Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Chatting Cowboys with Rafa Vela

book56_300One thing we want to do here at Inside Corner as the Dallas Cowboy season goes on is quite a few chats with other people around the Cowboys World who can add plenty of wisdom to the conversation.

Hopefully, you are familiar with the guys at BloggingtheBoys.com . They have some of the very best Cowboys analysis available, and I check it out all of the time. In fact, this year, those guys have put together an entire Cowboys annual that is on newstands now . I have my own copy, and I would love for you to check it out.

Anyway, Rafael Vela is a writer who I have followed for several years. He is one of my favorites because he uses evidence rather than emotion to craft his opinions. I always prefer that type of mind over the "fly off the handle" emotional writers. His writings dive deep, and I generally enjoy what he offers. Anyway, he was kind enough to give me 60 minutes and we have about 3,000 words for you to consider this morning as we prepare for the 2009 season.

Here it is:

Bob: Ok. I am a big fan of your blog, and I think you guys are pretty dialed in. So, tell me how you feel about this camp vibe of "flying under the radar" it seems...

Rafaelv: That's fine with me. Last year was Jerry having to relearn a lesson. Too many moving parts off the field.

Rafaelv: Hard Knocks was distracting for me, and I never played a down.

Bob: So, you agree with the premise that the circus has left town to a certain extent?

Rafaelv: There's always a circus. The last S.A. camp was pretty tame, in comparison to Oxnard '08, but it was a circus compared to the last Tuna Camp.

Rafaelv: A lot of glad handing on the sideline. But I get the sense they're working on football rather than doing things for the cameras. They were well aware all their moves were being taped last year.

Bob: But from a purely personnel manner, I obviously look at the moves where they had to choose between bringing in someone to handle the strong personalities, or subtract those personalities. They obviously opted for the exit strategy.

Rafaelv: Right. But it goes much deeper than T.O. and Pacman and Tank Johnson

Bob: Ellis and Roy?

Rafaelv: I'm going to look really hard at special teams this coming week, because they decided it was more than Bruce Read dragging them down there last year.

Rafaelv: They're remaking the entire squad. And they should.

Rafaelv: Those guys made Bruce DeHaven look like a chump too.

Bob: What else was wrong with the special teams? Do you mean players like Burnett and Keith Davis types?

Rafaelv: That core, Burnett, Davis, Carpenter, Watkins and Rogers, has been around since '06. I think that Carpenter will be the only survivor this year.

Rafaelv: It was a dumb unit. Too many mental mistakes at key times.

Rafaelv: Pat Watkins made a third of the unit's penalties last year and half of those were personal fouls.

Rafaelv: Wade knows he can't let his job depend on guys like that this year.

Bob: Interesting. It seems like a good number of that part of the roster goes back to the Parcells era (I think of Hurd and Austin, too), and it is time for so many of them to take a major step forward or move along. Stanback comes to mind, too. Your point on Watkins is spot on.

Rafaelv: You have noticed how few defenders are around from the Parcells days?

Rafaelv: One starter in the secondary.

Bob: For sure.

Rafaelv: Two among the linebackers.

Rafaelv: Parcells drafted a lot of those guys, but remember,they also drove him into retirement.

Bob: Now, is the secondary better? That is my question. I am having a hard time being Bullish on Jenkins and Sensabaughat this particular moment. They need huge years from both it would seem.

Rafaelv: I have not seen them but I feel good about both of them, depending on reports I've gotten from people I trust.

Rafaelv: Is Jenkins going to be worse or better than the '09 version of Anthony Henry?

Rafaelv: Can Sensabaugh cover any worse than Roy Williams?

Rafaelv: The bar isn't that high.

Bob: I should point out that you will not get to camp until tomorrow. I am not asking about practice performance. The bar is not high, but the performance must be for this team to do better than '08

Rafaelv: Sensabaugh has to be league average and Dallas makes a big jump.

Rafaelv: Dallas has had some of the worst safety play in the game since Darren Woodson retired.

Bob: Safety was bare bones in '08. Not to skip around, but the depth at OL is disconcerting looking forward at a possible pitfall.

Rafaelv: Keith Davis was awful as a free safety. So was Watkins. Roy could never cover and lost his ability to tackle.

Rafaelv: O line is a concern.

Bob: who is the 6th and 7th best OL men in your estimation?

Rafaelv: They have some maneuverability -- if ONE guy gets injured.

Rafaelv: They can't tolerate two injuries at once.

Rafaelv: 6 and 7? Hmmm. Proctor is 6th.

Rafaelv: Holland is probably 7th and I'm hardly a fan.

Rafaelv: those two names should tell you a lot.

Bob: I see no tackle depth by both of our opinions on #6 and #7

Rafaelv: I can see Leonard Davis swing to LT if Flo gets a serious injury. They guy who must stay healthy is Colombo, cause I don't see a replacement for him on the roster.

Bob: You know, Flozell is a punching bag - and rightfully so on many counts, but he is right up high on the list of guys you CANNOT lose. They cannot afford tackle injuries. Slippery slope for sure.

