FRISCO, Texas — Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones calls it “the Ben Franklin exercise.”
He gets out a pad of paper, makes a dividing line, and lists the positives on the right and the negatives on the left, “and whichever side has got the most on it, that’s how you make your decision,” he said.
Despite the 26-15 Thanksgiving loss to the Buffalo Bills, which was the Cowboys’ sixth defeat in their past nine games, the positives for Jones still outweigh the negatives. He is dreaming — which might be the best way to describe it — of this team coming back from this low point to write one of the best chapters in franchise history.
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“Positives are health. Positives are talent level that I have seen play without mistakes,” Jones said Thursday following the game. “That if they could be enhanced by turnovers, if they can be enhanced by certain things that happen in a football game … Have I never been a part of a team that have gotten on a run, four games, five games in a row?”
The good news that wide receiver Amari Cooper did not suffer any structural damage to his left knee is countered by the loss of left guard Connor Williams to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, so Jones is largely correct about the Cowboys’ health.
On the other hand, let’s look at the Cowboys’ talent. It has been said so often that Dallas has one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, and that is largely accepted as fact.
The names sound elite: Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Jason Witten, Cooper, Randall Cobb, DeMarcus Lawrence, Michael Bennett, Robert Quinn, Sean Lee, Leighton Vander Esch and Byron Jones have all played in a Pro Bowl.
Then there is the next tier of players. Jaylon Smith was considered a Pro Bowler-in-the-making when he signed his $64 million contract extension this summer. La’el Collins signed a $50 million extension in early September. Michael Gallup, Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods and Maliek Collins are highly thought of players as well.
Prescott is having his best season, and Quinn and La’el Collins have exceeded expectations through 12 games.
But the rest?
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Elliott has only two runs of more than 20 yards all season, and the offensive line has not been as good as perceived. The defensive line does not affect the quarterback enough. As a group, the linebackers have not been as good as they were last season. The secondary does not take the ball away, and the defense is on pace for a franchise-low five interceptions.
Jason Garrett and the coaching staff have caught the brunt of the criticism. Jones has lauded the roster composition but said the Cowboys’ 6-6 record has him thinking.
“Generally, when we’ve played teams that are executing and performing better, we haven’t played as well. That has to impact how talented you think we are,” Jones said. “I think it’s very logical to me that anybody in sports would look at us and say, ‘I question where their talent is.’ Y’all are talking about it. I question some of it. That’s fair. That’s really fair.”
Here’s where Jones veers into default mode:
“But I’m going to say this: With the players we have and what they have shown across the board — offense, defense, kicking field goals,” he said, “I think we’ve got a chance to get on a run here and still do something special.”
One agent, who represents Pro Bowl players as well as coaches and management types, believes the Cowboys have a roster that is among the top five in the NFL. An NFC personnel executive said the roster is littered with talent but maybe not as top-end as some believe, though certainly “good enough to win 10 games.”
Yet here the Cowboys are with a .500 record.
Expectations are always high for this team. The Cowboys’ hopes were exceedingly high entering 2019 because of how they rallied from a 3-5 start to make the playoffs in 2018, and they were ratcheted up by the team’s 3-0 start this season.
“We really try to live in the world of our own expectations about how we go about things each and every day,” Garrett said. “And that’s really what we try to focus on. Hard for me to speak to any player about how he feels about outside expectations. But our expectations for how we do things is high, and that’s really where our focus is. And we’ll continue to make that where we have our attention each and every day, to play and coach up to the highest standards. And we’ll continue to work very hard at doing that.”
Dallas has four games to live up to the expectations and play to the perceived talent level.
If the Cowboys don’t, Jones will be going through another “Ben Franklin exercise” regarding new coaches and players. But the Cowboys owner is not ready to give up on 2019, no matter how dire it looks.
“I’ve dreamed of and hoped for — and by the way, put some asset toward it — less odds than what we’re talking about right here because the team is capable,” Jones said. “We’re not sitting out here without our starting quarterback. We’re not sitting out here without our starting running backs. We’ve got our line in shape. We’ve got receivers that have gotten better. And I think that we’ve got really a chance to play better on defense. Called turnovers. I think we can get some turnovers. We’re going to have to do it now to win these next games. We’re going to have to get some of that. But do I think that’s possible to happen? Absolutely I do. Do I think it’s likely to happen the way we’ve been playing the last two games? I agree, I wouldn’t expect anybody to go out and bet the house on it.
“But I sure think that there’s enough there. I’ve made a lot riskier bets.”