NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
IRVING, Texas -- Wade Phillips has the second-best winning percentage of any coach in Dallas Cowboys' history. Better than Tom Landry's. I think Phillips might know that.
On Thursday, Phillips tweeted this:
And later followed up with this addendum:
My surprise was that Jason and I had coached the same number of games. Not the record - time passes quickly -I wish Jason & Cowboys well— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) March 7, 2014
Like most things with Phillips, he lacked context.
When Phillips took over in 2007 as head coach, he inherited a team from Bill Parcells that was ready to win. QB Tony Romo was going into his first year as a full-time starter. The defense had DE DeMarcus Ware at his best. WR Terrell Owens was putting up big numbers.
The Cowboys went 13-3 and had the best record in the NFC. Phillips was the perfect antidote to Parcells and the players responded. Well, they did to a point. The Cowboys were not the same after beating the Green Bay Packers to move to 11-1 and effectively clinch home-field advantage.
They got lucky to beat the Detroit Lions the following week. They lost two of their last three games, but they were in shutdown mode against the Washington Redskins with nothing to gain from a win.
Other than momentum they had lost.
The Cowboys lost to the New York Giants in the divisional round at Texas Stadium, and the Giants went on to win the Super Bowl.
That's basically when the Romo narrative started. Maybe you heard that Romo went to Cabo during the wild-card weekend. Did it affect the outcome of the Giants' game? Of course not, but the perception machine was rolling, and has been rolling ever since.
In 2008, the Cowboys acted as if they were predestined to not only make the playoffs but win the Super Bowl. Go back and watch the "Hard Knocks" episodes, and you see a team full of itself. They finished 9-7, missed the playoffs and were a mess late in the season.
Phillips could not pull it all together and looked inept as he attempted to deal with the fallout from the Adam "Pacman" Jones' incident. Phillips earned a reprieve in 2009 when Dallas posted an 11-5 record, won the NFC East title, and recorded a playoff win -- but that was the high point.
The Cowboys went 1-7 to start the 2010 season, including an embarrassing home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and a gutless loss to the Packers (45-7) the following week. After that game, Jerry Jones made the switch to Garrett, and the Cowboys are 29-27 since and have not made the playoffs.
Garrett did not inherit a team ready to win the way Phillips did in 2007. By the time Garrett took over, the Cowboys were growing old on the offensive line, and there were too many people (especially those in offices at Valley Ranch) who believed they had the best talent in the league.
The head coach of the Cowboys has tremendous sway with Jones. The Cowboys did not take Randy Moss in 1998 at least in part because then-coach Chan Gailey didn't want Moss.
On that premise, the 2008 draft -- with Dallas' two first-round picks -- was a mess because the Cowboys didn't even attempt to re-sign those first-rounders (Felix Jones and Mike Jenkins) when their contracts expired. The 2009 draft was a colossal failure in part because Jones was convinced that it could be a "special-teams draft," which is as ludicrous as the "draft for backups" the team had when Barry Switzer was the coach in 1995.
This is not in defense of Garrett. He has made plenty of mistakes on the field and in the draft.
Phillips has had a tremendous career in the NFL that has spanned decades. He is a terrific coordinator, but is he in the same conversation as guys like Dick LeBeau, or even Monte Kiffin? I'm not sure a Phillips defense scared offenses the way LeBeau's defenses in Pittsburgh and Kiffin's defenses in Tampa Bay did. Phillips was a good head coach but could not get his teams in Denver, Buffalo or Dallas past a certain point.
Phillips knows his resume inside and out. He can cite team stats and all the Hall of Famers he has coached.
He can claim his tweet was more about the number of games he and Garrett have coached, but it looked more like a passive-aggressive shot at the guy who replaced him, and a way for him to remind everybody of his record.
By the way, his winning percentage is .607. Landry had a .605 winning percentage.
