It has become a yearly rite for fans of the Dallas Cowboys. Free agency opens with a rush of big name, big dollar moves, but the Cowboys remain true to their well-established policy of letting free agency come to them. It is especially agonizing when they see NFC East rivals garnering big headlines with major deals, like the one the New York Giants concluded with Olivier Vernon. There are often heated discussions about how Dallas is letting opportunity pass them by.
It may be hard, but first and foremost it is important to remember that we are in the first day of "real" free agency. It will be a week or more before we have anything like a good picture of who the Cowboys will wind up signing (or, as is the case with Rolando McClain, re-signing). And even then, we will not know how effective free agency was for Dallas or any other team. That will not be fully determined until January when we see who makes the playoffs. Even then, free agency is just part of the story, and the Cowboys have clearly adopted the view it is of secondary importance to the draft.
To help soothe some troubled breasts, here is a look back to last year and some teams that were seen as the winners in free agency. Three articles from respectable sites provide the takes from then.
There were a couple of teams that they singled out who did have noticeable improvement for the year, including Washington and the New York Jets. As we all remember, Washington wound up as the least terrible in the train wreck that was the NFC East while the Jets posted a very respectable 10-6 record, but just missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But some of the other winners named did not fare nearly as well.
Miami Dolphins. The had perhaps the biggest catch of all in Ndamukong Suh.
Regardless of who else is added or subtracted, the Dolphins have won free agency by virtue of adding the kind of talent that only becomes available maybe once or twice per decade.
The wound up 6-10, last in the AFC East. More strikingly, they were the only non-NFC East team the Cowboys beat in 2015.
New York Giants
Their big acquisition was supposed to be RB Shane Vereen, which is just proof that injuries can derail the best-laid plans.
They certainly had a decent year, and actually avoided the Super Bowl runner-up curse by getting into the playoffs as a wild card, but their big name was TE Jimmy Graham (it was technically a trade), who turned out to be largely a non-factor for them.
They continue to regress, it seems, which is appropriate. The Colts go as Andrew Luck goes, and he did seem to be going the wrong way in 2015.
Rex Ryan or not, they are still the Bills. Shady McCoy didn't help.
This writer's top five included the Jets - and the Colts. It also included another team that clearly did well, the Arizona Cardinals. But the other two of his big winners:
It seems like the Jaguars are one of the big players in free agency every year. And it also seems like they draft in the top 10 every year. Could there be some connection?
Another team that went nowhere in 2015. Their top player signed was DE Adrian Clayborn, who was seen as a possible target for the Cowboys, but late word is that he is being retained in Atlanta.
There were also four "runner-ups" given. The Chicago Bears, San Diego Chargers, Houston Texans, and (with a bit of a caveat given the puzzlement over the strategy involved) the Philadelphia Eagles - all of whom, of course, did not make the playoffs. The Eagles, of course, seem to have put their biggest effort this year into clearing out as many of last year's free agents as possible.
This complete grading by Pete Prisco has some interesting things in it. He is very tough in his grading, handing out only one A and one B+, but there are some others of interest as well. For instance, the Carolina Panthers got a D, and the Denver Broncos got a C. Two of the poorer jobs in the league (at least in Prisco's eyes) didn't keep them from meeting in the Super Bowl.
The B+ went to the Jaguars, deepening the mystery of just what in the world they are doing with all the money they are putting into free agency. (Also, the Cowboys got a B from Prisco, one of the better grades he handed out.)
What is interesting is the team he saw as the only one worthy of an A grade - and why he thought the Green Bay Packers deserved it.
The Packers did what they always do, try to sign their own and do little in the open market.
That is very important for the Cowboys, because at least a part of their reluctance to dive into the deep end of the free agency pool is to keep space available for new deals for their own rising stars, notably Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. They have been aggressive in locking up players early, and with the skyrocketing price tags, the early deals on Tony Romo and Tyron Smith look better all the time. Hopefully, they can avoid a protracted situation like they had with Dez Bryant (whose deal was the main reason Prisco had them as having one of the better free agencies in the league).
The results show some things. Free agency can help, but big-name signings and spending lots of money is much more likely to lead to disappointment than failure. In recent years, the only team that has won it all with a large part of its cap space devoted to players brought in as free agents are the Broncos, and they acquired them over several years (with Peyton Manning being a big chunk of that investment). And even they may be headed in another direction now. With Manning retired, they seemed to have a real need to secure the services of Brock Osweiler, but he wound up going to the Houston Texans for another of those escalating salaries. Here is what Denver GM John Elway had to say about it.
"We've stayed true to our philosophy of building a team with players who want to be Denver Broncos and want to be here. That's been a successful approach for us," he said.
"While we did offer a very competitive and fair long-term contract to Brock, we ultimately had to remain disciplined while continuing to assemble a roster that can compete for championships."
The Broncos took home the latest Lombardi, but they seem to be taking care with how much they spend, even if it leaves them essentially without a quarterback to defend their title.
Like Denver, the Cowboys are committed to being consistent in their approach, and it does not include major plunges in free agency. That may not please all, but they believe it is the best path to success. Even with an aging quarterback, they are not going to deviate from it in the hope of getting over the top. Their belief is that you don't really do that with free agents. The recent history in the league indicates that there is justification to their thinking.