Friday, October 26, 2012

On Sean Lee and the New York Giants...

The Cowboys received some devastating news earlier in the week when they discovered that they would be without the services of Sean Lee for the remainder of the year. This means, with the hamstring of 2010, the thumb of 2011, and now the toe of 2012, he will have missed games in all 3 seasons of his young and promising career, and will enter his 4th and final year of his rookie contract (4 years - $3.49m) without ever proving he could make it through an entire season with perfect attendance.

Add that to the 2008 season at Penn State that was missed entirely (ACL) and the 2009 that was partially missed (ankle), and we have 5 straight seasons where health has zapped Sean Lee of playing time.  It appears we clearly have an idea of his potential fatal flaw that keeps him from being a 1st round pick in the draft and a clear cut "perfect middle linebacker" in the pros.

There is no question that his play has been stellar enough that the Cowboys rightfully see his positives as enough to secure a gigantic extension before the start of the 2013 season, but just know that he plays at a level of physicality that you shouldn't be surprised if he misses a few games every year as part of his scouting report.

Now, that the Cowboys realize that they must compensate for his absence, they find themselves in a similar spot as the Jets (Darrell Revis), the Ravens (Ladarius Webb/Ray Lewis), the Falcons (Brent Grimes), the Redskins (Brian Orakpo/Adam Carriker), the Panthers (Chris Gamble/Jon Beason), and the Texans (Brian Cushing) - teams also losing one or two of their best defenders for the entire season due to injury.  It is the nature of the sport.

The good news, for the Cowboys, is that they actually are somewhat prepared for this injury loss.  Unlike other spots on the roster, when they signed Dan Connor as an insurance policy to cover the development of Bruce Carter, they placed a player on their roster who has 19 starts in the last 2 seasons in Carolina.  He cannot do what Sean Lee can do from a speed standpoint, but on 1st and 2nd down he can fill the running lanes at a satisfactory level.

The major drop-off will be that Sean Lee can play as a 3-down LB - a rarity in the NFL - where he can play the run game and the nickel defense pass game at a similar level of excellence.  Connor is merely adequate against the run and not much of a coverage option.  Therefore, the signing of Ernie Sims this week - a player who has disappointed at two different stops in his career - is clearly their plan in nickel situations as early as Sunday against the Giants.  It will take two players to replace Lee, and it is possible that his mental grasp of all things on the defense will not be filled by anyone at the same level. It is not a creation of the media to state that Lee knows the scheme as well as anyone short of the coaches, and that might not be something that is available from Connor, Sims, or Carter at this point.

This is a big loss for the Cowboys, but I really feel that this is a premium player at a less-than-premium spot on the field from a Xs and Os standpoint.  If you lose an outside linebacker for the season in a 3-4 or a corner, you are at a premium spot where the opposition can directly attack all night.  Middle linebackers can be exposed, but only in certain spots.  You can "scheme around" some of the issues that are presented if you so choose, but I honestly think the Cowboys can be ok with Connor/Sims filling that spot for now.  Will they be tested?  Of course.  Will there be a drop off?  Yes.  But, they are veterans who likely will battle back and they will hold their own.


Meanwhile, here come the New York Giants.  A team that has never lost in Arlington, Texas, with a 3-0 record, an autograph in the visiting locker-room, a broken collarbone for Tony Romo, and an extremely frustrated Cowboys bunch who cannot understand what they are doing wrong.

The Giants are clearly the biggest thorn in the side of this generation of Cowboys.  No team has talked more trash about the Cowboys and then followed it up with yet another humbling of Romo, Ware, and company.  This has been going on since the Romo administration took over during a blowout loss on a Monday Night where Drew Bledsoe received the hook at halftime, and continued through 2 more demoralizing defeats last December.

The Cowboys have had their moments - mostly in New York - but from that night in 2006 until now, Eli Manning and the Giants have scored the last laugh on an often enough basis head to head that all doubt has been removed on comparisons between franchises. Then, if that argument sustains too long, their 8 playoff wins and 2 Lombardi trophies since Romo vs Eli has begun has slammed every door shut on any peeps of defense from Texas.

It has been a road-bump that the Cowboys cannot overcome, and it gets even more frustrating when you consider that Jerry Jones has drawn inspiration from the "Wildcard to World Champ" path that the Giants have taken for each Super Bowl they have won under Tom Coughlin.  That long-shot bet that the Giants have won twice leads Jones to believe that his franchise might be as close as that 3rd down pass to Miles Austin that was lost in the lights.  

We have certainly documented how Eli Manning enjoys playing the Cowboys and if it wasn't for Victor Cruz' trouble securing keep passes on opening night, Eli might have had a different fate when Dallas upset the Giants in New York to launch the season.

But, the Giants have certainly rallied with 5 out of 6 wins.  Some have been comebacks of the most dramatic fashion, and nearly all of the wins are against teams that will not play in the post-season, but their one pounding of San Francisco in California was enough to show any who questioned whether the Giants still have the ability to go win a huge game on a big stage.  And honestly, after 2 Super Bowls with this core, who is still questioning that?

