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Writer's Blocks: Free Agency Spending Strategy & Division Schedule
FRISCO, Texas -- This is an understatement, but you get to have some surreal experiences in this job.
There’s a relevant reason for saying that, so here’s the story. When new players join this team, one of the perks of being internal media is that we get the first crack at them. Whether it’s free agency or the draft, we often get to hustle over to the locker room and conduct some first-look interviews.
One of my fondest memories from this job happened the week after the 2016 NFL Draft, when the rookies reported to Valley Ranch for the first time. Much of the excitement centered around No. 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott and the amazing story of Jaylon Smith, and understandably so.
It’s hard to imagine now, but there wasn’t a ton of demand for an interview with the Cowboys’ new third-string quarterback, Dak Prescott. That’s how I wound up chatting with him for five minutes and writing a story about it -- never even fathoming what was to come.
Alright, so why am I sharing that story? Well, it doesn’t always work out that way.
It was just last March that the Cowboys signed Nolan Carroll, Stephen Paea and Damontre’ Moore to free agent contracts. As usual, we all hustled over to the locker room to drum up some much-needed content for the free agency news cycle.
Not quite as magical, right? Those interviews live on, somewhere on the Internet, but Carroll, Paea and Moore are all former Cowboys -- and this team hasn’t even reached the halfway point of its season.
It’s an interesting business, and it leads to some surreal stories -- for good reasons and bad.
1. But ok, let’s get into that for a second.
The Cowboys released Moore on Tuesday afternoon so they could sign Mike Nugent as a substitute kicker while Dan Bailey recovers from a groin injury. Carroll was released earlier this season, and Paea unexpectedly retired due to a knee injury that’s been bothering him.
There’s no way around it -- that ain’t a good look for the Cowboys. Those were the three main signings the Cowboys made to offset the loss of guys like Terrell McClain, Brandon Carr and Barry Church. Plenty of people criticized them for not doing enough to offset those losses, and those people probably feel pretty smart in retrospect.
The vast majority of the guys the Cowboys added after last year’s 13-3 campaign are not doing a lot to help this team in 2017. Jonathan Cooper and Jourdan Lewis are starting and playing well, to be fair. But your biggest free agency acquisitions aren’t on the team, and the majority of your draft picks are role players, at best.
The Cowboys came agonizingly close to their first NFC Championship Game appearance in 20 years back in January. If you want to argue that they didn’t “strike while the iron is hot,” so to speak, in trying to capitalize on that momentum, then you have all the ammunition you need.
2. Having said all of that, here’s why I don’t care about that -- and why I doubt this front office cares, either.
I’m writing about the loss of Carroll, Paea and Moore because it was a bad look for the Cowboys to lose them. But in the results-based industry of pro football, who cares about look? The reality is that parting ways with those guys doesn’t hurt the Cowboys at all -- and that’s exactly why they use the strategy they do.
Stephen Jones has said 10 million times that he doesn’t like free agency because you have to pay decent players like good ones, and you have to pay good players like great ones. Those are the demands of the open market.
By bargain hunting in free agency, the Cowboys instead preferred to buy some insurance. They insured their cornerback spot, on the off chance they weren’t able to get help in the draft. They added depth along the defensive line, given that it’s been a weakness for years.
In the five years since they signed Brandon Carr to a $50 million deal, the Cowboys quite simply haven’t used free agency as a way to immediately upgrade their team. It’s more like a bottle of Fix-a-Flat, to help them get home if things go south.
3. It might be disheartening when these free agency moves don’t pan out, but you can’t exactly argue that it’s hurting this team.
Carroll was immediately upstaged by the rookies that were drafted to replace him -- Jourdan Lewis, specifically. Taco Charlton hasn’t lit the world on fire, but the Cowboys’ pass rush has progressed to the point that the defense has posted 21 sacks without a contribution from Moore.
Paea’s departure is a bit different, and it left them in a bit of a bind. But between the emergence of Maliek Collins and David Irving, as well as the additions of Brian Price and Richard Ash, it’s hardly a hole that is going to break the defense this season.
