Amazingly, as we hit the final day of July, we've also arrived at our very first "game week" of the Cowboys' season. Now, I should confess that this feels really weird and premature. Not only is the game a week before all other games in the NFL, but in its unquestioned wisdom, the league actually took a game that is early enough as it is and moved it three nights earlier than usual, from a Sunday night festivity to Thursday night.
It's probably 10 days and maybe two full weeks before it needs to be played. But, I am sure they have their reasons and it isn't going to change. The arrangements have been made, and the plane will leave Oxnard, Calif., for Canton, Ohio, on Wednesday.
That means on some level -- likely a far lower level than you would prefer -- we can start to see some live action between the Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals. These two teams will actually meet again, in a game of pretty great consequence, on Sept. 25 (Week 3) in Arizona, the Cowboys' lone Monday Night appearance this season. But, that night and Thursday night won't have much else in common, as surely both teams will be trying to hide their top 25-30 players from the game, and injuries, as much as possible in the preseason opener.
So, this seems like a fine spot to cover some ground about roster construction and how we approach the preseason games with regards to building a team, and knowing when a job is really in jeopardy vs. details that won't amount to too much in six weeks time. The above team picture of the first version of a Cowboys roster will serve as a reminder of what is at stake for all of the men who are on the field every day here in Oxnard.
There are 90 players in camps for all NFL teams. You should know that this is the very first year when the league has no cutdown before cutdown day. Sept. 2 will be the only date for cuts and it should be amazing, as nearly 1,200 players will be released on the exact same day throughout the league. Then, teams will have 24 hours to submit their waiver claims of other teams' cuts and by Sept. 4, we will have an idea who is where.
Now, this thrill is lessened by the realities of these roster competitions. We have a hard time admitting this reality, but there aren't 90 guys who have a chance to make the Cowboys' roster in camp right now. Or 80. Or 70. Depending on who you ask, there may not even be 65. There are probably between 60-65 players who have even a slight chance to make the final 53. Contracts and investments make almost all of the decisions, and therefore teams are simply going to rely on those prior decisions in almost all cases on who to keep and who to expose/cut free to the rest of the football world.
That doesn't mean there's nothing at stake. There are plenty of players competing to make the practice squad or make themselves appealing to the rest of the league by putting good preseason tape out there, but I do think it is important to note that the Cowboys' front office could narrow down the roster to about 60 names right now. They don't need six weeks to do it. Heck, they don't even need six weeks to prepare their team for battle, but we do it because of tradition and because it is something we just do as football people. But, they could cut training camp in half and you would likely not see much difference by Week 1 in how the teams look or prepare themselves. The athletes are in top condition year-round now, so the only thing a longer camp seems to accomplish is expose athletes to injury more and collect consumer dollars with exhibition games at regular-season prices.
So, below, you will find your current Cowboys roster on my pre-folded Cowboys roster sheet:
So, as you watch the preseason games from your locations around the country (or world), you can begin to make alterations as we go. Like I said, you could probably start to cut guys right now and get down to 60-65 yourself. I liked Rudy, too, but there just aren't more than a couple of stories of guys making the team from out of nowhere like we want to believe. And those who do are almost always special teams guys, third-string quarterbacks, or someone they are scared to cut and slide through to the practice squad. Sometimes this happens, but most of the time, players who sneak onto the roster have no real role on the offense or defense in-season.
Now, take a look at this chart:
This will really help you on your path to figuring out who is going to be in the mix and who else will fall victim to the numbers game. As you can plainly see, we can really find the annual trends on how many players are carried from each grouping each year. Obviously, 2007 data won't be terribly useful -- league trends, scheme changes and different decision makers -- but 2014-16 data should be closely observed.
Once you know this team generally goes 25 offense, 25 defense and three specialists, you can start to jot on your legal pad the list of players who "have no chance of not making the final 53 barring a massive injury," players "who are legitimately on the bubble," and, finally, players "who have almost no chance of making the team." That final category is harshly named, but the truth is sometimes harsh, and I believe it is OK to write frankly in this space about what we know to be true.
