Cowboys 'Blame Game' Notebook From Inside The Star

Cowboys Season-Ending (And Beginning) Reporter's Notebook From Inside The Star - Lotsa Hot Takes, No Headline Porn, Lotsa 'Blame Game'

Maybe it's TV, which causes us to focus only on what the camera chooses to show us, forcing us into ignorance regarding the thousands of things that happen in a football season, in on game, even on one play.

 

And then your team loses. And then -- with your focus narrow and your anger fueled -- we all play "The Blame Game.''

 

Now that the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots are Super Bowl-bound and the  2016 Dallas Cowboys season is complete and done, with the 2017 season already upon us (because this is a year-'round sport now) .... there is a chronological sort of way to play the 2016 Cowboys Blame Game.

 

It starts in 2013.

 

IT'S ALL ROMO'S FAULT

 

In 2013, the Dallas Cowboys signed Tony Romo to a six-year, $108-million contract.

Image result for garrett romo

 

"Too much'' said many, to which I responded: "It's not too much if he wins. If the Cowboys win, there is no 'too much.'''

And indeed, when the Cowboys went 12-4 in 2014 captained by Romo experiencing one of the greatest QB years in NFL history, nobody complained about his salary.

The critics did, however, eventually return to trying to predict a gloomy cap-related future for a player who was involved in a series of restructures that are commonly ripped as "kicking the can''  moves that sends a franchise careening toward eventual financial suicide.

And now, here we are. We're deep into the contract. The can has been kicked. Romo's  goodbye can at least be envisioned from here -- heck, coach Jason Garrett's press conference was almost literally a "bon voyage'' speech, as I explain here -- as the corner is not so sharp and the shadow is not so undetectable.

So what if?

If Romo is on the team beyond this year he costs you $24.7 million in 2017 and $25.2 million in 2018. That was a perfectly acceptable plan when the deal was done … pre-Dak Prescott. It now seems excessive.

If Romo is a post-June 1 2017 cut,, that drops to $10.7 million of dead money in 2017 and $8.9 million of dead money in 2018. So you will save $30 million (less than the planned $50 mil) over the two years.

If Romo is a "standard'' cut (or retirement) as a pre-June 1 move, all of the bonus rolls up into 2017, so his cap number goes from $24.7 million in 2017 to $19.6 million, with no dead money in 2018.

A trade leaves Dallas is essentially the same financial spot: $19.6 mil of money, one way or another, committed to the cap for two years or less. It's simply not that painful, cap-wise. (The trade issue isn’t about the money; Romo’s new team only pays him $14 mil. The issue is who wants him, what do they trade to get him, and how much of the Cowboys’ take can be conditional.)

Emotionally? That’s a different story, and one for owner Jerry Jones to work through.

Said Jerry after Dallas’ 34-31 playoff ouster on Sunday at the hands of the Packers and Aaron Rodgers: “That’s not for (discussion now). We’ll be talking and addressing those things as we move ahead here over the next weeks and months.’’

But the future is now and the decision is coming. Dak Prescott is costing you just $600,000 annually; Jerry’s Cowboys have made a very smart and affordable transition at the position. Can Dallas renegotiate Tony’s number down? Sure, and Jerry can envision Romo staying even at his present number — in which case you invite into the locker room the QB controversy that never happened this year, but would be impossible to block next season.

Now, is $10 mil of dead money in a year "bad''? Well, it's the same sort of number teams like the Eagles, Giants, Redskins, Patriots, Steelers, Seahawks and Chiefs are dealing with this season. The Falcons are dealing with twice the number. The Saints are dealing with three times that number. (How are the "Cap-Hell Cowboys'' dealing with dead money this year? The figure is less than $1 mil, among the lowest in the NFL.)

To be clear (and again, there are some "grays'' here but some definitive "black-and-whites,'' too): The Cowboys can divorce themselves from Romo, cap-wise, and actually end up SAVING money at the position.

