During the preseason, we heard Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones discuss how "the window is closing" for a team with aging stars and leaders. Future Hall of Famers Jason Witten and Demarcus Ware, both having turned thirty, mirrored the sentiments when they discussed their careers and some goals they still haven't accomplished. I understand the concern. I appreciate the honesty. I marvel at their passion and talent. But I humbly disagree...and I think Jason Garrett would too.
In the recent past, the team has been comprised primarily of a veteran roster that often proved to be overhyped or that simply underperformed. While the majority of leaders and Pro Bowlers on the current Cowboys roster are veterans closer to the end of their careers, the majority of the 2012 roster consists of a large group of young players, many just reaching their prime. Franchises that prove to be perennial playoff contenders usually mirror this kind of roster that Jason Garrett and company has put together over the past few years. Every great player will one day retire. It is the strong franchise that already has potential replacements in-house that avoids the "down" years and manages to contend for the playoffs every year.
It is never easy to replace players that will one day be in the running for the Hall of Fame. Jason Witten and Demarcus Ware will be greatly missed when they retire. It could be in two years or it could be in three or more. The question is: Can this current roster compete for a run at the playoffs during that time and eventually survive the day those players, and others like Tony Romo and Jay Ratliff, retire? Taking a closer look at the Cowboys roster and the age and potential of the players throughout the depth chart, the answer seems pretty clear. Jason Garrett has a long-term plan, and if we believe in that process this team will be competitive for many years.
The overhaul of the offensive line, and some other position groups like the linebackers and secondary, has already made a few things clear about Jason Garrett's approach to team building. If you are not getting better from one day to the next, you are simply stealing a roster spot for someone who is improving and could one day become great. This has several positive effects for a franchise. It will usually help avoid a bloating salary cap burdened by contracts overpaying players in decline, and it keeps the depth charts full of hungry players that are always fighting and competing to improve. Personally, I love this model and have already seen some tangible benefits and changes to the team, even among some older players that previously lacked this environment. If done properly, this kind of franchise building will allow a team to have a roster led by veteran stars and supported by a deep crew of solid youngsters that improve from one week to the next...making the franchise perennial contenders.
Tony Romo (31)
DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, Jay Ratliff (30)
At first look, this list would certainly support the claim of a closing window. With eight starters at or nearing thirty - most with Pro Bowls on their resume - it would be reasonable to assume that they will begin to decline within the next three years. After a little consideration, the conspiracy theorist in me begins to also see some overlap in the limited training camp action due to preseason injuries and the players on this list. But perhaps the best news for the Cowboys is that most of their veteran leaders did not begin getting every-down snaps until later in their careers, so it is possible players like Romo, Austin, Ratliff, Sensabaugh, and Free could last longer than expected. Ware and Witten have certainly played their fair share of downs, but consummate professionals and athletic marvels, they could also outlast their presumed "best by" dates.
However, setting the optimist in me aside, let's consider a true need to have a replacement for each within the next two to three years...and it still seems the team is already nearly ready for the transition.
Leaders in their Prime
The current Cowboys roster has two team leaders that are already replacing their veteran counterparts, at least in their roles as leaders on the field. While Lee and Carr play different positions than Ware and Sensabaugh, Lee already has the grasp of the game and play-recognition to line up the defensive-front, while Carr already seems to be becoming an emotional leader in the secondary and helping them avoid the blown coverages that plagued the team a year ago. Both these players are in their prime and should have outstanding seasons for Dallas.
Dez Bryant amazes fans, players, coaches, and the media alike with catches that aren't even completed passes. He is still improving in his craft, but already has every physical trait necessary to become one of the best at his position. Miles Austin will be missed (already is with his nagging injuries), but the Cowboys appear to have a very young and talented #1 receiver for the present and future.
Doug Free has already been replaced at the most important position along the offensive-line by a young man that just turned twenty-one. I was one of the most ardent Smith supporters before he was drafted, and the phenome has even exceeded my expectations for his initial success. He is clearly the best lineman of his rookie class and will only get better in the days and seasons to come.
