The Evolution of Jerry Jones in the Jason Garrett Era

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The previous look at Jason Garrett’s Dallas Cowboys discussed how the roster has improved at all position groups (except d-line) and gone from being and one of the oldest rosters in the NFL to one of the youngest, despite being constrained by previous salary cap mismanagement (click here to read).

Jerry Jones, after naming Garrett the head coach, began a recognizable shift in the way he manages the Dallas Cowboys. Jones has also continually, albeit slowly, relinquished more and more control, autonomy, and power to his head coach.

When Garrett became the HC the Cowboys had top-heavy roster with aging, over-priced star players. The history of poor drafting and horrendous salary cap management meant the 2010 Cowboys lacked talent and depth around the small nucleus of expensive veterans. Most people blamed Jerry Jones.

The most common criticisms of Jerry Jones the GM in 2011:

1. He puts too much emphasis on acquiring star players at the skills positions. There are three reasons for Jerry Jones’ penchant for collecting star players: it gives the appearance of competitiveness; it generates hope in the fans; and it increases the marketability of the franchise.

2. He is poor at drafting in general. Specifically, he is a not adept at evaluating talent, and he fails to put appropriate emphasis on the trenches.

3. He makes bad trades, and he gets duped into signing over-priced free agents.

4. He rewards aging Cowboys with huge contracts that appear to be more about past accomplishments rather than future production.

Starting in 2011, Jerry Jones has gradually made significant changes in the way he operates the Dallas Cowboys. He has drastically reduced the number of moves that would warrant the charges in 1-4 above.

2011

Garrett’s first offseason purged the roster of some players who didn’t fit the RKoG mold, others were released or not resigned because of big contracts. The Cowboys admitted the Roy Williams trade was a mistake by cutting him. Even though the Barbarian was a fan favorite and he was one of the few players on offense that sold a ton of jerseys, they released Marion Barber.

Jerry Jones also disbanded the aging offensive-line: Marco Columbo, Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis, and Alex Barron had all worn the Star for the last time. The Cowboys drafted 3 offensive-lineman: Tyron Smith (1st round), David Arkin (4th), and Bill Nagy (7th) in 2011. Perhaps the most revealing thing about the changing of the o-line was the selection of Tyron Smith in the 1st round. Breaking a 20-year old habit of refusing to draft an offensive lineman in the 1st round was interpreted by some as a sign that the Jason Garrett Era had quietly begun.

The youth-movement was less obvious on defense; only veteran Igor Oshlansky was not retained. He had a history with Phillips prior to Dallas, so it wasn’t a surprise that he wasn’t kept on Jason Garrett’s squad.

The first draft with Garrett as HC was solid. The Cowboys nailed three of their picks. The Cowboys got a Pro-Bowl LT in the 1st round, a starting caliber RB in the 3rd round, and one of the NFL’s best returners/special-teams players in Dwayne Harris (6th). They also got Bruce Carter in the 2nd round. Carter has not yet lived up to expectations. He had a down year in 2013, but many are predicting a ‘bounce-back’ year for Carter in 2014. If Carter can regain his form and become an effective starter, the class of 2011 will have yielded four quality starters.

The Cowboys missed on David Arkin (4th round), Josh Thomas (5th), Shaun Chapas (7th), and Bill Nagy (7th).

Jason Garrett first free agency was a quiet one; the Cowboys didn’t sign any big-name players, but they did sign rookies Phillip Tanner and Dan Bailey. They signed Laurent Robinson in early September, 2011.

2012

After an 8-8 campaign in which the team showed it’s age and lack of depth down the stretch, Jerry Jones continued to make uncharacteristically wise decisions. He showed that he could snag a reasonably-priced free agent, let the player have a solid year as a Cowboy, but still maintain the shrewdness to not overpay that veteran after a ‘break-out’ season. Laurent Robinson was an amazing 3rd WR and a solid #2, but Jerry Jones managed to restrain himself from signing Robinson to second contract when Jacksonville offered him big money.