4. And honestly, therein lies my main point.
The Cowboys would obviously prefer for their free agent signings to make a bigger impact on the field. But they lost all three of them this year, and it’s not going to determine their fortunes this year. More importantly than that, it’s not going to have an affect on their salary cap whatsoever.
Frankly, that’s important when you consider looming contract negotiations -- DeMarcus Lawrence and Zack Martin come to mind. Those are homegrown guys, and the type of guys this team would prefer to stake their future to.
I can imagine that it’s probably frustrating to watch all of this play out, especially for a 3-3 team. But in the big picture, it’s hard not to feel good about how the Cowboys have set themselves up -- both with the talent that’s currently on their roster, as well as their financial prospects for the future.
5. This is a quibble, but it can be a bit strange to me how the NFL structures the schedule as it pertains to the division.
It’s obvious how important division games are, given that they account for roughly 40 percent of the season. If you handle business against your division rivals, you’re going to have a great chance to go to the playoffs, assuming you’re at least competent against everyone else.
That’s why it’s weird to me the way the league has sorted this out for the NFC East. Here we are in Week 8. The division-leading Eagles have played half their division schedule, while the Giants and Redskins have played two games apiece.
Nearing the midpoint of the season, the Cowboys are about to play their second NFC East game -- the first of which happened back on the opening night of the season. Not only that, they won’t get their first crack at Philadelphia until Week 11, halfway through November.
6. There’s plenty of reasons why it makes sense to do this. Obviously, NFC East teams are big ratings draws, and it makes sense to have them -- particularly the Cowboys -- playing their dramatic division matchups down the home stretch of the season.
On top of that, it’s impossible to predict the ups and downs of the season, and no one could have known the Eagles would jump out to a 6-1 record and a commanding lead in the division before they played Dallas even once.
Still, I’ve got to think there’s a better way to space all of this stuff out.
7. It’s funny, because at the end of the day Washington running back Chris Thompson only has five more receptions than Ezekiel Elliott.
But, if you’ve watched Washington play this season, doesn’t it seem like a much bigger difference. It’s been amazing to watch the fifth-year running back break out this year, putting together 213 rushing yards on 43 attempts, as well as 366 passing yards on 23 catches.
Zeke is doing just fine, for the record. Even though much of this season hasn’t met his lofty standards, he’s still sitting on 746 all-purpose yards and six total touchdowns after just six games. The fact that he’s off to a “slow start” is a testament to how amazing he was in 2016, rather than how he’s actually playing.
Still, I can’t help but feel like there’s some untapped potential in Zeke’s ability. We just saw him take a screen pass 72 yards to the end zone. And I know the Cowboys have tried various ways to get him the ball -- but I pretty much just think it could be more. We don’t often see Zeke run downfield routes, and it doesn’t seem like he gets a ton of looks on the move.
I feel like I’m nitpicking, probably because I am. Zeke is on pace for 1,500 rushing yards and another 500 receiving yards, so again, it’s not like he’s been bad. But as dynamic a talent as he is, I wonder if the Cowboys are giving as many looks per game as they could be.
8. I read this interview this week about Kirk Cousins and everything that’s going on with him these days.
He seems like kind of a goofy dude, but I really think Cousins is a good quarterback and a guy that’s worth building a franchise around -- whether that’s in Washington or somewhere else.
I also understand that NFL quarterbacks are paid a ton of money, and that there’s only 16 opportunities in a season to make an impression.
But man, I don’t know. I don’t think you need to FaceTime into a quarterback meeting from your wife’s bedside while she’s giving birth to your kid. Even in the big-money, do-or-die world of the NFL, some things are more important than work.
A decade from now, I doubt you’re going to remember how hard you studied for a regular season game against the Chiefs. You are (hopefully) going to remember the birth of your son.
So I don’t know, dude. Like I keep saying in this column, perspective is everything. Take it from someone who is addicted to technology: you can put the iPad down for the genuinely important moments in life. Read