The miracle season for the Dallas Cowboys seems to have come out of nowhere. Well, not exactly nowhere, since the two newest stars for the team came via Columbus, Ohio and Starkville, Mississippi, but the point remains that no one anticipated the way things have gone through the first three-quarters of a season after Tony Romo was injured (again). Even if he had been healthy, no one really anticipated the team going on a franchise-record winning streak. But the foundation was laid years ago, and this team was, somewhat unintentionally, built to provide the best place in the NFL for a versatile, uber-athletic running back like Ezekiel Elliott and an incredibly intelligent quarterback such as Dak Prescott to come in and become the talk of the NFL for the way they take over games. And the way this team was built gives some real hope that this is not just a flash in pan type of season, but one that may be sustained - because the main architects who constructed it could be around for quite a while, including one Will McClay, the one main figure who is often thought could be lured away. But is he really going to go to another team so he can be a “real” general manager?
A huge part of the whole concept the Cowboys are operating under is that the team has become something of a throwback. It is designed to fit the same style of offense as the Dallas dynasty of the early 1990s. And that goes back to Jerry Jones, as was described in a superb article written by Dan Pompei.
Jones wanted to recreate the Triplets, but he also wanted to take his team in a new direction. Specifically, he wanted to buck the trend of spread offenses that was sweeping the NFL. He wanted an offense that could lead the NFL in percentage of runs.
Now that's exactly what he has. That, and an 11-1 record, the best in the NFL.
Jones knew he could get better value with draft picks used on players who fit better in a throwback offense, and he knew defenses wouldn't be as prepared to handle an offense that wanted to maul them rather than toy with them.
So the Cowboys invested heavily in offensive linemen. Then in 2015, they planned on selecting running back Todd Gurley before the Rams surprisingly chose him with the 10th overall pick. The next year, the Cowboys were picking fourth. That all but assured them the first crack at the best running back, and they picked a bruiser in Elliott from Ohio State.
The next step was to find an eventual successor to Tony Romo. The Cowboys struck out in an attempt to trade up for Paxton Lynch, and then watched Connor Cook go off the board before they could pick him. So they settled for Mississippi State's Prescott.
Jones had his new Triplets.
This is classic Jerry Jones big-picture thinking. Even through the dark years between the end of that glorious run with the original triplets and the glimpse of what this team might become in 2014, he always has been one of the best movers and shakers in the NFL at seeing the long-term and making hugely successful decisions affecting the financial success of his team and the league as a whole. Now, he has come up with a formula that is wreaking havoc on the rest of the NFL, at least so far.
But his weakness was always in the detail work. It was learning that about himself and putting together his team of lieutenants to carry out the day-to-day work that has brought the Cowboys to this season. Jerry is still the king on the throne, but he has assembled his own team of three wise men to both make the important calls and to curb his occasional erroneous impulses, like his much-discussed infatuation with Johnny Manziel. One of that trio is pretty much immune to replacement, since he is both one of the most powerful figures in team management and the literal heir to the throne, Jerry’s son Stephen Jones. The second is head coach Jason Garrett, who not only shares Jerry’s vision of what the team should be, but is from all indications the most-trusted head coach he has ever employed, by a large measure. The third is far less visible. It is Will McClay, who was tasked with resolving the issues that led to the also well-documented disconnect in the 2013 draft, when Sharrif Floyd was the highest-ranked player on the draft board when Dallas came on the clock in the first round, but was not seen as a good fit for the defensive scheme by the coaches. That turned out pretty OK, as the team wound up trading back to get Travis Frederick and Terrance Williams, but the Joneses wanted to avoid that kind of situation in the future. McClay was given increased authority to get the differences between the coaches and the scouts ironed out before the draft. Since then, the team has continued to absolutely nail the first-round picks year after year, and in the 2016 draft, they may have netted a historically good haul just on the strength of Elliott and Prescott. Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown add to the value of the class, and we all are hoping that Jaylon Smith may be the equivalent of another first-round home run when he finally gets that nerve to fire.
