Free agency has been a daring high-wire act for the Dallas Cowboys, with some very creative moves being needed to get a couple of needed signings taken care of. While there have been some heated arguments about whether the multiple restructures and player releases are the signs of creativity or incompetence, there is no arguing that the Cowboys are having to put a lot of effort into managing the salary cap. And while this is a show that has gone on for several years, with the team managing to more or less get around the problems without having to cut a number of players it would rather keep, it does not seem like the way Stephen Jones and company would operate if they had any other choice.
This is clearly not a situation that developed overnight. A logical reading is that the plan right now is to keep squeezing enough cap room out with reworked contracts to get from season to season, and eventually get past having to make up for the past errors.
Speaking of the past errors, one of the major ones has been a topic of discussion lately. The stunningly horrific draft class of 2009 has finally gone completely away with the signing of Victor Butler by the New Orleans Saints. This draft class has become symbolic of all that went wrong with the Cowboys in the last decade. But that draft class is just a symptom, and the disease I am talking about has far more than just that one.
Clarence Hill pointed this out.
Yes, Cowboys 2009 draft was bad. But the Cowboys draft bad period. Only 4 of 24 left from 08-10 drafts combined. Just 6 of 32 from 07-10— Clarence Hill (@clarencehilljr) March 28, 2013
Now, I do think he left out two important letters. "Draft" should be "drafted" there, because the team has certainly been finding starters since then. Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray, and Morris Claiborne have all come through the last three drafts, and there is certainly a chance for other players from those classes to earn starting jobs. But those years from 2007 on through 2009 were like a black hole for this team. The only players still under contract with the team from those drafts are Anthony Spencer, Doug Free, and Orlando Scandrick. Not to mention, this was the time of the infamous Roy Williams (WR) trade. And one of my fellow authors pointed out something else about that time period.
@clarencehilljr 7-10. Hmmmm...who was the head coach then?— rabblerousr (@rabblerousr) March 28, 2013
Yes, that was the Wade Phillips era. And the more you look into it, the more you realize that many of the problems the Cowboys are dealing with today are attributable to that time.
Is Phillips totally to blame for this? Well, not completely. Obviously, Jerry Jones still had great input into the draft. And in a larger sense, Phillips is on his head as well, since Jerry Jones hired him. But I don't believe much in coincidence, so whether or not the blame should be placed on Wade Phillips, there is no doubt that the major personnel decisions made during that period are still dragging the team down now. I do not blame this on Phillips as much as I do on the overall dynamic that he was a key part of. That is at least as much on Jerry Jones. But things have changed, and it appears that Jones has learned from the errors of the past. At least the recent results in the draft would say so. If Jones has not really learned, then at least he and his staff are doing things much better, and will hopefully continue to do so.
I have discussed in the past that I think the success of the Cowboys is very dependent on the relationship between Jerry Jones and his head coach. I believe most of the people who read this will agree that the Cowboys were improving when Bill Parcells was the head coach, then slid back under Wade Philips. I also have made no secret of my opinion that the team is getting better again under Jason Garrett. Parcells and Garrett don't have a tremendous amount of traits that seem to be common to both, but both do come across as men who want to have a firm control on every aspect of the team that they can. Phillips comes across as a man who keeps a firm control on his lunch, but not much else.
OK, that was a bit of a cheap shot, but the nickname Coach Cupcake really did not have as much to do with his girth as it did with his demeanor. He is seen as easygoing, not very demanding, and easily swayed. Not a good person to throw in with Jerry Jones. There is also anecdotal evidence that he would not listen to his scouts, instead pitching players based on video he had seen. If I would try to apply a one word summary of his flaws, it would be "undisciplined". No one can seriously say that Garrett, with his always ongoing process, is undisciplined.
I think that spilled over into the draft, into the Roy Williams trade (which is interesting, because the Jones family, Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett all likely had some input there, and I would love to see some transcripts of those meetings), and even into some of the contracts that were handed out. It was a deep void. Given the short life span of the average NFL player, those three years with almost nothing to show for them represent what should be the backbone of this team, 4 to 6 year veterans. Instead, Dallas is largely having to work with a handful of 30ish stalwarts and a bunch of young, rising players still on rookie contracts.
