A Study on Team Building: Patriots, Steelers…Cowboys?

Football teams can prove to be enlightening subjects in sociological study, providing glimpses into the nature of man. Whether pondering (wo)man's pleasure in viewing the gladiatorial chess-match or man's desire to join such a glorified and barbaric profession; whether studying team dynamics under the pressures of mental and physical fatigue or the lack of leadership; major themes in philosophic and sociologic study are at the heart of the intangibles discussed in football. The one of greatest interest in this study: Nature versus Nurture.

Can the future success of a rookie rely just as much on the franchise and team as the player himself?

From the most practical to the most transcendental of perspectives, the answer seems clear. When considering the career or success of players, questions will always be asked: What if he had more opportunities to start? What if he was thrown in too early? What if he was playing on a team with a better offensive-line? What if he was playing in a system better suited to his skill-set? What if he didn't have to learn a new playbook every offseason due to a merry-go-round of coaches? What if the player didn't reach his potential until late as a result of "soft" coaching early in his career?

What if a good team had drafted him?

From a philosopher's standpoint, the mere existence of such questions reveals the reality, if not the validity, of the Nature versus Nurture debate within the realm of football. While a player will only be as successful as he tries to be, a supportive franchise, a particular team, an inspiring coach, a talented teammate and friend, are just a few of many factors which can have a significant influence over a player's career and development.

More After The Jump...

It would appear that Jason Garrett is a strong believer in these intangibles. In his two drafts while at the helm, Garrett has consistently shown an adherence to finding prospects who are the "right kind of guy." Yes, this would first prove that the nature of a player is obviously important to his success, if for no other reason than a team's likelihood to draft and provide opportunities to that player. However, when this is implemented as tradition the entire franchise soon becomes a beacon that can then turn an average player into the right kind of guy for that team. For many franchises, the right kind of guy is often more than just a cliché line for a hard-worker and team leader. Just as is the case for Garrett, who also seems to be using his vision for the team to define the physical traits he wants at specific positions, like smart and mobile offensive-linemen; not only fast, but tall corners; physical wide receivers; etc.

Looking around the league, successful franchises with a history of being perennial playoff contenders usually have management and coaching that follow these kinds of themes in franchise identity as they build their teams each season. Organizations like the New England Patriots and the Pittsburg Steelers have their own "way of doing things" and their coaching staffs make sure the players understand, adhere, and prosper in their specific team environment. It is too early to list the Cowboys as one of those teams (it will require a few years of consistent playoff runs), but there are certainly signs that Garrett is bringing that kind of mentality to his approach as a coach and his process of team building.

In many ways, the Cowboys are still a vastly different organization than the aforementioned franchises. There are few owners that can compare to the respect and success Dan Rooney and Howard Kraft have achieved for the Steelers and Patriots, and (as debated as this will be) Jerry Jones - the owner - is a member of that short list. But in certain ways he doesn't compare. One stark difference is his (in)ability to find a general manager and coach that are reliable enough to allow him to hand over the keys. While I am one that hopes he has learned several lessons in that regard, Jerry Jones appears to have some trust issues that Rooney and Kraft have overcome long ago.

This has led to the most drastic difference between the Cowboys and the other franchises...stability in the front office and coaching staff. The Steelers have had three head coaches in nearly half a decade. Bill Belichick has been with the Patriots for over a decade. Jason Garrett is the fourth Cowboys head coach in the last decade. With long-term stability accompanying successful front-offices and coaching-staffs, a franchise can become the living embodiment of a vision, and over time, self-sustaining and self-prophesying Super Bowl contenders. Eventually, the lines become so blurred that the Nature vs. Nurture debate loses all virtue.

Consider this: Over 90% of the 2011 Steelers starting line-up was comprised of players that began their career in Pittsburg. Whether first round players, second-day draft choices, or late round and undrafted rookies, the Steelers have found/groomed future Pro Bowlers countless times in a variety of positions. Is their scouting department proving perfect at finding players to match the scheme, or can they make just about any player perform great on any given Sunday? At this point, the answers appear to be yes.

