Ownership, QBs, and perspective

The glory that is suggested-article algorithms recently guided me to this article on the tenure of Eagles owner Jeff Lurie. The positive sentiment (presented from the perspective of an "older" Eagles fan who remembers 16 straight non-winning seasons) certainly won't receive universal agreement, but the comments section of the article generally felt that the take was a fair one.

That had me thinking about perspective. We all know that recent Cowboy history is, at best, disappointing, and by extension there has been dissatisfaction (to be generous) regarding Cowboy owner Jerry Jones. And that's actually an upswing, given that there have been outright rough stretches at earlier times in his own tenure. We don't need anyone to lay out Jones's unquestionable warts, nor is anyone going to get far trying to wave off any and all criticism of the owner.

But people often suffer in their judgements due to a lack of context; that's the source of the saying "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence". It never hurts to see what one "other side" looks like, to then hold up to our own greenway. That's the idea of this, let's do it!

The Meat-And-Potatoes Comparison

The fact-based centerpiece of the linked article is as follows:

"What sometimes seems to be taken for granted by a few generations of Eagles fans is just how good this team has been under owner Jeff Lurie.

In the 28 years Lurie has owned the Eagles, since he bought the franchise from frugal Norman Braman in April 1994, the team has failed to win [at least five games] a mere three times. The Eagles finished their 17th winning season in 2021 under Lurie’s stewardship, which included two .500 seasons, and nine losing seasons."

What would that bit look like for the Cowboys over the same period? Failed to win at least 5 games 1 time, with 15 winning seasons and 8 losing ones. All told, it's rather similar, just banded a little closer to the "middle" with fewer winning and very losing seasons. Extend it to Jones's entire 33 year tenure, and the numbers become 2, 18, and 10, respectively. In general, we're talking about two franchises that have spent roughly a generation being notably competitive by fielding winning teams quite a bit more often than losers, while also avoiding "terrible" teams.

Appreciating "What Have You Done For Me Lately?"

People, for good reason, tend to care more about the most recent results than they do the equally-weighted overall. For one, it's fresher in our minds, hearts, and so on - for another, the more recent past better informs what is more likely to happen going forward (and near-future expectations also feed our present satisfaction or lack thereof).

The Eagles and Cowboys both, conveniently, experienced something of a rework in the early part of the decade. The Cowboys let go Wade Phillips and continued (then soon finished) the transition from the Parcells era in 2010, while the Eagles after a dozen seasons of major success under future HOFer Andy Reid saw the end of his era as he became understandably distracted and worn down by personal matters and the team slide and then fell to reflect it.

How do the two franchises compare since then?
Eagles, 2013-present
6 winning seasons
3 losing seasons (1 failed to win at least 5 games)
5 playoff appearances
4-4 record in the playoffs (1-4 outside of 2017, more on that to come)
78-66-1 overall record

Cowboys, 2013-present
5 winning seasons
2 losing seasons (1 failed to win at least 5 games)
4 playoff appearances
2-4 record in the playoffs
82-63 overall record

Lately, overall, the two franchises have been rather similar. Again, they have solidly won more than they have lost, have reduced weaker teams and minimized bad teams, and have seen mixed playoff results. The biggest differentiators have been Dallas's 3 seasons with 12+ wins (Philadelphia has enjoyed just 1 team with 11+ wins) along with Philadelphia's 2017 playoff run. That last bit is especially significant when it comes to emotional satisfaction, though the small-sample nature of it should be evaluated separately when we're looking at overall results - which point to these two franchises having done good work this past near-decade, but not great.

The Context Of What Came Before

Before we get to the most important item, it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves what each owner was working off of when he purchased his team. While the linked article did reference Philadelphia's woeful dark ages, it did not speak to the franchise's reversal of fortune from there. The Eagles rapidly escaped that long stretch of non-winning seasons with four straight playoff appearances, including a Super Bowl appearance. Zooming in closer to Lurie's entrance, the Eagles won double digit games in 5 straight seasons from 1988 to 1992, and only slid a bit to 8-8 in their final pre-Lurie season. He inherited his head coach (Rich Kotite) whom he kept on for a year, and the roster had plenty of pieces that were part of 10 win playoff teams in 1995 and 1996.

As we all know, things had a rougher outlook in 1989 when Jerry Jones came calling. Legendary head coach Tom Landry had played out his string and the time had come for him to move on, which Jones "facilitated" (albeit perhaps in a less than ideal manner). The roster was also in major decline, with the team having suffered 3 straight losing seasons, including a 3-13 plummet in 1988. Rather than limp around, Jones and new head coach Jimmy Johnson implemented a radical rework, bottoming out for one 1-15 season before triggering a rapid ascent. Neither owner had an ideal setup to begin with, but we shouldn't forget that Jones had it objectively tougher.

