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A week or so after becoming head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, Jimmy Johnson sat down to watch some film with his defensive coaches, Dave Wannstedt and Dave Campo among them. What they saw was stunning, with Campo later recalling, “We were pretty sure we had more speed the season before at (the University of Miami.”
The objective became quite simple. The roster needed to be overhauled; younger, quicker players would be targeted. For Johnson, stripping football down to its most simplistic level, speed and quickness equal success. Of course, this philosophy led Dallas to a trio of Super Bowl wins, the first with the youngest team in the league, and Team of the Decade status in the 1990s.
Fast-forward 20 years from the aforementioned film session, almost to the month, and Troy Aikman and Jason Garrett are in the Florida Keys, visiting with their former head coach on what was supposed to be a relaxing fishing trip. Instead, Garrett arrived with a notebook overflowing with questions on what it takes to be a successful head coach in the NFL. At the time, Garrett was the Dallas offensive coordinator, but he knew – heck, everyone knew – his time was coming, especially after having turned down head coaching offers from the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.
Johnson later said of Garrett and the trip, “He wore me out.”
Now into his second full season as head coach, it’s obvious some of the sage advice Johnson offered involved adding more speed and quickness to the roster. A byproduct of those personnel changes has been a youth movement of sorts, one which has transformed this current Cowboys squad.
Consider: In Week 14 of 2010, the Cowboys’ 22 starters averaged 29.2 years of age, which was tied for the oldest in the NFL with the Ravens and Brett Favre’s Vikings.
Entering the 2012 campaign, not even two years removed, the average age of the Dallas starters was 26.9, coincidentally on both offense and defense, while the roster overall checked in at exactly 26.0, which was the 14th youngest in the NFL and second to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East. Even last year, Dallas finished as the 10th-oldest team in the league.
That is staggering. In 21 weeks of regular-season games, Dallas went from the oldest team to one of the younger squads in the league, while also going from a 6-10 finish to a promising 2012 campaign kicked off with a road defeat of the defending Super Bowl champions.
Garrett addressed this very subject at the conclusion of last season’s 8-8 finish.
“We had a lot of players, veteran players, who were really good players for us, Pro Bowl-type players for us, and we made some hard decisions to get away from those guys and move on,” Garrett said. “Those aren't easy decisions to make. We went with some younger guys and we felt like that was the right decision for our football team now and going forward.
“We knew there were going to be some growing pains, but we felt like we had to get on that course and not only do that with a particular position, but also get the structure of our team right from a financial standpoint as well. So we started down that course and we feel like that was the right move for our team in 2011 and moving forward.”
Even in the ever-changing culture of the NFL, the transformation of the roster has been stunning in such a short time frame. Currently, 23 players on the Cowboys’ active roster are 24 years of age or younger, while just five are older than 30.
Let’s look at the changes at each position from the Week 14 home loss against Philly in 2010 to this season:
Quarterbacks: The only real change here is behind Romo, where the team is almost a decade younger in having landed arguably the league’s premier backup in 29-year-old
Running Backs: Marion Barber out,
Wide Receivers/Tight ends: Not much has changed here with
Offensive Line: Perhaps at no time in franchise history has the front seen such a dramatic overhaul inside of two years. The starters in Week 14 of 2010 were
Defensive Line: Little fluctuation here, although
Of the eight linebackers on the roster, Ware is the oldest at 30, and six are 26 or younger.
Secondary: Never mind 2010, just look at last year’s team. Terence Newman was 33, Abram Elam and Frank Walker 30. Replace that trio with
Special Teams: Even at punter, the Cowboys didn’t re-sign longtime veteran Mat McBriar in favor of 23-year-old
So it really has been across the board, a youth movement much like the one orchestrated by Johnson during his first two seasons at the helm. Only time will tell if the same results follow for Garrett.
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.