Wednesday, June 27, 2012

11 For '11: #6 - The Eagles Zone Counter Trap

The Following is the 6th in an 11-part weekly series throughout the summer that will focus on the eleven plays that shaped 2011 for the Dallas Cowboys. Every game, about 130 actual plays happen and over the course of a season that number can exceed 2,000. But, we have selected 11 and will pick one each week and break it down from standpoint of "X's and O's" and see what we can learn looking back. The plays are not ranked, simply presented as the season unfolded. We hope you enjoy.

"Clearly, they are confused out there" - Cris Collinsworth

One of the biggest issues for the 2010 Dallas Cowboys was a complete inability to stop the big play. So, the plan for 2011 was to not change players on almost any level defensively, and to change out the defensive philosophy from the Wade Phillips 3-4 defense to the Rob Ryan 3-4.

The Rob Ryan 3-4 is a more complex defense that attempts to utilize all resources to cause confusion, chaos, and the ability to cause game changing plays for the defense. When run properly - with the proper personnel - it is a rather tried and true scheme that has worked well across the NFL. Of course, the Cowboys tried to take 10 starters off the worst defense in the history of the Dallas Cowboys and simply change the scheme and hoped for much better results. They learned the hard way and spent the spring of 2012 trying to find what amounts to as many as 5 new starters for this upcoming season.

In 2011, Ryan tried to install his defense without the benefit of the offseason program. We will never know how badly that set things back, as some players and teams were affected by the lockout and others seemed to do just fine (see: Cam Newton) with the limited schedule for installation and learning. What is odd about the 2011 Cowboys defense is that it defied conventional wisdom. Most observers expected the transition to the defense of Ryan to go slowly. There would be early growing pains, but as the season went along, he would be able to install things on the fly and ultimately by Thanksgiving everyone would would grasp their responsibilities with great ease.

And yet, everything went quite the opposite. In September and October, the Cowboys defense was actually outperforming expectations. In every game, the defense had done its job to put the team in a position to win. They played well enough to win in New York, but were sabotaged by a poor QB decision. They won in SF and against Washington. They played very well against Detroit until the offense turned a 27-3 lead into a 27-17 lead on two throws. By the time the defense took another snap, they were back on their heels. Then, a very difficult test in Foxboro went very well. The defense scratched and clawed and did a great job over 60 minutes, but couldn't stop Tom Brady late. Still, they outperformed all expectations in that difficult spot. The next week, they dominated a feeble Rams side and were among the league leading teams in many defensive metrics. Including a major downturn in the number of explosive plays conceded.

In 2010, the Cowboys surrendered 69 explosives (plays of 20 yards or more). That number was high above the league average for playoff teams of 54. If they wished to get in the playoff mix, they would need to knock their per game average down by 1 explosive per game. From 4.3 per game to around 3.3. And through those first 6 games, they had done even better, surrendering just 19 explosives in 6 games (3.2 per game).

But, their 7th game of the season would be their first battle against one of the two elite teams inside their division. They would play the Eagles in Weeks 8 and 16 and the Giants in Weeks 14 and 17. Then, and only then, would the Cowboys know their true ability to deal with those teams that would stand in their way. Sadly, the findings would be quite disconcerting.

By the end of 2011, the Cowboys would have improved in the big play defense, dropping from 69 to 64. In fact, the league went the other direction, with the average number of explosives conceded by playoff teams rising from 54 to 64. This, one might note, was a direct result of the putrid defenses in New England and Green Bay that were not bad enough to keep either team from making the playoffs, but might have been the reason that both were beaten ultimately by the Giants in the playoffs. They conceded absurd numbers of big plays, but had offenses that were able to cover for them for most of the year.

Regardless, the Cowboys still gave up too many big plays. Of the 64 conceded, 57 were through the air and 7 on the ground. This might explain the offseason initiative to overhaul the secondary. One might argue the pass rush needed help, too, but nobody can debate the premise of finding two potentially elite corners in the offseason if you have given up 57 passes of 20 yards or more in 1 season.

Which leads us back to the NFC East. Perhaps the most troubling number when digging into the 2011 defensive season were the issues that the Cowboys had with the division. In 6 games against the division, the Cowboys gave up 33 explosives. In the other 10 games against everyone else, they only allowed 31. That tells us a few things. Outside of the division, the Cowboys played some rather weak offenses. But, inside the division, they were sliced and diced by the Eagles and Giants in a scary way. The Redskins put up 8 explosives, the Giants had 12, and the Eagles put up 13.

And no night was a bigger disaster than the Sunday Night in Philadelphia on October 30th. Realizing that this series is about "11 plays that shaped 2011", it would be nice to identify one play from this debacle. But, the truth is, the Eagles didn't have one play that decided the game. They had as many as they wanted.

You might recall that Rob Ryan had some pretty inflammatory things to say about the Eagles in the build-up to this game. And therefore, many of us rubbed our hands together to see what sort of Ryan family game plan he would unleash in his Dad's old city. But, what we saw was one of the worst Cowboys performances in a long time. The Eagles had a season high 7 explosives. They had 10 different plays of 18 yards or more. They knocked out the Cowboys in the 1st Quarter, and by halftime, the game was in garbage time.

And the worst part? The Eagles were doing much of their damage by running the same plays over and over again. Now, remember that their were only 7 running explosives all year against the Cowboys. And yet, 3 of them, were on this night in Philadelphia. And all 3 of them, were to LeSean McCoy who was breaking off a 30-carry night for 185 yards. And, all 3 of them were on the EXACT same play.

Let's look at it:

Play #1 - 12:57 1st Quarter - 2-7-Phi 46

The Eagles are running a zone play to the right. They will get a right slanted block from every member of their offensive line. DeMarcus Ware will be unblocked - or so he thinks - as LeSean McCoy will take the handoff from Michael Vick. The Cowboys in pre snap are seeing the Eagles set up for a strong-side run right, too. And therefore you can see a safety sneaking down to cover the tight ends. Clay Harbor - 82 is in motion on the right side and the plan will be for him to go all the way across the line and get the unblocked Ware in a trap situation. (Reminder: Click on any picture to enlarge)

The play hinges on 2 things happening for the Eagles to get anywhere. 1) - Clay Harbor has to get to Ware before Ware destroys the play. But, the premise of not blocking him is to encourage Ware to "take the cheese" and to in some ways take himself out of the play by heading too far into the backfield. Whether he realizes it or not, Ware is the only defender who is in any position to protect the cutback if McCoy doesn't follow the action of the offensive line to the right. And 2) - Jason Peters, the Eagles LT must move Marcus Spears out of the lane. If Spears can hold his ground or defeat Peters, this play won't get much. But as you begin to see in this photo below, Spears is certainly not close to standing his ground. Just looking at the hash marks, you see how easily Peters is able to truck Spears and build a wall for McCoy to see. Now, Ware is upfield and Harbor hardly touches him, but he doesn't have to, since Ware has over-pursued and taken himself out of the play. And look at all of the green grass for McCoy to navigate.

By the time of this 3rd picture below, McCoy is by himself looking at both Cowboys safeties as the only players left on the field. The rest of the defensive line was plowed out of the picture and now he will grab an easy 21 yards on a play that they would run again very soon.

Here is the exact same play, a bit later:

Play #2 - 3:37 - 1st Quarter - 1-10-Dal 36

OK. It is one possession later. The Eagles have the Cowboys on their heels and confused. And the Eagles are going to come back to that very same play to see if the Cowboys have a better plan. The only difference from a Philadelphia standpoint is that there are not double tight ends stacked to the right. Instead, Brent Celek-87 is the single TE and his motion to the right sets the trap again. Dallas, seeing a more balanced formation, does not overload to the offense's right, but instead is ready to bring Abram Elam as a blitzed to the outside of DeMarcus Ware. So, the Eagles will purposely not block Ware again - but the trap will be headed his way. Meanwhile, there is no accounting for Elam. He is unblocked and will have a chance to destroy this play. Both Ware and Elam are circled in blue. Remember, zone play to the right, with McCoy looking for a seam to cutback left. He takes one step with his offensive line, and then darts off the back shoulder of the left tackle.

So, remember the two keys for the Eagles. 1) - Celek must get a piece of Ware and have leverage so that Ware cannot get back to the inside in that split second where McCoy is arriving with the ball, and 2) - Peters vs Jason Hatcher. If Hatcher can stand his ground, the play cannot cut back. But, Hatcher is plowed out of there with no effort whatsoever, and there is enough room for the Queen Mary on this play. Elam totally takes himself out of the play by guessing it might be an outside running play. When it is a quick hitting run up the middle, the Cowboys are doomed.

