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Cowboys Draft 2013: The Benefits of Continuity

In part I of this series, we looked at the fact that the NFL's most successful franchises develop and adhere to a coherent, long-term plan. This time around, we look at the benefits of coaching and quarterback continuity: the ability to institute a program rather than a scheme.

Jason Garrett wants to build a program in Dallas
Jason Garrett wants to build a program in Dallas

In this series' first installment, my thesis was that the stronger organizations pursue a patient, but more productive, talent acquisition strategy. They are able to do this, in large, because of one key ingredient: stability. More specifically, they don't cycle through head coaches and quarterbacks. Let's look at the teams who have made the most playoff appearances and have the most 10-win seasons in the decade from 2003-'12 (I haven't counted this offseason's coaching and quarterback changes, so, for example, Andy Reid registers as the only Eagles head coach even though he's currently in Kansas City):

Team 10-win Seasons Playoff Appearances Head Coaches Quarterbacks
New England 10 9 1 (Belichick) 1 (Brady)
Indianapolis 9 9 3 (Dungy/ Caldwell/ Pagano) 2 (Manning/ Luck)
Green Bay 7 7 2 (Sherman/ McCarthy) 2 (Favre/ Rodgers)
Baltimore 6 7 2 (Billick/ Harbaugh) 2 (Boller/ Flacco)
Seattle 4 7 3 (Holmgren/ Mora/ Carroll) 3 (Hasselbeck/ Wallace/ Wilson)
Pittsburgh 6 6 2 (Cowher/ Tomlin) 2 (Maddox/ Roethlisberger)
Philadelphia 5 6 1 (Reid) 2 (McNabb/ Vick)

Certainly an argument can be made that these head coaches have held their jobs a long time because they were fortunate enough to find a franchise quarterback capable of guiding them to multiple seasons with double-digit wins. I'd counter with the Ravens, a stable franchise that, with Kyle Boller and Joe Flacco as signal callers, has never had a true franchise quarterback. In Baltimore, they have won by drafting well and sticking to a long-term plan (as you'll see, I feel strongly that these are two sides of the same coin)- one which has resulted in multiple deep playoff runs and, last year, in the young franchise's second Lombardi.

On the other end of the spectrum are franchises that haven't seen a playoff appearance in the past decade: Buffalo (with four head coaches and five different QBs), Oakland (with - gasp - seven head coaches and seven quarterbacks), and Cleveland (five head coaches, including one interim guy, and eight QBs). These teams cycle through coaches who, knowing this, tend to make decisions that will help the team to win now - or as soon as possible - because they don't feel safe enough to build for a future that they can't be sure they'll be a part of. Of course, each new coach brings in a new system, new schemes, a new set of player profiles and a new way of doing business. Those teams - and their players - are constantly learning rather than perfecting.

Count Dallas as one of these teams. In the last decade, the Cowboys have had three head coaches, each with a different (even if only slightly) philosophy, set of player profiles, and set of priorities. For example, we have seen them re-tool the defense three times: in 2005, Parcells installed a "big" 3-4, favoring size and strength over the speed and quickness that had characterized Dallas' defenses for the previous fifteen years. In 2007, Wade Phillips kept the 3-4, but shifted to a one-gap scheme that sought smaller, quicker front seven personnel. And now, we're seeing a return to the 4-3 with which the franchise began.

The most stable franchises don't suffer from this chaotic level of personnel turnover. Over most of the same span, Dick LeBeau has been the Steelers defensive coordinator; even before he rejoined the team (he was also DC in 1995-'96), Pittsburgh's personnel guys developed a coherent philosophy, with specific player profiles that they follow and have articulated their draft-day priorities so that they know how and when to act-and at what cost. The Steelers' core philosophies endure, even as great players come and go. As one example, lets look at their outside linebacking pairs, going back to 1989, the first year Greg Lloyd was a starter:

1989-'92: Greg Lloyd-Brian Hinkle
1993-'95: Lloyd-Kevin Greene
1996-‘97: Lloyd-Jason Gildon
1998-‘99: Carlos Emmons-Gildon
2000-'03: Joey Porter-Gildon
2004-'06: Porter-Clark Haggans
2007: James Harrison-Haggans
2008-'12: Harrison-LaMarr Woodley

Over this 22-year period, the Steelers eschewed philosophical ping-pong. Rather, they retained the same 3-4 scheme, and continued to look for the same kind of players to man their OLB spots. Each draftee was rigorously coached in the system, so that he can succeed. In most cases, they had a player waiting in the wings to replace the departing veteran. Joey Porter was drafted in 1999, and then took over for Carlos Emmons the following year; LaMarr Woodley was drafted in 2007 and replaced Clark Haggans after one year of seasoning. Other than Hinkle and Emmons, every one of these players made at least one Pro Bowl; most were multiple Pro Bowlers.

This is exactly the kind of continuity that the Cowboys enjoyed over Tom Landry's long tenure (which he shared with Gil Brandt and Tex Schramm): the system remained the same and the players came and went. They were thoughtfully drafted, rigorously coached, plugged in, and played well - until they were replaced by another thoughtfully drafted player. From 1965-'85, for instance, the Cowboys had three right tackles. In 1965, Ralph Neely too over the starting position; he was replaced by Rayfield Wright in 1970 (after Wright had three years of seasoning in Landry's system); In 1979, Jim Cooper took over in his third year in the league and held the position until 1985.

Here, I have given two brief example of the relationship between secure head coaches and continuity, wherein a clearly articulated system is in place, the team drafts the kind of players who will succeed in a long-term system, which is in part taught by the veterans who have spent their entire careers learning and perfecting it. On the other end of the continuity spectrum are the Arizonas and Clevelands of the NFL world, who cycle through coaches and GMs every 3-5 years. Players on those teams are often asked to learn a new scheme every year or two. Is it any wonder they struggle, when the scheme in which they play is perpetually new to them?

The takeaway here is that Jason Garrett appears to be instituting just such an enduring way of conducting business. I believe he envisions more than a a mere set of schematic preferences. He wants to build a "program," which operates much like Duke basketball (sorry Tarheel Paul), Landry's Cowboys or, more recently, the Steelers or Ravens. Those teams transcend mere scheme: they know exactly what their preferred style of play is, and find players who play that way. In the recent influx of "RKG"s, we see evidence that Dallas has landed on a stylistic preference for the first time in a great many years.

What we should hope for, then, is that Garrett can hang around long enough for the Cowboys to develop the same level of continuity that characterizes the most successful franchises. And guess what: those are the teams that tend to "draft well" (more on this in the next installment). Yes, the Cowboys will need to win for this to happen. But I believe that Jerry just might be drinking the continuity Kool-Aid, and be willing to weather another difficult season (not a 6-10 collapse, mind you) in an effort to build a program in Dallas.

Next up: how continuity allows teams to massage the draft to their benefit.

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