While the Dallas Cowboys have been known as ”America’s Team” for years, it’s been quite some time since the unofficial title was accurate, and last year’s 4-12 finish, a seemingly constant stream of controversy, and an aging star under center, are only a few of the issues currently preventing the famous franchise from returning to the top of the NFC.
Following their division-clinching campaign of 2014, which included a 12-4 finish and a Wild Card-win over the Detroit Lions, the Cowboys had high hopes for last season. However, those hopes were dashed within the first two weeks of the 2015 campaign when all-world wideout Dez Bryant suffered a broken foot in the season-opener, and a broken collarbone sent starting quarterback Tony Romo to the sidelines one week later.
When Romo returned in late November, his return was painfully short-lived, ending in the very next game when he suffered a hairline fracture in his collarbone against the Carolina Panthers that wound up costing him what remained of the regular season.
Understandably, the Cowboys’ offense sputtered without its on-field leader and top offensive target, quickly becoming one of the league’s worst under the combined guidance of backup quarterbacks Brandon Weeden, Kellen Moore, and Matt Cassel, who led Dallas to score the league’s second fewest points and finish with the NFL’s 27th-ranked passing attack.
The damage done by injuries to the Cowboys’ top two assets was undeniable. Dallas won just once in the 12 games it played without Romo, and stood at an equally depressing 1-6 when Bryant was roaming his squad’s sideline.
But rather than focusing only on an attempt to triumphantly return to the top of the NFC East following last year’s fourth-place finish, the Cowboys have been bombarded with more than their fair share of off-field distractions during the past few months.
Less than a year after being signed to a five-year contract worth $70 million, that includes $32 million in guaranteed money, Bryant was accused of causing extensive damage to a home he’d rented since 2013 after moving out in February. The owner of the house — a Texas state senator, has since filed a lawsuit seeking between $100,000-$200,000 to cover the damages.
Just two years ago, Cowboys’ head coach Jason Garrett, who played with Hall Of Fame receiver Michael Irvin in Dallas during their NFL careers, gave the team’s $70 million man some very high praise when he told reporters that Bryant is a lot like the legendary wideout.
”Michael Irvin set the pace and the tempo for our team all throughout the ’90’s,” said Garret via Fox Sports. ”He worked harder than anybody else. And Dez Bryant has a lot of those same traits.”
In June, Dallas drafted who it hopes will be its running back of the future by selecting Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliot with the fourth overall pick. But despite possessing a ton of NFL promise, Elliot has already attracted unwanted attention for allegedly assaulting a former girlfriend. Although he’s denied the accusations, and has witnesses who support his side of the story, the Cowboys can’t afford to have their rookie running back’s focus on anything but football.
To make matters worse, veteran running back Darren McFadden — last season’s leading rusher — decided that the safety of his cell phone was important enough to risk an injury while attempting to save it from falling to the floor. As a result of this heroic act, McFadden missed mini-camp with a broken elbow that required surgery and will keep him sidelined until the end of training camp.
Earlier this week, linebacker Rolando McClain also made headlines for missing the team flight to training camp. Unfortunately, that’s the least of the team’s concerns about a player who was suspended for the first quarter of last season, and was recently suspended for the first 10 games of the upcoming campaign for once again violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
On top of McClain’s off-field issues, second year pass-rusher Randy Gregory was already staring down the barrel of a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy before he unexpectedly entered a treatment facility this week, and according to various reports, it sounds like he’ll be gone even longer because his decision to seek treatment was brought on by another failed drug test.
But while speaking to the media in May, infamous team owner Jerry Jones seemed to think that Gregory had what it took to get himself through almost any trouble he could encounter in the future.
”He’s [Gregory] got gifts,” said Jones, via CBS Sports. ”He understands he has gifts, God’s gifts. He’s got great human skills, personality. He is nothing short of brilliant. Certainly he has his demons. A lack of understanding of where he is is not one of them.”
Nothing says ”brilliant” quite like earning a second suspension for the same offense before the beginning of your second NFL season. But Gregory isn’t the only one with off-field issues that have hurt Dallas on the defensive line as third year pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence is also scheduled to miss the first four games of the season — also for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Usually, a rash of suspensions and questionable off-field behavior of the magnitude that Dallas is currently dealing with is enough to destroy an entire team on its own. But for the Cowboys, getting Romo and Bryant firing on all cylinders and finding a few pass-rushers must rise above the unwanted headlines if ”America’s Team” is ever going to do more than lead the league in jersey sales.
[Photo By Rob Foldy/Getty Images]