Marshall Faulk's weekly question deals with the suits that work in the front office. Of course, when you are talking about the Dallas Cowboys, the most important suit belongs to owner, general manager, and full time spokesman Jerry Jones.
— Marshall Faulk (@marshallfaulk) December 18, 2014
Here is the transcript for those who like reading over listening: "At the end of the day, every GM has the same goal: win a championship. But when you're Professional Grade, it takes vision to build a path toward that goal. Look back at all the moves your front office made this year, and give them a grade. Is your team on the right path?"
Once upon a time, that question would have led to considerable gnashing of teeth and howls of anger. While Jerry Jones continues to prove he is not only the most successful owner in the NFL, but now in all of American sports, he has not always been seen as doing such a hot job as general manager. Actually, common descriptions of his GM performance in the past included terms like "idiot", "arrogant jerk", "stupid", and "simpering monkey boy". Or so I'm told.
That, however, has changed over the past few years. Where Jones was once seen as making all the major decisions himself (not really an accurate assessment, but the perception was certainly widespread), it is now more commonly accepted that he heads a brain-trust whose primary members are his son and executive vice president Stephen Jones, head coach Jason Garrett, and assistant director of player personnel Will McClay. It may be the smartest, most competent group of advisers Jones has ever had, and it has a great deal to do with the 10 wins the Cowboys have amassed so far. There are several major decisions that have been made we can look at to judge how they have done in 2014.
Updating the coaching staff. There is almost always some churn on an NFL staff right after the end of the season. The first thing that was done in Dallas was to replace Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator and Bill Callahan as offensive coordinator (technically, the move offensively was to transfer the in-game play calling, but that was just a little camouflage for the demotion). Kiffin reportedly approached Garrett and Jones himself about stepping down in favor of Rod Marinelli. However true that is, the move has worked out very well. After a stunningly bad year statistically, Dallas now has a defense that his right in the middle of the NFL. That may not seem so great, but it really is. First of all, any time a team jumps 12 to 18 places or so in a 32 team league, it is significant. Second, all the expectations were that this edition of the Cowboys D would be even worse than 2013's. Many openly predicted it would be one of the absolute worst defenses in the entire history of the NFL. Instead, it has established a reputation as a scrappy, hard-hitting unit that may not be consistent, but that gets stops and takeaways at key moments.
That kind of defense works well for Dallas, because the hiring of Scott Linehan to call the plays and officially serve as the "passing game coordinator" has been nothing short of brilliant. It is also ironic in that the passing game coordinator's greatest achievement has been to turn the Cowboys into a run-centered offense, taking the pressure off of Tony Romo and his often injured back. DeMarco Murray has become a legitimate star, as well as a Pro Bowl and MVP candidate with over 1,600 yards in the first 14 games. In a very unusual move, both Kiffin and Callahan were retained by the team rather than dismissed. Callahan's retention in particular has been a great idea. He is primarily responsible for the offensive line now, and Dallas boasts one of the most effective front walls in the league.
The Marinelli and Linehan moves got most of the press (much of which openly doubted just how well they would work out), but the Cowboys also picked up tight end coach Michael Pope, who has a connection to Garrett from his days with the New York Giants. Pope's contributions to the team are less evident (Jason Witten was already a future Hall of Fame player), but his strange drills in training camp, like throwing ice water on the tight ends while they caught balls, were at least interesting. And indications are that all the tight ends on the roster have played roles in Murray's success as blockers.
This was a complete win, all the way around.
Letting go. With the salary cap to consider, the Cowboys parted ways with two of the three best defenders from 2013. They cut DeMarcus Ware, whose contract was just too expensive to keep. There was an attempt to get him to renegotiate so the team could afford him, but he really would have been foolish to do so. He wound up with the Denver Broncos, once again playing as a 3-4 OLB, and it really looks like the best thing for him.
The team also did not try to keep up with the bidding for the services of free agent Jason Hatcher. They made an offer they considered reasonable, and instead he got a much more lucrative deal with Washington.
This was seen by most "experts" as a gutting of the defense, and when Sean Lee, who completed the trio of the best defenders from 2013, went on IR after a freak injury, the Cowboys were seen as having no chance of being 8-8 again. Of course, all the people who said that figured they would have double digit losses, not wins.
