Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The James Neal/Alex Goligoski Trade - 1 year later

February 21, 2011: F James Neal Traded to Pittsburgh by Dallas with D Matt Niskanen for D Alex Goligoski.

I have been asked more than a few times recently to review the events of that day with a year of perspective in our rearview mirror and ask the question whether the Stars did the right thing. The obvious reasons are the one-year anniversary, the guarded position the Stars stand in the Western Conference playoff race, and the visit this evening by Neal and Niskanen for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dallas ice at the American Airlines Center.

Before I get to breaking down the trade from our wonderful position to second-guess, let's examine the here and now for the 3 players involved:

James Neal, 24, is already having the best year of his career. His previous highs were as a 22-year old in Dallas where he spent the year almost entirely with Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson and had 27 goals and 28 assists for 55 points in 78 points. But, this year, playing a ton with the league's soon-to-be-MVP Evgeni Malkin, Neal has already eclipsed his previous highs and sits on 30 goals and 31 assists for 61 points with 20 games to play. 30 goals is good for 4th in the NHL this morning, behind Steven Stamkos, Malkin, and Phil Kessel. 13 of his 30 goals have come on the power play - a number that puts him 2nd in the NHL with the man advantage, trailing Philadelphia's Scott Hartnell who has 15. The Penguins have decided he is a part of their core and have paid him $30m over the next 6 seasons in a contract extension.

Matt Niskanen, 25, remains a bottom pairing defensemen in Pittsburgh, like he was in Dallas. He has demonstrated the ability to play higher in the lineup during injuries and has performed at a level that seems to suggest he belongs in the NHL, something that was not happening last season in Dallas before the trade. In sports, we often wonder about how a player is developed and what damage can be done to a psyche from continued failure if confidence falls through the floor. The trade offered him a fresh start and a new approach to the game with a winning organization where he had a clean slate with the coaching staff. Having played in over 350 games in the NHL, he appears to be what he will be, which is a depth defensemen with some puck skills but an aversion to physical play. He will be a restricted free agent this summer in Pittsburgh.

Alex Goligoski, 26, has jumped into the Stars mix on the blue-line as a player that leads the team in ice-time when he has remained healthy. His 22:40 per game puts him top on the roster and despite missing 11 games with injury this season, he still has played 3 minutes more on the power play than any other player on the team. Think about that number. His statistical production is modest as the Stars Power Play remains rather powerless, but the Stars wanted to acquire a piece of that puzzle in this trade to run their power play, help move the puck as a defenseman, and anchor the unit for the next several years. They extended him last month with a 4-year, $18.4m deal.

Now, let's go back 1 year and discuss what was happening. Three things in particular are worth mentioning.

1) the impending departure of Brad Richards, the man who had run the Stars power play and offense in general since the exit of Sergei Zubov, was in the final year of his contract. Given the role Richards had with the Stars man advantage, where he would often run the PP from the point as the QB of it all, the Stars had to make sure that they had a plan on how to compete on any level of quality if they decided to either trade Richards or if they were to lose him in the offseason via free agency (which of course happened).

2) the Stars ownership situation was in no position to do business with Richards, nor was Richards in any position to commit to the future of the Stars franchise without knowing who the owner was that would gain control from the NHL and/or bankruptcy courts.

3) the Stars had just finished a season series with the Vancouver Canucks that was a 4-game beat-down of the highest order. To review, the scores were 4-1, 7-1, 4-1, and 5-2. The games were played within a 6-week period of time where the Stars had to play one of the top teams of the league and were exposed each time because of a blue-line that could not breakout the puck at the NHL level with any consistency. Vancouver, as styles make fights, had just the roster to attack and expose this weakness at the highest and most humiliating level. The 20-5 total goals beating and the way that it happened made things loud and clear for the Stars' brass to see that they needed to build a defense that could handle the puck. Their blue-line in some of those games consisted of Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley to do all of the puck moving, because the rest of the group wasn't capable. Nik Grossman, Mark Fistric, Jeff Woywitka, Karlis Skrastins, and Matt Niskanen are five guys who have their positives, but composure with the puck on their sticks in their own end is not one of them.

With that information and the feeling that "Richards is gone" to work with, Joe Nieuwendyk had to figure something out quickly. When rebuilding a franchise, you must start with a #1 center, #1 defenseman, and a #1 goalie. The Stars felt that they had their center in Jamie Benn on the way, their goalie in Kari Lehtonen was already there, and now they needed a top shelf defenseman. But, those are very expensive if you want a proven top pair guy. So, you must speculate. Who is not a top pair D-man with their squad, but would be in Dallas if you go get him?

And that is what took them to Pittsburgh. The Penguins know they can only pay so many guys and need scoring wingers around Sidney Crosby and Malkin. They already tried a puck-moving-defenseman-for-winger trade the year before when Ryan Whitney was dealt away for Chris Kunitz. And with their top trio on defense of Kris Letang, Paul Martin, and Brooks Orpik locked in, they could afford to deal the very talented Goligoski before he comes up for free agency in the summer of 2012.

Less than 36 hours after the final beating in Vancouver, he pulled the trigger.

Did the Stars want to lose Neal? Of course not. But, they felt Eriksson and Benn were the two keepers in the 3 man trio and the third would be used to acquire a major weakness on the team, and even today, you could argue that they got that decision right.

When national types simply look at stat lines and surmise that James Neal is on career-highs while the Stars power play is awful, it is easy to deduce that Pittsburgh took Nieuwendyk to the cleaners. I even heard one respected voice suggesting that Matt Niskanen for Goligoski is comparable, and if you believe that Nisky was going to play top minutes on this Dallas blue-line in 2012 and run the power play from the point, then you are as crazy as that respected voice was when he uttered such nonsense.