The have the most explosive plays in the NFL with 35.  They have the best field position in the NFL.  They have been in the opponent's red zone more than anyone in the NFL.  They have allowed the fewest sacks.  And have generated the 3rd most points.

You might want to read that last paragraph again to let that all sink in.

They don't turn the ball over much and they don't commit many penalties.  Basically, if you want to beat the Giants, you have to do it without much help from them.  And you have to score points.

Now, before we turn them into some super power with no weaknesses, we should also point out their defense gives up a ton of big plays and a half-ton of points, too.  They allow long drives and long touchdowns.

But, their defense gets most serious when you are deep in their territory.  They are #1 in the NFL in goal-to-goal efficiency.  Meaning, you don't get Touchdowns against them from inside the 10 very often.  For a team that concedes 6.4 yards per play, that is a neat trick.

Their personnel is much more squared away in the secondary than they were on opening night, and will absolutely attempt to cause issues for Romo on Sunday.  And, the Cowboys will no doubt have some big-game jitters early.

This should be plenty of fun.  And if they can find a win, a season sweep of the Giants can put them up in the front seat of the divisional race.


My only problem with Spencer is that he said that he was not doing his best that year, not preparing or playing hard enough.  He is having a good year.   But, will he go back to not trying his best all the time…..every down.  Does he really love to play football? 
 My other question is …..I am starting to get the feeling that we are targeting Dez all the time to keep him from losing it on the sideline.   Reminds me of Romo having to throw to TO all the time?   Does it look like we are targeting Dez too much?  Is this to keep Dez and jerry happy?
 Bob Woodyard

First, on Dez:  If that is actually a reason to throw the ball to Dez - to keep him from getting mad - then we have bigger issues about who is running this thing than ever before.  You throw to Dez because he is a beast, and he gives you a chance to get yardage in big chunks.  This is a great chance for him to show he is the equal to Hakeem Nicks, a player he has often been compared to because of their similar age and physical frames, but also a player who has made a much greater impact in big moments than Bryant.

Now, Spencer:  That quote he made after the 2010 season about noticing he could have played harder, was a moment where an athlete self-evaluated and then told the media what he saw.  We want these guys to be honest, but when they are, we sometimes don't actually hear what they are saying.  I talked to Spencer about this topic and he said he was watching the film and thought he could give more and do more on the field.  That is honest of anyone.  I read old columns and see things I wish I did differently or better.  It doesn't mean he wasn't trying or I am not trying as I write this.

But, because of that quote, people think he might be a dog, playing for a contract.  I don't agree.  First, in the NFL, just about every year for every player is a contract year.  Alex Rodriguez will get paid a ton of money by someone for 5 more years - whether he plays or not.  That is baseball.  Right now, in the NFL, most players know that 2013 is not secured for them.  Ask Doug Free or Miles Austin.  They know what their cap number is.  They know that only they can make themselves "uncuttable".

And, now, with the coaches film at our disposal, we can watch Spencer.  And I do.  He runs to the ball through the whistle constantly.  He has no dog in his play.  And I haven't seen it since Rob Ryan has been here.  He saw a weakness in his game and he fixed it.  That is called maturity.  But, perhaps, he shouldn't say it out loud because then people take that comment and run with it, even if it is misinterpreted.


Byron wants to discuss my Sean Lee statements:

I completely understand what you were saying as it relates to the ILB position within the 3/4 defense.  But what I was trying to explain was that Lee doesn't have just any normal role within THIS 3/4. Go back and see how Carolina gashed Dallas up the middle once Lee was on the sideline.  Also, in that position within that scheme, it is often that an ILB will have a TE man to man.  I saw a few routes up the seam go uncovered while Conner was on the field.  Also, one of the most impressive plays I have seen all year was when Cam was scrambling, trying to juke Lee, and he was step for step with the agile QB.  I respect your work, and love your attention to detail as it pertains to game planning and schemes.  

These are very fair points.  I hope I didn't give the impression Lee won't be missed.  I am simply saying that it is a spot where the Cowboys at least have "replacement level" options there.  The drop-off will be felt, but the question is to what extent.


Here is Shane with thoughts about my piece on Jason Garrett from Wednesday:

Okay, Bob, 
The other day you all were talking about Jason Garrett being conservative or the conservative offense and I had a question then, but didn't pull the trigger then.  However, I just heard the segment with Moose and the conservative subject was again brought up.  So, my question is this:  is the West Coast offense considered a conservative offense?  Wasn't this what the Niners were using during DJ's time with the Cowboys?  And I know you had, if you'll permit NFL primetime moment, a BEAST like Jerry Rice and they could threaten deep, big plays and what not.  And I profess to knowing little to nothing about offenses and philosophies therein, but it seems to be that despite these big play threats, the offense is more of a short, maybe "dink and dunk" (if that's not too incorrect) type system.  It seems conservative to me, and could we not do that here?  Or is that an impossibility or extreme difficulty due to our personnel and/or coaches or because the NFL would diffuse the West Coast nowadays?  Does anyone use that offense currently?   

