On Thursday, our fearless leader offered a comprehensive look at NFL Free Agency's Byzantine collection of rules and operating procedures. With free agency starting tomorrow, this is required reading; before reading the following, take a few minutes and parse its contents, if you haven't done so already.
Here, in this column, I'd like to talk about how teams interact with these rules. In short, I'd like us to think about organizational behavior. In myriad pressers, Jason Garrett has pointed out that free agency can't be evaluated in isolation, but must be considered as one aspect of a complex offseason talent acquisition process that includes the draft, free agency, UDFA's, and trades. With that in mind, I want to take a look at what the most successful teams do in the draft and free agency and then see how Dallas' offseason moves stack up.
Garrett has also gone on record claiming that he wants the team to use free agency to "set up the draft." This is important; the best drafting organizations don't use the annual selection meeting to address their most immediate perceived needs. Rather, they make selections based on the best player available rather than attempting to fill roster holes. Of course, they can only do this because they adopt a sober, long-view approach to free agency. In other words, they tend to adhere to a set of protocols shared by all the most successful franchises.
What are these sacred tenets? Almost a month ago, O.C.C. outlined an excellent set of five free agency mistakes, focusing on the specific position types that a clearheaded organization should avoid (the third receiver in a prolific passing offense, for example). Although I'll refer to Cool's work herein, what I want to do is to offer a broader set of operating tenets that characterize the most stable organizations' behavior during the free agency period. So, without further ado, here are free agency's Six Commandments:
1. Thou Shalt Wait Until the Storm Passeth
Every year, the first week of free agency brings a feeding (and paying) frenzy, in which the "top names" are hurriedly signed to top-dollar deals. Think about the first-week, big-money free agent signings of the past few offseasons, in which teams eager to improve their rosters convince themselves that they simply must get a certain player or players and, as a result, get caught up in a bidding war for their services. This is the epitome of short-view thinking and, almost invariably, they overpay because of it. Will Mario Williams ever perform to the level of the 6-year, $96 million contract the Bills gave him?
However, after that first week or so, the market settles down and the smarter teams jump in, offering solid players low-money or short-term contracts, deals that the players are much more likely to play up to. Think about it: when was the last time the Patriots, Steelers, Colts, or Packers jumped into the first-week overpaying frenzy? They haven't, because they are patient, stable, rational organizations.
This is where the Cowboys have been burned. First-week signings in 2005 (Marco Rivera, Anthony Henry) and 2008 (Leonard Davis) never provided a satisfying return on investment. In 2011, however, they were patient and financially prudent, waiting until the safety and defensive line markets settled down to secure fair and/ or short-term deals for the guys they brought aboard.
In 2012, Dallas' braintrust was a bit schizophrenic. On one hand, they offered Brandon Carr a huge payday; on the other, they signed several veterans to reasonable deals that allowed them to be released with very little financial penalty. Brodney Pool was let go in training camp; Dan Connor is likely to be jettisoned in the next 24 hours. Going in to the 2013 shopfest, the question is: which Cowboys team will we see?
Assuming Dallas has learned its lesson, they'll sit back and wait as teams pay ridiculous money for players in their late twenties and early thirties. Then, in the last week of March, they'll strike, snapping up good values...
2. Thou Shalt Avert Thy Gaze From the Heavens
...as long as the team can avoid "one player away" thinking. As O.C.C. writes, "Don't ever think that you're just one or two players away, because no team ever is, especially not in this era of the NFL." Yet, every year, teams succumb to the siren song of the much ballyhooed free agent, the Pro-Bowler who can elevate a franchise. Ever since Reggie White helped to transform the Packers in FA's early days, teams have been looking for saviors in free agency, guys who can enact a similar transformation. Certainly, there are players who have enacted such magical conjuration; sure, Drew Brees has done precisely that for a moribund Saints organization, but he is the exception, not the rule.
The problem is that these magicians almost never become available. Since teams learned how to manage the free agency, salary cap controlled NFL landscape, almost nobody fails to keep the players that they want to retain. Thus, the guys who are on the market are there because their old teams, who know them best, didn't want them. If a guy was a star in the clubhouse and on the field, you can rest assured that he wouldn't be available. But every year, at free agent time, teams forget this - and overpay for the promise of a salvation that never comes.
Cowboys fans must be wary: as we saw with the pursuit of Nnamdi Asomugah in August 2011, Jerry Jones is very susceptible to this brand of thinking. Thankfully, the two other members of the Cowboys leadership triumvirate, Jason Garrett and Stephen Jones, are level-headed, clear-thinking men. If they can manage a clear-eyed look at the roster, Dallas will be more likely to make sound, financially prudent talent acquisition choices. With this commandment, Cowboys fans cannot not rest easy; Jerry loves him some highlight reel players.
3. Thou Shalt Forsake the Aged
A cardinal rule--perhaps the cardinal rule--of managing the salary cap is to avoid giving multi-year contracts to players 30 years of age or older. The reasoning behind this is that players' skills historically diminish in their early 30s, so the team in question will have a lot money tied up in a declining player. This is particularly true of running backs. A notorious example is Ahman Green. Less than three weeks after he turned 30, the Texans signed Green to a four-year, $23 million contract that included $8 million the first season. Green rushed for 554 yards and five touchdowns in two injury-riddled campaigns. The Packers were smart to let him go; the Texans? No so much...
As Cool writes, "spending big money on a veteran free agent running back is not exactly the sign of a forward-thinking organization." He points out that the Cowboys had to learn this lesson the hard way in 2008, when they made Marion Barber, he of the punishing style, one of the highest paid running backs in the league. Two years later, he was done, and only his huge cap hit remained as a reminder of his time in Dallas.
