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Virtual improvement: How the online draft worked so well for the Cowboys

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A potential source of problems actually led Dallas to play to their strengths.

2020 NFL Draft - Round 1
Turns out a yacht makes for one sweet office.
Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images

The apprehension was quite real. As the NFL conducted a draft under unprecedented conditions, there was a bit of breath-holding going on. Would things come apart in chaos? Could hackers disrupt everything? Most often asked, were some decidedly tech unfriendly NFL staff going to make some huge or embarrassing mistakes? No one was sure what to expect.

And what happened was perhaps the least expected thing of all. The draft not only went off with hardly a hitch, it left many wondering “Why don’t we do it like this all the time?” Without the big sets, glitzy production, and hyperactive audience participation, the draft was somehow more intimate and accessible, and frankly enjoyable. It wasn’t just those watching/listening/following online who thought things turned out pretty well. There were many teams that also felt the process was much better at their level.

While some teams certainly were able to persist in making less than optimal decisions during the draft (I’m looking at you, Green Bay and Philadelphia), count the Dallas Cowboys as one team that found the virtual draft environment very much to their liking. They came out with one of the most universally praised draft hauls in the league, and did it with only seven picks and mediocre positioning within the rounds. Now, I’m not going to suggest that having to disperse the staff and dissolve the war room made a significant and positive difference for Dallas.

I’m going to flatly state that it absolutely did.

Let’s start with the assertion in the tweet above, that less participation was not a bad thing. For the Cowboys, that may be the biggest aspect of this. Specifically, all indications are that Will McClay and his scouts were given the task of not only building the draft board, but of largely running things. What we may have seen is as clear and coherent a process as has happened in decades.

There are a variety of reasons why that is so, but let’s start with a common phrase: Coaches pounding the table for a player. This is an outgrowth of how coaches and scouts have views of players that can vary greatly from each other. One big difference is that scouts look for evidence on video of what a player actually did on the field, while coaches can lock in on certain traits like burst or size or hand usage. Coaches tend to focus too much on the individual player without considering how he stands up to the competition. Then there is the thing that really gets coaches off track, the belief that “I can coach this guy up!” The player may have horrid technique and no idea what he is doing, but all the coach sees is a big, strong guy who, given a chance, just wins with brute strength or speed, and thinks they are going to turn him into the next Von Miller or DeMarcus Ware.

Why do I mention a couple of the best pass rushers this century? Well, because I, at least, have a strong suspicion that this is something that happened with Rod Marinelli during his time with the Cowboys. He had very specific traits he wanted, and he fought like crazy to get them. While they are not entirely on him, his rather rigid profile of a defensive lineman seems to have an awful lot to do with the drafting of Taco Charlton and Trysten Hill.

This year, that went away. It’s hard to pound on a desk via a 23 inch monitor. Suddenly, that macho posturing and bluster is almost completely nullified. And there is no just walking into a scout’s workspace to harangue him with why Bubba Ray Mushmouth is a lot better than the scout, who has broken down and dissected every play of every game Bubba ever played, thinks.

And there is another, kind of uncomfortable, thing involved here. If you have even been involved in a situation where people at the same level of an organization disagree, you know that who gets their way is not the smartest, the one with the best argument, or the most valuable to the endeavor. Usually, it is whoever yells the loudest and refuses to back down. In other words, the one that pounds the table.

Many coaches were once players, and they innately understand the language of intimidation and bluster. Backing down someone who opposes you is grafted into their souls. Scouts, well, not always so much. And an area scout, for instance, doesn’t hold quite the same power as, say, a linebacker coach anyway. If the two are on opposite sides of a judgment about a player, there is a real risk that the coach will win just because he is more forceful, or louder.

Not only did the enforced social distancing make it harder to use force of personality to get your way, it changed the entire communication dynamic. Remember that most communication is nonverbal. Although the frequently cited figure of 93% has been debunked as a misunderstanding of the study it came from, and the actual figure is pretty much impossible to determine, nonverbal communication is still quite important. The problem with doing things in the virtual environment is that a lot of that nonverbal stuff is muted or lost. Body language is pretty much out of sight. Gestures similarly only show up within range of the camera used. Movement, like moving closer in a classic intimidation tactic, is impossible. All that last does is make you look like you don’t know how to use your equipment when you are talking into a computer.

