Competition has been a constant and recurring theme during Jason Garrett's tenure as a head coach in Dallas. Of course, competition by itself is not really that novel of an idea for a professional sports team. So what does competition really mean, especially in the context of the looming roster cuts?
Does it mean the best players make the roster? And would those best players be the best players right now, or the players with the best potential? That’s the question the Cowboys have to answer at almost every position where there is competition for a roster spot,be it today as they make the cut to 75 players or on Saturday when they cut the roster to 53 players.
And answering that question is a much more complex undertaking than you would think. One of the key challenges for any type of organization is aligning the targets of all the decision makers in that organization. And it's no different for NFL franchises:
Only six of the 32 NFL coaches this season have a losing career record in the NFL, and not all of them will survive the season. In the NFL, winning equals job security. It follows that the coaches, especially the assistant coaches, are primarily focused on the short term. They want to keep their jobs or are angling for a promotion. And they’ll only get what they want with immediate, short-term results. Assistant coaches, by definition, have no interest in prospects that will need three years to develop. Their decision-making process naturally gravitates towards proven, reliable veterans over players with less or no NFL experience - unless one of those young players truly stands out, like Ezekiel Elliott or Dak Prescott this year.
Providing somewhat of a counterbalance to the coaches are the scouts and the front office. The scouts because by definition they’re focused on identifying a players’ potential, and the front office because they’re ideally already looking at how this year’s roster choices will impact future roster choices two, three, or four years down the line.
Depending on the franchise, the arbitrator between these positions is usually the head coach or the GM. In the Cowboys’ case, I don’t think anybody can be 100% certain who makes the final decisions at
Valley Ranch the Star in Frisco. But they are not easy decisions in any case.
Do you go for a player like four-year veteran Joe Looney as the backup center, who offers the best short-term insurance at the position, or do you go for rookie prospect Joe Brendel, who may be in the best long-term interest of the franchise, but may not be able to help you win games this season? Do you sign a throwaway veteran backup QB for a year or do you stick with Jameill Showers as the backup QB? Are you willing to bet on RB Darius Jackson's incredible athletic potential, or are you going with Lance Dunbar's proven playmaking skills, even if you may not have them for more than six games?
In the end, you find yourself back at the production versus potential debate. The veteran player provides consistency and reliability, yet usually lacks any type of upside. Young players lack the consistency of a veteran but they can improve suddenly, unexpectedly, and exponentially, which makes them that much more difficult to scout and to assess.
But the young players often need time to realize their full potential. Do you expect CB Anthony Brown to be as good as Orlando Scandrick? Of course not. But could he grow into a the nickel corner next year? Perhaps. And the only way to find out how good he can be is to play him at the NFL level.
Justin Durant or Brandon Carr, to use just two random veterans on this year's roster, are not going to suddenly break out this year. The Cowboys will not suddenly discover that Carr is a shutdown corner or that Justin Durant has been a perennial Pro Bowl snub. That's not who those players are. But neither player will make rookie mistakes either. And when you have them lined up in the game, you know exactly what to expect from them.
Building a contender means accepting some growing pains in the process of developing young talent. The Cowboys must strike a delicate balance between winning now and winning longer term. It’s not an easy task, and to get it right, the entire organization must pull in the same direction.
Can the Cowboys do that?