The Cowboys Cut To 53: What It Means Philosophically

Let me begin by saying how thrilled I am to be in this new position; having the opportunity to talk about and to share views on the greatest team in the history of professional sports is a great honor and a tremendous responsibility--and the fact that I get to stand on the same platform as Aaron, Brandon and the inimitable OCC, interacting with this community of fans, is downright awesome. Lastly, the fact that I'm beginning this during Foreskins Redskins week is the cherry on the proverbial sundae.

In my posts, I'll strive to keep ya'll updated with breaking news and views, bits of game analysis, and a lot of information about the draft (I'm obsessed by the draft). I'll also try to keep focused on the big picture, offering a long view that, I hope, will serve as a calming oil to the media's vinegar-y freak-out-du-jour. With that in mind, and staying with a culinary theme, I'd like to offer up an amuse bouche to give you a sense of what's cooking in rabble's kitchen.

As several pundits--foremost among them OCC--have already remarked, this year's cutdown to 53 reaffirmed a youth movement on the part of the Cowboys organization that has been particularly evident in the two most recent offseasons. In 2009, of course, the Cowboys not only cut ties with notorious locker room bad seeds like Pac, Tank and Terrell, they also released good, albeit aging, soldiers such as Anthony Henry and Greg Ellis, and got younger in the process. The trend continued with the releases of Flozell and Ken Hamlin this offseason and the subsequent casting off of 30-something greybeards Junior Siavii and Patrick Crayton.

With these moves, the Cowboys are seemingly operating according to an NFL adage initially pioneered by Bill Walsh's great San Francisco teams at the first dawning of the free agent landscape: "its better to get rid of a player one year too early than one year too late." While this philosophy historically has proven incendiary to loyal fanbases--as proven by the near riots when the 49ers released Ronnie Lott or the Eagles did the same to Brian Dawkins--the franchises that are internally strong enough to adhere to it have been tremendously successful.

In the past decade, two of the NFL's model franchises are the Patriots and--gasp, sputter-- the Eagles, both of whom have had strong, common-minded front offices with an unshakable belief in their ability to grade and draft young talent to avoid paying big "third contracts" to veteran stars with declining skills. Perhaps they learned this lesson by looking at the 90s Cowboys who, after the departure of Jimmy Johnson, didn't have this collective faith in their ability to evaluate talent and thus held on tightly to their aging stars. As we know all too painfully, that team got old fast and quickly descended into the NFL quagmire with the Clevelands and Arizonas.

In most respects, this decline was due to Jerry Jones and his value system: he was, and is, very loyal. This has primarily manifested itself in two ways: he gives players second chances and he has a hard time letting go of his old guys. There's another factor at play here: as a talent evaluator, Jerry operates according to a "magpie philosophy": he's attracted to shiny things. Recall a behind-the-scenes Sports Illustrated article Peter King wrote about the Cowboys' preparations for the 2002 draft. In it, he quotes Jones as saying the Philip Buchanan's skills were "Deion like." In short, when looking at a player, Jerry looks for flash, for marketable skillz, for star power. Indeed, Dez Bryant is this kind of player: he promises a Deion-level of excitement.

The majority of the guys who survived the recent cutdown--the Barry Churches and Josh Brents of the world, but also a guy like Sean Lee--don't fit this bill. Rather, they are blue-collar guys who work hard and keep to their assignments. Yet their workmanlike attitude, not to mention their fresh legs in December, help a team win. To make room for these and other similar players, especially free agents and low-round draft picks, has required that the team operate contra Jerry's first instinct in the last couple of seasons. This is one of many signs that the comparatively level-headed Stephen Jones has seized more philosophical control of the franchise. Although we all love Jerry's enthusiasm and commitment to winning, the fact that the Cowboys increasingly seem to be operating as a franchise with a coherent mission can only give Cowboy fans reason to celebrate.

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