But unlike Stephen Jones and Garrett, McClay has been seen as someone who is almost inevitably going to be hired away from the team to become a true general manager for another franchise. Dan Hatman at Inside the Pylon took that site’s annual look at GM candidates across the league, and McClay was one of the first names listed. But that does not mean that McClay is soon to hit the road, because he is considered to be part of a select group of personnel men who may have little belief that there is greener grass out there.
These candidates have been discussed for various GM jobs the last few years, but have been incredibly selective in interviewing, with many observers assuming they are in control or waiting to take control in their current organizations.
McClay has not only not taken any interviews with other teams, he has reportedly turned down requests for them. And that linked ESPN article by Paul Kuharsky includes a description of why some candidates feel this way that seems to fit McClay’s situation to a T.
“You get one shot at your first chance to show how competent you are as a leader of a billion-dollar organization,” one NFL personnel man told me. “You need stable ownership and the ability to create your organizational structure. Guys won't just jump at a job if they have a strong situation.
“Example: Why go to Philly when they have a guy above you that still wants to be the GM? Or why go to Cleveland with a contract guy that has final say on the 53-man roster? Or why go to a team that the coach has control of personnel? That is why guys that are good don't just take a job for the payday or title.”
You don’t get more stable ownership than the Cowboys, where Jerry has nearly three decades at the helm and Stephen is poised for a seamless transition whenever the inevitable time comes for him to sit down in his father’s chair. No one has deeper pockets than Jerry, and all reports are that he is willing to pay whatever it takes to keep staff he likes. Given how the salary cap took away his ability to outspend his rival owners to build his roster, he may well look at the uncapped money he can spend on executives and coaches as a real advantage he can use. And despite the highly persistent meme of him as a bumbling meddler, he is actually very reliant on trusted advisers who can take his grand ideas and craft the plans to bring them to fruition.
Further, no two organizations in the league are the same. They are all owned by billionaires with their billionaire sized egos. Each has a different approach to how much they influence the way their team is run, but they all have influence, and very few just sit back and let their underlings do whatever they wish. The Hatman article lays out a quick overview of what being an NFL GM now entails.
Depending on the organizational structure, a GM may have decision-making authority or advisory input in all or most aspects of the club. The job description will certainly include football operations such as coach and staff selection, management of scouting departments, contract negotiations, and most importantly, player personnel decisions. It may also include business operational items such as finance, marketing, stadium development, media and community relations. As the business of the NFL has grown, so too have the legal, financial and operational complications therein. NFL front offices have consequently grown to cover these many areas. GMs now not only oversee a large, complex network of individuals working in a variety of fields, but also must be experts or near-experts in those fields.
That is a huge list of duties, but in Dallas, things are a bit different, since Jerry Jones wears the GM hat (with a great deal of pride) and Stephen handles so much of the nitty-gritty work. In particular, the contracts, salary cap, player, and coaching decisions are handled primarily by them, leaving McClay focused much more on finding talent to acquire than most GMs in the league. He may well recognize that he is able to play more to his strengths by not having to spread his attention over all those other areas, which makes him more successful - and more secure.
This does not mean that a future NFL GM will not come from Dallas soon, however. Another name was listed by Hatman as someone who will likely be garnering attention soon, Cowboys senior personnel executive Lionel Vital. He heads the college scouting department for the team, and this is at least the second time his name has cropped up in the blogoshpere as someone to keep an eye on.
But McClay may see himself as being in the best possible place for his future, especially from financial and security viewpoints. And if Dallas keeps finding talent in the first round like Frederick, Zack Martin, Byron Jones, and Elliott, as well as some real finds later like Prescott (although that will be hard to come even close to again), you can be sure the Jones family will keep their checkbook open to make sure McClay has every reason to stay.
It bodes well for the future of the Cowboys. And it is a large reason why we are getting to experience one of the most incredible stories ever in the NFL right now.