ARLINGTON, Texas — The ringleader and quarterback of an again-disappointing Dallas Cowboys team made $75 million this year. His backfield partner, with whom he shared a remarkable rookie season five years ago, made $9.6 million as a relatively small chunk of the second-largest running back contract in NFL history.
Yet Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have pulled off highway robbery and crushed the NFL’s largest fan base once more in the process. Prescott completed just 53% of his passes, and Elliott rushed for 31 yards on 12 carries in a 23-17 first-round loss to the 49ers Sunday.
For many Cowboys fans, this is all they’ve ever known, given the team has won only three playoff games in the last 25 years, dating back to the tail end of Troy Aikman’s dynasty that made Dallas the brand it remains today.
Perhaps counterintuitively, owner Jerry Jones’ decision to spend big at two of the highest-usage positions in football has backfired. But if you follow the money, and if you’ve been paying attention, you shouldn’t be surprised.
Of the last 10 Super Bowl winners, the highest-paid running back was Percy Harvin with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013. He made $2.3 million. Expensive running backs don’t translate to championships. But Elliott’s six-year, $90 million deal will pay him $16.6 million in his age-31 season, outrageous for a running back. What’s worse is that Elliott already averages fewer yards per carry than his second string, Tony Pollard.
Tom Brady’s 12.4% cap hit in 2019 is the highest for a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in the last 10 years. Expensive quarterbacks don’t guarantee championships, either. Prescott’s cap hit this year was 14.4%, and it will only increase next season. Furthermore, he doesn’t play at a level that justifies the amount he’s being paid.
These two players prevent the Cowboys from filling out the rest of their roster, namely in the defensive secondary.
Dallas is also already over the salary cap for next season, and several key players including tight end Dalton Schultz, receiver Michael Gallup and defensive end Randy Gregory are now free agents.
But mismanagement of the salary cap isn’t the only problem.
Let’s start with culture. Home-field advantage in Arlington, Texas isn’t even close to home-field advantage in a place like Green Bay, Wisc.
The Cowboys’ “white-out” game yesterday was disrupted by just as many red shirts at AT&T Stadium. The crowd was quiet on San Francisco’s opening drive. Whether it’s apathy, boredom or a fan base that chooses pessimism so it doesn’t hurt so bad when they’re let down each year, Cowboys fans don’t create an environment that’s tough to play in.
The fans are just a reflection of the culture of the organization itself. The Cowboys came out flat yesterday. You could see it from the pregame shot of the team preparing in the tunnel. Nervous. Detached. Anything but “fired up” or “inspired.” A neutral zone infraction on the first play of the game. A team that looked like 10-point underdogs rather than 3.5-point favorites.
Now this brings us to head coach Mike McCarthy, who is anything but inspiring or motivating. He’s anything but creative. He’s anything but an elite football coach in today’s NFL.
Yes, he won a ring in 2010, and yes, he coached the Packers to eight 10-win seasons. But that was with Aaron Rodgers, and Prescott is far from the quarterback Rodgers is.
The Cowboys are blatantly a poorly-coached team. Fourteen penalties yesterday tied the NFL record for the most in a playoff game. Seven of them were pre-snap penalties, and many of them proved costly, either ending offensive drives or extending San Francisco’s.
Luckily, a bad coaching hire can be fixed a lot more easily than a bad running back contract. Here’s the thing: both of Dallas’ coordinators are interviewing for head coaching jobs. You’re probably going to lose at least one of them. But you don’t have to lose both of them.
It would be better to promote Kellen Moore or Dan Quinn to the head coaching position and let McCarthy go than it would be to keep McCarthy and lose the two brightest parts of the coaching staff. Alternatively, the Cowboys could pursue an outside hire like Brian Flores and try their best to keep the coordinators. Either way, you can’t let McCarthy take the place of Moore or Quinn if it comes to that.
This team is far too talented to go out the way it did on Sunday. The penalties. The five sacks given up. The inability to stop the run or establish any ground game of their own. 17 points by the highest-scoring offense in the league.
Give this roster to a coach like Flores or Sean Payton, and the Cowboys become Super Bowl favorites. Yes, Dallas has some limitations in the defensive secondary and at the quarterback position, but they still have an elite offensive line, perhaps the best receiving group in the league and some real playmakers on defense.
There’s no shortage of talent here, but Dallas still can’t put it together, and the window isn’t going to be open forever. Elliott is slower and less explosive every season, the offensive line is aging and struggles to stay healthy and sooner or later, the Cowboys have to pay some of their young talent like Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs, who are on rookie deals.
It feels like this group has hit its ceiling already, but the Cowboys have to take one more shot. They’ve done an excellent job of drafting in recent years and have one of the deepest rosters in the NFL. Blow up the coaching staff and reinvent the culture of the organization. It’s imperative to go all-in on a Super Bowl run as soon as possible. The talent won’t be around forever.