Phillips has spoken to the people through Twitter with these comments:
Then we have this:
My surprise was that Jason and I had coached the same number of games. Not the record - time passes quickly -I wish Jason & Cowboys well— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) March 7, 2014
Cowboys reg season gms coached- Galley-32 Campo-48 Phillips-56 Garrett-56 Parcells-64 Switzer-64 Johnson-80 Landry-418— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) March 7, 2014
Recently, Phillips said his age, 66, was holding him back from another head coaching job. Phillips is a good coach who achieved some success with the Cowboys in his four seasons. He was the perfect hire for the Cowboys after four hard years with Bill Parcells’ demanding ways.
Parcells, a Hall of Famer with two Super Bowl rings, has a style that grinds on players.
Phillips is more of grandfatherly type of coach whose style is the opposite.
Garrett probably needs to grind on the players more, and while there is a healthy respect level for the man, his philosophy is not leading to positive results: meaning playoff appearances.
It was just interesting to see Phillips come out of nowhere to discuss his record with the Cowboys. I remember Jerry Jones saying a few years ago that Phillips never had a honeymoon as the head coach with the Cowboys.
Phillips' reign was always questioned about whether he had command of the team and if the respect was there.
If you look at core group of players, Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin, the most success they obtained was under Phillips.
There was the 2009 playoff win, the two division titles with a No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC in 2007, all under Phillips.
Yet, we had the Pacman Jones suspension, the 44-6 loss at Philadelphia, Terrell Owens’ antics and finally the 1-7 start to the 2010 season, which led to Phillips’ firing.
Maybe Phillips is just being passive aggressive with his Twitter thoughts about what he thinks of Garrett. The current coach of the Cowboys is entering the final year of his contract and there’s no guarantee he’ll receive an extension. (Phillips, by the way, received one extension from Jones).
Maybe Phillips is trying to remind everyone that his time in Dallas brought better results than Garrett’s. At least Phillips got to the postseason.
And in some ways Jones is mindful of this and probably can’t give Garrett the contract extension he wants until he can break the Cowboys cycle of 8-8 seasons.
If Garrett can’t do that, the tenure of the son of the late Bum Phillips will always have been a more successful period in Cowboys history.
Key free agents: Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer, Brian Waters, Danny McCray, Ernie Sims, Jarius Wynn
Where they stand: After finishing with the worst-ranked defense in the NFL in 2013, the Cowboys need help everywhere, but mostly on the defensive line. The need could be even greater if the Cowboys are unable to come up with a new deal for DeMarcus Ware, who is set to make $12.25 million in 2014 and count $16.003 million against the cap. Coming off an 11-sack season, Hatcher is likely to command more money from another team that will make it unlikely for the Cowboys to match, but they will not close the door on keeping him. Spencer is rehabbing from knee surgery and could be had on a short-term deal that will not involve a lot of money. The rest of their free agents are more fill-in types who will be allowed to test the market if not allowed to leave altogether.
What to expect: Not much. Last year the Cowboys added safety Will Allen and linebacker Justin Durant in free agency on short-term, low-money deals. The approach will be more that way than setting the market on a player as they did in 2012 for cornerback Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million). Executive vice president Stephen Jones said the Cowboys can be "efficient" spenders in free agency. The Cowboys will have to create space under the cap to sign players to modest deals. The best bet is for them to look for low-cost help on players on the line looking to rebound from down years or injuries. They also could look at safety, though Jerry Jones said at the NFL scouting combine that they liked their young safeties such as J.J. Wilcox. Whatever money the Cowboys do have is more likely to be set aside for Tyron Smith and/or Dez Bryant.
The biggest name to watch from the pro day was cornerback Jason Verrett, a potential late first-round or second-round pick.
The Cowboys have an interest in bringing Verrett in for a private workout, but will be cautious because of his health. Verrett will need surgery to repair a torn labrum.
"[The doctors] feel like it’s gonna be a very short process," TCU coach Gary Patterson told TCU 360. "Everybody that’s done it has been able to be back before camp. On the high road, I think that’s what he’s anticipating. That he’ll be back before camp."
