best) but not much more, there's suddenly and again a depth problem at the position. Luke Gifford has shown the potential to make an impact but was mostly relegated to special teams in 2021, and Francis Bernard battled injuries that mostly derailed this past season for him.

With that many what ifs at the second level of the Cowboys defense, McClay will need to crack his knuckles and get to work at repairing it in the draft, and [my] hope is former second-round pick Kelvin Joseph can become a shutdown corner opposite Diggs to allow for a scaling back of Anthony Brown (also, insert Nahshon Wright here). From there, how free agency shakes out will largely determine what else is a glaring need, an example being the expiring deals on Malik Hooker, Damontae Kazee and Jayron Kearse, which puts the Cowboys right back where they don't want to be at the safety position beside Donovan Wilson. 

In the battle to remain atop the division and to take the next step to sit atop the conference and ultimately the entire league next February, free agency and the draft have to work hand-in-hand for the Cowboys, and neither hand can afford to suffer cramps. 

The Cowboys oftentimes do well in the draft, but it's some of their recent misses that have now become a hindrance to their goal (e.g., Biadasz?) and while no team can ever be perfect, Dallas has shown it can come damn close in their draft classes recently. So don't be afraid to admit to a potential mistake in young players at certain positions (akin to doing to same to some veterans in the coaching staff) and find quality replacements, pronto.

D-I-S-C-I-P-L-I-N-E, do you know what that means?

Once it's all pieced together for another run at the Lombardi trophy, the name of the game will be both player execution and, in that, discipline. That isn't a word that is exclusive to the field, because the Cowboys have been known to garner an unexpected suspension or two during the season that has put them in a crunch and cost them games and might again if the issue isn't finally reined in come 2022. Making better decisions off of the field will be paramount to what happens on it, so it's time all involved realize there's a bigger prize at stake and stay out of the crosshairs of league commissioner Roger Goodell.

As far as the discipline between the lines goes, it's past time to find some there as well. The Cowboys were one of the most (and currently the most) penalized teams in the league and, yes, many of those flags were questionable or downright wrong, but control what you can control -- because the bad flags are going to happen no matter what you do. So when the dirty laundry isn't flying, don't compound the issue by creating clean laundry, and do away with the drive-killing holding penalties (on both sides of the ball) and anything else that siphons momentum away from the Cowboys and pours it into the fuel reservoir of the opposition.

The Cowboys were penalized a total of 141 times and lost a combined 1,192 yards because of those flags through their 18 games, drawing a total of 168 total flags (some were declined by opposing teams) through the regular season and the wild card game. They also led the league in penalties at home (78) and away (68) on 2,912 plays.

Bottom line: You can't lift a Lombardi trophy when your hands are busy doing laundry.

The heartbreaking loss to the 49ers was driven largely by a total of 14 penalties against the Cowboys and, again, some were worthy of a head-shake and thrown beer, but not all of them. If you delete one or two legitimate holding calls, for example, we're having a much different conversation this week as the Cowboys prepare for a rematch with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Instead, we're talking about their offseason in January, again, but they now have five ways to make sure the next time we're doing it -- it's not until late February 2023.

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