It's amazing how many players at or below the age of twenty-five will be contributing on game day for the Dallas Cowboys. Felix Jones (25) and DeMarco Murray (24) provide a great deal of talent at the running back position and should both continue to improve over the coming seasons. Jason Witten is not easily replaceable, but if Captain America can continue to do his thing for a few more years, players like John Phillips (25) and James Hanna (23) should be coming into their own as proven commodities in the search for a replacement. While Jermey Parnell and Mackenzy Bernadeau (26) just miss the cut, the Youglies will have plenty of young linemen to support Tyron Smith. Phil Costa (25) is eagerly awaiting his return while David Arkin (24) continues to get the reps the small-school lineman needs to compete in the NFL. Ron Leary and Kevin Kowalski (23) have shown some promise and provide young talent as backups.
Dez Bryant is not the only young receiver that could see the field this season. Every other receiver, including Kevin Ogletree (25), should be considered Generation Garrett considering their ages: Raymond Radway (25), Dwayne Harris, Andre Holmes (24), Cole Beasley and Danny Coale (23). While the inexperience could worry some Cowboys fans this season, especially with Austin and Dez currently rehabbing injuries, this is not an aging group with a closing window.
On the defensive side of the ball, the youth movement is also prevalent. In the secondary, several Generation Garrett defensive backs will support Carr. Orlando Scandrick (25), Barry Church (24), and Morris Claiborne (22) will all see game day snaps. This doesn't even include the uncertain future of Mike Jenkins (27). And while the roster is not yet trimmed down, the leading back-up candidates are all young as well: Danny McCray and Mana Silva (24), Mario Butler and Matt Johnson (23).
The defensive-front is full of young talent as well. Jay Ratliff may not have much left in the tank, but the Cowboys currently have three young players with a realistic shot of replacing him, and Sean Lissemore, Josh Brent, and Clifton Geathers are all only twenty-four years old. And Generation Garrett doesn't end there for the Big Nasties, where Tyrone Crawford and possibly Ben Bass (22) add even more young talent to the d-line rotation.
With Bradie James and Keith Brooking no longer on the team, Ware and Spencer are now the oldest Cowboys linebackers. With Sean Lee solidifying the middle linebacker position and supported by nobody older than himself, the "closing window" debate concerns the replacing of the pressure from the outside linebackers and one of the best pass rushers in NFL history. Demarcus Ware is such a rare talent that it is unfair to find one man to replace him. But the Cowboys now have a handful of young linebackers that have shown some talent at rushing the passer, and all are Generation Garrett: Victor Butler (25), Bruce Carter, Adrian Hamilton, Alex Albright (24), Kyle Wilber (23).
The Future Looks Bright
The Dallas Cowboys are such a young team, that it almost seems silly to consider them having a "closing window." Even their kicker and punter are under the age of twenty-five, and there are so many youngsters contributing that it almost seems like the greatest concern for the team should actually be how young the roster is, not how close the leaders are to retiring. But because those veteran stars support the young talent, this team has the ability to compete in the playoffs this season, and has still been built for long-term success. Every team must face the day when their veteran stars retire or are no longer with the team. But few teams have the number of young studs the Cowboys roster has waiting in the wings. Already, the team's future seems solid with the young talent at the running back, wide receiver, left tackle, middle linebacker and corner positions. In the next few years the team can find the Murray, Dez, Tyron, Lee, Claiborne/Carr equivalents at quarterback, outside linebacker, and tight end, and are already ahead of schedule with several promising candidates on the team that would be reaching their prime when the veterans begin to retire.
Jason Garrett has been very practical with his team building process. The team had a terrible o-line and veterans were released and Tyron Smith was drafted. The Cowboys secondary was a liability, and veterans were released while Brandon Carr was signed and Morris Claiborne was drafted. We don't know what will happen after 2012, but I am certain of one thing. Garrett will continue to build for the long run. I wouldn't be surprised to see a top-notch pass-rusher and quarterback with upside being drafted in the near future, if guys like Butler, Wilber, and Carpenter don't pan out. I understand the worry of the "closing window" for some current Cowboys greats, but I apparently have too much faith in Jason Garrett (and the coaching staff and front-office he has brought together) to think those problems won't be solved by the time they become a reality. It's true; there are veteran stars that may not be on this team in three years, but there are dozens of players that will be reaching their prime when that time comes. Ware and Romo's windows may be closing, but it seems the team's window isn't. To me, it seems the Jason Garrett Cowboys may be replacing that window with huge patio doors...and there is a bright and promising Red Dawn on the horizon.