On Friday, the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference will kick off, with a series of panels that look at the use of deep statistical analysis in a wide variety of sports. Last year, the conference featured a discussion on the use of analytics in football, with an impressive panel: 49ers President Paraag Marathe; former Patriots and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli; Kevin Demoff, the Rams' Executive Vice President of Football Operations & Chief Operating Officer; and Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz.
Not only did these fine gentlemen talk about the use of statistical analysis in NFL front offices, they offered a multitude of golden nuggets about the way organizations approach free agency, the draft, and gamedays, as well as the processes they institute to achieve success. Coincidentally, as I was listening to and transcribing their back-and-forth, I stumbled across an interview with Eagles GM Howie Roseman, in which he addresses many of the same issues. Seeing many points of resonance in these conversations, I decided to use their words to articulate or to support a set of organizational behaviors that suggest on-field success, and then offer the Cowboys a grade for each of these behaviors.
This became a not insignificant undertaking, which has resulted in a four-part series. Here, in part one, we'll look at overall organizational philosophy; in the next installment, we'll take a look at the way the team has managed the cap; in part three, we'll look at free agency; the final post will examine the team's behavior in the draft. And away we go...
I: Overall Organizational Philosophy:
Consistency, Consistency, Consistency: As I have written about on multiple occasions, a very strong correlation exists between coaching continuity and on-field success. Teams that fire a coach every four or five years (or even more frequently) are perpetually in the process of re-invention, are always retooling their roster, and have players who are in the "learning" rather than the "reacting" phase. Plus, it ends up costing more - way more. But don't listen to me; Marathe, one of the NFL's most respected front office guys, says:
Consistency is the single most important thing to me in the NFL, because of the salary cap and because of system. The coach runs the system; the general manager finds the players for that system, and then you have to pay those players. If you churn out one of those first two, and you have an entirely new system, now you've already scouted players to run a certain system - whether you want quick and nimble offensive linemen versus road grader offensive linemen - you've also then paid those guys. And you change out a system and now you're stuck on the salary cap, you have to trade or release those players for pennies on the dollar and it sets you back for a number of years. Consistency breeds success.
Cowboys Grade: C-
On the plus side, the Cowboys have had consistency in ownership and in their general manager for nigh on 22 years now. However, they have cycled through head coaches (seven in 25 years, with none lasting more than five seasons) and, more recently, systems (in 2014, the team will have their fourth defensive coordinator in five years). Look at how that has affected their defensive end profile, for example:
2010: one-gap 5-technique
2011-12: flexible 5-tech who can one- or two-gap
2013-2014: undersized wide end who can win at the line of scrimmage with quickness and burst
While Garrett has given the team some stability, particularly in perms of - wait for it - process, the incessant adjusting of coordinators during his tenure has served to offset much of that good work.
Self-Scouting: As Pioli notes, the accurate evaluation of a team's own players is one of the most important activities in which a front office engages. A team can't accurately gauge its needs in free agency and the draft if they fail to assess what they have in their own locker room correctly: "one of the most important parts of free agency," for example, "is your own evaluation of your players. That's the critical part, because you are not going to know any other player better than your own players. You're going to know what's great about them, you're going to know all of their warts."
A crucial aspect of this, particularly as it pertains to the Cowboys and their soft-hearted owner, is that teams can't afford to be too sentimental about guys who have made plays for them in the past. Football is a cruel business; as soon as former stars' performances begin to diminish, front offices must part ways with them, quickly and without reservation. Think back to the Bill Walsh 49ers, who famously cut the likes of Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig and Joe Montana "a year too early," believing it was better than doing so a year too late.
Cowboys Grade: F
Arguably the franchise's longest-running core problem has been their inability to self -scout. Former personnel insider Bryan Broaddus tells the tale of post-season evaluation sessions during the 5-11 Dave Campo years in which he felt as if they were describing a playoff-caliber roster. This analytical failure continues; during too many offseasons, we hear excuses rather than cold, hard roster analysis emanating from Valley Ranch. How many years now has a version of "this team can compete for a Super Bowl" been heard on Jerry's Jones' lips at the Senior Bowl or Combine?
