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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: Time to look at Cowboys holistically


FRISCO, Texas – Not sure in my near 50 years of covering sports have ever heard the word "holistic" linked into a discussion of football. Not in high school. Not in college. Not in the World Football League. Not in the USFL. Not in the Arena Football League. And certainly not in the NFL.

But 11 days ago, at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., Cowboys owner Jerry Jones repeatedly invoked the word "holistic" into the discussion of how cruelly the 2023 season ended in that first round playoff loss to Green Bay and into the difficulty of picking up the pieces facing this franchise going forward.

And in the case of the apple not falling very far from the tree, son Stephen Jones, the Cowboys COO and executive vice president of player personnel, dropped the word "holistic" into the discussion of moving forward through some choppy waters with player contracts and unrestricted free agent decisions. Feeling compelled to improve on a 12-5 regular season that included a second NFC East title in three years and earning the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, but advancing no further in the playoffs than the Cowboys have these past 28 seasons.

Said Jerry: "But the big thing is we all know there's room for improvement," and there is no argument with that, but then this became very interesting when Jerry continued:

"As it would turn out, our plan is you have to look holistically at the entire roster at this time because we've got some key players that are going to automatically move up into arguably the top-three paid players on the team. … And when you address a contract, whether it be Dak's, or whether it be Pollard's or whether it be Lamb's, when you address a contract you distort the picture.

"The picture is holistic, and you have to look at the entire landscape. In most cases you can't fit it all in, there is not room, and so you have to make adjustments."

Then Stephen Jones doubled down when asked what does "holistic" mean to him, saying, "That is why it's real hard to answer a question about a player in particular when you are taking an overall view of your team. You've got to make some hard decisions in some areas, and then you might be more aggressive in other areas. Does that, in our mind, make us feel good about what's going to make us better? Not only to repeat what we've done in the regular season but to take the next step in the postseason.

"I think you have to look at it as a whole – you have to put the draft into the mix, you have to look at the players you want to keep, players you want to make some hard decisions on."

And with that, Stephen brought up making trades, as the Cowboys did last year in acquiring Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks, "So those are things when you put it all together … you have to look at the big picture. You can call it big picture, you look at the full body of work. You can call it holistic, there are a lot of terms for it."

Starting to get the picture?

Now if we turn to Merriam Webster for the "holistic" definition, you will get this: "Relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts."

In simpler terms, the Cowboys must dissect this entire team moving forward. Does no good to have 10 Pro Bowl players during the regular season, and then reach the playoffs only to come up a linebacker or two short against one of the top-seven teams in your conference. Or come up a cornerback short when having to play one of your top guys with a shoulder harnessed and change your defensive scheme for lack of confidence in the next guy up.

Think big picture.

Great the Cowboys have Dak Prescott, a top MVP candidate.

Great they have CeeDee Lamb, a top Offensive Player of the Year candidate.

Great they have Micah Parsons, a top Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

But did the Cowboys have enough soldiers to sustain a good running game, sustain a reputable pass defense?

On top of that, now the Cowboys are in the process of hiring a new defensive general, so to speak, and news coming out of the Super Bowl week in Las Vegas has the Cowboys zeroing in on former Cowboys long-time assistant and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who would be a great hire for what the Cowboys need. But that is the first contract they need signed, still working as of Friday afternoon to finish dotting the i's and crossing the t's before getting into personnel decisions.

Then they can dive into filling some playoff expanded defensive craters. Because, while the Cowboys did have the emerging DaRon Bland at corner, but losing Trevon Diggs early in the season and Gilmore sustaining that shoulder injury in the final game of the season, did they really have enough depth at the cornerback position to prevent playing zone against the Packers?

They didn't, and Green Bay exploited the deficiency.

Great you have Parsons, but yet got into this dilemma of should he play defensive end, leaving the Cowboys short at linebacker after losing Leighton Vander Esch early in the season? Or should Micah play linebacker, leaving the Cowboys somewhat short at defensive end with just DeMarcus Lawrence and a couple of rotation players?

A quandary needing to be solved.

These two defensive shortcomings, along with a lack of depth at defensive tackle, leading to another season with an inability to stop the run, giving up at least 109 yards rushing in all six of their losses, including 266 to Buffalo, 222 to Arizona and the 143 to Green Bay.

And offensively, they also came up short running the ball, as even though Pollard finished with the 12th most rushing yards in the NFL (1,005), he only averaged 4.0 yards per carry and the team 4.1.

So no wonder during that interview Jerry Jones said, "We need to run the ball better, we need to stop the run better," and he is dead on. These warts covered up when playing lesser competition in the regular season seemingly always become exposed in the playoffs at some point.

That's why there should be little surprise the Cowboys had a 4-5 record in games against teams finishing with a winning record, beating the Rams (10-7), Seahawks (9-8), Eagles (11-6) and Lions (12-5) and losing to the 49ers (12-5), Eagles (11-6), Bills (11-6), Dolphins (11-6) and Packers (9-8). And when it came to facing payoffs teams, the Cowboys went 3-5.

Which is exactly why they are sitting home this weekend watching San Francisco square off against Kansas City in Super Bowl LVIII in Vegas and trying to finalize that deal with Zimmer to replace Dan Quinn. All while realizing the impending salary cap headaches they will face with existing contracts of Dak, CeeDee's current fifth-year option, the final year in Zack Martin's contract, Michael Gallup's contract and Trevon Diggs' contract. Not only that, knowing starters such as Pollard, Gilmore, Tyler Biadasz, Tyron Smith, Jordan Lewis, Johnathan Hankins and Jayron Kearse, along with significant contributors such as Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler Jr., Rico Dowdle and Neville Gallimore, all are unrestricted free agents.

"We have to look at such things as how we manage the cap and where we're putting the point of emphasis spreading it out more," Jerry Jones says, knowing it's great to have stars, but that money better be balanced out, especially to help better run the ball and stop the run.

Even somewhat of an outsider sees the need for this team to become more physical, once again turned away Hall of Fame candidate Darren Woodson giving a pretty good assessment of why the Cowboys can't get over the hump during his interview the other day from Vegas on sports radio 96.7 The Ticket.

"I can tell you this," Woodson said of the loss to Green Bay. "They didn't control the line of scrimmage defensively. They are always in situations where it is second-and-three, third-and-one. And when you have those moments, and you can't control the line of scrimmage, and your linebackers are getting blown off the ball, bad things are going to happen, especially in the playoffs when you're playing good teams."

In fact, Woody went on a defensive rant.

"Something different needs to happen up front with this defense," Woodson said. "I think the interior of this defense, whether it be the tackles and then linebacker, the linebacker corps really needs to take a hard look there. In that synopsis, we need to figure that out, but that's got to happen, and I don't care who it is. They don't have the right personnel right now, so that's going to be a rough stop.

"They are going to have to go out in free agency and grab some guys, tough guys. Sometimes you need some guys who don't like the media. … He's tough, he's going to snarl at you a little bit. Like, I had a guy I played with named Charles Haley, right? He brought a different flavor to the team. Not everybody liked Charles. But you knew on Sunday, dude, he was lights out. And he was going to cuss people during the week and get guys ready to go. And that's the kind of linebacker you need there.

"You need a guy who's going to thump you, he's going to talk a little trash, might not be the nicest guy. Not everybody, but we need some guys like that."

Here, here. Big picture. Making the team whole.

And this holistic renovation starts with getting Zimmer under contract.

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