Former Cowboys head coach Dave Campo took time to talk with CowboysHQ about the direction of the team in 2016 and how they play less 4-12-like and more 12-4.
Campo was the main man on the Dallas sidelines from 2000-02, guiding the Cowboys to three consecutive 5-11 records. It was the last time a Cowboys head coach led the team to three-straight seasons of the same record until Jason Garrett did it from 2011-13 with 8-8 records.
"There's no questions: if it had been the old Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett would have probably gotten fired already after three 8-8's," Campo said. "But it's not the same. Jerry has learned that continuity is important."
2016 is what Campo calls "a critical year" for the Cowboys. Coming off a season with a twice-broken left collarbone, Tony Romo enters his 10th full season at starting quarterback, the likes of which hasn't been seen by America's Team since the days of Troy Aikman. But it isn't just Romo that is coming back. From Eight of the 11 starters from 2015 will be the same heading into this season, which is also the same number from 2014, the last time Dallas won the division.
Said Campo: "This is where, in my opinion, the continuity shows because last year was an aberration and now you got the same group. You've got the same philosophy and all those things. And if it continuity means anything, it should mean that this year is the one as long as everyone is healthy."
Romo, the channel through which all of the Cowboys offense flows, missed 12 games to injury as Dallas floundered to last in the division, a finish they had not earned since 2010, the year Garrett filled in as interim head coach for a fired Wade Phillips. Not only was Romo sidelined, but so too was star wideout Dez Bryant for seven games with an assortment of injuries, notably a broken right foot. And with bell-cow running back DeMarco Murray carrying the ball for rival Philadelphia, the Dallas offense couldn't get started like a cold engine on a frigid winter morning.
The Cowboys could have kept Murray, but the oft-injured player was looking for a five-year, $42 million contract that only someone like Chip Kelly the GM would give to the 26-year-old who carried the ball 392 times in 2014. It came down to a choice between rewarding loyalty or adhering to the statistics which dictate 7/8 of the backs in NFL history who carried the ball 392-plus in a season failed to break the 1,000-mark within two years afterwards.
"That's not an easy decision," Campo stated. "That was one of the things that has changed with this administration. Because in the old days, they wouldn't have even looked at that. They wouldn't have. Maybe that would have hurt them, but in all honesty, they kept older players because they liked them. It's a catch-22. Do you let a guy go because of the analytics of it, or do you go with the loyalty and the continuity? That's a difficult deal."
Back at the start of the century, Campo had a roster chock full of players Owner, President, and General Manager Jerry Jones re-signed based off of past production. The 2000 Cowboys had eight players over the age of 30, including Aikman and Hall-of-Fame running back Emmitt Smith. Even in the late 2000's, the Cowboys were giving new contracts to players such as running back Marion Barber and safety Ken Hamlin, players who helped Dallas secure home field advantage throughout the 2007 playoffs but did not to live up to their contracts thereafter. Starting with the 2014 off-season when the Cowboys released defensive end DeMarcus Ware after failing to reach an agreement on a pay cut and then allowed Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jason Hatcher to go to Washington did the front office finally signal they were not going to pay for past production.
That doesn't mean the Cowboys eschew giving veteran players extensions these days. In fact, Orlando Scandrick signed a one-year extension worth $9.5 million heading into his eighth year with the club in 2015. Unfortunately, Scandrick blew out his ACL in training camp and spent all season rehabbing. The former Boise State product, who Campo coached when he returned as secondary coach from 2008-11, was one of the key ventricles missing from the Cowboys heart in 2015.
"I said many times," said Campo, who also co-hosts a Cowboys postgame show on Dallas-area TXA 21 after every game during the season, "one of the guys that made a tremendous difference in them not being able to hold serve during the time when they had the backup quarterbacks in there was Orlando Scandrick. They couldn't, with him not there, that was a tremendous loss for them because he's one of their best players.
"And not all the guys that go in there can play that nickel position. That's a huge position. And I think having him back is a big, big plus because he can play and can play inside. So, I think that is a big plus for them going forward."
The former Super Bowl-winning assistant coach with the Cowboys from 1989-99 also likes second-year defensive back Byron Jones, who the coaching staff will be moving to safety full-time in 2016.
"I like him. I liked him when he came out. The one thing that I said at that time was they got a solid player. That's what he is. He's not a great player, but he's a guy that's versatile. He can do a lot of things. And you need some of those types of guys. And hopefully they're going to get into the position where he really should be and that's safety. And that's one of the things that hurt them as well last year was they didn't have that."
The plan is to move Jones to free safety and continue to have seven-year veteran Barry Church anchor the strong safety spot with reserves J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath rotating as needed. According to Campo, Dallas needs someone like Jones who can cover played one of the safety spots rather than a hitter like Wilcox.
When the Cowboys and Campo parted ways in the 2012 off-season, Dallas also brought in two new corners in veteran Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne. Four years later, Campo sees Carr as a veteran presence for the Dallas locker room. With Claiborne, he is still waiting to see "something" from the former sixth overall pick and the first defensive player taken in the '12 draft.
Said Campo: "I'm just waiting for him to do something. Because coming out, he had all the tools. And whether it's injury or whatever the situation is, he needs to do something because he has talent... But hopefully with a young player like Claiborne hopefully he can beat the injury bug because he definitely has talent."
Campo obviously thinks this Cowboys team has talent across the board, too. ... "This-could-be-the-year'' type of talent.