The Dallas Cowboys last built a dynastic roster in the early 1990s, during the first years Jerry Jones owned them, by using strategies that ran counter to NFL convention. They furiously traded down in drafts to multiply their selections years before other teams saw the wisdom in it, and they focused on faster, smaller defensive players. They won three championships in four years, becoming perhaps the most dominant force in modern NFL history.
Since the Cowboys last won the Super Bowl 21 seasons ago, they have won just three playoff games. But Dallas is again building a roster capable of sustained contention, if not the supremacy possible before the salary cap leveled the league. The Cowboys have won nine consecutive games for the first time in franchise history, a history that spans 57 seasons and five Super Bowl titles.
They will enter their Thanksgiving showdown with the Washington Redskins at 9-1, the best record in the NFL. They are powered by an offensive line with three recent first-round draft picks, a rookie running back drafted higher than any other since 2012 and a precocious fourth-round quarterback who replaced and then supplanted franchise face Tony Romo – “this miracle that we call Dak Prescott,” Jones said.
The Cowboys have built a roster on little miracles and impeccable drafting. But in devoting so many resources to the offensive line and choosing a running back so early, they have used the same guiding principle Jones saw as the key to building his first great run of Cowboys teams.
“What we’ve been able to do is basically go against what is en vogue,” Jones said.
The construction of Dallas’s current roster traces back to the tenure of Bill Parcells, who left after the 2006 season. Under Parcells, the Cowboys grew more efficient in the draft. They pared their draft board and worried less about overall quality than about fit for their system.
“Believe it or not, I give Bill Parcells a lot of credit in terms of when we made a major shift, a sea change if you will,” said Cowboys CEO and Director of Player Personnel Stephen Jones, who is Jerry’s son. “He caused us to reduce the number of players we had up on our board, almost cut it in half. It allows you to really focus on the players that work for you and your coaching staff, and the type of guys you want. Even though you know a guy might be picked in the first round, he may not work for us.”
The outlook has fashioned an offensive line that allows the Cowboys to block better than any NFL team does anything. Only once, in 2011, did the Cowboys enter a draft certain they would pick an offensive lineman first. They had lost several linemen to retirement or free agency, and they needed a left tackle to protect Tony Romo. With the ninth pick, they chose Tyron Smith over Nate Solder. Both are excellent; Smith is exceptional.
“His parents cleaned buildings,” Jerry Jones said. “At 6 p.m. in the afternoon, he would go in with them and work into the night. He did that from the time he was 8 or 9 years old. When you interviewed him, he was so proud of that: that he had that work ethic.”
In 2013, the Cowboys traded down and chose center Travis Frederick 31st overall. Instantly, pundits slammed them for reaching. The Cowboys knew Frederick may not be a first-round talent, but they have set criteria for every position in the draft, and Frederick checked every box they wanted in a lineman, most of all intelligence: Frederick graduated with an aerospace engineering degree.
“You can’t have a receiver mentality and be an offensive lineman,” Stephen Jones said. “On the offensive line, maybe more so than any position other than quarterback, I think your football IQ is huge.”
The most pivotal pick the Cowboys made came in 2014. The Cowboys held the 16th overall pick, and they entered the draft intent on picking a defensive player. As the draft unfolded, two developments surprised them: All the defensive players they had identified were taken, and quarterback Johnny Manziel dropped.
The elder Jones had made his affection for Manziel clear, and he wanted to find Romo’s eventual successor. Coaches and scouts wanted guard Zack Martin. Legend has it that Stephen Jones snatched a draft card with Manziel’s name on it out of his father’s hands so the Cowboys could draft Martin.
“At the end of the day, that story has probably been overblown,” Stephen Jones said. “What Jerry did was challenge everybody in their heart on Johnny Manziel.”
The pick displayed how the Cowboys operate. Everyone knows Jones is in charge. But he is willing to be overruled by consensus.
“Everybody stood in there strong, as did I, and told Jerry, ‘The consensus is, we should go with Zack, because of some of the extenuating circumstances with Johnny,’ ” Stephen Jones said. “I tell everybody: If he wanted to pick Johnny, he’d have taken Johnny. He’s in charge. He decided to go with the room.”
“I went right down to the wire on that one,” Jerry Jones said. “It has always been, and maybe contrary to popular belief, I am a good listener.”
Entering this year’s offseason, the Cowboys wanted an elite pass-rusher with the fourth pick. As they evaluated the players available, they concluded the draft offered none.
If they couldn’t help their defense with a pass-rusher, they decided the best available method would be to bolster their ability to control the ball. The Cowboys’ defense has averaged 26 minutes on the field this season, the least time in the NFL. The Cowboys know they are not great on defense. By design, they don’t have to play much of it.
“We don’t have a lot of history of past production on our defense,” Stephen Jones said. “We got a lot of guys playing hard, and we’re keeping them fresh. It’s paid off.”
Most teams have leaned away from picking running backs in the first round, especially as early as the fourth pick. The more the Cowboys learned about Ezekiel Elliott, the more they believed he would be the right choice. Jones said he was the best college running back without the ball – running routes and pass protecting – the Cowboys had seen since he bought the team in 1989.
Having passed on Manziel two years prior, Jones also entered the draft even more intent on finding Romo’s successor. The 2015 season had turned dismal after Romo suffered a series of injuries, with the Cowboys toggling between Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel on the way to a 4-12 record.
Jerry Jones attended a personal workout for Paxton Lynch in Memphis and left enamored. Lynch dropped into the 20s, past several teams Jones thought might take a quarterback. The Cowboys “got real busy,” Jones said, making a blizzard of calls in an effort to trade up to take Lynch, targeting a deal at No. 27. At pick No. 26, the Denver Broncos made their own deal, moved up and took Lynch.
Jones shifted his focus to a quarterback who could be taken in a later round. The Cowboys’ coaching staff had worked the Senior Bowl, and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan had come away from his time coaching Prescott adamant he could succeed.
“Scott basically said, ‘He’s got It,’ ” Jones said.
No one with the Cowboys believed Prescott could adapt so quickly. But with Prescott flaunting a 17-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and Elliott already over 1,000 yards rushing with nine touchdowns, the Cowboys have a pair of MVP candidates in their backfield, operating behind a monstrous offensive line. They have a chance to advance further than they have in two decades, a bright future that brings a hint of the past.