Understand up front. I am not delving into statistics or parsing every last word in an interview. This is what you call an opinion piece.
While so many others have been expressing dismay or derision for the Dallas Cowboys in the first days of free agency, I feel like I am just getting a better understanding of how my favorite team is trying to get things done. I have had some theories about things ever since I started writing here, and this is the latest revision of those.
First, it looks more and more like Stephen Jones has clearly become the defacto general manager, at least as far as contracts and hiring and firing go. Jerry Jones may have the final call on things, but this is two years in a row that free agency was sedate, with low-cost acquisitions to help the team fill some needs. Either Stephen has much, much more influence in how things are being done, or Jerry has completely changed his nature. You can make your best guess which of those is more likely.
The objective for the Cowboys is to build for the future, not win it all now. Last season was the last gasp for the aging core players, and with the treason of the player formerly known as Jay Ratliff and the horrible run of injuries along the defensive line, that ship has clearly sailed. The only way that the Cowboys could have justified paying DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher the kind of money they got in free agency was to keep a championship caliber group together to make one more run. Dallas could have done it, but it would have meant pushing more money down the road. Instead, the team has avoided activating the built in restructures for Jason Witten and Brandon Carr, which would have been needed to get the cap space to keep Ware and Hatcher around. This has disturbing implications for the future of Witten and Carr, since the main advantage in not pushing their cap hits out is to make them easier to part ways with, as rabblerousr has explained so clearly. This is a new day for the Cowboys. It has been many years since the team was so willing to part with its former stars. Now, the decisions are being made with logic and an eye to the future, rather than sentimentality and nostalgia. The end is coming for Witten as a Cowboy, and the team is preparing for it. Expect similar decisions to be debated concerning one Tony Romo in another year or two.
That is winning NFL football. When the time comes for a player to go, they should already be on somebody else's roster, impacting their salary cap. Ware and Hatcher may be worth the money this year to the Broncos and Redskins. But the odds are very much against them being worth the whole contract and guaranteed money.
Of course, there is an argument to be made that the Cowboys got backed into this position with their ongoing, permanent mismanagement of the salary cap. This ignores the fact that managing the cap now and into the future was a large part of the free agency decisions Dallas made this year. It also fails to acknowledge the fact that Dallas has been operating under a basic principle that many NFL teams do not share: Cap space is wasted opportunity. The Cowboys hope to spend as close to every dime of cap space as they can on the players they want. Please note that last part about "players they want". Dallas is conserving cap space to do something about the contracts of Tyron Smith and Dez Bryant, two players that it clearly believes will contribute to the team through their next contract. Look for the big contracts going to players in their mid twenties rather than approaching or even past thirty from now on. That means second deals, not third. And expect the few big contracts to almost all wind up going to players Dallas drafts. There will not be many Brandon Carr deals in the future. Perhaps one or two every few seasons if the team gets to the position of needing one more piece. Right now, however, there is a clear acknowledgement that the team is in a rebuilding mode. No one is going in the tank, but expectations are different. Jerry Jones may talk about winning it all, but everybody else is getting much more into a "win one game at a time" mode.
That sounds an awful lot like what Jason Garrett has been preaching for a while. I know many people think Garrett has failed to move the team forward. Yet, this offseason is a bit of a tacit acknowledgement that the talent was just not there for the Cowboys. Not last season, and arguably not since Wade Phillips was the head coach. This team is thin. There are some very good starters, and nearly nonexistent depth. The 2013 draft tried to address the depth issues, but those injuries forced players who were supposed to be backups to become instant starters, and when you are asking fifth- and sixth-rounders to start as rookies, not to mention UDFAs, it is going to be a bumpy ride.
The team is trying to get the roster filled with more contributors and less warm bodies, but it has not gone as quickly as they would have liked. They tried stocking up heavily on free agents in 2011, and that was largely a bust, plus it didn't help a lot with that pesky cap. Now they have made a commitment to building through the draft and using free agency just to plug some holes with short term answers, journeymen rather than superstars for the most part. And that takes time. You need patience.
