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2014 Dallas Cowboys Roster: Carefully Balancing Production And Potential

The best players on the roster right now may not be the players with the best potential. Which makes putting together a roster somewhat of a challenge.

Tom Pennington

In his three-year tenure as the head coach for the Cowboys, Jason Garrett has consistently emphasized a culture of competition in Dallas, and it's remained a key theme for the Cowboys throughout this offseason. Of course, competition by itself is not really that novel of an idea for a professional sports team. So what does competition really mean, especially in the context of the looming roster cuts?

Does it mean the best players make the roster? And would those best players be the best players right now, or the players with the best potential? That’s the question the Cowboys have to answer at almost every position where there is competition for a roster spot - and where they are willing to carry an injured guy over a healthy guy.

Answering the production versus potential question is a much more complex undertaking than you would think. One of the key challenges for any type of organization is aligning the targets of all the decision makers in that organization. And it's no different for NFL franchises:

10 of the 32 NFL coaches (including four rookie head coaches) this season do not have a winning career record in the NFL, and not all of them will survive the season. In the NFL, winning equals job security. It follows that the coaches, especially the assistant coaches, are primarily focused on the short term. They want to keep their jobs or are angling for a promotion. And they’ll only get what they want with immediate, short-term results. Assistant coaches, by definition, have no interest in prospects that will need three years to develop. Their decision making process naturally gravitates towards proven, reliable veterans over players with less or no NFL experience - unless one of those young players truly stands out.

Providing somewhat of a counterbalance to the coaches are the scouts and the front office. The scouts because by definition they’re focused on identifying a players’ potential, and the front office because they’re ideally already looking at how this year’s roster choices will impact future roster choices two, three or four years down the line.

Depending on the franchise, the arbitrator between these positions is usually the head coach or the GM. In the Cowboys’ case, I don’t think anybody can be 100% certain who makes the final decisions at Valley Ranch. But they are not easy decisions in any case.

Do you go for a player like perhaps Nick Hayden, who offers the best short-term option for the next few games, or do you go for young prospects like Davon Coleman or Ken Bishop, who may be in the best long-term interest of the franchise, but probably won’t help you win the season opener against the 49ers?

One of the changes that Garrett has brought to Dallas is that the Cowboys today are much more focused on getting it right for the long term than making " ad-hoc, short-term decisions that didn't make any sense."

"The most important job I have and our staff has is to put the team together the right way," Garrett said. "Obviously, the rules in the NFL are set up so I can't just snap my fingers and get whoever I want whenever I want. There's a draft. There's a salary cap. There's all of these different considerations. The thing we decided on three years ago is we were going to try to do it the right way. We weren't going to make ad-hoc, short-term decisions that didn't make any sense. We were going to try to build a program with the right kind of guys and think about it for now and the long term and build the right kind of team that we're all going to be proud of."

Yet at the end of the day, it'll be Garrett's head if the Cowboys don't win in the short term, which would leave the next head coach to reap the rewards of all the work that went into solidifying the Cowboys for the long term.

In the end, despite their professed focus on the long term, the Cowboys find themselves back at the production versus potential debate. The veteran player provides consistency and reliability, yet usually lacks any type of upside. Young players lack the consistency of a veteran but they can improve suddenly, unexpectedly and exponentially, which makes them that much more difficult to scout and to assess.

But the young players often need time to realize their full potential. Do you expect a Tyler Patmon or Terrance Mitchell to be as good as a starting corner like Orlando Scandrick or Brandon Carr? Of course not. But could they contribute to the pass defense next season? Perhaps. And the only way to find out how good they can be is to play them at the NFL level.

Jeremy Mincey and Nick Hayden are not going to suddenly break out this year. They will not surprise this year. The Cowboys will not suddenly discover that one of them is the next J.J. Watt. Neither player is capable of that. But neither player will make rookie mistakes either. And when you have them lined up in the game, you know exactly what to expect from them.

But if you want to win in the NFL, you need to go young. Building a winning team means accepting some growing pains in the process of developing young talent. The Cowboys were the youngest team in the NFL in 1992 when they won their first Super Bowl with Jerry Jones as the owner. But it took them three years, with records of 1-15, 7-9 and 11-5 to get there.

The Cowboys of the last years have tried hard not to tank too badly as they were rebuilding on the fly. And this year, the Cowboys must once again strike a delicate balance between winning now and winning longer term. It’s not an easy task, and to get it right, the entire organization must pull in the same direction.

Can the Cowboys do that?

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