When free agency starts at 4:00 pm ET next Tuesday, all hell will break loose. The first big free agent names will agree to deals within the first couple of hours. A day or two later, you’ll see the first articles and broadcasts pop up listing the winners and losers of free agency in 2015, even though something like 90% of the available free agents will not have signed contracts yet.
Last year for example, NFL.com, Bleacher Report, SI.com, Sporting News, and Yahoo Sports all declared the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the winners of free agency after the team signed A , , , Clinton McDonald and . The Buccaneers promptly went on to win just two games the entire season. Four of the five sources linked above had a negative take on the Cowboys' free agency activities. The Cowboys of course went on to compile a 12-4 record.
Proclaiming instant winners and losers in free agency is an annual rite that has much more to do about pre-existing narratives than with the free agency acquisitions themselves:
- Teams that go on a free agent shopping spree will either be called brilliant and forward thinking (see the dream-team era Eagles) or stupid and stuck in their ways ( every year).
- Teams largely content to tread water until the market calms down before making targeted free agent acquisitions will be called clever and enterprising (Patriots for example) or will be called cheap and will be derided for not having gone all-in (Cowboys every year).
And while all of this makes for good headlines and simple story-writing, it completely ignores a simple reality best encapsulated by a quote attributed to legendary basketball coach John Wooden:
"Never mistake activity for achievement"
"Winning" in free agency always means you paid more than anybody else was willing to pay for some big-name free agents, but doesn't always mean more wins the next season.
We do not yet know what the Cowboys will be doing in free agency this year, but if their recent history is anything to go by, the Cowboys will be content to let the market come to them. And Stephen Jones just reiterated that point yesterday:
"I don’t know if active is a good word," Jones said on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "I think active can get you in trouble in free agency. I think you have to be efficient and look for your values, and you can do good things."
"We did it last year with a player like Mincey where we got a lot of great value out of him. But at the same time, we’ve been in situations where you have to pay too much for players. You got to be very careful there. We’re certainly going to be that way. We’re going to look to be efficient. If that proves to be productive then that would be good."
For the most part in recent years, the Cowboys have been content to sit tight in free agency until the market settled. Outside of Brandon Carr, you have to go all the way back to Terrell Owens to find a premium free agent acquisition in the Cowboys' transaction history.
With that in mind, while I would be very pleased to welcome the likes of DT Nick Fairley, CB Byron Maxwell or FS Devin McCourty in Dallas, I would also be very surprised if any of those players actually end up wearing the star. The reality probably is that the Cowboys will avoid the flashy names at the top of everyone's free agent list in favor of the more solid, durable and economical names.
And that's an approach the Cowboys share with some of the more successful NFL franchises who will mostly take a wait-and-see approach and hold still until the initial free agent frenzy is over. In the NFL, the draft is where you get your top-tier talent. When you fail to draft that talent, you have to get it via free agency, often at exorbitant cost.
When you succeed in drafting talent, you can focus on re-signing your own talent and you can then use free agency to improve the depth across your roster.
Keep this in mind as the Cowboys enter free agency. Don't judge the Cowboys' free agency by how quickly they sign players or by whether they sign a big-name player (who is always one injury away from having zero impact for his team).
Judge the Cowboys' free agency by how successful they are at building depth across their roster. And keep your fingers crossed that once the draft rolls around, the Cowboys increase their tally of Pro Bowlers drafted since 2010 from five to at least six.