Verrett, the co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, missed just one game last season because of the injury.
As for the workout, Verrett did 19 reps of 225 pounds, impressive considering he needs surgery. Verrett didn't run the 40, however he posted a 4.38 40 at the combine. Verrett had a 39.5 vertical jump at the pro day.
Quarterback Casey Pachall, safety Elisha Olabode, tackle James Dunbar, guard John Woolridge, cornerback Keivon Gamble, running back Waymon James and center Eric Tausch participated in the pro day as well.
Basically, Polian, who is among Jerry Jones' circle of trust outside Valley Ranch, subscribes to the theory that a free agent can be a useful tool if you spend wisely, but the economic risk almost always outweighs the on-field production.
Let's highlight a couple of Polian's positions from the Insider story.
2. Don't sign a player and change his techniques.Cowboys' take: Dallas invested heavily in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne in free agency and the draft in 2012 and moved away from their supposed strengths -- man coverage -- to play mostly zone when they switched to Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme. The Cowboys need to find a way to blend their coverages more to play to the strengths of Carr and Claiborne.
It is hard enough for players to adapt to a new team. For example, don't take a Tampa 2, 3-technique and expect him to become a Parcells/Belichick 3-4 DE. Those are totally different techniques, and players who have to make that type of adjustment don't make the transition well. Adapting and then trying to learn a new role on top of that adds complications that can ruin your investment. You could have a relatively brief window of return, so retraining shouldn't be a big part of it.
7. Don't pay a player above his grade.Cowboys' take: Let's stick with Carr again. The Cowboys overpaid for him (five years, $50 million) but that was the market for free-agent corners. The St. Louis Rams paid Cortland Finnegan the same amount and will cut him once the league year starts. At the time of the signing, the Cowboys were not criticized for signing Carr, who has not missed a game in his career and was young. But they have yet to see the on-field production for their off-field pay out.
Don't give A-money (or years) to a B-player, and so on down the line. As discussed at the start of this article, the free-agent market as a whole is almost always a losing investment. Just because another team is willing to give a player a certain contract doesn't mean he's worth that price to your team. There is no universal price for a player because every player has a different value to each team. You need to trust your internal valuations and proceed off those figures, not the market.
11. Do beware of players whose production dramatically increases in their contract year.Cowboys' take: It's not that Jason Hatcher was lousy, but he never produced more than 4.5 sacks in a season before 2013. Polian also has a 'don't pay age' axiom, which could affect Hatcher, who turns 32 in July, but could teams be worried about his 11-sack spike in a contract year?
If a player is lousy for three years and then spikes in Year 4 and becomes a world-beater, be careful. You're more likely to get the production from those first three seasons, but you'll be paying for the results of the fourth. It's not a knock on the effort of the first three years, it's a trust in the bigger sample size.
Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan is McShay’s pick in part because he had the Chicago Bears take Pitt’s Aaron Donald with the No. 14 pick, which would be crushing to some Cowboys fans who believe Donald would be the perfect guy for Rod Marinelli.
The question I would have is whether the Cowboys see Jernigan as a three technique or more of a one technique. If they think he is more of a nose tackle, then I think the Cowboys would pass on Jernigan at No. 16. If they think he can get to the passer, then they would be OK.
I can’t tell you what the Cowboys really think at this point because they don’t even know. They are in the beginning stages of the draft process.
To a degree this is the Sharrif Floyd argument from a year ago where the coaches did not feel Floyd had the pass rush they wanted to make him a first-round pick.
A one technique is a run stopper and a two-down player. For a first-round pick, he better not have to come off the field in passing situations.
In McShay’s first two mocks he had the Cowboys taking Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt (Dec. 18) and Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Feb. 6).
"I think I made the best decision for my situation, I really do," Maclin said.
What does Maclin have to do with the Dallas Cowboys? It got me to thinking about Anthony Spencer.