In the photo below, I have circled Elam and Jason Hatcher. I just want you to see the body position of Hatcher as his back is facing the ball carrier. He is totally turned around. The middle linebackers follow the offensive line's movement to the right, but the ball carrier is not. That is a very bad combination for the Cowboys. And, once Ware is taken out by a tight end again, with Elam further outside taking himself out of the play, the Cowboys have called a run blitz that attacked the wrong spots. And McCoy is doing nothing more than taking candy from a baby.

Sensabaugh will catch him before the goal-line, but not before a 34 yard run.

So, the Cowboys have taken the bait twice. Surely, the Eagles will run this play again before the night is over. Will the Cowboys be more prepared?

Play #3 - 4:11 - 3rd Quarter - 2-18-Phil 34

Again, this is the same play, however, this time, the Eagles will flip it and zone left with the tight end kicking out to the right side to get an unblocked Anthony Spencer.

The Eagles again have double tight ends to off of their left tackle. So, the Cowboys are lined up to deal with that. In fact, if the Cowboys don't cheat to that side, there is likely a call at the line of scrimmage to run the play left. Then, if the Cowboys do shift, they come back with this cutback. We are also reminded on this play how middle linebackers get their keys on where a play is headed. They always take hints from the offensive line and most specifically, from the guards. So, you can see from watching Keith Brooking-51, how tempting it is when you see the entire OL zone blocking to the left to take a few steps in that direction, because we always anticipate that the running back is going to follow his line. But, when the Eagles show us that it is all a deception game to get the Cowboys to over-pursue, Dallas just cannot resist the urge. See Spencer, again, unblocked.

Spencer sees Clay Harbor coming to get him again and turns his body to keep contain. Jay Ratliff is easy caved in and cleared out of the way by the right guard. The right tackle goes to get Bradie James. This leaves Brooking (inside the blue circle above) as the unblocked man who must get McCoy or the Cowboys are in trouble.

Brooking is there, but with too much open space around, it doesn't take a quick player like McCoy much effort to leave a slower LB like Brooking in the dust. This, in a few frames, demonstrates the Cowboys hopes that Bruce Carter's speed can make a real difference moving forward. Look how far back Brooking is as McCoy is now 10 yards down field, and spots the 2 Cowboys safeties another 10 yards back. No wonder he had 185 yards. We just showed you 3 carries where he found 77 yards on the same play without much resistance at all.

The Cowboys did not have much trouble stopping big runs all season. Remember, these 3 plays are bad, but they are 3 of the 7 explosive runs all year long. This was a horrid night, but it did not repeat all year.

But, the bigger issue goes back to the NFC East. If you are the Cowboys, you simply must look closely at the 6 games you play each year against the division as the biggest priority. Entering 2012, you have the Giants and Eli Manning who routinely score in the mid 30's against you. You have the Eagles, who have so much speed at the skill positions that you simply must adjust and find equal speed to stop them. And now you have the Redskins, who appear to have a QB who actually has more explosive physical tools than Michael Vick. When you 3.1 explosive plays per game to teams outside the division, but 5.5 explosive plays per game against divisional foes, you can understand the initiative to change or die.

Just as we have seen time and time again, you have to survive your division if you wish to go further. The Cowboys were 2-4 in the NFC East in 2011 and were blown out in their two prime time road dates at Philadelphia and at New York. These games are huge and the organization cannot step forward without handling this business. On these plays, the Cowboys were simply out schemed and out manned. The defensive ends were caved in 3 times in a row. The LBs and DBs offered no support. And the Eagles, like a 6th grader playing Madden, just called the same play again and again.

I trust this game is talked about quite a bit inside Valley Ranch when they were making changes this spring. Let's hope they made enough of them.

11 for '11 series Previous Plays :

1. The Revis Interception
2. The Home Run to Holley
3. 3rd And 21 to Dez
4. Megatron's Dominating TD
5. DeMarco Murray's 91 yard Run

Monday, June 25, 2012

So Long, 63

There is some coping mechanism inside us all that tries to move on when a favorite goes away. Especially when it comes to our teams and our players. Invariably, one of our teams is going to make a move. This move is going to be grounded in logic and part of a bigger plan that will possibly make sense around the next corner. However, this move is going to take away a player that you really liked over the years and always gave an effort that you enjoyed. But, that coping mechanism kicks in. And before long, you buy the rhetoric and the explanations from the team and even though you enjoyed his work, you now are on to the next one.

Well, this morning, I am not quite ready to move on and look ahead. This morning, I wanted to write about one of my favorite players to roll through town, Mike Ribeiro, a few days after we all found out he would continue his career in Washington with the Capitals after the Dallas Stars pulled the trigger on a trade to send him away.

Oh, sure, I know all about the warts of Mike Ribeiro. Ribs was one of the worst face-off centers of this generation. For all of his brilliance, the simple fine art of taking a face-off was lost on him. In fact, of the 42 players to take at least 5,000 face-offs in the last 5 seasons, Ribeiro finished 42nd in percentage won (45%). Olli Jokinen and Eric Staal were also worse than 47%, but only Ribs fell below 46%.

He became famous for his long shifts. And the more vital the shift was from an offensive standpoint, the longer the shifts were. It was something that drove fans and media crazy to know that Jamie Benn was watching most of the power play from the bench as Ribs turned a 60 second shift into a 85 second shift if the Stars had the man advantage. Then, with 30-35 seconds left, Benn would pop out as opposed to splitting the 2 minute advantage equally down the middle. It may not have been his fault that Benn was not out there with him, but the shift length became an issue that was never properly sorted last season. In all, 211 minutes on the power play dwarfed Benn's 163. It wasn't all an issue of shift length, but it certainly started there. And when the Dallas Stars tied a modern era low for least number of power play goals scored in a full length season (just 33), then that nit was going to be picked quite a bit.

Those two points will be brought up repeatedly over the next few months to anyone who wants to lament his exit; as will his issues in his own defensive zone and his enjoyment of the night life. But, for me, watching #63 since the 2006-07 season has been great. I have always enjoyed his game and his ability to simply be himself. He scored 407 points in 461 games for the Dallas Stars, and like so many before him, he did it his way. He was skinny, but he was certainly not meek. He would play his heart out and if you challenged him, he would play harder with an edge of anger.

He played through a number of injuries that certainly could have ended his night. His battle this past winter through the puck in his face in Nashville followed by the knee injury against Edmonton in back to back games showed what he was all about. It reminded us of his previous battle scars including the throat scar from a trip a few years back in New York.

But, the biggest attraction to Mike Ribeiro for me was just his love of the beautiful side of the sport. It might have had plenty to do with growing up in a soccer family, where his father perhaps assisted Mike in the creative side of making a play effective and pretty at the same time. He had a knack for creative play that was not taught at the youth levels of hockey and is still not widely loved by the coaches who run the NHL. You could feel the collective cringe on the bench when he would unveil his newest shootout move that included a fair amount of mustard on the hot dog. He might score and make the goalie look silly or not score and make himself look silly, but he was not simply going to fire a wrist shot like everyone else. He just couldn't do it that way.

He might have been a player in Dallas that needed to be coached hard. Once upon a time, the Stars had a similar soul in Brett Hull, but they also had the fiery combo of Bob Gainey and Ken Hitchcock demanding that any sort of free spirit be sewn into the fabric of the team concept and expectations. To Hitch, 45 seconds did not mean 46 seconds, and if he was coaching Ribs, perhaps the shift issues and the decision making would have been molded differently. We will never know.

But, Marc Crawford and Glen Gulutzan were not the type to take on a veteran who needed the occasional scolding. So, they perhaps were never able to get him to understand the difference between a personal and team decision. He was set in his ways and they were not up for the battle of wills, so some of the problems might have not been addressed.

All the while, Ribs would be out there trying to help the cause. His creativity and drive were always on display. His overtime winner against Calgary this year will be the goal that will be the most enduring memory (six shades of sexy were the words of Razor Reaugh), but there were 50 just like it over his time here.

He will be replaced by someone else, and chances are that that new player will always mind the coach and likely won't stay out as late. But, the hockey fan inside of me who loved the creative flair that Ribeiro put out there will always have a spot for him on my team. He made hockey fun and reminded us that trying something with the puck is sometimes a better idea than dumping it into the corner and getting a responsible change. I know the coaches don't want to hear it, but those of us who don't want robots playing hockey very much appreciate it. There are very few players like Ribeiro out there, and I am happy to have watched him here for 6 years.

I will miss the haircuts, the quotes, and the clothes that only he would attempt to wear. I will miss the shootout attempts, the bad attitude when he was challenged, and the behind the back, through the legs, and who knows where else artwork that he would conceive and then execute.

It may not make hockey sense to say this, because he was not without weaknesses in his game, but I will greatly miss having #63 around anymore. They missed the last 4 years of playoffs with him, so his jersey will likely never see the banners, but I will always remember his contributions to my hockey enjoyment.

