Sturm’s State of the Cowboys: We are back and ‘Off to Oxnard, 2021’

dpf1123

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Sturm’s State of the Cowboys: We are back and ‘Off to Oxnard, 2021’

By Bob Sturm

DATELINE: Seat 29F of flight to Santa Barbara. It is time to dust off the laptop, let the sunburn heal a bit and finally get to work.

It has been 204 days since the Cowboys were last involved in a real live football game in Week 17 against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. That game was the final frustrating chapter in a thoroughly frustrating 2020 season that involved propped-up expectations of success and the thud of incredible underachievement.

That was not what we were promised after the dismissal of the decade-long Jason Garrett experience at all.

Nevertheless, here we are.

For those unfamiliar with this annual tradition, allow me to explain what is in store for you today.

For the last 24 seasons, I have been employed to cover Dallas Cowboys training camp on-site. For many of those, I have been employed to write about them. Each year, often from a seat on an airplane 30,000 feet in the air as I swiftly move westward toward California, I wrote my “Off to Oxnard” column, which I suppose could be considered my very own “State of the Cowboys” address — a very different one than the one you heard last week from the Jones family.

The Cowboys’ actual power brokers and owners, of course, deliver their version from the tennis courts in Oxnard, welcoming us to a sun-soaked destination where we can expect that the annual super-serving of optimism is poured on generously — many times with “Hard Knocks” preparing another season of documentation.
Before a single practice snap, they find everyone healthy and in “the best shape of their lives.” Hope is overflowing and Super Bowls are always mentioned. We hear about the new draftees and acquisitions and how they will fix the noticeable gaps from last season. Holes have been filled, we are told. Progress has been made, we are told. There are even a few moments when Mr. Jerry gets a little choked up as he tells us he can be anywhere in the world right now, but he chooses to be here.
We also feel like we have been here before — and we have. We have very often been in the exact location hearing this exact message for years and years. In my case, 23 of them.

This 2021 version was moderately different, with plenty of general giddiness that California camp is back in our lives. And because much of their hour was spent with discussions about the general NFL operations in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and all that goes with it. There was also plenty of discussion about the pros and cons of having one of the highest-paid players in the NFL under contract — Dak Prescott’s deal is done and no longer the top discussion point. Now, the conversation moves to “what can he do to make it a decent deal” and “what do the Cowboys need to do to the rest of the roster to make it work?”

There was talk of Ezekiel Elliott being at 218 pounds and that Randy Gregory has everyone excited. There were reminders that health and turnovers were to blame for 2020, as was the inability to replicate in any way, shape or form the benefits of all of this (they spread their arms to show you how great football teams must be forged at a training camp in Southern California as the theme music to “Hard Knocks” begins to play and the crowd cheers).

That was their “state of the team” address and I appreciate them for doing it. Mine is usually different. It emphasizes things that are relevant to my readers and I deliver them.

(Standing up, moving to the podium, adjusting microphone, and clearing throat)

Hello, friends and enthusiasts of Cowboys football.

I am glad you joined us this morning on your laptop, phone or tablet. I appreciate you joining me for another state of the team to set up another season of Cowboys coverage. Many of you have been here from the start of the season to the end of another one for decades with me.

We have done this a long time. For me, 1998. For many of you, much longer than that.

Before we speak to the specifics of 2021, allow me to review important talking points that tradition dictates I review carefully at the start of every season so we are all on the same page and can agree that this must change for anyone to feel good about the direction of this franchise. We call these the cold, hard facts about the Dallas Cowboys and what they have become since things shifted dramatically for this franchise over a quarter-century ago.

• This is the 26th season since the Cowboys last won a Super Bowl. They have won five Super Bowls, which ties them with San Francisco and is one behind Pittsburgh and New England for the most Super Bowl titles. But the last 25 years have been bleak. Very bleak. Somehow, financial success is not linked to just how pedestrian this franchise has become in a post-triplets/Jimmy Johnson world. But given that this proud group’s last parade came during the first term of President Clinton — and we had another term of his, two with George W. Bush, two with Obama, one with Trump, and now in the first year of Biden — well … we are all getting significantly older. You need to be about 35 years old now — old enough to run for president yourself — to remember the last time. Yikes.

• During this stretch, 13 teams have won a Super Bowl. Seven teams have won multiple Super Bowls. Two teams have won more than two Super Bowls, and one team has won six Super Bowls. Dallas is not one of them.

• Twenty NFL franchises have won a conference championship game to go to a Super Bowl since 1995. Dallas is not one of them.

• Twenty-five NFL franchises have won at least a divisional-round playoff game to advance and play for a conference championship during this stretch as we now welcome Buffalo to the group after it reached the AFC Championship Game in 2020. Dallas is not one of the 25 teams. Think about that.

• Only three NFC franchises have not played in an NFC Championship Game since 1995. They are Washington, Detroit and Dallas.

• Four franchises (New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Baltimore) have won more playoff games during this stretch than the Cowboys have played in (14). Three more (Philadelphia, Seattle, Denver) have won as many playoff games as the Cowboys have played.

• Dallas has won four playoff games in 25 seasons. They have all been home wild-card games. This is the same number of playoff wins as the Raiders and the Texans. Seven teams have fewer wins during that stretch: Chicago, Miami, Washington, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland.

