The Cowboys Cut to 53: What It Means Philosophically (2011 Edition)

In Miami, Jimmy Johnson's old stomping grounds, Jason Garrett looked positively Johnsonian.

Almost one year ago today, I (sniff) wrote my first post for BTB, just as the roster was being finalized and Cowboys Nation was preparing for 2010's week one tilt at Washington (which, ahem, we won't be discussing). To celebrate this hallowed anniversary, I though it would be fitting to craft a sister article with the same title. The estimable Tom Ryle and O.C.C. have already authored excellent posts on the roster, replete with fun factoids. For my small contribution, I'd like to add some thoughts on what the Cowboy's most recent roster moves might mean in terms of a more global organizational philosophy. More specifically, I'd like to speculate on the degree to which the offseason in general reflects a set of priorities that Jason Garrett inherited from the last great Cowboys coach, Jimmy Johnson.

Lets check out the resemblances, shall we?

Send a Message (the Boss wears Ginger):

In one of his most famous coaching maneuvers, Jimmy Johnson cut running back Curvin Richards after that unfortunate soul fumbled twice in a meaningless 1992 season finale against Chicago. Dallas had already wrapped up the NFC East and a first-round bye, and all there was left to play for was Emmitt Smith's rushing title. In other words, Richards' fumbles were of no consequence. Jimmy cut him anyway--to send a message to the rest of his players: "Don't be  satisfied with a division title; I'm not." He needed to let the rest of the team know that he wouldn't tolerate the slightest hint of complacency with the playoffs on the horizon. It worked; his awakened charges roared through the playoff bracket en route to a Lombardi.

more juicy comparisons after the jump...

Fast forward to 2011. Montrae Holland shows up to camp obviously overweight and out of shape, and proceeds to hurt his back. Because of the Cowboys' offseason offensive line purge, however, his spot seems secure--with two rookies starting and two others in backup roles, Dallas desperately needs experienced line depth. By releasing Holland and picking up Derrick Dockery, the Cowboys didn't get any better or more agile at the position (the ponderous Dockery, like Holland, seems to fit the Cowboys former O-line profile). What Garrett does get, however, is an opportunity to send the rest of the players a message: take this process seriously or else hit the pavement. I'd bet we won't see anybody report to camp overweight in 2012...

Best player starts/ makes the team:

Sure, the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys' success was buoyed by a couple of one-sided trades, which brought in a passel of premium draft picks. But that didn't guarantee that those players would start (or even make the team). Jimmy knew that giving more playing time to the highest draft picks would eliminate competition--and he believed that competition throughout the roster was what gave his guys an edge. He was willing to get rid of high-round picks Rhondy Weston (3rd, 1989), Alexander Wright (2nd, 1990), James Richards (3rd, 1991) and Mike Middleton (3rd, 1993) because it was quickly evident (to players as well as coaches) that they couldn't play. The best players made the squad, regardless of draft position; thus, 1993 seventh-rounder Brock Marion stuck around when Middleton was given his walking papers.

We've heard Jason Garrett say many times that he wants competition throughout the roster. Part of this is talent acquisition (you have to have quality depth for a reasonable level of competition), but another key variable in that formula is that the best players be rewarded, regardless of draft position, salary, etc. But dumping so many high-salary underachievers who were starting, and cutting underperforming draft picks Josh Thomas and Shaun Chapas, the coaching staff let it be known that roster competition will be honestly and fairly conducted. The players will pick up on that, and up their games accordingly.

Young Legs Win in December:

The early 90s Cowboys were the youngest team in the NFL. As such, they tended to maintain (or pick up) steam as the season progressed. In November and December when more veteran teams, with older legs, began to slow down, the coltish Cowboys were still juiced. Exhibit A: from 1990-93, the young bucks went 19-5 in the final six games of the season, including impressive 5-0 runs to close out the '91 and '93 campaigns. A lot of rival coaches--Joe Gibbs, Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells--didn't trust younger players, and filled their (pre-free agency) rosters with veterans. Johnson and his staff were audacious enough to believe that they cold coach up their young talent and get them to perform at the highest level. And they did.

By jettisoning so many bloated veteran contracts in the past month, Dallas has gotten considerably younger, especially at the offensive line. The roster now features nine players with more than seven years NFL experience, six of whom are in the starting 22. In response, some fans have expressed concern that the youngsters won't be ready for prime time. Indeed, they may not--but this coaching staff, like Johnson's, seems to believe that they can find the type of players they like and then coach them up. Frankly, that's a ballsy proposition, and one I really like--and one in woefully short supply under the milquetoast-y Wade Phillips administration. Hopefully, that audacity will infect the entire organization, much like it did in the early nineties.

There may be some growing pains. As a fan, however, would you rather watch an ascending player take his lumps, or a descending player struggle? I'll take the former six days a week and twice on Sundays. In any case, it should prove interesting.

I heard somebody say recently that yesterday was the last Sunday without NFL football until February. A sweeter song could not be sung. Bring on the Jets!

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