Why the Dallas Cowboys Will Never Reach the Level of the 49ers Until They Rebuild


Dec 22, 2013; Landover, MD, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) throws a touchdown pass as Washington Redskins defensive end Chris Baker (92) defends in the second quarter at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Though for the third year in a row they almost reached the playoffs, the Cowboys were simply not a good football team. Though their offense was (at best) middling in passing, rushing, and total yards per game,  they ranked 7th in total points per game, which points to either 1) luck 2) defensive touchdowns or 3) lots of turnovers causing short fields. All of these things happened in 2013, but banking on forcing turnovers, especially for a squad that will take fewer chances on defense under a new coordinator, isn’t prudent. Assuming a more balanced defense emerges, the Cowboys still have a middle of the pack offense and lower-third defense, which is another way of saying 8-8 at best.

Typically, teams in this situation do one of two things: they either rebuild or load up. The Cowboys, unfortunately, are not in a position to do either.

Jerry Jones has made it a priority to never see his team out of nominal playoff contention, and it is extremely unlikely that he will voluntarily tear the team down this year. Of course, that would require the ability to actually tear his team down. Due to a number of bad and/or restructured contracts, the Cowboys would need a few “detox” in order to actually rebuild. Bill Barnwell of Grantland wrote about the Cowboys’ cap issues (which is where I got this awesome chart) and outlined their truly awful cap situation.

Tony Romo$11.8 million$21.7 million
DeMarcus Ware$8.1 million$16.0 million
Miles Austin$3.6 million$8.2 million
Jason Witten$4.4 million$8.4 million
Brandon Carr$5.4 million$12.2 million
Sean Lee$2.9 million$7.5 million
Orlando Scandrick$2.8 million$5.6 million
Total$39.0 million$79.6 million

Barnwell offers a solution that would get the Cowboys under the cap just for this year. It requires the Cowboys to restructure Romo’s, Witten’s, Carr’s, and Lee’s contracts to save cap room and release Miles Austin, among other transactions.

Which is to say make the team worse, though Jones may have no choice. But many of the deals you see still have many years left, notable Witten’s, Ware’s, and Romo’s. Even if the Cowboys decided to “detox” this season, they would have to take 2-3 seasons just to hit rock bottom because they couldn’t afford the cap hits of releasing so many bad contracts (which would hit against the cap). They couldn’t trade them either—they would still take a cap hit.

Dec 29, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant (88) runs after a reception for a fourth quarter touchdown against Philadelphia Eagles safety Patrick Chung (23) at AT

This uncomfortable reality may explain why Jerry is so reluctant to rebuild. But the other option is off the table. The cap issues they have will make it painful (long-term and from a cap perspective) to sign Tyron Smith and Dez Bryant, two studs who should be cornerstones of the franchise. But these issues will also make it basically impossible to reload.

The Cowboys, should they not rebuild, will likely continue on their mediocre path, and are very unlikely to ever advance far in the playoffs.

So what to do about their cap quandary? Frankly, suck it up and rebuild. Though not every rebuild is a success (see the Jaguars), the formal rebuild will allow the team to cleanse itself of its numerous bad contracts and, when the time comes, reload for another playoff run. Until then, the mess the team has been in for the last few seasons will rot the team as the core ages, and the Cowboys of the early 2000’s will be more than just a memory.