Imagine you’re the owner of the Cowboys just for a moment . . . you’re one of the most well known names in business. Your company markets itself worldwide and your stadium rivals the wonders of the world. And a significant part of your job is to select 6-10 individuals every year as the employees that you hope will directly contribute to your company’s profitability and success.
You commit to paying these individuals millions of dollars based upon what they have shown from playing in college or on another team that wishes to no longer employ them. You know that the coaches that you’re required to select as well do play a part, but wins and losses are primarily determined by the men you select, sign to a contract and pay. Each of these men, usually between the ages of 20 and 36 all are going to practice and play on behalf of your company for the period of your contract unless you cancel that contract prematurely. In that unfortunate event, you still have to pay them any guarantees and bonuses.
Overall, your ability to determine each of these men individually and their ability to work collectively can be the difference between going 4 -12 or 12 – 4 and further in the playoffs. Ultimately, it could mean the difference between tens of million dollars profit from simple ticket sales to hundreds of millions in jersey and product sales, commercials, and guest appearances on the Tonight Show. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Some might think this is a fairly simple job to execute. It’s been done before, right? The Cowboys have had many periods of success, dating back to the early 70s. The employees selected then, Mel Renfro, Bob Hayes and Roger Staubach, all Hall of Fame players, all came in the same draft (1964). They brought fame and glory for most of the decade. That was followed years later by the drafting of Randy White and Tony Dorsett as well as acquiring Herschell Walker via free agency. Even later, the Cowboys were fortunate enough to be able to acquire top flight talent in successive drafts from 1988-1990. Michael Irvin, the 11th pick of 1988, Troy Aikman, the 1st overall pick of the 1989 draft and Emmit Smith, the 17th overall pick of the 1990 may be the 1st time in history one franchise was able to draft Hall of Fame players three years in a row.
So how were the Cowboys able to do that?
Well, the answer requires a description of the NFL that existed at the time. Of course, the world was much different. Cablevision was available but not nearly as prevalent as today, cell phones were for very rich people and the internet was used by the military only. Overall, the Cowboys fan base was largely uninformed about the details of the franchise as information about what the team was relayed via the evening news, ESPN and the local newspaper. The main exposure most fans enjoyed was an occasional game whenever it happened to be televised. True fans might remember their win-loss record, which was abysmal in the mid 80s. As such, a result of records of 7-8, 3-13 and 1-15 from 1987-1989, gave the Cowboys the 11th, 1st and 17th overall draft selections, respectively. Imagine the traffic on BTB had it existed in 1988 after going 1-15 . . . But in the end, the lackluster performance was a blessing as the team was able to rebuild while still being able to maintain a faithful fan base. And, of course, luck played its part in the selection process.
Since then, the Cowboys haven’t had the “benefit” of being lousy. Unfortunately, they haven’t been all that great either. From the 2000 season until today, the Cowboys cumulative record is 96 – 96. Their worst seasons included 2000-2002 when they went 5-11 three years in a row. In 2007, the Boys went 13-3 (and subsequently lost their 1st game of the playoffs). Other than that, the team has been consistently average.
So what can be done to improve the team now?
My contention is that they need to get back to basics and emulate teams that are successful now. The Patriots, Steelers and until recently, the Colts have consistently enjoyed deep post season activity. Same thing as the Ravens, Saints and Giants; and they all have something in common. Playoffs teams as of late all have the ability to be dominant in one aspect of the game. For the Colts, Patriots and Saints, it’s the passing game. The Colts and Patriots, especially, have never had great defenses. The ability to completely control the ball, the clock, the down and distance and the momentum while maintaining an adequate defense has proven key to their continued success. These teams play with lead and don't look back and it’s no a coincidence that these teams often win when the scores are high. For the Giants, Bears, Ravens and Steelers, it’s the exact opposite. Dominant defense has prevailed; the ability to completely disrupt, discourage and dishearten offensive teams and keeping the score low has proven fruitful.
Which brings me back to the subject of this posting – long haul drafting and free agency acquisition. Each of the teams listed above were able to draft/acquire 3-5 elite players in key positions and have built around them. Peyton Manning was obvious – once he declared for the draft, he was highly regarded as a potential superstar. Same for guys like Joe Thomas, Brian Urlacher, Troy Polamalu, Julius Peppers, Haloti Ngata, Logan Mankins, Dwight Freeney and Terrell Suggs. Other players weren’t so obvious, like Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Marques Colston and Lance Briggs. Regardless, each of these players has the ability to cause the other team to game plan specifically for the talents they possess. Regardless of other teams efforts, each has played on a team with at least one playoff victory in the past 5 years. So, regardless of the round the talent is drafted is immaterial, all that matters is the greatness they bring to the table.
The Cowboys last game-changing talent acquired has been DeMarcus Ware. Since then, there have been solid players acquired, but nobody on the order of him. To further exacerbate the situation, the Cowboys made a conscious decision to build a franchise around offense vice Ware and his talents. Don’t get me wrong, Ware is a superstar; maybe one of the best linebackers to ever play the game. But with Dallas, he brings a much needed aspect, elite pass rushing, to a team with a completely different identity. He is complementary rather than being the focus.
The decision to be offensive minded was not a bad one as the Cowboys were fortunate enough to acquire and develop a diamond in the rough QB in Tony Romo and have chosen to concentrate on his abilities. Romo is good, some might say elite. However, he is not Tom Brady and the Cowboys, unlike the Patriots who also got lucky with finding a franchise QB in a non-traditional sense, haven’t been able to get over the hump with him and the personnel that have been chosen to play with him. The personnel selected to complement Romo have all been high profile or “home-run” type offensive weapons: Barber, Roy Williams, Owens, Witten, Bryant, Felix Jones, and lately DeMarco Murray. TO has come and gone and other complementary players like Leonard Davis and Terrence Newman got old. None of these acquisitions have proven to show the ability to lead the team through adversity while not also being disruptive in the locker room. The Roy Williams trade was an honest yet failed attempt at a replacement for an aging and cancerous Terrell Owens. Miles Austin, another lucky discovery, hasn’t been healthy/consistent enough to be able to directly affect playoff success. Jason Witten has been elite but too much of his energy has been used to help block for an aging and inadequate offensive line. MBIII and Felix Jones seemed to be a fairly potent backfield but the production never manifested as expected. To help Ware, the team did attempt to update the linebacker and defensive end corps and defensive secondary by drafting a more than a few linebackers, signing a few DEs and drafting a couple of promising CBs but no one has proven to be anything outside of glimmers of solid play. And, all along, the offensive line has been blatantly neglected (the one thing Brady does enjoy is a good offensive line).
So, the long haul draft plan for the Cowboys needs more emphasis on the offensive and defensive lines. Perhaps the front office realized this necessity just last year. Perhaps this line of thinking will continue. For fans like me, I certainly hope so. But for the owner, it could be the difference in millions of dollars.