The Crux Of The Matter: Playoff Success

In the overall, especially accounting for what his franchise was starting off with, Jones has led suitably satisfying results. 16 playoff appearances in 32 seasons are a very good regular season start (especially when contrasted with just 9 losing seasons), and nobody will complain about 3 championships. That beats out the Lurie Eagles by a decent margin.

The infamous trouble with the Jones-era Cowboys is that playoff success has been concentrated to the early run. This is exhibited most starkly by comparing to a factoid from the linked Lurie article:

[Since 2001], the Eagles made the playoffs 12 times, appeared in three NFC championships, won one NFC title and one Super Bowl.

Dallas's figures over the same span? An okay 8 playoff appearances, 0 NFC championship games, and of course 0 and 0 to follow. Well now!

The Cowboys have not won enough in the playoffs since early in Jones's tenure, full stop. Part of that is due to two separate periods (sandwiched around the Bill Parcells era) when Jerry Jones by all indications was fully running the front office show, and the results reflected...that he wasn't equipped to be fully running the show. The man ultimately in charge, delegating to others? Different story, but when he's been the true puppeteer decline has followed.

But this begs the question of the "right" way to look at extended periods of ownership. Held up in absolute full, these two franchises compare reasonably similarly, with Dallas standing out primarily from more big-win teams and from being able to finish two more playoff runs. While the "since 2001" difference is starkly in the favor of the Eagles, that makes sense from a selective sample basis given that we're talking all but two seasons under the second-best-results head coach of this millennium. Jimmy Johnson came at the start of Jones's tenure (and thus his tenure is best early on), and Reid came in the middle of Lurie's, thus concentrating success during that time. Having great head coaches produces better results - not much of a novel concept there, eh?

2016 and 2017 - The Edge Of A Knife

So if the overall reflect comparable results, and the same holds true for the most recent ones as well, why the different take on the stewardship of these two owners? Naturally, Jones took on the added weight of a franchise with a superlative legacy, and the failure to extend that legacy for some time now matter more than it does for...well, most NFL franchises. That's more emotion that objective comparison, but it isn't to be dismissed.

But there is one outstanding item in the recency pool to cover: Philadelphia's 2017 championship. Recall that, along with many other similar results since 2013, the two teams have generally struggled to put runs together once making the playoffs, with Dallas being 2-4 in the postseason overall and Philadelphia being 1-4 outside of 2017. But...2017 did happen. The Eagles won a championship, the ultimate goal. There is no taking that achievement away - the one fair question to ask is: just how much stock we put in this, in terms of ownership process? How much are championships, and playoff runs in general, in the control of owners and/or those who run the team?

For example, both the 2016 Cowboys and 2017 Eagles earned bye weeks and homefield advantage with great seasons, the best for each franchise for some time. The Cowboys famously met defeat in their first game, when they tied the game late and then suffered a dagger from all-time-great Aaron Rodgers. The Eagles, meanwhile, were on their heels up 5 points but with the Falcons holding 1st-and-goal in their own first game. Two great regular seasons, two good playoff setups, two opening games that came down to coin flips at the very end. Don't believe me? Check out the Win Probabilities for each at their appropriate times:

For all intents and purposes, these games could have gone either way. Philly's went its way; Dallas's didn't. We'll never know what the Cowboys would have done had they emerged victorious from their battle, but this is often the margin of difference in the NFL - and illustrates further how similarly these teams have performed recently. The 2017 Eagles were no team of destiny, and the 2016 Cowboys were not fated to fall short; this is just how the one single outcome went.

Going outside the past decade (as there have been no other playoff runs for either franchise in that span), the next most recent NFC Championship appearance was for the Eagles in 2008, under Reid. Impressive work on their part? Well...for one, they were just 9-6-1 that season, and so barely even qualified for the postseason tourney. They did beat the Vikings and Giants, but that loses some sheen when those opponents are investigated: the Vikings were a defense-oriented 10-6 team ranked just 17th in DVOA (so, perfectly average), and while the Giants had had a great season overall they were on the skids going back to when star WR Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in a nightclub - an 11-1 start yielded to losing 3 out of their final 4 games (the win coming in OT) before they quietly bowed out against the Eagles. Heck, the Eagles arguably dropped the ball in the Conference Finals given their opponent, a 9-7 21st-ranked DVOA Cardinals team that had barely won an awful NFC West. While the Eagles had put a "run" together, they had been fortunate to even make the playoffs and then had benefited from an easy route to wins (6 of the top 8 DVOA teams that year came from the AFC), which limits their personal credit.