And now, losing Brad Richards and Ribeiro down the middle and the 150 points that came with them in a typical season, the Stars try to figure out where they are getting their offensive creativity from moving forward. They certainly have their work cut out for them.

Friday, June 22, 2012

NHL Draft Day Is Here

The offseason officially begins for Joe Nieuwendyk, Bob Gainey, Glen Gulutzan, and Tom Gaglardi today. All of the talk, speculation, and expectations will have to head to the back-burner in exchange for some actual actions. We knew, after watching the Stars for the last several seasons that they are in desperate need of some fresh talent. And now, they go about trying to find it at a reasonable cost.

In the weeks ahead, there will be plenty of time to speculate about the veterans that will be added. Earlier in the week, I spent time discussing the possibilities that could emerge as early as this weekend in the form of trades. The Stars are not necessarily flush with talent to trade away, but from talking to the principle members of the staff over the last several months, it is clear that anyone over the age of 27 that can be moved and can help the group below the age of 27 grow moving forward will be considered. THat is not to say that those players would bring a king's ransom, but let us all expect that the boldest moves of the summer may come in the form of trades. And those trades could happen on draft weekend.

However, assuming the Stars will not make our jaw drop this weekend by pushing in all of Gaglardi's chips into the middle of the table on Rick Nash or Jordan Staal, Brandon Dubinsky or someone else who might not be on the radar, let's spend our time this morning trying to figure out who the 1st Round pick of the Stars will be by the end of the night.

They have the 13th pick in the 1st Round as of this moment. I say that because with an additional 2nd rounder, it is conceivable that they could move up if the right players starts dropping, and the team has also suggested that they might not be against heading the other direction if they think they can aid their farm system with an additional 2nd rounder by moving back if they think there is not much left to pick through when they are picking.

Nail Yakupov will most likely go 1st. It seems in the past few days, Columbus and defenseman Ryan Murray have looked like a fit at #2. Milwaukee-born Alex Galchenyuk, Yakupov's junior teammate at Sarnia, looks like he will go #3 to Montreal. And after that, there doesn't seem to be much consensus that can be found.

The only sure thing about the NHL draft in 2012 is this: After the top 3 picks, there are no sure things. We have some idea who might go where, but if you are the Stars at #13, you have to plan for any and all scenarios. Then, provided that you have 13 players that you like and have them ranked against each other in mock drafts in your own war-room in the days before the big day, you are prepared to have whoever is left on that list.

Now, everyone can talk about taking the best player available, but that generally is more of a cliche than a practice. Because when push comes to shove, a team has to look at what they currently have in their system and adjust accordingly. And that is why this year, the Stars are very aware of the fact that they have many capable wingers coming along and a decent supply of defensemen. But, there is a major shallow area at center ice for the organization from the top of the Stars' roster all the way down to the bottom of the organization. If all things are equal, the team wants a center. The trouble is, there are not many centers in this draft. Those that are there are in most cases not considered cinches to be "Top 6" centers. So, just because you need centers doesn't mean you should reach rather than get one of the many defensemen who appear to be the deepest supply at the top of the draft.

If the Stars are to look at the odds, they should figure out which defenseman they like the best. Because odds are that a few of those Top 13 will fall to them, and of those, odds suggest they will be blue-liners. Good news there, because while the Stars have plenty of defensemen, they can always use more candidates for the "Top 4" slots on their roster. It would be a pick that makes plenty of sense, especially if there are some power play QBs available or big men who can play 25 minutes as a potential shutdown partner with last year's 1st Rounder, Jamie Oleksiak.

As for wingers, there is one winger in particular I think they could potentially go with at #13, but otherwise, I don't expect they will look there. The exception is big Thomas Wilson. Since every organization in the NHL is looking for the next Milan Lucic - a giant winger who destroys defensemen and drives the net - Wilson could fill a spot nicely. But, beyond WIlson, I fully expect that we can merely sift through the defensemen and centers and build our own scenarios for how things play out.

Let's do it:

Top Tier (This group has no chance of getting to #13 - So let's not spend much time on them):

The list of players that will go here include Winger Nail Yakupov, Defenseman Ryan Murray, Winger Filip Forsberg, Center Alex Galchenyuk, and most likely, Defenseman Jacob Trouba. Trouba may or may not fit in the top 5, but the odds of him getting to #13 are remote. I think Dallas would happily accept any of these players with open arms into their organization, but that is a rather irrelevant conversation so let's allow the really poor teams to enjoy their new hopes of the franchise and move on.

Next Tier (This Group is likely to be gone before #13 - but, in this group, there are a few the Stars might target):

Here we find D Matt Dumba. Dumba is very unlikely to be in the mix at #13, but I sense that if he were to fall into range of the Stars, perhaps he would be worth a move up. He really brings a skill set that excites many teams and has those intangibles as well. Around #8, if he makes it that far, the phone call might be worth making. Also in this group is the very talented Mikhail Grigorenko, the Russian center who lit up the Quebec league last season. His motor is a big question and the KHL is another, but if you want a center who could come back to haunt you if you pass him by, this would be the guy. He seems too cliche to end up in Washington, but if he gets to the right spot, it could make all sorts of sense. I am just not sure Dallas is that place. Either way, Grigorenko is the guy with the widest range in this draft. He could be in the Top 5 and he could slide to #20. He is a fascinating study that must be the proper fit.

Tuevo Teravainen is a Finnish winger and wil likely be in this next group, as is D Morgan Reilly and D Griffin Reinhart. It is important to note that putting this group together consisted of 5 names. The Stars would be quite excited about Reinhart or Reilly, I imagine, and some people think Reinhart will be there when #13 arrives, but in the last few weeks, I have seen him as high as #4 in mocks from experts. Reilly is coming off a shortened season with ACL issues, but by many reports, like Galchenyuk, it doesn't look like a 2011-12 injury is going to affect their position much. If Reilly or Reinhart slide, the Stars would dance.

The Stars Tier (Players that could be in the mix at #13 - stacked in the order of preference):

C Radek Faksa
D Cody Ceci
D Derrick Pouliot
W Thomas Wilson
D Hampus Lindholm

As you can see, I don't believe the Stars will dig much deeper than this. I know there are other names that will be available such as the Finnish Dman Olli Maatta, the Latvian Center Zemgus Girgensons, or Center Brendan Gaunce, but I don't get the feel that the team agrees that they are of the caliber of the 5 players above. If they end up with any of those 3 players, I think it would be in a trade back in the draft.

So let's briefly discuss the 5 players that are in play.

C Radek Faksa - 6'3, 203 - Czech Republic - 2 Way Center who played at Kitchner last season. He appears to be a player who can really be what the Stars need at center, and unlike Grigorenko, does not have questions about his drive or his motor. In fact, he has been pursuing his NHL dreams since he left home at 11 years old. And with Gainey and Nieuwendyk looking for 2-way centers who can handle both ends of the ice, this might be the type #2 center who anchors your roster for years to come. Not sure he will be around at #13, but if he is, this is the guy.

D Cody Ceci - 6'1, 205 - Canada - All scenario defenseman who played in Ottawa for the 67's. His offensive potential is special as well as his ability to skate with size. He can get physical and he can play on both special teams. He could conceivably be ready to play in the show in 2012 and has tremendous upside. Maybe a tier below the best in this draft at the position like Murray, Trouba, and Dumba, but there would be nothing wrong with leaving the draft with Ceci (Pronounced "C.C.")

D Derrick Pouliot - 6'0, 181 - Canada - Played very well for the Portland Winterhawks last season with 59 points and is the type of offensive defenseman that everyone is looking for. Seems like an ideal QB for the Power Play and will take a bit of time with development, but could really be another blue chipper to get excited about. Just as slick as it gets with the puck. I don't think he is quite the total player Ceci is, but the depth of this draft is on the blue line in the first 15 picks, and there would be no issues with adding Pouliot to the stable.

D Hampus Lindholm - 6'2, 185 - Sweden - This guy shot up the boards with an absurd performance at the NHL Combine with endurance recovery levels that were off the charts. He is a very talented and has a complete game that would make him a very low risk gamble at #13. You can sleep rather easy that he will be a regular for you and solid in many areas.

W Thomas Wilson - 6'4, 195 - Canada - Ah, yes, the attraction like bugs to light of hockey teams to a true power forward. It makes us occasionally squint and wonder about a player who could help the team physically impose their will on the opponent. When is the last true punishing forward the Stars had? Bigger, stronger, and willing to throw the body around? I am waiting. The point is that Wilson is still growing into his body. His skating is a work in progress. But, the feeling that he has a chance to be that type of player is why he is a fast riser as draft day approaches. Lucic? Bertuzzi? These are bold names to throw around, but I believe he is very much on the radar and perhaps the one winger that the Stars would consider jumping on if he gets to #13. Buffalo is a likely spot for him at #12.