Now, you can take a look at how the 25 and 25 broke down when the rosters were settled last season:
The offense has eight players gone from last year and must replace them -- including one starter in Doug Free (and another starter in Ron Leary, who was not that when camp broke last season). Clearly, they have some fine internal solutions, and between Leary and Free, they will have a couple of spots for the O-line's depth chart to change. Jonathan Cooper has one of those spots in his sights. The other has quite a few potential names.
Ryan Switzer replaces Lucky Whitehead, James Hanna returns, Rico Gathers has a real chance to step in for Gavin Escobar, Kellen Moore and Darren McFadden step back into their spots after injuries kept them out of the final 53 last season, and beyond that, there may be one or two other spots on the entire offense. There just aren't any vacancies, unless the team decides to go lighter on fullbacks (who really weren't fullbacks as much as they were special teams pillars) or move on from Chaz Green (which seems possible, but unlikely at this juncture).
To the defense:
We also have eight names to replace on defense.
So, this is a bit confusing because DeMarcus Lawrence wasn't listed last year (suspension) and David Irving and Damontre Moore won't be listed this year (suspensions), but Irving will definitely make the team and Moore very possibly will. Stephen Paea is in for Terrell McClain, Taco Charlton will be there, of course, and I expect Joey Ivie is very likely to make the team up front. Charles Tapper is back in from his injury, too.
I assume Justin Durant is merely Jaylon Smith insurance and there is a spot for a special teams ace to replace Andrew Gachkar. Damien Wilson is another suspension possibility (sigh) and everything else in the front seven seems pretty locked down.
Now, the secondary. Out go five players -- Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church, along with fringe special teams guy Dax Swanson from last year.
In comes Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods from the draft. Nolan Carroll has been signed and is going to start. That likely leaves one of Robert Blanton, Leon McFadden, sixth-round pick Marquez White and a few others to grab the final spot.
All of these projections go out the window if there is a big injury, but as you can see, otherwise, there just aren't any jobs available. Everyone else is hoping for a practice squad spot or some unforeseen opportunity that may spring up.
It is so hard to make an NFL roster, and even harder to do so for a team that won 13 games last year and has a young roster.
But hopefully this write-up gives you an idea of what we are looking at before the five preseason games introduce us to a handful of players who perform well and work their way onto the radar. We have seen countless players do this and still get cut in the end, but once in a while, they break all the way through to the other side of Labor Day with the big team.
Good luck to them, because they are going to need it.
Allow me to now pay them some compliments in what might be a far more important component in how they do business. This ties into a wonderful, clear and new trend that has been found during the Jason Garrett tenure as head coach.
The Cowboys are now among the very best at home-grown talent. This simply means players they have discovered. These are players who have never played elsewhere (strictly defined as having never played a game in another uniform). They now successfully draft and/or sign out of college the majority of their own players. According to our research from last season, the Cowboys trailed only the Green Bay Packers in this category (49), among all of the teams in the NFL that we surveyed. The Cowboys had 43 homegrown players on their 53-man roster last year, which compares quite favorably to many of the key teams on your radar.
Inside the NFC East, the Giants had 30, the Redskins 29, the Eagles 27. All three of those teams have really needed to rely on other teams' players and have either been involved in a massive roster overhaul recently (Eagles, Redskins) with new people switching the direction of the build or a massive cash outlay in free agency (Giants) to try to sort out some problems of equal size.
Some of the notable names around the league also fall well short of the Cowboys current trend: Seattle was at 39 last season. Atlanta 31, New England 38, and Pittsburgh came in at 36. Now, obviously, it should be pointed out that there is no magic to this formula. A team with 31 can still go to the Super Bowl and you can, of course, build a very powerful team while not subscribing to this strategy.