Well, without breaking down the scheme for 3,000 words, let's just say that there are remnants of the west coast offense everywhere in the NFL.  However, like everything, what we have today are evolved combinations of the ideas of Paul Brown, Bill Walsh, Mike Holmgren, and others along the way who believe in that west coast offense.   Since then, the minds of so many have taken the NFL to a whole different offensive level, but, sure, some of those principles exist still today.

But, when I speak of Garrett being a "pass-happy, conservative coach", I am not talking about the plays  in his offense - but rather his disposition when calling them.

I think his plays are aggressive, but I think his risk aversion on things like protecting his offensive line from itself is what I speak of.  When faced with a late game situation where you either go for a kill-shot or play it safe, he almost always defaults to the path of least risk.  This is sound reasoning, but at some point, you have to push your chips in the middle and bet on your guys.

It seems like when moments are big - with the exception of that same 3rd down against the Giants last December - he often does not seem to trust his guys as much as you might see from other coaches around the league.  It is all shades of grey, but I think he coaches different, and yes, more carefully, since he has become head coach.  When you are head coach, you are only judged on wins and losses, so you might see offensive play-calling a bit differently.


Here are our Mark Lane obscure facts for Cowboys-Giants.  Always a pleasure to read these:

Carolina is still relevant to this week’s encounter with the Giants, because the Dallas Cowboys have never won a game following a win over the Panthers. The average margin of defeat is 8.9 points. They've played four divisional games post Panthers with the Redskins being the most common opponent overall with two appearances. 
In 2000, after beating the Panthers in overtime on the road, the Cowboys played the Giants at the Meadowlands to lose 14-19, which is the box score from last week's game against Carolina. Infer what you will.  
Tom Landry and Jason Garrett both share the distinction of being Cowboys head coaches who once played for the New York Giants. Landry was a cornerback (1950-55), while Garrett was a backup quarterback (2000-03). 
Jason Garrett and Tom Couglin share a similarity in that both were once assistants with their respective teams before eventually becoming the head coach. (Coughlin coached WR's from '88 to '90 before returning in '04 as head coach).  
Presently, Osi Umenyiora and David Diehl are the only two Giants remaining who once were on the roster in Garrett’s final season with New York in 2003. 
Much is made about the Giants being undefeated thus far in Cowboys Stadium. Among stadiums built since 2000, the longest streak of a divisional opponent consecutively winning since the inaugural win is 5 seasons (Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field). The second longest is 4 seasons (Indianapolis Colts at Reliant Stadium).  
Currently, the Giants are in the midst of a similar slump to the Eagles, which is nothing new. The Giants didn’t beat the Eagles for the first six seasons in Giants Stadium starting in 1976. Concurrent with that were steady beatings by Dallas from 1976 to 1979.  
Too Tall Jones mentioned in a radio interview on Wednesday that the Cowboys rarely lost at home while he played there. He's right. The Cowboys record while Too Tall Jones was there from 1974 to 1989 (sans '79 when he pursued boxing) is 73-40. In fact, from December 2nd, 1979 to September 13th, 1982, the Cowboys won 18 consecutive contests at home.  
Since 2004, the Dallas Cowboys have featured five different starting quarterbacks, while the Giants have featured only two, and both were Super Bowl MVP’s. The other quarterback is Kurt Warner who played for the Giants only in 2004. 
Sunday will be Eli Manning's 15th straight game against the Cowboys, including playoffs. This will break a Giants record, as Phil Simms started 14 straight games against the Cowboys. Joe Theismann leads with 17 consecutive starts, including playoffs. Sonny Jurgensen has the most starts against the Dallas Cowboys with 22.  
Giants linebacker Michael Boley knocked Romo out of an October 25th game in Dallas back in 2010, but the Cowboys defense knocked Eli Manning out of a September 9th contest in 2007, forcing Jared Lorenzen to finish the game. 
Tony Romo has started 12 games against the Giants, including playoffs, with his longest streak being 4 games three separate times (12/3/06-01/13/08, 12/14/08-10/25/10, 12/11/11-10/28/12). Troy Aikman has not only started the most games against the Giants with 22, but he also holds the longest streak of consecutive games with 18 from 1989-1997.  
Speaking of Troy Aikman, he'll be calling the game for FOX with Thom Brennaman as play-by-play. This is the first time since 2003 that we’ve played a home rematch with the Giants and it’s been played on FOX. The Cowboys are 1-1 with the tandem of Brennaman and Aikman, FOX's backup #1 duo when Joe Buck does the World Series:  
2009: Falcons at Cowboys -- 37-21 2010: Cowboys at Vikings -- 21-24 
The last time Troy Aikman called a Cowboys game was in Week 3, when the Cowboys defeated the Buccaneers 16-7. However, the Cowboys have not won an Aikman-called contest with the Giants since Week 10 of 2010. The Cowboys have not won an Aikman-called contest at home since Week 6 of 2005. 
Great stuff, Mark.  As usual.  You are a man after my own heart.


For some reason, I have the Cowboys getting it right on Sunday.  I have Dallas winning 27-24.

Although, I confess, I am sure I have picked the Cowboys to win each of the last 3 trips the Giants have made to Arlington.

So, I guess I will never learn.

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