“Now you swear and kick and beg us,
that you’re not a gambling man.
Then you find you’re back in Vegas,
with a handle in your hand…”
– Steely Dan, “Do It Again”
The Cowboys roller-coaster fortunes the last 22 years have ridden on three men, with two distinct approaches to draft risk. The coaches entrusted with running the Cowboys drafts, Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells, worked to minimize risk when they selected players.
Johnson took the practice of ”grinding” sources about a player’s character. Was the prospect a fighter? Did he take plays off? A Sports Illustrated piece immediately after Johnson’s bumper ’91 draft focused on the team’s persistence in getting every last shred of data before it assigned a final ranking.
Loafers were not tolerated, a fact made clear by the draft books I collected those days. Joel Buchsbaum, the first major amateur scout, categorized players by type in the Draft Notebooks he produced for Pro Football Weekly. Who were the overachievers? Who were the underachievers? Which players were underpublicized? Who were the sleepers? Who were the boom-or-bust types? Which were the blue chippers?
With the exception of DT Jimmie Jones, whom Johnson had coached at the University of Miami, most of the core draftees from the ’90 through ’92 drafts, the products of the Herschel Walker deal, fell into the blue chip or overachiever category. Johnson drafted some sleepers and late risers, like Alvin Harper and Erik Williams, and struck it rich. He stayed far away from the boom or bust types, and the talented underachievers, whom some coaches feel they can motivate, where others could not. Johnson’s results speak for themselves.
When Parcells took over in 2003, he revised the type of players the Cowboys selected, trying to eliminate the off-the-field and locker room risks made clear in his first training camp, when an enraged Antonio Bryant shoved his jersey in the coach’s face. Parcells had his own foibles, like spending 4th rounders on projects like Isaiah Stanback and Skyler Green. He had his fair share of busts as well, but stuck to his player profiles. He hasn’t overseen a Cowboys draft since ’07 but 54% of the players taken in his drafts are still in the league.
When Jerry Jones first took over the drafts between ’94 and ’02, the risk level rose considerably. Size-speed, boom-or-bust types became far more common, especially at the top of drafts. Guys like Shante Carver. Kavika Pittman.
Jones also felt that no character concern was too great, if the player had talent. Look at the top of his last three drafts and you’ll see guys like Kareem Larrimore, Quincy Carter, Antonio Bryant and Derek Ross. All taken in high rounds. All had off-the-field problems that helped shorten their careers and set the Cowboys back.
The Jerry 2.0 years started with seemingly effectiveness, as he has retained many of the player templates installed in the Parcells years. Every player from Dallas ’08 draft remains in the league and the one player Dallas cut, 6th rounder Erik Walden, just earned a Super Bowl ring with the Packers.
That said, the high-round gambling which dogged Jerry 1.0 appears to be creeping back into the Cowboys drafts. Martellus Bennett is a physically imposing, but equally immature tight end, a fact the ’08 Hard Knocks made plain. Bennett continues to progress slowly, but thus far represents a poor return for a 2nd round pick.
The Cowboys went back to the size-speed, boom-bust template in ’09, drafting workout warrior Jason Williams with their first pick. The Cowboys inside linebacker templates, installed by Parcells, emphasize intelligence above all else and caution the evaluators not to project players inside; all quality prospects have to possess exceptional football instincts.
Williams didn’t have them. Mr. 75% could chase and run, but could never master pass coverage and blew assignments with regularity, and so the Cowboys cut him before his second season was over.
Last year, Dallas worked closer to the ILB templates, choosing the very instinctive Sean Lee in the 2nd. They countered this by taking a risk on receiver Dez Bryant in the first. This is a gamble the Cowboys may in fact win, despite the bad press Bryant generated last week. Bryant’s on-the-field talent is unquestioned, though his choice of friends and fashion sense apparently leave a lot to be desired.
Nonetheless, Bryant, Williams and Bennett show the New Jerry is looking more and more like the old Jerry, willing to increase his high-round risks just a bit more each year. With so much at stake this year, and with such a high value initial pick in Jerry’s anxious hands, nothing is certain, despite the good early-round fits that seem so obvious here in mock draft land.
“You go back, Jack, do it again,
Wheel turning ’round and ’round,
You go back, Jack, do it again…”