We are well under way in the adrenaline-packed, lockout-compacted, free agency period and NFL news has been nonstop. In this 2011 Free Agent Bonanza, players were being released within the hour of the league opening for business. Big name signings ruled the first 48 hours and things have recently been capped by our division rival completing a monster trade and free agent signings. But just when the often overzealous media attention would be welcomed, the Cowboys are not making the national headlines.
The past couple of offseasons have had motifs such as ‘addition by subtraction' and, even worse, ‘special teams solidifying'. Jerry Jones' risky signings came and went, some still being purged, but there has been an uncommon absence of big name signings from Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys.
In 2011, with a Top 10 draft pick, the Cowboys selected an offensive lineman and let some flashy defensive names pass them by the year after the defense clearly had breakdowns. The 2011 draft brought with it three offensive linemen and few media saturated names, not to mention few players of positions the fans felt were of greatest need...well, except the linemen. In fact, these same positions have yet to see an addition of any popular names. So what are the Cowboys doing?
There are people in our lives that deserve the utmost respect, and one of these (for me) recently mentioned that if you aren't adding talent, then you aren't improving your team. It's difficult to disagree with that. Now, we both agreed that some great steps were taken by the franchise to improve the coaching staff, but if you discuss only the personnel on the field, the roster is not seeing an influx of new names...and few need a reminder of last season's record.
But does that mean the team isn't getting better?
Clearly, there are intangibles to be considered when you discuss the makings of a championship team. As they say, Super Bowls aren't won on paper. I can't recall a Super Bowl winner that was bought and signed for by September. As they also say, championships are earned. You build a team. It takes time.
Even the Cowboys dynasty team of the 90's didn't have the best players in the league in every position...at least not before the Super Bowl was won. In my mind, a championship team has great coaches that have implemented their philosophies and have gotten all 53 players aligned in a common goal, prepared them mentally, physically and emotionally to execute all the little things to near perfection. There can be injuries, there can be bad luck, and there can be mistakes, but a championship team can overcome such things...and not only because of all the super stars on the team.
The 2011 Cowboys have at minimum four All Stars and team leaders in Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Jay Ratliff, and DeMarcus Ware. Despite some media pundits' proclamations, this team does not lack leadership from extremely talented veterans. Add some threats with tons of potential for the offense - Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Felix Jones - cement it with some reliable role players on the defense - Bradie James, Terence Newman, Marcus Spears - and support it with some young players that have shown sparks of greatness - Doug Free, Sean Lee, Mike Jenkins - and the foundation for a competitive team is already in place. And there are more names to be excited about, both with proven ability and those with potential to tap. Yes, there are always some question marks for a team, and the Cowboys are no exception.
Who will be our starting safeties?
Is the offensive line still missing a starter?
Who will be the #3 wide receiver?
Will the 2009 Pro Bowl cornerbacks return to form after the 2010 collapse?
Will the rookies and younger players contribute anything of value?
But perhaps the most important question to ask: If you were the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, do you choose the coaching staff and player roster of early 2010, or the very early version of the 2011 team?
I have my own suspicions and answers to these questions. And I would choose this current staff and roster, which would mean the team is indeed improving, at least in my mind. Now, remembering the caveat and ignoring the coaching staff, is the player roster improving?
Excuse the answering of a question with another, but...Can you really separate one from the other?
Coaching is more than a skill or a study and well deserving a place in the Hall of Fame. There exist(ed) coaches that can take an average roster and sooner or later create a championship squad. Call them intangibles, call them benefits of effective coaching, something happens in the creation of a championship squad that increases the talent and potential of the players on the roster. Coaching affects player performances, and as such, I cannot look at the Cowboys roster and ignore some expected improvements by the same players that were on the painful to watch 2010 team.
Even a player as great as Ware will be more effective, and achieve greater potential, when assisted by the coaching staff and schemes. The culture of a team striving to "be great today" and to "approach things the right way" will influence how well each player - and the team as a unit - will execute on the field. Just as some ill-advised tactics in recent history seem to have influenced the performances of the players on this team.
So I think the Cowboys cornerback depth is not in dire needs. In my mind, Newman and Jenkins are far from liabilities in Ryan's 2011 defense. Just one smart safety could make the 2010 secondary a distant nightmare, and he may already be at practice. The Cowboys' misunderstood 2010 pass rush will pale in comparison to the new aggressive defense with some very familiar faces. Could Orlando Scandrick lead the league in sacks by a defensive back? Could Ware set a single season record? Will Sean Lee's read-and-react instincts excel in this creative and aggressive style of defense? How will the invigorated line help Garrett open up his playbook - even with some growing pains - to best utilize an offense with more than enough threats?
These are the questions I am asking as I enjoy the ‘rebuilding' process Jason Garrett has brought to this team. But please don't mistake my use of the term, since this ‘rebuilding' process still has a competitive team that should make a run at the playoffs. In fact, when I see the Cowboys it appears that they finally returned to function like a franchise intent on being competitive every season, as they build to be perennial contenders - not selling out their future for the present.
We may not be signing new great players, but some great players may emerge from the guys already at practice. Jason Garrett, Rob Ryan, Mike Woicik, and many others will see to it that even guys like David Arkin are playing harder and smarter than the average NFL player. Teddy Williams may become just another track star to fail at football if Jimmy Robinson doesn't take a concussion as a revelation and create a weapon welcomed on any offense...and Dez Bryant might not become as great as we hope as quickly if he doesn't have Jimmy's voice in his head on a daily basis. It may not be greed of a new contract that has Anthony Spencer playing lights out this season.
We may not be signing some great players as we wade through the new salary cap waters, but that, in and of itself, could be a great sign in the long run. No new great players have been added to the roster, but that doesn't mean the Cowboys are having a terrible offseason. This team has been improving for quite a while, from Garrett as interim, to the player organized practices, to the most recent training camp days. We have not signed any new great players, but that doesn't mean this can't become a great team as they work to improve every day, as Jason Garrett - and the impressive staff in place around him - forges the principles of a championship team. The roster is not yet full, and the waters may seem still, but there are some deeply entrenched changes flowing through this team. This may become the point we recognize as Jerry Jones finally handing off the keys, both to his new GM Stephen Jones and new to-be-tenured head coach. This may be the year that players we have been waiting on finally ‘take that next step'. This may be the year the rookie class provides a serious impact. If nothing else, this will be a year with a competitive team.
We are not bringing in new big name signings, but I think the practices happening in San Antonio and those to come are a great influence on the players, and this team is not in bad shape.
As they say, on any given Sunday...and I believe the 2011 Dallas Cowboys will be improving everyday and on every given Sunday.
I, for one, am already excited to see what this team can do and think they have already improved, even without a big name free agent signing.