Jerry Jones continued his recently acquired offseason hobby of releasing players that were aging, expensive, and/or over-priced. After the 2011 season, the Cowboys released former first rounder and Pro Bowler Terrance Newman.They also waived Tashard Choice despite the fact that he had filled in admirably when needed. They also parted ways with the greybeard Keith Brooking and signed a younger, cheaper Dan Connor.

The RKoG influence was apparent when Jerry Jones let Martellus Bennett sign with New York. Although Bennett never lived up to the expectations of Cowboys fans, many speculated that it was it attitude and off-field shenanigans that led to his exit.

The Cowboys were aggressive in free agency. They grabbed two veteran guard to plug the holes in the offensive line (Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings). They also paid CB Brandon Carr $50 million for five years.

The Brandon Carr signing justifiably makes people question whether Jerry Jones has indeed changed at all. Although he is still only 27 and could conceivably still improve, Carr’s charge against the salary cap in 2014 makes him one of the highest paid CB’s in the entire NFL. The specifics of Carr’s contract are worth looking at (courtesy of www.Rotoworld.com):

3/14/2012: Signed a five-year, $50.1 million contract. The deal contains $25.5 million guaranteed — a $10 million signing bonus and all of Carr’s 2012 and 2013 base salaries. The Cowboys paid Carr an additional $13.5 million “signing” bonus in the 2013 offseason. 2014: $7.5 million, 2015: $8 million, 2016: $9.1 million, 2017: $10 million (Voidable Year), 2018: Free Agent

There are two huge problems with the Brandon Carr deal. First, signing an elite skill position player in free agency almost always means over-paying. The Cowboys were not an elite CB away from contending for a Super Bowl, so spending $50 million on a CB could be viewed as a poor use of scarce resources. Second, Carr has not played liked one of the NFL’s best corners.

Believing he had just signed a premiere CB in Brandon Carr, Jerry Jones couldn’t resist trading up to the 6th position in the first round of the 2012 Draft to select CB Morris Claiborne. Jerry must have believed that he was cementing the Cowboys secondary for the foreseeable future. Jones gave up the 14th and 45th overall picks to move up to the sixth spot.

The bulk of the reviews immediately following the draft were positive. The vast majority of people agreed that Claiborne was a special talent. Claiborne was touted as the highest rated CB since Deion Sanders. The general consensus was that Jerry had brokered a good bargain; traditional draft value rankings maintained that the Rams could/should have demanded more for the 6th overall pick.

Claiborne has missed valuable time because of injuries that have slowed his development. But even when healthy, he has rarely played like a top-10 draft pick. It is too early to label him a bust, but if Claiborne doesn’t look like at least an above-average CB in 2014, Jerry Jones will be ridiculed for the trade – it won’t matter that everyone thought it was a good move after the draft.

The draft class of 2012 is unimpressive. Only Claiborne has emerged as a steady starter. After playing around 300 snaps as a rookie, Tyrone Crawford (3rd round) missed all of 2013 with an Achilles injury. Kyle Wilber (4th round) didn’t play much in 2013, but he may have found a home at LB after switching from DE near the end of the season. Matt Johnson, also selected in the 4th, has missed both seasons due to injury. TE James Hanna (6th round) has made the team and looks to be a part of the Cowboys future. The 5th (Danny Coale) and 7th round (Caleb McSurdy) selections did not make the roster.

The 2014 season will be critical to evaluating the 2012 draft class. Crawford, Wilber, and Johnson will all have the opportunity to win starting roles. If they all become quality starters or regular contributors (or perhaps even 2 of the 3), then the draft will look much different than if none of them become starters on defense.

The Cowboys also signed four rookie free agents that eventually contributed on gameday: Ben Bass, Lance Dunbar, Cole Beasley and Ronald Leary.

2013

After another 8-8 season in 2012, the Cowboys offseason was again about getting rid of old and/unwanted players. Despite his pre-Garrett history, Jerry Jones let three former 1st round picks (Marcus Spears, Mike Jenkins and Felix Jones) move on to other teams.

