It’s the most wonderful time of the year for football fans, especially those of teams coming off 4-12 records. At the start of training camp, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave his annual ‘State of the Franchise’ address and mentioned “visions of sugar plums” dancing in his head when thinking about the possibilities of the upcoming season. A quote like that is only fitting to get things rolling again for another year in Cowboys Nation.
Another expected occurrence came as the ‘Boys get set to start camp in Oxnard, Calif.: A member of the Cowboys’ staff said something puzzling to make himself sound less than intelligent.
When asked about the suspensions of would-be defensive starters Rolando McClain, Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence, Cowboys COO Stephen Jones essentially excused them by comparing them to regular incidents for NFL teams.
“Some of the suspensions we’re dealing with are sicknesses and they’re truly sensitive situations,” Jones said. “As we all know, it’s a journey when you have those type of issues. I don’t think you can take one wide swipe and say this is how we’re going to do things. We’ll continue to look at each individual on [his] own merit. We won’t have one particular policy. I do think these things come and go. Teams around the league are dealing with suspensions with major football players. That’s part of our league. That’s the business we’re in. There’s no exact science when you’re dealing with human beings.”
Jones is right in the sense that suspensions happen in the NFL on a regular basis, but the fact he and his staff are evidently looking at them as expected, clearable hurdles is alarming.
The Cowboys are 40-40 over the past five years, Jason Garrett’s first full seasons as head coach. Dallas posted a winning record in only one of those seasons, 2014, when Orlando Scandrick was the only starter suspended, although his was overturned because of a rule change about the specific amphetamine for which he tested positive.
Outside of that, Greg Hardy and McClain’s suspensions to start 2015 were the only other suspensions of starters during the Garrett era and the Cowboys still weren’t able to qualify for the postseason in 2011, ’12, ’13 or ’15. In addition, pass rush has been a problem for Dallas over the past five years, so Jones’ notion that the Cowboys are just going to power through the start of this season without three defensive starters, including both defensive ends, is pretty foolish.
In fact, it’s a safe bet that McClain’s days in Dallas (and the NFL) are over. Of course, Anthony Hitchens is capable of stepping into that starting middle linebacker role – and will likely take full advantage of the opportunity – but playing at least the first four games without both starting defensive ends is going to be beyond difficult.
Even then, Gregory’s suspension very likely will be extended beyond the first month of the season since he reportedly failed or missed another drug test since failing one in February, which means he’ll probably miss the first 10 games of the season.
Rod Marinelli is a terrific defensive coach, especially when it comes to developing young players, but he’s not a miracle worker. He’d have to be nothing short of that to make the Cowboys’ pass rush respectable before Lawrence returns in Week 5.
Now guys like Ryan Russell, Benson Mayowa and David Irving will be thrown to the wolves right out of the gate, a place where only the guidance of a defender whisperer like Marinelli could possibly save them. The same is true to an even greater extent for 2016 draft picks Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper.
Throughout the Garrett era, Stephen Jones was calling most of the shots for the Cowboys, something that was especially evident on draft day. However, that changed this past April when Dallas’ selections reeked of Jerry’s influence. Now with these nonchalant comments about Gregory, Lawrence and McClain’s suspensions, it at least seems Stephen may be starting to think more like his father, which is the equivalent of code red in Cowboys Nation.
Marinelli may work a miracle with his limited defensive personnel and the Cowboys may have a hidden gem or two among the young players who will be given opportunities to start that they wouldn’t have otherwise. But both of those optimistic scenarios are far from safe bets, and the Joneses’ apparent confidence the Cowboys can just skate through the season on the fragile back of Tony Romo and the offense without any help from the other side of the ball will likely come back to bite them.