In 2013, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference featured a discussion on the use of analytics in football, with an impressive panel: 49ers President Paraag Marathe; former Patriots and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli; Kevin Demoff, the Rams' Executive Vice President of Football Operations & Chief Operating Officer; and Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz. Not only did they talk about the use of statistical analysis in NFL front offices, they offered a multitude of golden nuggets about the way organizations approach free agency, the draft, and gamedays, as well as the processes they institute to achieve success. Coincidentally, as I was listening to and transcribing their back-and-forth, I stumbled across an interview with the Eagles then-GM Howie Roseman, in which he addresses many of the same issues.
Last year, in February and March, noticing many points of resonance in these conversations, I decided to use these men's instructive words to articulate or to support a set of organizational behaviors that suggest on-field success, and then offer the Cowboys a grade for each of these behaviors. This became a not insignificant undertaking, one that ultimately resulted in a four-part series. This year, I'd like to repeat the exercise, sharing last year's grade, giving a new grade, and offering a rationale for why that grade may have changed.
It's important to remember that, since the last grade was given, we have seen:
- two free agency periods during which the Cowboys only acquired players at team-friendly rates
- two drafts during which, with the exception of the trade up for DeMarcus Lawrence, they were very disciplined
- the team expertly manage a critical injury to their franchise quarterback
- fifteen months' work from two excellent new coordinators
- the entire coaching staff, save one, rehired to long-term deals
The key in doling out grades is to remain disciplined (Garrett would be so proud!) and try not to take the 12-4 2014 season in to account. As we know, a faulty process can yield positive results (see: 2009 Cowboys); what I want to do is to avoid evaluating the process independent of the results. Here, in part one, we'll look at overall organizational philosophy; in the next installment, we'll take a look at the way the team has managed the cap; in part three, we'll look at free agency; the final post will examine the team's behavior in the draft. And away we go...
Part I: Overall Organizational Philosophy
Consistency, Consistency, Consistency: As I have written about on multiple occasions, a very strong correlation exists between coaching continuity and on-field success. Teams that fire a coach every four or five years (or even more frequently) are perpetually in the process of re-invention, are always retooling their roster, and have players who are in the "learning" rather than the "reacting" phase. Plus, it ends up costing more - way more. But don't listen to me; Marathe, one of the NFL's most respected front office guys, says:
Consistency is the single most important thing to me in the NFL, because of the salary cap and because of system. The coach runs the system; the general manager finds the players for that system, and then you have to pay those players. If you churn out one of those first two, and you have an entirely new system, now you've already scouted players to run a certain system - whether you want quick and nimble offensive linemen versus road grader offensive linemen - you've also then paid those guys. And you change out a system and now you're stuck on the salary cap, you have to trade or release those players for pennies on the dollar and it sets you back for a number of years. Consistency breeds success.
When doling out my 2014 grade, I noted that the good news - the Cowboys have had consistency in ownership and in their general manager for nigh on 22 years now - was tempered by some bad news: under Jerry Jones, they have cycled through head coaches (seven in 25 years, with none lasting more than five seasons) and, more recently, systems (in 2014, the team employed their third offensive coordinator and fourth defensive coordinator in five years).
Like much about the team, this appears to have settled a bit. The first order of business this offseason was to re-up Jason Garrett and almost his entire coaching staff. Now, a group that Jones proclaimed as the best coaching staff of his Cowboys tenure will be around for the long haul. For the first time in several years, all three phases will be in the same system, with the same nomenclature and core principles they were in the year before. They still have a ways to go, but the team appears to have made crucial strides in this direction.
2014 Grade: C-
2015 Grade: B
Self-Scouting: As Pioli notes, the accurate evaluation of a team's own players is one of the most important activities in which a front office engages. A team can't accurately gauge its needs in free agency and the draft, he claims, if they fail to assess what they have in their own locker room correctly: "one of the most important parts of free agency," for example, "is your own evaluation of your players. That's the critical part, because you are not going to know any other player better than your own players. You're going to know what's great about them, you're going to know all of their warts."
A crucial aspect of this, particularly as it pertains to the Cowboys and their soft-hearted owner, is that teams can't afford to be too sentimental about guys who have made plays for them in the past. Football is a cruel business; as soon as former stars' performances begin to diminish, front offices must part ways with them, quickly and without reservation. Think back to the Bill Walsh 49ers, who famously cut the likes of Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig and Joe Montana "a year too early," believing it was better than doing so a year too late.
A strong argument can be made that the Cowboys' longest-running core problem has been their inability to self -scout. Former personnel insider Bryan Broaddus tells the tale of post-season evaluation sessions during the 5-11 Dave Campo years in which he felt as if they were describing a playoff-caliber roster. An extension of this problem is Jones' soft spot for productive or semi-productive homegrown players - the ones the team acquired when he happened to be wearing his GM hat, which resulted in far too many contracts for older, declining guys whose on-field production could not hope to meet their pay grade by the end of the deal.
