In a recent interview on 105.3, Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones suggested that he wants to stir things up at Valley Ranch as a way to break his team plaything out from its current cycle of mediocrity. Because the NFL is a league designed to ensure parity, Jones remarked, "If you don't do something almost unconventional, then you don't really break out of that cycle."Citing the Herschel Walker trade as an example of such unconventional thinking, Jerry suggested that the Redskins' gamble to move up in the draft for RGIII and the Broncos' signing of a gimpy Peyton Manning were similarly risky moves, but ones that allowed these teams to "drive across the water," so to speak.
Jerry has always seen himself as a risk-taker; indeed, one might say that "risk" has been the Cowboys core philosophy under his tenure as owner. Certainly, a successful team needs somebody in a leadership position who isn't afraid to pull the trigger on a difficult decision of high-risk, high-reward deal (such as trading Herschel Walker to the Vikings), but in the parity-driven NFL, "risk" is not a sound strategy. In fact, the strongest organizations make calculated risks, but have a clear rubric, derived from a sound philosophy, that they can use to make those calculations.
The weaker NFL franchises don't have such a philosophical superstructure in place, and thus make decisions comparatively haphazardly. When they are frustrated, as Jones clearly is (he told the radio jocks "I can tell you change is necessary at 8-8"), they change their way of operating and their decision making processes. If they ever established a set of core beliefs, they abandon them and develop new ones. The best teams, on the other hand, trust in their core beliefs, even when they encounter setbacks; they believe strongly in their way of doing things, and believe that this methodology will, eventually, lead to a break-through.
Indeed, in his New Year's Eve presser, Jason Garrett expressed exactly such a belief. Citing a documentary about Duke and UNC basketball, which he characterized as "two of the marquee programs in all of sports, and maybe two of the marquee organizations anywhere," he told reporters:
What was really interesting to me in watching this thing was to see the number of times these really really good programs stumbled at the brink early on when they were trying to get themselves established.
And they both had the right plan; they were going to do things the right kind of way with the right kind of people and they were making great strides but they kept getting to these points where they couldn't get it done, they couldn't break through...and they kept getting knocked back, knocked back, knocked back, but finally each of the programs broke through.
And I think that's a great lesson for our team, because we are trying to put a program together, and we've worked very hard to try to put it together the right way over the last couple years, and we've had two games in the last couple of years where we have been on the brink in week 17 but got knocked back...[the Cowboys didn't do a good enough job finishing] but we have to understand there's history and there's precedent. In these kinds of situations, as you're trying to put a program together, you're going to get knocked back, you're not always going to achieve it in year one, or year two - but keep doing things the right way and you will break through, and we believe that.
That Garrett would use ACC basketball as an example should not surprise. Soon after he had been officially named the Cowboys head coach, the RHG spent a weekend on the campus at Duke, trailing the Blue Devils' legendary basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, as he went about the business of running his program. In his three days in Durham, Garrett spoke with Krzyzewski at length about such topics as handling players, scheduling, and the structure of practices and meetings - and concluded his trip by taking in a Sunday night game from a seat behind the Duke bench.
Not surprisingly, Garrett came away most impressed with Coach K himself: "He has an amazing way of creating an environment that is so organized, so systematic, so seamless," Garrett later told The National Football Post, "the execution and everything they do is off the charts." Garrett also raved about Krzyzewski's personal touch and the close bonds he forms with everybody in the entire Duke Basketball organization. "It's a combination of IBM at its finest moments and the greatest mom and pop shop you've ever seen," Garrett recalled, "and [Coach K] puts it together."
This combination - and the entire Duke model - left Garrett inspired. "We're not trying to be Duke basketball," he said, "but it's a good model for how an organization functions." What Jason Garrett is trying to build in Dallas is the NFL equivalent of what Coach K. has established in Durham. The key thing to remember is that Krzyzewski didn't meet with overnight success; although he inherited a solid program when he took the helm in 1980 (Duke was in the NCAA championship in 1978), his first three teams went 17-13, 10-17, and 11-17, finishing fifth, sixth and seventh in the ACC, respectively.
In his fourth and fifth seasons, Duke showed showed improvement, finishing 24-10 and then 23-8, making the NCAA tourney both years - but were twice knocked out in the second round. Then, in the five seasons from 1985-90, Duke played in four final fours and two title games - but never won the big prize. Finally, in 1991, they broke through, winning the first of two consecutive national championships. Things haven't always been rosy - the Blue Devils stumbled to a 13-18 finish in 1994-95 - but Duke has, as Garrett notes, become "one of the marquee organizations anywhere."
The primary reason for this is consistency. Rather than repeatedly re-inventing who they are, Coach K. and his staff have long adhered to a set of core values. Duke might not have the most talented players in the country (indeed, they usually don't), but they always know who they are and what style of basketball they want to play. As a result, they are always a title contender, always in the hunt. As of today, January 2, they are 12-0, with a game tonight against Davidson.
This is the kind of consistency that Tom Landry brought to the Cowboys for three decades. Whether or not Garrett is able to do the same is, of course, yet to be determined. But the fact that he sees the importance of building a program, that he sees the striking correlation between consistency and winning, is a huge step in the right direction for the Dallas Cowboys organization.
And I think even The Impulsive One get this. Later in the interview, Jerry Jones backed off his insistence on radical change, declaring that he wasn't yet ready to take the kind of risks that Washington and Denver has taken to secure their respective quarterbacks. Although its not in his nature, I think he realizes, in his few rational moments, that risk is not a viable strategy. If he can be patient, Jerry (and Cowboys fans everywhere) will be more likely to see the break-through that Garrett describes.
Whereas the risk model and its closely-aligned brethren, the "one player away," go all in," and "closing window" philosophies, bring temporary successes, such as a lone 13-3 season in the midst of a series of 9-7 records and week 17 disappointments, a program - the kind of model employed by New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Green Bay - allows for that change to be lasting and consistent. Organizations, like Duke basketball, that have a program are not merely tournament-worthy but are legitimate title contenders year in and year out. And isn't that what we want for the Cowboys?
In part II, I'll look at the league's 32 teams, try to determine which have a program in place, and speculate on what such a program does to the consistency of their win-loss records.