This season, I have been posting an article after each Dallas Cowboys game about what we learned about the team. After the pre-postseason game that the finale against the Philadelphia Eagles devolved into, there really wasn’t a lot to say, outside of the fact that the Cowboys have the best QB2 in the league (and not so much at QB3).
But this season, taken as a whole, has certainly offered many things to glean about the team. Now, with a bye week while we wait for the rest of the NFC to fight for the privilege of coming to AT&T Stadium to try and oust the team with the best record in the conference, we have a little time to reflect on things.
Some may wonder why not wait until the end of the playoffs to consider these things, but the tournament is a different animal from the 16-game grind of the regular season. It is win or go home every game. Luck plays an even bigger role than during the fall. A couple of bad breaks can send the better team packing, and an otherwise somewhat mediocre player getting hot (cough) Eli Manning (cough) can elevate a team to glory. For now, this is a consideration of what about the team got it to 13-3, and how that affects them in the future beyond this year’s playoffs.
This will hopefully be a series of posts to help get you to the divisional round game on January 15th. To start off, let’s look back at how this team was built.
The Cowboys seem to have a solid, sustainable process for building the roster.
The picture for this article is All Pro left tackle Tyron Smith, and he was chosen for a reason. His selection in the first round of the 2011 draft was the beginning of a series of picks that created this team. It is not mere coincidence that it was the first draft with Jason Garrett as head coach. It signaled a significant departure from past practice, and presaged the future use of first-round picks to select Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, as well as the free agent signings of Ronald Leary and La’el Collins.
Under Garrett, this team was going to be built on the offensive line. This reflects more than one principle that Garrett established.
First, it doesn’t matter how good your offensive skill players are if the quarterback is not protected and the running back cannot find holes to run through. The team already had Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and Dez Bryant in place, but Romo was simply not getting enough time to deliver the ball. They also added DeMarco Murray in the third round after taking Smith, but likewise, he needed better lanes to run through. Over the intervening years, the Cowboys would put together what is now considered one of the premiere offensive lines in the NFL. And though they have some question about what to do going forward about right tackle, with Doug Free starting to show his age a bit, and Leary is likely gone in free agency after this season, the foundation remains incredibly solid. The remaining players are all still comparatively young, with most of a decade of productive play quite likely for all of them. Health is always the one unknown for the future, and that has cropped up for Smith, but there can be no argument that Dallas has successfully invested its draft capital well here.
And all are “homegrown” players, which has extended to the rest of the roster. It is important to note that building a roster is not a binary issue, where you either go with drafting or free agents, but a continuum. There are multiple ways to be successful, but the Cowboys have taken the stance that the draft is, over time, a much more effective and affordable way to build the roster. So far, that appears to be working out. There is also the fact that they have been much less successful with the occasional foray into big name free agency. Brandon Carr is a good cornerback, but was unquestionably overpaid for his value to the team. And the whole Greg Hardy experiment was a dismal failure, for reasons that the team should probably have realized beforehand. This just seems to be a weakness of the personnel department, which is much stronger at finding first-round talent, some key players in later rounds (although the second round continues to be a sore spot), and lower cost free agents. But recognizing what you don’t do well is just as important as knowing what you get right. Playing to your strengths is almost always the smart move, and that is what the Cowboys are doing now. Don’t expect anything different in the immediate future. Dallas has the luxury of having a lot of talent coming back for next season, and there is absolutely no reason to change horses now.
Dallas has clearly focused more on the offensive side of the ball with its first-round picks, with only Morris Claiborne and Byron Jones being taken for the defense in the first round under Garrett. Jones continues to look like a very solid hit, while Claiborne has been limited by injuries. When he was healthy this season, he looked like the best defensive back on the team, but he was unable to stay out there again. That is one thing the team has no real control over.
Focusing on one side of the ball is a simple recognition that all NFL teams have limited resources to invest in building a team, and almost always have to favor one over the other. It is not a one-year thing, either. As the building of the Cowboys’ roster has demonstrated, it takes years to get everything in place. Now, the offense is in very good shape, and the team may be able to focus more on the defense. They started to do that in 2016, using three of their first four picks on defenders, although the use of their second-round pick for the injured Jaylon Smith still has not paid off, and Charles Tapper turned out to have a previously undiagnosed back condition that clouds his furutre. Still, they found a potential star in Maliek Collins, and a real late-round gem in Anthony Brown. With the offense so loaded with talent, the team can now work on bringing the defense up to a similar level. And with the emergence of players like David Irving and Benson Mayowa, the judicious use of free agency is also looking like a viable way to fill holes and find answers.
The way this roster has been assembled also was done with a clear vision of what the offensive identity was going to be. Garrett made a somewhat daring decision to go back to a run-first attack, reflected in the drafting of Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth-overall pick. It actually was already clear after the 12-4 campaign in 2014. The vast majority of NFL teams are heavily weighted toward the passing game, and defenses have generally become smaller and faster in response. That opened up the opportunity to exploit those traits with a real smash-mouth running game, and first with Murray and then even more with Elliott, that is exactly what the Cowboys have built. Having the league rushing champion two out of three years makes it clear that it is working very well, and unless many more teams start adopting a similar approach, it should continue to be a successful strategy. There are no signs that prioritizing the run is about to become a widespread trend in the league. That would likely take several years to do, anyway. Dallas has zigged while almost everyone else continues to zag, and it is a large part of how they came to have home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
All the parts are working together very well for the Cowboys, and show every sign of continuing to do so in the future. During the traumatic 2015 season, the big question was whether it was an aberration because of the quarterback situation or a sign of deeper issues. The evidence this year is that it was mostly a failure to properly prepare for an injury to Romo. Now, with Dak Prescott, the team appears set to be a contender for years to come.
Of course, that didn’t happen without an incredible bit of luck, which will be the next topic for discussion.