These realities were enough for me to give Dallas a failing grade in this category last time around (note that I was evaluating the last five years), even though there were signs of progress in this regard. The last few months have built upon this progress: the Cowboys have not been content with the roster that got them to 12-4; rather, they have identified the positions, such as pass rusher, where the status quo is insufficient and explored all avenues to acquire new, higher-quality quality players. They have also worked to add quality depth to already strong positions, like wide receiver and offensive line - positions where the 2008 front office would have pushed their chairs back from the table, content.
The Cowboys have been increasingly disciplined and sober in their judgment, and it has resulted in a better, deeper roster. That said, the roster assessment flashpoint that will determine how far they've come in this regard will be running back. While it was wise to allow DeMarco Murray to test the free agent waters instead of offering him a Marion Barber-like contract that they would regret by 2017, the success of their running game in large part depends on how accurately they have evaluated carryover players like Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar and Ryan Williams. Right now, we simply don't have enough information to give a fair grade, so the Dallas front office gets an "incomplete."
2014 Grade: F
2015 Grade: INC
Build Through The Draft: With the salary cap in existence, it's not only preferable but downright mandatory that teams stay young. Marathe reports that, when he came to the 49ers, they ran a study of:
...a veteran team [and its salary structure] and...[discovered] that's not sustainable over time. Because of the salary cap, if every [veteran] player on your team took a fifteen percent discount on market value, you could not field that team still, under the salary cap, because the difference between wholesale and retail is so wide...
For Marathe, free agents, and veterans in general, "are retail...and the draft is where it's wholesale. That's why the more players you can have on wholesale who are good players, the more draft picks you can accumulate, the better off you're going to be." Because the salary cap simply will not allow franchises to field a starting 22 who are all on their second contracts, Marathe concludes, "you've got to continue to replenish the system."
Consequently, teams must invest in what Roseman calls "homegrown guys" rather than "independent contractors." Demoff believes this is particularly important when building the bottom of the roster (i.e., players 35-53). THE question for front offices, as he puts it, is: "How can you get better and better players...on rookie contracts that cost less - that are [to borrow Marathe's phrase] wholesale."
The Cowboys' grade in this category has risen in recent years. During Garrett's tenure, the team has prioritized the draft over free agency as a personnel acquisition strategy. They are on record as saying that they want to use free agency only to fill roster holes with cheap vets who function as bridge players until a younger, cheaper and, we hope, better player can be drafted to take that spot. That is in fact what shrewder, more stable franchises have done over the last decade and change.
The positive result of this emphasis is that the Cowboys roster has gotten much younger. When Garrett took over the team in 2010, he presided over an aging roster; the team had 14 players who were 29 or older, twelve of whom were starters or (in John Kitna's case) key contributors. In 2015, depending on what shakes out with guys like Tyler Clutts and Nick Hayden, the Cowboys look to have about seven players and as few as three starters who will be 29 or older.
Conversely, as O.C.C. pointed out recently, the Cowboys are stacked with talented "young guns" under the age of 25; indeed, eleven of their projected starting 22 are 25 or younger. As a consequence, the talent-to-expenditure ratio for the Cowboys roster is very favorable. And remember what Marathe said about the importance of staying young: it costs less. Of the 19 players that are "legitimately" inked past 2015 (i.e., guys whose contract includes at least $250,000 bonus or restructuring money), only ten represent what might be called a significant financial commitment - i.e., it would cost the the team at least $2,000,000 in dead money to cut them.
Despite tremendous progress, what keeps the Cowboys from a straight "A" grade is their inability to stockpile draft picks; they have tended to trade up, losing picks, more often than they have traded back or into the future, gaining picks. However, change appears on the horizon, in the form of 2016 compensatory picks gained from the net loss of free agents in March and April. If the Cowboys can start to get ahead of the draft curve, accumulating between eight and twelve picks every draft, then they will be doing "A" work.
2014 Grade: B-
2015 Grade: B+
Overall Organizational Philosophy Assessment: What a difference a year makes; when I published the last seasonal report card, in February 2014, I criticized Jerry Jones for being too much of a fanboy to be a shrewd talent evaluator; now, he's the reigning NFL Executive of the Year. While its debatable how much he has fundamentally changed, he has helped develop a front office that boasts marked improvement in the last few years, especially as it pertains to overall consistency, processual stability and emphasis on replenishing the roster. The core decision making team has become more focused, disciplined and thorough and the coaching staff is filled with excellent teachers.
As the triumvirate of Jason Garrett, Stephen Jones and Will McClay (who has received three promotions - and, presumably, raises - in three years) has become ascendant, the Cowboys have evolved from a punchline to one of the league's model franchises, one that consistently makes the kinds of decisions that winning franchises make. All that remains is for them to demonstrate some long-term consistency. A second consecutive NFC East title would go a long way towards doing so.
2014 Grade: D
2015 Grade: B+