Long term success in the draft means that a team has to get two to three starters a year out of the draft, including UDFAs. These do not have to be first year starters, especially after the first round, but should break into the first team by the end of their rookie deals. Then if the team can retain them on a three to four year second contract, they will be in a position to continually stock their team almost solely through the draft. According to figures from 2011, the average length of an NFL player who makes a starting day roster as a rookie is 6.0 years. (The often quoted figure of 3.0 to 3.3 years is affected by players who are on teams at some point in their careers, but may only be in and out of the league for a year or two.) Just using that figure, if a team averages 2.5 starters from each draft, they should have 15 starters on average each year that came to the team via the draft. When you throw in other factors, like first round players who average 9.1 years, and players with at least one pro bowl, who average 11.7, and a team that drafts consistently at or above that 2.5 figure will have basically an entire starting lineup made up of draftees. Depth will come from free agents and other drafted or undrafted players who do not become starters.
Based on results so far, Dallas is now on track. They still have to rely on too many free agents as starters because it will take about three more consistent years in the draft to get to a level where they can feed almost exclusively from it. In other words, it is going to take six years to recover from the 2007 through 2009 seasons (fortunately, the recovery started in 2010, Phillips' last draft as a head coach).
This is why I am a very strong Garrett supporter. I think his best attribute is not his methodical process or his role in building and trusting the scouting department, both of which are major things, but the fact that he is a great fit for the one unchangeable thing about the Dallas Cowboys, GM and owner Jerry Jones. No matter how you look at it, there is concrete evidence that the team is now bringing new rookie talent in at a sustainable rate. Take the six starters named above, add in potential future starters from the same years like Sean Lissemore, Tyrone Crawford, James Hanna and Matt Johnson, and you can see the tap has been turned back on. As the team tries to work out issues of play calling and scheme, I think it needs to hang on to Garrett. The change began with that last Phillips draft, but I think the way it got stronger under Garrett is the key.
The biggest obstacle right now is the salary cap issue, and whether Stephen Jones can continue his juggling act with veteran contracts. I hope he can but still worry that the team is going to be forced into parting ways with some of its best players simply because of cost. What happens with Tony Romo, Anthony Spencer and Doug Free is crucial. The team still has some contracts that, in hindsight, were too rich, like Free's and Jay Ratliff's, but newer deals now include built in mechanisms to assist in handling the cap, like Brandon Carr's. If the team has made some miscalculations in the past couple of years, then it will certainly add to the burden. But overall, the past three years are far, far better than the preceding three. Not perfect, no doubt, but given what the team had to dig out from, it would be hard to do much better while trying to be competitive at the same time. The only real alternative would have been to blow things up and start over, and if that had been the case, 8-8 would likely be a level the Cowboys were still striving to reach. Personally, I would rather see them fight to win while getting things back on an even keel.
This is not a guaranteed thing. The rather remarkable rash of injuries last year showed that the most well-constructed and implemented plan can be overcome by the vagaries of a game that features 250 pound men crashing into one another at high speed, and where victory and defeat are literally separated by inches. Dallas could have been 6-10 or 10-6 quite easily last year just on a handful of plays. Being the optimistic fan I am, I cling to the belief it was leaning towards the 10-6, and that the results in 2013 will be more like that, with a trip to the playoffs and less talk about hot seats.
The draft is rather unique this year, with very few clear "blue chip" players, but quality talent at least deep into the third round, and maybe a bit further. In participating in the writer's mock draft now being presented by KD, I am struck by the fact that this is going to be a hard draft for just about anyone to really screw up, at least if the talent evaluations I am reading are at all accurate. It is an excellent year for the Cowboys to continue the trend they are on. I personally think BPA is going to be the way to go, because almost any NFL roster has to rely on a certain number of JAGs as starters, and focusing on position is a sure-fire way to get less talent than you could. It is a year when a trade like the team made to get Morris Claiborne is not the way to go. Second and third round picks are almost as valuable as first rounders. Some have made the argument that Dallas would have been better off in 2012 by not giving up a second round pick to get Claiborne, and that kind of thinking is almost certainly correct in 2013. The key is to build a strong, accurate draft board and then live by it. It takes cool, logical heads. It takes a group at the top of the organization like Dallas has right now (and that includes Jerry Jones, who seems to be strongly influenced by the traits of the subordinates he surrounds himself with). That is why I believe the team is on the upswing. That is why I want to see Garrett succeed on the field, because his presence sure as all hell is making things better off it. And if he goes, there is a very real risk we could see another descent into a black hole, and years more of futility.