This year, watching free agency for the Dallas Cowboys has consisted of two things: Watching various players like Justin Durant, Jermey Parnell, Dwayne Harris, and Bruce Carter sign contacts elsewhere, and waiting and wondering what is going to happen with DeMarco Murray. While new deals are being signed all over the NFL, the Cowboys are sticking to the approach they have used the past couple of years. Concentrate on signing your own high-value free agents. Don't overpay anyone, whether your own or from elsewhere. Wait for the first rush of signings to pass, since those are almost always going to violate the idea of not overpaying.
Last season that approach helped the Cowboys to a 13-5 overall record and the first playoff win in what seems like forever. That is probably seen as justification for the approach. But are the Cowboys making the error of being too wedded to their own blueprint? Would it have been wiser to enter the fray in free agency for the right player?
There are arguments to be made that Dallas is missing an opportunity. During an extended exchange we had on Twitter, our old friends KD Drummond and Joey Ickes brought up some of them. I am going to paraphrase their points and my own rebuttals. Any error in presenting their thoughts is mine.
The root of their argument is that the Cowboys have a shrinking window of opportunity with Tony Romo to win a championship or two. Dallas has invested the bulk of its resources in the offense, but the defense is not at nearly the same level. And the defense last season vastly overplayed its talent level in 2014, which is not a sustainable model. Dallas simply does not have a defense that can get the team to a Super Bowl. It needs immediate help, especially the pass rush, and that cannot be upgraded sufficiently with second- or third-level free agents and the draft. Rookie draft rushers are almost never effective. Dallas should have targeted one of the better pass rushers (although Ndamukong Suh was not achievable) to get the team over the hump. The needs of the defense, which also extends to the linebacking corps and secondary, are too great for the team to be able to upgrade enough through the current approach.
This is a viewpoint that others certainly share, which is why there is a good bit of angst about the way free agency has gone so far in Dallas, where the team has seen a hemorrhaging of players that made contributions last season and no additions to speak of (Keith Rivers is a long shot to still be on the roster in September). Romo's career will likely be over before the defense is good enough to support a championship run.
Is Dallas making a mistake?
I don't think so.
First off, championship teams almost never have defenses and offenses of equal capability. One unit is usually noticeably stronger than the other. This is even more so in the salary cap era, where there is simply not enough space available to have a number of stars on both sides of the line. Dallas, partly by design and partly through a certain amount of chance during the 2014 draft when all the targeted first round defenders were gone, has used the bulk of its draft resources to create a truly powerful offense. In order to maintain that, it has franchised Dez Bryant, re-signed Doug Free, and is waiting to see what happens with Murray to figure out the running back situation. Jerry and Stephen Jones often speak about the team being able to sign whoever they need, that is obviously not literally true. The resources tied up on offense, including Romo's huge contract, put some limits on what it can do. If the team were to go after a costly defender, they would have to make some other sacrifice.
Part of the defense's success last season was due to the fact that they did not have to stay on the field as much with the offense controlling the ball. They also were not put in as many situations where winning or losing depended on them making a stop because the offense was better able to get leads. With the youth of the offensive line and no significant losses in free agency, the offense should be able to continue to play very well, with Murray the only real issue at this time.
That is one reason that the entire idea that the defense cannot play as well again next year is by no means a certainty. It also is something that discounts the coaching, which is thought to be a large part of the improvement from 2013. It also does not give any credence to the idea that the team may have players already on the roster that can make important contributions this season. Sean Lee is hopefully going to be healthy, and players like DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, and J.J. Wilcox are all believed to still be growing as players. There are also players like Ken Bishop, Ben Gardner, and Jack Crawford that the team has some hopes for.
The track record for making things work with second- and third-level free agents is pretty good. Jeremy Mincey was a definite find and Terrell McClain is hopefully over the injuries that limited him last season.
None of this ensures that Dallas will duplicate last season's success, but it is hardly certain that it cannot.
The idea that Dallas had to sign that big time pass rusher also seems a little too close to the "one player away" frame of mind. That is an approach that seldom works out. Dallas has committed to an incremental approach and it is hard to argue that the management has been dong things much more intelligently the past few seasons. They have taken the approach that splurging in free agency is not the way forward. And free agents are hardly any more likely to succeed than anyone else. If the Cowboys were to bring in a free agent at some high price, there is no assurance that he would work out any better than Brandon Carr and his $50 million millstone did. Additionally, this theory just popped up.
I have a theory that it takes more than 1 yr for free agency acquisitions to assimilate into a new team. 1 reason for high "fail rate" of FA— NFL Philosophy (@NFLosophy) March 11, 2015
Based on the infrequency with which free agents work out the way teams want, this is an interesting hypothesis that seems likely to have some validity to it. A free agent is possibly more risky than a draft pick, and certainly far more expensive.
My own prejudice here is obvious. Dallas is doing the right thing in letting other teams spend money in free agency. Investing your cap space in your own proven players that the you already know, and who are integrated into the system, is a much more effective way to build a roster, in both the long and short term.
But clearly not everyone feels this way. What is your take? Is Dallas on the path to success, or are they passing up a chance that will not come along soon, if ever?