The Dallas Cowboys are at a pivotal point on their path as an organization; their decisions in the coming months are going to have a monumental impact on their future, even more so than in a normal offseason.
If the Cowboys don't change the way they run things, they could have some serious trouble keeping up with the new-and-improved Philadelphia Eagles. If they can implement a more scientific, analytics-based way of running an organization, however, things might just change.
One of the things that owner Jerry Jones has actually done pretty well during his time in Dallas is not make the same mistake twice. When he identifies a problem, he goes to great lengths to fix it. The problem is that other issues sprout up during the process, and the Cowboys haven't had the foresight to patch up leaks before they become major problems.
Thus, much of their improvement as a team will come in becoming more innovative, setting trends that others will follow instead of the other way around. To get started on that path, here are five crucial questions the Cowboys will need to answer properly during the 2014 offseason.
In my article on the Cowboys' franchise tag, I noted that defensive tackle Jason Hatcher is really the Cowboys' only candidate for the tag. He's a talented player coming off a career year, but at age 32, the Cowboys won't be all that thrilled about giving Hatcher a new deal.
Perhaps more important, Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram has reported the Cowboys will begin 2014 at $22 million over the cap. That situation isn't as bad as it sounds, but it's not like the Cowboys will have all kinds of cash to throw around in free agency.
Even if the Cowboys don't extend Hatcher, which they shouldn't, it will still cost a lot to retain him via the franchise tag. Per Joel Corry of CBS Sports, defensive tackles who get the tag are projected to make $9.18 million in 2014. That's a lot of money for an aging player, even for a one-year deal.
Verdict: Let him walk.
According to Spotrac, defensive end DeMarcus Ware is due a little over $16.0 million in 2014, but the Cowboys could currently save $7.43 million against the cap by cutting him. Ware has absolutely no leverage in this situation and I'd fully expect him to take a pay cut.
But, what if he doesn't? What should the Cowboys do if Ware forces their hand and refuses to restructure his contract?
In that situation, Dallas would really have no choice but to let Ware go. They can't afford to give him $16.0 million this year, and it's not like that money is guaranteed. Since the Cowboys would acquire so much cap room by letting Ware go, you have to think they'd go that direction if he won't redo his deal.
Verdict: Renegotiate his deal but otherwise let him walk.
In my article on five free agents Dallas should sign, I said there's just one big-money free agent I'd consider inking to a deal: defensive end Greg Hardy. Here's what I had to say about Hardy:
Hardy will command a lot of money on the open market. That's for sure. He graded out as the No. 3 overall defensive end Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and, with the sacks he's generated over the past couple years, he could very well price himself out of Dallas's range.
The reason that I think the Cowboys should at least consider Hardy, assuming they can work some magic with their salary cap, is because I believe he's quietly one of the top pass-rushers in the NFL. Think top two or three.
At 6'4", 290 pounds, Hardy has the size to be dominant against the run. He's also averaged over 37 quarterback pressures over the past three seasons, so his sack totals are no fluke. And yes, he has long arms (34 inches).
Unlike most expensive free agents, Hardy is one I think will outplay his contract. You just don't see players with his skill set and youth hit the open market very often.
Verdict: Consider Hardy if at all possible but otherwise sign under-the-radar free agents.
This is one of the topics about which I feel quite strong because I really believe most people have a distorted view of how teams should handle the draft. Namely, I reject the prevailing notion that teams should draft the best player available just because he's the highest-rated player on their board.
In my view, teams should usually (but not always) draft the highest player on their board at a position of need. The primary reason I believe that blindly drafting the best player available is disadvantageous is because teams overestimate their ability to identify the true best player available. In reality, NFL teams are pretty inefficient at drafting players, but they approach the draft as if their rankings are flawless.
One problem with drafting the best player available is that he's probably an outlier on your board, i.e. you have him ranked higher than any other team. And while draft grades shouldn't just be groupthink, there's certainly value in knowing that the rest of the league doesn't view a particular prospect like you do.
When you start to factor your own fallibility into the mix, the difference between your best player available and the next-best prospect shrinks. That inflates the value of drafting a player at a position of need.
Teams and fans know deep down that they shouldn't always draft the best player available. What if the Cowboys' top player available in the first round this year is a quarterback, but there's a defensive end ranked one spot behind him? Clearly drafting the quarterback would set the franchise back; I'm just taking that argument and extending it a bit further.
Sometimes the true best player available will be at a position of extreme importance and need. Those situations make for easy draft picks. But other times things won't align so nicely, in which case Dallas will need to make a choice between its board and need.
The Cowboys should never pass up an extreme value who is ranked very far ahead of other players, but otherwise, drafting the best player available is an overrated draft strategy that assumes infallibility in draft rankings that clearly doesn't exist.
Verdict: Draft the best player available at a position of need.
In my opinion, the Cowboys are in a bad position as an organization because they implement a results-oriented method of decision-making. When you punt the ball on 4th-and-1 at the opponent's 40-yard line in a tie game, you made a bad decision no matter how the rest of the game unfolds. If the return man were to fumble and lose possession of the ball, the decision was still a poor one.
Well, the Cowboys often make choices as if the result of the decision is what dictates its quality. That's led to a plethora of problems, from suboptimal drafting to horrific in-game management.
Head coach Jason Garrett emphasizes the importance of "the process." That's great, but he and the rest of the coaches don't practice what he preaches. Only when the Cowboys get away from their current black-and-white, deterministic way of thinking and begin to think in more probabilistic terms will they be able to convert their on-field talent into sustainable team success.
Verdict: Embrace a scientific, probabilistic manner of decision-making based on math, not hunches.