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The Cowboys May Have Spent Themselves Into a Bad Situation

After years of getting great offensive production at a low cost, Dallas had to shell out this offseason—and it’s come at the expense of depth and defense

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There are plenty of memories from Jason Garrett’s time with the Cowboys. There was the stretch when Dallas lost a playoff spot to a division rival in the final week of the season three years in a row. Twice. Dallas had a promising season end with a devastating playoff loss to the Packers. Twice. Garrett wasted the prime years of Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and DeMarcus Ware, and when he stumbled onto their replacements with Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and DeMarcus Lawrence, he failed to capitalize on that group’s potential too. But mostly Garrett will be remembered for the clapping, which inspired his nickname and sealed him as the emblem for the Cowboys’ failings, a real-life “this is fine” meme.

When Cowboys owner Jerry Jones finally fired Garrett in January (after a lengthy delay), he replaced him with Mike McCarthy, the coach of those Packers teams that ripped out Dallas’s heart. McCarthy’s first words as Cowboys head coach in his introductory press conference immediately set him apart from his predecessor.

“It is great to be here,” McCarthy said. “I’m having a moment here because I don’t know where the hell to put my hands.”

The move from the Clapper to a coach who doesn’t know what to do with his hands is a perfect metaphor. In truth the Cowboys have tied one of McCarthy’s hands behind his back. Jones and his son Stephen, the pair who runs the team and makes front-office decisions, hired McCarthy to win a Super Bowl. But the Joneses are giving McCarthy many of the same stars Garrett coached while they were on cheap contracts after the Joneses have paid them top dollar. Whereas Garrett oversaw rosters teeming with talent and value, McCarthy is getting less of each and being asked to do more.

Garrett’s Cowboys were characterized by their underachievement and an overabundance of underpaid stars. Quarterback Dak Prescott has started every game for the Cowboys in the past four years, but in that time he has earned less than $5 million total. As the most important player on the world’s most valuable sports franchise, Prescott may have been the most underpaid player in sports in the past decade. Not only was he cheap, but the players surrounding him were, too. From 2011 to 2014, Dallas drafted the core of the league’s best offensive line. Left tackle Tyron Smith, guard Zack Martin, and center Travis Frederick have combined for 18 Pro Bowls. Not only did the Cowboys get their prime years on cheap rookie contracts, but Dallas also signed each of those players to long-term, team-friendly extensions early in their careers. In 2015, Dallas added La’El Collins, a projected first-rounder who went undrafted, adding to their ridiculous depth on the line. The strength of the offensive line helped DeMarco Murray in 2014 (while making $1.4 million) and Ezekiel Elliott each season from 2016 to 2018 (on an average of less than $7 million per year) lead the league in rushing yards per game. In 2018, Dallas traded at midseason for receiver Amari Cooper, who was still on his rookie contract, and he immediately transformed the Cowboys offense. While Garrett was Dallas’s head coach, the team had a half-dozen players with Pro Bowl–level talent on contracts that were paying them far less than they were worth. In 2018, here’s where notable Cowboys ranked by cap hit.

  • Prescott ($726,000) was the 55th-most-expensive quarterback.
  • Elliott ($6.8 million) was the third-most-expensive running back.
  • Cooper, who had most of his cap hit absorbed by the Raiders, cost Dallas just $412,000, making him the 181st-most expensive receiver that season.

Since then, the Joneses have spent heavily to retain their core players. Last week, Cooper agreed to a deal that will pay him $20 million annually, making him the second-most-expensive receiver in the league. That deal came just hours after Dallas tendered Prescott with the franchise tag, which will pay him upward of $30 million for 2020, though he will likely sign a contract that would make him the highest-paid player in league history. That spending spree comes after the team re-signed Elliott in September for $15 million annually, making him the highest-paid running back in football by nearly $2 million per year.

The Cowboys went from three of the biggest bargains to three of the most expensive players in football, and the true cost isn’t money: It’s depth and defense. In 2018, the Cowboys spent 29 percent of their adjusted salary cap on their offense. In 2020, they are on track to spend more than half of their adjusted salary cap on offense. Not only is that spending moving toward one side of the ball, but the top earners are getting more than in the past. In 2020, Dallas is set to use 47.5 percent of its budget on six players. From 2011 to 2019, Dallas never spent more than 39.5 percent of its budget on six players. A team that once was buoyed by its offensive contracts is now weighed down by them.

