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Calvin Watkins: As Cowboys fanbase’s patience runs thin, what’s the plan to end the Super Bowl drought?

Dallas Morning News logo Dallas Morning News 2/7/2023 Calvin Watkins, The Dallas Morning News
While the Cowboys stick with their plan to draft and develop players, the Philadelphia Eagles are heading to another Super Bowl after making aggressive moves, like trading for receiver A.J. Brown. © Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News/TNS While the Cowboys stick with their plan to draft and develop players, the Philadelphia Eagles are heading to another Super Bowl after making aggressive moves, like trading for receiver A.J. Brown.

The number is 27 and counting.

We’re not talking about the amount of championships the Cowboys have accumulated over the years. This number represents how many years it’s been since this franchise’s last Super Bowl title.

It was the 1995 season.

The logical question is what’s the Cowboys’ plan to end this drought?

This is the longest-period in franchise history during which the Cowboys have not won a title. When the franchise started playing football in 1960, it took them 11 years to win their first Super Bowl title.

Now? At least 14 teams have won titles since the last championship in Dallas. That includes a franchise (the Rams) that has represented two different cities (St. Louis and Los Angeles). Tom Brady, the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback, won seven Super Bowl titles with two different franchises. Two of the Cowboys’ biggest rivals in the NFC East, the Eagles and Giants, have won a combined three titles since 1995. And the Eagles have a chance to win another crown if they beat the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday’s Super Bowl LVII.

Jerry Jones, the Cowboys’ owner and general manager, and a house of front office personnel – starting with his son Stephen Jones, the executive vice president, Will McClay, vice president of player personnel, and head coach Mike McCarthy – have bought into the draft and develop philosophy of team building.

“It takes more patience,” McClay said at last week’s Senior Bowl. “You want to build a team that has an opportunity to win and be in it every year. You can go for broke and if going for broke doesn’t work, now you got four or five years of trying to recover from that. So I just think philosophically you want to build the best football team you got and have a chance every year. Now you got to get over the hump, but we want to have that ability to be there.”

The draft and develop plan is progressing under McCarthy. The Cowboys have moved from not making the postseason in 2020, to losing in the wild card round the next season, to losing in the divisional round this past season.

The fanbase, however, just remembers 1995. Patience is running thin.

What is the plan?

Draft and develop means selecting the best player available regardless of where a team picks in the NFL draft. The goal is to develop that player into a Day 1 starter if he’s a first- or second-round pick. Middle-round picks can morph into quality depth and possibly reliable starters. Late rounds should be mined for more depth.

Teams want most, if not all, draft picks to take what McCarthy calls “that second-year jump” from simply figuring it out as rookies to becoming dependable players. If players move from highly regarded draft picks into stars, teams try to secure them with generational contacts. For the Cowboys, examples are wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, linebacker Micah Parsons and cornerback Trevon Diggs.

This is what the Cowboys did with quarterback Dak Prescott, a fourth-round pick who in 2021 signed the largest contract in franchise history (four years and $160 million). The same can be said of running back Ezekiel Elliott, a first-round pick who after a holdout signed a six-year, $90 million extension in 2019.

Other first-round picks such as guard Zack Martin and left tackle Tyron Smith also fit this mold of talented draft acquisitions who turned into cornerstone players. Both Martin and Smith could land in the Pro Football Hall of Fame when they retire.

The Cowboys’ plan also involves being selective in free agency. Instead of spending a massive amount of money on free agents, instead offer one- or two-year deals to get a veteran starter who can provide quality depth and leadership.

The Cowboys have done this over the years from linebacker Zach Thomas in 2008 to tackle Jason Peters in 2022.

Cowboys officials say they’re not averse to signing a free agent to a big contract, but they haven’t done so since cornerback Brandon Carr’s five-year, $50.1 million deal in 2012.

This draft and develop plan has produced the Cowboys zero championships. Since 1995.

“Anybody who thinks I won’t take the chance has misread the tea leaves,” Jerry Jones said at the Senior Bowl. “But I do think longer term and I’m real hesitant to bet it all for a year. And there’s a lot of things that can happen for that year. In essence, we’re seeing a couple of teams that have had some real success, putting it all out there and paying for it later in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Don’t think that doesn’t pop my head and get my eye as far as doing it. And I know how to do that.”

Rams push all in

For recent NFC title contenders, some team-building plans have been implemented with better results.

