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Cowboys Vs. Titans Aftermath: What Do Talent Mean?

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In part one of this discussion, I wondered whether the penalties accumulated by the Cowboys against Tennessee might be attributed less to stupidity and more to a talent deficiency.  In this post, I'll elaborate further what I mean by talent, starting with the question: what is "talent" when it comes to playing football?

So: what is football talent? If we are to go by the scout-speak that overloads the airwaves from the scouting combine until the draft, football talent is about "measureables": height, weight, speed, explosiveness, lateral quickness, playmaking ability. Very few people doubt that the Cowboys shine in this area; the Dallas roster is loaded with players who exhibit these qualities, often at the highest NFL level. In the high school and college games, winning teams are almost always those that have the better roster in terms of these measureables. Yet, as the Cowboys have demonstrated all-too clearly, this is not the case at the NFL level.

Another way of looking at talent is by examining a player's character, or his "intangibles." These include such qualities as leadership (during the Parcells administration, for instance, a very high percentage of Dallas' draftees had been team captains at the collegiate level), toughness, intelligence, and maturity. These are certainly important qualities, and probably contribute in some way to the successful conversion of a third and seven, or keeping the other team out of field goal range once they cross midfield. The current Cowboys ostensibly have a lot of these "high-character" guys; the roster purge after the 2008 season was designed specifically toward raising the teams' collective intangibles. Since then, however, this team has continued to play as if its intangibles were low.

So, what gives? One key variable that must be factored into this equation is the state of today's NFL. Since the advent of free agency and the salary cap in the early-to-mid 90s, this has been a parity-driven league. As a result, teams cannot merely out-draft or out-spend their competition; the talent level, in terms of measureables, is thus much more equal than it was in previous decades. At the same time, front offices (yes, even the Lions') have become much smarter and more sophisticated about the way they conduct business. As a result, there are no gimmes on the schedule; long gone are the days of Landry's Cowboys or Walsh's 49ers running the division table without breaking a sweat.

When all the games are closer, and thus likely not to be decided until late in the contest, this places a premium on two specific skill sets: the ability to stay cool as the heat is turned up and the ability to avoid mistakes. In short, NFL games become less about making plays and more about NOT making mistakes (indeed, one reason turnover margin has become such an important stat in the past twenty years or so is because all the other "talent" categories have become much more even). In other words, when physical talent is more or less evenly distributed, the ability not to make a mistake becomes the crucial determinant of NFL success.

No finer example can be found than the hated (by me, at least) Bill Belichick Patriots. How many hall of fame-caliber players did those championship Patriots have? One. Tom Brady.  Certainly they had other nice players (Richard Seymour comes to mind), but they were essentially a terrific quarterback and a bunch of guys who didn't make mistakes.  To my mind, this iteration of the Cowboys is significantly more physically gifted (in terms of measureables) top to bottom than those Patriots were. Moreover, there are many players from this team whose intangibles are equal to those Pats teams. The key difference is that those New England squads never made the crushing mistake. They kept the game close and waited for the other teams to make the fatal error, which invariably happened.

The obvious answer here is that those Patriots had Belichick (and a slew of top-level coaches) while the Cowboys have Wade Philips. While it is certainly true that Wade will suffer in almost any comparison between the two, I don't think the explanation is quite so simple (more on that later in this post). Of late, the Dallas sportstalk airwaves as well as the Cowboys blogosphere have been awash with jeremiads blaming the recent shoddy play on the coaching staff, assuming that there is a direct correlation between Wade's inability to get in players' faces and the amount of penalties this team amasses or its lack of fourth-quarter toughness.

But these problems predate the Phillips regime. Although we debated this quite a bit at the time, I think it can now safely be said that the Bill Parcells Cowboys had one hell of a coaching staff--one to rival Belichick's 2000 era Pats. Sean Payton, Todd Haley and Tony Sparano are now widely recognized as top-flight head coaches in this league; Mike Zimmer's Bengals lead the league in defense last year.

Other than in 2003--which shall henceforth be known as The Miraculous Season of Overachievement--those Cowboys teams, comprised of essentially the same core players dotting the 2010 roster, repeatedly underachieved its perceived talent level, lost winnable games in frustrating fashion, and suffered late-season collapses.  This suggests the problem isn't coaching; indeed, Payton, Hayley and Sparano's current teams are all models of discipline and/ or toughness. All play comparatively mistake-free ball. Yet that staff never found a way to motivate these players to stop making key penalties, miss crucial blocks, or throw crippling interceptions at exactly the wrong time.

The constant here is the players...and the management team. A group of men who, perhaps dazzled more by the star power of the 90s Cowboys than those squads' almost surreal ability to avoid mistakes, conduct business according to an old model: they place a premium on one kind of talent (measureables) rather than on another (mistake-free football). For those of us who ask what a "real" coach--a Belichick or a Bill Cowher--might do with all this talent, I fear the answer might be a bit unsettling: start from scratch.