Besides, when all else fails, the mute button is undefeated. Just nod your head a lot, and they may never figure out they are shouting into the void.

And if you are using voice only, all you have left is tone of voice, which frankly doesn’t come across as vividly over those itty bitty speakers in your laptop (which may explain all the headsets seen during the draft.) Oh, wait, what if you are having to have a quick discussion of the merits of a player via text?

All of a sudden, careful and accurate word choice becomes more important. Being able to explain a position and support it with hard data and facts is crucial. Perhaps most importantly, you don’t have to include everyone in the discussion.

There’s also that thing called groupthink. A big meeting seeking a consensus can be taken over, once again, by the loudest voices. At some point, the dissenters start to buy in, or at least don’t raise their objections any more. With virtual meetings, the number of participants tends to be smaller. The decision making process should be better.

Well, as long as you have good people making the decisions. That is where this situation played right into the Cowboys’ strengths. McClay is believed to have assembled one of the best scouting staffs in the league, and is an outstanding leader of that bunch. The universal elements of the move to dispersed operations and virtual meetings probably forced all NFL teams to have to rely much more on their scouting staffs. If that wasn’t enough, the sudden ending of all pro days and personal visits should have done it. That is great when the scouts are established and respected, already having authority within the staff.

That is exactly what already existed in Dallas. It was easy for Jerry and Stephen Jones to trust McClay, because they had worked with him for years.

Oh, and as excited as they are about the new head coach, he’s only been around for less than four months - and if most of it hasn’t been during the time of social distancing, that point will be crossed soon. Mike McCarthy may generate enthusiasm, but trust is one way McClay has a big advantage.

There is also a belief that McCarthy was more inclined to let the scouts take the lead than his predecessor. It has emerged that Jason Garrett was more hands on with the draft process than many realized. McCarthy came from an organization with the Green Bay Packers where the separation of powers model was used. The GM selected the players, and the coach had to figure it out with not much input beforehand. It seems that McCarthy’s desire to have more input, which was one thing that made the Cowboys attractive to him, is nicely balanced by his desire to not mess up what is working well. The Dallas draft class shows clear direction from the coaching staff, but once that direction was made clear, the scouts were not getting a lot of mid-course correcting.

And maybe in the future Jerry needs to spend more time on that yacht during draft season. There may be no logical explanation for exactly why all the aspects of this worked so well for this team. But let’s hope they do whatever they can to recreate it in the future.

The real key is that the people most qualified to make personnel decisions, coincidentally known collectively as the personnel department, were not just empowered, they were unimpeded.

One thing that we will never know is how this would have gone if it had happened a year earlier under the previous regime. I would predict it would still have been a better process, but not quite as much, largely because that pre-draft direction would have retained some of the old flaws, like more emphasis on running backs, linebackers, and tight ends.

The marked improvement in results clearly didn’t happen for all teams. But there are some reasons to think that the Cowboys weren’t the only ones who benefited. The tweet shown above is one exhibit. Another is the surprisingly competent job done by Washington. Even Dan Snyder may have been reeled in by all this.

This was, of course, not the only thing that made this such a great draft for Dallas. There was a lot of luck involved in having so many players that were projected higher wind up dropping to them. Some other teams came up with entirely different evaluations, which is just how the draft goes. It all combined to make for what looks to be an outstanding draft crop.

Will the lessons learned here be completely forgotten when the NFL resumes its big draft extravaganzas? We don’t know, but that return to the big event will definitely happen. That is too big a revenue generator.

But maybe the idea of creating more physical separation during the process is a good one. Cut down the people in the draft room and continue to rely more on video communications. Encourage or even insist that the coaches work from home. Keep McClay’s hand strong. Don’t let the coaches try to bully and intimidate to get their way.

We can only hope. Because a couple of more drafts similar to this one could make for a monster of a roster.