Although the organization's discipline has certainly improved when it comes to chasing shiny objects, one negative behavior continues to assert itself. By far the primary reason the team currently finds itself up against the salary cap is that, as with Barber, they continue to offer their own players big contracts that tend to overpay for the level of performance heretofore demonstrated. This leads us to the next commandment:
4. Thou Shalt Take Care of Thine Own Sons
Closely related to the above commandment is this: good teams draft well, coach up their players and offer certain core guys reasonable second contracts before they hit free agency. In the past five years it is very clear that Dallas has sought to implement this strategy. Consider the emerging core players, mostly from the 2003 and 2005 drafts, who they re-signed before they ever had a chance to go on the market: Tony Romo, Miles Austin, DeMarcus Ware, and Jason Witten. And I would argue that Orlando Scandrick should be added to this group.
Why? Taking care of one's own is particularly important at what I like to call the Five Positions of Great Import (POGI): QB, WR, LT, DE, and CB, as these are premium positions and, as such, lend themselves to free agent market frenzy. All the core guys on the above list play a POGI, except Jason Witten, whose sustained awesomeness makes him an exception to almost every rule. And that's why it's almost a certainty that recent POGI draftees like Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith and Mo Claiborne will never see free agency (I think Sean Lee might well join them, as a Witten-like exception to the POGI rule)
That's a sound talent maintenance strategy, but the Cowboys have gone overboard with it. In recent years, they have too frequently crossed their fingers that a beat up or aging player will somehow regain his earlier form. Barber, and Terrence Newman, inked high-value contracts that their bodies couldn't live up to. What are the chances Ratliff, who has spent his career absorbing double-teams, lives up to his?
5. Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Most Excellent Neighbor's Mediocrities
This is also know as the "Larry Brown rule." Brown, as you'll recall, happened to have a miraculous day in his final game as a Cowboy, gathering in two errant - and I mean errant - passes to secure Super Bowl XXX MVP honors. The result? A huge payday from the Raiders that he never came close to playing up to. The vast majority of available free agents every season are Larry Browns: serviceable vets, many of whom were solid cogs in a well-oiled machine. But the fact that some of them play for elite teams raises their value far beyond their ability. Think of all the players from the Cowboys or Patriots dynasties, the Jimmy Joneses and Ellis Hobbses, who got paid, in essence, for being well coached by their former teams. As O.C.C. wrote in his cautionary FA post, "Team success often obscures the view of individual performance."
This is a trap the Eagles fell into in 2011, then they signed former Packer defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, whose glow was largely a reflection from the shiny Lombardi the Pack had captured that February. While he certainly wasn't a bust in Philly, Jenkins wasn't the playmaker he had been for the Packers, when he was part of a very deep defensive line rotation. I'd argue that the opposite strategy works best: bring in good players from bad teams, as the Cowboys did with Brandon Carr last year.
Historically, Dallas has done a good job negotiating this commandment. But one reason why they have done so is that they choose to spend all their Semolians re-upping their own guys. In this, the front office appears to have followed the media's lead in overvaluing their own Larry Browns. The big paydays given to Ken Hamlin, Sensabaugh, Scandrick and Doug Free all serve as persuasive examples. For the Cowboys to maximize their talent-versus-expenditure ratio, they'll have to do a much better job doing the one thing that they continuously struggle with: objectively evaluating the guys on their own roster. Which has often led them to the problem our next commandment addresses:
6. Thou Shalt Not Atone For Past Sins With Further Sinning
This is the free agent vortex in which the Cowboys have been trapped in recent years: making up for draft failings by filling holes via big-ticket free agency signings. This is most evident along the offensive line, where the Cowboys failure to draft or develop decent offensive linemen resulted in dipping deep into the salary cap pool to secure the likes of Marco Rivera, Leonard, Davis, or Nate Livings. The larger point here is that every team makes mistakes in the draft or fails to draft equally well at all positions and therefore has to fill roster holes via free agency. But the smart teams do so by acquiring mid-level veterans who they can easily afford to cast aside when they do find a good young player at the position (think Kyle Kosier or Mackenzy Bernadeau).
It remains to be seen how disciplined Dallas can be in this regard, but there is hope for an upturn. Last offseason, they did a good job using free agency to fill roster holes - and, other than the Carr contract, they did so without breaking the bank (and with Carr's deal, we can see why it cost so much: he fit so many of the ideal FA criteria: good to great player, durable, plays a POGI, just coming off his first contract, played for a bad team). This year, I'd expect more of the same, so if you're wondering who they'll bring aboard, look at the largest roster holes (not soft spots, but holes), and look for mid-to low-level players in 26-28 age range.
The key to this tenet is, of course, that a team must draft well, so that they can replace veterans with youngsters who can actually play. In the three most recent drafts, Dallas has found good players at wide receiver, inside linebacker, offensive tackle, running back and cornerback. Two more similarly solid drafts will significantly reduce the need for them to extend themselves to fill roster holes. If Garrett and the Joneses can manage such a string of success, our favorite team might just be poised to break tenet #2, signing that one big-ticket player that will actually vault them into the league's elite.
Until then, its absolutely crucial the Garrett Cowboys continue to be "systematic" in everything they do. If they can manage this (and its admittedly very difficult to be patient after consecutive 8-8 seasons), they will leave a lot of the knee-jerk, respond-to-the-latest-input thinking of recent years where it belongs, in the past. As far as talent acquisition, the organization must be patient and prepared and let the game come to them. If they can manage this, they will be able to make level-headed, long-view decisions that consistently forgo immediate gain in lieu of greater future value.
You know, like winning organizations do...