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What happened to gambling, risk-taking Jerry Jones?

The Cowboys’ risk-averse approach to roster-building seems unduly restrained

2017 Oaks Day Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images

The 2018 NFL season officially begins at 4 PM Eastern time Wednesday, signaling the beginning of the annual free-agent frenzy that sees rosters transformed at a dizzying rate. Once again, the Cowboys are not expected to be significant players. This is partly due to the fact the team (as always) has no salary cap room to make any big splashes. (In fact, the team already made a big splash by placing the franchise tag on Demarcus Lawrence. Putting one of 2017’s best pass rushers and edge defenders on the team’s 2018 roster counts as a “big splash” even it’s not as exciting as signing a true free agent.)

But it’s now well-understood that the Cowboys’ front-office disdains big free agent investments, with virtually all big-money contracts going to players drafted and developed in-house. That’s a reasonable strategy as paying retail prices for players on the wrong side of the aging curve rarely yields the expected dividends.

But Dallas doesn’t act in a vacuum. Most teams now recognize that paying players other teams have allowed to hit the FA market probably isn’t the best way to invest precious draft resources. Our own Tom Ryle documented this reality in a recent post.

Instead, many teams are looking to acquire players in other ways, most specifically through the trade market. Here’s the list of players who have moved since the season ended:

Interestingly, virtually every trade was accompanied by the swapping of various mid-and-late round draft picks:

The NFL trade market was once as barren as the Philadelphia Eagle’s trophy case. But just as the Eagles have made a major addition to said case, the NFL trade market has heated up in the last few years. There’s two compelling reasons for this development:

  1. Acquiring a veteran on the back end of a big contract costs much less - in both real dollars and in terms of the salary cap - than actually signing a veteran to a big free agent contract. That’s because the team who originally signed the original contract has already paid the signing bonus and is responsible for the salary cap hit from that bonus. Instead, the team only has to pay - and absorb the salary cap hit - of the player’s annual salaries. If these aren’t guaranteed, it means the team can walk away from the player with no dead money. Teams are increasingly willing to give up mid-to-late round picks to acquire such players.
  2. The reason their trading partners are willing to engage and allow seemingly quality players to walk away for (seemingly) little in return is because something is better than nothing. Man of these traded players would have been “cap casualties” in the past; players who salary hits are so debilitating it was better for the team to simply cut the player, absorb the dead money and move on. If the team can instead get something, anything, in return....well, something is better than nothing.

Which brings us to the Cowboys. Yes, many of us can reluctantly nod our heads and agree that paying retail prices for other teams cast-offs hasn’t proven particularly successful as an overarching strategy. However, it’s bewildering that the team also seems to have the same strategy towards making trades. The Cowboys only noteworthy players acquired through trade the last five years have been Rolando McClain (at the cost of flipping seventh-round draft picks) and Brice Butler (Dallas gave up it’s fifth-round pick and received a sixth-rounder in return).

In other words, the Cowboys employ the exact same tepid, low-risk approach to trades as they do free agency: they’re not going to make a big splash or take any real chances. Instead they’ll make bargain-basement investments and hope to hit the occasional lottery pick (Rolando McClain did start 23 games and provided better than average middle linebacker play during his stint in Dallas).

It’s simply hard to reconcile how a franchise once run by the most daring, swash-buckling owner in professional sports has become a timid, sideline watcher in two major avenues of roster building.

It’s pretty well-documented how the reigning Super Bowl champions used both free agency and the trade market to completely rebuild their roster in only two seasons.

For those counting, that’s 11 of 22 starters who were acquired via free agency or trade in the last two years alone. Yes, some of the free agent moves were classic Cowboys moves (Patrick Robinson for $750K anyone?) but they also mixed in some mid-to-high tier signings (Torrey Smith, Alshon Jeffrey, Nick Foles) and of course made a number of key trade acquisitions.

And guess what? Cowboys fans old enough to remember have seen similar results. Those dominating early 90’s squads were built on a foundation of high draft picks, many acquired via trade. That’s probably not news to many people, but it might surprise many to learn that nine major contributors to the 1992 Super Bowl team started their careers with other teams. Most were acquired via trade; Jay Novacek was acquired via Plan B free agency.

Allegedly, the Cowboys made more trades during that era than all other teams combined (at least that’s what I’ve read; I’ve never understood how that could be possible because the Cowboys had to be trading with someone). Regardless, there’s no question that those Cowboys embraced risk and were willing to make trans-formative actions that eventually led to multiple Super Bowl wins.

Where did that Jerry Jones go? He’s been a risk-taker throughout his life, first as a businessman and later as an NFL owner. Since Jason Garrett became head coach the team has made a complete 180 in it’s risk tolerance. They’ve gone from yes-men throwing money at to an elderly miser hoarding cash in the pillowcase. (Sidenote: if you check out a list of the dumbest era ideas, virtually all of have come to successful fruition one way or another; turns out the ideas were ahead of their time).

Yes, I and many other fans grew despondent over Jerry taking dumb risks (see Joey Galloway, O.J. Santiago, Roy Williams, etc.). But if the team is determined to avoid free agent risks and trade risks they’re largely left with only the draft to acquire high-ceiling players. But a good draft will usually yield only 2, maybe 3 quality players. You can get lucky and have a draft where 4+ players contribute but more than 1-2 impact players is a rarity for any team.

The Cowboys deserve credit for a couple players that were acquired through non-draft transactions. David Irving was toiling on the Chiefs’ practice squad when the Cowboys moved to bring him to Dallas. Similarly, La’el Collins went undrafted in 2015 despite projecting as a first-round talent; the Dallas front-office made an aggressive, full-court press to lure Collins as a cheap, rookie free agent and the move has paid off well.

The team deserves applause for bringing both players to Dallas while spending virtually nothing in terms of draft capital or salary cap hits. But if the team refuses to engage in either the free agent or trade markets they will continue to depend on hitting such lottery type results like Irving and Collins to stock a Super Bowl-caliber roster.

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