The Cowboys have spent the last three years treading water, having a chance at winning the division and ultimately finishing 8-8. They continue to hope for better, but with no tangible evidence that the best is yet to come.
For the current edition of the Cowboys, the window may have slammed shut and shattered.
Before the glass flies in hundreds of directions, let’s look at five questions that will influence how bad it gets and whether it will improve any time soon.
1. Is Tony Romo done?
Plenty of mixed signals have emerged from Cowboys camp in the last few weeks regarding Romo’s back after his second surgery in two years. Dr. Jerry Jones has declared Romo to be 100 percent. But he has missed plenty of practices, and quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson has said that Romo has been inconsistent on deep passes due to the latest procedure.
Even if Romo can get back to 100 percent, he can quickly drop below that again if/when he gets hit in the wrong spot or twists or tweaks or does something to aggravate the situation. Hall of Famer Troy Aikman has pointed out on multiple occasions that he retired at 34 due to back problems, not concussions.
Romo is now 34, and he’s had some serious back problems. The end could be coming for Romo, sooner than anyone realizes.
2. Will they really run the ball more?
The Cowboys claim that they’ll show a stronger dedication to the ground game, which makes sense given that they’ve devoted their last two first-round picks to interior offensive linemen.
But will they really commit to the run and stay committed to the run in a passing league that should have even more passing this year, thanks to the renewed emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding?
Then again, given Romo’s back, maybe they’ll be running just to reduce the number of instances in which he’s exposed to that next, and possibly last, back injury.
3. How bad is the defense?
Last year, it was bad. Historically bad. 415.3 yards per game bad.
This year, it could be even worse, what with defensive end DeMarcus Ware cut and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher departed via free agency and linebacker Sean Lee injured and cornerback Morris Claiborne underachieving and defensive back Orlando Scandrick suspended for the first four games due to a PED violation.
When the Saints had a similar disaster in 2012, they cleaned house. The Cowboys have merely elevated defensive line coach Rod Marinelli over Monte Kiffin, keeping Kiffin on the payroll. It’s a recipe for even more of a mess than the Cowboys endured a year ago.
4. Is Jason Garrett finally on the hot seat?
Owner Jerry Jones insists yet again that coach Jason Garrett doesn’t have to make the playoffs to remain employed. Which is a good thing, since the playoffs are a long shot.
Still, Garrett enters the last year of his contract with no security beyond 2014. He’s a lame duck if things go poorly, a potential free agent if somehow things go well.
And if things really do go well, maybe Garrett will exercise his prerogative to bid farewell to the dysfunction he has experienced since 2011.
5. What will it take to get Jerry Jones to get help?
Assuming that the Cowboys end up on the wrong side of 8-8 this year instead of the right, the biggest question facing the franchise flows from the owner’s insistence on not riding sidecar to the efforts of an established coach who actually has input over the construction of the roster.
More than a decade ago, Jones bottomed out, opting to bend a knee for Bill Parcells. Once things were pointed in the right direction again, Jones decided that he no longer needed help, embarking on an effort to put the right talent and coaching around the franchise quarterback whom Parcells found as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois.
If the end is coming for Tony Romo and with Brandon Weeden currently serving as the team’s Plan B, Jone may once again need to admit that he can’t do it alone, that 25 years of on-the-job experience for a job he never had the qualifications to fill won’t be enough to find another franchise quarterback, to develop him, and to complement him with weapons on offense and some degree of competence on defense.
Many league insiders believe that Jones wants to show that he can build a team without deferring to a coach who would want to buy the proverbial groceries. As it stands, however, Jones’ recent trips to the store have yielded plenty of rotten eggs, spoiled bottles of milk, and rancid packages of bologna.