Spencer played 34 snaps in 2013 before undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee. Like Maclin, he was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the Cowboys placed the franchise tag on him in 2012 and ’13, paying him roughly $19 million. The knee injury ruined Spencer’s ability to find a long-term deal.
So would it be in Spencer’s best interest to return to the Cowboys on a one-year deal for a third straight season, albeit at much lower price?
His agent, Jordan Woy, said Spencer should be ready to go in training camp or the preseason games. It would seem to make sense for Spencer to remain with the Cowboys since their athletic training staff knows him best and knows where he is exactly in his rehab. The coaches know him best as well and would know when he would need rest to make it through a season after such a tricky surgery.
Maclin is 26 and returning to form after an ACL tear nowadays is much more commonplace. Spencer turned 30 in January and microfracture surgeries do not guarantee success, although the Cowboys have worked a few players back into the mix from it in the past.
As with everything, it will come down to opportunity and price. Spencer might find it better to go to a 3-4 team to play outside linebacker instead of defensive end in a 4-3 to bet on himself on a one-year deal and the Cowboys might want to get younger.
But a one-year deal would make sense for the Cowboys to have some cushion along the defensive line and make sense for Spencer in hopes to find a better deal in 2015.
If the Cowboys stick with the same simple restructure process of Romo in 2015 and convert $16 million of Romo’s $17 million base salary, then they would add another $3.2 million in signing bonus proration per year in 2015-19.
Executive vice president Stephen Jones said it is a challenge to manage the cap with a quarterback with cap figures that are greater than $20 million. That’s putting it kindly.
Let’s say the 2015 cap goes up 10 percent to $146 million, which is possible but perhaps too high of a projection at this date. Romo’s cap number would chew up almost 19% of the cap. That’s a good percentage of the cap on one player, especially with the Cowboys needing to take care of Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith.
A few years ago Jones said the Cowboys would need DeMarcus Ware to play at least one season at a high cap number, but they continually restructured his contract and now the team finds itself unwilling to have their all-time leader in sacks count $16.003 million this year.
In a perfect world, the Cowboys would need Romo to play at least one year of this deal at a high cap number. Is it impossible? No, but it would limit what the Cowboys can do.
And if the Cowboys find themselves in a position where they want to part ways with Romo, they almost would have to do designate him as a post-June 1 cap casualty in 2015-18, which would spread out the accelerated signing bonus over two years.
To the Cowboys, this is simply the price of doing business in the NFL with an elite quarterback and that’s why winning now (a two-, three-year window) is so important.
The Dallas Cowboys have a chance to start over.
It’s not an ideal situation, but in the big picture, this is the perfect time.
The Cowboys are talking with Pat Dye, the agent for defensive end DeMarcus Ware, about a reduction in salary.
His health betrayed him and he finished with just six sacks in the 2013 season. You could say health was the reason for his declining play or that he’s just getting old.
The reality is Ware is still a good player, not a player worth taking $16 million of your salary cap, but maybe half that.
The Cowboys have basically told him to take a pay cut or find another team.
I don’t believe they should keep him though because although Ware is still a productive player, if the team is trying to forge ahead and stop the mediocrity of the franchise, then letting him go is the best thing possible.
If Ware is off the books, it saves $7.4 million.
On June 1, you get another $5.5 million in savings when your rid yourself of Miles Austin’s contract.
That’s close to $13 million in savings from two veteran players who are battling health issues as they move to the backstage of their careers. Sure some other NFL team will sign them, that’s life in the NFL.
The Cowboys need to get younger, like yesterday. If Jason Garrett wants a contract extension he should tell Jerry Jones, let’s get younger.
It’s time to end the way the franchise has kept players around for too long and move toward the future. It’s time for the Cowboys to draft the best players on their board and clean up the communication mess of the last few years in the war room.
In an interview with Michigan Live, Carr called his 2013 season a learning process.
