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Cowboys Drafting Success Primer, Part I: Long-Term Thinking

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If Jason Garrett has philosophical control of the draft, we'll see decisions made according to long-term thinking
If Jason Garrett has philosophical control of the draft, we'll see decisions made according to long-term thinking

Now that we are officially into draft week and have nearly exhausted our repertoire of mock drafts, player profiles, trade-down scenarios and the like, I wanted to offer a "drafting success primer": some thoughts about Dallas' recent draft history as well as some speculations about this and future drafts under the Garrett administration. Here, in part one, I'll make the case for a new philosophical approach; in part two, I'll discuss the myriad ways that approach is practically applied on draft day.

In recent years, the Cowboys have been in exclusive company; they are one of five NFL teams to have winning records (nine wins or more) in five of the last six seasons (since the 2005 campaign). In that regard, our beloved ‘Boys can be seen as one of the NFL's steadier and more successful franchises recently.  To achieve this level of success, it's clear that they must be doing something right vis a vis the draft--or have been at some point in the recent past. A review of Cowboys' drafts since 2003 shows that this is true; in two of the first three years of the Bill Parcells regime, the Cowboys had what would be by all measures very successful drafts. Let's take a look at the glorious hauls:

Much more after the jump...

2003: Terence Newman; Al Johnson; Jason Witten; Bradie James; Tony Romo

2005: DeMarcus Ware; Marcus Spears; Kevin Burnett; Marion Barber; Chris Canty; Jay Ratliff

The vast majority of Dallas' star-power was acquired herein: any way you slice it, 10 starters and 6 Pro Bowlers in two drafts is exceptional work. I worry, however, that this team has lived too long off of the success of these two classes. In an earlier post, I asked an important rhetorical question: in this core group, who is ascending? Johnson, Burnett and Canty never received a second contract from the Cowboys. Others are in decline, or will be soon: Newman and James are clearly on the downside; Spears is unlikely to wear the star again; Barber is finished; and all the physical pounding inside might be taking its toll on Ratliff, whose numbers have declined for two years running. I don't want to think about Ware's and Witten's inevitable falling off; its too horrible.

Who is going to replace these guys?

NFL teams must stay young, both because of salary cap ramifications and because older players tend to miss more games due to injury.  To do so, a team must hit multiple picks every year; the best teams do this year in and year out. A recent article by Sports Illustrated's Don Banks took a look at Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik who, by overseeing two consecutive stellar drafts, has been a huge factor in the Bucs resurgence. But Dominik knows all that work will be rendered moot by a mediocre haul in 2011:

Dominik, a draft historian of sorts, is well aware that some NFL dynasties have been built on the foundation of three great drafts in a row (think 1972-74 Steelers, 1989-91 Cowboys and the Packers of the early Ron Wolf era). He's determined to keep building on the momentum the Bucs have created for themselves in 2009-2010. For that reason, he sees the 2011 draft being just as crucial as last year's, because plenty of holes on the Bucs roster remain.

Dominik realizes how crucial it is to hit on good players every year. The best teams do this almost without fail, year in and year out. The less successful teams follow up a strong draft with a mediocre effort. To fail to find three or more quality players in a given year sets the team back in direct proportion to the failure. A third consecutive strong draft could set Tampa up as a conference power for several years; a washout effectively negates the good work of the drafts they have already successfully engineered.

The Cowboys have failed to string together consecutive strong drafts. Their two strongest drafts in the past decade, the anni mirabiles of '03 and '05, were followed by unqualified disasters. Nobody from 2004 is still on the roster; the lone remaining draftee from 2006 is Jason Hatcher, who isn't likely to wear the star in 2012. After these fits and starts, the Cowboys did manage to replenish their talent in 2007, which brought in Anthony Spencer, Doug Free and Alan Ball, and 2008, when Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Martellus Bennett, Tashard Choice, and Orlando Scandrick were brought into the fold. That's two potentially sound years in a row, depending on how you feel about Spencer and Ball.

But what followed? The class of 2009 is shrouded in uncertainty; it gave us several players who still have roster spots, but only Stephen McGee, Victor Butler, David Buehler and John Phillips have seen any significant playing time, and none of them are starters on the "22" - nor are they likely to be. And the jury is still out on 2010's haul; there's no evidence yet that Sean Lee will stay healthy enough to justify his second-round status nor that Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Sam Young, or Sean Lissemore will ever crack the starting lineup. If Dez Bryant proves to be this class' lone starter--even if he has a Hall of Fame career--the 2010 draft will have set the Cowboys back. Want to know why Dallas fell off last season? Look no further than their drafts since 2005 which, in their boom-or-bust quality, have tended to cancel each other out.

