Success in the NFL requires patience. Top players like Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Anthony Spencer and Bradie James took three years to consistently make plays. Doug Free oozed potential as a rookie, regressed in '08 and then served as a lifeboat when Marc Colombo broke his leg. He's back on the up escalator.
On the other hand, this is a bottom-line business, where patience increasingly becomes passe. Everybody wants production NOW and is ready to declare a draftee a bust before he's had a chance to get his head around the game. Success does require ruthlessness, but in what measure? Where does an organization find its balance?
I think a lot depends on the position and on experience. Take Romo, for instance. He didn't start until his third season, but I was told he was making noteworthy plays in his earliest practices. Bill Parcells used a boxing analogy with quarterbacks, arguing that if you put them in the ring with big punchers too soon they could get knocked out and lose their confidence. He kept Romo on a slow developmental curve and finally let him into the NFL ring when he could punch as good as he got.
Austin was the same way. He didn't become a starter until his fourth season, but that was probably delayed a year by injuries. He was making big plays in his limited '08 appearances. He caught a game-icing bomb in Green Bay. He made two critical catches in a road win at Washington before wrenching a knee. What's more, Austin was making big plays from the beginning of his career. A 90 yard kickoff return in the '07 Seattle playoff game showed Austin could perform on a big stage.
Yet teams cannot cheat themselves. Good organizations will cut their losses, and quickly, if they see priority picks won't fill a need. I've mentioned the Alexander Wright bust. Jimmy Johnson did not linger on the fact that Wright was his pick, and a high second rounder. Jimmy spent a first the next year to get Alvin Harper, because he saw enough in 1990 to know Wright would never excel.
Look at Jeff Fisher's Titans this decade. In '03, they spend a 3rd rounder on running back Chris Brown. He proved to be a good, but not great back, so in '06 Tennessee spent their 2nd on LenDale White. The next year, the Titans spent another 2nd on Chris Henry.
When the '08 draft rolled around, Fisher made it clear that running back was his top 1st-round priority. It didn't matter that he had just taken two backs very high in consecutive years. He wanted to run the ball and didn't feel he had a marquee back. Fisher was going to keep picking backs till he got it right, because he had to. He got Chris Johnson that year and finally checked running back off his needs list.
We have to be equally cold blooded in looking at the Dallas roster. The Cowboys were when they drafted Anthony Spencer in '07, even though they had spent a number one on Bobby Carpenter the year before and still had Greg Ellis. Wade Phillips didn't feel he had the rusher he needed at this crucial spot and picked another one.
Fans often take repeat picks a a sign of weakness, or of failure. Don't. Every team makes mistakes. The better ones identify them, and write them off faster than poorer ones do.
Looking at the wide receiver position this week, I'm becoming more convinced the Cowboys are going to target receiver high. It doesn't matter if Roy Williams has a big contract or if Kevin Ogletree has promise. The team has to ask, are the guys opposite Miles Austin big enough to carry the passing game if he goes down? If that answer is no, then wide receiver becomes a priority. The same is true at every position on the team.
It's as cold and as simple as that.
Next: How good is Dallas at scouting WRs?