Basically, in summary, if the Stars leave with Ceci, Faksa, Reinhart, Reilly, or even Pouliot I would be excited. If they somehow work their way to Trouba or Dumba, I would be over the moon. Wilson and Grigorenko would be interesting but a wait and see.

Now, let's see how it all goes tonight. It will be most interesting what the Stars do with their first bold strike of the summer.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

11 for '11: #5 - DeMarco for 91 Yard TD

The Following is the 5th in an 11-part weekly series throughout the summer that will focus on the eleven plays that shaped 2011 for the Dallas Cowboys. Every game, about 130 actual plays happen and over the course of a season that number can exceed 2,000. But, we have selected 11 and will pick one each week and break it down from standpoint of "X's and O's" and see what we can learn looking back. The plays are not ranked, simply presented as the season unfolded. We hope you enjoy.

Today, we breakdown the success of the running game from Game #6 against St Louis and the rather unpredictable day they had that for a while - between the time that DeMarco Murray took over for an injured Felix Jones in New England until Murray himself was hurt in Week 14 against the Giants, proved the Cowboys had a very strong rushing attack. In fact, during that stretch of time (mid October until mid December), DeMarco Murray rushed for 824 yards which was the #1 total in the entire league. 2nd was Marshawn Lynch at 730, 3rd was Stephen Jackson at 675, 4th Arian Foster 654, and 5th Maurice Jones Drew at 650.

If Murray is what the Cowboys think he is - much of it expressed in this one run back in his 1st start - then you can understand why they are not entering this season stressing out about Felix Jones and his future. They think they may have found their man in the 3rd round of the 2011 draft out of Oklahoma. And if they are right, so many other pieces might fall into place.

As we pointed out at great length when this game was played, the Rams defense is lousy in stopping the run. In fact, in 2011, only Tampa Bay surrendered more big plays and more yardage than the Rams on the ground. They couldn't stop anyone, and finally, the low-on-confidence Cowboys OL found a side they could bully. This was much more fun than the week before in Foxboro against Vince Wilfork and company.

The play below was the single longest running play in the NFL in 2011. Flashes of Tony Dorsett from the Cowboys rookie and a play that was magical from an execution stand point. Let's take a look - CLICK ON ANY PICTURE TO ENLARGE:

The Situation: 1st Down and 19 to go; Dallas at their own 9 yard line. Dallas has "regular" or "21" personnel in the game. Murray, Fiammetta, Witten, Bryant, and Austin as the 5 skill players. Because of Witten, Bryant, and Austin, you can see the Rams have a 2 deep safety look, and the corners up on the wide-outs. Dez, in particular is being pressed.

Witten is flexed right - away from the Right tackle - where the Rams must consider him a very likely primary read in the event that this is a passing play. The Cowboys love to put their opponents in this pickle, although they prefer it be on 1st and 10 rather than 1st and 19. On 1st and 19, your safeties will often be deep and happy to concede a 5-yard run and assume a offensive play-caller is going to be itchy to get all of those yards back quickly.

This inside zone run/pass option has been seen a thousand times if you follow the Cowboys. The quick read touchdown in Houston from 2010 is an example of the exact same concept where Tony Romo sees the pass on the outside and opts to throw the ball. I recommend you follow the link to that play for last season and experience the play from the pass option standpoint to really get an appreciation for the complexities of 1 play and why training camp is so important to a team to be able to explore the countless options on 1 single play.

On the run/pass option draw, the blockers are 100% committed to the run option. They cannot concern themselves with whatever Romo decides to do. Their job is to sell that they are pass protecting to their opponents so that their opponent will fall into the trap of edge rushing upfield. This is what the offense wants from the Defensive Ends. Allow them to take the edge and to take themselves out of possible rushing lanes. This is done by having each tackle simply turn their body towards the near sidelines and the defensive ends will generally do the rest. On this particular play, 3 of the 4 Rams DL fall for the bait. The LDE, RDE (James Hall), and RDT (Fred Robbins) require almost no blocking whatsoever - simply for 68-Free, 77-Smith, and 63-Kosier to step aside.

Then, after the trap is set, with those 3 DL cleared out, it becomes quite easy to double team with 67-Costa and 64-Holland on DT Gary Gibson. Murray is following his FB Tony Fiammetta into the right "A" gap (the gap between the center and guard). This has to happen quickly because once the defenders who rushed up field see they have been fooled, there is really no protection for the RB to keep from being caught from behind. The play's timing is key.

In the picture above, you see the 3 red arrows, denoting how the 3 Rams' LBs are going to get blocked. Holland is going to get his double team on Gibson and then slide to the Will LB. Witten is going to cut off the Sam. And Fiammetta is going to go get the Mic (Laurinaitis).

And now, the success of the play - or why this play can either go for 3 yards or 91 yards falls to 4 players besides DeMarco Murray. 82-Jason Witten, 24-Tony Fiammetta, and two Rams' safeties, 27-Quintin Mikell (deep left from Murray's view), and 20-Darian Stewart (deep right). Fiammetta's lead block on 55-James Laurinaitis is very impressive and demonstrates his strength and mobility. But, what I am drawn to more and more was the job that Witten does on a far more difficult block. Blocking is all about leverage and position. If I want to rebound a basketball, I need inside position and to keep my defender from getting inside me to the rim. In football, the rim is always moving, because the ball carrier is what I am trying to protect from my defender. Much more difficult, and the officials are making sure I don't hold.

Above, you can see the alley for Murray. Inside the blocks from Kosier and Fiammetta. Then, read Witten to see if this should go to the middle or bounce to the outside.

So, for Witten to seal the inside position on 57-Chris Chamberlain, when Chamberlain already has leverage on Witten shows us two things. 1 - that Chamberlain is far more concerned about Witten in a pass route. Until the very end, he appears to be squared up to counter whatever pass route Witten is about to run. He saw the offensive line in a posture to pass protect and quickly deduced that this is a pass play. By the time he figures out that Witten is not running a route, but attempting to seal him off from Murray, it is too late. Chamberlain has fallen into the trap. 2 - Witten is an excellent blocker and understands to use his threat as a receiver to his advantage. It is very subtle, but when you watch the end zone camera, it shows that he is still pretty solid at blocking. And that is why people consider him the best "all-around" tight end of this decade. Others can catch the ball and challenge downfield more, but he does it all.

Meanwhile, here is another lesson in Running Backs versus Safeties in the open field. As a defense, you hope that this doesn't happen very often, because the safety is at a distinct disadvantage to start the play 10-15 yards deep and to have to make a 1-on-1 tackle in the open field. But, wow, Stewart is just a blur as he takes a poor angle and isn't even close on his attack. Mikell is at least in the picture, but Murray's cutback makes Mikell look like a garden gnome.

You have to really appreciate Murray's decisive cutbacks. He plants his foot and goes. There is no question once he gets an idea of where he is going next. We saw this all day on Sunday. And Quintin Mikell, a player I thought would help the safety position in Dallas this summer, is proving that against the run, he is not very skilled. There were several other plays on Sunday where he took poor angles and missed tackles. And when a safety misses a tackle, there is usually nobody behind him to clean up his mess.

91 yards where 11 players are working in concert very well. Even Dez Bryant helps with a convoy to the endzone and we get to see Murray and Bryant sprinting next to each-other. This is the type of play that makes the film room happy. Murray did receive much of the credit, but there are plenty of good grades to go around here. Textbook stuff.

Here is the video of the entire play - (Courtesy, Fox Sports)

Of all of the plays from this series, this one is the best to sink hopes for 2012 into. Not that 91 yards can happen, but the idea that this might be a legitimate full-time, multi-purpose back to compliment the offense. Julius Jones showed similar flashes in 2004, but the Cowboys obviously hope that there is some more long-term stability with Murray. More importantly, this is the rare explosive running play that can really change a game and put the Cowboys opponents on watch.

11 for '11 series Previous Plays :

1. The Revis Interception
2. The Home Run to Holley
3. 3rd And 21 to Dez
4. Megatron's Dominating TD

Monday, June 18, 2012

Stars Open Window For Business

Any normal Dallas Stars fan has removed the daily activities on the hockey team from their radar back in early April. With the CBA expiring in September, they may not get fully turned back on until Thanksgiving (who knows?). But, for those of us who aren't normal, and who understand that there is much more to following a franchise than the 82 games that count in the standings, we know that this next month - and more specifically 2 weeks (Today through July 2) - are vital for where this team is headed and how we can evaluate the new philosophies from a new owner and staff for the hopefully bright future.

