Sunday, June 13, 2010

SB Nation Week 1

The following is my first weekly column for SB Nation-Dallas that runs on Thursdays over there. I will archive it here, but you will always be able to check it out first over there, so check them out, too.

I must tell you that I am certainly excited to bring a weekly column to this new venture and to add my 2 cents on as many things as my column will hold every Thursday.

There are so many capable specialists for each of the local teams here, so I have to think that between their diligent hard work and things like this catch-all column, we will have you pretty well covered right here.

Each week, I want to grab 3 or 4 things that are rolling around in my head on the world of sports and put it out there for you. So, let’s get this party started right here:

COWBOYS ----------------------------------

One thing that will be extremely interesting to see this season is how the Cowboys decide to spend most of their snaps on offense based on personnel groupings. I absolutely think the Cowboys had an effective offense in 2009, but there were certain things it did far better than others.

For instance, there is no question that they were a better power running team than they were a wide open “Shotgun 3-wide” passing attack. And they knew it. Take those final 2 games against Philadelphia in consecutive weeks – 1 to win the division title, and 1 more to advance in the playoffs. In those 2 games to finish the season where the Cowboys offense looked wonderful in 2 blowout victories over the hated Eagles, the Cowboys went 3-wide on exactly 37 of 138 plays (26%). That may sound like quite a bit to you, unless you consider that 101 of 138 plays (74%), the Cowboys had only 1 or 2 WR on the field at the same time.

So, with all of this conjecture in the off season about which WR is #2 (Bryant or Williams?) and which is #3 (Bryant or Williams or Crayton?) you can understand a small amount of consternation from the players involved. They know that last year, when the game was in great doubt, aside from the 2-minute offense, Jason Garrett and the offense preferred power-run looks that had both Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett on the field plowing run paths and setting up play-action passes.

And that simply means that many times, WRs were standing on the sideline watching. Based on the numbers from we see that of the 1247 snaps that the Cowboys took last season, Jason Witten took 99% of the snaps. Roy Williams 73%, Miles Austin 69% (remember his limited role in the first 4 weeks), Patrick Crayton 50%, Sam Hurd 9%, and Kevin Ogletree 5% of the snaps. Martellus Bennett, whose numbers are very important – because when he is on the field, a WR must step off it – was on the field 46% of the time last year because of his ability to run block (Obviously not his ability to make catches last season). And young blocking TE was out there 19% of the time, demonstrating their love for power football.

Where do you go in 2010? Dez Bryant has everyone so excited with the options and the possibilities. But, in 2009, the bread and butter of the team in base down and distance situations was to only have 2 Wideouts on the field at the same time. Remember, in 2008, the Cowboys had so many weapons and so many possibilities that during the week, we all wondered what aerial attack was going to have the opponent begging for mercy on Sunday. But, when the game arrived, Garrett, Tony Romo, and the gang could not figure out how to use Terrell Owens, Williams, Witten, Crayton, and the gang all together. It just didn’t compute to moving the ball.

So, slowly, the transition to “Romo-Friendly” began. That was code for “more run plays out of more run-based formations”. And, it worked. The Cowboys had a progress-filled 2009. They showed that simplifying was the key to their success. Create confusion for the defense about whether the play was a run or a pass. This will allow more room in the secondary.

With Dez Bryant, it appears the idea is to go back to 2008. More WRs on the field. More pass declarations before the snap. More aerial attack! Will it work? They have plenty of work to do.

And now, you can understand why the Cowboys take work in May and June so seriously. I suspect the offense is attempting to figure this riddle out now so it makes sense in September.

WORLD CUP --------------------------

Yes, I am going to write about the biggest sporting event on the planet. And, I am going to challenge you to get up to speed with this American squad before Saturday’s blastoff with England.

This could be a historic tournament for the USA squad, and it is based on a few things; the timing of the tournament hits in the prime of the single greatest soccer player in this country’s history, Landon Donovan. Donovan is now 28 years old, and is coming off a successful loan at Everton in the spring where he gained all sorts of confidence. Many people always thought he didn’t have the quality for Europe because his trips to Germany were so underwhelming. But, he certainly proved those ideas wrong and seems to have set the table for a permanent move to Everton in August if he so desires.

Donovan is in his prime as is Texas product, Clint Dempsey. Dempsey, a product of Fulham himself, is coming off a season where he made another big mark in the Premiership, and is a guy who certainly knows what he can do at the top level. He scored the only goal for the USA in the 2006 World Cup, and now with 4 more years of European experience under his belt will not be intimidated by seeing John Terry (Chelsea) trying to mark him.

