The Dallas Cowboys always seem to have more buzz about them than just about any other team in the NFL, and that is true during the NFL Combine. Already we have seen storylines breaking about Tony Romo and the Denver Broncos, rumors of Doug Free retiring, and just how ready Jaylon Smith is going to be to play this season. This is actually kind of odd, because when you drill down into how the team approaches this time of year, the Cowboys have become one of the more boring teams in the league.
Don’t look for any major shakeups in the staff. There aren’t going to be any big-name free agent signings. No blockbuster trades are in the offing. The most they may do is make some kind of move up or down when the NFL Draft rolls around, and even that has slacked off some of late. Dallas has committed to a strategy of drafting well and building the roster from within. The big free agent dollars are paid to their own, trusted talent. And that extends to the coaching staff, with the team reportedly now working on extensions for their offensive and defensive coordinators.
The Dallas Cowboys are in discussions with coordinators Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli regarding contract extensions, according to multiple sources.
After the Cowboys’ 12-4 finish in 2014, the Cowboys signed Linehan and Marinelli to three-year extensions worth $2.1 million and $2 million, respectively. - Todd Archer, ESPN
The topic of the consistent approach the Cowboys have maintained over the past several years has been discussed here at length, such as this article from just after the regular season finale in January, and the attempt to keep Linehan and Marinelli on the job longer is just another part of that. It is a hallmark of Jason Garrett’s tenure as head coach, and also a key part of Stephen Jones’ approach to building the roster. Jerry Jones also deserves a good big of credit, because he had the faith in what Garrett and Stephen were doing to stay the course after the miserable 2015 debacle. That paid off last year as the team more or less stumbled into solving the most vexing puzzle in the NFL, how to successfully move on from your franchise quarterback without having to go through a stretch of rebuilding years.
The stunning emergence of fourth-round compensatory pick Dak Prescott as the brightest rising quarterback star in the league was an incredible stroke of luck, but it also is proof that good teams make their own good luck. The Cowboys weren’t just consistent in their approach to building the team on the offensive line and a top-flight running game, they were persistent. Three first-round draft picks invested in offensive linemen over four years, followed by taking Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth-overall pick in the draft flew in the face of both the previous tendencies of the Cowboys and the conventional NFL wisdom. The way those decisions worked out for Dallas has led to teams reconsidering just how early you should take a running back and comparing just about every quarterback prospect at the combine to Prescott in the (likely vain) hope of finding their own unexpected star.
Yet very few teams outside of the Cowboys have the stability and clear vision to do this. The ones who do are teams like the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers (among a few others) with track records that speak for themselves. Most other franchises have a very difficult time building a strong roster that is a contender year after year. It took six years for the Cowboys to get to this point. They look to have many of the pieces in place to be one of those repeat visitors to the postseason, but it was not easy, and required that patience to get things working. And there is still work to be done, particularly on defense.
There is no one correct path to building a winning NFL team. The Cowboys focus on the draft and use free agency (outside of re-signing their own) very frugally. Other teams address cap management and talent acquisition differently, but the biggest problem most face is that they don’t sustain a clear, coherent strategy over time. When teams are struggling, the most common approach to trying to fix things is to change the coaching staff and/or the general manager. That means a new philosophy, new schemes, and a different approach to scouting, drafting, and free agency. Previous groundwork, even if it is making some progress, is likely wasted, or at least reduced in effectiveness.
That is one way in which Jerry Jones is more of an asset to the team than many acknowledge. Since he is his own general manager, he isn’t going to fire himself. That is one kind of turmoil that the Cowboys are inoculated from, even with the unique vexations he brings to the table.
Further hindering these efforts is that so many teams just flat get it backwards. They go for the franchise quarterback or the star pass rusher before they build the rest of the roster - and so often, that just winds up wasting the talent they have spent so much to acquire. An example of this is the Indianapolis Colts, who, as the saying went at the time, “sucked for Luck”, positioning them to take Andrew Luck as the replacement for Peyton Manning. Luck is a genuine franchise quarterback, but the team has failed miserably in surrounding him with players that allow the team to succeed. In truth, the franchise QB or monster defender should be the final piece brought in so as not to squander their abilities. Prescott’s success was enabled by the high level of talent on the field with him. Likewise, Von Miller of the Broncos is able to take over games because he is just one of the defensive weapons. He may be the best, but there is plenty of other talent around him. Their defense cannot be neutralized just by stopping Miller from getting to the QB. You don’t need a roster full of superstars, which is impossible in the salary cap environment anyway. But you do need a roster with some balance and depth. Even if a team could somehow find Dak 2.0, they are likely to be dumping him into a situation more like that Luck has suffered through.
That well-rounded roster is what the Cowboys are trying to have and sustain, and the 2016 team was closer than they have been in many years. Now they just need to keep building, something that can never really end. It is, as someone once said, a process. And they have a process that could pay off for years to come. It is in a way kind of dull, but we all certainly enjoyed the monotony of winning so many games last season.