I say the next two weeks because this Friday and Saturday is the 2012 NHL Draft. Now, the Stars have a number of picks, including some extra ammunition from the Nik Grossmann trade, and sit at #13, #43, #61, and #74. I won't pretend to dive as deeply into the NHL Draft as I do the NFL Draft, but I think this week we will spend some time focused on the most attractive of these picks - #13 - and the options they could also generate if they decide to move up in the draft.

But, one thing that may not be top of mind is that the draft weekend is often fertile ground for trades in the NHL. Almost every year, with its proximity to the opening of free agency, we see major moves discussed and announced around the league. Teams are looking to fill holes and because of the lack of numbers in free agency from a depth and quality standpoint, it is not uncommon for teams to not want to wait around at the 5-10% chance they would have to convince an elite free agent to come to their door. Instead, they do business with trades and those would happen this weekend in many cases.

Then, July 1, the window goes up in free agency, and this is where the buyer most beware. There are some very attractive pieces available on July 1, but you must get it right. In this day with a hard salary cap and funds in rare supply, the wrong deal on the wrong player can really create all new problems for an organization. If your team lacked a top center, for instance, but had plenty of cap room to find one, impatience might cause you to make the largest mistake a team can make - buying someone who is willing to take your money, but not capable of being what you want him to be.

In other words, overpayment is implied in free agency. You are at an auction with other motivated buyers. You don't want to get outbid, so you throw caution to the wind. And before long, you have paid the center equivalent of Brian Campbell $57 million or Christian Ehrhoff $40 million. Paying them more doesn't make them a better player. It makes them the same player they have always been with a much fatter wallet. Now, you overbid for a player who is not the perfect fit, but rather the best fit given the choices. That is a big difference. And now, instead of having the top center, you have your version of Chan Ho Park, and your cap room has gone away and you now have an overpaid #2 center for the next 7 years. Congratulations. You have lost at free agency.

It isn't the players fault, by the way. It is your fault as an organization in building the wrong way. Free agency is not the proper road to building a team. It is the way to land a nice piece that compliments the team you built. Like baseball, building a hockey team requires kids. Many, many kids who you have drafted or acquired who can arrive on the scene and change your franchise for the better at a reasonable wage. Then, you secure those who earn security and discard the rest and do it again with a new crop of kids. It takes a while and it is not terribly exciting for your fans, but the good news in Dallas is that while you may have been sleeping, the team has begun the process.

And I guess that is the good thing about bankruptcy (assuming there is such a thing). The Stars had to slow their roll on big ticket acquisitions, but in the meantime, were combing the hockey world for talented kids and placing an emphasis on "growing their own". This process takes years, but if you started it and have a reasonably stocked farm system in certain spots, you can already plan on seeing the fruits of this labor ready to roll at camp in September.

Now, they have a ton of cash available, kids on the way, and a team that has been on the cusp of the playoffs for the last few years - hypothetically verifying the premise that they are "not far away". And, in the NHL these days, that is the mantra. If the Kings and Devils can do it, why can't we? It may be misguided, since the Kings were actually a pretty strong pick when the season started from many observers, but it shows that teams can turn the corner rather quickly when the time is right.

So, here they are. Well-positioned with cap room, draft picks, and pretty pleased with the prospects. I would interject on the prospect side that there appears to be a shortage of high-end elite offensive talent and a real shortage of centers. They have some talented kids, but the NHL is not drooling at the Stars prospects right now. They are building, but not close to the industry leaders at the present.

Below, let's discuss the 3 different avenues for acquisitions that are available in the next month:

FREE AGENCY: This is where the highest stakes are found and the most ready-to-change-your-franchise impacts, too. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are the belles of the ball, and neither is expected to take much time in finding their riches and new address. Suter is clearly gone from Nashville, it seems, and will be paid handsomely. Personally, I don't think the Stars laying out $40-$50m would make any sense for his style of game, but the good news is that it seems irrelevant, because he doesn't seem to have Dallas on is radar, either. Shea Weber is everything that this franchise should invest in (a defenseman who has the total package), but he will not hit unrestricted free agency until 2013, at which time, the Stars can join 29 other teams in trying to wow him if Nashville somehow cannot find a way to lock him down.

Parise is much more likely to stay in New Jersey than it seemed back in April. With their success and playoff revenues, you would imagine keeping their captain is very much in their plans. If not, Minnesota seems to be the most likey home. Should the Stars invest in Parise? Absolutely, as I think he provides much of what the Stars want - elite offense, power play presence, speed, leadership, and great effort levels, but at his price you must be careful. But, most importantly, why would he choose to play here? Right now, the Stars are rather anonymous. At some point soon, they may be an attractive destination for free agents, but at the present time, it is a tough sell for many free agents with options to believe that the Stars are serious about being a cup contender. We have to remain realistic. Like the Rangers, at first, the acquisitions will be trades. Then, after success with trades, Adrian Beltre and Joe Nathan might follow. Not the other way around.

Are there realistic free agency targets? Yes. If they wish to get in on a group of defensemen that I like: Matt Carle, Jason Garrison, or Dennis Wideman, I think you could find a real compliment to the Stars power play forces at a heavy price ($20m) but not insane price. If you wanted to take a look at a tougher defenseman like Barrett Jackman, you might be able to do that sort of thing for 3 years/$12m. But, he is not going to help your power play in the slightest. He would be more of defensive replacement for what you lose from Sheldon Souray leaving and the gritty/leadership factor that he can provide.

As for Souray, the Stars offered a 1-year deal (reportedly in the $3m range) and the Souray camp wants a multiple year deal (no doubt seeing Willie Mitchell get 2-years, $7m). Unless Souray changes his mind because of a lack of interest league-wide, there is no reason to believe the Stars are going to move up the term. They just didn't see enough to believe he can play every night for 8-9 months anymore.

Otherwise, look for the Stars to carefully sift through the cheaper options at forward spots, but the idea that they can find their "Top 6" vacancies with a bold strike through free agency doesn't seem to be the route the Stars are going to take. And, it might not be the worst thing in the world to keep the owner's personal connections in mind. One of his co-owners in Kamloops might need a job.

TRADES: This is going to be 100% speculation. And it is going to hurt to read some of the names involved. But, from what I am deducing, the Stars are looking to make a splash this summer through the trade route. This can be tricky, but I imagine most of their class of 2013 free agents can all be had if the price is right. This means some of your favorite players - Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro - are at the top of that list. Also, a 2014 free agent is Steve Ott, and since we seem to have it on pretty good authority that he was available at the deadline, we should know that this hasn't changed. All 3 have value. So, if they can find a trade that nets them a piece that the Stars think can be part of their big picture group moving forward, I would not say any of them are locks to be here when camp starts again.

Obviously, Ott has real value for a team that is close. In fact, one has to wonder how Vancouver's playoff run would have gone if they would have done the Buffalo deal (Cody Hodgson for Zack Kassian) with the Stars for Ott. I imagine the Stars would have jumped on that with both feet, but instead the Canucks went the other route and were dismissed early by Los Angeles. Morrow is tricky as he has major health issues that will continue to scare off many buyers. He may be more of a deadline candidate next spring if he can demonstrate his value again through durability and performance. But, he has many, many admirers in NHL front offices around the league. Ribeiro is a capable #2 center, which may make the Stars hold on to him because they have almost nothing behind him unless they can get a center coming back in the deal and that is hard to fathom for a number of reasons.

Beyond the veterans available in trade, the Stars now have enough kids that they can start to ponder the wisdom of dealing one of them. Maybe the prospect with the most value is goaltender Jack Campbell. He is still unproven at the AHL level, but is oozing with talent and seems to be the player that NHL minds quickly bring up when talking about the talent in Dallas. If Kari Lehtonen (another 2013 UFA) is a priority for an extension - and I don't know why he wouldn't be - then you might flip your top goalie prospect for something up front. The biggest reason for this deduction goes back to the old adage that you cannot play 2 goalies at the same time. There is just one net. So, surplus sometimes pays other bills. This may be a move made down the road to maximize the deal, but for now, it is something to keep on the radar.

With a number of attractive names out there in trade talks: Rick Nash, Jordan Staal, etc, the Stars can consider options, but with both of those players in particular, expect the prices to be jaw dropping. Additionally, in the case of Staal, he will also hit UFA in 2013, so buyer beware. And in the case of Nash, we are back to a player agreeing to come here since he has the ability to veto any destination he doesn't agree to.

DRAFT: As I said above, we will write something about the draft and the 13th pick in particular as the week goes on. But for now, you should know that it is a draft where a clear consensus is not easy to find when looking at even the Top 5 in the draft. The Stars are surely looking in 2 directions - center and defense, and this draft is short on top-end centers but seems to have enough quality depth on defense that there could be something pretty nice there when they pick. What makes this draft a bit odd is that there could be a case where a top talent starts falling because of various issues (including the KHL issue as it pertains to young Russians). If that happens, the extra ammunition of an additional 2nd rounder could cause the Stars to shoot up to get the center of their dreams. But, this is all dependent on a slide that may not even happen, so speculation is everywhere.

