Saturday, October 20, 2012

Carolina Preview and Mailbag - Penalties

As the Cowboys head into Carolina on Sunday, they face a very important game against a team that is not very good.  A quick glance of statistics show an offense that has trouble scoring (why does that sound familiar?), sustaining drives, but does have the ability to find some explosive plays.

To the NFL world, Carolina is all about their young superstar Cam Newton.  Newton is an amazing talent that certainly lived up to the hype in his magical 2010 at Auburn where he dragged the entire program all the way to the national championship in 1 season.  It is all the more impressive an accomplishment given that Auburn has sunk back to it's pre-Newton levels in the 2 seasons since.

He was then taken #1 in the 2011 draft and came out of the gates and threw for a ton of yardage and made plenty of people wonder what the ceiling for a QB who has a very nice grasp of rising to the occasions.

However, there has been quite a bit of regression in the last dozen games for the young QB, and he has shown both a lack of awareness (celebrating a Touchdown when they were getting blown out on national television by the Giants in the 4th Quarter did not help) and perhaps a lack of accuracy which plagues many college dual-threat QBs.  He missed an open Ben Hartsock on 4th and goal from point blank range in the final moments of their home loss to Seattle in their last game.  It was the kind of no-brainer pass that when it bounces 5 feet in front of the receiver has a very disconcerting effect on those who support the franchise.

They are 1-4, but have played well enough to win their last 2 games.  They are led in rushing by Newton, which speaks to the lack of success of their traditional rushing attack as neither DeAngelo Williams nor Jonathan Stewart have made it to 200 yards on the season yet and Williams is well under 4 yards a carry.

Chris Brown wrote a nice breakdown of the zone-read package they run well in Carolina which you can read here to see what they have to offer beyond old, reliable Steve Smith rising to the occasion in that way that he does.

The Panthers defense has a few players of high regard;  Luke Kuechly is a rookie LB from Boston College that has the NFL buzzing with his fine inside LB play.  He finds the ball and covers the middle of the field quite well and appears to be as advertised.  Charles Johnson is perhaps the most under-rated pass rusher in football.  24 sacks since the start of 2010 and I imagine that very few people know about him outside of the NFC South.  The 6-year, $76 million deal he signed last year indicates that the NFL knew his value, and he will be a handful for both Cowboys tackles on Sunday.

Essentially, this is the type of game the Cowboys need to get into the win column, given the difficulty of this portion of the schedule.  The next 3 games will be with the Giants, Falcons, and Eagles, so if they are at 2-4 with a loss, they could bury themselves well before Thanksgiving.

However, with a win, they could finally start working in a positive direction and get out of their own way.

Speaking of getting out of their own way, that brings us to the topic many have wanted addressed, the penalty situation.

There is a premise that Jason Garrett's team commits too many penalties and people want to know if that is true and why is it true?

Well, first this note about penalties.  Any penalties are too many.  But, everything is relative and when we compare it to the rest of the league and then to prior coaching administrations, we find out that perception is not always reality.

Garrett's teams commit just as many penalties (or more) as Wade Phillips "undisciplined teams" did.  The volume is there, and anyone who watches the team play sees way too many illegal procedure penalties and false starts.  Annoying penalties that make you wonder if people are properly prepared and focused.

What is interesting, though, is that penalty yardage is way down.  Wade always had the Cowboys ranked in the Top 10 most penalty yardage assessed teams in the NFL.  Garrett's teams are committing just as many penalties it seems, but of less serious nature.

In other words, when Phillips' teams would commit a 15 yard personal foul or a 25 yard pass interference, Garrett's teams are committing 5 yard illegal shift penalties.

Does it make you feel better?  Probably not, but it is interesting to see that his team does not have to overcome as many lost yards.

Here is a look at the last 4 coaches when it comes to penalties.  Try to focus on rankings, because different years the league cracks down on certain calls which could inflate actual raw numbers.  But, league rankings keep everything relative:

Dave Campo:

YearNFL Penalty RankTotal PenaltiesNFL Pen Yard RankPen Yards

Bill Parcells:

YearNFL Penalty RankTotal PenaltiesNFL Pen Yard RankPen Yards

Wade Phillips:

YearNFL Penalty RankTotal PenaltiesNFL Pen Yard RankPen Yards

* = Counts only the first 8 games of 2010.

