When free agency starts next Tuesday, all hell will break loose. The first big free agent names will agree to deals within the first couple of hours. The NFL will conveniently ignore the fact that most of the contracts signed on the first day cannot possibly have been put together without teams and agents talking prior to the official start of free agency, but so be it.
A day or two later, you’ll see the first articles and broadcasts appearing listing the winners and losers of the 2012 free agency, even though something like 90% of the available free agents will not have signed contracts yet.
Teams that go on a free agent shopping spree will likely be called brilliant and forward thinking (Eagles last year) or stupid and stuck in their ways (Cowboys every year). This will have nothing to do with the free agency acquisitions themselves, but will be a simple continuation of the same old tired narratives.
Similarly, teams that will be mostly content to tread water until the market calms down before making targeted free agent acquisitions will be called clever and enterprising (Steelers and Packers for example) or will be called cheap and will be derided for not having gone all-in (Cowboys every year). And while all of this makes for good headlines and simple story-writing, it completely ignores a simple reality best encapsulated by a quote attributed to legendary basketball coach John Wooden:
"Never mistake activity for achievement"
How exactly did the Eagles' free agent shopping spree help them last year? Did the Steelers' "build from within" philosophy prevent them from losing their wild-card game against the Broncos last year? Has Dan Snyder ever won anything?
The fact is, there is no one single answer for how to win in the NFL. Every year, the pundits tout a different model of ‘the right way', depending on which team won the Super Bowl. One year it's a dominant pass rush, another year it's a lights-out offense, yet another year it's a playmaking defense.
Look at the Super Bowl participants of the last eleven years: the losing teams have only made the playoffs four times in the following season, not once advancing beyond the divisional round. Of the winning teams over the last eleven years, the Patriots were the only team that was able to repeat. No other Super Bowl winner even made it back to the conference championships. Four of the last eleven Super Bowl winners failed to make the playoffs altogether in the following year.
If there is no single model for winning in the NFL, how can there be a single model for free agency success?
We do not yet know what the Cowboys will be doing in free agency this year, but if their recent history is anything to go by, the Cowboys will be content to let the market come to them. Rob Phillips at dc.com has a rundown of the Cowboys' free agent acquisitions since 2005. The notable thing about the list: the last big free agent acquisition was Leonard Davis in 2007, and it's been pretty quiet since.
Last year, the Cowboys brought in free agents Abram Elam and Kenyon Coleman. The year before, they weren't active in free agency at all, and three years ago the free agent crop consisted of Keith Brooking, Gerald Sensabaugh and Igor Olshansky. What all the free agent acquisitions over the last three years have in common was that none of them were what could be described as the cream of the crop of their free agency class. Yes, they were briefly in the hunt for Nnamdi Asomugha, but probably less because of a long-term strategy and more because they got suckered into a bidding war by Asomugha's agent. For the most part, the Cowboys have been content to sit tight in free agency until the market settled.
Here's the free agent activity in Jason Garrett's short tenure so far:
- July 29: Signed DE Kenyon Coleman
- Aug. 5: Signed S Abram Elam
- Sept. 4: Claimed FB Tony Fiammetta off waivers
- Sept. 7: Signed WR Laurent Robinson
- Dec. 13: Signed RB Sammy Morris
Note that the Cowboys ended up carrying-over around $17 million in cap space from last year into this year. In principle, the money was there to make big splashes in free agency last year, so that free agent shopping list is not an indication of a tight budget or an unwillingness to spend, but more an indication of a longer term strategy.
With that in mind, while I would be very pleased to welcome the likes of Mario Williams, Cortland Finnegan or Brandon Carr to Dallas, I would also be very surprised if any of those players actually end up wearing a star. The reality probably is that the Cowboys will wait a couple of days for the market to calm down, and avoid the flashy names at the top of everyone's free agent list in favor of the more solid, durable and economical names.
And before you fall into the trap of following the established narrative and sneering at such an approach, look at the other teams that will be following such an approach this year. Chances are you'll see some of the most successful NFL franchises of the last couple of years taking the exact same wait-and-see approach and holding still until the initial free agent frenzy is over.
However, there is one critical difference between the Cowboys and some of those more successful wait-and-see teams.
To a large degree, the Cowboys are where they are today because they simply haven't had enough draft picks that made an impact on the field. If you define a starter as a player who has started at least eight games in the 2011 season, the Cowboys have drafted exactly five starters in the last four drafts: Mike Jenkins in 2008, Dez Bryant and Sean Lee in 2010 and Tyron Smith in 2011. That's it. This ranks the Cowboys very close to the bottom of the league.
In the NFL, the draft is where depth is built. When you fail to draft sufficient depth, you must address this via free agency. As a result, the Cowboys will likely pursue a meat-and-potatoes type of free agency in which they try to improve their depth across multiple positions to make up for the roster holes where contributing draft picks should be sitting. And this is a good thing, because a team built on depth will almost always be better than a team built on stars and scrubs.
Keep this in mind as the Cowboys enter free agency. Yes, the Cowboys will have to make up for mistakes made in previous drafts. You can deride that all day long and it will not make any difference whatsoever. But don't judge the Cowboys' free agency by how quickly they sign players or by whether they sign a big-name player (who is always one injury away from having zero impact for his team).
Judge the Cowboys' free agency by how successful they are at building depth across their roster. And pray that some of the Cowboys' more recent draft picks like DeMarco Murray, Bruce Carter, John Phillips, Victor Butler, Sean Lissemore and Josh Brent - as well as a couple of 2012 draft picks - will all play a key part in creating quality depth on the Cowboys' roster in 2012.