The Los Angeles Rams gave up 12 draft picks to win a Super Bowl in the 2021 season. Acquiring elite talent to win was the goal. The Rams traded a pair of first-round picks for cornerback Jalen Ramsey and quarterback Matthew Stafford. They also traded a second- and third-round selection for pass rusher Von Miller.

Rams general manager Les Snead wore a T-shirt at the Super Bowl LVI victory parade that simply said, “F--- them picks.”

Well, the Rams won’t have a first-round pick until 2024. Was it worth it?

After winning the title, the Rams missed the postseason in 2022 and now enter 2023 hopeful for a return with limited draft picks.

In 2018, the Cowboys tried a similar approach by acquiring a single player whom they hoped would put them over top. Dallas gave up a first-round pick to the then-Oakland Raiders for wide receiver Amari Cooper. After he signed a contract extension with the Cowboys, Cooper was traded to the Cleveland Browns for a fifth-round pick and a swap of sixth-rounders last spring. Jerry Jones cited the $20 million in cap savings as the reason Cooper was traded. The money was used, according to Jones, to acquire talent for the 2022 season.

Part of the plan, right?

Eagles back on top

The Philadelphia Eagles’ plan has them playing in their second Super Bowl in the past seven years, this time with a different head coach and starting quarterback.

Howie Roseman, the Eagles executive vice president of football operations, has a plan of acquiring draft picks plus signing elite talent in free agency to increase depth.

The Eagles have two first-round selections in the upcoming draft. Quarterback Jalen Hurts, who reached the Super Bowl in just his third season, receiver DeVonta Smith, tight end Dallas Goedert and defensive tackle Jordan Davis all were drafted in the last five seasons and became major contributors.

The Eagles also traded for starters wide receiver A.J. Brown, cornerback Darius Slay, safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, backup quarterback Gardner Minshew and defensive end Robert Quinn.

Signing quality free agents such as cornerback James Bradberry and linebacker Haason Reddick proved smart decisions.

And during the 2022 season, the Eagles and Cowboys both looked outside the organization to address glaring needs up front on defense. Philadelphia signed veteran tackles Ndamukong Shu and Linvale Joseph. The Cowboys stayed with their own draft picks but also traded for Johnathan Hankins, who missed several games with a pectoral strain.

So making the correct personnel decisions factor in the Eagles’ improvement in comparison to the Cowboys.

49ers knocking on door

In some ways, you don’t have to necessarily win a title to show your fanbase the plan is working.

The San Francisco 49ers have a longer drought than the Cowboys when it comes to winning a Super Bowl title at 28 years. Yet, they’ve been to seven NFC title games with two Super Bowl appearances in that stretch.

Dallas was eliminated from the postseason the past two seasons by the 49ers. In 2021, General Manager John Lynch gambled and traded two first-round picks for quarterback Trey Lance, who has started only four games due to injuries.

Lynch drafted tight end George Kittle, running back/wide receiver Deebo Samuel and defensive end Nick Bosa. He traded for running back Christian McCaffrey, tackle Trent Williams and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the 49ers’ push for a title. And don’t forget free agent pickups cornerback Charvarius Ward and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, more than just “some guys” on the roster.

Jerry Jones is quick to point out the 49ers’ drought.

“San Francisco is in the same boat,” he said. “But my point is, that has not been the same for [28] years. There’s been many different things done over [28] years. The same way there would have been had you changed out general managers or the same way that you do if you changed out owners. I have to change in my mirror. Emphasize that. That’s what I’m saying to our fans. I like the incentive that we have to win. We push a lot out there. It’s contrary to some things. It is critical that we win. And we work to win and we’ve won a lot of football games. It’s important to win a Super Bowl.”

The 49ers’ and Eagles’ plans are working better than the Cowboys’.

“At the end of the day, can you do it like the Rams? Can you do it like Philly and load up for a year and hope it all falls into place? You could,” Stephen Jones said. “We’ve got to measure that. Is there the right guy who makes you maybe lose one of those young guys you want to keep but you lose him? You could. We’ve got to measure that.”

In the past two seasons, the Cowboys have won 24 regular season games and advanced to the NFC divisional round of the postseason. Progress from within the organization, but frustration for a fanbase seeking to end a drought.

“We’ve won 25 games in two years,” McClay said, including the postseason victory over Tampa Bay this year. “But we got to win the big one. But you want to have an opportunity to get to that big one. That’s the philosophy.”

The drought is at 27 years and growing.

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Visit dallasnews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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