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Cowboys 2011 Draft: Can Long-Term Thinking Lead To Long-Term Winning?

In the months since Jason Garrett took over control of a franchise in a 1-7 downward spiral, Cowboys Nation has anxiously anticipated glimpses of tangible culture change within what had seemingly become a lazy, bloated franchise—and greeted such perceptible moments with a combination of joy and relief. Since the conclusion of the draft, therefore, much has been said about how this was a "Jason Garrett draft." This has meant several things: the Cowboys didn’t trade down repeatedly; in the first round, they took an offensive lineman instead of a flashy skill position player; in spite of the fact that the defense struggled, six of the eight draftees play on Garrett’s side of the ball.  All of these have great merit.

But I’d like to look at another, perhaps more lasting—and, if so, more important—way this might be seen as a "Garrett draft." Before the draft, I wrote a two-part post (part II here) in which I asked: how might we be able to see Garrett’s presence and influence in the Dallas warroom come draft weekend? In that article I suggested that the best drafting teams adopt a long view; not only do they have a clear, articulate set of player profiles, but they are willing to sacrifice immediate return for greater future value.

One way that this is accomplished is by trading current picks for future picks, which are almost always at a round higher. New England has done this masterfully in the past and, by trading with New Orleans for the pick that brought the Saints Mark Ingram, ensured that they will once again enter the upcoming draft with multiple first-rounders. Indeed, Dallas has done this in the past to great effect, enjoying first-round double dips in 2005 and 2008—arguably their two most successful drafts in the past decade.

More after the jump...

Another way to eschew immediate return in lieu of future value is to draft players who are, for some reason, undervalued at the time of the draft. The Patriots have successfully employed this strategy as well. In the third round of the 2009 draft, they took a flier on North Carolina wideout Brandon Tate, who had suffered a severe knee injury (tearing both his ACL and MCL) in his senior season, and was thus downgraded several rounds in scouts’ estimation (a healthy Tate was a sure-fire first-rounder). This year, they made a similar move, picking up TCU OT Marcus Cannon in the fifth round, after he was diagnosed just before the draft with a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a very treatable form of cancer. Before the diagnosis, Cannon was a consensus top-50 pick.

Cannon’s prognosis for a full recovery is excellent, although its unlikely that he will regain his full strength until the 2012 campaign. By selecting a guy who was repeatedly passed over by so many other teams, New England demonstrated that they don’t draft only for the upcoming year, but for multi-year value. They understand that, by the time most draft choices develop, the team’s roster is likely to be radically different than it was at the time they were drafted. 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. 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. Because of this, it’s ludicrous to draft for the present—and smart to acquire as much value as possible, regardless of position.

And that’s why I’m so pleased with the Cowboys 2011 draft—and am convinced that it announces that our new sheriff brings a new, winning philosophy to the drafting table. I hate to put it this way, but the "Cowboy Way" looks more and more like the "Patriot Way" all the time. Most Cowboys fans would agree that Dallas did quite well at the top and the bottom of the draft (draft expert par excellence Rick Gosselin claims the Cowboys had the best third day of any team); it was the second day—rounds two and three—that had most folks in a tizzy. To my mind, however, these picks show Garrett's influence most potently.

Today, I’ll focus on one example. In the second round, they choose North Carolina linebacker Bruce Carter, who had missed the tail end of his senior year with a knee injury. Before the injury, however, he had been a terror, a top-15 level talent. At the beginning of 2010, with the North Carolina defense ravaged by suspensions, he reportedly lifted the rest of the players on his shoulders and willed them to be better. Will he play to that pre-injury level in 2011? Probably not—but he is much more likely to in 2012 and beyond. In a Monday afternoon interview on Sirius radio’s XM Blitz with Adam Schein and Rich Gannon, Garrett was asked about Carter. His response was telling:

Unfortunately at the end of this year he does hurt his knee and…we believe that allowed him to slide into the second round and we just took a little bit of a longer view on him to say, ‘hey that thing’s gonna get better’…we’ve seen a lot of guys with a very similar injury come back and they’re 100 percent, if not better, when they do get healthy. So we took a longer view on it…

I concluded my pre-draft series on long-term thinking with the following:

It remains to be seen what kind of impact Jason Garrett will make in the Cowboys' war-room. His ability to evaluate talent is less important to me (I trust Tom Ciskowsi and his guys; the Cowboys scouting department, by all insider accounts, does an excellent job evaluating players and setting up the board) than whether or not his steadying presence gives the organization the ability to adopt the kind of long-term thinking that allows them to see the draft as...wait for it: a "process."

To my mind, the selection of Carter provides compelling evidence that Garrett has instituted something that has been in short supply at Valley Ranch: long-view thinking.

At the time, I noted that the teams best able to adopt this strategy have head coaches that aren’t looking over their shoulder, who don’t feel pressured to "win now."  In numerous instances since he assumed the head coaches’ mantle last November, Garrett has made decisions that suggest he's not looking over his shoulder. Clearly, he’s convinced he’s here for the long haul—or is performing as if he is, which almost guarantees that he will be. Why? Because long-view thinking is the most successful way to build a long-term winner. And long-term winners get contract extensions.

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