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State Of The Dallas Cowboys: The Front Office

When you are talking about the long-term future of the Cowboys, it pays to remember that players come and go, and so do coaches. But the Jones family is in it for life.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Our editor Dave Halprin covered an article at the ESPN website (in the paid section) about their projections of how all 32 NFL teams were likely to fare over the next three seasons. As he mentioned, this article was firmly on the "Cowboys suck" bandwagon. (It is, after all, one of the longest running bandwagons in all of sports, unlike the more temporary examples like the one for the Miami Heat that was just burned to the ground.) It came to the conclusion that the Cowboys were going to be the 28th team in the league over that three-year stretch. And Dave asked this simple question:

So, am I crazy? I just don't see things as that negative.

No, he's not crazy. I'm not talking about the fact that he is often the adult figure trying to maintain some decorum and order among the rest of the FPW. I'm just stating that I believe he is not seeing things through the memes that distort the perceptions of so many who make their judgments about the Cowboys without really studying what is going on in Dallas now, as opposed to the overpublicized stumbles of the past.

In the ESPN "analysis", one of the things that was scored to come up with their reasoned opinion that the Cowboys suck was the Front Office. Here is the remark they had about that in the summary of the Cowboys:

Salary-cap challenges persist. Only the Raiders and Dolphins ranked lower than the Cowboys in the front-office category, which is a strong statement of disapproval for how Jerry Jones runs the franchise. --Mike Sando

I'm like Dave here. I can't figure out what this guy is seeing - unless he, like so many of his professional colleagues, is going back to the future on this, where they predict where the Cowboys are going by looking at how the team was being run four or five years ago.

I did a series about the state of the Cowboys roster, and added a look at what Jason Garrett faces as the head coach this season. After seeing this, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to add a look at the Dallas front office.

As the guys at ESPN stated, Dallas is run by Jerry Jones, the unique owner/general manager of the franchise since he bought it. And Jerry has certainly made his share of mistakes. It can be argued that the period from 1994 to 2010 was largely just a series of missteps, with a short period of doing a lot the right way while Bill Parcells was exerting his influence on the team from 2003 through 2006. But an ongoing thesis here at Blogging The Boys is this is not just the father's franchise any more. Over the years, Stephen Jones has increasingly become part of the decision-making process in the front office. When Jason Garrett was handed the reins of a nearly collapsed team midway through the 2010 season, another very important voice was added to the leadership situation in Dallas. I believe that one of the biggest differences between Garrett and his predecessor, Wade Phillips, is that Garrett is very firm in his opinions about how he wants to do things, and is extremely persuasive in selling his ideas. Put more simply, I think Phillips just did what Jerry told him to, while Garrett actively, and mostly successfully, pushes his own style and plans.

Although it is obviously a great conversation starter, the basic foundation of the ESPN piece is wild guesswork. They project the future of the teams on the QB, the roster, the draft, the coaching and the front office. Based on well established NFL trends, by 2017, more than half the teams will have new coaching staffs, and new people in the front office. That is going to completely change the way those teams draft. About the same number will have new quarterbacks. Half of each team's roster will be new. The NFL three years from now will be entirely different. Or are they going to claim they stated prior to the 2012 season that the Seattle Seahawks, who had just finished 7-9 the previous season, were going to meet the Broncos, coming off a .500 season themselves, in the most recent Super Bowl?

I don't think there was any effort to determine what is now going on in the Cowboys front office. They just remember things like the Roy Williams (WR) trade and the Terrell Owens circus, and base their evaluation on those past events. But let's look at something more recent, like what Jerry Jones and his staff have done the past year, both good and bad. These are in roughly chronological order.

