Cowboys 2012 Free Agency: Evidence of A Philosophical Shift?

Jason Garrett applauds the Cowboys' offseason

Several of BTB's front page writers have had a chance to author initial evaluations of the Cowboys excellent work in free agency (the most recent being Tom's delightful Kool-Aid binge). Since I was feeling a bit left out, I thought I might offer up a few of Ol' Rabble's thoughts on the past week's doings. So here goes:

Back in February, in a look at the Cowboys' offseason plan, I gestured towards Jason Garrett's optimal talent acquisition strategy: use free agency to cover all the team's "must haves" so that they are freed from having to target (and reach for) a player at a specific position in the draft. In a perfect world, Garrett noted, the Cowboys would "draft without needs." Indeed, this is what the top organizations have been doing for some time now, since they began to figure out the salary cap universe's financial nuances. The question at the time was whether the Cowboys would be able to follow suit.

One of my main concerns was that, with Dallas' core of superstars on the wrong side of 29, Jerry Jones would panic and try to buy the one or two players who might "bring us a championship"--a behavior we have seen all too often in the past. Instead, as many commentators have pointed out, the Cowboys have done anything but panic; in the midst of the first-week free agent frenzy, they have calmly gone about their business, clearly following a meticulously crafted plan of attack. Although the very best teams don't participate at all in the first week's overbidding wars (where have the Packers and Steelers been the past five days?), the Cowboys have done the next best thing this week, targeting solid players and getting good value, by free agency's standards.

More after the break...

Let's take a look at the Herculean task that lay before them not a mere three weeks ago. Before free agency began, the Cowboys had a staggering amount of roster holes to fill; if they were to fulfill Garrett's "BPA" draft plan, as many as twelve new players would have to be brought in. On offense, they needed a backup quarterback, a third receiver, a backup (preferably a good blocking) tight end and to acquire depth at offensive guard. Here's how the depth chart looks now:

Starter Backup Third String
QB Tony Romo Kyle Orton Stephen McGee
FB Lawrence Vickers
Shaun Chapas
RB DeMarco Murray Felix Jones Phillip Tanner
SE Dez Bryant ????
Dwayne Harris
FL Miles Austin ???? Raymond Radway
TE Jason Witten ???? John Phillips
LT Tyron Smith Jermey Parnell
LG Bill Nagy Mackenzy Bernadeau
David Arkin
OC Phil Costa Kevin Kowalski
RG Kyle Kosier Nate Livings David Arkin
RT Doug Free Jermey Parnell

Clearly, the bulk of Dallas' remaining work is on the offensive side of the ball--at tight end and receiver--but we can see evidence of a clear plan, even though they missed out on two targeted tight ends and had to let go of the Laurent Robinson dream.

And on defense, there was an even longer laundry list of needs: somebody to play LOLB, two inside linebackers, a free safety and multiple cornerbacks. After five days of free agency, here's how things are shaping up:

Starter Backup Third String
LDE Kenyon Coleman Sean Lissemore
NT Jay Ratliff Josh Brent
RDE Marcus Spears Jason Hatcher Clifton Geathers
LOLB Anthony Spencer Victor Butler
LILB Dan Connor Bruce Carter
RILB Sean Lee ???? Orie Lemon
ROLB DeMarcus Ware Alex Albright
LCB Brandon Carr Orlando Scandrick
SS Gerald Sensabaugh Barry Church
FS Brodney Pool
Danny McCray
RCB Mike Jenkins ???? Mario Butler

Prior to free agency (including the franchise tag period) the Cowboys had a staggering amount of holes in their defensive roster, particularly in the back eight. Now, four of those holes have been filled, with only depth at inside linebacker and at cornerback remaining as lingering roster questions--and the first of these might well be solved by Orie Lemon.

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After jettisoning elder statesmen Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo and Andre Gurode last summer, the Cowboys braintrust went on record as saying they want to continue to get younger this offseason. Consider how much younger the Cowboys are than they were to conclude the season, when 30-somethings Jon Kitna (39); Brooking (36); Terence Newman (33); Bradie James (31); Montrae Holland (31); Derrick Dockery (31); Abram Elam (30); Frank Walker (30) were on the roster. They have been replaced by Orton (31); Livings (30); Pool (27); Bernadeau (26); Connor (26) and Carr (25)--that's an average of 6.8 years younger. The exception is Vickers, who is three years older than Fiammetta; still, he's merely 28, and was offered only a two-year contract.

Other than the recently imported Orton and Livings, Dallas now has only five player on the roster who are currently 30 or older: Kosier (33); Kenyon Coleman (32); L.P. Ladouceur (31); Tony Romo (31) and Jay Ratliff (30)--and it wouldn't surprise me, depending on what happens in the remainder of free agency and the draft, to see Coleman and Kosier cut before opening day. That's what we call a youth movement, people--and it happened very quickly.

And youth must be at the heart of a successful team's talent acquisition mission. You may recall the "free agency commandments" that I articulated in a recent post. Here they are (in case you haven't committed them to memory!):

1. Avoid the initial feeding frenzy

2. Avoid "one player away" thinking

3. Avoid signing older players

4. Avoid middling players on great teams

5. Take care of your own guys

6. Trying to get out of the quicksand quickly can get you into deeper quicksand

Looking at this list, the Cowboys failed to obey the first commandment; however, they performed exceptionally well in terms of commandments three and four. Of these, I think the most important is number three. A cardinal rule--perhaps the cardinal rule--of managing the salary cap is to avoid giving big, multi-year contracts to players 30 years of age or older, because their skills typically diminish before they play out the contract, leaving the team in question with a lot money tied up in a declining player.

And, instead of middling players on great teams, whose price is driven up by the former team's success (think of the 90s Cowboys: Kenny Gant, Alvin Harper, and Larry Brown all got huge free agent paydays), the Cowboys went the opposite route, targeting solid to very good guys from bad teams. Is it any accident the Cowboys' roster now boasts two new ex-Chiefs and ex-Panthers? I think not...

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In the past, as we are painfully aware, Jerry Jones has often disobeyed these FA dicta, consistently falling prey to "one player away" thinking and signing older guys in an effort to win now. As a result, the Cowboys have been caught in the nasty vortex that is commandment number six: the more they have struggled to extract themselves, the older the team got, and the more extreme became the salary cap ramifications. But this year feels very different; might we look back on free agency 2012 as the dawning of a new era? In a recent free agency review, our beloved O.C.C. sagely opined:

In many ways, this feels like the most methodical, process-driven and determined approach to free agency we've seen from Jerry Jones, and it's not a stretch to think that the growing influence of both Stephen Jones and Jason Garrett is behind this.

Media pundits have oft said that the Cowboys cannot succeed without a "strong" head coach, one who can overrule Jerry and institute his own plan. I'm not sure this is accurate; I think Jerry needs a coach with a plan. The elder Jones is fundamentally impatient, so much so that he is incapable of implementing a long-term plan. He is also a terrific collaborator who listens to his guys, especially his head coach. I have written elsewhere that Jerry Jones is a chameleon, adaptable to his surroundings. Usually, this has meant that he'll begin to parrot the philosophical mantras of his head coach--when the coach has one. Who are the three coaches whose language Jerry has appropriated? Johnson, Parcells, and Garrett.

In short, when that head coach has a plan, then the organization has a plan. Garrett, the ultimate detail-oriented planner, had a clear-eyed free agency strategy gleaned from the behaviors of the most successful organizations. That's a plan I can get behind; certainly, Jerry seems to have.

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