The Dallas Cowboys are in an interesting position. For three consecutive seasons, they've finished 8-8 and just behind the winner of the NFC East, putting them on the perennial edge between success and failure. If the team wants to move away from that edge and ensure that it wins consistently, I think some changes might be in order.
In the NFL today, more and more teams are run like the ultra-professional New England Patriots. With recent cellar-dwellers like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers shaping up lately, there are fewer pushovers on the schedule -- and it's important for a team that wants to win to always bring its "A" game.
The key to keeping up is to have a focused strategy in place. Look at the San Francisco 49ers, who ended a stretch of eight consecutive non-winning seasons with three straight NFC Championship Game appearances -- plus one trip to the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys historically have been among the league's elite, as evidenced by NFL Network's celebration of the team's legacy this week as part of "Dynasty Month." The franchise has claimed five Lombardi Trophies -- winning the Super Bowl three times during one four-year span in the 1990s -- and has been a significant playoff contender as recently as 2009. As we edge toward the 2014 season, I've come up with a five-point, four-year plan to help the Cowboys return to glory.
1) Hire a director of football operations.
Owner Jerry Jones is tremendous at marketing the Cowboys and building up the franchise's value. No one can ever accuse him of not doing everything he can or spending whatever he thinks is necessary to help his team be successful. He definitely is not the kind of owner whose reluctance to pony up holds the team back. That said, I think the task of running a football team today has become much more complicated than it's ever been, especially with respect to the salary cap. Consider how many staff members most front offices have, with people who dedicate their time to just one or two aspects of keeping an organization running.
This is why Jones would do well to hire an NFL insider -- a veteran front office figure with a background in personnel and preferably general-manager experience -- to direct the football side of the business, specifically with regard to scouting players. The hire in this scenario would be trusted enough that Jones could leave most of the football decisions to this person and focus more on his role of being the owner.
It would be important for the hire to have final say for at least one key reason: so that players wouldn't try to work around this person during contract negotiations. When I worked for the Cowboys, I handled all the contracts, but players sometimes tried to work around me and go directly to coach Tom Landry, which would prompt this response: "I don't have anything to do with that; that's Gil Brandt's job." Dallas needs someone who will have a strong enough presence to maintain a key role in the equation.
2) Refocus the draft strategy.
The path to success in the salary-cap era is rooted in the draft, as the Super Bowl-winning Seahawks -- with their largely homegrown roster -- have demonstrated. The teams that are doing well right now have done a great job controlling their own cap situations by relying on young (and relatively inexpensive) talent.
The Cowboys would likely improve their draft yield by first looking for the most talented player and then considering need. In the past, they've hampered themselves by focusing on filling roster holes rather than taking the best prospect available, leading them to sometimes reach for players. Picking a prospect ahead of where his rating suggests he should be picked often leads to trouble. With the exception of the quarterback position, it's important to stick to the ratings and values you place on players heading into the draft.
3) Turn up the heat on the quarterback hunt.
Speaking of the quarterback position, the Cowboys are set for now with veteran Tony Romo, who is not yet on the decline. That said, he's about to turn 34 and is going to count for $27 million against the cap in 2015. Oh, and he's coming off back surgery. Romo's days as an effective signal-caller eventually will come to an end, and the Cowboys would be wise to prepare themselves ahead of time by looking for his successor now. That process starts in the draft.
This is an ideal year to grab a quarterback. Dallas might want to take a look at someone like Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo, SMU's Garrett Gilbert, Pittsburgh's Tom Savage or Georgia's Aaron Murray. But the Cowboys shouldn't stop there; even if they find someone who has promise, they should always have their eye out for the next quarterback of the future.
Think of the San Francisco 49ers, who drafted Colin Kaepernick in 2011 even though they had Alex Smith in the fold, or the Seattle Seahawks, who selected Russell Wilson in 2012 even though they'd signed Matt Flynn a month earlier. The moves paid off for both squads, as Kaepernick's emergence allowed the Niners to deal Smith for draft picks (including a second-rounder this year), while Wilson, of course, went on to help the 'Hawks capture the Lombardi Trophy.
When I was with the Cowboys, we were habitually trying to find somebody to groom behind our starting quarterback, whether we were adding Roger Staubach and Craig Morton behind Don Meredith or adding Danny White behind Staubach. I think Dallas should always be looking for a developmental quarterback or two to have waiting in the wings.
4) Spend more carefully.
The Cowboys surprised many by parting ways with longtime defensive stalwart DeMarcus Ware this offseason, but if the salary cap hadn't jumped up as much as it did, they would have been in line for even more drastic cuts. Rather than continuing to play near the salary-cap edge, Dallas should focus on getting the situation under control.
The team's approach to staying under the cap has been driven largely by the tactic of re-working contracts and pushing the pain off to future years, likely with the expectation that the cap will continue to rise. But it would be better not to borrow so much against the future.
Improving contract valuation could go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. Dallas has paid too much money over the years to veteran players like receiver Roy Williams and running back Marion Barber. The Cowboys likely fall into this trap because they find themselves scrambling to fill holes left on their roster by poor drafts. Teams that have holes to fill tend to overpay. (Truth be told, almost every single free agent who gets signed, in general, is overpaid to some degree.) Overpaying someone who ends up getting cut later leads to another salary-cap woe: the accumulation of dead money, which takes up crucial space. Structuring contracts so that guaranteed money is paid out earlier could also help reduce the amount of dead money the Cowboys have to deal with.
5) Cement a franchise identity.
Great organizations have a solid identity and don't change with the wind. They don't shift their schemes suddenly or make erratic changes in strategy, because they have a carefully considered plan to begin with. This comes from taking a consistent approach to the draft, contracts and what you do on the football field -- and that's where the director of football operations would come in. Continuing to stick with head coach Jason Garrett would also significantly further this objective. I know Garrett well, and I know what kind of person he is and how extremely smart he is.
This isn't to say that the team shouldn't adapt to the times. In fact, taking a proactive approach to things like football analytics -- which the Jacksonville Jaguars are doing with mind-boggling alacrity -- can be an important part of shaping an organization's identity. Statistical analysis has the potential to change the league in the same way that the advent of computer technology did 25 years ago, and keeping up with that can ensure that the Cowboys continue growing and getting better in a grounded, smart way.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.