In this, the final game of the season, all NFL Teams are going through the evaluation phase of their team. Some have already locked up their ticket to the post season, some have already been given a death sentence for the season and others are stuck in the middle fighting for a final spot in the dance. Teams in the playoffs are evaluating their team for the end of the season push, to find the momentum to propel them through the grind of the postseason. Teams already out of the playoffs are evaluating talent and coaching staffs for changes in the upcoming offseason. The Cowboys are stuck in Limbo, with a win over the Redskins on Sunday the Cowboys are NFC East champions. A loss would send them home with another 8-8 season and disappointment of missing the playoffs. This game on Sunday will be the equivalent of a collegiate final exam for the major parts of the Cowboys organization. If they pass it means an extension of their season and possibly careers as Cowboys, however if they fail, it could mean expulsion from their current positions.
We will begin our examinations with the players on the field Sunday, because they have the greatest impact for the game and therefore are the people we should look at closely to determine the future of the Dallas Cowboys.
Tony Romo – QB
No one on the current Cowboys roster has been more heralded or scrutinized than quarterback Tony Romo. Beginning with Romo’s dropped snap on a game winning field goal in Seattle in his first playoff game, to the present time, Romo has been plagued with mishaps in big games for the Cowboys. His success in December this current season has masked his previous record in late season games. As is custom in the current assessment of the NFL by the sports media, the focus for wins and losses is put more on the shoulders of the quarterback. Romo’s situation is even more dire because he will be looking for a long term deal in the offseason. After this season Romo will have one more year on his current deal, so he will be available for free agency in 2014. Romo has played well enough this season to deserve a long term deal, but if the Cowboys fail to make the playoffs, and Romo has a disastrous game, or makes a critical mistake late in the game to cost the Cowboys the game, Jerry Jones and the Cowboys brain trust may be forced to evaluate whether Tony Romo is worthy of a long term investment to extend his current deal.
Doug Free – RT
The Cowboys signed Free to a long term contract 2 years ago, and have regretted that signing ever since the ink dried on the signature. Free struggled at left tackle last year so much that they had to move him to right tackle for the much younger Tyron Smith. This season has not been much better for Free, and we have even seen him get yanked out of games due to his poor performances. He seems to get a holding penalty almost every game, which most of the time come on the biggest of plays for the Cowboys offense. Free is a high paid player on the Cowboys next season and could be one of the first thoughts to save cap room would be to cut ties with Free in the offseason. Free will have to do a spectacular job on Sunday to protect Romo and avoid dumb penalties in big moments to prove he is worth keeping next season. The problem is that he has been such a disappointment that even a win and trip to the playoffs may not be enough to save Free’s job for next season.
Miles Austin – WR
Miles Austin has been a steady player for the Cowboys over his entire career, but in recent seasons he has been banged up and non existent in the major moments of the season. Austin signed a big deal a few years ago and the time is running out on that deal, making Austin a very big salary for the Cowboys. The injuries have played a big role in limiting his production, but also the emergence of Dez Bryant has limited the touches for Austin. Everyone remembers the pass last year in the first game against the Giants that Austin just did not have the push off his injured hamstring that would have iced the game, but instead Austin couldn’t run underneath it, and the rest was history as the Cowboys lost that game and eventually missed the playoffs weeks later. Austin will have to prove he is fully capable of making big catches and move the chains or put the ball in the endzone to prove he is worth keeping around for another season.
Anthony Spencer – DE/OLB
Anthony Spencer has responded to being “Franchised” last offseason. The Cowboys paid him for one season and is a free agent as soon as the season ends. With all of the injuries to the Cowboys defense, Spencer has been one of the brightest spots in 2012. The problem for the Cowboys is that his play this season may raise the price tag for Spencer come the offseason, but if he wants any hope of keeping the star on his helmet next season, he will have to contain RG3 and show that he can be a force against the mobile, rookie quarterback.
Gerald Sensebaugh – S
The safety position has been a weakness for the Cowboys all season long. Sensebaugh is a hard hitter, but not much of a coverage player. He was resigned last year, but his deal is not big enough to make any kind of dent into the cap room if the Cowboys are to cut him in the offseason. The Cowboys will likely be looking to free agency or the NFL Draft to address the safety position, so if Sensebaugh wants to keep his job, he will have to avoid being beat deep or give up big plays in the passing game. He will also have to prove his worth by keeping an eye on RG3 and not allowing him to run wild. If the Cowboys defense is able to contain RG3 and the Redskins offense it would make a big statement to keep Sensebaugh from being replaced in 2013.
For the second straight year the Cowboys coaching staff has Dallas in position to play for its own destiny on the final week of the season. Most teams would be happy to have a shot at the playoffs in the final week, but most teams are not called “America’s Team.” 8 – 8 does not cut it in Dallas and the bulk of the blame falls on the head coach and the defensive coordinator when the team fails to make the playoffs.
