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We Cannot Escape the Ghost Ship That Is the 2020 Dallas Cowboys

Only the Cowboys can exhibit incompetence on such a grand scale and still be in contention to win their division

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You can’t write the obituary for the 2020 Cowboys yet, and that’s the problem.

They are failing—stacking embarrassments on embarrassments—and in any other season, a team displaying such incompetence could easily be dismissed. Any of the Cowboys’ foibles through the first seven weeks could be laughed off as minor chords in a lost season. Just this week, their owner told a radio host to shut up, and their maligned defensive coordinator stopped a press conference because he got Tabasco in his eye. But you cannot dismiss these Cowboys, not when they are 2-5 but still only a half-game back in the NFC East and easily in position to host a playoff game. They are, like every team in their division, trying to dunk on an 8-foot basket. The two sweetest words in the English language, Homer Simpson once said, are “de-fault.” And that is the motto of the NFC East this year, in which one team, against all sanity and fairness, gets to call their season a success.

Michael Irvin, the avatar for Cowboys exceptionalism, said Dallas might be “the worst team in the National Football League,” and wondered if they could beat the New York Jets. The comparison is not as silly as it sounds. The Jets are winless, but the Cowboys, as currently constructed, look just as incapable of winning a game. The distinction between the two franchises is that the Cowboys have, in theory, much better players and should be more successful. There are other differences, like the fact that the Jets have been to multiple conference championships since the Cowboys last played in one. The Cowboys, however, are a far more competent organization, generally, and that’s the frustrating part. They do make smart decisions and have capably built talented teams that fail to meet expectations, whereas the Jets have no expectations. This year, they are both terrible. Even Irvin knows it. The difference between the Jets and Cowboys in 2020 is that only one of these teams is supposed to be like this.

There are genuine reasons for Dallas not to compete for the Super Bowl this season. In a year interrupted by COVID-19, there were no in-person offseason activities, and there was no real training camp, meaning first-year head coach Mike McCarthy had limited time to implement anything new. Then, of course, there are the injuries: Losing quarterback Dak Prescott for the year is a disaster, but the team looked bad before his injury. (Other Cowboys currently on injured reserve include cornerback Chidobe Awuzie; linebacker Sean Lee; and offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Joe Looney, and La’el Collins.) Again, this team’s bad luck gives them every reason to be noncompetitive this season, but they do not have any excuse to be this bad and appear as though they’ve quit thoroughly and obviously. The defense is abysmal. The offense looks incapable of moving the ball forward.

It’s been about nine days since the NFL Network’s Jane Slater reported that Cowboys players had their own theories for why their season has gone so wrong. One told Slater the coaching staff is “totally unprepared. They don’t teach. They don’t have any sense of adjusting on the fly.” Another told her, “They just aren’t good at their jobs.” It’s worth repeating here we aren’t even halfway into McCarthy’s first full season. There is probably a joke about “America’s Team” living up to their name by not functioning properly, but I’ll leave it be.

The Cowboys face the Eagles on Sunday night in a game that will go a long way in determining the fate of the NFC East. The Eagles, equally banged-up and mistake-prone as the Cowboys, are also struggling, but have shown more competence thus far, and their coach, Doug Pederson, and general manager, Howie Roseman, have both proved their worth in the past five years.

Dallas’s problem, especially in Prescott’s absence, is a mixture of effort and scheme. After a blowout loss to the Washington Football Team last Sunday, NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger broke down an Antonio Gibson run that helpfully identified massive problems at every level of the Cowboys’ defense, before exasperatingly declaring that “it’s not NFL football.”

You get the feeling that Baldinger could have picked any number of plays from the past two weeks and made the same declaration. First-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan looks like a historically bad hire. Blaming any one player, whether it’s linebacker Jaylon Smith, running back Ezekiel Elliott, or anyone else, seems like a waste of time since almost no one is playing well. They can all, one by one, take credit for this season’s failures, like a really bad version of Spartacus. According to Pro Football Focus, Dallas had the lowest percentage of positive offensive plays in the NFL and PFF speculated that at Dallas’s present rate, it might not win another game the rest of the year. If there is any silver lining—any at all—it is that this season would seem to end the debate about Prescott’s value. His price tag increases each time the Cowboys play a game without him in which they look like they just learned about the sport earlier in the afternoon.

