While willful ignorance rules the day at The Star, Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns are just the latest to show the way in the modern era.
Yes. The Browns. The NFL’s laughingstock is establishing itself as the AFC North favorite by sending picks to New York for Odell Beckham Jr. after already obtaining Pro Bowl defensive end Olivier Vernon from the cost-cutting Giants in a separate deal.
The Browns are all in, as they should be. That’s what teams with good young quarterbacks on rookie contracts have learned to do. Scratch that. That’s what most teams with good young quarterbacks on rookie contracts have learned to do.
As Dak Prescott moves into Year Four, the final season of his rookie contract, the Cowboys play a waiting game that is equal parts baffling and frustrating for their fans. It’s not like the team is incompetent. It’s not like they are compiling one losing season after another.
The Cowboys are winning, just not much. Not enough, anyway. They see themselves as the class of the division because they have won it three of the last five seasons but — as you all too painfully know — none of those teams advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs.
I say “willful ignorance” because it’s not like the Cowboys don’t know what others are doing. They have simply chosen to take a pass. Yes, they took a shot at Sammy Watkins and missed last winter and they did trade a first-round pick for Amari Cooper, but only after their miscalculations led to a 3-4 record. They shake their heads at the notion of short-term acquisitions providing help.
Now time has expired on building a powerful team around a quarterback who makes $2 million this season after earning $630,000 last season. Next year’s number will be in the $20 million range, so the days of Prescott counting for less than 1 percent of the team’s salary cap total are gone. The Cowboys could have followed the lead of so many others, but they never went all in after discovering what the fourth round had brought them in 2016.
Seattle and Pete Carroll showed the way six years ago. Russell Wilson, a third-round pick, won a playoff game as a rookie. The Seahawks traded their first-round pick and rebuilt their defensive line in free agency with Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. They won the next Super Bowl and went to two.
The Los Angeles Rams, after hiring Sean McVay — who proved quickly that Jared Goff was not, in fact, a bust — went to the playoffs in 2017 and went all in with one-year signings and veteran acquisitions for 2018. They came up just short but they went to the Super Bowl. How much would an NFC title in Dallas feel like success after not earning one the last 23 years?
I’m not going to suggest the Eagles knew these moves would lead to a Lombardi Trophy, but following Carson Wentz’s rookie season, realizing they needed better receivers, they moved quickly in free agency to add Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. The Nick Foles signing didn’t hurt, either. Howie Roseman’s 2017 offseason goes on a different chart, perhaps, but it still represented a team trying to upgrade with veterans quickly around a young quarterback.
The Browns are simply the latest. They saw what Baker Mayfield could do as a rookie, guiding a team that had gone 0-16 to a 7-8-1 record and remaining alive for a wild-card spot into late December. They have added Beckham and Kareem Hunt to the offense, Vernon to the defense and probably should be favored over Baltimore as the best team in the division.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones loves to talk about how many games Prescott has won since starting from Day One. The 32-16 regular-season record is remarkable, which leads to the frustrating part. The most veteran-laden team Prescott has guided (on both sides of the ball) was his first. Since the success of 2016, the Cowboys have steadily created a younger team, which is fine on its own, but it’s a 1990s way of doing business. When the Cowboys won three of four Super Bowls, that wonderful core was maintained at least through the first two titles until the free-agency rules began to change and team-building methods evolved.
Teams get to Super Bowls now with all kinds of blends of young and old. But for those fortunate enough not to be paying their quarterback 10 percent of their salary cap or more, adding key veterans to support those young passers has been a proven path to success.
This was the Cowboys’ last chance to add an Earl Thomas to the other side of the ball, to provide a different kind of quarterback for the defense. The Baltimore Ravens, who made the playoffs with a rookie quarterback last season, added Thomas instead after suffering significant losses to their defense.
That’s one thing the Cowboys avoid. They lost Cole Beasley and Geoff Swaim and Damien Wilson — solid contributors for sure, especially Beasley — but major losses will not be suffered this year. The Cowboys seek to maintain the status quo in a league where it no longer really even exists. And the time just expired to take advantage of Prescott’s status as a bargain.
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