Jason Garrett – Head Coach
No one has been a bigger critic of Jason Garrett than myself during his tenure as the Offensive Coordinator and Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys. I have even fired him on 12 different occasions during the past two seasons. I have been very critical of his play calling, his ability to get the team ready to play a full game from opening kick to the echo of the last whistle, and his in game management. While most people in the media have praised Garrett for his handling of the team after the death of Jerry Brown at the hands of his own teammate Josh Brent in a DUI situation, I do not think that excuses the head coach for his failures this season. To be the head coach of the team means accountability for the entire season, and a second straight 8-8 season is just not good enough for a Cowboys team that has a single playoff victory in over a decade. Last season in the same scenario, the Cowboys failed to show up in the first half, they fell behind 21 – 00 at halftime. If history repeats itself on Sunday, Garrett is held responsible for the failure to get his team ready to play in the biggest games of the season. Garrett has been a very predictive offense play caller. Since taking over as head coach his play calling has been very “vanilla” and it has caused defenses to be able to diagnose what is going to be run prior to the play. The last criticism of Garrett, is his in game management. I still have not forgiven him for “icing” his own kicker last year versus Arizona, and watching him on the sidelines with challenge flags and clock management has been shakey at best. If Garrett gets his team to win on Sunday and become NFC East Division Champs, not all of Garrett’s sins will be washed away, but he will have a shield for the bullets that will fly if the Cowboys go another season without a playoff victory. Even if the Cowboys lose, I could see Jerry Jones giving Garrett a pass because of his handling of the Jerry Brown / Josh Brent situation this season. If Garrett is retained despite losing, we may see him be stripped of his play calling duties next season, or an assistant coach may be brought in to help with in game management next season. If the Cowboys lose to the Redskins some form of change will happen with the Head Coach, but a win will give him a stay of execution for at least one more year.
Rob Ryan – Defensive Coordinator
The defense of the Cowboys has been improved in Ryan’s second season at the helm. This season has been difficult for the Cowboys because injuries have left the team ravaged. The linebacking corps have been hurt by the loss of Sean Lee and Bruce Carter for the season. Defensive tackle Jay Ratliff has battled injuries all season and the Josh Brent situation has left the middle of the defense at a loss the entire season. The most important part of the Cowboys defense is their best player, DeMarcus Ware, who is having his own struggles with injuries late in the season. The one place injuries have not hurt the Cowboys has been in the secondary. Unfortunately for Ryan and the Cowboys, the secondary has been improved, but still a weakness. The upgrades of the secondary are not directly related to anything Ryan has done, the improvements can be correlated with the free agent signing of cornerback Brandon Carr and the First Round Draft pick Morris Claiborne. Again going back to the 2011 game against the Giants on the final day of the season, the Cowboys defense got ripped in the first half. In the present season, the Redskins and RG3 tore apart the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. If the Cowboys defense gets blown out again, Rob Ryan will be sitting on thin ice for a return in 2013.
Obviously the owner cannot be fired, he runs the team and can do whatever he wants with his organization. Jerry Jones has made some questionable decisions in his tenure as the owner of the Cowboys. The biggest peeve of the Cowboys fan base has been Jerry’s decision to be both Owner and General Manager. He has made some good decisions and some very bad decisions. Most of his decisions get criticized because he brings in players for the box office draw, rather than the production on the field. The amount of disappointment for Cowboys fans has been building since their last championship in 1995, and if the team fails to produce Sunday, Jerry Jones may be forced to take a long hard look at getting a professional to come in and handle the player personnel. Even if Jerry does not remove the title of GM from his door, he may bring in a consultant to help him make moves for the future of the Cowboys. This season is a direct example of why Jerry needs a professional to direct him in the players he acquires for his team. While the Cowboys have good starting talent, injuries have left them with weak players filling in, and the amount of injuries has been a big obstacle for this team to overcome. This game on Sunday will show us what kind of talent Jerry has assembled in “Big D.” If the Cowboys win, it validates Jerry as the GM, but if the team fails, the blame goes to everyone especially the guy at the top calling all of the shots.
For the second year in a row the Dallas Cowboys will play in the final game of the NFL season. This will be the second year in a row that they are playing a “de-facto” playoff game in the final week of the season. Last year, the Cowboys failed to show up to the game until after halftime, losing to the New York Giants 31 – 14, ending their season 8-8. This year they get to avenge the failure of last season by beating another NFC East rival in the Washington Redskins. The Cowboys enter with an 8-7 record and a win would allow them to end in identical 9 – 7 records with the Redskins. The Cowboys would win the division because their record within the division would be better than both the Giants and Redskins. Winning the NFC East and having a home playoff game would be the prize if they win on Sunday, but if the worst happens and the Cowboys lose to the Redskins, the blame game ensues and the decisions for improvement become the talk of the town. Cowboys players such as Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Doug Free, Anthony Spencer and Gerald Sensebaugh have more than just a playoff shot riding on this game. The players have their careers as Cowboys in jeopardy if they fail to produce on Sunday. The coaching staff has just as much riding on this game, because of the debacle last year and the recent history of the Cowboys playoff woes. Jerry Jones, as the owner, will have to do soul searching and looking in the mirror if the Cowboys fail on Sunday as well. For most teams being in the race on the final day and playing the marquee game in week 17 is a big accomplishment, but in Dallas, it is unacceptable to just be close to the playoffs. If this team goes to 8 – 8 for the second year in row, changes need to be made. This game on Sunday will begin either the road to the playoffs, or the long road to recovery and changing directions for many people within the organization.That being said, “Let’s go Cowboys” on Sunday and hopefully all of this is moot as we prepare for a playoff run!!! Enjoy the game on Sunday.