IRVING, Texas - I was not in the war room in 2010 when Cowboys head scout Tom Ciskowski pulled the tag of Dez Bryant out of the stack of wide receivers to grade for the upcoming draft.
I knew little of Bryant's off-the-field story at Oklahoma State, but I did know that during his career he was an All-American and an All-Big 12 player. I had seen him on film plenty of times as this dynamic player who was magical with the ball in his hands. Bryant had rare talent and skill, and the tape proved it. But there were questions about Bryant that teams had to sort through.
Some teams choose to do that, and others don't. In my time in the scouting department at Valley Ranch, Jerry Jones was willing to work through the questions. Ron Wolf, my boss in Green Bay, was the same, but he came from a program in Oakland with Al Davis that made a living working with talented players on the field who made questionable choices off it. Bill Parcells had the utmost respect for Davis and followed many of his scouting practices, but in Dallas he wanted nothing to do with the questionable players, which was surprising because of his history with guys like Lawrence Taylor and Leonard Marshall.
Every program is different in their approach to these types of players. I remember watching a video of a draft meeting here in Dallas in which Jason Garrett's father Jim made a passionate plea for Jones to consider drafting Randy Moss. On the other side of the table, head coach Chan Gailey wanted nothing to do with Moss. Garrett's last line was, "Jerry, this isn't the Boy Scouts, it's the NFL."
Jim Garrett was right, it wasn't the Boy Scouts and nobody had a worse off-the-field record than Moss. At that time I was in Philadelphia, running their draft with Michael Lombardi, when owner Jeff Lurie told us to take Moss' tag off the board despite the fact he was our No. 1 rated receiver. I didn't agree with Lurie at the time because I felt we had done the extensive work on Moss and the scouts were comfortable with what we had found, but the boss didn't feel that way, so we went with his call. Years later, I remember another decision he had to make about a player. The Eagles signed Michael Vick in 2009, when few other teams around the league would touch him.
Where front offices get in trouble is in falling in love with a huge talent, and it's so hard to resist the urge to draft that player. We had those exact problems in Dallas when we drafted Antonio Bryant out of Pittsburgh in 2002. There were plenty of questions about Bryant, and the more we dug, the more we found, but you started to weigh the risks against what you might be able to hit on, then you make the decision. In this case it was the wrong one.
In the third round of that same draft we took a corner from Ohio State named Derek Ross. Ross was a huge talent, could run, cover, and was always around the ball, but he was a questionable person off the field who had to be watched 24 hours a day. When Parcells came to the Cowboys, he developed a system that is still used at Valley Ranch today called "the box."
The box is where Parcells put players that had questionable character issues, with its drug arrests, domestic violence or problems with the bottle. Parcells was very quick to put players in the box and he even did it with pro free agents. As a pro scout, I remember one meeting fighting for Plaxico Burress, and Bill wanted nothing to do with him. In hindsight Bill was right about the player and I was wrong.
I have never been in a draft room with Jason Garrett, but the guys I have talked to who have speak with a great deal of respect in the way he handles players with character issues.
Look at his last two drafts as the head coach. You see a pattern in the type of players the Cowboys have selected. In the early 2000s, we made too many mistakes on taking players that might have been skilled on the field, but were poor citizens off it, and that is a problem.
Every team is different in how they handle these issues, but this team seems to be a lot more forgiving.