This brings me back to the question with which I began; the point of asking which current Cowboys players are ascending is that it may well lead us to the conclusion that, because of this drafting history, Jason Garrett's task is more than a one-year fix. Think about the players that will need to be replaced in the next three years due to age or the likelihood that their contracts will expire and not be renewed:

Offense:                 Defense:
Romo (?)                Olshansky
Kitna                       Hatcher
Barber                    Bowen
T. Choice                Ratliff
Witten (?)               Brooking
Bennett                   James
R. Williams             Spencer(?)
Hurd                       Newman
Kosier                     Sensabaugh
Gurode                   Ball
Davis
Colombo
A. Barron
M. Holland

Consider for a moment what must be done over the next three drafts: both offensive and defensive lines need to be completely retooled; of the eight starters on both of those lines, only Doug Free and perhaps an aging Jay Ratliff are likely to be in a Cowboys uniform in three years. Three or four of the starting positions in the secondary (I'm including the third corner as a starter) will need to be filled, depending on whether the Cowboys award Scandrick a second contract. There's only one ILB on the roster who might be on it in 2014, which explains why they have been so desperate to draft ILBs the last three years. Who will be in the backfield with Felix Jones? Not Barber, maybe Choice. And which players from 2007 will receive second contracts? Doug Free is almost certain to receive one, but what about Anthony Spencer? Has he played well enough to justify the expense?

The upshot is that I think the Cowboys--and their fans--must avoid thinking in terms of one-year solutions. For the best organizations, talent acquisition is a multi-year building process; the idea that a team must at all costs find starters at specific roster spots is more likely to lead to reaches and other faulty decision-making. By remaining perpetually in pursuit of the "now"--in other words, being in short-term thinking mode--teams struggle to make decisions for the long term. To my mind, the the better organizations (and, by extension, the better drafting teams)--the Packers, Eagles, Steelers, Patriots, and Colts--don't succumb to this kind of thinking. They have a long-term strategy and they stick to it.

One reason the teams in question are able to do this is because of a key ingredient they all share: coaching stability. Since 2001, the Patriots and Eagles have had only one head coach; the Packers, Steelers and Colts have each undergone one coaching change in the past decade; in each case, both coaches enjoyed significant success, with multiple 12-win seasons (the exception here is the Packers' McCarthy, who only has one such season, but brought a Lombardi home last season). In that same time frame, the Cowboys have had four head coaches, each with a different (even if only slightly) philosophy, set of player profiles, and set of priorities.

Coaching stability allows for long-term thinking. A coach on the hot seat tends to make decisions that will help his team to win now--or as soon as possible--because he doesn't feel safe enough to build for a future that he can't be sure he'll be a part of. The poor drafting teams tend to have a lot of coaching turnover; as a result, they constantly scramble to fill roster holes so that they can win--short-term. And, while short-term thinking can get you to 11-5 for a year or two, it rarely vaults a team into the league's elite. The top drafting teams, on the other hand, adhere to a coherent philosophy, one that allows them always to invest in the future, giving them the leeway to adopt a close approximation of the "best player available" philosophy, in which they can select good players at positions of perceived strength.

NFL rosters are amorphous, protean entities; the typical team turns over 20 roster spots each year, and ends the season with ten players on injured reserve. Given the unpredictability of NFL careers, especially when factoring in age and injuries, drafting to fill roster holes becomes a version of whack-a-mole: as soon as a GM takes care of one, another roster hole will rear its ugly head. And another. The best teams stop pumping quarters into the whack-a-mole game. Since Ted Thompson took over the Packers draft in 2005, for example, they have pursued a strategy based on long-term thinking (which he announced quite clearly by making Aaron Rogers his first pick when the Pack already had Brett Favre and immediate needs at other positions); as a result, they had enough depth to survive a crushing amount of games lost to injury en route to a title.

In the long buildup to the draft, one of the questions that has arisen multiple times is: who will be in charge? Jason Garrett or Jerry Jones? I think the kinds of picks the Cowboys' make will go a long way to answering this question. If Jason Garrett feels secure about his job--and the organization feels secure enough in him--the upcoming draft will feature choices not just for 2011, but beyond. In short, he and Dallas' Director of Scouting, Tom Ciskowski, will be given the opportunity to build a deep roster, one that can withstand the ravages of an NFL season. I'll be looking to see whether Dallas acts as if this coaching staff is going to be here for a while--and thus doesn't overreact to the most recent input, as they usually do. I'd like to see a quiet, consistent, steady investment in the future.

In conclusion, I'd like for you to imagine the following scenario: after taking Tyron Smith with the first pick, the Cowboys take a falling Ryan Mallet in the top of the second round--an event sure to result in wide-spread havoc across Cowboys Nation. While all about you are freaking out, I'd encourage you to sit back contentedly, with a flicker of a smile on your face, because that will mean the Red Headed Genius is in charge, has implemented a coherent philosophy, and is pursuing a long-term strategy. And that's what Dallas needs to move beyond 11-5 and into the league's elite, where they belong

Part II: the philosophical manifestations of long-term draft-day thinking.