The big news out of Cowboyland late last night was that Jerry Jones proclaimed at the NFL's annual spring meetings admitted that the team's "window is closing." At first glance, this might seem a peculiar admission given that the team has clearly spent the past two offseasons
rebuilding reloading the roster. In the process, they have become younger and deeper, two characteristics that tend to translate into success. So, as with everything Jerry says, we must ask: what the heck is he talking about?
Thankfully, he offered a bit of clarification. After a lame joke about his own window closing, he told reporters, "I do feel real pressure because we do have players not only in Tony Romo, but Jason Witten DeMarcus Ware, to leave out several" others such as Jay Ratliff, "that are [also] in the prime of their career." Indeed, the Cowboys have long relied on a core group of players that were largely the result of strong drafts in 2003 and 2005. With Terence Newman and Bradie James having recently been let go, the sole survivor from 2003 is Jason WItten (although, as we know, Romo joined the team as an UDFA that year as well). Three players Ware, Ratliff and Marcus Spears, remain from 2005.
Years ago, I heard a scouting type say that teams win with a core of players in the sweet spot of their careers, which he defined as years 5-8. Since then, with young players being forced to play so much earlier, this sweet spot has probably shifted, to something like years 4-7 or even 3-6. If we can accept this, then the Cowboys core group was in their primes between 2007-2010, which (prepare to wince) exactly coincided with the Wade Phillips years.
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In the past, I have written that, among the various mistakes and excesses of the Phillips years, the most painful is that the organization seems to have wasted the years of some of the best players ever to have donned the star. Briefly consider the careers of the '03 and '05 classes' respective golden children:
Witten currently stands 39th all-time, with 696 receptions, which ranks third among tight ends, behind Shannon Sharpe (818) and Tony Gonzalez, who, with 1,149 catches trails only Jerry Rice. Unlike Gonzalez, number 82 is a terrific blocker, both in-line and form the "F-back" position. And, he's the quintessential team player, the guy that Garrett instinctively refers to when asked what constitutes an "RKG."
After seven NFL seasons, Ware is currently poised at 99.5 sacks, which gives him an average of 14.2 a year (for a bit of perspective, Julius Peppers, the guy immediately in front of Ware on the all-time sacks list, with an even hundred, has played three more seasons). At this pace, he will find himself in the top ten all-time after the 2014 season, and in the top five after 2015. Like Witten, Ware is a great teammate, an unassuming guy who brings his lunch pail to work everyday.
Witten and Ware have probably already done enough to be inducted into the team's Ring of Honor. If they can sustain a couple more seasons at or near their recent rate of productivity (both of them are only 29), they have a legitimate shot at the Hall of Fame and serious consideration for GOAT status. Add to this the careers of Romo, who will almost certainly retire with all of the Cowboys career passing marks, and Ratliff, who, like Witten, is an RKG posterchild, and you have a group of guys who have conducted themselves like champions.
Yet these exquisite players, who have served this franchise with maximum effort and the greatest humility, can boast but one - as in single, solitary - playoff win. Frankly, they deserve more, and the organization has failed them, with bad hiring choices, questionable personnel decisions and moribund (or worse) drafts. Having a Hall of Fame core doesn't matter when that greatness lines up next to knuckleheads or mediocrities. I think Jerry realizes that he and the team have let these guys down by not surrounding them with a better, tougher, deeper team.
And that's why he said, "we need to strike and strike soon with those guys," adding that both he and Garrett recognize how "urgent" it is "that now is the time to compete on the field." We can talk all we want about the team needing to win now, before they have to replace once-in-a-generation players like Romo, Witten and Ware. But, as Jerry dimly suggests, there is another crucial part to this equation: the Cowboys need to win now because they owe it to these warriors to give them the team they deserve, a team that fights for 60 minutes for all sixteen games, a team filled with hungry, athletic, hard-working, mentally tough players.
That's exactly what Garrett is building, and urgently. The burning question is: can the youngsters grow up in time to give these guys the kind of team they so richly deserve?