In part one of this two-part series, I wrote about the perils of winning while rebuilding, citing two franchises from other sports, the Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Astros, as examples of teams that have held firmly to long-range plans, eschewing short-term gains that might help them hover in the dead zone around .500 in favor of doing whatever is possible to acquire as much premium talent as possible with the goal of winning big in the not-so-distant future.
My larger point was that the 2011-13 Cowboys, by trying to serve two masters, "winning now" - an organizational philosophy that dictates one hold onto aging vets, restructure contracts, and continually try to "just get into the tournament" - and "building for the future" have more or less established themselves as a team destined to fall in the middling range, where they are neither very good nor very bad.
And that has indeed proved true, in a three-year period punctuated by a record number of close games - precisely what good and bad teams avoid (good teams win more blowouts; bad teams are blown out more often), since all teams historically hover around the .500 mark in games decided by a touchdown or less.
But this all changed this year - or at least, to my mind, seemed to. This was evident in their offseason behavior. First, they neglected to restructure Jason Witten and Brandon Carr's contracts, both of which had a built-in restructuring clause, and both of whom could have been given the restructuring treatment had the team wanted to generate more cap relief - a pill they had often swallowed in the past. That the Cowboys didn't exercise either of these options is a telling instance of financial prudence, running contra to the team's policy of "kicking the can" via restructuring deals so that money on the present cap is deferred to future caps. While this has given Dallas immediate relief, it put even more pressure on future caps.
And the real problem lay in who the Cowboys had tended to restructure: their "core" players, the majority of whom were brought in between 2003 and 2007. That means that now, in 2014, they are geriatric by NFL standards. Thus, the Cowboys "kick the can" fiscal policy had achieved roughly the same result as offering big contracts to old free agents with declining skills: it inevitably added dead money to the rolls.
Speaking of old players with declining skills, they also declined to bring back former productive (or briefly productive) veterans in Miles Austin, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, cutting ties where, in the past, they might have tried to (excuse the pun) jerry-rig a fraying thread to squeeze another year or hope for a rebound season from a grizzled vet with a used-up body.
I bring up this activity to illustrate the ways in which the team's behavior seemed to change this offseason. In short, they began to behave more like the teams - in the NFL as well as in other sports - that have a clear set of operational standards and adhere to them, even if it means a loss of short-term gains. Would it have meant better short-term success to retain Ware or to restructure his deal, thus further imperiling future caps? Of course. But they didn't and, in not doing so, they showed me that they had crossed a Rubicon of sorts. In short, the Cowboys were behaving like the Sixers and Astros (or, if you prefer not to extend comparisons across sports leagues), the Niners, Packers or Patriots.
This has been a welcome development for Ol' Rabble, as you might imagine. The main question, to my mind, is: why did it take so long? Sure, the Cowboys jettisoned many of their ancient O-linemen in 2011. But they also held onto and extend many other players while doing so. Why didn't they enact a wholesale housecleaning in Garrett's first year as head coach?
The short answer: because it would have made them a 6-10 caliber team. And, with Tony Romo still in the fold, owner Jones didn't want to go all in on a "radical rebuild." I get it; franchise QBs (and Hall of Fame defensive ends) don't come around all that often, so you've got to try and strike while they're still in the fold. But this makes their behavior in 2014 all the more puzzling: why not keep the window open as long as Romo and Ware are still standing?
I'm not sure why they changed. What I do know is that losing Ware (and Hatcher, and Jay Ratliff, with Anthony Spencer's status still in doubt) had the potential effect of exactly the effect that the Jones boys wanted to avoid: it has made the Cowboys a very likely candidate to go 6-10. In fact, that's my prediction. I'll repeat: I think this team will go 6-10 in 2014.
By the by, I look forward to your ridicule and constant heckling should I be proved wrong. I will happily welcome and bathe in it, because it will mean the team I love is playing competitively or, even, pretty well.
Back to the topic at hand. One of the rare times I've agreed with Jean-Jacques Taylor is with the piece he penned on this very topic. Jason Garrett, Taylor writes, is taking no shortcuts. Here's an excerpt:
Garrett understands what he wants to do, and he knows what a championship team looks like, having played on the Cowboys during the glory days of the '90s. That's why he persuaded Jones to use a first-round pick on offensive lineman each of the past three seasons. Jones had never used a first-round pick on a lineman since he bought the team in 1989. And it's the reason he got rid of offensive linemen Andre Gurode, Flozell Adams, Leonard Davis and Kyle Kosier within two years of becoming the head coach. The Cowboys needed to get younger and better on the offensive line, and the best way to do it was to rip off the band-aid.
Building a winner is the reason DeMarcus Ware plays for the Denver Broncos and Jason Hatcher plays for the Washington Redskins. You can't pay age in today's NFL unless you're on the cusp of winning a title. Ware and Hatcher were each in their 30s. Keeping them on this team made no sense.
... Garrett is sticking with his plan, regardless of the result, because he knows the process works.
"There are always temptations to take shortcuts in anything in life," [Garrett] said. "You have to be mentally tough, strong and disciplined to that plan. The word I think about more than anything else is build. I've been thinking about that for a long time. We have to build this program, and we have to build this team."
Ah, but here's the rub, as Taylor notes: "The odds are Garrett won't see this job to completion." JJT reminds us that the Cowboys are at least a couple of seasons away from being a legitimate contender and, because of this, there's every chance that, just as the defense gels, Tony Romo and Jason Witten will be too old to carry the offense, and DeMarco Murray will be running the ball in another NFL city.
In 1869, the Brooklyn Bridge's brilliant architect, John Augustus Roebling, died from an injury sustained during building. As a result, he never saw his project - at the time, the world's longest suspension bridge and still one of the nineteenth-century's great engineering marvels - completed. A lesser builder - his son - finished the job and, to a degree, reaped the rewards of his father's genius.
Here's my conundrum: if the Cowboys have the kind of season one might expect when they finally decide to pursue real long-term thinking, can Garrett, the architect of the Cowboys building project avoid the same fate?