The Issues in Arlington: What’s Happened to the Cowboys?


Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott during Cowboys at Redskins game on 9/18/16 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By Carlos Padilla


Love them or hate them, the Dallas Cowboys are one of the most recognizable sports franchises of all time. The Lone Sstar helmet and the cheerleaders in their white cowboy boots have become as iconic and American as apple pie. Cowboys players and coaches adorn the walls of the Hall of Fame, many of them passing from men into legends. Figures such as Tom Landry, Jimmy Johnson, The Triplets, Tony Dorsett and countless others are revered as some of the greatest athletes and coaches the game has ever seen. From the late ’70s to the late ’90s, Dallas was the team to beat. Throughout their historic run, the Cowboys appeared in eight Super Bowls, winning five. America had indeed found its football team.

Since the end of the 1996 season, however, America’s team has only graced the postseason 10 times, failing to make it the NFC title game in any of their appearances, much less the Super Bowl. On top of not making a notable run in the playoffs, the Cowboys have become notorious for their less than picture-perfect seasons. In many cases in the past 20 years, Dallas has been playing in their last regular-season game to either barely clinch the NFC East, the weakest division in the NFL, or keep their hopes alive for a wildcard game. What was once one of the greatest dynasties in professional football has seemingly fallen into disarray.

So what happened?

The chatter coming from AT&T Stadium in the offseason before the 2020-21 season does not appear to have an end for the woes of Cowboy nation. With starting quarterback Dak Prescott getting hit with the franchise tag, legendary tight end Jason Witten leaving for Las Vegas, and pro-bowl center Travis Frederick announcing his retirement due to an autoimmune disease, America’s team has apparently fallen out of grace.

With the current setbacks plaguing the Cowboys, many in the sports world have posed the question of what happened to lead Dallas down this destructive path. The answer does not fit in a neat box. Rather than being able to place a pushpin on any single issue, the downfall of Dallas has been created by several factors over the decades. 

While it may seem clichéd, one of the leading problems for Dallas points to the man himself — team owner Jerry Jones. While Jones has brought several Lombardi trophies to Dallas, he has arguably robbed his team of many more. The maverick personality may have built Dallas into one of the most valuable sports franchises on the planet, but he has also created an unsustainable culture.

The micromanagement of Jones in every aspect of the team, even to the extent of being in the locker room during halftime, has made the franchise infamous for being extremely difficult to work in. Since the notorious departure of Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys have cycled through a new head coach every two to four years, besides the decade-long tenure of Jason Garrett. Looking from the outside in, once the head coach reaches a level of influence that Jones sees as threatening his own authority, he is told to hit the road. Should Jones continue to put his own celebrity at the forefront of the organization, Dallas will be holding a lot more press conferences and a lot less Lombardi trophies.

In all fairness, the owner cannot take all the blame for the quarter-century slump. Portions of the fault also land on athletes of recent years. While NFL players have increasingly been asking for more lucrative contracts — resorting to sitting out camps and even games to get their way — Cowboys players have taken their status as playing for America’s team to the extreme. As previously mentioned, Prescott has been franchised after failing to agree to a contract extension. Reportedly, Prescott had been offered a contract worth anywhere from $120-150 million over 5 years, with presumably a large portion guaranteed. Yet Prescott denied the offer, and speculation is rife that he will sit during camp and perhaps until the beginning of the season.

In the previous season, running back Ezekiel Elliott decided to treat himself to a summertime vacation in Cabo rather than reporting to training camp. The reason? Elliott was seeking to be made the highest-paid running back in the NFL. Worryingly, Jones caved and eventually paid Elliott. Since this blueprint has proven successful in the past, other vital pieces of the Dallas offense could follow suit. This would genuinely test Jones to see just how big that check can be before he “starts to cramp.”

This trend of holding out for payday, not to mention any legal issues during the offseason, has had a significant impact on performance during the regular season. Players return out of shape, unfocused or simply not putting in their best effort. With their contracts being the most significant priority on their mind, Cowboys have become spectacular at being average. 

The final contributing factor for the disappearance of the Cowboys dynasty has to do with their previous success. As anyone who has played sports or been on any type of competitive team knows, when someone thinks they’re a big deal, they immediately become enemy No. 1. Everyone loves placing the cocky and arrogant in their place. By proclaiming themselves “America’s team,” the Cowboys have forever put a target on their back. While they may not always play the best teams, the Cowboys always receive the best of every team. Regardless of not being a Super Bowl contender for a quarter of a century, it still feels great to beat Dallas. 

While playing for America’s team immediately elevates a career to the biggest height on the biggest stage, it also brings along unprecedented pressure. From the hawkeye watch of a maverick owner, a zealous fanbase and trying to live up to the legacy of all-time greats to the relentless drive of opponents to put your team in its place, being a Cowboy is not for the weak. This expectation to reestablish one of football’s most iconic dynasties sooner rather than later has led to a vicious cycle of mundanity and frustration. With the woes of the Cowboys ever-mounting, there appears to be no light at the end of the 24-year-old tunnel. While the hole may be open in the roof of Arlington, God’s team may be praying for a miracle for years to come. 


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