In sports, the last position you want to be in is the middle. At the top, you are winning and with a piece or two could be hoisting a championship. At the bottom, with some time, a few high draft picks and some value free agents, you can turn the ship around and move back to the top. Being in the middle is maddening, as it is difficult to do anything to move in either direction. The chances of drafting a franchise altering pick are slim, so improvement is usually up to expensive free agency.
The ultimate question is, would you prefer
A - one down year (6 and 10) and five top years (11 wins plus)
B - six seasons of records between 7 - 9 and 9 - 7
The Dallas Cowboys are the definition of middle. For the past decade they have been the second scenario, bouncing around the .500 mark. They cannot seem to climb above the 8 and 8 mark. Each time they take a step forward, they fall back the following week. Since this current core group has remained in the middle their whole careers, they have not had the chance to add additional key pieces and have been forced to rely upon each other to achieve success.
The current core group of player’s Tony Romo (33), Miles Austin (29), Jason Witten (31), Anthony Spencer (29) and DeMarcus Ware (31) have been good to great players, but unfortunately have not been supplemented with the right pieces to build a championship contender. With their high level of skill and in some cases potentially Hall of Fame careers, they were just not good enough to pull the Cowboys over the top alone. Although most do not want to admit it, this group is reaching the age of decline and increased chance of injury. Few players excel later in life (Peyton Manning, London Fletcher, etc), but the vast majority are out of the league in their early to mid-thirties. Option B involves standing pat and hoping that with some minor tweaking and another year of learning the coaching systems, the results will vary significantly.
The next crop of core players’ are entering that phase of their careers where they will hit their peak. The peak happens at the intersection of physical skill and mental sharpness. We have all thought, if I knew now, back then, how much better of a player could I have been?
That magical age is historically late 20s. DeMarco Murray (25), Tyron Smith (23), Dez Bryant (25), Sean Lee (27) and Barry Church (25) are all approaching that point. The majority of the Cowboys "young core" will be in that phase in the coming two years. Following Option A this is the group you focus on and likely remove 60% of the current core this offseason.
The Cowboys are blessed with a very young team. That group is learning and growing together to eventually become that championship team. With the "young core" the Cowboys seem closer that most would think to some or all the characteristics of the final four teams because:
1 – veteran successful quarterback
2 – strong power running attack
3 – grinding offensive line, that can influence the later stages of games
4 – a defense that puts high focus on turnovers
5 – Strong special teams play
Of course there are some significant difference between the 2013 Dallas Cowboys and the final four teams in the Conference Finals, but I do not think the Cowboys are that far from competing, if they are smart with how they handle the coming two seasons.
The Cowboys should consider the 2014 season a year to build to move forward. The salary cap is a mess due to long term contracts to older players and contracts being extended, adding dollars to years in the future. In this vein, logic would dictate releasing veterans who are not living up to the contract and trading down in the draft to build around the "young core" with valuable pieces that fit the scheme, especially on the defensive line. If the team drops below the dreaded 8 and 8 so be it, as adding one more impact player in the draft and freeing up salary cap space to spend wisely is the best path to good success in 2015, especially with a young core with 5 season of high productivity and potential Super Bowl payoff (s). Of course, there is no guarantee that one down season will lead to significant improvement, but trying something new will create a different outcome than the typical 8 and 8 Cowboys fans have come to expect.
I choose option A, every time!