Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chatting NFL with Albert Breer

Albert Breer spent a couple of years at the Dallas Morning News recently writing a number of Dallas Cowboys items I found interesting and fresh. A lot of it was based on tracking closely various elements of Cowboys performance - and I don't mind telling you that I patterned some of what I do today off of his ideas from the 2007 season. I think it was needed, and to the best of my knowledge, he broke the barrier for stat heads here in Dallas to that extent.

Now, he has left and has joined the Sporting News and writes for them on a regular basis. Access his archive here ...

I wanted to chat with him about not only the Cowboys, but the NFC East in general, and here is how it went:

bob: I wanted to start by feeling out what you think of the Cowboys going into the year. Thoughts overall?

albertbreer: Well, having been at their camp, I'd say the focus is where it should be -- on football. Walking into the Alamodome, got the feeling it was a terrible environment for camp, and left feeling it was perfect for the Cowboys. Boring, and plain. Just what they needed.

bob: So you subscribe to the circus theory? In that by subtracting a circus, there could be a reasonable team somewhere?

albertbreer: The team still has plenty of front-line talent, but depth is an issue everywhere but tailback and tight end.

albertbreer: I think it helps to be rid of the circus, yes ...

albertbreer: Here's the thing: No matter how real/imagined all that stuff is, the circus becomes a problem because players constantly have to address it and deal with it. Whether all that was actually happening, the distraction became an issue, according to people I talk to.

bob: I think so. In the end, is moving Owens the right call?

albertbreer: I'm torn on it. I think it really hinges on how Romo plays. The move is designed for him to grow, so he becomes better at reading the whole field, taking what the defense gives him, and stops forcing the ball. If it has that affect on No. 9, then yes, it's the right move. But to me, the problem is you're putting a lot of trust in a receiver (Roy Williams), who's had one big year in the NFL, and that one came in a Mike Martz offense

bob: I get your point. And I wonder how much of the season was dependent on the month without Romo last year.

bob: It was something of a perfect storm withthe soft part of the schedule withBrad Johnson and then with Romo back the tough stretch hit hard

bob: And through it all, they were a decent 4th Quarter vs Baltimore away from the playoffs

albertbreer: That's very much the stock answer for where things went wrong, if you talk to people in that organization. Something like this -- When Romo went down, the club was 4-1, TO was still on board, and Romo was playing well. But remember, the week before the Arizona game -- during which Romo was hurt -- the team looked pretty average against a dysfunctional Bengals team.

albertbreer: I would say that it was the stretch where you lost Owens, which did lead to some of the implosion.

albertbreer: Mentally, not physically, of course.

bob: true. That is why I believe this hinges on Jason Garrett. I believe he fell in love with 3WR and Shotgun sets. 40% of their plays were in that formation, which lends itself to forcing the ball down the field if you don't make great QB decisions

albertbreer: Right, and I agree that this needs to be a Norv Turner-style of offense, which Garrett is obviously capable of running, because of his pedigree. Run the ball, and throw off play-action.

albertbreer: I also believe, if you're talking about last year, the loss of Felix Jones was underrated.

bob: Romo-Friendly, as they say. Use that "12" personnel that is all the rage.

albertbreer: Well, yes, more heavy sets, which probably means "Rice and Beans" (I know Witten's not crazy about that nickname) on the field at the same time A LOT.

bob: Felix was a monster loss, and with Martellus and Felix, you still have some major mismatch headaches for DCsto deal with, right?

bob: Just not the traditional way that Owens would present it

albertbreer: Right. Well, TO's different because he could kill you from all parts of the field. But Felix brings that big play threat. Martellus is athletic and all, but I don't think offensive coordinators are staying up at night because of him quite yet.

bob: Allow me to pick your brain around the division. New York: The WR issue was big in December, is it still the major issue?

albertbreer: They certainly haven't solved it. Manningham had a great camp, but consistency remains an issue. Their hope is that he and Nicks (who looked good in the third and fourthpreseason games, albeit against backups) emerge. They've got a ton of depth, withthose two, Smith, Hixon, Moss, etc. But none poses the problems to defenses that Plax did.

bob: And when Plax stopped drawing safeties, I saw a totally different attack. Do they have an offense that is formidable until that guy emerges?

albertbreer: Basically, at this point, it's a bunch of 2s/3s, and they hope they can find a 1, after trying and failing to get Braylon Edwards.

bob: Or are they banking on a superb defense doing the heavy lifting?

albertbreer: Well, that offense is built around the running game, and that facet of the unit has some questions too. Bradshaw's running with more physicality and aggression, but if Jacobs goes down for a time (history says he will), I still have my doubts that Bradshaw can carry that running game.

albertbreer: The defense, on the other hand, may be better than the one that won the Super Bowl.

bob: It appears that getting to the QB should not be a huge issue. They certainly know how to draft better than the Cowboys it would seem

albertbreer: We don't even need to discuss the line, the linebackers will be solid as ever, and I think this is the year the secondary becomes elite. Aaron Ross has to get healthy. But Corey Webster continues to improve, and I really think Kenny Phillips will become a Top 5 safety this season.

bob: Now help me with the Eagles defense for a moment. I think losing Jim Johnson + Brian Dawkins is huge. Do I over-rate the transition issues involved?

albertbreer: Drafting's a huge strength of theirs. Their draft board looks different from that of other teams. I think Jerry Reese is really one of the underrated guys as far as drafting goes.

