If you became a fan of the Dallas Cowboys in the formative years, you likely consider Gil Brandt something of a legend. With Tex Schramm and Tom Landry, he was part of the leadership trinity that took an expansion team in 1960 and built it into the flagship NFL franchise it became by the 1970s. He is held in particularly high esteem for his innovations in scouting and finding successful NFL players in unusual ways, such as converting basketball players to football and digging up small school stars with big league talent.
When he talks football, I always pay attention. When he writes about the Cowboys, it is a must read.
The five points aren't really rocket science, but I stopped halfway through when I found references to Roy Williams and Marion Barber. That is sooo 2010.
I attribute at least some of this to Brandt now covering the NFL as a whole and not being as closely attuned to the Cowboys as he once was. Still, I did find myself wondering if he was paying much attention at all to Dallas. His points, while not in any way unexpected or overly insightful, are pretty valid. They just already seem to be happening. So if he is right, then things are already moving in the right direction. At least, that is how I have been seeing things for the past three seasons or so. Here are his five points, and what I think has already been done.
1) Hire a director of football operations.
Basically, this suggestion is an attempt to finesse the evergreen issue of "Jerry Jones is a rotten general manager". Brandt wants the team to hire "a veteran front office figure with a background in personnel and preferably general-manager experience". This would be someone who would handle the day-to-day duties of a GM, while Jerry would keep the title and provide overall direction and some high-level input and decision making on the big issues.
Which is what I think Stephen Jones, Will McClay and Jason Garrett are now doing. Stephen has years of experience (admittedly working side-by-side with his father, but he seems to learn more from past mistakes than anything else), and McClay was brought in to shore up the personnel acquisition end of things. Garrett serves as the third leg of this triumvirate to make sure the needs of the team are fully understood by the other two.
I think this has been a clear trend since Garrett was named the full-time head coach. It has not been a clear cut changeover, but an evolutionary thing, so it is not as easy to see, particularly with Jerry still making it very clear he is still in charge and involved in everything. But my basic theory with Jerry is to not pay attention to what he says. Instead, watch what the team is actually doing. The things that are happening have someone else's fingerprints on them, no matter how much the senior Jones asserts his preeminence.
2) Refocus the draft strategy.
Brandt advocates a BPA-leaning approach: "The Cowboys would likely improve their draft yield by first looking for the most talented player and then considering need."
Well, since at least last year, Garrett and Stephen Jones have both talked repeatedly about using free agency to fill the biggest holes so the team was not locked into drafting for need. This season, with the defensive line the one glaring area the team had to get an infusion of talent, particularly with the loss of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, the team has used three of its four free agent signings to date to do just that. And reiterated that this was to allow the team to focus on getting the best player they could with each draft pick rather than selecting just to fill those particular needs. In other words, based on both the statements from Stephen Jones and Garrett and what the team is doing, they have already incorporated this into their strategy.
3) Turn up the heat on the quarterback hunt.
This is one area where I fully agree with Brandt, and feel some changes might be needed since the evidence is inconclusive about what the Cowboys are doing. Signing Brandon Weeden is not exactly a daring and committed move towards improving things. The team may see him as the type of developmental quarterback Brandt would like, but the jury is out on that. Very far out, given the structure of Weeden's "cut me anytime you want" contract. If, however, Dallas uses a draft pick to get a clear developmental QB, then this may also already be part of the plan.
4) Spend more carefully.
Here is where OCC's remarks about Williams and Barber came from, and the very fact that Brandt references two players that were among the first players released after Jason Garrett got the full-time head coaching gig in itself is an argument that the team has made a sharp correction in their course.
Brandt talks about getting away from restructuring contracts to get cap space, and the Cowboys have held back on doing so with Brandon Carr and Jason Witten. The free agent contracts they have awarded this year are cap friendly to the point of true romance, particularly Weeden's and Henry Melton's. As the Cowboys recover from the sins of the past, they are taking incremental steps. Restructuring contracts is still part of the overall plan, as it is for most teams in the league under the strange alternative universe rules of the salary cap, but if the team can get through this year without having to dip into the Carr or Witten cap banks, they will be able to keep this more manageable going forward. They also seem to be taking their time about the coming contract negotiations with Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith, and all indications are that they will want to make sure they don't over-commit on those deals. Clearly absent in the past couple of years: Overpriced third contracts to aging stars with declining production. Only Tony Romo fell into this category, and franchise quarterbacks are just a different situation in the NFL. Even in his case, he is only about two to three years away from being expendable. All signs are that Dallas has taken this principle to heart.
5) Cement a franchise identity.
This one made me stop and think for a moment. Where does an NFL team get its "identity"? It is hard to tie it to any player or group of players, because they move on.
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that about 90% of a team's identity comes from one person: The head coach. The idea of developing a team identity is almost entirely tied to the coach getting his concepts and schemes all in place and building a roster with the kind of player he wants.
Brandt does speak to this, stating that keeping Garrett would be a major step towards this point. He also cites his first suggestion about hiring that director of football ops as part of it, but this is where I think Garrett is already part of the solution, and has a major role in establishing that identity. He certainly seems to be closer to Stephen Jones than any of his predecessors, especially in terms of having a similar vision of where they want the team to go and how to get there.
There are several issues that Garrett is having to overcome in establishing that identity. First is that this is such a subjective thing. It is strictly in the eye of the beholder, and there are very few teams in professional sports that have such a hard time overcoming old conceptions as the Cowboys. Brandt's entire article is testament to this, as he seems to be writing this based on observations of the team while Wade Phillips still had an office in Valley Ranch. Plus the most dominant individual in forming the public's perception of the Cowboys is one Jerral Wayne Jones, Sr. As long as Jerry continues to hold forth anytime he is faced with a microphone or a glass of liquor, it is going to be hard to overcome the somewhat misleading and often changing picture he paints of his team.
Another problem for Garrett is that he really made a major change from his predecessor. Jason Garrett and Wade Phillips are pretty much polar opposites. Offensive minded versus defensive. High, consistently enforced standards versus a "y'all are adults, y'all know how to behave" laissez faire attitude. A cerebral, controlled, and almost secrative approach to the media versus an "aw, shucks" good ole boy persona.
And the staff under Garrett has not stabilized. This may be the first year that he really has coordinators that he is comfortable with. In turn, that should help in getting his way of doing things fully disseminated through the team.
All in all, I think almost all of Brandt's ideas are already being incorporated, and some are very far along. Most of these are trends I think I have been watching for three seasons. I have a lot of respect for Gil Brandt, but I do disagree with his view of where the Cowboys are. He is a little behind, I think.