Monday, January 09, 2012

A Difference in Philosophy

It is extremely difficult to watch the NFL Playoffs a week after the Dallas Cowboys crash-and-burn routine ended without thinking about them at every turn. Here is a former Cowboys player, and here is a former Cowboys coach. Over here is another QB who has pulled even with Tony Romo for career playoff wins (TJ Yates) and then the next day, here is even another QB who has pulled even with Romo for career playoff wins (Tim Tebow).

But, no game makes you think about the Cowboys all afternoon quite like watching the New York Giants.

Not only because of the way they dismissed the Cowboys from the 2011 season, but because they are rivals. There is venom. There is jealousy. And there is a distinct difference in philosophy about how to build a playoff-ready power.

We can certainly go on and on about how Ernie Accorsi and Jerry Reese see football differently than Jerry Jones in many regards, but let's stick to what jumps off the screen when you flip on the Giants this time of year.

They are distinctly led and designed around their defensive front. The defensive front is why they won the Super Bowl in the 2007 season - despite rather mediocre play in other departments of their team. And it is that same defensive front that gives them a puncher's chance to defeat the 15-1 Green Bay Packers this coming Sunday at Lambeau Field, just like they did in 2007.

You watch the defensive line of the Giants for any period of time and you see it is not necessarily a front that is built around one player simply being a superstar, but rather a strength-in-numbers philosophy that can withstand an injury or a contract dispute or most importantly, the aging process.

A franchise cannot afford to be crippled when its alpha male, Michael Strahan takes his 141.5 career sacks and moves on to the television studios that retirement bring. His final game was Super Bowl 42, and his legacy was secured when the Giants hassled and hammered Tom Brady all day long in that momentous Super Bowl upset.

And they were not crippled. They were prepared. Because the Giants understand that the line of scrimmage is the easiest way to have success in late seasons scenarios and they also understand that the only way to guarantee that sort of success is to make it a priority every off-season when the franchise must decide where to allocate resources. No franchise has more sacks since 2003 than the New York Giants (379) and it is no accident. It is deliberate and careful persistence in talent collection.

Let's compare the two organizations asset distribution to the defensive front to understand why one team seems to succeed because of its defensive line and the other seems to succeed often in spite of it. Given the difference in scheme, we will try to compare apples to apples and allow OLBs from Dallas if they are primary edge rushers and leave Middle LBs out of the discussion for both sides. For the sake of discussion, we will label any pick in the Top 4 rounds as "premium picks".

First, the Dallas Cowboys use of premium picks since 2003 on the defensive front:

20051/11DeMarcus Ware
20051/20Marcus Spears
20054/132Chris Canty
20063/92Jason Hatcher
20071/26Anthony Spencer

HTML Tables

Now, the same chart for the New York Giants

20031/25William Joseph
20032/56Osi Umenyiora
20053/74Justin Tuck
20061/32Mathias Kiwanuka
20064/124Barry Cofield
20073/81Jay Alford
20101/15Jason Pierre Paul
20102/46Linval Joseph
20112/52Marvin Austin

HTML Tables

That is a staggering difference in allocation of assets into a defensive front. Ware is the great equalizer in many regards, as the Cowboys have still accumulated an amazing number of sacks given this discrepancy, and finding Jay Ratliff late has been a great help. But, the Giants wanted to build this generation around their defensive front - like the organization did in the 1980's and 1990's with Bill Parcells and GM George Young. In fact, now, given the use of so many draft picks, it makes you ponder their free agency objective as well.

New York Giants Free Agent DL Signings:

20096/$42mChris Canty
20094/$16mRocky Bernard

HTML Tables

That's right. After spending so many high, premium picks on DL, they also decided before 2009 that they wanted to find even more strength in numbers with the free agent targets of 2 more players - one a reasonably high pick from Dallas.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys countered with this:

20055/$21.5mJason Ferguson
20094/$18mIgor Olshansky
20112/$3.5mKenyon Coleman

HTML Tables

Here again we see that the Cowboys use of free agency goes back to 2005 when Ferguson, Ware, Canty, and Spears were all added in the same spring when Parcells was ready to fully commit to the 3-4. Since then, the draft and free agency have almost completely ignored the front or looked for red-tag discounts.