bob: best example: Stanback in '07 taken before the Giants grab DeOssieand Boss with their next 2 picks

albertbreer: No, I think Jim Johnson's loss is profound. Sean McDermott -- whom Josh McDanielswanted to take to Denver with him as DC -- has been groomed for this for a while. But you don't know how a play-caller will react in tight spots until you see it, or how players will buy in. I love Dawkins as a player and leader, but Quintin Mickell's becoming a pretty special player for them back there, and seems ready to take some of the leadership, too.

bob: How much does the personality of that defense change? The ambush was such a weapon for the Eagles D

albertbreer: And at the other safety spot, they had very healthy competition, w/a converted corner (Macho Harris) winning out.

albertbreer: They'll still blitz like hell. McDermott has said as much. Like I said, you're going to have see how the defense performs in tight spots (clock running low, red zone, third down, etc.) to really see the difference. Now, I will say that losing JJ is compounded by losing signal callers in Dawkins and Stewart Bradley, so that part could become an issue, as far as being able to make adjustments at the line and change calls.

bob: Are there enough difference makers on that defensive front 7 to cause issues? I know the DBs are solid, but how do you feel up front?

albertbreer: Guys like Cole, Patterson and Gocong are going to have to become bigger difference-makers, and they already are capable of causing havoc. So much of what they do is based on how the pieces fit together, so it'll be interesting to see the puzzle coming into place.

albertbreer: But I will say, on the other side, that McNabb has a versatile and deep a group of skill players as he ever has.

bob: I agree. Lots of matchup headaches. And insurance for Westbrook. Is the OL as advertised before camp?

albertbreer: Love Shady McCoy. It hasn't been, and I think this is something to watch. Herremans is out for the opener, and the Andrews brothers have had problems staying on the field, plus Jason Peters has been nicked. Jackson's the only guy who's stayed healthy, and they still have yet to play in game action together as a unit. I think they've got potential to be the best in the league, but there may not be another spot on the field where players working in concert is as important as it is on the offensive line.

bob: Is Jason Peters (when right) the best left tackle in the division? I know Samuels is special, but Peters is really smothering.

albertbreer: The Eagles haven't had time to build that.

albertbreer: Peters is great when he wants to be. The trouble is getting him to go snap-after-snap. If he's really going, then he's the best, yes.

bob: Now, the Redskins. Haynesworth and Orakpo look very promising for making that a high pressure D. Can it happen quickly?

albertbreer: I'd agree that in the Washington preseason games I watch, it was striking how much Haynesworth and Orakpo had added. That's important, since the Redskins look very strong behind the line, with Fletcher, Horton, Landry, etc.

bob: Haynesworthused to have a Jason Peters type reputation. I suppose that is what everyone in DC is holding their breath about.

albertbreer: Right. That and the health situation -- He's only played 16 games once, and that was his rookie year.

bob: Give me your thoughts on the Jason Campbell experiment. I suppose they told us all we need to know with the attempts to upgrade last spring.

albertbreer: I actually like Campbell, and think he was pretty good this preseason. Yes, the club tried to go after Cutler, then Sanchez. So I think it'll be interesting to see how he reacts if he throws three picks in a game. When he knows his team's support of him has been tepid, at best, can he bounce back? We'll see.

bob: Have they sorted out the WR mess yet?

albertbreer: One thing that will help is they're going downfield more, which is to Campbell's strength

albertbreer: Looks like Malcolm Kelly will start opposite Santana Moss. And really they need all three of their second-year skill guys -- WRs Kelly and Devin Thomas, and TE Fred Davis -- to come through for them. There was progress in that regard, at least as far as the two young receivers go.

bob: So, tell me, how do you see the division breaking down

albertbreer: strife there. If they lose a game or two, with the lack of faith the organization has shown in Campbell and Zorn, will the whole thing come undone? I think it's possible.

bob: So, tell me, how do you see the division breaking down

albertbreer: But this is the toughest division in football. In fact, a few weeks back, Fred Smoot said to me it's "the best division in sports." And I think he might be right.

bob: And really, how many wildcards can you reasonably expect?

bob: Do you think the Cowboys are a playoff team?

albertbreer: I think the competition is going to be fierce. The conference is as deep as it's been in years. The North is much improved -- I've got the Packers going to the NFC title game, and the Vikings making the playoffs, with the Giants and Eagles coming out of the East.

albertbreer: The South, too, is deep enough to get multiple teams in.

bob: so, the Cowboys miss again. That will make everyone very sad, sir.

albertbreer: Yup, they miss out. Barely, though. Packers-Giants and Patriots-Chargers in title games. Giants over Chargers in XLIV.

bob: One last thing for tonight, would you rank the QB's in the division for me?

albertbreer: Sure ... 1. Romo, 2. Manning, 3. McNabb, 4. Campbell

bob: Interesting. Romo #1 implies that you don't think the mess is his fault. And while I agree, I know some will be interested

albertbreer: Well, it depends on what the question here is ... If it's, who do I want for 16 games, it's Romo...If it's, who do I want for 2 minutes with the game on the line, it's Manning ...

bob: OK. So the Cowboys ultimate undoing is depth? (I know I said last thing, but I am going to cheat)

albertbreer: Yup. I think a couple injuries in the wrong spots could kill them. Again, their front-line talent is outstanding, and if they can keep that group intact and upright, then they'll be tough to beat. But few teams stay THAT healthy.

bob: I enjoy your work (still)- You made the DMN better, and now the Sporting News- thanks for the time and I hope to do it again.

albertbreer: Appreciate that, Bob. Thanks for having me.

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