I am not sure any of us have a great feel for what this next era of the Dan Snyder Washington Redskins will bring. Marty Schottenheimer brought promise. Then, Steve Spurrier brought promise. So, did Joe Gibbs as well as a bag of rings. Heck, Jim Zorn was at least mysterious. But, in the end, none of them left with a winning record. In fact, the Joe Gibbs tenure of 1981-1992 is the last Washington Coach to leave with a winning record.
Enter Mike Shanahan. And Bruce Allen. And Donovan McNabb. Is it better or just different?
I have no doubt that it is better. Shanahan, like Bill Parcells in Dallas, should be able to take the identity of the franchise and place the owner on the back burner for a few years. The media, players, and public now look to him for decisions and proclamations on given team issues. Jim Zorn never had this. He was working for the boss (Campo, Gailey). But, I think if Shanahan wants Haynesworth gone (He does) then Albert Haynesworth will likely not see October 1 in Washington.
Now, can he bring that John Elway, Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe, Broncos Attack to Washington?
We begin to find out on Sunday. But the cliche indicates that you won't win the Kentucky Derby on a donkey. You better have the horses. They really needed to start completely over on the offense. I applaud their efforts in acquiring two tackles from Oklahoma that should be there for a while in Trent Williams at pick 4 in Round 1 in this year's draft and Jammal Brown, the former Sooner that was with the Saints in a trade. Those are two highly imperative additions to this offense, as the offensive line has really been an eyesore for years in Washington. But, they still have an aging RB, no identifiable playmakers at WR aside from an aging Santana Moss (who has had his yards per catch drop every season since 2005 - but I might not blame him as much as the Jim Zorn offense that would never throw the ball beyond 5 yards downfield).
What they do have is a 2-headed attack at Tight End, a spot that Shanahan knows how to use, with Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. If you wonder where they may test you early, it is in that same "12" personnel scheme that the Cowboys employed last season - as did a good chunk of the league. They will make you decide what you want to cheat on, and if you show that you are sitting on the run, they will play-action to the pass. And if you look like you are defending pass, they will use those 2 TEs as additional blockers and try to get Clinton Portis going. On the road, the Redskins may look sterile on offense, but I figure at home they should be able to get a few things done.
Meanwhile, Shanahan brought in Jim Haslett to run the defense and they quickly converted to Haslett's love, the 3-4 that he ran back in Pittsburgh. You really should read this story from the Washington Post this week about the conversion to the 3-4 and the premise that this should lead to more takeaways. In there, the DBs say that interceptions are low because they always were on "press" coverage and playing man-to-man. The idea is that in man coverage, your back is to the QB and you are running with your guy. This keeps you from interceptions. Also, 3-4 is more attacking which allows more hits on the QB which means more takeaways, right? I found particular comedy in the idea since the Cowboys run a 3-4, and zone up in the secondary quite a bit, and yet they generate no takeaways either. The story also indicates "they are focusing on stripping the ball more" in practice. I say this with great certainty. If you want takeaways, get DBs that get takeaways. Every team that generates a big number has guys who have done it in every scheme and every place they have played. Takeaways are not a scheme-generated product, in my opinion. It is based on players that make plays.
Anyway, the defense is much, much harder to discuss without knowing the fate of the most unstoppable interior DL guy in football (provided he wants to play that week) in Haynesworth. A 3-4 without Haynesworth is a defense that does not have enough dynamic players to be much better than "ok" in 2010. Everyone likes Orakpo coming off the edge, and they have the ageless London Fletcher in the middle, and a few reasonable corners in DeAngelo Hall and Carlos Rogers. But really, they are rather weak on the DL without 92, and the safeties are nothing special. If they want to roll the bones and risk coverage for pressure, they should be able to generate it with numbers, but I think that will set up Tony Romo for some big plays when he gets the ball out quick to a man in stride.
Regardless, when looking at each side of the ball, I have this game being a low-scoring game that will show off the punters and where turnovers will be tough to overcome. The Cowboys schedule is tough this year, and every road game is a tough test. Opening in Washington to start the Mike Shanahan era is no picnic on any level.
ON OFFENSE: In Week 1 of 2008, the Dallas Cowboys racked up 487 yards in a 28-10 pounding of the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland. In Week 1 of 2009, the Cowboys rolled up 472 yards in a 34-21 dismantling of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Florida. In Week 1 of 2010, the Cowboys are being asked to open the season on the road for the 3rd straight year against a team that is not expected to be a strong contender. But, I would strongly expect fewer than that point and yardage production this year.