• Dallas is 4-10 in the playoffs during this stretch, for a win percentage of .286, which ties them with Washington at 27th. Only Cincinnati, Detroit, Buffalo and Cleveland have it worse.

All of what I have listed here is factual. It is not an opinion, and it is certainly not fake news. It is admittedly a somewhat arbitrary sample-sizing of years, but I think when you consider the Cowboys’ exit time of the freshly-inducted-into-Canton Jimmy Johnson, the introduction of the salary cap and the aging process of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, it is not coincidental — 1996 is the line in the sand. What needed to be recycled was not, and remains such to this day.

The Cowboys are the most valuable franchise in sports and the most televised franchise in the NFL by a mile. They play all the high-profile, high-ratings games, and they have proven that, unlike other franchises, it is not about a special player who has attracted the eyeballs. It is the brand, the logo, the uniform and the franchise that has people wanting to see the next chapter.

But, like we have tried to say a thousand times in this space, the brand shouldn’t matter to any of us anymore. Sure, it can offer you pride and some dusty history books, but unless trophies and parades are given for big TV game ratings and for how many segments can be filled on national sports talk shows, there is no value in this currency. Just frustration.

Yes, the Jones family has built an attention-attracting spectacle like nobody else, but all you have wanted was a great football team again in your lifetime. Ask any one of you if you would trade all of those regular-season TV ratings for a spot in the NFC Championship Game and I suspect we would have a deal in a heartbeat.

But it doesn’t work like that and last year doesn’t guarantee anything in this league.

Optimism remained high last week — they believe they have assembled a new team that has a chance to make noise this year (just like last year and the year before). That has been true for some time. As we begin Year 26 of the post-parade march, the question is: How long must we sing this song?

Here is what we are looking for from this team in 2021:

• The team simply must be coached better. This space defends Mike McCarthy’s resume and knowledge of the game in the face of the football media seemingly turning on him, but I suspect this is largely based on the groupthink of sports Twitter where we sometimes fire a coach on social media about two weeks before he rides in a parade as a championship-winning coach. It is a tough business and McCarthy hasn’t had too many big coaching upticks since his playoff win with Green Bay in Dallas in 2016. He needs a retrenching year. But honestly, it is even more important that his defense is coached better, and Dan Quinn is here for that and more than capable. Let’s also include special teams in this conversation — overall John Fassel’s group was improved, but those breakdown moments must be cleaned up. They looked unorganized too often as a team last year with sloppy plays and a turnover problem. They need a year of solid coaching from these very solid coaches and it has to start immediately. The questions about whether they know what they are doing crept in last year and probably took credibility off the table for a staff that knows plenty about postseason winning. They must prove that was a season worth forgetting. That starts with the preparation of the offseason program and training camp.

• The team simply must be on the field and in at least average health. You may call this an excuse, but I call it a reason. This is the salary-cap league without significant wiggle room or a luxury-tax option. What you can fit is what you get on your roster. You cannot lose Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, Zack Martin and Blake Jarwin from your offense for much of the year and stand a chance. The concentration of the bad luck all being on the same side of the roster and hitting it so hard that you had the comically unfunny night in Philadelphia where Ben DiNucci was thrown to the wolves with almost no offensive linemen left was just impossible. I submit any team starting four quarterbacks in a season and countless offensive line combinations due to emergency situations has no chance.

• The veterans must demonstrate ownership and pride in this operation. How important is it to Prescott to demonstrate greatness? I assume very important. Now, what about Elliott? Amari Cooper? DeMarcus Lawrence? Jaylon Smith? Tyron Smith? Leighton Vander Esch? The names are impressive. The individual resumes are impressive. When will these individuals hold this roster to a higher level of team accomplishment? If we are waiting for the Jones family to figure this out, it may never happen. Our best hope is the players the team has chosen to start offering the benefits of running their room in the proper way of accountability and responsibility. When you wear this star, here are the expectations.

• Don’t get out in front of your skis. California, “Hard Knocks” and the hype machine always get people feeling good about themselves. Seeing Prescott out there looking healthy and thinking about the rest of this division at quarterback will get people’s tires all pumped up. This is where the calming of a veteran staff and roster needs to remember that while it is 204 days since the last game, it is also 173 days until the first games of the 2022 playoffs. In other words, steady as she goes and one day at a time needs to be the mantra. Avoid the catastrophes and this team should be in pretty good shape to have a chance to play meaningful postseason games this year. I like a lot of what I see and we will get into specifics this week.

This franchise not only can be better than this past quarter-century, but it absolutely must be. When you start getting to where almost 80 percent of the league can say it has won divisional-round games since then and 82 percent of the NFC has been in a championship game during the same time, it now borders on ridiculous ineptitude. To have these resources and basically be the southern version of the Detroit Lions is unacceptable.

Let us hope the Cowboys become a power again so that your children’s children know them as more than a fairytale that grandpa talks about.

Good luck this season. Everyone that has read this far is still counting on you.
 

ZeroClub

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Jun 17, 2021
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Avoid the catastrophes and this team should be in pretty good shape to have a chance to play meaningful postseason games this year. I like a lot of what I see and we will get into specifics this week.
This article cracks me up. What a dark, bleak, and depressing way to announce that there is some reason for optimism.
 
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