In addition, Jones' soft spot for productive or semi-productive homegrown players - the ones the team acquired when he happened to be wearing his GM hat - has resulted in far too many contracts for older, declining guys whose on-field production cannot hope to meet their pay grade by the end of the deal. Those contracts often result in dead money and, in a parity-driven salary cap world, teams that carry dead money put themselves at a serious competitive disadvantage.
According to Spotrac, the Cowboys will carry $11,809,439 in dead money in 2014 (and that's before they cut the likes of Miles Austin, DeMarcus Ware or any draftees or UDFAs to whom they have given guaranteed money), after carrying $17,297,848 in 2013. With an adjusted cap of roughly 119.2 million, that figure represents nearly a seventh of the total cap. To me, that sure feels like a competitive disadvantage. While we like to blame John Mara for the team's financial squeeze, our accusing finger should rather be directed at one Jerral Jones.
Build Through The Draft: With the salary cap, its not only preferable but downright mandatory that teams stay young. Marathe reports that, when he came to the 49ers, they ran a study of:
...a veteran team [and its salary structure] and...[discovered] that's not sustainable over time. Because of the salary cap, if every [veteran] player on your team took a fifteen percent discount on market value, you could not field that team still, under the salary cap, because the difference between wholesale and retail is so wide...
For Marathe, free agents, and veterans in general, "are retail...and the draft is where its wholesale. That's why the more players you can have on wholesale who are good players, the more draft picks you can accumulate, the better off you're going to be." Because the salary cap simply will not allow franchises to field a starting 22 who are all on their second contracts, Marathe concludes, "you've got to continue to replenish the system."
Consequently, teams must invest in what Roseman calls "homegrown guys" rather than "independent contractors." Demoff believes this is particularly important when building the bottom of the roster (i.e., players 35-53). THE question for front offices, as he puts it, is: "How can you get better and better players...on rookie contracts that cost less - that are [to borrow Marathe's phrase] wholesale."
Cowboys Grade: B-
The Cowboys' grade in this category has risen in recent years. During Garrett's tenure, the team has prioritized the draft over free agency as a personnel acquisition strategy. They are on record as saying that they want to use free agency only to fill roster holes with cheap vets who function as bridge players until a younger, cheaper and, we hope, better player can be drafted to take that spot. That is in fact what shrewder, more stable franchises have done over the last decade and change.
The positive result of this emphasis is that the Cowboys roster has gotten much younger. When Garrett took over the team in 2010, he presided over an aging roster; the team had 14 players who were 29 or older, twelve of whom were starters or (in John Kitna's case) key contributors. Assuming the team severs ties with Miles Austin, only four of the 2014 projected starting 22 will be 29 or older (this could change if they re-sign greybeard defensive linemen Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher). That's what they call a youth movement, folks.
Unlike 2010, the team's core is young. Eleven of their projected starters are 25 or younger, including star players in Dan Bailey, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick. And remember what Marathe said about the importance of staying young. Of the 27 players that are "legitimately" inked past 2014 (i.e., guys whose contracts carry some kind of bonus money), only ten represent what might be called a significant financial commitment - a number that lowers appreciably if the team, as expected, parts ways with the likes of Doug Free, Miles Austin, Kyle Orton, and Mackenzie Bernadeau between now and the 2015 season.
Overall Grade: D
Despite some improvement, especially as it pertains to overall consistency, processual stability and emphasis on replenishing the roster, the organization's fundamental dysfunction is evident. In particular, the fact that the Cowboys General Manager is more a fan than a cold, hard analyst of players talents keeps them from a better grade in this particular area. Given that this is unlikely to change much, the area where the team is most likely to improve is in terms of coaching consistency. In short, if they are to move forward as an organization, they have to settle on coordinators and systems so that they can find players who are built to succeed in those systems, and allow them to do so for the duration of their time with the Cowboys.
Otherwise, they'll continue to have big, powerful, two-gapping five techniques on the payroll while running a 4-3 scheme based on quickness and initial burst. You know what kind of team does that? Yep, losers.