"Individually, this season was a learning process for me," Carr said last week after visiting his high school, Carman-Ainsworth, in Flint, Mich. "I came to Dallas with high expectations, with a chip on my shoulder and a lot of things that I wanted to accomplish as well. ... I'm still in the process of doing that but being assigned each team's No. 1 option each and every week with little to no help."
The Cowboys expect more from Carr after signing him to a five-year, $50.1 million contract two seasons ago. In two seasons Carr has 24 pass breakups, but in the previous two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, Carr had 40 pass breakups and appeared to be more of a playmaker.
"It's fine, because that's the type of games that you want when you grow up," Carr said. "But it was good because I learned a lot about myself."
Carr expressed surprise at the amount of media attention devoted to the Cowboys in the interview with Michigan Live.
"There's always a rhyme and reason to all the chaotic things that go on inside Valley Ranch," Carr said. "The atmosphere and stadium that we play in is crazy. That stadium is Jerry Jones' baby."
He said drafting a corner “could be stacking it up,” too much with Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne. He said tight end would not be a position of need with Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar. He said “not necessarily” wide receiver, either. The Cowboys like DeMarco Murray a lot, but “that doesn’t mean we won’t bring in another potentially very competitive running back in at all.” He said a strongside linebacker would not be much of a need because of its lack of importance in the 4-3. He mentioned liking what they have at safety but would not rule out a draft pick.
What does it all mean in early March? Not much.
The question was about drafting solely defensive players considering how much help the Cowboys need on that side of the ball.
“We’ve got to be careful foregoing a really top offensive lineman,” Jones said. “I’d head scratch about that, all things equal, same quality.”
The follow-up question was specifically about defensive line help.
“It’s certainly where we were almost bankrupt last year in terms of what we had personnel wise,” Jones said. “As you’ve noted and I’ve mentioned, I thought that was our strength going into the season. And by the way, I was up here talking to Monte Kiffin earlier and Monte was talking about how [Anthony] Spencer, how we were doing with [Jay] Ratliff not out there, but how well we were playing at Oxnard in that defensive front. That was without Tyrone Crawford, who got hurt the first day. Still we were creating some havoc out there and we, of course, really lost that. But that is certainly an area of need. I’m not being evasive, but don’t discount a good offensive lineman that is high on your board.”
That was twice Jones mentioned an offensive lineman. The Cowboys have hit on their past two first-round picks on the offensive line in Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick after not previously drafting one in the first round in the Jones era.
Just something to note.
Some of it is front-office based, but that situation will not change. This is Jerry Jones’ team and he will run it the way he wants to run it.
Where the Cowboys have to improve, clearly, is on defense. The obvious need is defensive tackle -- for right now. If DeMarcus Ware is no longer on this team -- and Jones did not guarantee the franchise’s all-time leading sacker a spot -- then pass-rushing defensive end moves to the top of the chart. Rod Marinelli’s defense works only if the front four gets pressure. Without Ware and Jason Hatcher, who had 11 sacks in 2013 and is a free agent to be, the Cowboys’ best defensive lineman is George Selvie. Think about that for a moment.
The Cowboys can say they won’t draft for need, but the need will be too great to avoid. And it’s not just the draft. They would have to find a player or three in free agency.
Ware had a down year in 2013 with six sacks. That’s still more than Anthony Spencer had in five of his six seasons (I won’t include 2013 since he played only 34 snaps) and seven of Hatcher’s eight seasons.
The Cowboys need to be careful with what they are doing with Ware.
Twelve players suffered strains of varying levels and missed either game or practice time in 2013: Miles Austin, Morris Claiborne, Sean Lee, Justin Durant, Dwayne Harris, Bruce Carter, Danny McCray, Barry Church, Dez Bryant, Lance Dunbar, Gavin Escobar and Terrance Williams.
The shortened offseason conditioning program could play a factor in the increase in injuries, but it has not affected every team. The Cowboys have studied other teams’ approaches and injury numbers to come up with a solution.