In conclusion, the Stars are ready to get active. They have a renewed sense of urgency and with Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson, and Kari Lehtonen, they feel that they have a group to build around. They don't think they are miles away and they don't think this will take forever. But, it might not happen at daybreak on July 1. They have to make sure they get this right.

This should be a very interesting month.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cowboys Mailbag - 6/15

The end of another week and the last time the Cowboys will get together on a football field before their trip to Southern California has come to a close, but that doesn't mean we plan on slowing down the Cowboys Mailbag (except for during my upcoming vacation).

Let's continue to look back and ahead on many topics through actual emails like yours....


Hey Bob

I really enjoyed your post about the crushing fourth-quarter interception against the Jets in week one last season. It's particularly gutting when you've stayed up to 5am over here on the other side of the pond to hopefully see the Cowboys pull off a victory. Mind you, you pay's your money and take your choice. Watching Nick Folk's rekicked gamewinner against Buffalo in the wee hours a couple of seasons ago was the upside of this fiendish late night coin.

That was a great breakdown of the Int as I'd originally put equal blame on Dez Bryant. If you watch really closely he is trying to come back to his qb late in that play but stubs I think it was his right foot into the turf, loses his balance and can't push off. It's probably a pick anyway but that misstep ruined any chance Dez had of breaking up the play.

But the real kicker for me on your review was when I saw that although the Jets were threatening to rush six, they only rushed three and Dallas had gone max-protect with seven blockers. Yet Romo inexplicably takes off like a cat on a hot tin roof, rolling out to his right (as cats prefer to do:)) thereby effectively giving himself only one receiver in his progression - namely Dez - who is also in double coverage. Brain lock move by Romo so most of the blame goes on him.

He leaves me speechless in both a good and bad way at times so I understand why opinion is so polarised about him. But the highs are just so tantalising and sweet that I'm firmly on the Romo bandwagon. That crystallised when a good friend asked me during the Peyton Manning sweepstakes if I would swap Romo for the former Colt. Of course I would, that's a no-brainer. But when he posed the same question about Eli I just couldn't give the same answer. I didn't know why for a while because on paper Eli is clearly the better quarterback on recent form, working wonders last season behind a disintegrating offensive line. And he's so clutch.

Also Eli is less injury prone than Romo who unfortunately is a bit fragile. But I eventually realised I've got too much emotionally invested in Romo to swap him for Eli and really want him to succeed. You can't put a price on the kind of highs he will give you like last season's performance against Miami where particularly I think on the drive you broke down recently, I still hadn't picked my chin up from the floor after one amazing play, when there was another and another. It was a stunning matchwinning peformance. Besides, Greg Cosell's recent analysis confirms Romo is a top 10 qb which is where I've always had him - I'd say he's top eight - definitely above Matt Ryan and Cam Newton.

Somehow that game was not Romo's best of the season according to Pro Football Focus. I tried to find out if it was rated his second best after the Buffalo game or rated somewhere else, but did not get a reply. Perhaps you would be good enough to clear this up for me, Bob.

Anyway, getting back to the present day and your recent posts about RG3 and how the offense all fits together did rather pose a question that perhaps you would like to investigate. I followed your link to TC Fleming's stuff on the Texans offense and how it mirrored the Elway Broncos, and was struck by the idea that Denver's play calls would be determined by whether the defense was cheating rush or pass. Presumably if it was cheating rush then you pass and vice versa, the offense's goal being to get the defense to treat both equally although I'm not convinced getting to that point is better than having the defense cheat one way and then ramming the opposite down their throats, as long as the offense is equally proficient at running and passing - unlike Dallas.

This brings me to your analysis of the Patriots and Cardinals games last season where both teams were clearly cheating pass the longer each game went on and Dallas's running efforts sank slowly but terminally into the mud. But to do that well, these defenses must surely be able to play the run on the way to the passer or the offense would surely catch them out with timely run calls.

So let's assume that's the case, but what I can't fathom out is where was Dallas's screen game. If the defense's focus is on pass rushing then football 101 says a screen can make them pay. From what I can remember of last season is that Dallas are not a big screen team and haven't been over the last couple of years. If the numbers support this contention, I wonder why that is. Perhaps in the case of the Patriots and Cardinals they were getting pressure with their base defense but a screen should still work even in those circumstances.

Just because an offense goes one-dimensional it doesn't mean it cannot get the job done, but under Garrett - who I like, is clearly changing the culture for the better and like all coaches is human and makes errors (see Arizona timeout gaffe last season) - that seems to be the case.

Come on Jason let's see some screens on the big screen in Arlington and more particularly on the road.

Steve Hawdon, Andover

Thanks, Steve. Is that Andover in England? Not far from Southampton? Very nice.

Well, a few things. First, ProFootballFocus rated Tony Romo's 3 finest performances last year as the following: #1 Buffalo, #2 at Tampa Bay, and #3 at San Francisco. His 3 worst were: #1 at New York, #2 Washington, and #3 At Philadelphia.

Now, on to the screens. According to my extensive data base, of the 1,019 snaps the Cowboys took last season, I listed 28 of them to be some variation of a screen pass. I narrowed it down even further to list that 4 of those were TE Screens, 11 were WR screens, and the remaining 13 the traditional screen pass to a Running back. None of the 28 were particularly successful, but DeMarco Murray had 3 over 10 yards and shorter than 15, Tashard Choice, Dez Bryant, and John Phillips (of all people) also had one screen for a first down. Otherwise, many were incomplete or for less than 6 yards and thought of as relatively ordinary or unproductive plays.

The reasons do go back, in my opinion, to the drastic upheaval in the offensive line. At first, it was just something that this offense did not emphasize. Then, it seemed that perhaps it was more of a case that they did not want to ask too much of the offensive line because the basic things were proving to be an issue. Then, there was a massive overhaul in October with the types of play calls that seemed to work and the zone plays of September started to fade away and the man blocking calls started re-emerging - not coincidentally with the big Montrae Holland called in from his couch.

I expect that in 2012, this is thought of as an objective when they find some continuity to their offensive line on the interior, since most proper screens do utilize the guards in space. So, priority #1 is to figure out which guards will be at the top of the depth chart and hopefully, Livings and Bernadeau are better in space than the options from last season. Livings doesn't look to strong in space to me, but I am willing to offer a fresh start after his post-Bengals career.

Regardless, this is hypothetically a way to back off the defensive attack. In fact, in a study that I think some people might find interesting, the Cowboys are experts on the powers of screen passes because the opponents loved to run variations of this strategy to back of Rob Ryan and his blitz packages.

At least 6 different times in 2011, the Cowboys had a screen pass right into the teeth of their blitz go for an explosive (a play that totals 20 or more yards). The Jets, Dolphins, Patriots, Eagles, Rams, and Lions all sprung this trap on the Cowboys to back off the blitzing tactics. There is nothing more demoralizing than sending 6 or 7 rushers and then having a QB dink a short pass right behind your men and they run free for 30 yards down the field.

Here is a link to all 64 of the explosives Rob Ryan's defense allowed and you can see how many times the screen was stuck on them. Keep in mind, the Cowboys did not generate a single explosive off the screen in 2011 offensively.


Could we see T.O. back with the Cowboys.

P1 Jason

NO. No. No. No. No. No.

It won't happen and it can't happen. Terrell Owens has many fans in this city and he also could easily be the 3rd best WR on this roster, but when you talk about the damage that was done in the 2008 season in particular, the primary figures on the other side of the Owens drama were, in any order: Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and Jason Garrett. Now, with the exception of Jerry Jones, are there 3 more powerful people at Valley Ranch than those 3? That should answer your question.

I think, like in 2011, the Cowboys will proceed to camp with the idea that they will seek an internal solution to their 3rd and 4th WR issues. If, like in 2011, they are not satisfied with what they have found, then they will have to act quickly and examine what is available.

Personally, I would recommend a minimal deal before camp with Patrick Crayton. I think Crayton was a good teammate (if not occasionally outspoken), generally dependable (save for the 2007 playoff game against the Giants), and had a strong chemistry with Tony Romo (not unlike Laurent Robinson in 2011) for knowing where to go when Tony starts his improv show. He also knows the system, enjoys the slot, and understands the organization and is a veteran who might help sort that 3rd spot.

I would argue that the 3rd WR spot is a headache, as is the 2nd TE spot. Both are vital to the Jason Garrett offense. Danny Coale, Andre Holmes, and James Hanna will all be given chances for a few weeks to show what they have in Oxnard. But, then, the clock will be ticking and the scouts will go to work on finding a dependable veteran. At that point, Crayton and veteran TE Visanthe Shiancoe will have likely found jobs elsewhere, but for now, both appear to be waiting for their phone to ring.