How do you solve a problem like the Cowboys? It starts with honesty, something there has been little of in Dallas. I recently stumbled upon a video of Orson Welles talking about his fascination with psychics. He mentioned the phenomena of what is called a “shut eye,” in which a fortune-teller begins to believe their own falsehoods. This, of course, can easily extend to football. It’s easy and generally harmless to lie to the broader public for a short while. For instance, I do not believe that Jets controlling owner Christopher Johnson thinks head coach Adam Gase is “brilliant,” as he branded him a few weeks ago. But I also believe it’s mostly benign to say that so long as Johnson doesn’t believe it himself and keep Gase as coach. The Cowboys, however, believed the lies they told themselves—that this team was ready to compete at a high level this season—and acted accordingly. After firing longtime coach Jason Garrett, they circled Mike McCarthy and Marvin Lewis as coaches who could do what Garrett couldn’t. Never mind the fact that they haven’t played in a conference title game in 24 years. Never mind that they’d made a handful of team-building decisions, like signing Elliott to a lucrative extension last year, that handcuffed their ability to build a roster that could compete with the NFC’s best. McCarthy was a hire for a team with an unrealistic view of itself. Keeping this staff and front-office structure together ensures they won’t get better. For now, the Cowboys are a ghost ship, doomed to float aimlessly toward a handful of wins and relevant only because no other divisional team looks capable of being much better—and it will all happen in prime time.

This week, the team made some big changes, trading Everson Griffen and releasing Dontari Poe, moves made to reverse a series of poor decisions from this offseason.

Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson wrote that this week’s transactions are a way of doubling down on Nolan: “If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is the carnage of a terrible offseason. The team committed to Nolan, then failed to find several fits for his scheme—if we are to believe those actually exist. Now Dallas is doubling down on Nolan and suggesting that he’s here to stay, while simultaneously left to wonder how much more fractious this retooling could get.”

Jerry Jones “the general manager” has failed. On The Ringer NFL Show this week, ESPN’s Mike Tannenbaum said that the inflection point for the franchise was tying up $50 million guaranteed with Elliott’s extension instead of trying to lock down cornerback Byron Jones and help the defense. (Jones signed with the Dolphins this offseason.) Linebacker Jaylon Smith’s contract is so bad that Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer wrote this week that “I know people there have been alarmed how often he’s at the heart of big plays made against the Dallas defense. I believe he’s got a pretty important couple months ahead, and it wouldn’t shock me if he’s gone after the year, regardless of who’s running the defense.”

Again, the Cowboys are not the Jets. The Cowboys draft well and are better at collecting talent than most teams. The Jets could only dream of having so many good players that they pick the wrong ones to sign to long-term extensions. It’s a worrying trend that Dallas has drafted well, acquired good talent like Amari Cooper via trade, and then simply can’t win. The Cowboys are smart enough to acquire these players, but not smart enough to manage the roster to maximize their value. That seems hard to do. When healthy, the Cowboys have elite talent across the offensive line and at quarterback. When (hopefully when) Prescott signs a contract with the team—and it should be for more than $40 million annually—Dallas’s prior mistakes will only look worse. Something is broken within the front office and coaching staff. The 2020 Cowboys are the team Dallas deserves.

About 10 months ago, Garrett set the tone for how weird the Cowboys’ 2020 season would be when he lobbied to remain head coach. Fox’s Jay Glazer said he’d “never seen anything like it.” Garrett sat in meeting after meeting with the Cowboys ownership, wasting time and essentially asking not to be fired. The problem with this scenario is not that there is no episode of The Office to reference, but that there are so many to choose from that no specific one will suffice. Things somehow got weirder from there. McCarthy doesn’t appear to be much of an upgrade, while Garrett is one of the worst offensive coordinators in football this year with the Giants and somehow his stock is slightly rising.

“I’ve got my man,” Jones said this week, in giving McCarthy a vote of confidence. They are off to a historically bad start against the spread and one loss away from becoming the second team in the past 20 years to start a season 0-8 against the spread. I don’t know what’s more frustrating: that they are still in the playoff hunt or that I will watch every game they play.