Spears was released because of his knee condition and the Cowboys switch to the 3-4. Felix Jones was not resigned mainly because he was not performing at the level expected of a 1st rounder, and the Cowboys were unwilling to match the salary he was offered in free agency. Mike Jenkins ruffled some feathers when he chose to re-hab from his injuries on his own, rather than with the Cowboys staff. There was speculation that the decision to move on from Jenkins was also about him not buying into Garrett’s program (and therefore not being a RKoG).

The Cowboys opted for youth in the WR corps by letting Kevin Ogletree walk. They didn’t  try to outbid New Orleans for Victor Butler. They didn’t resign Dan Connor after one season showed. Like they did with Laurent Robinson, the Cowboys were plugging holes with moderately priced free agents until younger players could be drafted.

With the exception of signing Brian Waters, the Cowboys were frugal again in free agency. They signed guys like Ernie Sims. Waters seemed like a decent signing despite his age, but he was placed on injured reserve about half way through the season.

Although it is too early to make a final judgment, the Cowboys had a decent draft in 2013. Full break-downs for each player can be found here: Travis Frederick and Gavin Escobar; Terrance Williams; J.J. Wilcox, B.W. Webb, Joseph Randle, and DeVonte Holloman.

2014

After another 8-8 season, Jerry Jones continued the process of purging the roster of aging players with high salaries. The Cowboys GM surprised many people by making no attempt to re-sign Jason Hatcher, who had a Pro Bowl year. The Cowboys also cut their best defensive player, future Hall of Famer, Demarcus Ware. These two decisions alone suggest that something new is happening in Dallas when it comes to managing the roster: the notion that Jerry rewards past accomplishments or that he can’t say no to star players and marketable names, doesn’t seem accurate any longer.

Keeping with the Garrett era devotion to getting rid of under-performing players, the Cowboys also released Miles Austin.

The other important personnel move in 2013 was the release of Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff. The analysts at ESPN have argued that the in-season release of Jay Ratliff is evidence of Jason Garrett’s growing power and influence over Jerry Jones. The Ratliff saga illustrates Garrett’s willingness to release players who aren’t RKoG and/or fail to buy into his overall program for the team; it also shows Jerry’s ability to listen to his HC and admit to previous mistakes.

The Cowboys continued the Garrett era tradition of plugging holes in the roster with reasonably priced free agent veterans. The Cowboys signed Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain to add depth to the defensive line. The only big name acquired so far this offseason was Henry Melton.

The Henry Melton signing provides a revealing insight in to the dramatic changes in the way the Dallas Cowboys are managed. Jerry Jones, who is constantly accused of being a control freak determined to take all of the credit for the Cowboys football operations, was practically a non-factor in the Cowboys efforts to land the coveted Melton. Melton explained after the official signing that not only did Stephen Jones and Jason Garrett handle the screening process and negotiations, but he didn’t even meet Jerry Jones.

Given that Henry Melton was the most important signing of this offseason and the closest the Cowboys will come to making national news before the draft, it is quite telling that Jerry Jones played no role in the process.

Conclusions:

Jerry Jones is undergoing an evolution in the way he manages the Dallas Cowboys that began when Jason Garrett was named the head coach. As Jones’ faith and trust in Garrett has grown, so too has the power and control given to Garrett. The ‘demotion’ of Bill Callahan and hiring Scott Linehan is another strong indication that Garrett has more influence over personnel decisions.

Those who insist that “Jerry will never learn” and “nothing ever changes in Dallas” will undoubtedly ignore the general trends that suggest Jerry is changing. They will point to a few specific cases that look like “Jerry being Jerry”. The three main ones: the Brandon Carr signing, trading up to get Morris Claiborne, and the contract extension given to Jay Ratliff.

The Ratliff extension is indeed a classic example of “Jerry being Jerry.” It seems fair to condemn Jones for not realizing that Ratliff’s history of injuries would prevent him from living up to the high expectation created by that kind of contract. The length of Ratliff’s contract and the bonuses that led to so much dead money is a classic example of Jerry Jones overpaying a veteran he likes based on past accomplishments.