With those two players in the midfield and being counted on to push forward and handle much of the offense, the team looks threatening when they have the ball. Trouble is, that won’t always be the case against some of the quality they are slated to run up against. The biggest concern for the USA as they prepare to play England, Algeria, and Slovenia is the back line. Just like in hockey, if the back line of defenders is weak, the goalie will have almost no chance. And here, the quality of the back 4 defenders for the Americans has been under a great spotlight. There have been too many times in the friendlies where the opposition ran free in the penalty area with no USA defenders in sight. This will be the death of a team in the World Cup. The strikers are too precise, and all they need is an inch. Wayne Rooney scores at every level of world football, so he will not be impressed with the rather so-so group of defenders he will face on Saturday.

So, what is the level of success for the USA? I am asked all of the time where the bar is. Can we win the World Cup? Well, no. The idea of the USA winning the World Cup seems about as far-fetched as Butler winning the NCAA Tournament (oh, wait).

Only 7 nations have ever won the World Cup (Italy, Brazil, France, Germany, England, Argentina, and Uruguay) and of those, only Italy, Brazil, Germany, and Argentina have won more than once since World War 2. These are the usual suspects, and if you are trying to sound smart around the office, the safe bets. Personally, I am taking the extremely risky bet of believing that Maradona won’t screw up Argentina.

But, for the United States, success lies in advancing out of their group. You must show well in the first 3 matches to force a 4th. In 2006, our boys scored exactly 1 goal and did not get out of its group. A similar showing would be very disheartening. Finish 1st or 2nd in Group C and advance to the knockout stage of 16. There, assuming you finish 2nd in Group C, you most likely play Germany (winner of Group D) in the round of 16, where you would be expected to lose. However, in 1 match, who knows?

I believe in Bob Bradley and his squad. Injuries haven’t helped and as a nation, we still seem a few players short of being a real threat, but I think we are ready to make a little more noise than we did in ’06. Matching ‘02’s run to the Quarterfinals would be so wonderful.

STARS --------------------------------------

My final topic for this week is going to touch on the quietest topic in the area right now, the Dallas Stars. Like the Rangers, everything still revolves around the business transaction that is hopefully going down behind the scenes right now to get the franchise to new owners who have the resources to properly run an NHL Franchise going forward.

I believe that the sale of the Stars will go much quicker and quieter than the Rangers (how could it not?) and will hopefully be done by the start of 2010-11’s season. However, my optimism does not allow me to believe that this will be done in time for July 1, when the Stars desperately need money to upgrade a squad that was several pieces short last year.

I hate to complain about new ownership – since that will be great for the franchise, but for me to get too optimistic, I need this offseason to count. If new owners don’t get the keys until opening night, that means the Stars will start the season again by being about $12 million under the cap again. Not a great spot to start the season.

So, I am anticipating that Joe Nieuwendyk and his crew have other plans to work within the budget, and still get that #1 defenseman that they so desperately need.

That means that the plan must be to work a trade this summer that reallocates where you are aiming your resources.

As I said all season, this team does not have a top defenseman, and that makes everyone else move up the ladder to a point where they are over-exposed. By getting a true #1 (or at least something much closer than Stephane Robidas), it allows, Robidas to move back down the depth chart to where he can play good minutes, but not so many that he is spent by St Patrick’s Day.

To get this guy, the Stars will look to flip one of their top 3 centers. If you watch the team at all, it is not hard to figure out which one. They would love to flip Mike Ribeiro now that they know Jamie Benn can play center at the NHL level. If you have $45 million dollars, you cannot put $35m on your forwards, $7m on defense, and $3m in Goal and wonder why your defense isn’t good enough.

So, you have very little money to work with, and you have Mike Ribeiro to deal. The landscape for big defenseman is not very impressive at that price range, but if anything makes sense, it would seem to be a deal that gets Sheldon Souray to Dallas. Souray is not just what the doctor ordered, but he is way closer to being that veteran defenseman back there than anything you presently have at the price you have to pay. Souray also has a monster gun from the point on the Power Play which would really change things.

Riberio for Souray would not set the NHL on fire, but it might be the move the Stars are looking to make in a summer with a lot of problems to address and no money with which to address them. With the Draft about 2 weeks away, I believe you can expect that this is the type of deal that would happen then. Maybe they have a better idea up their sleeve, but that is the one that makes some sense to me.

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