By Matthew Postins
Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones is slammed locally for his perceived inability to identify talent. Is that perception? Or is that reality?
Most Cowboys fans will tell you it is reality. But I sought to determine if that was indeed the case.
For this project I examined every Cowboys draft from 1989, the year Jones took over the team as owner and general manager, and 2009, the last year in which I could take a logical sample size. My goal was to see, through objective analysis, if Jones was good, bad, or ugly at identifying talent on his own.
I divided this project into four time periods. First was 1989-1993, when Jones and Jimmy Johnson worked together. The perception, Jones’ objections notwithstanding, is that Johnson made the personnel decisions. Next was 1994-2002, a time period in which Jones made the final decisions, with the help of his scouting department. Third was 2003-2006, during which Bill Parcells was head coach and made personnel decisions (Jones would probably debate that, too). The final time frame was 2007-2009, when Jones was, again, making his own decisions.
Part One delved into the basic numbers of these four time periods. In Part Two we break down the quality of the players drafted during these time periods.
I wanted to see if there was a difference in project Pro Bowl and All-Pro level talent. While there are many player awards out there, the Pro Bowl is the most well-known and All-Pro is the most prestigious. For my purposes I considered a player’s All-Pro selection from any entity. I also considered ONLY Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections awarded to player when he was with the Cowboys.
1989-93: 33 Pro Bowl selections, 12 All-Pro selections
1994-2002: 28 Pro Bowl selections, 10 All-Pro selections
2003-06: 22 Pro Bowl selections, 10 All-Pro selections
2007-09: 3 Pro Bowl selections (through 2012), 0 All-Pro selections
Conclusion: Jones looks like he struggles in this area, especially lately. The only players he drafted from 2007-09 that made the Pro Bowl were linebacker Anthony Spencer (as an injury replacement), kicker Nick Folk and cornerback Mike Jenkins.
Now, Jones did better from 1994-2002. But consider that he accumulated those 28 Pro Bowl selections and 10 All-Pro selections in a nine-year period. The Johnson era accumulated five more Pro Bowlers and two more All-Pros in four fewer years. Parcells nearly matched the Pro Bowl 1994-02 number, and matched the 1994-02 All-Pro number, in just four years.
There’s also this to consider. How many Pro Bowl-level or All-Pro level players did these drafts yield?
Jones has identified just eight Pro Bowl or All-Pro players on his own. The Johnson-Parcells eras yielded 14 in less than 10 years.
The next aspect I sought to consider was service time by round. One of the reasons NFL teams sustain success is because they’re able to not only hit on first-round talent, but they’re also able to hit on mid-round and even late-round talent. Tight end Jason Witten plays like a first-round pick, but he was actually taken in the third round. Cornerback Kenneth Gant played like a special teams star, but he was a seventh-rounder. The more late picks you hit on, the more likely you are to sustain success.
For this portion I looked at every Cowboys draft pick and researched their progression. We already know how many remained with the team for three years. Next I looked at how many remained with the Cowboys for four years (the minimum length of a rookie contract for a drafted player) and then looked at how many remained for at least six years (which signals a second contract and talent longevity).
Let’s start with the first round. Two things to keep in mind. First, free agency started in 1993, which hit the dynasty Cowboys hard. Second, Jones showed a penchant for trading out of the first round in the late 1990s. The numbers with each set of years are number of picks that stayed with the team for three, four and six years:
1989-93: 6-6-3; 1994-2002: 5-5-2; 2003-06: 4-4-3; 2007-09: 3-3-1.
The Johnson-Parcells eras were definitely better in identifying and keeping long-term talent in the first round (six picks reached at least six years, as opposed to three picks reaching at least six years).
Here’s the second round:
1989-93: 6-5-2; 1994-2002: 10-8-3; 2003-06: 3-3-0; 2007-09: 1-1-0.