Coach Jason Garrett said one possibility is cutting back on the time spent on the field, especially early in the offseason.
“It is valuable to do the football stuff. We don’t feel like there’s a lot of football stuff right now,” Garrett said. “We want to be careful about how much we take away from that. But there’s a couple weeks prior to all that stuff starting. We’ve talked about tweaking the daily schedule and what we’re doing those first couple weeks as we start to lay the foundation for the offseason.”
While many players train on their own before the official offseason program starts in April, there is only a two-week period of training before players get on the field for teaching sessions.
“[Strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik] I know is certainly not happy with it,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “[Athletic trainers] Jim Maurer and Britt Brown0 are not happy. I know Jason’s not happy with it and I damn sure know Jerry [Jones] and I are not happy with it. So we’re looking at ways to try to work on that.”
One way might be doing less instead of more.
Since Jones is assuming, let's go with the assumption that Orton won’t play in 2014. That leaves the Cowboys with a pretty big hole behind Tony Romo, who is coming off a second back surgery in eight months.
With head coach Jason Garrett at the controls of the team's offense since 2007 (initially as offensive coordinator), the Cowboys have invested in their backups to Romo: Brad Johnson, Jon Kitna and Orton have filled the role. Dallas values the backup quarterback position more than other teams in the NFL.
Jones has said that the Cowboys will not look at a quarterback early in the draft, so that rules out the top-shelf prospects. They interviewed Jimmy Garoppolo and David Fales (among others) at the combine, so there’s at least some interest in those two.
But could the Cowboys trust their backup job to a rookie or inexperienced player? History says no.
So who could be available when free agency begins? Options include Matt Cassel, Shaun Hill, Brady Quinn, Charlie Whitehurst, Derek Anderson and David Garrard. Do they do anything for you?
They have started games in the NFL, which is a plus. Some of them have won at different times, if not for long stretches.
One thing to consider: Cassel and Anderson are represented by David Dunn, who also is the agent for Garrett and passing game coordinator Scott Linehan. One more thing to consider: Hill played for Linehan with the Detroit Lions.
Linehan will be bringing in new terminology to the offense. It would make sense to look at a guy like Hill to help with the process because of his experience. Hill is 34, but he has thrown just 12 passes in the past three years behind Matthew Stafford. Hill's career stats include a 13-13 record, 41 touchdown passes and 23 interceptions.
Stories go on and on and sometimes never reach an end. Statements are made to a point, but sometimes there is no conclusion. Proclamations are made that completely counter proclamations made minutes earlier.
It sometimes sounds as if the general manager is talking out loud to the owner as he answers questions.
Listening to Jones on his bus at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, it was as if GM Jerry sat on one shoulder and Owner Jerry sat on the other. You have the feeling that whoever has the last speech wins.
As is their custom, the Cowboys coaches and scouts have dinner at St. Elmo Steak House in downtown Indianapolis, eating the spicy shrimp cocktail and expensive filets while sipping on the even more expensive Caymus Select wine.
The dinner lasts hours before eventually they leave in drips and drabs.
Jones recounted one discussion he had with his coaches.
"They were telling me about how guys with some experience, they just get it quicker," Jones said. "You don't need to make it complicated. They said how important it is to have free agents on your team. They just come in, and they know what to do where these rookies don't. Well, I'm talking to coaches when I'm listening to that. They want guys that immediately come in and do a better job but yet won't be probably by the end of the year."
That is the answer of a perfectly sound general manager. The GM has to always keep the future in mind. It is never about one season because a team is never one player away. The GM has to know that a draft is never just for the current season but for two, three, maybe four years down the road.
But during the course of the two-hour discussion with local media, Owner Jerry took over for a little bit.
"We need to try everything we got to compete and win next year," Jones said. "We don't have time with Romo, the stage he's at in his career. We don't have time to sit here, build for three or four years from now. And there's the challenge. So if we get it done, I know you guys will say that was a helluva job."