Cowboys’ 10 worst decisions of the past decade: Greg Hardy, Jaylon Smith and more – The Athletic

To get to where the Cowboys are today, they have made some excellent decisions and some bad ones. Twenty-six years without an NFC Championship Game appearance would suggest there have been more bad than good. Looking back at the past decade, we thought it would be an interesting exercise to determine the 10 best and 10 worst decisions Dallas has made. There is sure to be plenty of debate about where each of these ranks, and there will probably be a few mentioned in the comments that didn’t make the cut.
We started with the best 10 last week.
Here are the Cowboys’ 10 worst moves of the past 10 years:
1. Signing Greg Hardy. Dallas added the veteran edge rusher in 2015 on a one-year deal worth up to $13 million. The Cowboys needed pass-rush help at the time, but not that bad. This move never should have been made. Hardy was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. That was reduced from an original 10-game suspension. The previous year, while Hardy was with the Carolina Panthers, he was found guilty by a North Carolina judge of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and communicating threats. Hardy ended up playing in 12 games for Dallas, totaling six sacks and 20 QB hits, but he was a constant problem for the team. Hardy made questionable comments about Tom Brady’s wife before the Cowboys played the New England Patriots. He slapped a clipboard out of a coach’s hand during a sideline argument in the middle of a game. Former Cowboys coach Jason Garrett had to meet with Hardy on several occasions to address his conduct. Hardy was not re-signed and he has not played in the NFL since.
2. Drafting Taco Charlton. Not only did the Cowboys pick a player 28th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft who played only 27 games in Dallas, but he was drafted over T.J. Watt. The Cowboys were looking for an edge rusher with their first-round pick. Although they liked Watt, they felt Charlton was a better fit as a traditional defensive end in their 4-3 scheme. Watt, who was drafted two picks later by the Pittsburgh Steelers, has become one of the league’s best defenders. He won NFL Defensive Player of the Year last season after tying Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record with 22 1/2. The three-time first-team All-Pro has 72 sacks in 77 games.
3. Jaylon Smith’s contract extension. It was a somewhat surprising move at the time, considering all of the focus was on getting a new deal done with Ezekiel Elliott. But before the start of the 2019 season, Dallas ended up agreeing with Smith on a five-year, $64 million extension with $35.5 million guaranteed. Smith only played two more full seasons in Dallas. He was released last October. Smith surprisingly overcame a gruesome knee injury in his final college game to have some productive NFL seasons, but his play steadily declined after the contract signing. The Cowboys were better off waiting another year to determine if they should make Smith one of the league’s highest-paid linebackers.
4. Ezekiel Elliott’s contract extension. A couple of weeks after the Smith deal, the Cowboys inked their bell cow running back to a six-year, $90 million contract with $50 million guaranteed. In a league that has been paying running backs less, the Cowboys went in the opposite direction, making Elliott the highest-paid player at the position. He’s still at the top of the list in overall value and total guaranteed, while second in average per season. Elliott has rushed for 7,386 yards and scored 68 touchdowns in six seasons, but his production has declined. Over 4,000 of those yards came during his first three seasons. The explosive runs and average yards per game have decreased. Elliott led the league with 14 runs of 20-or-more yards during his rookie year. He totaled 30 during his first three seasons. There have been only 10 over the last three years. While Elliott still has the ability to be a good back, his physical running style makes it difficult to avoid injuries. He played through a partially-torn PCL in his right knee for the majority of last season. The Cowboys are paying Elliott for elite production. He has five years left on his contract. If they don’t get a big year from him, they will likely ask for a pay cut or release him.
5. Sticking with Jason Garrett for too long. When exactly Jerry Jones should have moved in a different direction at head coach is debatable. After three consecutive 8-8 seasons, Garrett led the Cowboys to a 12-4 finish that included a playoff win in 2014. After losing Tony Romo for the majority of the season in 2015, Dallas bounced back with a huge year in 2016, winning 13 games behind Elliott and Dak Prescott in their rookie seasons. Garrett also won NFL Coach of the Year. But the following season, the Cowboys were unable to build on the previous season, finishing 9-7 and missing the playoffs. This was probably when it was time to move on. Garrett coached for two more seasons, which included another playoff win and then an 8-8 finish in 2019. There’s probably too much blame put on Garrett and more should go on ownership, but there were just too many up-and-down years and not enough postseason success for a coach getting nine full seasons with the Cowboys.
6. Hiring Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator. Nolan had the right plan. He attempted to make Dallas’ defense more multiple and aggressive. However, he wasn’t the right teacher for the roster. He lasted only one historically bad season before he was fired and replaced by Dan Quinn. During that 2020 season under Nolan, the Cowboys’ defense allowed 473 points, the most in franchise history. They were 23rd in total defense and 28th in scoring defense. The group also allowed 159 rushing yards per game, 31st in the NFL.
7. Drafting Gavin Escobar in the second round. The Cowboys were hoping to find their next Jason Witten with the 47th overall pick in the 2013 draft. Sixteen picks later, the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Travis Kelce, arguably the best tight end in the game. Escobar caught only 30 passes and started only seven games during his four years in Dallas. He bounced around to the Chiefs, Ravens, Browns and Dolphins over the next two seasons but never caught another NFL pass.
8. Drafting Trysten Hill in the second round. The Cowboys didn’t have a first-round pick in 2019 after trading it to the Raiders for Amari Cooper. Dallas’ first pick wasn’t until late in the second round, 58th overall. The Cowboys drafted the UCF defensive tackle after he built a strong bond with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli during the pre-draft process. Hill is still on the roster but he hasn’t met expectations, starting only five games and recording only a half sack in three seasons. The pick was questioned at the time largely because of the safeties still on the board. Dallas needed help at the position, but decided to pass on Nasir Adderley, Taylor Rapp and Juan Thornhill. Those three were drafted within the next five picks. Adderley has started 29 games over the last two seasons. Rapp has started 32 games over the last three seasons, including every regular-season game last year for the Super Bowl champion Rams. He had seven tackles in the Super Bowl. Thornhill has started 36 games in three seasons with the Chiefs.
9. Not getting more for Amari Cooper. His $20 million per year contract is pretty much the going rate for a wide receiver of his caliber. But when the Cowboys decided to move on to make sure they were able to retain WR Michael Gallup and TE Dalton Schultz, all they received from the Browns was a fifth-round pick and a swap of sixth-rounders. Dallas ended up using that fifth-round selection on OT Matt Waletzko. Later that same month, the Packers received a first- and second-round pick for Davante Adams. The Chiefs got a first, second, two fourths and a sixth for Tyreek Hill. A month later, the Dolphins got a third-round pick for sending DeVante Parker and a fifth-round pick to the Patriots. The Titans then got a first- and a third-round pick for A.J. Brown. All circumstances are different, but with Cooper, 28, under contract for three more years at an average yearly salary that is currently tied for 10th in the league at the position, a third- or fourth-round pick seems reasonable for his services.
10. Signing Nolan Carroll to a three-year deal in 2017. The contract ended up being three years, $10 million for the veteran cornerback. He played only two games and then was released in early October. He never played in the NFL again. … Drafting Kelvin Joseph in the second round in 2021 was under consideration for this spot on the worst list, but a lot is still to be determined. Maybe Joseph ends up proving to be a good pick. However, up to this point, things don’t look great. The Cowboys’ roster-building depends so much on draft success that they can’t afford to get nothing out of second-round picks.
(Top photo of Jaylon Smith: Eric Hartline / USA Today)

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Christopher Jones
Christopher Jones
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