There are hellish things about Tony Romo's NFL window possibly closing sooner than the future Ring-of-Honor cinch might wish. But they aren’t about the financial burdens. They are about the emotional ones.

 

Romo can now engineer his future his way, and his way won't kill the Cowboys. He can retire and go into TV; I bet FOX and CBS have a chair for him as you read this. He can examine a place like Houston, which makes regional sense for his family and football sense for him (though nobody's asked the Texans about the idea of being so QB-heavy cap-wise.)

But in the end -- and this is the end -- Dallas' failure to advance to an NFC Championship Game (which almost happened in both 2014 and 2016) is NOT the fault of Tony Romo ... or his contract.

 

IT'S ALL THE FAULT OF NOT STICKING TO THE RUN

The Cowboys fell behind 21-3 in their final game, and that's being given by some as the reason they didn't "stick with the run'' more, in the form of more than 22 carries for Ezekiel Elliott.

 

But that is the thinking of simpletons. The score was 0-0 when Dallas first decided to not "stick with,'' as on third-and-2 within field-goal range they let Dak throw downfield into coverage for an incompletion/near-interception.

 

The idea that the Cowboys "had to catch up on the scoreboard'' equals a loss of identity here, as our man Matthew Postins writes. This is the first time all season that Dallas took that approach. Remember the first month of the season in San Francisco? Dallas was down 14-0 and yet didn't budge from what it knew would work: Zeke and ball control.

 

Besides, who says a Zeke run -- against a wobbly Packers run D -- can't net you chunk plays?

 

The Cowboys faced a first down on the Packers' 15-yard line with 1:19 left in the first half and threw, threw and threw. All incomplete (though they justifiably argue that tight end Jason Witten was tackled during his route on what might've been a TD.)

 

Dak checked out of a run on second-and-1 at the Packers' 19-yard line in the third ... passed ... and was intercepted, in part because the rest of the team was still planning (and blocking) like it was a run.

 

Even on that final drive, the Green Bay run D was on its heels, tired, quite likely unable to stop whatever Dallas did. And what Dallas did was throw ... Oh, and spike. (Which I'll get to in a moment.)

 

Now listen: Dak is a stud. I think I'm with Cowboys COO Stephen Jones, who said "I think [Dak's] got a chance to be one of the great ones."

 

But Ezekiel Elliott is a stud with a role that comes with almost none of the risks of putting the ball in the air. Zeke has been selected as the NFL Rookie of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America (which also selected Prescott as the quarterback on its All-Rookie Team). Elliott, the fourth overall pick in last April’s draft, ran for 1,631 yards on the ground, caught 32 passes for another 363 yards and scored 16 TDs while winning the NFL rushing title.

"He's one of the great natural competitors I've ever been around," coach Jason Garrett said of Elliott, the Cowboys first PWFA rookie of the year winner since Tony Dorsett in 1977. "He (bleeping) loves it."

 

 

Image result for dak zeke

 

 

This 13-3 can be just the start of things in Dallas.

 

But back to the point: Elliott is the most-equipped guy is this draft class, and really, on this team, to carry the load. That's a fact against a vulnerable Packers run defense, period. This is where the football should go. I don't care if Zeke has 22 carries or 32 carries or 42 carries. There are three spots in that game when he should've had three more carries.

 

IT'S ALL THE FAULT OF THE SPIKE

Prescott, who led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record, was picked in the fourth round and was expected to caddie for Tony Romo. But as noted above, the veteran's injury in August opened the door for  Prescott, who finished with a 67.8 completion percentage, throwing 23 touchdown passes against just four interceptions for a 104.9 passer rating - the highest in NFL history for a rookie QB.

 

Coach Jason Garrett, an expert on the subject, says Dak just experienced the greatest rookie season of any QB in NFL history.

 

But the throw that will haunt him just a little bit this year (even as Garrett urges his guys to take that Zen-like "Eat The Strawberry'' approach)?

 

Image result for dak spike

A throw straight down into the turf.

