The debate about who is really in charge of the Dallas Cowboys will continue. As we have discussed, it is not a simple black-and-white issue. But it is hard to argue the fact that Stephen Jones, son of the owner and team vice-president, plays a very large role now in the operations of the team.
One thing that is even harder to argue is that Stephen is a lot easier to understand than his father Jerry. His explanations of things are much easier to grasp. If Jerry continues to be the face of the Cowboys, Stephen is increasingly becoming the voice of reason, and he is well worth listening to. What he says offers the clearest, most accurate picture of what the team is trying to accomplish and how they are going about it.
During the NFL Owners' Meeting in Orlando, he discussed several things that relate to the off season activities of the Cowboys as well as his evolving role in the organization.
This has been fairly evident from who the Cowboys have signed and who has been allowed to walk away from the team. It is simply a matter of learning from past mistakes.
"If we don't learn from what has bitten us, then shame on us,'' Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones told reporters at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla. "Unfortunately, we have been paying guys who are over 30 years old a lot of money up front and it hasn't worked for us."
That is a large part of why DeMarcus Ware (32 when the season starts), Jason Hatcher (32), and Miles Austin (31) are no longer in the team's plans. They all fit the profile of being too old and too expensive. Two of the players they brought in are younger, Henry Melton will be 27 in September, and Terrell McClain 26. With the earlier departure of Jay Ratliff, the defensive line suddenly got a lot younger. Melton will need to return to his 2012 form to be a success, but McClain is the kind of player the Cowboys could have used last season when they were running through candidates just trying to find linemen.
This does not mean there will be no players over 30 signed by Dallas.
"I'm not saying we will never do that," Jones said of paying aging stars significant money. "There are always exceptions. But when you are coming off of what we have come off of, obviously we have been bit.
"It's a young man's game and there is a lot more risk when you're signing guys past the 30 mark."
This is the category the two other free-agent signings by Dallas this year fall into. Jeremy Mincey will be 30 when the season starts, but his $1.25 million cap hit this year, and the fact the Cowboys can cut him next year with only $250K in dead money, is relatively cheap and clearly designed as a temporary plug, not a long term solution like Melton and McClain can become. And Melton and McClain are both on "prove it deals" anyway that also let the Cowboys walk away from a mistake with very little impact.
Even less risky is the deal with Brandon Weeden, who will also be 30 to start the season, but who is only in his third season in the league. He has zero guaranteed money in his deal, so the Cowboys can pull the plug with no dead money at all at any time. Meanwhile, they get a practice arm and a basically free look to see if there is something Weeden can offer the team beyond that. And with the earlier rumors about Kyle Orton retiring now being characterized as baseless, the team may be going back to keeping three quarterbacks.
"That was an opportunity," Jones said of the team's decision to sign Weeden. "I think it was well-documented that we had him in our second round. That was a chance to get a quarterback - I know he's not young - but he's young as far as league years are concerned. We like him. But if he proves out he's worth developing, then we'll carry three, like we did with (Stephen) McGee for many years."
There is another way to look at this. The Cowboys are using free agent signings to cover needs so they can try to maximize the value of their draft picks by not having to take a less-talented player that happens to be at a position of really urgent need. But this also means you should be more discerning with all the picks. The fact the team is looking to carrying three quarterbacks does not mean that Weeden is the only choice there. With him being disposable, the team can also bring in a developmental QB in the draft, and then he and Weeden could duke it out. They could even get another rookie as a UDFA to throw into the mix.
Or maybe it is just that I really want the team to draft a quarterback at some point this year.
The Anthony Spencer story is a clear indication that the approach has changed for the Cowboys. In the past, it is highly likely that the team would have already paid him something to bring him back to the roster. There have been too many times (especially the past couple of years) where the Cowboys rolled with players like Spencer and the one formerly known as Jay Ratliff despite some injury concerns, or least what should have been concerns to the team, and wound up holding the bag when the player couldn't (or didn't) come through.
"But certainly our history with [Spencer] has been good ... and we'd certainly love to get him back, get him healthy, and if the right opportunity is there we'll certainly look at that." - Stephen Jones
The difference, of course, is that they are not signing him on the basis of that hope. They are going to want to see a clean medical report first. Given the nature of the injury and the resulting microfracture surgery, that is certainly in doubt.
The team already has enough key players who are under contract and coming back from injury: Tony Romo, Sean Lee, and Dez Bryant all were hurt to one degree or another by the end of the season. Tyrone Crawford, Ben Bass, and Matt Johnson missed the whole year, and the team would really like to get them on the field. They took a risk with Melton, of course, but based on the competition for his services, his medical report must have been very good.
Those injuries on defense were a major issue, of course. Stephen addressed how the team looks worse off on paper given the defenders who have departed, but how having the replacements healthy could make a lot of difference.
"When we were sitting here last year we thought we were better because we thought Ware was going to be Ware and Hatch was going to be Hatch and Spence was going to be Spence and Rat was going to be Rat," Jones said, via the Star-Telegram. "And those were pretty damn good football players before the injuries hit. This time last year, we loved our front because I thought everyone was going to be healthy and back and they didn't."
The key, Jones says, is new defensive tackles Henry Melton and Terrell McClain and defensive end Jeremy Mincey being healthy for 16 games.
Add in George Selvie, Bass, and Crawford to that list of names, plus whoever the Cowboys add in the draft this year. Rod Marinelli needs to have eight or nine healthy bodies for his rushmen every game, so depth is crucial. It is almost a certainty that the Cowboys will need to bring in some reinforcements at some point this year, but in 2013, they were having to use up the reserves by the first pre-season game. Dallas needs to get off to a better start and keep much more of the roster available through the entire season.
Those were some of the key points Stephen covered. I pay attention to his depiction of how the team is doing, and will continue to listen whenever he speaks.