  • The Sean Lee extension. This is one that threatens to work out badly. When the team decided to extend him, a lot of people pointed out his injury history. It was a calculated risk, and it looks bad right now with Lee out for the season. The team did put a little protection against injury in the deal, but with the dead money, they are stuck with Lee until at least the 2017 season and have to hope he is going to come back. However, this is not a bad move in and of itself, just a risk taken that did not work out.
  • Signing Brian Waters. This was a very smart move at a time when there were still serious questions about the offensive line. Waters came in and started five games before suffering a season (and apparently career) ending injury. Although his time on the field was brief, there was an odd side effect. The player he replaced, Mackenzy Bernadeau, returned to the starting job after Waters went down, and played some of the best football of his career. The Waters signing was not expensive, and wound up working out nicely.
  • Cutting Jay Ratliff. The only thing wrong with this decision was that it was not made before the end of training camp instead of waiting until October 16th. There is still a bit of mystery about why Rat decided to become the living embodiment of his nickname, although it was blatantly obvious to the most casual observer that he was really unhappy in Dallas. After being totally incapable of playing for the Cowboys, he experienced a truly miraculous recovery and signed with the Chicago Bears. Henry Melton, who subsequently wound up signing with Dallas as a free agent, got to talk about Dallas with the Rat, as he related in a radio interview: "You know what, he knew I was from there and I think he thought I said something with the Cowboys. He did talk to me about the Cowboys before he even knew I was considering coming here, and then he talked to me again when I was considering coming here. You know what, I'm not really at liberty to say what he said about the Cowboys. But it wasn't too good."
  • Orlando Scandrick extended. Dallas invested $6 million in a player who had the best season of any cornerback on the team. This deal sets the team up to keep Scandrick until he is 30 or so, at which point it becomes very reasonable to part ways with him.
  • New Dan Bailey contract. They locked Split 'em up for seven years. Some may argue that $22.5 million is a bit much for a kicker. But he is one of the best in the league.
  • Assistant coaches shake-up. Monte Kiffin is kicked upstairs with a nice title and replaced as defensive coordinator by Rod Marinelli. Bill Callahan loses the play calling duties to new "passing game coordinator" Scott Linehan. The full details are a bit hard to sort out, since the management is not exactly forthcoming about them, but this seems to be a triumph for Jason Garrett. Callahan got the play calling role when it was "stripped" from Garrett. That was seen as not having worked out, and Linehan is perceived as strictly Garrett's guy. The moves on the defensive side are more in the nature of something that had to be done. The only questionable aspect of this is keeping Callahan as offensive line coach and run game coordinator when he really wanted to move on, but someone decided they needed him to keep molding the young offensive line, with three first round draft picks, into something that may be very special.
  • Will McClay is named assistant director of player personnel. This, in the long run, may turn out to be one of the most important decisions of the offseason. McClay was put in a position where all the scouts report to him and he alone reports to Stephen Jones. I think of him as more of an assistant general manager to both Jerry and Stephen. He was tasked with getting everyone on the right page for the draft, which he seemed to do, and is the person who oversees all talent evaluation. The recent subtle change in the approach the team is taking, such as signing a player like Rolando McClain to a no-risk, virtually no-cost contract, seem to have his fingerprints all over them.
  • Parting with DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. This is a move that many point to as a sign of how badly the Cowboys are being managed. The best pass rusher of the past decade was released due to cap concerns and the best defensive lineman of the past season signed with the Washington NFL franchise. Clearly, the cap restrictions Dallas is under due to bad contracts in the past few years played a big part in this - but the age of the two players was just as important. Ware in particular had problems staying healthy, and was arguably out of place as a 4-3 defensive end. And the Cowboys were the worst defense in the league with the two playing, so the argument about how losing them will devastate the team is not that convincing.
  • Free agency the smart way. The Cowboys felt they had to get Henry Melton from the Bears with Hatcher leaving. They did, and on a contract that protects the team and cap space if he is not recovered fully from his ACL injury. They added Terrell McClain, who is looking to be a real find for the 1-tech, Jeremy Mincey, Brandon Weeden, who turned out to be a badly needed yet still dirt cheap insurance policy for the sudden Ratliffization of Kyle Orton, Caleb Hanie (camp arm, but don't tell him), Anthony Spencer (yes, he was a free agent, and now he is on a low-cost deal with no guaranteed money), Amobi Okoye, Ryan Williams, Uche Nwaneri, and Rolando McClain. All of the signings are truly team friendly. Because they don't use up a lot of cap space, they leave Dallas in a position to work out second contracts with Tyron Smith and Dez Bryant,
  • The smart decision on draft day. Dallas sat there at 16. Still on the board was one Johnny Manziel. Countless experts, likely including the ones who derided the Dallas front office for the ESPN hit piece analysis, declared confidently that Jerry Jones could never, ever, in any way, possibly pass up on drafting JFF. Dallas went on the clock, and proudly chose - Zack Martin, OT/OG from Notre Dame.

That last item is, above all, what kills me about the criticism of Jerry Jones. There is no clearer illustration that he is making better decisions than this. He is not the Jerry Jones who drafted Quincy Carter and hugely overpaid to get Roy Williams from Detroit. The cap situation is getting progressively better (and the team was never really in cap hell). Looking back over this list, there is nothing that I call a truly bad decision. Some could have been handled differently, but that would involve being able to see into the future or read peoples' minds. Overall, the decisions show a consistent strategy, centered around getting younger and seeking players that are undervalued (and therefore bargains) as free agents. Dallas has made no serious mistakes, except perhaps the Sean Lee deal, that I can see in the past year. From an objective viewpoint, this is good management.

The next big decision is probably going to be what to do about Jason Garrett, who is in the last year of his contract. That will be driven by what happens on the field. But judging by what has been said, Jerry Jones wants Garrett to stay the head coach. He did not fire him after his second or third year, although so many experts explained how Garrett was on the hot seat and had to win the NFC East to keep his job.

That list of experts probably included the guys who did the article for ESPN.

I think the front office has improved vastly in the three years I have been blogging here. Part of me wishes the national media would start to see it (many of the Dallas area writers, to their credit, are seeing it.) I feel the team is headed in a good direction, and it is the front office (with a lot of influence from the head coach) that has gotten that done.

But then, maybe I don't want the rest of the world to figure it out. This way, I can enjoy the gobsmacked expressions they have when Jerry does something smarter than they thought he would.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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