For many, the 2012 season is a watershed year for the Cowboys and Jason Garrett. If the team does not climb out of mediocrity on the playing field, there will be much overheated speculation and furor about what owner Jerry Jones will do next.
However, there are other things to watch this year besides the chase for the playoffs. The one with the most important implications for the team's long term success is how the talent they've acquired over the last few seasons performs. Garrett and Stephen Jones, who seems to be taking an increasingly important role in the running of the team, have indicated they are taking a long range approach to success. Bringing new, talented players in is crucial to a team that wants to win consistently and not just be a flash in the pan.
In the last half of the previous decade, Dallas was simply incompetent in bringing in new talent. Whether you consider the near-catastrophe that was the 2009 draft, or free agents like Terrell Owens and Roy Williams who did not work out as lasting solutions, the team really acquired little in the way of quality players the entire decade outside Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, Jay Ratliff and Miles Austin.
This was likely the biggest reason for the struggles the team had under Wade Phillips. The approach to bringing in new players was uncoordinated and completely out of focus. The evidence would indicate that it was a result of Jerry not having a strong head coach. The combination of Jerry's fondness for splashy signings and no sign at all of a clear strategy on Phillips' part let to a failure to properly anticipate and fill needs. There was a sense that the coaching staff and Jerry Jones believed that they had already built a winner, and they did not take steps that would continually replenish the talent that is needed in a sport that consumes its players the way the NFL does.
In the last few years, with Garrett and Stephen Jones taking a larger role, things have begun to turn around. In the 2010 and 2011 drafts, Dallas picked up some major improvements. Sean Lee and Tyron Smith are unquestioned successes. DeMarco Murray looks to be the same, and Dez Bryant is giving every indication he is going to be much more important on the field. They have even started to show some skill in later picks, such as Sean Lissemore, who has been characterized as a hidden superstar.
2012, though, is the year that fans find out if things are truly better. While the newer players listed above have already begun to show promise, there are several others whose emergence could buttress the argument that Dallas has figured things out. Bruce Carter could make the team's decision to draft him despite injury concerns look brilliant if he plays the way his off-season practices would indicate he will. If Phil Costa is able to continue the improvement some analysis showed he was making during the second half of the 2011 season, the Garrett experiment with the young offensive line would look like a better move than the struggles of last year would indicate. Bill Nagy and David Arkin both may also step up along the line.
And the free agents, draftees, and UDFAs are full of players that could go a long way to making Dallas a serious contender for years to come. The two gems of course are the cornerbacks, free agents Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne. They come in at a position that was so ragged last season, it is hard to imagine how they could not provide serious improvement.
Dan Connor could make inside linebacker a three headed monster. Lawrence Vickers may be exactly what the running game needs, not to mention the leadership qualities he brings to the table. Matt Johnson, although not from a big name program and therefore relatively unknown, brings what looks to be a ton of talent to the safety position where the team badly needs it.
Kyle Wilber and Danny Coale look to be certain to make the team and will hopefully make significant contributions. And the UDFA group has players like Ronald Leary, Cole Beasley and Adrian Hamilton that could become major finds.
Of course, all these players are unlikely to succeed. There will likely be some disappointments in the group when the pads go on and Dallas is playing against someone else. But the truly exciting aspect is that there do seem to be many candidates for the team this year that have an excellent chance of proving themselves to be NFL worthy players.
If a reasonable percentage of these players work out, then Dallas will have three consecutive years of significant improvement. That is sustainability, a key to any NFL team that wishes to become and remain a top competitor.
Jason Garrett has, among several other things, discussed how important churning the bottom of the roster and having competition up and down depth chart are. He also has shown a much more logical and planned approach. After the 2010 draft, when Jerry's move to take Bryant and the choice of Sean Lee made it the best draft of Wade Phillip's tenure (although still more a matter of grabbing a splashy pick in Bryant's case), Garrett's hand can clearly be seen.
2011 was a draft to fix the offense, and 2012 was the defense's turn. And 2012 was also the best job of combining free agents and draft picks to address the team's shortfalls that I have ever seen. Arguably it is the best Dallas has ever done, going for one big signing to make a serious upgrade in Brandon Carr and back-filling with multiple lower-cost but very well thought-out pickups. While the talent they bring is still to be evaluated, the positions that were signed fit the team exceedingly well, with only the failure to get a tight end marring the process.
2012 is a key year. The team needs the players from the last three drafts to step up and prove they are the future. Dallas faces the inevitable replacement of its long time, aging stars. The new talent brought in since 2010 is going to have to become the foundation for the coming years. At least now, the team has a blueprint in place.