Friday, May 25, 2012

Cowboys Mailbag 5/25

Make a quick list in your head of the answer to the following question: Who are the best 10 players on the Cowboys roster?

Now, as you fill out that list, consider age, position, ability, and potential if you like. But, the premise is this, imagine you are filling out a list of players you could protect from a season-long injury. Or a list of players you could put on a list that insured you would never lose them to free agency. How ever you place value on a player, we need to identify the Cowboys 10 strongest assets on their roster.

For me, I think the list (with their ages included) goes like this:

1. DeMarcus Ware, 29 (Elite Pass Rusher, dependable, strong character, good age)
2. Tony Romo, 32 (strong QB play is all that matters in the NFL. Romo is quite strong)
3. Brandon Carr, 26 (top corner play is essential and $50m says plenty)
4. Jay Ratliff, 30 (anchor of DL for years)
5. Jason Witten, 30 (dependable, captain, productive)
6. Tyron Smith, 21 (left tackle is key, Smith can be elite)
7. Mo Claiborne, 22 (potential through the roof)
8. Sean Lee, 25 (ability to play-make, lead)
9. Dez Bryant, 23 (not perfect, but can be special)
10. Miles Austin, 27 (still quite dangerous, poor 2011)

As you can see, the Cowboys list of top players has an interesting problem. Especially if you consider that Brandon Carr has just joined the squad. The problem, is that between DeMarcus Ware (born in July of 1982) and Sean Lee (born in July of 1986), the Cowboys have a 4-year gap in this list where there are no players other than Miles Austin who the Cowboys acquired through less than traditional means.

Players born between 1982 and 1986 would be between the ages of 25-29 right now, or basically, what many consider the prime in the NFL (it could be easily argued that the prime is 24-28). Without sounding too dramatic, that is the cloud that is hanging over Valley Ranch at times. People notice the Cowboys are trying to win a league without having their best players in that window. Instead, they have a large chunk that is now out of that window (still productive but not kids anymore) and a large chunk approaching that window (a core for a strong team in a few years).

The point here is that in some ways, this represents the gap between the 2005 draft and the 2010 draft. A place where the Cowboys did not do very well and a place they are trying to recover from to this day.

We had a nice conversation this week on the radio show about how the Cowboys were built. Specifically, as something we have done a few times on the show, who built the Cowboys the best? Who purchased the best groceries? We are all conditioned to understand that the NFL is a league where the teams with the best talent emerge at the top, and if people like Troy Aikman is going to keep saying the Cowboys have as much talent as any team in the league, well, we should see more results.

So, the conversation started with the tried and true discussion of "do the Cowboys really have as much talent as people think" which evolved into my personal theory which I have talked about on several occasions that the Cowboys under Wade Phillips and Jerry Jones had a very "dark period" with talent acquisition.

I think when we look at Jerry Jones as a General Manager, it is easy to divide his time periods into coaching regimes. I am not sure this totally holds water through Chan Gailey and Dave Campo, but with the last three regimes, I think we can see a real difference in draft philosophies and draft hauls from Bill Parcells, Phillips, and Jason Garrett. It could all be a fictional conclusion in my head, but I believe that Parcells was a dominating voice in the draft room and free agency periods from 2003-2006. In 2007, Wade Phillips was in the room and perhaps not nearly as dominating a voice. Regardless of who was making the picks and signings or arguing hard for their cases, either Jerry Jones or Wade Phillips (or both) was replacing the dominating voice of Parcells from 2007-2010. And now, we have a very small and incomplete sample to use for Jason Garrett.

It is interesting to see the effects of the Parcells group, all of these years later. The spine of the team is still from that 2003-2006 window, and unfortunately, there are almost no players on the top shelf of player rankings in the Phillips group.

Take a look:

Players on the current roster from '03-'06: - Players in bold are current starting players
2003 (3) – Romo, Witten (McBriar current pending FA)
2005 (4) - Ladouceur (FA), Ratliff, Spears, Ware
2006 (2) - Austin, Hatcher

In that group, you might have 5 of the best 10 players on the roster? 9 players with Romo, Witten, McBriar, Ratliff, Austin, and Ware certainly key members of your squad for years. Keep in mind that Terence Newman, Bradie James, and Kyle Kosier (FA) also were acquired during this time. Spears has been a starter and Hatcher is coming on. To have that much still in place in 2012 is why Aikman and so many say what they say. The roster looks like it should at the top. Now, if they could supplement it with another wave of quality talent for those from 2007-2010, you would have a team that ranks among the best in talent in the NFL.

But, this is where the system failed:

Players on the current roster acquired from '07-'10:
2007 (3) - Ball, Free, Spencer
2008 (3) - Jenkins, F Jones, Scandrick
2009 (5) - Butler, McGee, Ogletree, Phillips, Sensabaugh (FA)
2010 (9) - Brent, Bryant, Church, Costa, Geathers, Lee, Lissemore, McCray, Parnell

This group must be the absolute core of your squad. Look around the league and this is players who are in the prime of their careers. And yet, the best from this entire bunch of 20 players are probably Dez Bryant and Sean Lee. Then, solid starters Doug Free and Anthony Spencer. Then, marginal starters Felix Jones, Phil Costa, and Gerald Sensabaugh. We should mention Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick as well. The rest?

Beyond that, Almost all of the 2009 and 2010 talent haul is collection of spare parts who likely are running out of time to make an impression on the roster. They are in some cases on expiring deals and will become just names in the media guide from years gone by soon.

