Free to choose, Cowboys didn't

NFL veterans Eric Winston, Charles Woodson and Tyson Clabo all were available through free agency to fill roster deficiencies. None were picked up by Dallas. Are the Cowboys realizing this is a young man's game? Getty Images

IRVING, Texas -- Since NFL free agency began in March, the Dallas Cowboys have passed on tackles Tyson Clabo and Eric Winston. The same goes for safety Charles Woodson and linebacker Brian Urlacher.


Finally, someone at Valley Ranch gets it.

You don't win in the NFL by signing over-the-hill faux stars, paying solid players like they're superstars or benching young athletes for dudes who are a notch or two above serviceable.

Jerry Jones has always lived by this credo, so it's unlikely his philosophy has changed.

And since Stephen Jones hasn't talked Jerry out of too many bad ideas lately, let's not give him any credit for this subtle shift in protocol.

Give the credit to Jason Garrett, because it falls in line with the way he wants to build a football team.

Say what you will about Garrett -- much of the criticism he receives is warranted -- but he gives this franchise direction. Maybe you don't like the road he's driving down, but at least he's not driving in circles.

Just so you know, these particular decisions don't have anything to do with the Cowboys being tight against the salary cap. They can always find money and salary-cap space when they need it.

Nope, this is a definite philosophical change.

Just a few years ago, you know the Cowboys would have signed Woodson to fill their glaring hole at safety. Clabo would have been right there too, after the significant issues at right tackle last season.

And Jerry probably would have found a way to get Urlacher on board as well, especially with his former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli on the Cowboys' staff.

Don't laugh; you know it's true.

Remember the practice-field phone calls during the 2011 training camp, when Jerry and Stephen Jones tried their best to get 30-year-old Nnamdi Asomugha to sign because of the Cowboys' deficiencies at cornerback?

No one will ever forget former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan talking to Asomugha on the horn during practice. Heck, we still chuckle about it every few months.

How did that five-year, $60 million deal with $25 million guaranteed work out for the Philadelphia Eagles? Asomugha intercepted four passes in two seasons, struggled regularly and was released after last season.

This is a young man's game. A team like the Cowboys that is not ready to win a championship this season -- no matter what Jerry says -- gains virtually nothing from signing someone who used to be a star.

Oh, Jerry might sell a few more tickets with players such as Woodson and Urlacher on the field. And perhaps Clabo might help Dallas win another game or two.

But none of those guys is the difference between winning and losing a Super Bowl.

The Cowboys aren't one or two players away from contending for a title. They're five or six players away. Maybe more.

Besides, every snap in organized team activities, minicamp, training camp, practice and games given to a veteran at the end of his career is one fewer repetition a player such as Jermey Parnell, Matt Johnson or Sean Lee has to develop.

For a club that's 16-16 during the past two seasons, that's an awful trade-off.

Woodson, who turns 37 in October, is an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and has been named first-team All-Pro three times. Urlacher has been to eight Pro Bowls and been first-team All-Pro four times.

Both will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Each should be a first-ballot inductee. None of that will help the Cowboys win a game this season.

The NFL is a dirty game, so to speak. While teams pay hefty salaries, the contracts aren't guaranteed and the players often are discarded as soon as their performance dips. Or they're asked to take a pay cut, like the Cowboys requested of Doug Free.

Woodson took the reduced salary and signed with the Oakland Raiders, one of his few suitors. Urlacher chose retirement.

Even good players such as Clabo aren't worth the time for the Cowboys, because when this team gets to be championship-caliber, Clabo will need to be replaced.

Clabo, a starter since his rookie season, played in the 2010 Pro Bowl. But he's 31, and you don't pay age in today's NFL. Besides, you have to wonder why the Atlanta Falcons let him go. You wonder even more when all he commanded on the open market was a one-year deal for $3.5 million from the Miami Dolphins, with less than half guaranteed.

The same goes for the 29-year-old Winston, who started 103 of 108 games in his career. He remains a free agent.

The Cowboys, like most teams, finally understand that it's far better for a team's salary cap and long-term development to give draft picks and young players every opportunity to make the team. They provide a cost-effective talent base and help create the salary-cap space for a team to sign a big-money free agent who is in his prime and worth the money.

Garrett is a smart guy. He gets it.

The Cowboys benefit.