There’s an old football saying (sometimes quoted by former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson): “It’s not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmys and Joes.” Put into somewhat more technical terms, it says that winning football games is more dependent on the talent level of the players than the scheme and play-calling of the coaches. While it is seen as a bit more applicable at the college level than the NFL, it is still valid in the pros. This is why top players at their position get top money, after all. And with the possible exception of Bill Belichick, coaches generally cannot find great success if their roster is full of mediocre players. Arguably, Belichick’s great gift is figuring out what his players do best and putting them in place to do so.
No matter how you parse it, it is hard to argue that even in the NFL, the better the players on a team’s roster, the more games you are likely to win. That is why draft picks are so valuable. And why top free agents get boatloads of money. Teams chase talent to fortify their roster in order to win.
If you accept that premise, 2017 is looking very, very bright for the Cowboys. Two recent rankings of top players in the league have Dallas among the truly elite teams in terms of how good their top players are.
The first one we have all seen cussed and discussed of late, is the NFL Top 100. The Cowboys landed a total of seven players on this list voted on by players around the league. Over at our sister SBN site for the Raiders, Silver and Black Pride, writer Levi Damien did a little comparing to see how teams stacked up around the league. As it turns out, no matter how you slice it, the Cowboys did very, very well.
In terms of pure numbers, Dallas was second only to the Seattle Seahawks, who had eight names make the list. And Levi dug deeper than that. First, he considered how teams fell out based on the players ranked by position on the list. There, the Cowboys fell to seventh, still pretty good. But, as he noted, this actually penalized teams that had a lot of players on the list, since they had more in the lower ranks. So he just looked at how the top four players for those teams that had that many stacked up. That boosted the Cowboys back to second, this time behind the Atlanta Falcons. He then merged the first and third rankings to try and come up with the most accurate gauge of which teams had the top talent, and again Dallas was second (with Seattle coming out on top again).
That is very favorable - but of course there is still the issue so many take with the accuracy of the entire list. Fortunately, there is another such ranking out there that at least attempts to use a more objective and quantifiable grading system: Pro Football Focus’ Top 50. According to their compilation, the Cowboys don’t come in second.
The Dallas Cowboys lead the NFL with five players making the PFF 50, one more than any other team. While the Cowboys don’t have a player come up until No. 17 in the list (Travis Frederick), they do have 10 percent of the 50 best players in the game heading into the 2017 season, and that doesn’t count their quarterback, Dak Prescott, who enjoyed a historic rookie season and could become something special in 2017.
Many have at least as many objections to the validity of PFF”s scores as the NFL Top 100 polling methodology, but it is interesting that two very different approaches to determining the relative talent level of all NFL teams came up with very similar results. The fact is that talent is often very obvious, whether it is being judged by other football players or a bunch of film-watching, um, geeks.
And that circles back around to that “Jimmys and Joes” thing. All of the top talent for Dallas is back this year, and in the case of Tyron Smith, healthier than last season. There are differing opinions on how likely the Cowboys are to have the same kind of success they had last season, but if they are indeed one of the most talented teams in the league, then 2016 may not have been a fluke or due to the surprise of Prescott’s sudden emergence. They still have to answer some questions, notable at right tackle, left guard, and all over the defense, but if they manage to get those in order, Dallas will be one of the true powerhouses this year.
No matter how you look at it.