Jones held his own here, though it’s interesting to note that it took him 10 second-round picks in 1994-02 to better what the Cowboys were able to do in 1989-93. It’s also curious that the Cowboys have not kept a second-round pick on the roster for at least six years since the Parcells era started in 2003.
1989-93: 5-5-3; 1994-2002: 7-4-3; 2003-06: 2-2-2; 2007-09: 0-0-0.
Yes, that’s right. Jones didn’t hit on a single third-round pick from 2007-09. They weren’t even talented enough to stay on the team for three years. Meanwhile, Johnson and Parcells nearly hit 1.000. They kept all of their third-round picks at least four years, and kept all but two for at least six years.
1989-93: 2-1-1; 1994-2002: 5-3-1; 2003-06: 3-3-2; 2007-09: 4-3-1.
The differences aren’t significant here. At least not significant enough to say one group did better than the other.
1989-93: 0-0-0; 1994-2002: 4-2-0; 2003-06: 1-1-0; 2007-09: 2-1-0.
Not a single fifth-round pick taken during any era lasted more than four years. What stunned me was that Johnson didn’t identify a player that lasted even three years. But this also illustrates just how hard it is to hit a home run once you get into the draft’s final day.
1989-93: 0-0-0; 1994-2002: 5-3-0; 2003-06: 0-0-0; 2007-09: 3-2-0.
Well, Jones is the clear winner here. He managed to get five sixth-round picks to stick around at least four years.
Seventh round or later:
1989-93: 4-4-2; 1994-2002: 2-1-0; 2003-06: 5-5-2; 2007-09: 1-1-0.
You can say Johnson and Parcells were lucky, but they managed to identify nine players combined that lasted four years with the Cowboys. Four of them lasted at least six years. That includes Kenneth Gant, Leon Lett, Larry Brown, Brock Marion and Jay Ratliff. Most of Jones’ seventh-rounders have been throwaways. You have to hit there every once in a while.
Overall, there is evidence to show that Johnson and Parcells drafted better than Jones on his own, especially when you get past the second round. Take into account the rounds after the first two and Johnson and Parcells produced 12 players that lasted at least six years. Jones produced five. This is part of the reason the Cowboys struggled with depth in 2012 when injuries hit.
But let’s take it one step further. Remember we looked at the number of Pro Bowlers and All-Pros drafted during these eras. Let’s look at that by round.
We’ll start with rounds 1-3, with Pro Bowl selections listed first, followed by All-Pro selections:
1989-93: 29-12; 1994-2002: 28-10; 2003-06: 17-9; 2007-09: 2-0.
Now rounds 4-7, with Pro Bowl selections listed first, followed by All-Pro selections:
1989-93: 3-0; 1994-2002: 0-0; 2003-06: 5-1; 2007-09: 1-0.
Jones hung in there in the early rounds, at least until you took into account his recent work. While the Johnson and Parcells eras didn’t produce that many Pro Bowlers or All-Pros in the later rounds, at least they produced. Jones’ only drafted Pro Bowler in the back end of the draft was kicker Nick Folk.
Can Jerry Jones identify football players? To some degree the answer to that question is yes. He can identify and draft players that will fill the roster and stay with the team for three to four years. He will, occasionally, hit a home run with a player like Larry Allen, who was taken in the second round out of Sonoma State. But in just about every respect, this analysis shows that the Cowboys are much stronger when they rely on the personnel acumen of a strong football coach or personnel evaluation instead of Jones (or in conjunction with Jones, whatever he wants to call it). There is evidence here to show that under Johnson and Parcells the Cowboys drafted players that were more talented, reached their potential more often and were more likely to remain with the Cowboys for a sustained period of time. Jones’ inability to consistently draft players with Pro Bowl or All-Pro level talent, along with drafting players that remain with team long-term less frequently, is partly to blame for the Cowboys’ slow decline after periods of success under Johnson and Parcells. Jones’ inability to identify long-term talent from 2007-09 is a big reason why the Cowboys, once injuries became a real problem this past season, had to turn to street talent, rather than roster talent, to fill those voids.