Food For Thought: How Much Longer Will The Cowboys' Nucleus Wear The Star?

Although this is not officially a FanPost of the Week column, it is nonetheless inspired by a recent FanPost, authored by the always thoughtful 5Blings. In his FP, Blings asks, simply: how much longer should we expect Tony Romo to play at a high level? This is an important question as it applies to the Cowboys' "window of opportunity," and how the Garrett administration has and will conduct themselves vis a vis player acquisition. Before moving on to discuss each of these in turn, lets take a closer look at Blings' post.

His larger point, if I read correctly, is that Tony Romo is getting old, or, more properly, reaching that age where, historically, NFL quarterbacks begin to decline. As exhibit A, Blings produces one Danny White who, like Romo, took over the offensive helm after spending a few years as a backup learning his trade and, once the starter, enjoyed almost immediate success. White led the Cowboys to NFC Championships in his first three years as a starter (1980-82), then tailed off fairly precipitously as his skills and the team around him declined. His age during this stretch? White was 28 his first year as a starter; 31 in his last (which was also his most statistically impressive).

More after the jump...

In fact, White's career traced out a familiar trajectory. Statistics show that the peak performance range for NFL quarterbacks is 25-28, after which they begin to decline--although in some cases, this decline is subtle. Looking at this, Blings opines:

So where does that leave Tony? It leaves him needing to win it all quickly. His window is closing. Whether you believe the US Sports Academy data or not, he's closer to 35 years old than he is to 25 and no longer has the luxury of time to grow into the role of leader on a championship team. He has to win now or he will be considered an also-ran in the Dallas Cowboys Quarterback history books when all is said and done.

One thing Blings (and the fevered back-n-forth in the comments section) doesn't mention is Romo's contract. The six-year, $67.4 million extension he inked in the middle of the 2007 campaign is set to expire in 2013. When it does, the Cowboys will be faced with a very difficult decision: pay big, multi-year money to a declining player or cut bait and go with a new starting quarterback. Romo is almost certain to be productive in 2014; the question is: how much beyond that will he be in the "elite quarterback" conversation? Its likely Romo and his agents will want a multi-year deal (probably five or six years) at elite quarterback money. So, he'd probably be getting paid as an elite QB long after he was performing like one.

This applies to several key members of Dallas' talent nucleus. Lets take a look:

Player Age During
2011 Season
Contract
Expires
Age When
Contract Expires
Bradie James 30 2011 30
Andre Gurode 33 2012 34
Jay Ratliff 30 2012 31
Jason Witten 29 2012 30
Tony Romo 31 2013 33
Terence Newman 33 2014 36
DeMarcus Ware 28 2015 32

Looking at this, its clear that Jones, Garrett & Co. will have several difficult decisions to make re: renewing contracts for star players who have begun their descent into the vale of years. Several of these look like no-brainers. I can't imagine they'll renew Newman's contract (or that he'll play to the end of it); given the recent ILB draftees, I'd bet that 2011 is Bradie James' last year in Dallas. But what will the Cowboys organization do when the contracts of Gurode, Witten and Ratliff expire? Its seems that Ratliff and Witten will be particularly difficult decisions.

This, and the fact that former stalwarts like Marion Barber, Marcus Spears, Marc Colombo and Kyle Kosier are unlikely to return suggests that not only Romo's, but this iteration of the Cowboys' "window of opportunity" is beginning to close. Before you get yourself in a tizzy, let me be clear: it hasn't closed. But core players--guys who were drafted in the banner crops of 2003 and 2005--are passing their NFL prime. I have heard scouts say that teams win with a nucleus of guys in their 5th-8th years in the league. The 2003 class will be beginning their ninth year; the 2005 class their seventh. So, insofar as those two draft classes are concerned, they are poised at the end of their prime years.

Curiously, the Cowboys front office, at least during the most recent draft, has not behaved as if this is so. Many pundits were proclaiming that Dallas needed to come away from the draft with at least three starters, but other than Tyron Smith and DeMarco Murray, the players they drafted look like they are more likely to pay dividends in 2012 and beyond. There are several ways to interpret this: the Cowboys front office placed a premium on obtaining immediate contributors and failed; they have a plan to fill those immediate needs via free agency (and have already fleshed out agreements with prospective players and their agents); or even though evidence suggests they have to win now, the Cowboys didn't sell the farm to obtain a couple of veterans at positions of perceived need.

The last of these presents a refreshing change. Historically, the Cowboys brass (specifically Jerry Jones) has overcompensated for the previous season's deficiencies when Dallas has underperformed and undercompensated for them when they've done well. Particularly when the Cowboys have played poorly, Jones is all about immediate gratification. Therefore, you'd think that this offseason would be about doing whatever was necessary to rectify the deficiencies of 2010. By collecting draft choices with future upside, the Cowboys, and their 2011 draft, suggest that they are capable of delaying gratification for greater future return. While that might not be the best news insofar as the current nucleus of aging Cowboys' stars is concerned, it bodes well for the long-term stability and success of the franchise.

That is, until Jones starts throwing money at 31 year old nose tackles. We'll have to wait until the end of the 2012 season to see how that plays out...

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