At long last, the great stone has been removed from the entry to the crypt. Hibernating pigskin fans, malnourished and Golem-like, can finally stumble, dazed and groggy, out from the cold confines of offseason darkness, shielding their eyes against the blinding sun, into the warm euphoria of a new NFL season. We are little more than a week away from real live game action, and I’m almost in tears at the joy of the thought. We’ve made it through the gauntlet of another thumb-twiddling half-year without football. We’ve served our time upon the Wall, and now our watch has ended. Not that the last six months have been completely devoid of football subjects to pelt your unassuming coworkers with. Especially concerning our ’Boys in Big D.
As everyone knows, there are two guarantees in life. No, not the bit about taxation and the big sleep. I’m speaking of course of the certainty that 1.) my shoe will unfailingly find any amount of gum discarded upon the ground, and 2.) a Cowboys offseason will always be filled with a Kenneth Branagh production’s worth of drama.
I suppose it comes with the territory of being the most valuable franchise in all of professional sports (currently at $5 billion and counting). There’s practically an entire economy the size of a midsized Eastern European country built up around triangle-finned sports writers sniffing for the faintest hint of blood in an otherwise vast ocean of mundane training camp coverage, and America’s Team has always proven to be a reliable, ever-flowing crimson fountain. From contract holdouts, drug-related suspensions, bar fights that wind up on TMZ, and the odd drunk driving debacle (so long and thanks for all the fish, #83), the players certainly do plenty to find themselves in the headlines. Additionally, from his gilded throne upon his silver-and-blue empire, owner Jerry Jones can often be found with his scoop in the bucket, chumming the waters as well.
This offseason particularly has provided a sizable feeding frenzy for the insatiable media elasmobranchs. Unless you are Scott Bakula and have just Quantum Leaped into the Cowboys preseason from your previous out-of-body adventure, you are well aware that star running back Ezekiel Elliott is not (as of this writing) practicing with the rest of his team. He’s in the middle of a holdout, a nasty dispute that has him splitting time between working out in Cabo San Lucas and commercial jets flying back and forth from there to Dallas as the negotiations alternatingly heat up and cool down.
First, let me state that I categorically support Elliott’s decision to hold out of training camp in an attempt to land a better deal. I realize this likely puts me at odds with the majority of Cowboys Nation, a group of individuals who — let’s face it — like all football fans, have always revealed themselves to be petty, reactionary blowhards wholly incapable of putting themselves in a player’s shoes. Just ask Andrew Luck about his own fanbase’s loathsome sendoff after his surprise retirement was leaked during the Colts preseason game on Saturday. For whatever reason, fans seem to unfailingly side with ownership as a proxy for the team in situations such as Elliott’s, chastising the “ungrateful millionaire” while siding with the infallible billionaire. Former Cowboys Dez Bryant and Tony Romo can certainly attest to how quickly the blue star-donning masses will turn on you.
I could teach a freshman-level course on why I believe it’s wrong to demonize Elliott for using what little leverage the embarrassingly one-sided collective bargaining agreement affords him to try and bring his compensation more in line with his contribution to the team, but I imagine that if I had to, the prospective students would likely be unable to see the point through their star-logoed blindfolds. They’d hem and haw about “loyalty” and “a breach of contract” (as if the NFL landscape isn’t littered with a zombie apocalypse’s worth of salary cap casualties that have allowed ownership to routinely abandon agreed-upon contractual terms when it’s in their own self-interest), and I would probably end up throwing my hands up in exasperation and swallowing the bile in my throat at their failure to appreciate the correlation between holdouts and union strikes and the larger discussion about the bourgeoisie billionaire class’ vampiric exploitation of labor and how we are all doomed to a fiery death due to climate change, and that systemic, unfettered late stage capitalism is the main vehicle for our demise …
Sorry, I got a bit carried away. Like I said, it’s a freshman-level course, and we all know college is just an overpriced indoctrination camp for Stalinism.
The Elliott holdout story has provided plenty of the high-calorie red meat that deep-voiced sports radio guys and murine sports journalists live on. Despite the Elliott camp remaining mostly quiet as the scene plays out, the Cowboys front office have kept the fires raging, both anytime a microphone is thrust into their face and, more contemptibly, through shameful leaks of misinformation meant to win the fanbase to their cause. For those not paying attention, the Jones team is also doing the same thing against quarterback Dak Prescott in his own contract extension talks. Where do you think the now-debunked $40M/year figure came from?
Thankfully, as the media sharks continue to pick off morsels from the perimeter of the bait ball, the Cowboys themselves seem mostly insulated on the inside against the onslaught. The constant asking and re-asking of the same irritating unanswerable questions can definitely be a distraction, but this team appears to have amazingly found a way to not let it affect them.
Despite lukewarm confidence from the national media, here at home we have big expectations for this team. More than any iteration of the Cowboys I can recall in at least a decade, probably two, the 2019 version seems to have the most talent and depth. At his age (and with his affinity for Johnny Walker), Jerry knows his days “um”-ing and stuttering in front of cameras are limited, and he and management have gone all-in on this season, assembling an assortment of players capable of bringing home a Lombardi one last time.
History shows distracting media controversies and lofty expectations are the well-built foundation of a disaster in waiting, but based on what I’ve seen so far this preseason, the Cowboys are well positioned to overcome them. Head coach Jason Garrett is coaching for his job, finding himself among the ranks of many top-name players on the team without a contract come January. Shockingly, the team looks like they’re responding to whatever new single-word motivational slogan (fight, finish, fascinate, or whatever) or novel sideline clap he’s bringing to the table this year. They’ve looked crisp, poised, and hungry.
In the preseason games, the first-team offense has moved the ball down the field with efficiency, even though fourth-round rookie Tony Pollard stands in the backfield in place of Elliott. It’s unnerving that the red zone woes that plagued them last year seem to be carrying over a bit — they’re averaging one TD per game — and we’ll likely spend the season holding our collective breath every time kicker Brett Maher’s leg approaches the ball, but overall they look solid. Dak appears to have taken a big step, and the retooled receiver corps looks polished. Moving the ball downfield with ease looks likely, even without Elliott.
The stout defense that surprised everyone last year is also picking up where they left off and perhaps seems capable of filling its biggest hole from a year ago: turnovers. The Cowboys are +5 through the three preseason games. Regardless of a rough schedule, I find it hard to believe the Cowboys won’t represent the NFC East come playoff time.
I suppose it’s just as possible they go 5-11 and pick in the top 10 in next year’s draft as it is they make a deep playoff run. Seems like every year I think they’ll suck, they’re good, and every year I think they have a chance, they give me unlimited reasons to fire Jason Garrett. Though I’m excited for their potential, I wouldn’t guarantee a successful season. I can, however, confidently say that if they do fail, it won’t be because of Elliott’s off-field fiasco. This team shows no signs it has affected them.
That is, at least, until his holdout lasts into the regular season.