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Coaching And Development: The Overlooked Key To The Cowboys’ Success

In the NFL, the main ways to build a roster are usually seen to be the draft and free agency. But what coaching staffs do with talent once it is acquired can make or break a team.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-OTA
Jason Garrett didn’t just coach Dak Prescott, he mentored him.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

People who cover the NFL as media or just follow it as fans love stats and measurables. They are superficially easy to understand and can be compared in the time honored “mine’s bigger” sense. What is less liked and much harder to grasp is the whole area of a player’s makeup known as “intangibles”. That usually refers to things like leadership ability and character, but it also includes the idea of knowledge, skills, and how much the player has learned about the game and himself since joining the league. With billions of dollars at stake, you would think that teams would focus heavily on doing everything they can to maximize the abilities of their players. One of the greatest success stories of recent years is that of Dak Prescott with the Dallas Cowboys. Here at BTB, of course, we are all very familiar with his incredible rookie season. And he is not the only example of this on the team, just the most obvious. But if you look around the league, something begins to dawn on you. Not all teams are very good at “coaching up” players. As a matter of fact, some seem to do the exact opposite, wantonly squandering talent.

Just as Prescott was a tremendous success story in 2016, another, much more touted rookie quarterback from his rookie class may be turning into the exact opposite. Jared Goff was the number one overall pick last season of the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams traded two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and two third-round picks, spread over the 2016 and 2017 drafts, for that first overall spot. And now, it is starting to look like the new coaching regime of the Rams is having some serious doubts about his future with the organization.

You’re not supposed to put much stock in the things players and coaches say during spring OTAs. However, what Rams head coach Sean McVay said about second-year quarterback Jared Goff on Tuesday sounds like an ominous warning about Goff’s future with the team.

Here’s what McVay said when asked about the competition between Goff and Sean Mannion, the team’s third-round pick from 2015:

“Right now, we feel very good about what they’ve both done. Jared has done a nice job getting better, but you always want to make sure that you’re playing the guy that you feel like gives you the best ability to win football games, because we owe it to our coaches, to our players and to this organization to do that. I think what we’ve seen is good for those guys, but right now Jared’s the starter and he’s done a nice job commanding that role.”

As the author of that article, Ryan Van Bibber, put it, that really appears to be the dreaded damning with faint praise.

Going into the draft, Goff was seen as one of the two most certain picks, at least among quarterbacks, along with Carson Wentz, chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles. That’s why both of them commanded very high prices for the teams that mortgaged their draft futures so heavily. Could the general consensus of Goff’s ability have been that wrong?

Perhaps, but given the dismissal of the coaching staff in LA after the season, it is more likely that the real problem is that Jeff Fisher and his staff did a lousy job of developing him, aggravated by the common error of putting most of their chips on one top-level talent and leaving little to build the rest of the roster around him.

Fisher has never shown a lot of acumen for bringing along players, and Goff may just be his most recent as well as one of his biggest failures. Goff was stuck in the exact opposite situation from what Prescott landed in. Dallas had already built a very strong offense, used their first round pick to add Ezekiel Elliott, the leading rusher last year, and above all, had a coaching staff, headed by Jason Garrett, that put every effort into helping him succeed.

It was widely reported how Garrett developed a post-practice routine of staying after with Prescott to toss the football and talk about what was needed from the rookie. This has been continued into this offseason.

This is not the only example of how the Cowboys have successfully invested time and effort into developing their talent. We all are aware of them using three first-round picks over four years on the offensive line, but should not discount the work Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack put into making Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin into the Pro Bowl perennials they have become. And don’t forget how the team once went above and beyond to convince Cole Beasley that he had a future in football, giving them one of the best slot receivers in the game.

More recently, there is the example of Anthony Brown, a 2016 sixth round pick who would be called on to start as injuries affected the secondary. He rose to the challenge, and once again coaching must be considered a large factor there.

Drafting well and/or acquiring talented free agents is extremely important, but so many teams fail to follow up with making those players better. There is also the problem of many teams failing to properly identify players who fit their system, as well as the previously mentioned issue of not surrounding them with enough talent for things to work, but still there is a real problem with many teams treating players as “plug and play” resources. Not all players take coaching well, but teams have to find a way to fix that. Of course, picking players who take instruction eagerly, as Prescott apparently does very well, certainly helps.

The gold standard in the NFL for putting players where they can contribute the most is Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. No matter how much you may hate them, you have to admit that a staff that can win 11 games with Matt Cassel as their quarterback is doing something very right.

The Cowboys are not at Belichickian levels, but they certainly seem to be closer than most of the other teams in the league. Last season was evidence of that. There is continuing skepticism that Dallas can have the same kind of success this year, but remember that the coaching staff returned essentially intact for this season. While the Cowboys did lose some significant contributors from last year, such as Brandon Carr, Barry Church, Morris Claiborne, and Ronald Leary, they added some very talented players to replace them. The odds are good that they can coach the new pieces up to make this team as good or even better than it was last season.

Most critiques of coaching staffs seem to focus on what happens in the games, but wins are forged on the practice field and in the meeting rooms. And Dallas has shown that the coaches are pretty good there.