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Football

Did You Like That Free Agency? I Hope You Did. I Hope You Did Very Much.

The only thing they are all-in on is business.
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Jerry is the only NFL GM currently facing a paternity test. Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Hey! The Cowboys beat the 49ers. In the playoffs? No. On the field at all? No. But they did flip linebacker Eric Kendricks from an initial agreement to sign with San Francisco to join them on a one-year deal. Rejoice!

You’re going to have to. Because that is essentially the only thing the Cowboys have done in the first few days of free agency. Stephen Jones did find time to hang out with Kid Rock while promoting a rodeo event. The team re-signed cornerback Jourdan Lewis and long snapper Trent Sieg. But other than that, it’s pretty much just been hanging out with Kid Rock.

The Joneses walked themselves into this position of heightened public criticism once they uttered being “all-in” for 2024, the now-dreaded term that was floating in the discourse. I’m not sure there was a tactful way to address this concept once asked about it, but I know that whatever Jerry Jones landed on was not it. Does “all-in” mean spending heavily in free agency to maximize the prime of your franchise quarterback’s career? Does it mean ensuring that you retain key starters rather than allowing them to walk out the door? Does it mean hanging out with Kid Rock? Who can say?

Ironically, the club find itself in this position partly because it has been successful at drafting high-end talent. Micah Parsons and CeeDee Lamb are both about to get massive raises, and Trevon Diggs already got his. It won’t be long before Tyler Smith costs a lot more, and, of course, the front office identified and developed a franchise, albeit expensive, quarterback. I fully understand that it’s difficult to have one of the highest-paid players at each premier position and still be active in free agency. Then again, look at the Kansas City Chiefs. They have the best player in the sport, have drafted well, found a way to retain an elite pass rusher in Chris Jones, and addressed an area of need with the signing of wideout Hollywood Brown to a team-friendly deal.  

But there are bargains to be had, and the Cowboys do not seem interested in this. My suspicion is their reasoning for this is that any dollar given to a role player could jeopardize keeping a star. And that is what this team is about: stars. Stars who sell jerseys are recognizable on billboards and on tours of the weight room

Kendricks should be a solid addition. He spent the first nine years of his career playing for new Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and he brings a physicality in the run game that this team desperately needs. But he’s 32 and will essentially just be replacing Leighton Vander Esch, who is rumored to be retiring soon. [Ed: 30 minutes after this story published, Vander Esch announced he is medically retiring.] So it’s tough to say this move provides much of an upgrade. 

Under Dan Quinn, Zimmer’s predecessor, Dallas decided to go small and prioritize stopping the opposing offense’s passing attack. This worked really well most weeks. Against teams unafraid to pound the ground, it did not work well at all. The first-round draft selection of interior defensive lineman Mazi Smith in 2023 and the signing of Kendricks are clearly an acknowledgement of that fact. But Dallas also lost Neville Gallimore to Miami, and although he was never a standout for the defensive front, he ate a lot of snaps. As it stands, Dallas is not better defensively than it was last year, and free agency is just about wrapped up.

It’s telling that when asked about dissatisfaction among the fan base, Stephen Jones repeatedly mentions that the team has won 12 games three years in a row. That is not easy to do, and it is commendable. But the comment rings hollow and feels as if it is said in the vein of “What else do you want us to do?” It strikes at the heart of something I have felt about this organization for a long time. They want to be good; they will be good. But they absolutely do not want to risk being bad for the opportunity to be great. 

Maybe letting future first-ballot Hall of Famer Tyron Smith walk is the right move, as his availability has been an issue for the entirety of Mike McCarthy’s tenure. Perhaps letting Tony Pollard go rather than giving a running back a second contract is prudent. But who is the starting running back on this team right now? It is one thing to say, “Don’t overpay a running back.” It is another to simply leave the depth chart vacant. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore has possibly reached a point in his career where he can’t play starter snaps. In a vacuum, none of these moves looks objectionable. But taken in sum, it becomes clear that this team cares about one thing: staying relevant but not risking being irrelevant.

Maybe this is the right way to go about business. Stay good, hope for a bounce here or there at the right time. Except this approach hasn’t worked for almost 30 years. Many years ago, the baseball analytics website Fangraphs introduced me to the concept of the win curve. Essentially, know where your team is and approach transactions with that knowledge. If you’re close, take a chance. Push the chips in every now and then.

But the Cowboys don’t operate that way. When is the last time you can say that a transaction felt like it fit the conventional definition of “all-in”? They acquired Gilmore and wide receiver Brandin Cooks last year, and those were positive developments. Outside of that? They want the machine to keep churning for business, and business, as we know, is good.

They want to have huge ratings for every one of their games, specifically the ones in December and January. The problem for the Cowboys is the division they reside in is no longer dormant. The Eagles are the Eagles, and they just added Saquon Barkley. The Commanders are no longer controlled by Daniel Snyder, so whatever happens next for them, it can’t be worse. They brought on Quinn as head coach and have signed several former Cowboys defenders. The Giants are still a mess but for how long?

Dak Prescott is 30. He just put up an MVP-caliber season, but how many more times will he do that? Maybe the answer is several. But maybe he’s already played his best football. He restructured a portion of his contract Monday to free up a bit of cap room, but extension talks are ongoing. He’s going to be here, and he’s going to be expensive.

The Cowboys have been incredibly lucky to have 20 (!) years of high-level quarterback play from an undrafted free agent and a compensatory fourth-round pick. What have they done with it? Basically nothing. If they can’t figure out a way to win at a higher level with Prescott, that tells you all you need to know. This round of free agency has been a stark reminder that they still don’t get it. Or that they like it this way.

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Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…

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