FRISCO, Texas — Owner Jerry Jones believes the Dallas Cowboys are contenders. He believes he put together a roster that should be a lot better than 8-8.
With quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, three Pro Bowl-level offensive linemen, wide receiver Amari Cooper, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, Jones believes there is a core in place to win games.
In walking away from Jason Garrett after nine full-time seasons, Jones believes the next coach of the Cowboys has the chance to be his Jon Gruden.
In 1996, coach Tony Dungy took over a moribund franchise in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Before his arrival, Tampa Bay had last made the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1982 season. Dungy had the Buccaneers in the playoffs in his second season, and they made it to the NFC Championship Game in his fourth. Tampa Bay advanced to the postseason in 2000 and 2001, but lost in the wild-card round both seasons.
With a roster built through the draft with players such as Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Ronde Barber and John Lynch on defense, Tampa Bay ownership believed Dungy had done all he could do with the roster; it moved on and swung for the fences.
The Bucs gave up two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million in cash to the Oakland Raiders for Gruden to take over as head coach.
In Gruden’s first season in 2002, the Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII.
Some might compare it to Barry Switzer winning a Super Bowl with Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys players in 1995. Others might view it as Gruden being the missing piece that took the Buccaneers over the top, even if it was with Dungy’s players.
In nine seasons as the full-time coach, Garrett got the Cowboys to the playoffs three times. He won two playoff games, but could not get Dallas past the divisional round. Twice the Green Bay Packers ripped out the Cowboys’ hearts — first on a controversial overturning of a Dez Bryant catch in the 2014 postseason at Lambeau Field, and then when Aaron Rodgers converted a third-and-21 to set up the winning field goal in the 2016 playoffs at AT&T Stadium.
Out of sheer self-preservation, Garrett entered the 2019 season with a clear mandate to win. Jones chose not to extend Garrett’s contract after he led the Cowboys from a 3-5 start to the 2018 season to the second round of the playoffs. Jones followed a similar path in 2014 after Garrett had three consecutive 8-8 finishes (2011-13) and saw the Cowboys flourish with a 12-4 record in 2014.
Ed Werder says Jerry Jones and the Cowboys decided to move on from head coach Jason Garrett due to the team repeatedly failing to live up to expectations.
The 2019 season started with such promise but fell apart. Garrett’s job status became a weekly topic. Jones did not help matters by calling out his coach and assistants at different times during the season.
Jones believes he has done his job as the Cowboys’ general manager, at least in terms of procuring talent. At the start of the season, the Cowboys’ roster was considered as deep as any they have had since the 1990s. By the end of December, questions about the roster were raised as players such as Lawrence, Smith, Elliott and the offensive linemen finished the season with mediocre performances; none was as dominant as they had been in the past.
Jones’ belief in the roster remains high even if this offseason could see massive change. Prescott and Cooper can become free agents; if there is not a new collective bargaining agreement by March, the Cowboys can use the franchise and transition tags to make it hard for teams to pry either player away. Dallas’ goal is to keep both with long-term deals.
Key starters or contributors, such as Byron Jones, Robert Quinn, Michael Bennett, Sean Lee, Jason Witten, Randall Cobb, Anthony Brown, Jeff Heath, Joe Thomas and Maliek Collins, are set to be unrestricted free agents. The Cowboys know they can’t keep all of those players — and some might want to move on — but they will have ample salary-cap space for transactions.
As good as the Cowboys’ roster looks now, things could look far different for a new coach, but Jones’ expectation will not change.
Jones believes he has a team that can win.
He is looking for the next coach to be his Gruden as he says goodbye to his Dungy in Garrett.
Possible coincidence? Super Bowl LV is in Tampa, Florida.