While I am not as impressed with the Patriots organization, clearly, they also have a very successful approach to team building. What may surprise some people is that it is quite different than that of the Steelers. For example, while the Steelers and Patriots are both prepared enough to let older players get signed away to huge contracts, the Patriots are also more willing to sign veteran players at the "right price." While neither team shies away from draft-day trades and using them to assure they draft their targeted prospects, the Patriots seem more considered with gathering extra picks. While there are plenty of common denominators, it may prove that no single approach is best. Rather, simply the existence of a consistent process proves paramount.

Here is a look at the 2011 offensive rosters for the three teams:

New England Pittsburg Steelers Dallas Cowboys
Skill Position
T. Brady 6th Rd B. Rothlisberger 11th Pick T. Romo UDFA
W. Welker Trade-MIA R. Mendenhall 23rd Pick M. Austin UDFA
R. Gronkowski 2nd Rd H. Miller 30th Pick F. Jones 22nd Pick
D. Branch 2nd Rd H. Ward 3rd Rd D. Bryant 24th Pick
A. Hernandez 4th Rd M. Wallace 3rd Rd J. Witten 3rd Rd
J. Edelman 7th A. Brown 6th Rd D. Murray 3rd Rd
B. Green-Ellis UDFA L. Robinson FA-3rd Rd
D. Woodhead (UD)FA-NYJ
N. Solder 17th Pick M. Pouncey 18th Pick T. Smith 9th Pick
L. Mankins 32nd Pick M. Gilbert 2nd D. Free 4th Rd
M. Light 2nd Rd M. Starks 3rd Rd M. Holland FA-4th Rd
S. Vollmer 2nd Rd T. Essex 3rd Rd K. Kosier FA-7th Rd
B. Waters (UD)FA-DAL D. Legursky UDFA B. Nagy 7th Rd
D. Connolly UDFA-JAX R. Foster UDFA P. Costa UDFA
1st Rounders 14% 33% 23%
2nd Draft Day 36% 42% 23%
Mid - UDFA 50% 25% 54%
In-House 71% 100% 77%

I have listed the starters and impact players for each offense, as well as the back-up lineman that got significant playing time (especially since all three teams had injuries to starters). Amazingly, every player listed for the Steelers is an in-house prospect. For the Patriots, every player that was not in-house was an undrafted rookie that eventually ended up with the Patriots. Wes Welker was a restricted free-agent with a 2nd round tender before the Patriots actually traded a 2nd and late round pick for him, Danny Woodhead was originally with their divisional rival, and Brian Waters was a journeyman that started in Dallas and ended up becoming a solid guard during his long career. It makes you wonder if he would still be with the Steelers if they had signed him as an UDFA. The Cowboys appear to now have a respectable amount of "home grown" prospects, but remember, Garrett said goodbye to a few players from 2010 that had come to Dallas through trades or free agency, like Leonard Davis and Roy Williams.

What is clear is how much more emphasis the Steelers and Patriots have placed on drafting offensive linemen. Now, admittedly, the 2009 Cowboys had a first-round lineman (Leonard Davis to replace Tyrone Smith) as well as two additional second-rounders (Flozell Adams, Andre Gurode). For a couple of years they did manage to supply great o-line play for Dallas, but clearly there was no back-up plan in place. Thus, Cowboy fans may also want to stem the excitement of Dallas leading both teams in mid-to-late round and UDFA rookies. Tony Romo, Miles Austin and Doug Free are testaments, but Montrae Holland and Kyle Kosier were free agent acquisitions, and some would claim Bill Nagy and Phil Costa are starters by necessity not merit. What is impressive is how much success the Steelers have had with their first and second-day draft choices on offense.

The Cowboys also stand out by having the only first-round wide receiver on the three teams, which would have been two in 2010 considering Roy William's "pedigree." There are also some very telling discrepancies between the three teams in terms of first-round players. It seems the Steelers have so far had the most success. Unfortunately, the fact that the Cowboys have more first-round players on offense than the Patriots does not necessarily mean they have found more success. It could mean the Patriots target defenders in the first round more often, or that they are more willing to trade away talent or release underperforming prospects because they have other players ready in the wings.

Perhaps some things will become clearer in the follow-up, where the roster comparisons will concentrate on the impact defensive-players for each team.

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