When Jason Garrett took over as the Cowboys head coach, one of his foremost goals was to get younger. He inherited an old team made up of declining players with bloated contracts. At the end of the 2010 season, the Cowboys had 15 players 28 or older on their roster, including seven who were 30 or older. Dallas' greybeard status was most evident on the offensive line, where Doug Free was the only starting lineman under 30.
And look at the roster overhaul: at the end of the 2014 campaign, the Cowboys' average age is 25.4, and they average a mere 2.9 years of experience. Whereas they has 15 players who were 28 or older in 2010, that number currently stands at six - a 60% decline. And, of course, Dallas' youth movement is most evident on the offensive line. These days, Free is the only offensive line starter who's 30.
Although Dallas' youth movement has been taking place for several years, the most impactful offseason in this regard happened in 2014: the team cut Miles Austin (29) and DeMarcus Ware (31), two of their longest-tenured stars; lost Jason Hatcher (31) to free agency; released veteran backup QB Kyle Orton (29) and chose not to re-sign veteran LB Ernie Sims (29). A cursory study at the start of the season showed that, thanks in no small measure to this purge, the 2014 Cowboys boasted the league's fourth-youngest roster, after coming in 15th in 2013. That's some special sauce.
It must be said, of course, that there's nothing particularly special about youth for youth's sake. The three teams younger than the Cowboys in 2014 were the Rams (6-10), Jaguars (3-13) and Chiefs (9-7); the fifth-youngest squad was the 7-9 Vikings. The key difference is that the Cowboys youth is extremely talented. For support, I'll direct you to the ESPN/ Pro Football Focus "Missing pieces" series, which poses the question: how many players is your team removed from being a Super Bowl contender?
They slot the players on every team's roster into four categories: elite, good, average, and bad, where the Cowboys boast 4, 8, 16 and 2 players, respectively. The key here is the age of the players in the "elite" and "good" categories, where they Cowboys boast nearly twice the league average number of players (6.3):
Elite: Dez Bryant (26), DeMarco Murray (26), Jason Witten (32), Travis Frederick (23)
Good: Zack Martin (24), Orlando Scandrick (27), Tyron Smith (24), Tyrone Crawford (25), Rolando McClain (25), Tony Romo (34), Sterling Moore (24), Henry Melton (28)
Of twelve Cowboys who were at the top of their games in 2014, eight were 26 or younger, and Scandrick is only 27. Plus, we must consider key producers like Terrance Williams (25), J.J. Wilcox (23), Cole Beasley (25) and Ron Leary (25) as well as promising rooks DeMarcus Lawrence and Anthony Hitchens (both 22). Oh, and arguably the best player at his position on the team, kicker Dan Bailey, is only 26.
The combination of youth and talent can produce heady results. In late August, as teams across the league were setting their final rosters, the inimitable O.C.C. took a look at the young Cowboys. He acknowledged that it's not easy for young teams to be great, but also proffered examples of diaper dandies that won, and won big: the 2011 Seahawks, who were the second-youngest team in the NFL as they began their current run, and the 1992 Cowboys, who were, shockingly, the league's youngest team when they demolished a veteran Bills team in Supe 27. His takeaway:
If those two teams are any indication, then building a winning team, specifically a young, winning team, is not easy. And if that is what the Cowboys are doing, then perhaps the last three seasons with 8-8 records were not as bad as they could have been.
Regardless of talent, going young offers tangible benefits. Back in the first week of training camp, the Dallas Morning News' Rainer Sabin, noting Dallas' youth movement, enumerated a couple of these. The first is that it allows teams to be more fiscally responsible. To put it plainly, young'uns are cheaper:
"We made the decision it was time to make some tough choices," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "I think it was very conscious."
It was also deliberate. The organization had realized that it been burned too many times by well-compensated players who had grown long in the tooth. The payroll was freighted with these aging stars, squeezing the Cowboys against the salary cap.
The second is that younger players are hungrier. Guys like Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray and Zack Martin, Sabin proposes, tend to be more motivated than veterans who have advanced in their careers because they are still reaching for the carrot at the end of the stick — the lucrative second contract. He cites Marinelli:
"They might hurt, and say, ‘I’d better stay in if I want to make this team,’" defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "There’s hunger in there. I think that’s really a positive."
Along these lines, they tend to be more receptive to coaching. Think about it: a guy who hasn't yet arrived, and who is striving for that big payday is going to do whatever it takes to get there. And, if a coach can give him any edge that will help him to achieve that, the player will be all ears.
Furthermore, young legs are fresher late in games and, most importantly, late in seasons. In 2014, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the Cowboys led the league in scoring margin in December, after outpacing the opposition 165-79. That translates to a shocking 41.25-19.75 average per game score. As other, older teams faded, the young Cowboys got better and better, to the point where they produced at an historic level: the 165 December points represented the greatest scoring month in franchise history as well as the seventh highest-scoring single month in NFL history. Not too shabby.
To my mind, the primary benefit of going young - and the principal reason for this December explosion - is that young teams tend to be injured less - or, more properly, that young players tend to recover much more quickly from the inevitable dings that this brutal game is sure to inflict. A roster full of older guys who take longer to recover historically suffers from a higher number of games missed - and, crucially, more practices missed during weeks in which they do manage to get on the field.
Recent Cowboys history certainly supports this contention. Our good friends at Pro-Football-Reference compile a handy annual injury report for each team, in which they track the health of each player on the roster for every week during the season. Using their info, I came up with the following for the seasons Garrett has been remaking the roster:
|Games Lost - Starters||Games Lost – Non IR||Games Lost – IR/ PUP||Players on IR, Week 16|
After being one of the NFL's most injured teams in 2012 (they had the third-highest number of games lost by starters) and 2013 (eighth most), the Cowboys enjoyed considerably better health in 2014.
To my mind, the story of 2014's unexpected success is one of improved health. On offense, the Cowboys lost a total of nine games to injury (Free 7; Leary 1; Romo 1); on defense, they lost considerably more; but, unlike recent years, when injuries have decimated the defensive middle (DTs, ILBs and Safeties, 2012) or a position group (D-line, 2013), the injuries were much more evenly distributed (and, other than Mo Claiborne going down in week three, a thin defensive backfield enjoyed excellent health all year).
Indeed, during the November bye week, with the Cowboys poised at 7-3, Jerry Jones explained why his 2014 group was outperforming expectations:
"...the biggest thing is that we’re in better shape physically on the defensive side of the ball. The guys that were coming off injury, whether it be [Anthony] Spencer, whether it be [Henry] Melton, whether it be [Tyrone] Crawford...these guys are not only back from their injury, they’re also having a couple games, three or four weeks of practice under their belt.
We’ve got a healthier [Rolando] McClain in there. All of those things, I think give me rise to feel better than when I said we’ve got an uphill battle."
At as close to full health as can be expected in the current NFL, the Cowboys were able to optimize the roster they had assembled in ways that they simply couldn't in 2012 and 2013. Rather than learning the names of the guys they would be lining up next to on Sunday, all that young talent was able to grow together and mature as a cohesive group. More than any other factor, I believe this to be the reason the 2014 Cowboys escaped from their 8-8 rut in spectacular fashion.