Jason Garrett

YearNFL Penalty RankTotal PenaltiesNFL Pen Yard RankPen Yards

* = Counts only last 8 games of 2010.
** = Counts only first 5 games of 2012.

NFL average in 2011: 103 penalties for 867 yards
NFL average in 2012:  37 penalties for 323 yards

So, does this team draw too many flags?  Sure.  But, the yards are down in the bottom half of the league, so it isn't as bad as you think.  And those people that tell you Bill Parcells' teams had issues, too, are just not telling the truth.  Look at his rankings.  Apparently, he really didn't teach penalties.


This from Chairman7w:

You seem to be a pretty deep Xs & Os kinda guy, I respect your knowledge of the game.

My question is: Do you think Garrett (and by extension Romo) get too complicated with their pre-snap reads and adjustments? It seems Romo gets up there and see's what the D is doing, makes a bunch of adjustments, THEN the D shifts, and Romo makes MORE adjustments, and the next thing you know - there's :01 left on the play clock and NOBODY seems to know what they're doing...

I'm sure that all that monkey business is responsible for some of our False Starts. I'd like to know your opinion on it. 

Thanks, and I am happy to offer what little insight I might have.

I think overall, this is a lot like the run/pass ratio discussion. And the comparison is that we look to elite offenses (Patriots, Saints, Packers, Colts - with Manning) and see what they are doing and apply it to the Cowboys. For instance, the Packers never run the ball, so why do people insist the Cowboys have to?

Well, my answer is generally this - if a team can defy decades of football knowledge and find success, they are the exception and not the rule. If it works in Dallas, it shouldn't matter if it works anywhere else. Conversely, if something works in New Orleans, it doesn't mean Garrett/Romo can make it work here.

And that is how I feel about pre-snap adjustments. It is not anywhere as simple as some people want to make it. Defenses only strategy now days with all of the rules adjustments and player versatility is to disguise what they are doing. It takes a QB a while to sort through it and to allow his OL to sort through all of the sugaring and bluffing that is going on up and down the line to get into the proper protection.

Overall, I think the protection has been much better this year. Almost no blitzers running free and hitting Romo. That is good. The pre-snap penalties are not great, but to put that on a complicated QB is ignoring the lines in the NFL that can handle that - most notably, Manning's lines in Indianapolis that sat in their stance forever each snap.

But, there is clearly an issue when you are down to the end of the clock too often. All of this reminds me of the fantastic piece about the Patriots that ran last week.

The story focuses on simplicity in terminology and play language that i think should inspire copycats around the league. They call plays with 1-word. That is a far cry from Garrett's lingo.

The league is headed to more no-huddle and more time at the line where a QB can examine a defense and manipulate them with motion and movement. I think to avoid this because you are not proficient is not the answer. Rather, the Cowboys simply must get better at it and use it as a tool for attack. As with many things, it makes you wonder if Garrett is able to adjust on the fly to the way he does things, and if the process is too cumbersome, then perhaps he needs to simplify.


How many times will the cowboys let Felix jones tackle himself before giving up and going to Tanner and Dunbar? And if they both outplay Felix can we kick him off the roster and get our 15th center?

Surely, after a game like last week and the subsequent injury to DeMarco Murray, people would be looking to Felix Jones for a bit more than a guy they want to cut.  But, not Mitch.

The thing about the running back position is that it takes as much physical beating as any position in the sport.  So, you need a large assortment of choices.  I am certainly down on the long-term plans for Felix Jones and frankly, aside from the 1st half of 2008, I never cared for the move from the day it was made.  You simply cannot take a part-time college RB in the 1st round unless your roster is so stacked you are coming off a Super Bowl win or something.  This team could not afford to do it even if Felix was that special game changer.  But, since that injury in 2008, we just have not seen the same guy often enough who returned a kick for a touchdown against the Eagles and then took a handoff for a long touchdown in Green Bay in back to back weeks to start his career.