Jerry Jones and Wade Phillips bragged about finding Igor Olshansky as a perfect replacement for Chris Canty. Nobody would argue that Canty's New York offer would have been mocked had Dallas decided to match it. And it is likely nobody would argue that Canty is entirely overpaid. Canty was not being asked to dominate a game, he was strengthening an already-strong unit. However, Olshansky made almost no impact whatsoever during his stay in Dallas, and frankly, Coleman's year was largely difficult to detect as well.

Observers often suggest that the DE spot in the 3-4 is not designed for play-making, but in Houston (JJ Watt and Antonio Smith), San Francisco (Justin Smith), Green Bay (Cullen Jenkins for several seasons) and New England (Richard Seymour for years) would beg to differ. Houston is especially notable given that Wade Phillips is asking his DEs to do what he asked Olshansky and Spears to do here - but with largely different results.

In the last month, we have seen the Giants DL over-run the Cowboys OL twice (6 sacks last week in a winner-take-all scenario), the Jets, and they stuffed the Falcons in a playoff game for 4 full Quarters. Atlanta only pieced together 2 drives all day long of any substance, and both of them ended when Matt Ryan couldn't move the Defensive front on a 4th and 1. Those failures certainly reminded anyone in these parts of Tony Romo trying to accomplish the same thing one week earlier in the same end of Met Life Stadium.

These are game-changing, season-saving plays. And they don't happen by accident. Of the 8 players the Giants rotated in on their defensive front, 7 of them were major investments. Tuck, Joseph, Pierre-Paul, Kiwanuka, and Umenyiora were high picks and large contracts. Canty and Bernard were well compensated free agent acquisitions. Only Dave Tollefson, who plays the least of the 8, was a bargain find. The Giants made sure that no matter what sort of injuries or contract issues presented themselves, they would never be left without enough talent to compete. And if all 8 are present and accounted for, they could assemble a rotation of such depth and quality that in a 4 Quarter battle, they would always have a substantial impact. Marvin Austin, their 2011 2nd round pick from North Carolina, is another 310 lb interior beast who tore a pectoral muscle in training camp and will enjoy a redshirt year learning from the best.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, they have to feel that their defensive front has betrayed them too often. If not Ware, then almost nobody troubles a QB without the aid of a blitz. There is very little along the lines of a quality rotation, and there has been no strong challenges from young players who are looking to win jobs. The reason for that is rather explainable, as there has been no priority investment in the DL in years. The last major thrust was the pick of Spencer in 2007, a move that they are now pondering moving on from as he hits free agency with little behind them to step in.

They have felt there have simply been too many other places to address on the roster on draft day. But, with each passing year, they put more and more on the shoulders of those few difference makers that they have and wear and tear is adding up. Word is that they would have been delighted to grab JJ Watt at #9 this past spring, but with Tyron Smith available, and the offensive line in shambles, they did what needed to be done.

The Giants now head to Green Bay, and the Cowboys locker-room has been vacated a week ago. The defensive front is not the only reason the two teams are where they are, but it is the most evident that comes to mind. The Giants likely have too many holes elsewhere on their roster to duplicate their Super Bowl run of 2007, but they can not be counted out.

Thousands of miles away, the Cowboys fan-base looks on and wonders how many players it would take to put on a Doomsday-caliber show like they have watched in New York over the last few weeks.

More than a few.


Phil K. said...

With all that said, if Green Bay can get to Eli, they win. That's it.

I went to Boys/Giants at Cowboys Stadium and I watched the lines all game. We were dominated on both sides and I couldn't help but wonder, if we focused more on drafting/signing great lines instead of names to sell jerseys, we might see a championship in Dallas again.

H said...

Love the blog, especially the analysis of the OL. But wouldn't the correct comparison here be the Giants' investment in DL (because they play a 4-3) vs Cowboys' investment in LBs (playing 3-4)? That may look closer.

And the flip side of the comparison (the les important positions) - Dallas' investment in DL vs. NYG investment in LBs is probably close as well.