When Jason Garrett took over as the head coach in Dallas, one of his foremost goals was to get younger. He inherited an old team made up of declining players with bloated contracts. At the end of the 2010 season, the Cowboys had 15 players 28 or older on their roster, including seven who were 30 or older.
Dallas' 22 starters in 2010 averaged 29.2 years of age, which was tied for the oldest in the NFL (with the Ravens and Vikings). In his time at the helm, Garrett has engineered a significant roster overhaul: at the start of the 2015 season, the average age of the Cowboys’ 53-man roster was 26.02, which was 14th in the NFL.
This trend toward youth has continued this offseason. Off the roster are elder statesmen Nick Hayden (29) and Jeremy Mincey (32); they have been replaced by Cedric Thornton (27) and recent signee Bronson Mayowa, who is 24.
In addition, Dallas has bid adieu to 31-year old Tyler Clutts and Danny McCray (28), both of whom are sure to be replaced by younger models. At present, the Cowboys have only four players on their roster aged 30; three of them—Tony Romo (35), Jason Witten (33) and Doug Free (32) are offensive starters; the other is long snapper L.P. Ladouceur.
You'll notice that not a single defensive player is over 30. In fact, that side of the ball features only three players—Sean Lee, Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick, all of whom are 29—older than 27. Dallas top eight defensive linemen average 24.5 years of age; the average age of their top eight linebackers is 25.3; and the average age of Dallas' corners and safeties is currently just 25.9.
The Cowboys are assembling a young defensive core and, given the likelihood that they will select players from a strong defensive crop players in April's NFL draft, will soon be getting even younger.
It must be said, of course, that there's nothing particularly special about youth for youth's sake; teams are often young because they are undergoing a total roster purge or because the veterans are fleeing the franchise like rats on a sinking ship. The key here is that the Cowboys youth is extremely talented.
Last year at this time, ESPN recognized them as having the league's best "Under 25" talent, and with good reason: all the offensive linemen other than Doug Free are 25 or younger; defenders Randy Gregory, Byron Jones, and DeMarcus Lawrence are all 23.
Regardless of talent, going young offers tangible benefits. The first is that it allows teams to be more fiscally responsible. The organization had realized that it had been burned too many times by well-compensated players who had grown long in the tooth and as a result, their payroll was freighted with a preponderance of high-priced, aging stars with declining production. Not only are young'uns cheaper, but their arrows are pointing up; young teams get better, both in-season and year-by-year.
The second benefit is that younger players tend to be hungrier. In many respects, this is motivation for the all-important second contract. Guys like Zack Martin and Byron Jones, the thinking goes, tend to be more motivated than veterans who have advanced in their careers because they are still reaching for the carrot at the end of the stick. With that mindset, they are less likely to take plays off or skip practices. Speaking on this topic, Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli told reporters:
"They might hurt, and say, ‘I’d better stay in if I want to make this team,’" defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "There’s hunger in there. I think that’s really a positive."
Along these lines, young players are, in general, more receptive to coaching. Think about it: a guy who hasn't yet arrived, and who is striving for that big payday is going to do whatever it takes to get there. And, if a coach can give him any edge that will help him to achieve that, the player will be all ears.
Furthermore, young legs are fresher late in games and, most importantly, late in seasons. In the early 1990s, Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys were the league's youngest team. In 1992, they won their final five games, by an average margin of 21 points; in 1993, they won their final eight games by an average score of 29.6-13.9.
In short, as comparative greybeards suffered from increasingly tired legs, Johnson's youthful charges stayed fresh—and, as a result, increased any talent advantages they owned each and every critical late-season week.
In 2014, we witnessed a similar result. A healthy, young Cowboys team led the NFL in scoring margin in December, after outpacing the opposition 165-79.
That translates to a shocking 41.25-19.75 average per game score. As other, older teams faded, the young Cowboys got better and better, to the point where they produced at an historic level: the 165 December points represented the greatest scoring month in franchise history as well as the seventh highest-scoring single month in NFL history.
To my mind, the primary benefit of going young - and the principal reason for 2014's December explosion - is that young teams tend to be injured less. Perhaps more properly, young players tend to recover much more quickly from the inevitable dings that this brutal game is sure to inflict.
A roster full of older guys who take longer to recover historically suffers from a higher number of games missed - and, crucially, more practices missed during weeks in which they do manage to get on the field. In short, young teams maximize the limited time the new CBA gives them to prepare.
As they say, December games are won and lost in March, April, and May. With this in mind, as the Cowboys spend the offseason refusing to pay big money to older free agents and jettison all but the very best of their own older players, it’s important to remember that youth confers advantages that are exacerbated in the NFL's crucible. As was the case in 2014, we may be glad of these advantages come December.
For more thoughts on how the Cowboys are doing this offseason, follow Shawn on Twitter @rabblerousr.