For anyone still paying attention to the Dallas Cowboys as they closed out their season with a sad loss to the halfway-trying Washington Redskins on Sunday, the failure of this past season must seem like one of the most disappointing in franchise history.
Sure, there have been times when the club had high expectations and failed to make the playoffs, especially recently. They went 9-7 in 2008, and it seemed like an implosion. They went 6-10 in 2010 and it was even worse. Both of those seasons were damning because they represented opportunities missed in the “Romo Window.” As this logic goes, it is so hard to find a franchise quarterback in today’s NFL that the Cowboys should devote every resource they have, including their integrity, to load up for a championship run during Tony Romo’s career.
That’s why, over the years, they’ve signed pariahs like Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones and Greg Hardy. It’s why they traded for the receiver Roy Williams. It’s why, over the years, they wrote terrible contracts to keep Marion Barber, Terence Newman, Jay Ratliff, Flozell Adams and Miles Austin. It’s why, over the years, they’ve drafted a slew of backup tight ends who have no real place in the offense except as emergency options for the quarterback.
It’s why Jason Garrett is still here. After nine years of working with Romo, he is, in essence, the quarterback’s caddy. Romo is comfortable in Garrett’s offense, and he’s comfortable with Garrett personally. And the Joneses, Jerry and Stephen, are unwilling to take away anything that makes Romo comfortable, or keep anything or anybody who makes Romo uncomfortable. That’s why Terrell Owens was run out of town all those years ago. It wasn’t that he couldn’t play anymore. It’s that he made locker room leadership tough on Romo and his best bud Jason Witten.
But here’s what makes the failure of the 2015 season a great learning opportunity for the Cowboys: They got to experience life without Romo. Yes, three of their four wins came in games Romo started, so it would be convenient to point to that and continue with a team-building strategy that puts all the salary cap and draft pick eggs into one basket – attempting to put complementary pieces around Romo.
But that hasn’t worked out in the seasons Romo was healthy, and it certainly didn’t work out this year when he wasn’t. (This isn’t an attempt to slam Romo, who is a good player and a standup guy for the most part; it’s more like a debate about two ways to play chess. Do you ask your queen to make all the moves and put her at risk, or protect your most valuable piece with a more integrated approach that utilizes the pawns, the rooks, the knights and the bishops?)
Consider the Houston Texans. This year, just like the Cowboys, they started four different quarterbacks, including Brandon Weeden. But whereas the Cowboys couldn’t do anything with their three backups, the Texans won the AFC South, albeit a bad division, but still better than the NFC East. The Texans are hardly a perfect team, and in fact you might argue that their talent level is well beneath the Cowboys'. But they, like the many other teams who won with backup quarterbacks this year, were built and coached to win at 21 other positions besides quarterback. Those guys did their part, and it didn’t always matter who the quarterback was for the Texans.
The Cowboys have to get out of the “Romo Window” mentality, and perhaps the failures of this season will help them do that. This offseason they need to avoid splashy free agent signings that stint the salary cap in future years. Their additions need to bring depth and balance to the roster rather than one or two impact players who may or may not make an impact. And most important, they need to open the window for the foreseeable future by drafting a quarterback who will be Romo’s eventual replacement.