But, I have tracked this trend over the years and there are two benefits to being on the list of teams that are in the top 10 on this list year after year.
1) The list of teams that have the most homegrown players on their roster seems to correlate in a larger sample to long-term winning. Every time we assemble this list, we see that the teams who consistently win are also the teams that do not resort to free agency or the waiver wire to fill gaps in their squad. It happens to everyone, but those who rely on it do not win consistently. New England, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Seattle are the four teams that annually are the most "home-grown" since I started charting this in 2009 and they also have been in the playoffs regularly.
2) The list of teams who draft and sign their own talent out of college then have a magnificent advantage of extending those players to team-friendly contracts can help you manage your salary cap and your expenditures to keep your team together for years to come. There are limitations - Seattle has found that out the hard way as they have signed too many players to "top of the charts" deals and have not had enough money elsewhere to fill all holes. But if you do this right, you can keep your core well past their 30th birthdays and not have to panic-buy in free agency to fix problems very often.
Collins is a tremendous talent and one I thought was among the very best players in that draft - a sure first-rounder. Through a series of events that no doubt rocked his world, he went from that status to undrafted with a bizarre link to a murder case right before the draft. Once he was cleared of that connection, he was free to make his living in pro football, but the damage financially was done.
I had him as my best 2015 OL draft prospect - ahead of Brandon Scherff (Redskins) and Ereck Flowers (Giants) who both went in the top 10. I submit he may have gone before one or both of them, but that is academic now.
Scherff received a 4-year/$21M rookie deal and Flowers received 4-year/$14.4M while Collins ended up with three years for $1.5M. Collins lost a ton of money as you can see, but this recent extension will bring his five-year earnings to about $17M. Scherff will get about $35M and Flowers will be at roughly $26-$27M. So while Collins is back in the mix, I suspect the intent was to get him close to the Byron Jones number which, after they pick up his fifth-year option is going to be roughly five years, $17-$18M.
Now, the Cowboys will have Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Collins locked in for the next three years, and Zack Martin's deal will be next. His, of course, will be far longer than Collins', and will probably split the difference between Tyron's annual value ($12.2m) and Frederick's (9.4m). Martin could eclipse $11M a year and then they will have secured the entire first-round OL they have built through their primes. Collins will have to prove he is to that level, but I believe he is and therefore will also join this group.
Now, back to Seattle's issues with the cap because that is relevant here. They were able to go to the Super Bowl and build their best teams when Russell Wilson was making almost no money. When he started making his present deal which pays him about $22M a year, the cap space dried up. Certainly, the Cowboys are on the clock here as they try to get rid of Romo's deal and before they have to pay Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott contracts that reflect their spots (assuming they maintain them) at their position. That is where things get tricky because you have to make tough decisions at a certain point.
And, you might need to pay the market rate on defenders to make this team a Super Bowl contender for the long-term. It is not easy in a salary-capped sport, but getting extensions done before free agency often saves a ton of money for the club.
In short, these next three seasons - 2017, 2018, and 2019 - might be the best "window" the Cowboys have.
The Cowboys never used to be the team that has control of the chess pieces. But, by being determined to spend your money on your own drafted players (which requires you to draft the right guys on a regular basis) and sitting out free agency for others, the Cowboys have ascended to a team with 29 wins in the last three seasons and a team that has a very healthy cap situation, roster age and future outlook.
And, for that, the front office should be complimented. It wasn't like this six years back when they started Bill Nagy and Phil Costa in Week 1 because they had no money.
One year ago in this space, we had a conversation about the Cowboys' standing in the NFL as it pertained to discipline. In that piece, I was reacting to the Cowboys' overall view in their press briefings that while the Cowboys deal with some issues with suspensions and league discipline, they are quick to point out that this is not a Cowboys issue. In their view, it is an NFL issue. Yes, Dallas deals with it, but so does everyone else.