And that is the issue, isn't it? If you look at who are the Cowboys most important players, really nobody has fully emerged into their own from that entire Wade Phillips regime. We haven't even mentioned that this is the era when the Roy Williams trade was performed. It was just a dead period in acquiring major pieces. His final draft with Jerry yielded Dez Bryant and Sean Lee. Both appear to be of the Austin/Ratliff quality (Strong Starters for many years) and on their way to a strong career, but Lee has only been a 1-year starter, so we need to see if this sustains. Dez seems on his way, too, but where are other players who are threats to be one of your top 10 players on the roster from this group? Doug Free is close and a promising piece for several more years. But, Anthony Spencer is a player that most people want to replace. Mike Jenkins is on his way out. Felix Jones might be, too, as his deal expires and nobody is sure they want to dump more money on him.

Starting in 2011, we then draw another line for the Jason Garrett Years. On his ledger will go players like Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Mo Claiborne, Brandon Carr, and others. We will see which category he best belongs in - Phillips or Parcells - in a few years. For now, we only look back at those 4 years with Wade Phillips and Jerry and remember some good on-the-field success at times. But, was anybody remembering to spend time going to buy more groceries?

To put any of this on Wade Phillips might be laughable. We have very little proof on the record that Wade was a major influence in the room, other than pictures and anecdotal evidence. But, either Wade was filling the void or Jerry Jones and Stephen were. Either way, the period of time from 2006-2010 is why the Cowboys have a number of holes in 2012 and likely will continue to through 2013 until they have time to rebuild with a series of good years of talent infusion.

And, now, to add more confusion, we have reports like this one that claim the Cowboys are actually quite good at drafting.

Here is an email along these lines:

Hey Bob,

One of the ideas from your Cowboys segment today was once again that we’re not sure that Jerry Jones can successfully run a draft. I think it’s fair to say the implication was that the Cowboys would be a better team if they had a better GM pulling the trigger in the draft. It was a common theme from you and Norm in the actual draft coverage as well.

My problem is the way that the issue is analyzed. It seems the evidence that Jerry is a poor drafter is always Jason Williams in the third, Kwasi in the 4th, etc. But I never hear anyone compare those misses to the number of misses expected in a particular draft. Surely 7 hits is not the expectation each year.

Maybe there’s enough interest for an Ask Sports Sturm, but until then I’m left to notice that the Lindy’s Draft Guide for this year gave each team a grade for their last 5 drafts as a whole. (At least better than a worthless next-day grade). Of note:

Steelers: B-
Patriots: C
Giants: B
Eagles: B
Redskins: C+
Cowboys: B

So the Cowboys have been doing better than some of the franchises that we would be quick to call good drafters, and they are right on par with the other teams in their division. It’s just one study, but it at least makes me wonder whether we should be so sure Jerry has presided over poor drafts lately. I’m sure every team has a long list of draft picks that they’re not happy with.

It seems to me Jerry has had the Cowboys within striking distance the last few years and that’s a good place to be in this NFL. Maybe next year Miles doesn’t lose the ball in the lights.




Thanks for the email, and for pushing several hot buttons!

First, with all due respect to Lindy's or any other draft magazine or newspaper that operates nationally, here is how it works. Those draft grades (which I find laughable since they come out too quickly) are generally always positive in a magazine. Why? Because as a Cowboys fan, you are turning through a few magazines, find a grade that makes you happy, and buy that magazine. It is a simple marketing ploy to get you to spend $5 to read more.

Also, the Forbes study was based largely on starts for your team. Well, this doesn't help anything. If an expansion team has their first draft, because they need starters everywhere, that entire draft class will start. Doesn't mean they are good players. It means the team desperately needed default starters.

We focus on Jason Williams and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah because they are everything that the Jones-Phillips era seemed to do wrong. They projected too many things that cannot be projected. That Felix Jones could be a full-time back even though he had never been a full-time back. Conversion projects like Williams and Ansah instead of taking sure things because they were playing a hunch. Claiming they were spending a draft on special teams. Looking for a tight end need they didn't have so they traded the useful Anthony Fasano on the night before the draft to free up room to take Martellus Bennett in the 2nd round even though he had never been productive in college. And, of course, trading your 2009 draft for Roy Williams even though Williams was going to cost $45m and those draft picks would be younger, cheaper, and cover more holes.

In short, the Jones-Phillips war-room was about throwing "hail mary" passes and not sound high percentage decisions. And I believe many concede that it was a poor time that Cowboys fans hope is over now with Jason Garrett saying more.

Your quote of : "It’s just one study, but it at least makes me wonder whether we should be so sure Jerry has presided over poor drafts lately" is puzzling if you simply soak in the lost years concept on the top of your roster. Pick any strong team, and you will find that a large chunk of their difference makers are in their mid to late 20's.

The Patriots, Steelers, Giants, and Eagles all have misses, too. Everyone does. But, if you can bat with a high enough average, nobody will worry about your misses. However, if your cupboard is bare for 4 straight years, the misses are way too many.

Have a great holiday weekend!

1 comment:

Roger Light, Artist said...

Bob, I always enjoy reading your posts. I think you need to go back and watch some Murray highlights and revisit your top ten Cowboys list, however. I would replace Austin.

Murray took over an entire game and parts of several other games in his rookie year (sans off-season). Look at him run again,I did this yesterday and was shocked by how much of his beastliness I had forgotten. Trust me, by the end of game one, you will have to find a place for Murray. Most likely he will take Austins spot.(and I love Austin, but I do think 2012 is going to be the Murray and Bryant show)