This is football, not poker. And I don’t even know much about poker, just some fancy terminology I’ve picked up from watching poker on tv out of sheer boredom. But I’m a big fan of metaphors, and the Eagles started this poker one by declaring themselves "all in" with their offseason frenzy. The theme continues around the NFC East where the Redskins have essentially folded on the season by letting Beck/Grossman play QB and the Giants are trying to bluff their way into contention on their "but we won that Super Bowl with this team/coach" reputation. Throw in Jason Garrett’s poker face and Jerry’s reputation as a Wild West Gambler, and we have the makings of an interesting way to examine my hopes for the Cowboys season.
Short-stacked - Despite all the talk of how talented the Cowboys were last year, Jerry’s team doesn’t have the same number of chips as some of the competition. He has valuable commodities at the offensive skill positions and in Ware and Ratliff. A decent base, and one that a lot of teams would trade for. But years of gambling away the draft have left huge holes in the team. Add in the salary cap issues, the aging OL and weak secondary, the offseason "success" in Philly and elsewhere, and the chips are stacked against the Cowboys this year. Not impossible odds, but it would have to be considered an upset for this team to go past round 1 of the playoffs given the strength of the NFC. But since we're at the table already, we might as well play.
Ante Up: Rob Ryan. After last season, Jerry had to do something to get the fans talking. Hiring Garrett was the start, but the big move to keep us all at the table was hiring the flamboyant DC. A small gamble given the Ryan family history, but it’s already paid off. We’ve gotten our hopes up, and put our money in, so Jerry gets to keep playing.
The Deal - Pocket Pairs: Garrett and Romo. The success of one depends on the success of the other. They’ve done good things together already, but neither can be considered elite just yet. Let’s call them a pair of 10’s—big enough weapons to make a play for pot, but they’re going to need some help.
The Flop: Preason – The truncated offseason and what we’ve seen so far of training camp and exhibition games have put some very interesting cards on the table.
Card 1: Salary Cap constraints. We’d all seen the numbers, but I for one didn’t believe Jerry would really let it happen. The rhetoric was that Jerry had counted the cards and could get any free agent he wanted. We hoped for a King like Asomugha, or at least another 10 (Weddle, Jenkins, Mankins, etc). Instead the draw was like an Ace--not any help to us and might just help our opponents get over the Super Bowl hump. Disappointment.
Card 2: Fresh OL. None of us really saw this one coming three weeks ago, and we’re still not sure what to make of it. The rise of Smith, Nagy, Costa, and Arkin is like drawing an 8; it might not be helpful at all, but it might just be a major factor in a winning hand if the rest of the cards fall into place.
Card 3: Player Buy-In. The defensive players love Rob Ryan’s schemes. The offensive and special teams guys are competing hard for playing time, because they’ve seen that nobody’s job is safe. Team captains are spouting things about accountability and having to earn things. This is the Garrett effect, and it’s a great weapon. Let’s call it a Jack, but remember that every other team in the league has the same opportunity.
The Gambling Strategy - Limping In.
At this point, our hand has a Jack, two 10s, and an 8. You can win some pots with a pair of 10s. And you could get lucky with the straight draw or with another 10. But you’d be crazy to bet highly on this hand. There are 32 other teams at the poker table, and only about 4 of them have already folded on the season. Many others are wagering aggressively, perhaps bluffing a bit, but some of them are holding very strong hands. Even if the Cowboys get a lot of help on the turn and the river, their best hand is probably a Jack-high straight: good, but not golden.
So we’re seeing Jerry do what an experienced poker player will do at this point. He’s "limping" in—putting up the necessary chips to stay in the game, without investing any extra into a pot that he’s not likely to win. He’s playing conservative poker now (though he tried to take a big gamble early with Nnamdi). He’s letting the young guys play where they’re capable or might be hidden, he’s not backing up his investments with veterans, and he’s saving cap space where he can (Gurode). He hasn’t folded yet, and won’t until he sees what the next two cards can bring him—but if injury or inexperience betray this team, it won’t be a total loss. It's a kind of rebuilding, but without completely throwing away the season. It’s not popular, and it’s not nearly as exciting as following through on a gigantic bluff, but it’s the smart play at this point.
Playing Out the Hand. The final cuts might bring more surprises, but I think we’ve seen how Jerry’s going to play this thing. Now it’s left to see what kind of luck the season brings.
The Turn: The First Four Games. There are four clear playoff-caliber teams in the NFC (GB, PHI, NO, ATL). Throw away another playoff spot to an NFC West team, and you’re left with five teams fighting for one playoff berth (NYG, TB, CHI, MN, and DAL). 9-7 probably won’t win a wildcard spot, so wins will be at a premium.
Dallas has the look of a team that will get stronger as the season goes on, but they’ve got to do at least okay in the opening stretch to be in position for a late run. A 3-1 start is a lot to hope for, but a 1-3 record would be a whole lot to overcome. In our little poker game, I’m hoping for a 9 or at least a 7, but expecting a useless 5.
The River: Ryan’s Defense. This is where all our hopes will be realized or crushed. Assuming that we get lucky with the 9 on the Turn, Ryan could hand us a straight here, maybe even Queen-high. That would be enough to challenge for the division and a playoff home game—and after that, all bets are off. But a lot of things will have to go perfectly: Ryan’s use of Ware and Rat, the health of the CBs, and the overall "gel" of players and scheme.
My reading of the probabilities say that there’s a 75% chance that Ryan will have the defense playing at a top-10 level by year’s end, but only a 40% chance that it will come early enough to get the team into the playoffs.
My Fan Strategy: The Slow Play
As fans, I think we have the right to be a little ticked off. We’re used to starting every season with the big "all in" flourish from Jerry. We’re not conditioned to handle the rational approach of the limp in. It turns out that the only big bluff that Jerry pulled off was getting us to believe early on that this coaching staff would be able to fix everything that went wrong last year. And as long as there are still cards/games yet to be played, it might not turn out to be a bluff after all.
But until then, I’m going with the slow play approach to Cowboys poker. I’m invested, but I’m not putting all my chips in. I’m expecting something around 9-7, and perhaps some fireworks down the stretch run. In poker terms, I think we'll end up where we started, with our pair of 10s not getting enough help from the community cards to make a play for the pot. Long-term, I’m putting some trust in the Garrett Way of taking it one day at a time, hoping that they’ll string together enough excellent days to have a really big stack of chips to play with next year. We’re playing smart poker now, and hopefully smart football as well.
…and if you’re reading this and thinking "this all sounds quite out of character for Jerry the Riverboat Gambler," you just might be onto something. Something big for the Cowboy Way.