My reaction last year was roughly what it is today. Dallas' tolerance for risk and then for failed risks is too much when they lead the NFL in both categories that matter in this discussion: total suspensions given by the league to each team and total man-games lost to those suspensions. If the Cowboys had a high number of suspensions but they were for one game each, maybe this is no big deal. If they had two suspensions but for many games, then we would say it is a few isolated incidents. Unfortunately, the reality is that the Cowboys led the NFL in both categories. And to make matters worse, they lead them both by a healthy (or quite unhealthy) margin.
Here is the list that summarizes this issue that has shown no signs of slowing down.
So, here we are 12 months later. The Cowboys have been doing nothing since training camp opened but addressing various disciplinary issues on their team. The latest is their handling of Lucky Whitehead and his release following some off-field issues that appeared unworthy of a league suspension, but the team had enough of his actions on and off the field (they suggest).
Fine. But, Damien Wilson will surely receive league discipline for his bizarre behavior during an aggravated assault arrest earlier this month. Ezekiel Elliott is still anyone's guess, but those who are in the know sure seem to expect something to be handed down from the league. David Irving is going to miss the first four games. Randy Gregory has cast doubt on whether he will ever be on the field again. And some fellow named Shaq Evans was suspended back in April as a member of the Dallas Cowboys, despite the fact that many people paid to cover the team had never heard of him before his failed test results. I also should mention Nolan Carroll's DWI arrest, as well.
Basically, this epidemic of Cowboys discipline started surfacing in great numbers back in 2014. I believe the first one to hit was Orlando Scandrick on a suspension that was dropped from four games to two by the league. From there, the Cowboys heard from the NFL 15 times in 36 months on suspensions that have totaled 100 games.
Now, as you can see, a few names have shown up a lot of times. And, we can also say that much of this list is because the Cowboys have not been shy about grabbing players with pre-existing issues.
Rolando McClain was a player most of the league would not touch. The Cowboys did, he gave them a tremendous performance for a big part of 2014 on the field. And then put 30 games of suspension on their ledger ever since.
Greg Hardy was a player most of the league would not touch. The Cowboys did, and therefore were the team he was employed with when he received his suspension for something he did before he arrived. Four games.
Randy Gregory was a player most of the league would not touch. The Cowboys did (and I was happy they did, full disclosure). He has flashed a time or two on the field, but to this moment in time, he has also added a full 30 games of suspension to their ledger.
So, those three players alone total seven suspensions for 64 games. Of course, that also means that they have eight other suspensions (at the moment) for 36 more games. As you can see from the chart below, that would still put them among the most disciplined teams in the league even without Gregory, Hardy, and McClain.
As it stands, the Cowboys have 15 suspensions for 100 games. Nobody else has more than 10 suspensions and nobody else has more than 55 games lost.
Yet, we will continue to hear about the "right kind of guy" and the "strong character" that Jason Garrett likes to preach whenever he gets a chance. I submit there is tremendous character here on this roster. I think there are plenty of guys anyone would take. That isn't the issue.
The issue is whether the Cowboys should A) take fewer chances on players with pre-existing issues they are dealing with and B) should show less tolerance when a player they employ violates the league rules.
But, as we saw Tuesday, the Cowboys gained an advantage by taking CB Jourdan Lewis when nobody else would until the third round in April's draft. He had a court case to attend and was found not guilty of his charges. Did their chance pay off? I guess we won't know until Lewis demonstrates that he is nothing but a professional for his Cowboys career. Check back in a few years. But, today, it appears the Cowboys got a talent for a discount because they weren't scared of his court situation.
Of course, when Randy Gregory arrived, we were saying the same thing. It turns out they did not pull one over on the rest of the league with him.
So, one year later, the Cowboys have actually lengthened their lead on the rest of the NFL in disciplinary issues. They have not stopped situational gambling with talent acquisition and they also haven't severely altered how they deal with those who do step over the line. Sorry, we cannot count Lucky Whitehead's bizarre case in this experiment. He was being cut the moment Ryan Switzer was drafted.
