Some folks are surprised today that offensive lineman Zack Martin is a Cowboy and quarterback sensation Johnny Manziel is not. Some folks earnestly believed, with a conviction born of absolute certainty, that with the Cowboys on the clock at No. 16 and Johnny Manziel still in the green room, there was no way the Texas A&M lightning rod wouldn’t have a star on his helmet this season. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones – the Arkansas gambler, the black gold wildcatter, the spotlight seeker, the marketing master with an eye on future ratings for America’s Team – was gonna make it happen.
And it was never going to happen. The whole Big Splash narrative on Jones is so 2010. That’s just not who he’s been the past few years.
What the TV talking heads who yap incessantly about Wacky Jerry fail to recognize is the Cowboys have changed the way they do things since hiring head coach Jason Garrett before the start of the 2011 season. One of the most impactful achievements of Garrett’s three-year tenure has been to clearly define and implement a new organizational philosophy. One that builds through the draft. One that more realistically (and more ruthlessly) evaluates its existing talent. One that spurs growth through relentless competition. One that protects its cap space. One that doesn’t reach for need on draft day.
Build through the draft: Sure, the NFL is a “quarterback-driven league,” but your offense is only as good as your offensive line, and Martin is the third offensive lineman taken with a first-round pick in the past four drafts. He is one of only three offensive linemen taken in the first round of Jones’ 26-year ownership. The first one was taken during Garrett’s first year as a principal in the war room. This team doesn’t trade out of the first round anymore.
Ruthlessly evaluate existing talent: Remember how pumped Jones was to sign guard Ron Leary as an undrafted free agent in 2012? In the past, he falls in love with a player like that. Today, he sees Leary for what he is, and when a premium talent at the same position falls unexpectedly in the draft, he pounces. Remember perceived “pet cat” Phil Costa, the undrafted free agent center from 2010? Same deal last year. You earn your spot on the Cowboys with your play, not the owner’s affection.
Relentless competition: Martin’s position flex means he can challenge right tackle Doug Free as well as both guards for playing time. The five best linemen are going to start. We know going in that Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith and All-Rookie center Travis Frederick will earn spots. The Martin pick makes four players competing for three positions. The theory is, everyone ups the intensity and plays better. The theory is sound.
Protect your cap space: A rookie first-round bust is particularly expensive, and linemen tend to be safer picks than skill position players.
Don’t reach for need: The Cowboys don’t draft in a vacuum – 31 other teams are making independent decisions that result in a constantly evolving assessment of the available talent. If defensive end Anthony Barr or undertackle Aaron Donald are on the board when the Cowboys select Thursday night, perhaps Martin isn’t a Cowboy. That’s not how it broke, though. Build your board, then have the stones to trust it. That’s how a team gets good and stays good.
Garrett has repeatedly and very publicly reiterated various principles of the organization’s philosophy for more than three years now. He’s done it in nearly every press conference he’s ever given. All head coaches avoid giving direct answers to direct questions. Garrett’s aversion style is to offer a precise and often times enthusiastic synopsis of the organizational principle that relates to the direct question. It’s fascinating to watch, and it’s usually informative. Consider this interaction during the predraft press conference on Tuesday:
Question: How will your hopes for a healthy Anthony Spencer affect your strategy during the draft?
Oh, I think you try to be independent of that. You try to help your football team. You know, we certainly have needs. Every team has needs – it’s been mentioned here a number of times in this press conference. We’re going to look at the draft board and try to take the best players. Guys who can help our football team. And you target guys at certain positions, but the worst mistake you can make is over-drafting for need and leaving really, really good players on the board. So we try to have discipline that way just like every team in this league does, and we’ll do that on our defensive front, all across our defense, and throughout our team.
The Dallas Cowboys aren’t interested in making a big splash on draft day. The goal is to acquire good football players and challenge them daily in a competitive environment. When a professional organization has a $100 million quarterback on the roster, and is looking for impact players to help it over the hump, it does not invest a first-round pick in a developmental signal caller who comes packaged with a 24/7 media circus and may or may not be better than the established backup. That’s Wacky Jerry.
That’s so 2010 Jerry. Get with the times. The Martin pick suggests this organization is less concerned with overnight ratings, and more about long-term winning.