Rafaelv: Flo is a punching bag, but he impressed me by playing November with no arms last year.

Bob: That Brewster injury is a fairly underated off-season story, no? Not sure he can play, and given the drafting of OL around here, but...

Rafaelv: I don't know. I don't think he was going to contribute anyway. I heard in the camps that he needed to seriously improve his strength. Now, there have been some horror stories about his injury but a doctor I spoke to said he can be back working out by mid-season. If handled correctly, this will set him back ten weeks or so, but we'll have to see how he uses his rehab time.

Rafaelv: I don't think it harms the team much unless he can't rehab it long term.

Bob: So where do you see the tackle depth chart in Week 1?

Bob: Week 1 of regular season that is.

Rafaelv: I need to see Doug Free before I answer that. He was the big disappointment to me last year. He looked really promising in '07 and he looked awful last summer.

Rafaelv: Week one? I would go with the starting five, Proctor, Holland and the 8th spot will either be Free if he makes a push or McQ if he doesn't, cause McQ can play the wedge on kickoffs.

Bob: fair enough. Let's talk Jason Garrett. Where did he go wrong in 2008?

Rafaelv: Where did he go wrong? I'm in the minority here but I think his "intelligence" was directly correlated to the length of his injury list.

Rafaelv: He had some bad games, like Washington one, but he never had a healthy o-line, he lost Felix Jones after six games, T.O.began a rapid decline and Jason Witten was stapled together every week.

Bob: Well played. Let's dive into that more. I believe there is simplicity when people summarize the failure of last season. It is all "Romo cannot win in December" and "Owens split the team up" But surely, the injuries were a monster last year.

Rafaelv: And he didn't give himself a decent backup QB

Rafaelv: Yeah, and they made some bad personnel moves. They gave T.O. an extension when they didn't have to. They threw away their leverage and gave him a comfort zone, which you should never do as a front office.

Rafaelv: And Brad Johnson was a mistake.

Rafaelv: And I don't know why Montrae Holland needed 15 weeks to get into the lineup.

Bob: Brad Johnson was a major mistake on so many levels. Didn't it seem somewhat obvious to the naked eye at camp?

Rafaelv: Yeah, it did, but Romo escapes rushes so well, I think people got spoiled.

Bob: You add Felix Jones, Miles Austin, Kyle Kosier, Romo, Barber, and Witten's injuries, and things were certainly stretched. It seems that the combination reduced many of the playbook options...and thus made the offense pretty predictable when Romo came back.

Bob: And the weather turned...and the schedule stiffened, too.

Rafaelv: They're playing a similar game this year at backup NT. Junor Siavii looked awful last year and he's the guy right now.

Rafaelv: They need Free to step forward and they need to find a guy to give them 20 snaps a game on the nose.

Rafaelv: And those two positions are real hard to find.

Bob: I really think Garrett made the team too easy to defend, despite all of that, by going crazy with the Shotgun "11" package down the stretch.

Rafaelv: Well, I'm not so sure.

Rafaelv: I did a piece on the team's red zone performances from '07 and '08 and found that they were a really bad power running team,

Rafaelv: which is surprising given their size and the reputations of Adams, Gurode and Davis.

Rafaelv: This was not a team that could pound you on 3rd and 2 or in goalline.

Rafaelv: The shotgun, draws and tosses were what they did well.

Bob: I don't disagree, but I think they need some more options where it could be pass or run. To go straight shotgun makes defense much easier from a pass rush standpoint. And with Flozell and Columbo having trouble protecting the flanks (Philly), it was a recipe for disaster.

Rafaelv: And I don't know if they can do that now. WYSIWYG withthat line.

Bob: And it wasn't just games where they were behind. They ran big shotgun against Washington at home, SF at home, NYG at home. They just fell in love with it.

Rafaelv: I wipe out that Philly game. It's a non-entity to me. That team shut down after that Baltimore loss. The Eagles loss had nothing to do with tactics. They didn't want to play anymore.

Bob: I agree with that. I was just speaking of the inability to keep people off Romo

Rafaelv: That's not having a backup LT. Again, this is what I'm talking about earlier.

Bob: True. I guess I am very excited about the "12" - which worked well at times, but with Martellus entering year 2, I think this should be a huge package for them.

Rafaelv: FLo had a neck stinger that weakened his left arm and a SERIOUS infection in his right hand. I had a doc telling me he would have had FLo in the hospital with an IV drip fore that infection.

Rafaelv: Yet, Kosier was already out, so they didn't want to move Davis to LT cause Holland wasn't ready and Proctor was already starting at LG.

Rafaelv: They can't handle more than oneinjury on that line.

Bob: Yep. That was holding it together with tape. I wonder why more effort was not made to fortify that in the offseason. We know this line is not getting younger

Rafaelv: Flo should have been shut down to heal mid-season.

Rafaelv: I think the gut punch wasn't losing Brewster, but having Seattle trade up one spot ahead of them to get Max Unger. They thought they were going to get a gift with him and he was snatched from their grasp. He would be the number six right now sight unseen.