Is this an issue with the Cowboys? That is a matter of opinion.
But, what isn't a matter of opinion are the totals around the league. Yes, the league has issues and every team has players who violate the policies. But, most teams are under five suspensions and 20 games missed.
This team is at 15 suspensions and 100 games missed. They are going to do what they are going to do and Jerry Jones will continue to cite Michael Irvin, Charles Haley, and Nate Newton as examples of how his "wildcatting" has struck oil over and over again.
But, those examples from the early 1990s seem to suggest that the results have not been quite as fertile ever since. It is also somewhat illuminating that many of the teams on the "most suspensions" list are not what you would call league heavyweights.
Maybe, next year at the 2018 training camp, the Cowboys will be doing this differently and I won't have to update this post again.
Or, it will remain our annual tradition of fact-checking the idea that this Dallas issue is really the same as the rest of the league. Spoiler: It isn't.
After a long summer of no football and no writing from yours truly, this start to a new week also represents the start to a new season for the Dallas Cowboys. That means it is time for me to jump back onto this laptop and provide some thoughts as I begin my 20th season covering this storied franchise, live from the tennis courts under the bright California sun.
The overall mood Sunday when Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Jason Garrett were paraded in front of the huge group of media was that what you would expect. They were coming off a 13-3 season with a young team that would seem to have its best football in front of it. They lost in the playoffs to Green Bay, but it doesn't take complex mental gymnastics to convince yourself that the Cowboys were the better team and were simply undone by a singular performance that would be difficult to duplicate. They certainly don't need to feel like they can't compete with the best teams in the NFC. Needless to say, there is optimism for 2017.
To keep with a tradition that began years ago, however, let's go over the inventory of those first 19 seasons -- since 1998 -- that also started with varied optimism-filled openings of Cowboys camps where everyone was full of smiles and belief that maybe this could be the year:
Nineteen seasons, just eight (42%) resulted in playoff football on any level. You realize just five (26%) have been NFC East divisional titles. From there, in ten playoff games over 19 years, two (11%) of those special years -- 2009 vs Philadelphia and 2014 vs Detroit -- did the team do so much as win a wild-card playoff game. And at no point in those 19 previous seasons have they even secured a spot in the final four (0%), let alone a Super Bowl (0%).
There is no doubt that had I started this job a few years earlier, we could dress up those numbers, but the fact remains that for two complete decades this franchise has run up the hill quite a few times without actually reaching the top. That is perhaps why optimism from the brass of this franchise is generally met with cynicism from the public who just want you to show them the results.
Perhaps, that is why Sunday in the annual "State of the Cowboys" address, we did not spend very much time on where this franchise is headed following its big 2016. Or, more likely, the media wasn't too interested in talking about whether the No. 1 seed can be secured again because the off-field reputation of the Cowboys for getting in as much or more trouble as pretty much anyone in the entire industry continues to march on.
Perhaps you are plenty aware of the fact that since the Cowboys have last played football, they have suffered yet another Randy Gregory suspension and a David Irving suspension. Added to that are news items that include Nolan Carroll DWI charges, a bizarre Damien Wilson aggravated assault arrest that seems likely to result in a league suspension, and a few notable Ezekiel Elliott news items that may also come with yet another Cowboys suspension on the horizon.
The media wanted to ask questions about these topics that they knew would go nowhere. The Cowboys wanted to filibuster about these questions in the ways they have become experts in answering without saying much. Jones, Jones, and Garrett took turns reminding us that nobody is perfect (true) and that all teams have problems (true) and that the offseason is a difficult time because the players are free with plenty of time on their hands (true). They did not seem too worried with their suspension totals outpacing the rest of the league on a pretty annual basis, nor did they seem too interested in any pointed comments directed at the offenders.
