Jason Garrett has re-emphasized a culture of competition for the Cowboys. I may be wrong, but I don’t think there’s been a single press conference in which Garrett hasn’t touched on competition as a key driver of what the Cowboys have been doing this year. It’s been a key theme for the Cowboys throughout the offseason.
Of course, competition by itself is not really that novel of an idea for a professional sports team. So what does competition really mean, especially in the context of the looming roster cuts?
Does it mean the best players make the roster? And would those best players be the best players right now, or the players with the best potential? That’s the question the Cowboys have to answer at almost every position where there is competition for a roster spot.
And answering that question is a much more complex undertaking than you would think. Find out why after the break.
One of the key challenges for any type of organization is aligning the targets of all the decision makers in that organization. And it's no different for NFL franchises:
Only 11 of the 32 NFL coaches this season have a losing career record in the NFL, and not all of them will survive the season. In the NFL, winning equals job security. It follows that the coaches, especially the assistant coaches, are primarily focused on the short term. They want to keep their jobs or are angling for a promotion. And they’ll only get what they want with immediate, short-term results. Assistant coaches, by definition, have no interest in prospects that will need three years to develop. Their decision making process naturally gravitates towards proven, reliable veterans over players with less or no NFL experience - unless one of those young players truly stands out.
That may explain why - to use wide receivers as a random example here - three-year veteran Kevin Ogletree and second-year man Dwayne Harris immediately showed up high on the first depth charts of the season, while the rookies all showed up below them.
Providing somewhat of a counterbalance to the coaches are the scouts and the front office. The scouts because by definition they’re focused on identifying a players’ potential, and the front office because they’re ideally already looking at how this year’s roster choices will impact future roster choices two, three or four years down the line.
Depending on the franchise, the arbitrator between these positions is usually the head coach or the GM. In the Cowboys’ case, I don’t think anybody can be 100% certain who makes the final decisions at Valley Ranch. But they are not easy decisions in any case.
Do you go for a player like perhaps Kenyon Coleman, who offers the best short-term option for winning games, or do you go for young prospects like Ben Bass or Baraka Atkins, who may be in the best long-term interest of the franchise, but won’t help you win next Wednesday against the Giants?
In the end, you find yourself back at the production versus potential debate. The veteran player provides consistency and reliability, yet usually lacks any type of upside. Young players lack the consistency of a veteran but they can improve suddenly, unexpectedly and exponentially, which makes them that much more difficult to scout and to assess.
But the young players often need time to realize their full potential. Do you expect an Adrian Hamilton to be as good a pass rusher as DeMarcus Ware? Of course not. But could he contribute to the pass rush next season? Perhaps. And the only way to find out how good he can be is to play him at the NFL level.
Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears are not going to suddenly break out this year. They will not surprise this year. The Cowboys will not suddenly discover that one of them is the next J.J. Watt. Neither player is capable of that. But neither player will make rookie mistakes either. And when you have them lined up in the game, you know exactly what to expect from them.
Building a contender means accepting some growing pains in the process of developing young talent. The Cowboys must strike a delicate balance between winning now and winning longer term. It’s not an easy task, and to get it right, the entire organization must pull in the same direction.
Can the Cowboys do that?