Hey Bob, what are the odds something gets done long-term with Anthony Spencer?


I believe the deadline for that activity is now a month away (July 16) and the odds seem rather remote. Given their ability to maneuver around the cap without freeing up Spencer's huge number of $8.8m, they don't have urgency to give him even more guaranteed money to lock him down. I talked with his agent Jordan Woy this week, and they seem to expect the Cowboys will be happy to roll with this arrangement in 2012, and Spencer's side seems fine with that salary of well over $500k per game and the chance to hit the jackpot next spring if he has a big year.

In looking back at Spencer's 2011, I see where both sides are coming from. It wasn't like Spencer was poor. He had some phenomenal moments and was asked to drop into coverage plenty which reduce his opportunities to hit huge sack totals. But, the Cowboys also counter with the idea that he simply has to be better at the little things - assignments, in particular - and be a smarter player when the bullets are flying.

But, unlike Mike Jenkins, there is no question that Spencer is going to get the snaps. They really don't seem to have much at all behind him and unless 4th round pick Kyle Wilber steals the show in the preseason, Spencer has nobody looking over his shoulder for the 1st and 2nd down spots. Victor Butler remains interesting, but still seems to be a primary pass rusher in nickel situations.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

11 for '11: #4 - TD to Megatron

The Following is the 4th in an 11-part weekly series throughout the summer that will focus on the eleven plays that shaped 2011 for the Dallas Cowboys. Every game, about 130 actual plays happen and over the course of a season that number can exceed 2,000. But, we have selected 11 and will pick one each week and break it down from standpoint of "X's and O's" and see what we can learn looking back. The plays are not ranked, simply presented as the season unfolded. We hope you enjoy.

This week, in our 11 plays that shaped 2011 series, we need to visit about one of the plays of sheer, physical dominance that was performed at the expense of the Dallas Cowboys season. But, before we discuss Calvin Johnson turning a poor QB decision into a great play for his offense, we need to remember (painfully) how the Cowboys were put in this position in the first place.

This Week 4 game against Detroit helped determine the Cowboys early season mood. At one point, early in the 3rd Quarter, Tony Romo hit Jason Witten for a Touchdown pass that put the Cowboys comfortably ahead, 27-3. But, by the end of that same 3rd Quarter, one in which the Cowboys would run 25 plays and the Lions would run just 8, the margin had shrunk considerably, to 30-17.

And, the game turned - hard and unpredictably - on 3 1st Down passes. 2 from Romo and 1 from Stafford.

Before we spend time on today's feature play, let us spend a moment discussing the concept of QB decision making with regard to knowing which down it is. Downs, like strikes in baseball, are all equal in literal value. They are each a play. Strike one and strike three are both strikes. But, obviously, strike one is not a very big moment in an at-bat, whereas strike three has very sudden consequences.

The same is very true with downs for a QB and an offense. 1st Down and 3rd Down are each one play. But QBs are taught that good decisions on a play cannot be judged without knowing the down and distance. On 1st down, we need to be very conservative in our risk level. On 2nd down, we allow a bit more risk, but still err on the side of conservative decision making. On 3rd down, especially late in games, we may have to try to fit the ball into tighter spaces, but for the most part, we need to remember that a punt is almost always better than an interception. Only when you are down to your final bullet in a game do you allow the QB to simply throw caution to the wind and take a low-percentage chance.

And yet, here are two very good QBs, ignoring this discussion altogether. They don't ignore down relevance in their decision making very often. Matthew Stafford, who had a 41 TD/16 INT 2011, threw just 3 1st Down interceptions all season long versus 17 Touchdowns. That 113.5 QB Rating on 1st Downs demonstrates that he is a very intelligent QB who understands on 1st Down to only take what is presented by the defense. Only Aaron Rodgers and Matt Schaub had better 1st Down passer ratings than Stafford.

Romo, with 31 TDs and just 10 INTs overall in 2011, had great 1st Down results as well. He threw 13 TDs against just 4 INTs all season long. Trouble is, of his 4 1st Down interceptions, 3 were quite memorable. The INT to Revis in Week 1 and 2 giant 1st Down interceptions in the 2nd half of a Detroit game in which they had a 27-3 lead and let it all slip away with Romo's poor decisions that led to all sorts of developments (including a more conservative play-calling offense the next game in New England) as 2011 took shape.

Truth be told, we should likely assign one of those interceptions for the breakdown below. Instead, I selected the Lions 1st of 2 4th Quarter Touchdowns to Calvin Johnson for the duty. But, in terms of which plays turned an easy win into a frustrating loss, it was quite clearly a 1st Down interception that was returned for a Touchdown by former Cowboys' LB Bobby Carpenter when he dropped into his zone below a Dez Bryant route and had the ball thrown right to him.

The next possession, on 3rd down and 2, Romo trusted new weapon Laurent Robinson to cross the face of the cornerback Chris Houston on a slant route. This imperative move from the WR never happened, and Houston jumped the slant and returned another pick for a Touchdown, inexplicably closing a 27-3 lead to 27-17 without the Lions offense ever taking a snap.

Late in the game, with the Cowboys holding a 30-27 lead and having the ball with 4:22 to go, at their own 20 yard line, Romo committed maybe his worst pass of 2011. They were just a 4-minute drill from killing off this game despite all of the problems that led up to it, but on 1st Down, saw Jason Witten in a matchup with a linebacker that would be a converted route into a vertical past the safeties. If Romo delivers the ball, it might be an 80-yard Touchdown. Instead, the pocket is pushed back into Romo and he is forced to try to throw a deep pass while leaning on his back foot. He cannot get much on the throw and the ball flutters and falls into the hands of a waiting Lions' LB, Stephen Tollach. It is a perfect example of why coaches must still remind veteran QBs that there are times to try risky passes and times not to. Being ahead in the game and sitting on 1st Down is not one of them. Know the game situation or throw the game away.

Despite those very poor decisions from Romo that the national media would feast on for the remainder of the season, the most memorable play for me from this Week 4 battle was not those picks, nor was it the sack of Romo with 0:35 left in the game when rookie tackle Tyron Smith was tossed aside by Willie Young. That was the only time all year where Smith just looked physically dominated with a bull rush from another Lions' talent along their defensive front.

The play I will never forget - and I suspect the Cowboys defense would concur with this - was the play where Megatron made a very poor QB decision look like a brilliant one. Let's examine it.

THE PLAY: 13:47 left in 4th Quarter. Lions 1/10/Dallas 23 - (Shotgun) M.Stafford pass deep left to C.Johnson for 23 yards, TOUCHDOWN. Pass caught back of the end zone.

The Lions are in a very interesting 1st Down personnel package that is labeled "02 personnel". This is a 0RB 2TE 3WR package. Both tight ends are lined up off of right tackle and will both stay in for a maximum protection look. This is not typical of a 1st Down strategy, but perhaps that is why it works so well. They send Titus Young wide right, Nate Burleson wide left, and Megatron is in the slot to the left and is notated with the red circle in Picture #1. (CLICK ON ANY PICTURE TO ENLARGE)


Picture #2 shows a blue circle around Cowboys MLB Sean Lee who is getting a deep drop in his zone, making us think that the Cowboys are in some sort of Tampa 2 with Lee turning his hips at the snap and heading into the deep middle. Alan Ball, the slot corner, is in the shallow zone with Johnson in the left slot. He does not go with the receiver at all, but rather gives him a near free release into the secondary.


Alan Ball is in for Orlando Scandrick. Also, earlier in the game, the Cowboys lost Gerald Sensabaugh to injury and Barry Church has replaced him as the safety that is over to Johnson's side. The idea here with Lee and both safeties deep is to have a 5-3 zone and have 2-3 bodies around any deep threats. As Ball let's Johnson go, Church - in the white circle on Picture #3 - now takes over on Johnson who can either head to the corner or back to the post.


What makes this play frustrating is that since the Cowboys are only rushing 3 against the Lions max protection, that means the Lions only have 3 receivers in routes against 8 Cowboys defenders in the secondary. The Cowboys have no coverage issues here at all, but conversely, Stafford has no pass rush at all with which to bother with. But, picture #4 shows us that Stafford has no business making this throw. We can certainly agree that Johnson can out-leap any player in the league and he is never truly "covered", but from the perspective of the Lions coaches - Jim Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan - there is simply no way that they can look at this picture and say the risk is worth the reward on 1st Down. Take the underneath pass in the flat to Burleson and go to 2nd Down. Don't throw away a chance at points by tossing up a jump ball on 1st Down. It makes no sense.