The only good news that one can take from the Ratliff deal is that it is the only one of its kind in the Garrett era.

Many people criticize Jerry Jones for trading up to nab Claiborne because he hasn’t played like a 1st round talent. But, the reality is that Claiborne was the highest rated defender on most NFL boards and Jerry made an astute trade in terms of value. It’s easy to condemn the trade in hindsight, but if we judge Jones based on the information he had at the time of the draft, the Claiborne deal was certainly not a gaffe.

An examination of the history of operations since the 2010 offseason reveals several distinct patterns and trends:

1. There has been a concerted effort to jettison aging players, overpriced players, players that do not fit Garrett’s RKoG model, and players that do not buy into the overall philosophy that Garrett has for his team.

2. The Cowboys drafting has improved.

3.  Without sacrificing the level of talent, the roster has become significantly younger (from one of the oldest teams in 2010 to one of the youngest teams in 2013).

4. The frequency of terrible trades/signings has been drastically reduced, though some would argue that they have not been eliminated.

5. The tendency to overpay players out of loyalty or as payment for past performance has been curtailed.

6. Jerry Jones appears to listen to Garrett and company more when making decisions, and he is also ceding more and more control to Garrett.

If the criticisms of Jerry Jones in 2010 were valid, then his recent track-record shows plenty of change and improvement.

  • Prince Of Heck

    I think Stephen is gradually taking over more of JJ’s responsibilities and making more sensible decisions. Hence, I wouldn’t have any gripe about replacing JG.

    My reasoning against drafting Claiborne were that 1) his special talent wasn’t going to mask the team’s problems at multiple positions and 2) that a trench player would have made more impact.

  • Football Mensa

    CJ you are one of my favorite writers. By far one of the coolest dudes on Twitter. I love our conversations via twitter. For that reason I’m not gonna carve up this article. I just have four things to say….

    1. After an 8-8 campaign

    2. After another 8-8 season

    3. After another 8-8 season

    4. Victor Butler is with the Saints

    • C. Joseph Wright

      Thanks. I figured out why I made the mistake with Butler – I was thinking about Kevin Burnett. I made the correction..

  • Taylor

    The ingredients have changed, but the flavor remains the same. 8-8, 8-8, 8-8. Three defensive schemes in three years, three, I guess, offensive mindsets in three years, multiple coordinator changes. Plus, JG is not a particularly good game coach. JJ may have changed, although no one outside the inner circle knows why or by whom. I expect that another mediocre year will have you talking about (insert name here).

  • Teacher

    Good read! Intelligent and interesting analysis of the years under Garrett, with mention of many “moments” I had forgotten about. Garrett seems like the RKoG as a coach and I can’t help but root for his success as HC of Cowboys. Yes, there have been the infamous in-game failures with clock management, etc., but he seems to get the big picture necessary to steering the club in the direction of excellence. Time will tell. If the Boys continue to draft linemen on both sides of the ball, that will indicate further that Jerry is taking more of a backseat IMO.

  • McShrek

    CJ….have to agree with the basic premise that Jerry has reluctantly given JG more personnel power (buying the groceries as some other guy deemed it, either by purging aging players or underperforming ones), but…………………… many of us WERE vehemently against the Claiborne trade (one premium, pick versus 2), just like we were against the trade down in 2013 that netted us Frederick/Esco with both a premier d-tackle and premier safety available at #16/17, both areas of huge need on the defense that remain huge weaknesses as we speak (lucky or luckier on Fred?), and again this year with the reach for DLawrence, once again giving up another premium pick in the draft……..yes he has acquiesced some power, but JJ is still reeking havoc with the roster by his mindless draft day trades…..the study done by the two economists about a deacde ago (and recently updated) clearly shows that trading up by having to give premium picks (1-3 rounds) seldom if ever works out for the Jerrys of the world………….but the trend is very positive as far as JGs impact as far as personnel goes, but it will be heavily tested with this season’s daunting schedule that may coerce the GM to fire his HC if we end up with 4-5 wins……we will see how that plays out.