That is why I anticipate this is his last season in Dallas.  However, now is no the time to send him away.  With Murray in his situation, and Tanner and Dunbar still largely unproven, this team needs Felix to deliver as running back over the next several weeks and starting Sunday.  This is a great chance for him to build up his value before free agency and a chance for Dallas to revive their interest in their one-time prize.  I am not holding my breath, but I submit he was pretty strong in Baltimore and they need to keep that going badly.


Here is another submission from you the readers....
1. Was the running game better this week because they are starting toget the new blocking scheme of Callahan's better or did Costa get thatmuch better, or are the ravens that bad in run defense? 
2. Where is the consistent pass rush? 
3. I love Sean Lee, is that weird?

We studied the running game pretty hard on Tuesday and I will suggest that either possibility will need a larger sample size to rule conclusively. I would like to think they have now made sense of the zone runs and I would like to think that the amazingly improved Phil Costa is here to stay, but I think we will need to see it for a few more games before we say either is permanent. But, that is much better than we have seen in a long, long time. I really hope Costa is as good as he was on Sunday, because I truly believe he was the weakest link on the line in 2011. But, now that he appears stronger, you can see that intelligence and dare I say, nastiness shining through. Let's hope it continues.

The pass rush issue is not as easy to solve. Sure, it will be at its best if Ratliff and Spencer can ever join Hatcher and Ware at the same time. But, let's not be too biased here. The fact is that we have seen this collection for a long time and know the truth: pass rushing is never going to be consistent and devastating from anyone other than DeMarcus Ware unless the Cowboys invest in some pass rushers. It is disappointing that this organization waits until there are glaring weaknesses on their roster before throwing millions and picks at it, but i feel next on the list of issues will be finding young pass rushers. Many have been available when the Cowboys have picked recently (JJ Watt in 2011, Bruce Irvin in 2012) but they have opted to go in other directions and therefore have the same issues they have had for a while. Very little pressure without blitzing.

And Sean Lee? What's is not to love?


Are there any indicators to suggest the Garrett Cowboys are better/different then the Wade Cowboys? 
Mr. Kris in Carrollton

Unfortunately, at this juncture, not enough. I had such high hopes for accountability, discipline, and execution from the Garrett-Cowboys because I feel that deterioration was evident from the Phillips' Cowboys aside from the 3-week period at the end of 2009 where they rallied to keep everyone's jobs. But, personally, I would have had a hard time letting Wade remain as this team's head coach after 44-6.
But, all of the hope and change that the Garrett administration seemed to suggest has not quite materialized.

Maybe the biggest issue during that run is that Garrett has not revealed himself to be one of the sharp, young, aggressive offensive minds in football. Rather, despite passing plenty, he seems to have an allergy to rolling the dice and attacking. If there is one major issue I have seen with Jason Garrett that I think will ultimately not allow him to be what I was hoping he would be, was to sometimes, when the moment is right, he has to have the guts to take a chance and to bet on his guys to deliver. Some of his conservative nature is understandable given the circumstances, but the more you look at the ends of Arizona '11 and Baltimore '12, you see those games had the common characteristic of a coach who was playing as close to the vest and as carefully as the situation would allow. That explains wasting all of those precious seconds. We see those seconds as a chance to get closer for a higher-percentage field goal. Garrett, unfortunately, seems to see those remaining seconds as another chance for something bad to happen. Risk-aversion is not a characteristic that the best coaches have. Bill Belichick had the guts to go for it on 4th down in his own territory. And when it failed, he still believed in that decision and remains a risk taker to this day. It doesn't mean you are reckless, it means you are willing to bet on your guys sometimes. It seems Garrett is never willing to bet on his guys when the chips are down.


