In Sunday's morning news post, the inimitable O.C.C. chose as his headliner an article by long-time Cowboys curmudgeon Jean-Jacques Taylor. For years now, Taylor has been riding the Cowboys' front office for its ineptitude; his favorite rhetorical maneuver has been to share one of the Cowboys' public statements and then to eviscerate it with a single word: "poppycock." He's also a big fan of "rooty-poot" as an assessment of one or another of the Cowboys' strategies.
Of late, however, JJT has changed his tune. In mid-January, after making Jerry Jones his whipping boy for the better part of a decade, he offered that the Cowboys' owner had "changed his ways" and become "the type of executive needed for a team's sustained success." Earlier this month, Taylor penned a post proposing that Stephen Jones had "taken charge" of the Cowboys, and the team was now operating according to his more prudent philosophy. Then, on Friday, ESPNDallas published a piece in which JJT told readers that:
These Cowboys move deliberately in free agency, eschewing the big-ticket, gaudy purchases for sensible selections from the discount bin. This is the Cowboys' new reality, and it's taking time for some of y'all to accept it, but it's the proper approach for a team trying to build a sustained winner.
Welcome aboard, sir.
The point of this is not to pile on poor JJT, despite how satisfying that may be; rather, my point is that even the most intractable local media have come around to the notion that has been proposed on these pages ever since Jason Garrett ascended to the head coach's seat: this organization began to model itself after the most successful franchises - to the degree that they have become one of the league's more stable front offices.
Last year, I wrote a lengthy series in which I assessed and graded Dallas' front office in an array of categories, from the draft to free agency to managing the cap. I want to use this rubric as a way to analyze the Cowboys' front office, and to compare it to those of its NFC East rivals. Here are the broader categories on my grading rubric and each one's key tenets:
Managing the Cap: Don't pay age; avoid paying dead money; spending near the limit
Free Agency: Don't pay age; avoid jumping in the first week; avoid other team's castoffs; acquire "bridge" players
The Draft: Accumulate lottery tickets; trade down or back, but not up; pursue "BPA" whenever possible
In the most recent free agency period, the Cowboys adhered to these rules very closely. They brought in younger players; did their utmost to re-sign their own guys, and didn't partake in the first week's frenzy of overspending. Any player who might be an exception to this rule (Jasper Brinkley, for example) was clearly brought in as a temporary bridge to a younger, cheaper model (Eric Kendricks, anyone?). And, the one big-time signing they did make, Greg Hardy, received a deal that protected the team.
The Cowboys' goal this year, as it has been in recent offseasons, is to use free agency to fill roster holes so that they don't go into the draft with a crying "must have." As a consequence, they can, as Jason Garrett says, have a "pure" draft, one in which they select the best player on their board at the time they are on the clock. In other words, a solid plan in free agency sets up one of the key draft tenets (draft BPA whenever possible).
It also will set up another: accumulate lottery tickets. As has been written about of late, losing players to other teams will bring the Cowboys a nice haul of compensatory picks in next year's selection meeting. These tenets work in concert; by eschewing the free agency frenzy, therefore, they set themselves up to approach the 2016 draft with a handful of lottery tickets, increasing their chances of landing quality players and increasing roster depth, competition throughout the roster, etc.
It's no wonder, therefore, that Taylor wrote his paean (a poem of praise) to the Cowboys at the end of a free agency period in which they behaved as the league's most stable organizations do. Indeed, one of the key tenets that I left off of the above list is stability. Four years into Jason Garrett's coaching tenure, with the ink drying on a five-year deal as well as those of a collection of excellent assistant coaches, we can now say that there is a great deal of stability throughout Dallas' organizational hierarchy.
And here's the key: with Will McClay on board, the Cowboys front office has a man who does the work of a traditional general manager, even if he doesn't hold the title. Every front office needs a "grinder" at the helm, a man who is relentless in his pursuit of building a roster, even if by the most incremental talent gains. If that man also serves as a conduit between the coaches, ownership group and scouting departments, all the better. In McClay, the Cowboys have that man.
Having that guy, I would argue, is the key to the entire operation. When coaches and scouts are at odds, or the people in the front office operate according to different agendas, it's difficult, if not impossible, to adhere to the principles that characterize winning organizations. So, to the above rubric, we can add categories such as "shared vision," "communication," and "collegiality" as keys to successful front offices.
With this in mind, I'd like to direct your attention to a recent Grantland article on the Redskins' relatively quiet offseason. The gist of the piece is that the old Redskins would have mortgaged the future to sign big-name stars such as Ndamukong Suh and/ or Darrelle Revis, whereas in 2015 they have made only a few prudent purchases. This behavioral change
...coincides with the January arrival of general manager Scot McCloughan, who is quickly blazing a trail similar to the one that led him to success on each of his previous NFL stops. McCloughan earned Super Bowl rings with the 1996 Packers and 2013 Seahawks; in between, he built the core of a 49ers squad that would eventually make three consecutive conference title games.
As the article's author, Jason Bailey, writes in a line that I'll have to save to use again, the 'Skins are "finally learning that there is a very good reason to buy generic medicine at the pharmacy: You get the same ingredients while not paying a premium for marketing." Nice analogy, that.
My takeaway from this article is that the Redskins, and owner Dan Snyder, are learning the same lessons the Cowboys have learned: there is absolutely no correlation between garnering headlines in March and garnering them in late December and January. Rather, a patient, sober, rational approach - all guided by a coherent plan - is what allows the victories to pile up, year after year.
After reading Baily's piece and reading, listening, and watching Philadelphia not only behave like the pre-McCloughan Redskins but fail to learn the harsh lessons brought by the 2011 offseason, when a free agency spending spree (cough, "dream team," cough) bought them eight- and four-win seasons and Andy Reid's subsequent dismisssal, I wondered: how might we rank the four division front offices? If we allow history to be our judge (and by this I don't mean each team's recent history but the established history of the way consistent winning franchises operate), I think it would be something like this:
1. Cowboys: They have been operating this way for four seasons now, and have slowly rebuilt the roster using these tenets. Over that time, they have begun to behave soberly, hold to their principles, and have drafted well.
2. Giants: They have enjoyed tremendous organizational stability, with the same basic philosophy, coach, GM and owner since 2007 - the same year that the Giants had a draft for the ages and won the Super Bowl. If only they had drafted a bit better in the years since then they wouldn't have to spend quite so much in free agency, and...
3. Redskins: With a bullet. I almost ranked them ahead of the Giants, but it remains to be seen whether Dan Snyder has the patience for the kind of deliberate roster building that McCloughin will favor. I do believe in McCloughin, however, and as long as he's in Washington, the Redskins have the front office that we should fear most.
4. Eagles: Sure, Chip Kelly's scouting genius may prove to match the level of his offensive innovation. But the early returns aren't good, and the Eagles have behaved this offseason precisely the way bad teams historically do: overpaying for good but not great players, waving a dismissive hand at cap realities, and trading away draft assets.
There you have it folks, Ol' Rabble's assessment of the NFC East's front offices. Agree? Disagree? Then go to the comments section and let your voice be heard!