The reasons for this are obvious. 3 spots on the offensive line are occupied by newcomers. In the case of 2 of those 3, they are merely understudies who are not thought of as starting quality. Rather, LG Montrae Holland and RT Alex Barron are tabbed to be reasonable reserves who will be able to hold their own when given a rare opportunity if everything goes well. But, they surely did not expect to roll out in Week 1 with both of them to be starting together. Add to that Doug Free's first attempt to prove he is worthy of the Left Tackle post in the first game of the "Post-Flozell" era, and you can understand if the Cowboys are heading into this game with a bar that is likely knowing some real limitations are on their plate in Week 1.
In 2010, they will have big plans for their offense. But to get that done, they know that Marc Colombo and Kyle Kosier will have to hold down the fort. Both are thought of as very strong run blockers. Kosier especially is a remarkable blocker in space, and a real athletic lead blocker when he pulls. Holland is quite the opposite. Alex Barron has a NFL body, but his strength at the point of attack is not near NFL Quality. I suspect that Jason Garrett knows there are quite a few things he normally does that he will not even attempt on Sunday night.
What is the big deal about plugging Holland in at Left Guard instead of Kosier? Here is some video to demonstrate what we are dealing with.
This is from last year's Kansas City game. Watch LG. The entire play is based on your LG getting out in front of the ball carrier and getting the path cleared. Kosier is outstanding with his ability to get there fast and then put an athletic move on a DL or a LB to give the runner a large hole.
They ran these types of plays every Sunday last year. Just gashed teams when they would use "12" or "22" personnel and a type of "G-Power" with a down, down and around blocking scheme where the Center and Guard block towards Kosier, and he swings around the Right Guard. This is not Holland's game. Look at this attempt to pull him in San Diego. Watch Holland #64, not Doug Free. He is not good in space. And everyone involved in the game Sunday knows it. So, Garrett may not even try his bread and butter.
(big thanks DCFanatic for help on the videos)
1) - Keep Composure in Volatile Setting - Playing in Washington is tough? Yes. Especially when it is a night game. Especially when it is the Cowboys. Especially when the Redskins are in a 4-way tie for 1st Place. Especially when the team has a new coach with Super Bowl Rings and a new QB who has been to 5 NFC Championship Games and can still play. The point is this: The Cowboys - especially their QB - will need to keep cool when things roll against them a bit. He is likely to get hit. And he is likely to get hit often. The Cowboys are not overly likely to run the ball well. These are all things the home crowd will draw off. And that is when Tony Romo will need big composure. He has shown it at times, but there have been many times in the last few seasons where everything unravels in a hurry in these situations (at Denver, at Green Bay, at New York, at Minnesota in '09). This is not a road game where you can do your opponent any favors with poor turnovers or poor decisions.
2) - Get 60 yards from the Ground and Pound - Now, don't misunderstand this. I am not saying run for 60 yards. I am saying run for 60 yards from "Run" looks. Romo under center, 1st and 10, 2nd and normal, 3rd and short. Can the Cowboys line up and get 60 yards in situations where the Skins are sitting on a run? I am not too interested in 12 yard carries on 3rd and 16 on some shotgun draw play to set up a punt. The question is can Dallas find 15 yards per quarter from "11", "12", "21", or "22" personnel? Or, more than likely, will the Cowboys find little or no success on the ground early and then roll out the shotgun the rest of the game (see: Green Bay game - 2009) instead of sticking with it? Honestly, you cannot totally blame them if they are more likely to roll more Shotgun than usual because of the OL situation, but you cannot be too 1-dimensional.
3) - Red Zone Conversions - I think this problem has actually been a bit overblown. Look, I don't love the Cowboys offense in the red zone either, but the stats show that they are actually right in the middle of the league in turning their drives inside the 20 (50) into TDs (26). 26 out of 50 is 52% and that ranks 14th in the NFL. I might rather ask, why are the Cowboys going to the redzone only 50 times all season? They had the 2nd most yards in the league last year and the most yards in the NFL on a per snap basis (6.26!). So, why did it not always mean points? Because of that darn starting field position. Only 2 teams started further back in their own territory in each drive than the Cowboys (Oakland, Tennessee). And that is why Minnesota can have fewer yards but get to the red zone 19 more times. Same for New England which had fewer yards but had 15 more red zone trips. Dallas and New England had the same red zone TD%, but New England got there 15 more times. That means almost 8 more TDs. But, for Sunday's purposes, without a good OL and a decent run game, you may not get there often. So, when they do, they need to convert for 7. Jason Witten needs more than 2 TDs in 90+ catches.