And this from Jeff:

Here's my question, Bob: Would everybody be back on the Boys' bandwagon if the only thing that was different was that Bailey's kick was three feet more to the right, even with the chaos penalties?  It just seems there are too many experts  fans that base everything on the most recent game, and who can't really see the future.
Jeff Swan
Absolutely.  And that is the shame of how this whole thing works.  No matter what Jason Garrett did on Sunday, if Dan Bailey is going to miss the big kick, Garrett is still going to be questioned.  Further, if Bailey just makes a kick he should make, then Garrett is not going to be questioned for much of anything (see San Francisco-2011).

And none of this even happens if the Cowboys don't have the miraculous recovery of an onside kick for the first time since 2007.  And that is not even attempted if Dez Bryant doesn't drop a 2 point conversion that hits him in the hands - which of course never happens if Dez doesn't score the touchdown.  Which never happens if Jason Witten doesn't come up with those 2 4th down conversions.  And so on.  And so on.

But, all of that did happen.  So, we discuss these things and ignore the probabilities of alternative endings.

And that is why this game is so frustrating and so intoxicating.  It must be torture to be coaching or playing under these circumstances when things go badly.


Finally, here are the Mark Lane obscure fun facts for the game on Sunday:

This will be the first time the Dallas Cowboys have faced the Carolina Panthers on FOX since Christmas Eve 2004, when the Dallas Cowboys beat the Carolina Panthers 24-20. Since that time, the Cowboys have played on Sunday Night Football (2006), Saturday Night Football (2007) and Monday Night Football (2009). It will be the first time the Cowboys have played the Panthers on FOX on a Sunday since November 23rd, 2003, when Bill Parcells said you couldn't call the Cowboys losers anymore.
Dallas will be in their "cursed blue" uniforms. While the '68 NFL Divisional playoffs, Super Bowl V, the '80 NFC Championship game, and the '82 NFC Championship game helped contribute to the alleged hex, the Cowboys are 9-8 in those uniforms going back to 2003:
@NE -- L
@WAS -- L
@WAS -- W
@WAS -- L
@CAR -- W
@JAX -- L
@PHI -- L
@WAS -- L
@MIA -- W
@PHI -- W
@WAS -- L
@CLE -- W
@RAM -- L
@WAS -- W
@TAM -- W
@WAS -- W
@NE -- L
Comparatively, in the last 17 games where the Cowboys have worn white jerseys, the Cowboys have an 8-9 record. Tony Romo is 6-3 in the "cursed blues," and started all of the aforementioned 17 white jersey games.
As you can see, the last time the Carolina Panthers made us wear our "cursed blues" was in 2005. In 2006, the Panthers wore black. In 2007, the Panthers wore their light blue variant.
Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, and Tony Siragusa will call the action for FOX this Sunday. If you'll remember, the Cowboys are 7-1 with this announcing team, their only loss coming in Seattle in Week 2 this year:
2007 -- Cowboys at Dolphins 37-20
2008 -- Buccaneers at Cowboys 13-9
2009 -- Cowboys at Buccaneers 34-21
2010 -- Lions at Cowboys 35-19
2010 -- Redskins at Cowboys 33-30
2010 -- Cowboys at Eagles 14-13
2011 -- Cowboys at Redskins 27-24 OT
2012 -- Cowboys at Seahawks 7-27
This will be the fourth consecutive time "Kenny, Moose, and Goose" have called a Cowboys game on the road.

There has only been 1 time since 1960 the Cowboys have gone to the playoffs after starting 2-3, and that was when they started 1996 with Michael Irvin suspended. Similarly, the Cowboys have only gone to the playoffs twice after starting 3-3: 1996 and 2006. The Cowboys have never gone to the playoffs starting off 2-4.
The Dallas Cowboys are undefeated in 5 contests on October 21st:
1962 -- @PIT
1973 -- NYG
1984 -- NOR (OT)
1990 -- @TB
2007 -- MIN

This guy is amazing.  Thanks, Mark.

Finally, please check out all of the earlier blog entries from this week:

The Monday Morning After Baltimore Column

Tuesday's Decoding Garrett look at the run game and Costa

Wednesday's Defensive Report on pass rushing and Sean Lee's bust

And Thursday's Xs and Os breakdown of the Jacoby Jones return

Enjoy the game!

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