There was normal talk about being a team of great character and built on the foundation of seeking the right types of players from the head coach, but there was also the understood arrangement where he does not have total control of his roster. Those sitting next to him on the podium seem to have a different idea of how they build a 53-man roster. And to be fair, a 29-19 record over the last 3 years (even with the disastrous 4-12 in 2015 factored in) seems to indicate they are doing a fine job building that roster.
So, that is the one side of the story. The story of how the Cowboys are willing to assume character risks without apology and to always point you back to Charles Haley and Michael Irvin (as they did yet again Sunday) for proof that they have a strong and successful basis for this logic as it pertains to Super Bowl victories.
And then, there is the other side of the story. The part about how I believe they are poised to take another step forward and seem to me to have as good a chance to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl as any team in the running. Sure, they have flaws. So does every good team in the NFC. I like the strategy to populate this questionable defense with plenty of young, high-end talent. I think it might come up well for them, especially with this repeatable and sustainable machine they have assembled on offense. At least, that is what I think right now on July 24th.
Every season, we demonstrate with amazing clarity that nobody knows anything. Not the media, not the fans, and no, not the people who run these teams, either. The best example to how this all works is just marching things back 12 months.
The team is still as tied to the health of Tony Romo as they have ever been. Now, I will grant anyone the truth that Romo is a hot button issue that nobody can agree on until it is too late. I will also grant anyone the premise that I have been on the side of massive concern since the Cowboys had to play the 2013 final game (win and you win the division and go to the playoffs) against the Eagles without him. That was the game that started the back surgeries, which was the most problematic concern with the great QB's body (let's all recall the flying knee to his back on Monday Night Football in 2014) until his collarbone snapped twice in 2015. Did his collarbone endure more stress because he was always turning to protect his back? Was he rushed back before he was healthy? Will this new Mumford procedure be the fix? Questions abound. And, for some unknown reason, the Cowboys did not flinch and go target a better solution at backup QB for 2016. They may end up being in fine shape for down the road if Dak Prescott can be developed, but if QB1 drops in 2016, they are still seemingly as screwed as could be.I don't think Kellen Moore can win games in the big leagues, and neither does anyone who was locked in last December. Was he better than Matt Cassel or Brandon Weeden? If so, it is too fractional to get excited about. I don't know why they didn't get short-term Romo insurance, but it never came close to happening.
That proved somewhat prophetic and somewhat clueless. Dak Prescott got the call and seized the moment like few in the history of the league ever have as rookies. Not fourth-round rookies, but rookies of any caliber. For him to do what he did in 2016 from the 135th pick in the draft is finding a gold brick in your backyard. Amazing.
In one year's time, this entire franchise went from being built on the problematic back of Tony Romo to him being off the roster. In that same year, Prescott went from a third-string QB who will not take a snap until 2018 to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season.
We truly know nothing.
The Eagles look better, the Giants look menacing, and the Redskins look a bit weaker to me right now.
The Cowboys may receive another suspension or two and who knows how health will smile upon them. But, unlike their follow-up to 2014, I don't believe this season will be a massive regression. I believe in what they have built and I believe they are entering the prime of the careers of many of their players -- most of whom have been homegrown talent from repeated strong drafts as of late.
More than anything, I am just thrilled to be back at the doorstep of football season. The Cowboys are always fascinating to cover and I am sure this season will be no exception. I will begin tackling strategic and tactical topics several times a week starting immediately.
Things will happen at these training camp practices that will matter. Kellen Moore breaking his ankle last August 2nd sent so many different scenarios into orbit. Dak Prescott had to move up to No. 2 and start getting significant action in preseason games from Day 1. Then, Tony Romo was hurt and Prescott moved up again. Before we knew it, the Cowboys were 13-2 and preparing to host the NFC playoffs at home.
It all came crashing down with one magnificent Aaron Rodgers throw last January. It happens. It is the agony of defeat.
But, today the next journey truly begins. Whether this one ends up in Minneapolis on Feb. 4, 2018, for Super Bowl LII is anyone's guess.