 

Should Dallas have run a play instead of spiking the ball with 49 seconds remaining? Garrett explained that the objective on that final Cowboys possession was to score a TD, not just settle for a tying field goal.

 

"We like having a timeout in our pocket,'' he added.

 

Garrett projects that running a play there would have taken 10 to 15 seconds off the clock and created a problem for his offense greater than the one caused by wasting a down.

 

"In those situations if you can quiet everything down by saying, 'OK, let's take a breath, we're in great position right now' ... that's what we were trying to do there,'' Garrett said.

 

Yeah, but ...

 

*Does a play really eat up 15 seconds?

 

*Even if it did, wouldn't the Cowboys still have been left with ample time for a field goal?

 

*And along with that, wouldn't the Packers have had less time for Aaron Rodgers to create his buzzer-beating miracle?

 

Owner Jerry Jones, playing a "fan'' role here, admitted to "Tuesday Morning Quarterbacking'' and "second-guessing'' when he said he believes the extra play was more valuable than the time saved.

 

In my conversation with Garrett, he essentially conceded that it's sort of a 51/49 decision.

 

IT'S AARON RODGERS' FAULT

 

Now we're talkin'.

 

The Cowboys are getting Sean Lee to the Pro Bowl and that's cool, but he will appear in that game coming off a playoff debut in which he didn't make a large-enough impact.

 

The Cowboys got three sacks in this game, and that's cool, but man, how awesome would it have been if Jeff Heath's blindside blitz would've resulted in not just a sack but also a strip-sack of the large-handed Aaron Rodgers?

 

Heath had an interception and corralled another one, too, and that's cool, but it was negated by a Dallas penalty and man, it's too bad that Tony Corrente's crew couldn't have been quite so ticky-tacky on some calls that went against the Cowboys and a little more over-officious on non-calls that favored Green Bay.

 

So it's third-and-20 from Green Bay's 32-yard line with 12 seconds left. What does defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli call against Rodgers? Blitz? Maybe, as it's worked so far ... but he might just pick you apart that way. Rush three and protect that first-down marker with eight guys in coverage, making sure no Packer gets behind anybody?

 

That's what Dallas did.

 

Image result for cowboys spike packers

 

And then tight end Jared Cook slipped from one zone to another, Dallas safety Byron Jones passing him on to a cornerback who'd been drawn too deep by another receiver to recover in time to stop Cook from making an exceptional sideline tip-toe catch that was so almost-disputable that I swear one official signed "incomplete'' while another overruled him (probably accurately) to signal "catch.''

 

RefereePlay confirmed the ruling, setting up the Green Bay winning field goal, leaving Dallas playing the Blame Game. Maybe Byron should've stuck with Cook a tick longer. Maybe the cornerback should've been more aware. Maybe Dallas should've blitzed, or at least rushed four. Maybe Dallas' secondary was too "soft-prevent''-minded.

 

"There are always things you can do better on every play, so this idea that we did everything perfectly, that's pretty rare with 11 guys having 11 different responsibilities on any given play,'' Garrett said. "Having said that, there are a lot of plays in that game where you felt like you guarded them well, we had defenders right there and (Rodgers) made a big-time throw and (Cook) made a big-time contested catch. .... Strategic flaws or major blunders in execution don't always lead to defeat. Sometimes, the other team just makes a great play.''

 

And sometimes, the play is so grand that it overshadows, say, Dez Bryant's two-TD monster game, an effort that was supposed to erase #DezCaughtIt from the annuls and now does nothing of the sort.

 

When there are thousands of things that happen in a football season, in on game, even on one play, it's a mistake to finger-point at a single thing. A single contractual decision. A single personnel choice. A single strategic nugget. Even a single throw that ranks as one of the greatest ever.

 

Most of us play "The Blame Game'' because it somehow gives us a place to put our anger. But for the Dallas Cowboys, the only useful function of overanalyzing this era, this season, this loss, goes elsewhere.

The disappointment, Garrett told his team on Monday in an emotion-filled meeting, must "fuel the fire to what we want to accomplish in 2017."


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