Is Love Really Blind? Fixing the Front Office's Biggest Flaw

Hank Hill convincingly argues in his Fan Post of the Week that our failed season is traceable to failure in evaluating our own roster. The logical extension of his analysis is to ask why our roster evaluation was so poor. I’m bored by the easy talk-show answer ("Jerry sucks. He needs to hire a Real Football Man as GM"). In the Land of Realistic Solutions, this offseason we will go to war with the GM we have. Bill Polian ain’t walking in the door. So the constructive question is: "are there systemic biases in our player evaluation that can be corrected by our existing front office personnel?"

I believe the answer is yes.

I’m always struck when I watch Dateline NBC: a man calls 911, claiming "an intruder shot my wife!" But he has a mistress, his alibi crumbles, and all of the physical evidence actually points to him as the culprit. After the jury convicts him in two hours, the only dupes who still believe he was railroaded are his parents, who supposedly "know him best." The same type of error happens in sports: the likeable veteran catcher is hitting .220 with sluggish defense, but his teammates honestly insist he’s super-valuable because of his locker room leadership. Those who "know him best" actually evaluate him worst.

Social psychologists call this error "Familiarity Bias." Familiarity does not actually breed contempt, at least not if you really like someone. Instead, warm personal feelings make it tough to evaluate people based on cold, hard facts. Humans’ hard wired preference for the familiar probably helps the survival of our species. (It definitely helps the survival of my marriage). But the downside is that familiarity can create habits of thinking that result in faulty decisions. Are there things about the Cowboys culture that could lead to this distortion? I believe so, and it’s not a part of the team culture that is typically criticized. Before we dig deeper into this explanation, I’d like you to join me in little thought exercise.

You are an NFL executive who has the cap room to sign three free agents. Since they play premium positions, they will cost a lot of guaranteed money. Try to forecast the three-year future value based only on this scouting information:

Pros-Elite explosiveness. Conditioning junkie. Multiple Pro Bowler coming off legit All Pro season.
Cons-Not a technician. History of feuding with position coaches and QB’s. Yearly nagging injuries.

Pros-Elite speed and quickness. High character leader. Named to first Pro Bowl, but deserves more.
Cons-Below average ball skills. Willing but sloppy tackler. Nagging injuries.

Pros-Nasty brawler with prototype size and wingspan. Named to Pro Bowl.
Cons-Declining mobility. Coming off knee surgery. Among league leaders in pre-snap penalties.

Stop and think with me for a minute.

How many Pro Bowls do you expect from this group in the next three seasons?

How many seasons of legit Pro Bowl production should be expected if you are paying each player one of the five richest contracts for his position?

Just stop and think about this for a minute before you go on.

My answer is: if we’re going to soak our salary cap for the next three years with these players, I want to project four-to-six Pro Bowl seasons between them. Based on the performance and scouting data, I think we’ll be lucky if nine year's worth of premium pay will buy us two years of premium performance.

Specifically, I think the receiver is an unacceptably high risk. Wide outs that hold their values into their mid-30s are rare. Exceptions like Tim Brown and Jerry Rice have hands and technique to fall back on as their ability to explode past defenders declines. The defensive back looks much less likely to bust, but also unlikely to play like a Top 5 corner given the probable age-related decline of his elite tool. The tackle looks like a decent bet to produce one or two above average seasons, but the age and indicators of declining athleticism are red flags. I don’t project this player in the Top Five next year, let alone for the next three years.

In hindsight, we know that Terrell Owens, Terence Newman, and Flozell Adams generated zero Pro Bowl seasons, and Owens and Adams were cut loose during the three year window. What could possess a talent evaluator to project three critical players on the wrong side of 30 to all retain their value for (at least) three more seasons? Multiple explanations can all be true*, but I believe Jerry’s feelings for the players is the top explanation.

* Examples that may merit separate posts: the perceived shrinking Super Bowl window; Jerry’s gambling "I hit across the water" mentality; Jerry’s successful marketing causing the media and fans to chronically overrate the roster, which in turn may cause him to overrate the roster.