And since Stephen Jones is in charge of that part, he may also be pushing to extend some more patience for Garrett. How can you hold Garrett responsible for what happened on defense last year? Or the year before that? Given the state of the D now, and the commitment to building through the draft, there is no way to expect that to be turned around quickly. It has taken three years to get a decent offensive line, and there is still work to do there. The depth is somewhere between questionable and almost nonexistent, Doug Free does not appear to be a long-term solution at right tackle, and guard certainly can stand improvement. On the other side of the line, even if all the injured players from last year come back full strength, and others like Bruce Carter and Morris Claiborne start playing more up to their potential, Dallas still does not have enough draft picks to fix it all this season. And they can't depend on the free agents they are going to field to make up the difference.
Six weeks ago I was certain it was playoffs or be fired for Garrett. Now, watching the steady and methodical approach the team is taking with the talent, I am not so sure. Maybe he will be asked to leave if the team does not make the post-season. But maybe he will get an extension to finish the job he has started, trying to build the Cowboys back to being a winner.
That is the feeling I have. I was expecting the approach Dallas has taken. I hoped that the team might find a way to keep Ware or Hatcher, but the market drove them way out of Dallas' price range. All those teams with all that cap space started just throwing money around, and the team made the decisions I expected given the price tags. In the long run, I think more franchises will find the money was poorly spent than not, but for right now, a lot of veteran players are cashing in. Just not with the Cowboys. Personally, I am quite happy about that.
It is odd. Nothing that has gone on in Dallas has surprised me so far. I wrote about that earlier this week. But not everyone was expecting this.
Cut Ware, sign backups: Cowboys’ talk doesn’t match moves http://t.co/MLZTOvf0LN— Clarence Hill (@clarencehilljr) March 13, 2014
Here is a bit of what he was talking about.
Roughly three weeks ago, owner Jerry Jones sat on his bus outside the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and told me that the Cowboys' focus was to win now.
He basically said that rebuilding was not in his vocabulary and not part of the plan.
"It's not going to be any fun if we don't go out here and compete for a Super Bowl," Jones said. "We have that chance to compete for a Super Bowl. ... Everything I am doing, everything I design, doesn't work if you don't compete for a Super Bowl."
This represents a difference in perspective. I based my expectations on what Stephen Jones said and on what the team did in free agency and the draft last year. Clarence Hill based his on what Jerry Jones said. Jerry is all about big pictures and setting high goals. Above all, he is always selling hope. He has the Super Bowl as the target every season, no matter what the reality of the roster is. But he is not handling the day to day decisions, or if he is, he is listening to some very different advice about what to do.
Hill wondered about how Garrett feels about being put in this position. As I said, I don't think Garrett is in the precarious state that we think, because he certainly seems to be pressing ahead with his work, taking Tony Romo to consult with quarterback coaches and such. And the approach being taken is so very much in tune with the way he seems to think. Long-range goals and sustainability are mother's milk to him.
Dallas has certainly lost free agency. Offhand, I don't know exactly how important that is. But offhand, I don't think anyone will care in a few months, just like every other season. Long-term success is found in the draft. I fully believe that. The Cowboys are looking, not to next season, but at the next five years. It is risky, to some extent, but Dallas has one advantage that most other NFL teams do not. People are still going to follow them closely, whether they are 8-8, 11-5, or 5-11. And Jerry Jones will make gobs of money no matter what. He, more than any other owner in the league, can afford to take the time to get it right. Now, after 25 years of trying different things that have varied from wildly successful to downright disastrous, the team seems to have settled on a clear and well-crafted plan. It is not one that is going to produce instant results, but if they stick with it, it has proven time and again in other franchises that it works.
This is not the way Dallas was doing business just three or four years ago. Don't look at what they are doing now the way you did then. If you cannot be patient, I am sorry. But if you can, I think you will see the payoff. One day.
At least that's my opinion.