For the last few seasons, the Dallas Cowboys have been singled out as a talented team that has underperformed. Recently, this nationwide view has been tempered by consecutive non-winning seasons (6-10, and 8-8). The perception that this edition of the Cowboys team has an abundance of talent has been rebuffed by the most ardent Dallas fans.
But the talent that exists on this team should not be completely overlooked. Jay Ratliff graded out well (as per Pro Football Focus- PFF) in 2011, and Sean Lissemore also posted a positive performance on limited snaps. DeMarcus Ware is the best pass rushing outside linebacker in the NFL, and may be one of the best ever. Sean Lee also had a great season and looks like a future Pro Bowl player.
On the other side of the ball, Miles Austin, Jason Witten, and Tony Romo are recognized Pro Bowl players. Tyron Smith looks like a future All Pro offensive tackle, and DeMarco Murray may be the next Cowboys Pro Bowl running back. Dez Bryant has the physical tools to become a dominant wide receiver in the NFL.
Of course, not all of the players on the Cowboys are either great, or show the real potential to be great. Anthony Spencer (assuming he will be franchised as reported), Mike Jenkins, Gerald Sensabaugh, Victor Butler, and Doug Free (based on his previous work at right tackle) lead the next level of Dallas Cowboys players. That quintet has not produced or has not shown the ability to perform at the high level expected from the top 10 Cowboys players mentioned above, but are still solid contributors.
Almost half of the Dallas starters are either Pro Bowl players, or young players with a very high probability of reaching at least one Pro Bowl during their career. Another handful of players are solid performers that are far from liabilities. A strong argument can be made, however, that the true issue with the Dallas Cowboys lies within the next group of players.
Terence Newman, Orlando Scandrick, Marcus Spears, Bill Nagy, Phil Costa, and Kyle Kosier are current Cowboys players that started last season and received a negative season grade from PFF. Abram Elam, Bradie James, and Keith Brooking should be added to that list of 2011 starters that had a negative season grade from PFF, but they are technically no longer on the roster.
So Dallas has ten players that either have been or can be difference makers, and nine players that contribute more to losing than they do to winning. Given that there are almost as many bad players as good players on the starting roster, is it any wonder that the Cowboys were 8-8 last season?
Furthermore, notice that half of the players mentioned in the top ten were either rookies in 2010, or not drafted until 2011. That makes 6-10 all that more understandable in 2010.
The problem with this team is not a dearth of top-end talent, but rather poor depth that includes the starters. While it is tempting to convert a weakness into a relative strength by signing a veteran player such as Carl Nicks, Brandon Carr, or Mario Williams, to do so would be complete folly and add to this unparalleled run of futility for this franchise.
Instead of spending much of the available salary cap on a few star players, the Cowboys would be better served to moderately upgrade the cornerback position, the strong safety position, a defensive end position, the center position, and at least one offensive guard. Signing a moderately priced cornerback would likely be an upgrade over the play provided by Newman after Thanksgiving, and still leave enough money to sign a reasonably priced guard and/or safety (as well as re-sign Laurent Robinson, Tony Fiammetta, and franchise Anthony Spencer).
Enhancing the level of play from the defensive line, cornerbacks, safety, and the interior offensive line will lead to a greater overall upgrade in team performance than the simple incremental gains made through the individual improvements. In other words, the team will play better than the sum of its parts as great players can focus on their respective duties without as much concern that teammates will blow assignments, leading to the eventual failure of the play.
This is the only approach the Cowboys can take if the team is truly committed to winning a Super Bowl. Jason Garrett has repeatedly noted that he wants competition at every position. Competition not only helps each player maximize their individual talents, but also leads to depth beyond the starters. That depth is critically necessary during the regular season to provide the team with the best possibility to make the playoffs.
Once in the playoffs, the healthiest team generally wins. During the middle of last season, the Giants lost four games in a row. The fact that Dallas and Philadelphia did not take advantage of New York's injury woes kept the Giants in the playoff hunt. At the end of the season, New York was one of the healthiest teams to make the post season.
Instead of relying upon the incompetence of division rivals, however, a better strategy is to develop enough depth to avoid four game losing streaks when injuries strike players down. To develop this depth, the Cowboys need to stay away from signing the high-profile, big money free agents, and make modest improvements to the positions of greatest need while adroitly drafting future difference makers.
Notice how all of the top ten players on the Cowboys were either obtained through the draft, or as undrafted rookie free agents. Solid players (such as Sensabaugh, Fiammetta, and Robinson, if the latter two remain with the Cowboys) can be obtained through free agency. The best free agents seem to be relative values that are also young.
Youth is an important variable in assembling a team. Not only do younger players tend to heal from injuries in a timely manner, but as Jimmy Johnson noted to Jason Garrett, young players improve significantly from the beginning of the season to its conclusion. The progress of the team correlates to the development of the younger players. As the younger players step up to meet the challenges presented throughout the course of the season, the performance of the team spikes towards its capacities.
The need for youth places further importance on the draft. Developing young players is a...process.
The advancement of the team is a...process. This process requires patience and an unwavering commitment to the future.
Patience keeps those in power from deviating from the path set forth. Patience leads to wins. Patience leads to a sixth Super Bowl Championship.
Patience is hard (another four-letter word), though. Patience may also be a process...