Jerry Jones runs his $1.8 billion football empire like a family store, and I mean that as a compliment. His two sons and daughter are impressive people who seem to perform ably as team executives. In an age when team owners treat their coaches and players as depreciable assets, Jerry extends familial warmth. Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith didn’t choose their beloved former coach to introduce them, as five Landry-era Hall of Famers did. They chose Jerry Jones. Dave Campo wasn’t fired with a press release; he shared a press conference with Jerry, who thanked him for his service to the Cowboys. When players have family emergencies, Jerry summons his personal jet.

This is a recipe for a great workplace. It’s also a recipe for Familiarity Bias.

Consider the Case of Terrell and Jerral. Story after story revealed that Jerry felt T.O. was a kindred spirit (Misunderstood Loudmouth with a Heart of Gold.). Jerry convinced himself that Owens would cheat Father Time due to intangibles like work ethic and competitiveness, even though other intangibles suggested Owens could age quickly and bitterly. "I know this guy," Jerry probably said. "I’ve gotten through to him. I see what he can really be like, especially now that he likes his quarterback, his contract, and his coach."

Like a man besotted with a hot-but-totally-crazy woman, Jerry would probably still be doing damage control on Owens’ tweets if not for Stephen’s merciful intervention.

Fondness may have been a lesser factor in the Adams and Newman deals, but we can still detect the fog of familiarity. Both were cornerstone players drafted during crisis off seasons after a head coach was fired. Flozell was our second pick in the Greg Ellis Return to Family Entertainment draft, and his quiet professionalism was a welcome contrast to the headlines about Mark Tuinei and Nate Newton. Terence Newman was a talented class act whose presence brought fresh air to a locker room littered with the likes of Dwayne Goodrich and Kareem Lattimore. Jerry sounded like a proud father during his hoary anecdotes about an unnamed team rating Newman as the top player on our roster. When Adams and Newman made the Pro Bowl after the 13-win 2007 season, it’s hard to blame Jerry for getting sentimental at contract time. Still, sentiment left us paying an above average corner and a below average tackle like superstars they never were.

Lest we attribute these missteps to one irrationally exuberant offseason, Jerry’s most foreseeable 2010 personnel blunder is perfectly explained by Familiarity Bias. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you David Buehler.

Placekicking is like free throw shooting: it’s a moment of easily evaluated individual performance in an otherwise interdependent sport. Buehler was drafted as a luxury kickoff specialist. At USC, he was rarely summoned for high pressure kicks and missed three extra points in two seasons. This is not a player that any other NFL contender hands the kicking job with no offseason competition. So why did the Cowboys?

Methinks it’s because Buehler’s swashbuckling persona makes him the football playing son Jerry never had. Like Jerry, Buehler gravitates toward the spotlight, as evidenced by his appearance on Football Wives and his highly public footrace throwdowns. Even Buehler’s penchant for public chest exposure makes him a chip off the old block. If David Buehler had Flozell Adams’ personality, there is no way in hell that he is handed the job without a challenge. But Buehler is another Jerry favorite ("He has the perfect mentality for a kicker!"), and it took him missing short kicks in four (!) tight games for the team to finally subject him to competition.

If my diagnosis is correct, a realistic solution is in sight. In fact, it’s a fix employed by two other model sports franchises. Last offseason, the Patriots hired former Titans GM Floyd Reese as "Senior Football Advisor." The Pats are returning to greatness, but no one is giving Bill Belichick less credit because he had to rely on Reese. In 2003, the Boston Red Sox hired legendary baseball analyst Bill James, who consults with the team from his home in Kansas. The Sox have won two World Series since the hire. Ideally, Jerry would pay for advice from someone with a personnel background, like Reese, and someone with a statistical analysis background, like James.

Jerry Jones is a great businessman, but he lacks the personal distance necessary to evaluate his players as depreciable assets. It’s time for him to hire people with the critical distance to give him this analysis.

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