Bob: Do you think the '09 offense will be worse than '08 like the scribes suggest? I know they won't have an Owens-type, but it seems if healthy, this team has plenty of mismatch issues for opponents to sweat

Rafaelv: No, not at all. I think it will be closer to '07 than '08.

Rafaelv: I think T.O.is cooked.

Bob: It would seem that Felix brings tons of issues, as does Martellus. Witten is Witten, so the WR group only has to be good - not great.

Rafaelv: Bennett is gonna be a monster, Witten is healthy again and Felix Jones could be a special player. I've been screaming for him to start for weeks. He's Tiki Barber II to my eyes.

Rafaelv: Right. Look at New England. In their scheme, they need a guy to stretch the field so Moss and Welker can work. They guy doesn't have to be great,just good and fast. They had Dante Balsa-Wood Stallworth there in the 16-0 year and they're going with Joey Galloway now. Miles Austin can do this, so he simply needs to stay on the field and he makes Witten and Bennett much better.
Bob: Wow. Make your case for Jones over Barber.

Rafaelv: Jones? He's the most complete back on the team. (Here is a full essay on why Felix Jones should start that Rafael has written .)

Rafaelv: When he came out of Arkansas, he had the second best career YPA in college football history.

Bob: Have we seen enough to know that he can hold up to the NFL work load?

Rafaelv: And the naysayers said he rode on Darren McFadden's cape.

Rafaelv: Well, he averaged around 8 yards a carry last year.

Rafaelv: He doesn't have to be THE GUY.

Rafaelv: Nobody does that any more.

Bob: I love him, I just wonder if I like him more as a change-up or "the guy" who gets the important carries at the key times.

Rafaelv: But he averaged 16 yards a carry on toss plays last year. It was a really small sample, but he's a home run hitter.

Rafaelv: Barber isn't.

Bob: Barber makes defenses run away at times from pain.

Rafaelv: No, he should be the guy playing when the defense is fresh cause he's the better speed guy, he's the better receiver AND his YPC was better on inside runs as well.

Rafaelv: I think he should have 15-16 touches a game.

Bob: Can he pick up that 3rd down blitzer?

Rafaelv: From what I saw, yes,

Rafaelv: but he's such a receiving weapon I'd rather challenge LBs to cover him in space.

Rafaelv: It's not a far fight.

Bob: So, ideally, how would you split touches from Felix, to Barber, to Choice?

Rafaelv: I wrote a piece on this before. They don't have enough carries to go around for three.

Rafaelv: But using the Giants system as a guide, with about 28 carries a game?

Bob: sure

Rafaelv: Jones 11, Barber 14, Choice about 3.

Rafaelv: With Jones getting about 3-4 catches a game.

Bob: It really seems that this offense should be very dynamic.

Rafaelv: One thing lost in the rubble was that Garrett had them running screens very well last year.

Rafaelv: But Jones never got one. He only had two catches period.

Bob: The stress on LB's is unreal with Witten/Tellus/Felix.

Rafaelv: Right.

Bob: It suggests Romo should have shorter passes to throw, but the danger is after the catch

Rafaelv: The key is keeping that starting OL healthy.

Bob: I don't buy all of this "pound the ball" 60/40 garbage. I think less shotgun 3WR, but plenty of throw to create mismatches

Rafaelv: I take "Romo friendly" as meaning a lot more passes to TEs and backs, more bootlegs, screens and semi-rollouts.

Bob: Then we are on the same page.

Rafaelv: Nobody runs 60/40.

Rafaelv: This ain't college.

Bob: Please explain that to the generic sports talk caller and message board poster.

Rafaelv: The Ravens ran 58/42 and that's cause they had a rookie QB and banged up WRs.

Rafaelv: The Giants ran around 50/50.

Rafaelv: I have a theory that a lot of fans can't see the qualitative difference between college and pro and think pro teams can whip up on teams like a top 10 college team does.

Bob: And this leads to an angry fan base when you only win by a smaller margin than Vegas suggests.

Bob: One last thing before our time runs out....What do you think about the 2 kicker crunch on the bottom of the roster on game day?

Rafaelv: Don't know if it's a crutch. I'm going to look really hard at Matt Stewart in camp.

Rafaelv: He can't be any worse than Justin Rogers as a LB.

Bob: I just think that long snapper, P, K, K, and such reduces your options on game day so you can only go with 7 OL or 4 WR for instance.

Rafaelv: If he can deep snap -- and he's doing a lot of snapping -- he takes Ladouceur's place and Roger's place and you have room for a second kicker.

Bob: Ah. Nice plan.

Rafaelv: I didn't understand why he was signed until I read he's snapping.

Rafaelv: but Ladouceur is good, so Stewart will have to be damn good to make itwork.

Rafaelv: but I think this is what they want to have happen.

Bob: This USC K is the talk of camp on many levels. Seems like it would be quite a story if he ever covers a punt in the regular season.

Rafaelv: Stewart is key to this. I'll let you know how he does.

Bob: Cool. Thanks for the hour. Really Appreciate the time.

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