That's something that so many overlook about NFL playoff success, and why we have to be careful before we assign too much team-performance judgement to fickle postseason outcomes. Consider that the linked article notes that the Eagles are one of a handful of teams that have made the playoffs in 4 of the past 5 seasons - impressive, no? Well, actually no - all but 1 of those teams won just 9 games. In fact, the Eagles have won 9 games 4 times in Lurie's tenure, and made the playoffs all 4 times!

The Cowboys? They too have won exactly 9 regular season games under the Jones ownership. Their number of playoff appearances in those seasons? 1. Fickle indeed, no?

And we don't have to go far from these two teams for other examples of how much of an impact randomness and luck can impact the playoff fate of teams: the division rival Giants have not once but twice put together recent championship runs (2007, 2011) with good fortune you'd be hard-pressed to surpass. So it goes!

One More Eagles Comp For Cowboys Fans To Consider

In putting this post together, I observed an curious aspect of Philadelphia's history that felt...rather familiar. Coming off their 1980 Super Bowl appearance, the Eagles began a 20 year stretch that still involved plenty of general success but also was stuck with the same current-Cowboy bugaboo: a lack of an NFC Championship appearance.

Over those 20 seasons, the Eagles made the playoffs 8 times, and they had their ups and downs. There were 10 losing seasons, including a stretch of 6 in a row, and 9 seasons of 10+ wins, including 5 in a row. Beyond failing to put a single true playoff run together, the franchise also went 3-8 in the playoffs over that span. Dallas's past two decades have also yielded 8 playoff appearances, plus 5 losing seasons (that one's not so bad), 7 10+ win years, and...a 3-8 postseason record. That's rather oddly similar, again.

Looking at Philadelphia's end in this pairing, it's worth noting that this extended history of inability to get over the hump suddenly backed off hard. The Eagles were arguably the class of the NFC over the next 4 seasons, breaking the NFC Championship Game glass by making it to 4 in a row, including emerging for a Super Bowl at the end of the grouping. Even falling short for a while falls in line with the "luck of the draw" aspect of the playoffs, as the 2001 Eagles went down to the monster "we have a defense now" Greatest Show On Turf Rams and the 2002 Eagles fell to a team-of-destiny Buccaneer squad that had itself been trying to shed recent oh-so-closes before paying through the nose for Jon Gruden to come and help them clear the last hurdle. Philly blew it to the 2003 Panthers, but the 2004 Eagles were the best of the bunch - a horse-collar-tackle-caused ankle injury (courtesy of Dallas's Roy Williams, whose habit led to a rule outlawing the action) perhaps being the difference in the championship game. There's that edge of the knife, again.

The Cowboy-centric Takeaway

All this, including and especially that last bit, promises diddly squat in terms of the Cowboys changing their post-dynasty stars. But it shows that it can be done - and has been, by a franchise under ownership who has overseen not-dissimilar performance. It says something about the nature of this game and league that those impressive Reid Eagles were never able to grab that ring, only for the franchise to impressively and suddenly overcome the damage of the Chip Kelly era to have so much come together in the right way in 2017.

As has been said, "the past is prologue" and "what's done is done". Some try to look for mortal flaws in the ownership oversight that dooms the Cowboys to some magical ceiling, but looking wider that isn't what we see in the NFL. Some spike for short times, some get lucky, some do all the right things and fall short, some do mostly the right things enough times and then see a run emerge here or there...and some, despite doing more of the right things than not, remain stalled. For now. History says it sometimes actually gets worse before it gets better, and often enough just when the pattern appears set it breaks for the better. It's not that the Cowboys have gotten the job done - they have not - but perhaps they have not been as far as it feels and the breakthrough is more likely to suddenly happen than realized.

A caveat: make sure to not get this post's message wrong by seeing it as praising the Cowboys and especially Jerry Jones. If anything, this comp codifies what is widely understood: that the Cowboys in every way have not been a part of the class of the NFL for some time now. It could be worse than being relevant and second-class for an extended stretch, but ultimately that's not satisfying. The perspective here is that the Eagles and Cowboys, for all their dislike of each other, are almost brothers in terms of results, with the biggest differences stemming from minor in-season margin of error and the vagaries of the playoffs over shorter periods of time (because, if one widens the window enough, even Jerry Jones has more than gotten the job done there). There is owner Lurie, who motivated a writer to write an article that had most people generally agreeing. And, more recently, there is GM Howie Roseman, who is generally praised as one of the best GMs in the sport. Widening the net, GM Chris Ballard of the Colts is almost universally regarded as one of the best in the business, and that has still resulted in (waving off year one, when he inherited a roster needing some rework and didn't have his QB for the season) a 37-28 Indianapolis record plus 2 playoff appearances but just a 1-2 playoff record over the past four years. Pretty Cowboy-like, all things considered. Maybe these guys are all less separated than we tend to think? Food for thought.