4) - Doug Free vs Brian Orakpo - If you are a follower of Orakpo from his Texas days, you know his talent. They played him at DE in Austin, but everyone knew in the NFL he was a perfect conversion guy to a 3-4 OLB. Pure speed rusher and an exceptional athletic presence. They say he is awfully 1-dimensional himself. Loves to rush the passer, doesn't love when they run the ball right at him. So, I think you might see the Cowboys go right at him early off LT. Good news for Washington? Orakpo had 11 sacks as a rookie which is a huge number. Bad news? He was sackless in 6 of his final 7 games. Of course, I might argue that this was the college wall. Regardless, Doug Free has a great test for his first rodeo at Left Tackle. And if they line Haynesworth over Holland (which seems like an obvious idea) then I am going to be able to help Free much.
So, have we figured out what exactly constitutes the Wade Phillips Defense? We have 51 games with which to judge, and 3 full regular seasons.
First, we know that nobody in the entire league gets to the QB like the Dallas Cowboys:
2007-09 Team Sack Leaders
|5.||New York G||127|
But, then we know that hardly anybody takes the ball away less than the Dallas Cowboys:
2007-09 Fewest Team Takeaways
|30.||New York Giants||71|
Weren't we told for years and years that pressure causes interceptions and coverage causes sacks? I feel like I was lied about that since I have watched the Cowboys so closely for the last 2 years. All sorts of pressure - and almost no interceptions or takeaways.
And that is why the Cowboys were not dying to keep Ken Hamlin in the fold. They thought that he did not make enough plays in 2008 or 2009, and that his range was not what it needed to be for that money. So, enter Alan Ball. I honestly don't know what to make of that decision, other than he can not have less of an impact than Hamlin when it comes to causing turnovers. But, he also may appear to have a target on his chest as opposing coaches will be figuring out how to isolate him in space and test him out like they do any new DB in the NFL. He is unproven and unheralded, and I am sure Kyle Shanahan will have a few designs set up for him. If he passes those tests, he will gain respect. If not, the target will get bigger.
1) - DeMarcus Ware vs Trent Williams - Trent Williams is a great prospect. He is not perfect - as Sam Bradford's body will attest, but he should be very good in the long run. But, I would like to think that he is not ready for DeMarcus Ware lining up over him all night. This is his "welcome to the NFL" moment, and the Cowboys are banking on another big year form #94. In fact, we all know that the exciting part of this season is that #93 Anthony Spencer is a man who has broken out. If he is what we think he is, the Cowboys should be as dangerous up front as any team. Who do you double-team? Ware? Spencer? Jay Ratliff? Pick your poison. They should be terrific.
2) - Hold the Perimeter on McNabb - Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb do not have similarities in the way they believe offense should perform, except on 1 particular concept; they both love the bootleg-rollout for passes downfield. They like to fake the entire offense to the left and then have the QB and the TE rolling to the right for an option route with a flanker post pattern deep over the top. This requires that Spencer, in particular, minds his spot and doesn't charge inside and take the bait. It also requires safety help, but we will spend more time on them in a moment.
3) - Build the Wall - We can talk about taking the ball away all night, but the reason the Cowboys were still in the Super Bowl hunt last season despite no takeaways is that they were stout against the run. No team had fewer run plays run against them in 2009 than the Cowboys. Teams knew they couldn't run (except Tampa) and stopped trying. The Redskins run out of necessity and realize an aerial attack is not in the cards. The commentators will tell us about the zone running scheme that Shanahan believes in and it will be up to the Cowboys to demonstrate why you are wasting your time running the ball against them. Do not undersell the value of Marcus Spears coming back to make that happen, because in the preseason, it didn't seem that the Chargers or Texans thought it was tough to run against the Cowboys.
4) - Safeties Must Play at Full Speed - Seems like an obvious concept, but Michael Hamlin had a chance in training camp to get a great look at safety. But, every time I watched him, it seemed like he was at "practice" speed. In the NFL, a safety has a ton going on inside his head. He must pay attention to 100 things at the same time. But, if his brain is making his body a step slow, then he is useless. Can Alan Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh orchestrate the defense and lay the wood on anyone who challenges them? When opposing coaches look at attacking the Dallas Defense, you know they will not like seeing the triangle of terror up front (94-90-93) nor will they enjoy seeing Newman and Jenkins at Corner. But, Ball and Sensabaugh? The attacks will be there for sure. Get ready.
It is not a lay-up. It is a high-emotion, amp-ed up, opening night. It should be an electric setting that will be highly physical and potentially frustrating since the Cowboys offense is not ready for a physical battle with this make-shift offensive line. But, you go with what you got, and the win will depend on a QB making a few big plays, a defense giving the offense a short field once in a while, and maybe a kicker who has never made an official NFL kick proving he can get it done in the pinch with the whole football world watching.
This is going to be an exciting setting to get the season going. I am taking the Cowboys, but in a battle to the end.
Cowboys 21, Redskins 17