News reached us yesterday that safety Mark Barron may have suffered a double sports hernia. Barron was projected as a likely first round pick for the 2012 draft, and the injury will probably see his draft stock drop. Early reports suggest he could be out until July or August, making it unlikely that he’ll have a big impact in the 2012 season. Cowboys fans immediately started penciling Barron in as a potential second round target for the Cowboys along with DE Jared Crick, who’s also seen his draft stock drop due to injury.
The thinking is that with either Crick or Barron, the Cowboys could get first-round talent with a second-round pick, and it’s conceivable that the Cowboys could indeed end up going this route. After all, they’ve used their last two second round picks on injured players with first round grades: Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. The Sean Lee pick appears to have paid off, but the jury is still out on Bruce Carter.
In financial investment circles, this is commonly referred to as a high risk/reward strategy, where the increased risk is rewarded with a higher potential return. The trick is finding the right balance in your investment portfolio, one that generates enough profit but is sufficiently diversified to absorb the losses from some of those high risk/reward choices that are bound to go bad.
But when a team like the Cowboys pick an injured player in the second round of the draft for the third year in a row, that is not a high risk/reward strategy, that is called ‘Casino Finance’: Casino Finance is used to describe situations where large "bets" or investments are made that carry a high risk and a potentially high reward, but where the investors may have little to no control over the outcome of their bets.
The issue here is that the Cowboys have consistently displayed a pattern of behavior that suggests they think they can outsmart the market, or in this case, the 31 other teams. That they can somehow take a shortcut to success in the NFL.
But in the NFL, there are no shortcuts. The teams who make the playoffs regularly and are contenders are those who draft well and develop their players. They draft the right players, hire the right coaches, call the right plays and sign the right free agents. That’s it. It’s not rocket science.
The teams that don’t do so well are typically always trying to find shortcuts to make them contenders. Here are the three most commonly used shortcuts, and the Cowboys are guilty of all three:
Money: No matter how much money an owner invests to win a championship, there is no guarantee on the return, and historically the success rate isn’t favorable. Look at the Yankees. Look at the Cowboys whose real payroll tops the league year after year. Look at last year’s Eagles. Look at the Redskins.
In real life, money is just about the biggest shortcut there is. Money gets you better everything: better seats, better health care, better service, better education, better everything. And nobody knows this better than every single multi-millionaire owner, all of them accustomed to throwing money at things to make them better. The supreme irony is that in the salary-capped NFL, money isn’t the difference maker anymore and simply buying yourself a better team isn’t an option – a concept that many an owner is still struggling with, almost 20 years after the cap was first introduced in 1994.
Think about how frustrating this must be for an owner like Jerry Jones: No team makes more money than the Cowboys in the NFL, no team consistently spends as much on player salaries and yet the success simply hasn’t been there in recent years.
Quick Fixes: There is little doubt that the NFL, like almost every other professional sports league, is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. Nobody knows this better than the coaches and GM’s around the league front offices, whose jobs are on the line almost every single day. To keep their jobs, they must deliver results. And to deliver quick results, franchises try to build their teams too fast with quick fixes. As a result, their team has a lot of holes. No team is ever "one or two players away". From anything. In 2008, Jerry Jones believed the Cowboys were one wide receiver away from making the Super Bowl and signed Roy Williams. In 2000, Joey Galloway was supposed to be the guy to turn the Cowboys around.
And as much fun as it can be to belittle Jerry Jones at every opportunity and make this out as a Cowboys-specific problem, it is a problem that most franchises experience when they go 'all-in' for one player.
In the NFL, the talent level is too evenly distributed to think you can beat teams with talent alone. In fact, one of the biggest issues the Cowboys have is that the talent level on the roster is so unevenly distributed from one player to the next, that the holes in the roster are blindingly obvious and are easily taken advantage of by opposing teams.
Too many risks: Nowhere do you see teams take more risks than during the draft. In fact, it’s amazing how fast and loose teams play during the most important talent acquisition process of the year. Teams will regularly draft for need instead of BPA, draft potential over production, pick injured players, go for talent while ignoring character or select small school prospects over big school starters.
The Cowboys are particularly susceptible to the last point, the small school standout. The first player to fit this definition was defensive tackle Jethro Pugh out of Elizabeth (N.C.) City State in the 1964 draft. Since then, the Cowboys have had great success looking for talent in out of the way places, and have compiled an impressive list of small school talent that includes Hall of Fame OT Rayfield Wright out of Fort Valley State, soon to be HoF OG Larry Allen out of Sonoma State and numerous Pro Bowlers.
And while it’s great that the Cowboys found the likes of Tony Romo or Miles Austin, building your roster with undrafted free agents or small school prospects is not a sustainable strategy. The Cowboys should be happy they lucked out with these players but shouldn’t look for that kind of luck to repeat itself year after year.
Case in point, the 2010 draft: Of the 255 players drafted that year, 196 came from the six BCS conferences (+ Notre Dame). Another 36 were drafted out of the other Football Bowl Subdivision conferences. That left 23 players from out-of-the-way schools, of which the Cowboys picked two, fourth rounder Akwasi Owusu-Ansah from Indiana (Pa) and seventh rounder Sean Lissemore from William & Mary. They then made a point of going out of their way to sign high profile UDFA Scott Sicko out of New Hampshire - who didn't make it through camp with the Cowboys. Lissemore seems to have been a good pick, but Owusu-Ansah wasn’t.
AOA was selected with the 126th pick at the end of the fourth round. The next three DBs selected were Kam Chancellor out of Virginia Tech (133), Dominique Franks out of Oklahoma (135) and Kendrick Lewis out of Mississippi (136). Those three players have combined for 67 starts in two years, an average of 11 starts per season. AOA started two games for Jacksonville last year and never started for Dallas.
There is a risk inherent in selecting players who’ve excelled against inferior competition. The Cowboys obviously factor this into their draft evaluation, but the Cowboys’ talent acquisition history indicates that college pedigree may play a lesser role in Dallas than in other places.
Bill Belichick supposedly once said, "There are no shortcuts to building a team each season. You build the foundation brick by brick."
In the draft, safe picks are usually good picks. String together enough good picks and you’ve built a contender. Get too cute along the way and chances are you'll get a lot of picks wrong. If the Cowboys are going to be contenders, they’ll have to do it the old fashioned way.
There are no shortcuts.