Instead of the total and complete collapse on defense widely predicted, things have largely worked out. There is also a belief that the loss of the big stars on D made the rest of the defensive roster step up and take more responsibility. For whatever reason, the 2014 defense is much more successful without Ware and Hatcher than it was in 2013 with them. Another successful move.
Bargain shopping. With a couple of expensive contracts gone elsewhere, Dallas focused on affordable free agents to help fill the gaps. The big signing was defensive tackle Henry Melton. Coming off knee surgery, he agreed to a very team friendly deal that lets the Cowboys decide whether or not to pick up the expensive option after seeing how he performs in a very reasonably priced first year.
The team also picked up additional help for the defensive line, all low cost deals. They signed Terrell McClain and Jeremy Mincey. They also brought Anthony Spencer back on a "show us" deal.
Melton was more effective early, but lately he has not been doing as well. Mincey has been the most successful of this group, notching two sacks in the win over the Philadelphia Eagles. McClain has been unspectacular although not horrible. Spencer is actually playing better as the year progresses.
The free agent signings mostly accomplished the job without breaking the salary cap bank. One or more of them will probably not be back in 2015, but in 2014, they helped the defense be just good enough.
The draft. It is always a crucial part of any team's development (except Washington, of course). Coming into the 2014 draft, the Cowboys were targeting defense in the first round all the way.
Then reality happened, and every one of the defensive players targeted were snatched from under them, much to our dismay. (Rumor has it that if you stand in certain parts of Maryland at the right time of day, you can still hear faint echoes of the scream our former colleague K.D. Drummond let out when the Rams selected Aaron Donald.) The Cowboys looked at their board, and saw that the highest-graded player they had left was offensive tackle, projected as a guard by them, Zack Martin. And, of course, there was this guy named Johnny Manziel.
Once upon a time, Jerry Jones would have gone for the glitz and the glory and grabbed Johnny Football (despite the fact the Cowboys had already gone all in on Tony Romo's contract). But this is a time when wiser heads have Jerry's ear, especially his son Stephen, and the Cowboys drafted Martin. He has gone on to become not just very successful as a rookie, but to be one of the top guards in the NFL.
In the second round, the Cowboys traded up to get DeMarcus Lawrence, who they evaluated as the best edge rusher left, and a must have player. This move was questionable even if Lawrence had been a major contributor from the beginning of the season, but he was injured and missed most of the year. While the team has hopes he will be what they hoped for next season, he cost far more than he has been worth, and may never live up to his price.
Jones and company made up for things a good bit with the selection of Anthony Hitchens. He was touted as a special teams player who could also back up Sean Lee. Lee, of course, was injured during OTAs, and Hitchens assumed a much larger role. It became even bigger when DeVonte Holloman and Justin Durant were also hurt. Hitchens has outperformed expectations, playing all three linebacker positions and now starting at the WILL.
Devin Street has seen a fair number of snaps. He just never gets any balls thrown at him. The rest of the draft picks are no longer on the roster, although Ben Gardner is on IR and Ken Bishop and Will Smith are with the practice squad.
Overall, to mix metaphors, the Cowboys hit a home run with Martin, a solid triple with Hitchens, and no better than a single with Lawrence. Street is maybe a walk. It was a good draft, but the loss of a pick to move up to get Lawrence has to be seen as a negative.
The resurrection. There was one more move of significance. With Lee out for the year, the Cowboys looked around for options that could help at linebacker. What they found was Rolando McClain, who had seen his career crater with the Oakland Raiders, then was unable to keep his personal life together sufficiently to try a comeback with the Ravens. By the time the Cowboys reached out to him, he had already retired from the NFL - twice. But with a strong recommendation from McClain's former college head coach, Nick Saban, Garrett wanted him, and Jerry Jones went out and got him.
The results have been far better than anyone could have expected. McClain has become the heart of the defense, bringing an intensity and physicality to the game that the rest of the D has sought to emulate. He is one of four players that are the most effective of the defensive group, with Tyrone Crawford, Orlando Scandrick and Barry Church. He came to Dallas on a very affordable deal, but it will certainly be much more expensive to keep him next year.
Taken as a whole, the front office has done very well this season. It has done so well that many people are changing their opinion of Jerry Jones. Just how much those opinions will change is still to be determined. But 10 wins is now the floor for what this Cowboys team can do. It's not a bad job.
Now, with a variety of contracts to decide on, Jones and company have even more challenges in 2015.