O-Ring Theory and the Dallas Cowboys: 2 Years Later

During the 2010 training camp One.Cool.Customer wrote an article outlining several metrics by which one can predict a team's success in the regular season. The one that stood out to me and one I have written about much since that article was the O-Ring theory. How has the O-ring theory stood up after 2 seasons of Cowboys data and what does it teach us about the off-season strategy Jerry and Jason should employ?

O-ring theory states that an NFL team should be measured by its weakest links. It is named after the space shuttle Challenger incident where decades of the best human engineering and billions of dollars of the finest equipment was sabotaged when the a simple O-ring on one of the rocket boosters failed, resulting in the destruction of the entire space shuttle.

In the NFL every single move every player on a team makes is captured on film. Then that film is then analyzed by 32 different teams worth of dozens of the smartest minds that millions of dollars can buy. All those brilliant minds are scouring each second of tape looking for weakness, weakness that they can create a gameplan to exploit on Sunday. So if your team has a weakness it will be discovered and attacked.

In 2010 there was one glaring weakness that teams attacked with reckless abandon, the Dallas Cowboys' safety play. Alan Ball was arguably the worst safety in the NFL that season. Every team from the great Packers team to lowly 3rd-string-QB Lions and David-Garrard-Jaguars came into Cowboys Stadium with a gameplan to throw the ball at Alan Ball. The strategy worked and the defense gave up more points than any defense in Cowboys history.

In 2011 the O-ring theory was even more poignant than ever. The Cowboys entered the season with one of the best receiving corps in the league. A trio of Dez, Miles, and Witten were the envy of the league. When Laurent Robinson was added to the lineup and all players were healthy it was a matchup nightmare for secondaries. However that amazing aerial attack couldn't get off the ground against good teams. Why was that? Because just as the hundred-million-dollar navigational system on the Challenger didn't matter because an O-ring didn't do its job, the best WR corps in the NFL didn't matter when the O-line couldn't do its job. The Patriots wrote the book by bowling Vince Wilfork through the middle and blitzing linebackers at Phil Costa. Teams learned the interior O-line was the weak link and ran every stunt and blitz in the book at Phil Costa and the guards next to him. The interior pressure short-circuited the passing attack and left Romo running for his life with broken ribs, a punctured lung, and damaged throwing hand.

On defense the Cowboys had the best OLB in the league putting up a gaudy 19.5 sack total. It also had a great penetrating nose tackle and a top-5 interior linebacker in Sean Lee. What was all this talent able to do in December? Nothing. It was sabotaged by an O-ring. The New York Giants walked into their meetings with 'Operation Throw at Terence Newman'. Just like attacking the Alan Ball O-ring in 2010 was effective, the Terence Newman O-ring meant that all the talent on the defense was rendered useless.

In this era of the NFL the game is about having consistency and depth across the 22 starting positions so that teams cannot find an O-ring to take great advantage of. With talent parity driven by the salary cap and NFL draft a team can't assemble massively more talent that the other 31 in the league. It can't have pro-bowlers at every position. A team that tries to collect the most top-end talent it can will leave itself highly vulnerable in other areas, O-rings. Instead, what a team must do is build its team around sufficiency. It must use its draft picks and money wisely to create a consistency of talent across the field so that no opponent can find an easy mis-match to exploit.

What O-ring theory teaches Jason and Jerry is to scrutinize your own roster. Determine the positions that do not have players that can do their job consistently on every snap. The theory says that one great side of your ball cannot overcome a bad side of your ball. If Jason intends to build a great offense but only provide token upgrades to the defense as he did last year, this team will not find success. The theory says do not think that one great player can overcome two bad players. It would tell Jerry that if both guards and the center are below sufficient NFL quality, then acquiring Carl Nicks or David DeCastro and leaving the other two positions unchanged will not result in success.

The theory says the fans love to think about getting that one CB, that one G, that one pass rusher that will do great things. But if fans want their team to go to the Super Bowl they should be thinking about how to get 2 good players to fill 2 holes rather than giving a big contract to 1 great player and forcing a cheap UDFA into playing the other position.

O-ring theory teaches you don't want to collect the most great players, you want to have the fewest exploitable holes. Having no exploitable holes allows your great players to shine because there's no easy place for the opponent to attack. In the last 2 years the Cowboys have been on the wrong side of this theory, going into seasons with easily exploitable O-rings that sabotage the great things their premiere players are capable of. Can they find a way to reverse that trend in 2012 and how could they go about doing it?

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