It's all going according to plan. You may not like the plan. You may have been completely unaware of the plan, despite the fact it was no secret and frequently explained. But the 2014 offseason is following the course that the Dallas Cowboys decided to take at least two seasons ago.
In the sometimes strange world of the Cowboys, the team is of course going to be lambasted by some no matter what it does. For many years in the Jerry Jones era, there was a sense that the only plan the team had was whatever Jerry had decided in the last hour or so. There were impulsive free agent signings, mystifying trades and bizarre draft choices. But that is not what is happening now. There is a plan, and the best proof of that is to just look at some of the things that have been said. However, the person to listen to is no longer Jerry Jones. It is his son Stephen, executive vice president. Over the past couple of years, the team has made some decisions about what it is going to do. Partly, these are because they seem like a better approach, and some, frankly, because the Cowboys were forced into them by their own past actions. But the plan is consistent, no matter why it came about.
It all started with 2012. Just to refresh your memory, the Cowboys went out and spent a lot in free agency, and signed a lot of bodies. How did that work out? After the season played out, I went back and looked at things. Here are my conclusions from March 15, 2013. (If you have trouble figuring out who the eighth player was, I included Kevin Ogletree as a "sign your own" FA.)
Eight players. Three are gone, one is a possible, perhaps likely cut in the near future, two have many hoping they will be replaced, one is providing good value for his specific but hopefully always limited role, and one is a starter that most expect to succeed but who will have a hard time living up to his salary, no matter how well he does, especially in light of the depressed market that has cornerbacks getting a lot less money this year.
This is what free agency did for the Cowboys last year. Is that typical? I don't know, but my feeling is that it may be fairly close to the norm. Free agents often do not perform up to the level that led to their acquisition. They always come with a certain opportunity cost in keeping the team from going younger. And many are undoubtedly overpaid. Sometimes a team will hit on a free agent, or even get a boost overall from a group brought in. But in the long run, the best way seems to be to build through the draft, with only a few judicious free agent hires to fill needs. Dallas is being forced into that mold this year. It is not good to be with such limited options, but it may work out in the long run.
I think my conclusions bear up pretty well today. As you can see, I was expecting the team to use the draft to build, and free agency to fill in. That was based on what Stephen Jones had said shortly before I wrote that article.
Even the year the Cowboys went heavy into free agency, including the $50 million deal with Brandon Carr, Stephen was talking about what the real emphasis should be in putting the team together. On April 25th, 2012, he talked about how those signings were really about setting the team up for the draft.
"We have to have production out of this draft. We need to have it. That's how you do well in this league, you've got to have those young guys coming because ultimately, your cap situation will catch up to you if you have to do it with unrestricted free agency and always paying guys big money.'
On February 20, 2013, Stephen talked about how the Cowboys were constrained in what they could do under the cap, at least partly because of the prior year's moves - and a bit because of that cap penalty thing John Mara arranged. (DISCLAIMER: This is not saying the Cowboys were, or are, in "cap hell". This is saying they have some limits they have to work within, just like everyone else, and what they can do now is affected by what they did in the past.)
"I don't think we'll be able to do a lot," Jones said. "I think we'll be able to do the things we need to do. I don't think it's going to be major like it was last year. We're not going to be able to go out and get a bunch of guys."
Then five days later he laid it out even more clearly.
Because you won't be big players in free agency, is it possible to have even greater emphasis on the draft?
Jones: If you don't have a supreme emphasis on the draft every year, you're dead. You're dead. Every now and then you supplement it with free agency. Player acquisitions is 365 days a year. There is a lot of ways to do it. But first and foremost, premium, supreme is the draft. We've had years when we've played free agency and some years when we don't sign anyone because of the cap situation. But obviously last year we went hard. And you can't do that. If you have a salary cap you can't do that every year.
No, you can't. There seems to be a bit of buyer's remorse in that answer. While that may be subject to some interpretation, the clear statement that the draft is supreme is unequivocal. And the implication is that you are not going to use free agency for the big acquisitions, at least on a regular basis.
Fast forward to February 20th of this year. And look at what Stephen was saying about how the team was looking at the annual restructure-to-get-under-the-cap exercise the Cowboys have gone through in recent years.
As the Cowboys work to get under the cap this year, Jones is considering the ramifications of the potential cost-cutting maneuvers they'll execute in the coming weeks.
"I think the bigger question is what it does to your future as well, in getting there," he said.
Given all that, anyone who was listening to what Stephen has been saying should not be in the least surprised that the Cowboys have signed Terrell McClain and Jeremy Mincey.
Nor should anyone have been surprised by the team cutting DeMarcus Ware. The discussion has been going on for several weeks about the "take a cut or be cut" position the team had. What is more, a lot of people were advocating just this move after he missed the first games of his career due to injury in 2013. For too long, the Cowboys (read: Jerry Jones) had hung onto declining players on big contracts. They were releasing them a year or two too late. Many advocated the idea (usually associated with Bill Belichick) of releasing the players a year early.
Which seems to be exactly what Dallas did. Of course, since by universally recognized scientific law nothing can ever be done correctly by the Cowboys while they still belong to Jerry Jones, there are now howls of anguish that Dallas has parted with Ware, who is now going to go win a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos. After all, they are all in.
DeMarcus Ware: Broncos "mentality is a now mentality. Not looking forward to next season or the season after that, the time is now." Via @AP
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) March 12, 2014
Interesting idea. It seems to match up with the fact that that they have spent $110 million in free agency, with $60 million of it guaranteed. For three players. And they may not be done yet. Everyone is buzzing about how well Denver has done.
If you're looking for an early Super Bowl favorite, look no further than the Denver Broncos. Through free agent pickups, the Broncos have, on paper, arguably the best roster in the NFL.
Obviously, the Broncos think they are just a few pieces (primarily on defense) away. Given that they won the AFC last season, they may be right. But based on the numbers, Ware appears to be right. They are not looking forward. And this does not look very sustainable.
Right now, of course, John Elway and the Broncos can do no wrong. Well, outside of getting massacred in the Super Bowl.
But folks, except for the playoff success, that is exactly what the Cowboys were doing just a few years ago. They spent like crazy, looking for that one or two players that would get them over the top. Terrell Owens, the receiver Roy Williams, all the shiny toys. They wound up digging a hole. Now they are having to work their way out. And they are definitely looking forward. Ware is probably not the last star player that the team will part with before some fans are ready. Rabblerousr laid out how the team is hoping to not need any more restructuring this season, so they have a free hand with the one player who may be more respected and admired than Ware was, Jason Witten.
By avoiding the Witten restructure, the Cowboys can get The Senator to the point where they can release him without costing them too egregiously. If they cut him in 2016, it will accrue $1,824,000 in dead money; should they do it the following season, the hit will be $912,000. Given this, I'd bet that we'll see a slew of BTB articles in early March of 2017 saluting Witten and reviewing his stellar career (replete with repeated showings of his glorious helmetless run against the hated Eagles in 2007)
You may hate the idea, just as you may hate Ware wearing orange. But this is the way out of the problems the team has had in the past. Build with the draft. Spend money on free agents judiciously. Don't hang on to players too long. All are things the team has been criticized for ignoring in recent years. Now, all are part of the plan.
How long before this takes the team to the playoffs? It should be soon. If they can avoid the devastating injury issues (which have been more a case of clustering in one part of the team than anything else), then it is very possible this year. If not, the team may be involved in a new search for a head coach.
Which should not change this plan. I hope Stephen Jones is the one behind all this, and that he has firm control over it. Because this is the way you build an NFL team for success. It is not a sexy as dropping nine figures in the first day of free agency. But it should last for a long, long time.