The natural consequence of that shift is that Dallas has been forced to let a number of key defensive contributors go. Cornerback Byron Jones left in free agency last week for Miami, where he is now the league’s second-highest-paid cornerback. Defensive end Robert Quinn, who led the team in sacks and quarterback hits in 2019, left to flank Khalil Mack in Chicago. Dallas also voided the contract of Michael Bennett and lost defensive lineman Maliek Collins to the Raiders. Dallas has added defensive linemen Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy to balance those losses and added Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to fill its perpetual hole at free safety, but depth is still a key issue for Dallas’s defensive line and secondary. It may also become an issue at linebacker. Leighton Vander Esch finished last season with a neck injury, and details on his recovery are sparse. Stephen Jones said he would have restrictions going into training camp. Relatedly, the Cowboys re-signed linebacker Sean Lee to a one-year, $4.5 million deal last week, but last year marked the first time he ever played 16 games in a season.

Those are new holes, but Dallas is still struggling to fill its old ones. Receiver Randall Cobb left for Houston last week, while Tavon Austin is a free agent, leaving just Michael Gallup, Devin Smith, and a litany of practice squad guys behind Cooper at wide receiver. The team let Jason Witten leave in free agency to the Raiders, but Dallas has struggled mightily to replace the tight end since his initial retirement in 2018. Last week, Dallas re-signed Blake Jarwin for $10.5 million over the next two years even though Jarwin has never had more than 365 receiving yards in a season. Sensing that Jarwin and fourth-rounder Dalton Schultz wouldn’t be enough at the position, the Cowboys also signed tight end Blake Bell, a blocker who had eight catches for 67 yards in 15 games last season for the Chiefs. Dallas is paying top dollar for Prescott and Cooper, but Gallup is the only reliable option on the team for Prescott’s passes when Cooper is covered.

That is assuming that Cooper can regain his 2018 form. He played through foot injuries throughout the 2019 season, and while he finished with a career year statistically, he was not the game-changing force he was in the second half of 2018. It’s essential for McCarthy’s Cowboys that Cooper return at full strength. Dallas also needs more production from a highly paid player on the other side of the ball: DeMarcus Lawrence. Last year, Dallas signed the defensive end to a deal paying him $21 million annually, making him the second-most-expensive edge rusher after Mack. But Lawrence ranked 74th in sacks last season with 5.0, tied with Cowboys castoff Taco Charlton. Lawrence’s 56 quarterback pressures, as measured by PFF, ranked no. 22 among defenders. Lawrence and Cooper are two of the seven non-quarterbacks earning more than $20 million on an average annual basis, and neither played to that level in 2019.

Just as essential is the Cowboys offensive line maintaining its excellence, which will be challenging with longtime center Frederick retiring. When Frederick missed the 2018 season with an autoimmune disorder, the line faltered in both pass blocking (Prescott was sacked 56 times) and run blocking (it was the only season Dallas did not rank in the top quarter of the NFL in PFF’s run-blocking grading since 2012). That dropoff is not just on Frederick—the Cowboys also had an offensive line coaching change in 2018, and some of the sacks were on Prescott—but the only games Frederick missed since 2014 were disastrous for Dallas. Frederick will likely be replaced by reserve linemen Joe Looney, who was serviceable in four games at guard last season but is a serious downgrade from Frederick’s All-Pro-caliber play.

Worse, the rest of Dallas’s line is beginning to show cracks. Left tackle Tyron Smith is still a stalwart, but he missed three games last season for the fourth year in a row, and there is no good reserve option to replace him when he misses time. Left guard Connor Williams has not lived up to lofty expectations and ended the season on injured reserve with a torn ACL. Martin is still among the game’s best, and right tackle La’El Collins is getting there. This unit is great albeit no longer dominant when healthy, and it’s not always healthy.

McCarthy must wrangle all of these parts into a better team in 2020, and that will be a challenge. Dallas went 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs, but its offense was statistically elite. The Cowboys led the league in yards per play (6.5) and yards per game (431.5), ranked sixth in points per game (27), and ranked second in offensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, one spot behind the Ravens and one spot ahead of the Chiefs. Maintaining that level of production—never mind improving upon it—will be difficult. The biggest advantage McCarthy can bring is in improving what the numbers don’t show: Dallas’s offense disappeared when the team needed it most. Every Cowboys loss last year came down to their offense not getting it done in the fourth quarter (like their loss to the Vikings on Sunday Night Football), not showing up until the fourth (like their losses to the Packers, Jets, and Bears), or not showing up at all (like their losses to the Saints, Patriots, Bills, and Eagles). McCarthy can bring better in-game decisions, an attention to detail to special teams, and less predictable play-calling. Assuming McCarthy can make those changes—not a given considering his Packers tenure—it will take time, and the new coach doesn’t have much of that. It’s unlikely McCarthy or his coaching staff will get any offseason activities or practices with the Cowboys players until at least training camp due to the coronavirus pandemic, so installing his playbook or instilling the details he desires will be difficult. McCarthy needs to figure out how to do more with less, or there will be even less clapping in Dallas.