A Bonus Bit Of Perspective: Quarterbacks, Homework, and Dak Prescott

Earlier this week it hit the news reports that Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray had finally received his big second contract. The extension itself is a nice little deal: 5 new years averaging $46.1M with $104.3M guaranteed as signing and the same sort of rolling guarantees (guaranteeing next year's money at the beginning of the prior season) that Patrick Mahomes put into his deal that aren't fully guaranteed at signing but functionally make cutting the player all the more difficult.

But, for we Cowboy fans at least, that isn't the interesting part. After all, the numbers largely represent the continued progression of Franchise QB pay as the cap and league salaries steadily, annually climb. No, what is of interest is: Murray's contract includes a clause requiring him to study tape for 4 hours a week during the season.

The Cardinals and Murray's camp can try to explain that away all they want, but the implication is clear: the Cardinals felt it necessary to contractually motivate Murray to engage in what seems like a rather minimal amount of tape study during the season. While he's being paid oodles of millions of dollars. As noted in the hyperlinked PFT post, this clause is reportedly unprecedented. My personal favorite part is that the clause doesn't just call for tape study but explicitly notes that playing tape while also doing something else such as watching TV or playing video games doesn't count. Seems like a rather knowing caveat to me.

In Murray's own words: "I think I was blessed with the cognitive skills to just go out there and just see it before it happens. I’m not one of those guys that’s going to sit there and kill myself watching film. I don’t sit there for 24 hours and break down this team and that team and watch every game because, in my head, I see so much." Well, there it is then. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady...those guys are either suckers or just not so gifted. #BeTheHype

(Edit: after publishing this, I heard Bill Polian come on a radio program, and he shared his take that it blows his mind that any QB in today's NFL could struggle to study tape 4+ hours a week during the season. The number is hard to believe, but it is his understanding that Manning and Brady watch tape somewhere in the order of 25 hours a week, to give context. Wowza, both for them and for Murray! He also cited Lincoln Riley admitting that Murray wasn't much for the study room, meaning that nobody is especially denying all of this. Final interesting observation from Polian: one "young exec" told him that he thinks the likes of Murray and Baker Mayfield are a new generation of player, one who takes a more NBA player sort of attitude to his profession. He was quick to note that this wasn't mean to be a shot at an entire generation, but rather that there is a subset of players who are emerging with a similar mindset, one that is more about brand and playing as personally desired. Hmm.)

The point of highlighting this - other than that I haven't seen it brought up on BTB yet and it's pretty amusing even all by itself - is to hold it in contrast to what we know about Dak Prescott. No matter what we think about the exact level of Prescott's play (and I'm not trying to offer him hyper praise or anything, and he has his weaknesses to go with his strengths), I think we can all agree that Prescott puts the dang work in. Hopefully, all Cowboy fans can also admit that this is something worth appreciating about the QB.

Don't forget, back when Prescott was a prospect the main hesitation regarding his NFL future was that he was considered particularly raw. It's why he fell to the late-middle part of the draft despite offering plenty of upside. Prescott hadn't played in a sophisticated, NFL-read offense, he ran a lot, his mechanics and footwork needed polish (still ongoing, but much improved), and heck, he even had minimal experience taking snaps from directly under center. Some may forget, but even that last bit was the subject of some concern entering training camp in 2016 - only to have it quickly vanish when Prescott demonstrated that he had worked to make sure there were no troubles there. And then he went out and lit the preseason on fire, despite being elevated to QB2 out of necessity and despite few QB2s ever looking so impressive in the preseason. And then he was dropping to the deep end from Week 1 onward due to an injury to Tony Romo, and yet showed he immediately belonged.

It doesn't matter how much supporting-cast help Prescott received; no amount of help will carry a passer to be as effective and efficient as Prescott was that season. And that goes for all passers, including the ones who ostensibly were more "NFL ready" in their time. Prescott was widely seen as not remotely ready, and "hard work" is the usual explanation for such a pleasant surprise. The QB has since further verified his this, showcasing ample effort to the point that his reputation for it around the league is essentially unquestioned.

Again, don't take this to mean Prescott is the best of the best, beyond criticism, or anything like that. Don't even take this as an urging to embrace Prescott totally, wagging a finger if you would dare desire a Tier 1 passer. Nope, if that's what you wish for, it's absolutely fair. But it doesn't matter how purely talented a QB is - one who doesn't of his own accord feel a fire to watch tape is one who doesn't get the value of the exercise, and in today's NFL that leaves no chance of getting the job done. Prescott gets it, seemingly to the degree of the Mannings and Bradys and even the Romos. That's at least one thing we can be happy about with him, and without any qualifiers.

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