After another disappointing 8-8 season, the Dallas Cowboys are yet again left to ponder where it all went wrong. It's crucial that the Cowboys figure out the answers to how the 2013 went downhill if there's any hope of fixing things for the future.
Actually, the inability to appropriately identify potential problems and fix them before they become gigantic issues is why Dallas has failed in the past. They haven't been a forward-looking team, waiting to patch up holes instead of building a strong foundation from the start.
With some salary-cap issues, aging personnel and a coaching staff in limbo, the Cowboys have some monumental decisions on the horizon. To make the right choices, they need to have an accurate reading on which things actually need fixing.
Here are the top four reasons the Cowboys' season didn't turn out as they hoped.
Implementing Results-Oriented Thinking
I think the majority of the Cowboys' problems are a symptom of a larger issue. The three other issues in this article indeed stem from this one major flaw: The Cowboys make decisions based on results and not on probabilities.
Let me explain. When you play poker and call a pre-flop all-in with pocket aces, you made the right decision no matter what happens after that point. If you get beat with the best starting hand in poker, you have to realize that you still made the right call. If you make future decisions based on what happened to you in the past in limited situations, you're going to get into some major trouble, both in poker and in the NFL.
The Cowboys are the type of team that folds pocket aces or goes all-in with 2-7 off-suit because it worked in the past. They don't call certain plays that failed to work a couple times. They draft the same player types because they hit on one in the past. They don't go for it on fourth down because they failed to convert one earlier in the game.
In short, they ignore the percentages in favor of hunches or extremely limited sample sizes of past events. And it absolutely crushes their hopes of being a long-term winner.
Failing in the Draft
The Cowboys' 2013 draft was immediate evidence that they still don't "get it." People say that you can't immediately judge a draft class, but I disagree completely. We don't need to wait until the players perform because that sort of results-oriented thinking can lead to sub-optimal future decisions.
When teams select players, they need to live with the fact that the prospect has a certain probability of being a stud or a bust. That just happens. A team can do everything in its power to maximize the chances of success for a draft class, yet it just doesn't work out. Judging the strength of that single draft based on a handful of players is a mistake.
So right out of the gate, we can know the Cowboys didn't have a great draft because they disregarded the numbers, opting for players who probably weren't optimal choices.
First, they traded with the 49ers and received too little compensation. Next, they drafted a wide receiver who is already 24 years old and failed to produce in all but one college season. And finally, as the primary evidence that the Cowboys don't get it, they drafted a running back in Joseph Randle who I believe has little chance of NFL success due to a horrific weight/speed combination. They did it with backs like Zac Stacy and Andre Ellington on the board.
The Cowboys' 2013 draft class didn't produce much in their rookies seasons (outside of center Travis Frederick, who was quite good). That's hardly the only reason the Cowboys finished 8-8, but again, it's a symptom of a much larger problem.
Improperly Utilizing Talent
The Cowboys had some pretty poor luck with injuries this year, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. That surely hurt their final record.
But a bigger problem is that they leave themselves susceptible to variance (like injuries) by creating an extremely fragile organization, one that's dependent on everything going just right for it to work. They hire coaches with rigid schemes, then collapse when there are injuries because they no longer possess the personnel to allow the scheme to work.
What makes more sense to you: bringing in one coach or coordinator with an inflexible scheme and then trying to match the personnel around it, or finding the best talent possible and an adaptable coach who can mold his scheme to fit whoever is on the field? One is a sound long-term strategy and one collapses in the face of any sort of adversity. I'll let you guess which is which.
In addition to trying to find personnel to fit the scheme as opposed to the other way around, the Cowboys also don't maximize the chances of their players (or schemes) producing.
Take wide receiver Dez Bryant, who is clearly one of the game's elite players. He had 156 targets this year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which was 20 fewer than Andre Johnson, 17 fewer than Pierre Garcon and only seven more than Josh Gordon, who played in just 14 games.
The Cowboys offense possessed one true play-making receiver who can win pretty much any jump-ball situation, yet the Cowboys still feel as though they need to spread the football around to everyone.
There are also a plethora or issues with the offensive play-calling, such as a total lack of play-action passes, screens and counters, that severely limit their ability to move the ball.
Playing with a Risk-Averse Mindset
The Cowboys faced a 4th-and-2 at the Eagles 40-yard line early in Sunday night's contest, and they decided to punt. They did so because head coach Jason Garrett fears risk to such an extent that he's willing to put his team in a situation he knows (yes, he knows) is worse so that he's not blamed if the offense doesn't convert.
Heading into December, the Cowboys hadn't run a single play on fourth down, according to Pro-Football Reference. Not one. There were all kinds of situations in which they could have and should have gone for it on fourth down this year. Actually, the New York Times Fourth Down Bot, which uses historic game data and algorithms from Advanced NFL Stats to calculate when teams should stay on the field on fourth down, showed the Cowboys missed 19 (NINETEEN) opportunities to go for it and increase their win probability!
Ultimately, all of the Cowboys' problems are due to the lack of a scientific foundation. They don't evolve or adapt, instead overreacting to individual results and making decisions based on "feel." Garrett emphasizes the importance of "the process," which is a good thing, but he doesn't practice what he preaches.