Stafford throws caution to the wind - perhaps because he plays with Johnson every day he knows that if he is going to roll the dice, this is the player to do it with against Barry Church - and lobs a pass up. In Picture #5, Johnson is in hand-to-hand combat with Church, with Mike Jenkins arriving to the outside and Sean Lee. Johnson is able to hold off Church with the arm fighting and time his leap wonderfully. By the end of the play, it looks like a man playing with his kids. It is about as physically dominating a moment as you will see in the NFL.


Here is the play from the end zone camera, as the ball is arriving. Again, from the Detroit coaching staff's perspective, this throw is ill-advised. From the Cowboys coaching perspective, this is as covered as a player can get. Now, someone needs to simply knock the ball away. But, when you are facing a player with Johnson's height, strength, speed, and leaping ability, that is significantly easier-said-than-done.


1st Down throws should always be high-percentage throws. Tossing the ball into triple coverage should be as crazy as the throws Romo made on 1st Down. But, Stafford had the wildcard of a receiver that makes all throws to him a high percentage decision. Would Sensabugh have done a better job than Church? I have no idea what he would have tried that wouldn't have either resulted in this same touchdown or a pass interference call. The officials will not call offensive pass interference unless there is a clear push, and on this play, it wasn't a clear push as much as two players fighting for space.

In breakdowns like this, you want to provide alternative ideas for defending that play. But, given the way the Lions defied all strategic decision making and just asked a player to make a play, you might just tip your cap. It was counterintuitive to smart football, but it certainly worked for them on this occasion.

The Lions scored here, Romo threw his 3rd pick on 1st Down with 4 minutes left, and then another TD to Johnson sealed the fate of the Cowboys. Their record fell to 2-2 and on their way to 8-8. Of all of the games they would want back that could have secured the NFC East title, this and the Arizona games would have to be those that really smart.

11 for '11 series:

1. The Revis Interception
2. The Home Run to Holley
3. 3rd And 21 to Dez

Monday, June 11, 2012

Thinking About RG3

As we roll through the summer, I hope to keep a close eye on the foes in the NFC East from a Cowboys perspective. This division has 4 very proud, historically proven franchises, and none of them are too satisfied unless they figure out a way to get on top.

The Eagles, a team that has had almost no horrid seasons under Andy Reid, still are the team that is defies the NFL thought that if you are in the mix long enough, eventually you will win a Super Bowl. They still chase their first title in over 50 years.

The Giants, a team that has managed to come out of left field to win a Super Bowl - twice in 5 years - proving it is either not a fluke or it is at the most amazing repeatable fluke ever. Honestly, the history books will identify them as the team of this era - having won 2 Super Bowls over the mighty Patriots in 5 years. But, were they the team of the era or two teams that qualified for the playoffs and then got hot? Regular season wins over those 5 years? Patriots 63, Giants 49. But, given that "styles make fights", we can certainly surmise that the Giants found a style in January - TWICE - and therefore have their claim to the throne. It doesn't matter who the best team in the regular season actually was.

Then, the Cowboys and Redskins. The stars of the American Express commercial so long ago, and two league heavyweights for a long, long time. But, since they both won their Super Bowls in the early 1990s, the cupboard has gone dry. Washington has but 3 wildcard round victories since the 1991 season, and only 1 playoff win in the new millennium. Dallas, meanwhile, has but 2 wildcard victories of their own since the 1995 Super Bowl.

The Redskins, though, think their fortunes are surely about to change. If not, they would not have traded their 1st Round picks in 2012, 2013, and 2014, as well as their 2nd round pick in 2012 to move up and get the Rams #2 overall selection to take Robert Griffin III from Baylor.

RG3 is a fantastic talent that many years would have been worthy of #1 overall. Andrew Luck will make that either a historical debate or at least a Ryan Leaf-type footnote on both of their careers. Luck will now take his chance in Indianapolis and Washington will be where RG3 will either sink or swim. And according to Dan Pompei's weekly column at the National Football Post, neither franchise is going to wait to unleash their new hope:

One year ago, 19 out of 20 coaches might have told you the preferred way to develop a rookie quarterback would be to let him sit and learn and acclimate slowly. Then along came Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, throwing conventional wisdom a wicked curveball.

The success the quarterbacks experienced as rookies has caused many to reevaluate the traditional way of thinking. You know Andrew Luck will be taking every snap from the start of camp. Robert Griffin III was named the starter in Washington before he had his first practice with Redskins veterans. And the Dolphins and Browns will be pushing Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden on the field as soon as possible.

Simple as that. Draft him and start him. Something that used to be insane is now normal. Like Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez, Matt Stafford, Newton, and Dalton, these franchises don't even get through the first month of their first year before they are behind the wheel. Heck, Dalton and Newton did it last year without the benefits of OTA's and the offseason programs due to the lockout. They just played football and now the idea that Steve McNair and Aaron Rodgers were groomed slowly has been discarded for the start-from-Day 1 approach.

But, since their last elite QB - league MVP Mark Rypien, they have rolled out seasons with Heath Shuler, Gus Frerotte, Trent Green, Brad Johnson, Tony Banks, Patrick Ramsey, Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell, Donovan McNabb, and Rex Grossman. And that isn't even digging down to the QBs who never made it a season as starter. They are ready for their golden boy. And were willing to overpay to find him.

Here is why I expect great success from Griffin and the Redskins on a rather quick basis. I think, and evidently the Redskins agree given their willingness to part with 4 premium picks to secure him, that Griffin is tailor-made to fit the Mike Shanahan system. In fact, if you consider what Shanahan truly believes in from an offensive standpoint, you might say he fits as well as just about any QB that Shanahan has dealt with since John Elway.

Shanahan is perhaps the biggest believer in football - along with his former OC Gary Kubiak, now head coach of the Houston Texans, of the zone stretch QB naked bootleg rollout design that stresses so many defenses in the NFL. My colleague in football dorkdom, TC Fleming, broke this down in great detail a few years back as a study on the Houston Texans and I would encourage you to read the entire piece to get great insight on what I expect the plan is for RG3 in Washington.

While in Denver, they carved out a pretty distinct sort of identity. The idea, if I could simplify way down, is to use their zone blocking system to get Terrell Davis going on the ground. Then with the defense keying on him, have John Elway fake the handoff to Davis and roll to the opposite side where he had the option to either throw to a receiver whose defender had bit on the fake to Davis or run it himself into the areas voided by the over-pursuing defense. That's why Shanahan and Kubiak worked so hard to get Jake Plummer as a free agent and why they traded up to get Jay Cutler in the draft: the general system is predicated on having a quarterback who can throw well on the run, pick up yards himself when needed and just generally execute this style of play-action pass known as the bootleg.

Below, you can see the basic zone stretch left with the bootleg right. Ignore the jersey numbers, as this graphic was based on the 2010 Houston Texans, but the idea is the same:

It is important to note that the action from the OL and the Running Backs repeats over and over. But, the variations with personnel groupings and who is running which routes is where the Broncos/Texans/Redskins make your head spin. Sometimes, the FB is on a shallow and the backside receiver goes deep. Sometimes the play side receiver is dragging at an intermediate depth and the TE is shallow. It varies and that is why you cannot get a good feel for it.

What happens is over time, you either cheat the run or cheat the pass. They keep pounding the other until you stop cheating. But, here is why Schaub, Cutler, Plummer, and especially Grossman cannot run it like RG3. They were never close to the fastest man on the field.

How do you spy Griffin on a naked bootleg or a waggle? And if you figure it out, then he puts on the breaks and delivers a strike. But, if you don't respect his legs, what keeps him from breaking contain and moving the chains?

And if you spend too much time on Griffin on the naked, then, can you contain the running game on the simple zone? You ask who the Redskins have at running back? I will counter with asking if you could name any of the anonymous runners Shanahan made famous running this concept with lesser QBs causing the classic conflict.

Obviously, to replicate the offense properly, they will need a deep threat and a useful group or receivers. With their offseason, it appears they have placed their resources in fixing that. They also have a strong collection of tight ends to make this offense really work.

Nobody is here to suggest they will make the postseason in year 1. But, with an already formidable front 7 on defense, you can see the philosophy in place. It makes sense on paper. Whether they have the depth and all of the pieces in place can be debated, but it would be folly to assume that Washington is still a group of over-the-hill mismatched parts. With Shanahan and Bruce Allen, there is a very clear list of objectives being checked off and they may just have the most important piece in place.

It will be fascinating to see how it takes shape, but if you are Dallas, you had better get familiar with the offense. And that might explain why the Cowboys don't feel that they can slow linebackers anymore. With Michael Vick and Griffin on the schedule 4 times a year, Keith Brooking and Bradie James had to go. Sean Lee and Bruce Carter will need to put their track shoes on to keep track of the opposing double-threat QBs.