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Cowboys Roster Wishlist: What Do They Got That We Ain't Got?

Whenever it has been pointed out over the last two years that the Cowboys, under head coach Jason Garrett, haven't made sufficient progress, the San Francisco 49ers have been offered up as exhibit A. Now that the 'Niners are Super Bowl bound, those comparisons are sure to appear with greater frequency. The problem with this take is that overlooks the fact that Harbaugh and Garrett inherited wildly different rosters.

Give this man a talented roster, and he'll be smiling in January, too.
Give this man a talented roster, and he'll be smiling in January, too.

Now that the two teams have been set for this year's Game to End All Games, there is sure, for the second year in a row, to be a lot of hand wringing, particularly when it comes to the success enjoyed by the 49ers in the two years that Jim Harbaugh has been the head coach. The thrust of this will be that Jason Garrett hasn't been able to turn around the Cowboys with the same swiftness that Harbaugh has the 'Niners, who were a "bad team" that had ranged from mediocre to terrible for several years (the last time they were above .500 was 2002). So, the argument runs, Harbaugh, unlike Garrett, has managed to completely "turn around" an organization.

Sure enough, like clockwork, ESPN Dallas trotted out the obligatory comparison article this morning. In his inimitable style, Jean-Jacques Taylor writes:

In two seasons, he has made two appearances in the NFC title game. Now, he's headed to the Super Bowl, while Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is traveling to the Senior Bowl looking for prospects.

Sad, ain't it?

San Francisco is 24-7-1 with a pair of NFC West titles, while Dallas is 16-16 without a playoff appearance the past two seasons. Jerry Jones must look at San Francisco's success under Harbaugh and shake his head...

Harbaugh has changed all that. He has written a new narrative. In the process, he has fulfilled his destiny as a football messiah.

Harbaugh has changed the culture and produced wins.

By this logic, Harbaugh is a magician and Garrett isn't; the 'Niners win and Cowboys lose the HC hiring game, and Jerry Jones is a fool.

But wait, there's more to the story that this. I'd like to begin by turning to a fascinating blog post that appeared on Pro Football Reference a few years back. The author looked at NFL teams from 1980-2007, and divvied them up into good (10+ wins), average (7-9 wins) and bad (6 or fewer wins) teams. For each, he broke down the roster two ways: first, by the round in which players were drafted; second, whether they were home-grown (i.e., drafted by the team they were playing for) or acquired from another team.

The numbers are interesting. For most teams, the numbers were very close (all three levels average 3.8-3.9 second rounders on the roster, for example). There are subtle trends: the better teams have slightly more high-round draftees on the roster. In recent years, however, this skews more clearly, suggesting that the better teams are those that have managed to accumulate more talent, amassing a lot of first-rounders and, by collecting a fair amount of second-day picks (second and third rounders), keeping the number of UDFA types fairly low.

Let's test this theory by looking at the 49ers and Ravens depth charts. The 'Niners roster boasts 15 first round picks (nine of whom are home grown), only two second rounders (both drafted by the team) and seven third rounders (four of whom were picked by San Francisco). Baltimore's eight first rounders (all but one drafted by Ozzie Newsome and Co.) are supplemented by an array of second-day talent: nine second rounders (six Ravens draftees) and six third rounders (five of whom were picked by Baltimore). In total, there are 22 premium-round talents in San Francisco; Baltimore boasts 23.

In comparison, the Cowboys have seventeen such players, and may soon have far fewer. I've listed them below, by the round in which they were drafted, either by the Cowboys or another team. Note that several players' returns in 2013 are in serious jeopardy; I've put a line through those names. Spoiler alert: its scary. Here, if your stomach can take it, are the Cowboys' "premium" talents:

Round 1:
DeMarcus Ware ('05)
Marcus Spears ('06)
Anthony Spencer ('07)
Felix Jones ('08)
Mike Jenkins ('08)
Dez Bryant ('10)
Tyron Smith ('11)
Mo Claiborne ('12)
Ernie Sims (Det, Phi, Ind)

Round 2:
Sean Lee ('10)
Bruce Carter ('11)
Ryan Cook (Min, Mia)

Round 3:
Jason Witten ('03)
Jason Hatcher ('06)
DeMarco Murray ('11)
Tyrone Crawford ('12)
Derrick Dockery (Wash, Buff)
Dan Connor (Car)

In comparing this list to the rosters competing for a Lombardi in two weeks' time, the disparity is evident. San Francisco has seven more first rounders on its roster than do the Cowboys; Baltimore has seven more second-rounders than Dallas has.

Quick side bar, no. 1: the fact that Dallas has only two second-rounders on the roster is staggering. Compare this to the team that Baltimore beat yesterday; since 2009, the Patriots have added nine (!!) second rounders, all of whom are currently on their roster. That's a lot of good, young talent taking up roster spots that, in Dallas, are maned by UDFA types. By my calculations, San Francisco has ten UDFAs, and Baltimore has seven. Dallas, in comparison, has seventeen.

Quick side bar no. 2: It probably goes without saying, but the talent disparity is particularly evident along the offensive lines, where San Francisco has invested three first round picks (with another former blue-chipper, Leonard Davis) backing up), and Baltimore has two firsts (one of them a former Viking, Bryant McKinney), a second and a third rounder. Both teams were able to use their talented lines (on both sides of the ball) to grind down opposing defenses as the games wore on. The second half scores? Harbaughs 35, opponents zero.

This is where comparisons of Harbaugh and Garrett are at best tenuous and most likely specious. Want to know the real reason why the 'Niners are battling for a sixth Lombardi and the Cowboys are watching the tournament from home? Its because Jim Harbaugh inherited a really freakin' talented roster (particularly along the lines) that had been growing up under previous general managers Terry Donahue and Scot McCloughan and head coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. Under Harbaugh and new GM Trent Baalke, this array of talent grew up in 2011 and became fully-fledged in 2012.

Before we condemn Garrett for failing to achieve what either Harbaugh has, let's give him a similarly talented and deep roster, a front seven that can take over games, an elite running game, and an offensive line that can dominate in the fourth quarter. A coach is only as good as his talent, and this team, contrary to popular opinion, isn't particularly talented. Claiming otherwise is short-sighted.

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