In the days BR (before the Rooster), the Dallas Cowboys had become an old team. Aging players, often on ridiculously overpriced contracts, were one of the reasons the team went into meltdown in 2010.
A significant part of Jason Garrett and his Way of the Rooster (as dubbed by our Dawn Macelli) is to have a young roster, with continuous churn to keep it that way. Big paydays come in the second contract, not the third, and older players will have to take a deal favorable to the team, or look elsewhere, as DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher did. The recent news that Hatcher will require knee surgery illustrates just what Dallas sought to avoid when they declined to meet his price in free agency.
While not everything has gone the way he wants in Garrett's tenure (mostly concerning the string of 8-8, just missing the playoffs records), the youth movement is one he has been very successful in instituting. From being one of the oldest rosters in the league, Dallas is now going to enter the 2014 season as a handful of the very youngest.
This is important in that it is a very valid path to building a team that can win in the NFL. The reason for this is really quite simple: In the league, speed and quickness are key, and a lack of them kills the career.
The average career for NFL players is a short one as injuries pile up, but also because the physical skills began to deteriorate as the player ages. Around 30, almost all men start to lose a bit off their top end speed and reaction time. And for all but a few places on the roster, that is something that is almost impossible to overcome.
In the highly specialized world of pro football, speed is key to the success of running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs, linebackers, and pass rushers. Some players can prolong their careers by becoming smarter in how they play, but there are limits. One of the clearest examples of this played out recently on the Cowboys' roster. Keith Brooking was an excellent linebacker in his day, but by the time he came to Dallas, he simply could not keep up with the faster and more agile players he was supposed to stop. No one questioned his football smarts, but no matter how well he knew where he was supposed to go, he was just unable to get his aging body to make it there in time.
This is something that has evolved over the years. As the speed of the game overall has increased, the NFL has become the land of the twenty-somethings. Of course, not all players age at the same rate, and there are occasional freaks of nature like Adrian Peterson who maintain their edge even as they draw closer to that dreaded thirtieth birthday. But even the incredible AD will one day fall prey to the inevitable. For the vast majority of players, speed, the ability to change direction, and the quickness of their reaction to the opponent falls off at or near 30, and so does their competitiveness.
The Cowboys have almost completely built the current, pre-training camp 90-man roster with players in their twenties. Only eight of the current members are 30 or older, and that is distorted a bit by one cluster of them in a particular position group.
One example of a player who has managed to prolong his career through a combination of very hard work and mental acuity and toughness is tight end Jason Witten. At 32, he is still remarkably effective through his precise routes, wily ability to work himself open, and the very strong rapport he has with his quarterback. Witten was never terribly fleet of foot to begin with, so he has honed his skills to overcome this. He has been rewarded with a lengthy career that looks to still have a ways to go.
But he is clearly an exception. The only other 30-year-old players in a speed-dependent position on the roster are defensive ends Anthony Spencer and Jeremy Mincey. Spencer is still a very big question mark. He may not recover enough from his microfracture surgery to play again. And it is an open question as to whether he or Mincey can hold off younger challengers for their positions.
The other players fall into the three categories where a loss of speed is not as crucial.
The first is long snapper L.P. Ladouceur, 33. Specialists in general can trade on their particular skills to remain productive in the NFL. Although place kickers are a more obvious example, Ladouceur is clearly still very effective, since the most important thing he brings to the team is what he does with both feet firmly in place.
Offensive linemen, like 30 year old Doug Free, are the position group where you might see the largest number of players who still get the job done into their thirties. There is a reason for this. While speed is a component of what they do, it is not as crucial. They are, after all, the slowest players on the roster because of their size. More important to them are technique and strength. Technique is something that a player with a good work ethic and decent intelligence can improve throughout his career. And so is strength. Unlike with his speed, a man can continue to get stronger with proper training into his thirties and even forties. Add in the initiative that the offensive line gets from usually making the first move when the ball is snapped, and strength, particularly if he can get his hands firmly on his opponent, can win the day.
(Free was an example of that part about contracts favorable to the team, however. After a lackluster season, he took a pay cut to remain with the Cowboys, and so far it seems to have paid off for both parties.)
The final position where players can remain not only productive, but even superlative, well past their twenties is, of course, the quarterback. In the traditional role of the NFL quarterback, speed is not the most important thing. Accuracy, the ability to see the field and make quick reads, and arm strength are far more important. Even in evading pass rushers, a bit of nimbleness is often more important than the capability to take off and run the ball, since the objective should still be to get the pass to a receiver who does have speed.
This is why the recent fascination with running quarterbacks is not likely to lead to a wholesale way in the way the game is played. A player who depends on his speed in the position is faced with one of two options. Either he will have to learn how to play more as a pocket and roll out passer as the inevitable falloff begins, or he will see his career shortened compared to those who master the traditional passing skills.
There is no clearer example of this than 38-year-old Peyton Manning. He is arguably still the best passing quarterback in the league. Last season, until the Denver Broncos ran into the buzz saw of the Seattle Seahawks defense, he was extremely successful. Never a fast man, he has used the organic football computer he has in place of a brain to become one of the most proficient quarterbacks the league has ever seen.
Quarterback is where the Cowboys have that unusual cluster of thirty-somethings. Tony Romo is 34. Backup Brandon Weeden is 30. And Kyle Orton, who still counts on the roster despite having all but one leg from the knee down out the door, is 31.
Weeden is a bit of a special case, since he spent four years playing pro baseball. Those years right after high school when he did not suffer the wear and tear of football give him an excellent chance of being able to play for several more seasons.
If, as indications are, Romo is healthy and able to throw the ball the way he did in the past, he can still be a dominating player, particularly if the weapons surrounding him are as good as they appear (at the moment). More importantly, the huge investments the team has been making in the offensive line over the past four seasons, with three first-round picks going for linemen, become key. The less Romo is pressured, hit, and sacked, the more effective he is, and the longer he remains that way. Building a very strong offensive line is the best thing a team can do for their quarterback.
So the Cowboys have gotten younger everywhere it matters. Added to the other parts of Garrett's master plan, such as bringing in his Right Kind of Guy, it is a formula that should lead to success over time. The problem, of course, is whether he will have that time. It is one of the reasons that I am so hopeful that things will start to pay off this season, because I want to see what this franchise can become with this plan.