After a decent start to the 2011 NFL season that raised the hopes and expectations of the Dallas Cowboys faithful, the Cowboys limped to an 8-8 finish and failed to make the playoffs. Like every other season that the Cowboys don’t win the Super Bowl, fans were left asking, “If this team is so talented, why didn’t they win more games?”
First, the Cowboys are not as talented as advertised. Jerry Jones wants you to believe they are talented so you will pay exorbitant fees to attend games. The NFL wants you to believe that they are talented because that makes it easier to sell Prime Time Cowboys games that generate millions in revenue. The media outlets want you to believe that the Cowboys are talented because the Cowboys name brings in more readers and viewers than any other team. If the general public started to believe that the Cowboys weren’t talented, and they didn’t have a realistic chance of making a playoff run, the Cowboys would immediately become a lot less relevant, which means Jerry would sell fewer tickets, the NFL and its affiliates would earn less in advertising revenue, and the media would have far fewer readers and viewers.
The truth is that just about everyone involved with professional football has a vested interest in perpetuating the myth that the Cowboys are loaded with talent year in and year out.
The problem with the Cowboys is not a lack of leadership (sorry Warren Sapp), nor a lack of mental toughness (sorry Emmitt), nor a lack of ‘swagger’ (too many to name).
NEWSFLASH: Leadership, mental toughness, and swagger don’t win football games. Good players executing a good game plan wins football games. You can have as much leadership ,mental toughness, and swagger as you want, but if the other teams have better players and/or execute a superior gameplan, they are going to win most of the time.
Emmitt is my favorite athlete of all time in any sport, but I would love to ask him, “How much did your mental toughness help the Cowboys after Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin retired?” Better yet, “How did your mental toughness fare in Arizona?” Similarly, I would like to ask Warren Sapp, “How much did your obviously impeccable leadership help the Buccaneers in the fist couple years you were there?” As for swagger, well, it just doesn’t make much sense for a mediocre team to have swagger. Swagger is not something that makes you good or great, it is something that comes after being successful. Swagger without real success is not swagger at all, it is false confidence or cockiness.
The reason people want to blame these chimeras is twofold: first, it makes fans believe that a few simple adjustments could drastically change the team’s fortunes; second, the real problems with the Cowboys are more complex and pervasive than people want to believe.
There are three major problems with the Dallas Cowboys of the past couple years. Before I enumerate those problems, it should be noted that the OL and secondary were PART of the problem this season, but the fact that those two units played poorly at times is simply a symptom of larger and more systemic problems.
1. Poor drafting. The drafts after 2005 have been pretty damn bad. There have been 48 picks in the last 6 years (assuming my math is correct). Using the roster for the last game in 2011 leads to the following conclusions: of those 48 picks, only SEVEN have become starters: Jason Hatcher, Doug Free, Anthony Spencer, Mike Jenkins, Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, and Sean Lee.
To make matters worse, only SEVEN others make any sizable contribution to the team: Alan Ball, Martellus Bennett, Orlando Scandrick, Stephen McGee, Victor Butler, John Phillips. Sean Lissemore. Alan Ball and Marty B are no longer Cowboys, so that drops the number to FIVE. (Because of injuries, I wasn’t sure how to include Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray.)
In total then, they have made 48 choices in 6 years, and only 16 of those players helped the team in any recognizable fashion (some would argue that neither McGee nor Ball should be on the list, but I am trying to be as forgiving as possible).
It is possible to be hopeful that the last two years, starting with Bryant, Lee, and Lissemore in 2010, are a change in the right direction. It is hard to evaluate the 2011 draft at this time, but it has the potential to be a strong class with Smith, Carter, Murray, all likely to start next year, while Arkin and Nagy will presumably be back-ups at least. Dwayne Harris also looks like he my have a role on the team as WR and/or returner.
Regardless of the eventual success of the 2011 draftees, one of the biggest problems with this team is a severe lack of talented players once you get past the top 6-8 ‘stars’ (Romo, Witten, Austin, Lee, Ratliff, Ware, and to a lesser extent Bryant and Robinson). The lack of talented players is a direct result of poor drafting. (To make this whole situation a bigger mess, just add the salary cap problems caused by ill-advised free agent signings).
Who is to blame for the ineffective drafting? Well, if you want to include just the top decisions makers you would have to include Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips, Jerry Jones, and the various Scouting Directors since Larry Lacewell retired in January of 2005. It is tempting to blame Jerry Jones because many fans believe that he makes all the final decisions, but year after year we hear people on the inside say that Jones “defers to his advisors much more than people would think.” Again, it is foolish to blame six years of sub-standard drafting on just one or two people. It takes more than a person or two to mess up this convincingly on a regular basis.
2. The lack of continuity and stability on the coaching staff. Instability in the coaching staff creates a slew of wide-ranging problems for any football team, but one of the most pernicious effects is on the drafting philosophy of that team. When a coach fears that he might get fired after a season or two, then there is obvious pressure to produce positive results immediately. This mindset of needing to produce immediately is the antithesis of what leads to good drafting. It leads to taking risks on high-profile/impact players that you believe will make a dramatic change to your team. It is the opposite of a secure coach who realises that he is building a long-term future and therefore can afford to avoid the temptation of ‘sexy picks’ in favor of drafting the best player available.
Do you think Garrett would have drafted Tyron Smith and two other lineman if he thought he might get fired after this year, or would he have reached for a ‘play-maker’?
Do you ever wonder why New England and Pittsburgh are always able to field teams that compete for Championships? Part of it is the stability in their coaching staffs, and part of it is good drafting. And the key to their drafting is the knowledge that the HC will not get fired for one or two mediocre or unsuccessful seasons, and therefore they can take a long-term approach to building and sustaining a good team, rather than trying to find that one magical piece that will turn the club around. Both the Steelers and the Patriots have the luxury of drafting the best player available; rarely do they reach for a player just because of a perceived need.
There are of course other detrimental effects of changing coaches frequently. It is not unusual for a new offensive or defensive coordinator to take at least two seasons to fully implement his scheme and for the players to get comfortable with it. It takes at least 2-3 years, if not more, for a coach to fill the roster with players that fit his philosophy and schemes.
While there are a plethora of small and simple reasons that partially explain why the Cowboys had yet another disappointing season, remember that complex problems rarely have simple and therefore almost never have discrete causes. In the case of the Cowboys, the problems did not just appear this year, they have been problems for several of the last years. It is not as simple as blaming one or two units, or a single player, or the coaches, or the owner. The Cowboys finished the season 8-8 because they have mediocre talent after their top 6-10 players, and they are stuck with average talent because they have not drafted well in the last 6 years. The lack of stability and continuity in the coaching staff has had a myriad of negative effects on the franchise; one of the most notable side effects has been on the drafting.
Having “mental toughness”, “leadership”, and “swagger” may help a team win against an opponent that is fairly evenly matched, but none of those things are going to make up for the huge problems created by a lack of talent, poor drafting, and a lack of stability in the coaching staff.