About two years ago, on the cusp of the 2011 draft, I authored a post that asked the following question: which Cowboys starters and/ or key reserves would need to be replaced in the next three years due to age or the likelihood that their contracts will expire and not be renewed? At that time, I came up with the following list, which I'll revisit now (I've put a line through the players who have subsequently been let go):
The players with question marks were those I had a hard time imagining the team would let go. With that in mind, the only surprise on this list is Hatcher who, at that point in his career, had been an oft-injured under-performer. Looking at this, I asked readers to consider all the work that needed to be done over the next three drafts:
1. Both offensive and defensive lines would need to be completely retooled; of the eight starters on both of those lines, I speculated, only Doug Free and perhaps an aging Jay Ratliff would likely still be wearing a Cowboys uniform three drafts from now. It turned out that they couldn't overhaul both lines simultaneously, so they have held onto aging defensive linemen like Ratliff, Spears and, to a degree, Hatcher as they remade the offensive line.
2. Three or four of the five starting positions in the secondary (I included the third corner as a starter) would need to be filled, depending on whether the Cowboys awarded Orlando Scandrick a second contract (they did, of course). As it turns out, the other four have since been swapped out. Mike Jenkins? Gone. Terence Newman? Buh-bye. Gerald Sensabaugh? Se ya later. Alan Ball? Couldn't leave soon enough.
3. In April 2011, there was only one ILB on the roster who I thought might still be on it in 2014 (Sean Lee). Indeed, this proved to be the case, as the team summarily jettisoned sagging vets Keith Brooking and Bradie James; they also bid adieu to three Williamses: Brandon, Jason and Leon. Thankfully, the team drafted Bruce Carter soon thereafter.
4. It was uncertain who would join Felix Jones (who, at that point in history, looked like a future star) in the Dallas backfield; it was already evident that neither Marion Barber nor Tashard Choice were likely candidates (even if it broke Dave's Georgia Tech-lovin' heart to say so). Barber was already a shell of his former self; Choice was clearly in Jason Garrett's doghouse. Now, none of the three wear the star.
In the wake of Jason Garrett's declaration at the Owner's meetings that the roster is at long last the collection of players he has envisioned, it has been pointed out that the Cowboys have only 16 players remaining from the 2010 team he inherited. Although that number seems high (or low, depending on your perspective), it's fairly typical. NFL rosters are amorphous, protean entities; indeed, the average team turns over 20 roster spots each year, and ends the season with ten players on injured reserve. In short, such turnover is the normal way of doing business.
Taking this into account, and factoring in the unpredictability of NFL careers, especially when factoring in age and injuries, drafting to fill specific roster holes is a fool's errand, a crazed, comic version of whack-a-mole: as soon as the front office takes care of one, another roster hole will rear its ugly head. And another. The better teams recognize this; they realize that, even though, say running back, is not a need at present, it is likely to become one again soon.
An excellent, and painful illustration of the above example comes in the 2009 draft when the Cowboys, at pick 51, looked at their board and saw one player remaining to whom they had given a first-round grade: LeSean McCoy. They passed on Shady, because, with Jones, Barber and Choice aboard, they already had a "stacked" backfield. By 2010, as noted above, two of those three guys were on the way out and, although we didn't know it at the time, Felix's best days were behind him.
The most far-sighted teams avoid this trap. They recognize that setting out to find starters at specific roster spots in the draft leads to reaches and other faulty decision-making. That's why I've found it so comforting to hear Jason Garrett announce his intentions for free agency and the draft: to use the former to fill holes so that the team can pursue a purer "best player available" strategy in the latter. Garrett has instituted a clear vision for the way the team will be run; here, we see a clear-eyed, rational (and salary-cap friendly) approach to talent acquisition.
In the comments section on a recent FanPost on "the process" (by the esteemed Dr-P), our resident insider, Birddog26, noted that, to build a team, organizations "need a very clear and defined process with goals" and sagely opined:
I think this is what has been missing with the Cowboys for years and, with Stephen, Cisco and Garrett, they have put that in place and are moving forward. I think this is a very important piece to the puzzle...
Note that Jerry's name is not listed here. The other three fellows are working to persuade him to stop pumping quarters into the whack-a-mole game. For them, talent acquisition is a multi-year building process in which acquiring good players, not filling holes, becomes the goal. This emphasis on process requires patience and long-view thinking, not a "win-now" mentality. A good example is the drafting of Bruce Carter. With Brooking, James and Sean Lee already on the team, many were puzzled by the acquisition of an injured college outside linebacker, especially when there were more evident needs elsewhere.
But they had a first-round grade on Carter and believed he'd make the team better somewhere down the line. This is the same kind of farsighted thinking that led the Patriots to spend a fifth-round pick on TCU offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, even though he had been diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma shortly after the Combine. After chemotherapy treatments, he recovered sufficiently to play seven games in 2011. In 2012, Cannon played in all 16 games.
In the 2011 and '12 drafts, the team not only drafted several athletic standouts (Tyron Smith, Carter, DeMarco Murray, Mo Claiborne, Tyrone Crawford), but, more importantly, has adhered to a specific character profile: the infamous "RKG." We may mock this now-tired term, but we cannot overemphasize the importance of the fact that, for the first time in many, many years, the team drafted the same kind of player for two consecutive years. I expect the 2013 draft to make it three in a row, which would offer hard evidence of that which BD proposes teams need to build a winner: a clear and defined process with clearly articulated goals.
And one of these is to avoid the kind of short-term thinking that ignores the realities of life in the NFL, the kind of thinking thatled Dallas to pass on Shady McCoy in the 2009 draft's second round...
Next: a look at the correlation between processual clarity, coaching stability and winning.