There are countless benefits to playing with Malkin that must be calculated. Neal is a real talent, but don't think for a second that he would be scoring 30 in 60 games anywhere in the league. He went to the perfect scenario and actually is one of the few players that will ever find that he can leave Brad Richards' wing and find an even better center.

Has Goligoski made the trade a win for the Stars? No, not yet, anyway. They need to give him more to work with to see it ever return to where the Stars can take teams apart on the power play. It was said a few weeks back that he is more "Sydor than Zubov". I would concede that point, but only because Zubov is a slam dunk hall of fame type in my mind. We can search for the next Sergei Zubov for a long time and not find him, let alone find him in the same organization. There would be nothing wrong with Goligoski being a Sydor type as long as he is not alone back there. He is certainly not a #1 defenseman who can do everything for you. But, can he be a solid #2 or #3 on a contender? Absolutely, I feel he can. But, to find that out, the Stars still need to figure out how to reel in that #1 Pronger/Chara/Lidstrom/Weber type, and they don't make very many of those.

If the Stars still had Neal but didn't have any plans on defense for the power play or offense from the back end, I think they would be in big trouble. Credit the Stars from adding Goligoski, Philip Larsen, and Sheldon Souray so now they have a blue-line with Daley and Robidas that actually looks substantially more comfortable and better in getting the puck out of their own end. Perfect? Far from it, but Vancouver isn't going to hammer them 20-5 this season.

The Penguins were a much better hockey team than Dallas before the trade and the trade wasn't going to change that. A trade of assets so that each team could address their weaknesses makes sense on both sides. It did not mean that Pittsburgh had all of the needs that Dallas had, nor does it mean that the Stars would get to play with Crosby or Malkin and see their stats soar. In my mind, the Stars had to pay to get a guy that can help them stay competitive in a post-Richards time period, before the new owner can bring in a few more elite pieces to get this team back to the cap and back to contending. And to get that piece, they would have to deal a scoring winger that would hurt to see among the league scoring leaders.

Despite that, as the 3 key figures of this deal meet again on the ice tonight in Dallas, I think the Stars understand that it was a brick in the wall that is still being built. But, I don't think they see it as a deal they would like to take back. And for the time being, I tend to agree.

They just need to keep building this summer.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Free to RT, Smith to LT in 2012

News broke late last week - although we have all known it for quite a while "unofficially" - that the Cowboys were going to perform the inevitable decision of moving Tyron Smith to left tackle for what they hope will be the last move of his career. This move will require Doug Free to move one more time back to the other side of the offensive line to guard the right flank of Tony Romo for the foreseeable future.

It was inevitable because the Cowboys took Tyron Smith at #9 in the draft even though he was just 20 years old and you would have to go a long way back in the NFL draft to find a team targeting a right tackle-only type in the top 10 where the big dollars are paid. It is just not a great use of resources. If you liked him enough to give him a year to transition into the life of pro football and invest in his long term, you certainly owed it to the organization to examine whether this blue-chip prospect could be one of the top left tackles in the sport for years to come in Dallas.

The move was not met with universal approval from all local circles. For instance, my colleague and fellow football fanatic, TC Fleming had a well-done write-up about how Doug Free is now the single-highest paid right tackle in the league, given his hefty 4-year, $32 million dollar contract. That fact seems rather shocking and according to some, demonstrates that the Cowboys made yet another personnel department blunder when they inked him to that deal last July when the lockout ended.

And to some extent, it may speak to that, but while I will admit that I did not realize that his deal puts him in elite company for that spot, I also would argue that the point that he is now over-paid is irrelevant. The Cowboys offensive line needs help, but judging from the eyeball test of 2011, Doug Free underperformed and was still the 2nd best offensive lineman at the worst.

Here is what I wrote about Free's performance as we evaluated the OL a month ago:

LT - Doug Free - 641 pass plays - 10 sacks: Free started the season very well coming off his new contract. In the first 4 weeks of the season, Free was not involved in hardly any situations that led to sacks. Andre Carter went around his edge in New England, as did James Hall of the Rams, and Trent Cole of the Eagles. There was one blitz awareness issue in the game at Washington that led to London Fletcher's sack, but otherwise a very strong month of November. But, in December, Free was just beaten over and over again (6 of his 10 sacks in December). In fairness to Free, Jason Pierre Paul was dominating the rest of the league, too, but against the Giants and JPP, Free was eaten alive. 4 sacks in 2 games just from the left tackle spot and Trent Cole got him again in Dallas. In all, I had Free as the primary blame in 10 sacks this season, but with 2 against Cole and 3 against Pierre-Paul (and 1 more against Chris Canty) meant that 6 of his 10 sacks allowed were against the Giants and Eagles. Free sees the toughest match-up nearly ever Sunday, so, I am not here to suggest he is doing a lousy job, but it does appear that he might be more of a right tackle in the long term.

So many things in life (and football) are about context. In Free's 32 starts since the Cowboys walked away from the Flozell Adams era, Free has managed left tackle pretty well. He obviously struggles against the elite of the elite at that right defensive end, but then again, they are elite for a reason. There is no shame in losing the occasional battle to Trent Cole, Jared Allen, Jason Pierre Paul, Mario Williams, or even DeMarcus Ware. They are awesome players and can beat "anyone", therefore, if Free is conceding the periodic sack but keeping up with the average to above average performance levels among left tackles, than the Cowboys have much bigger problems to worry about at other parts of their squad before we find his replacement.

But, why did he get paid? He got paid because he had the Cowboys over a barrel. They waited to pay him and therefore had the chance of a starting left tackle hitting the free market at the age of 27 years old. That almost never happens around the league and if the Cowboys messed around and tried to get him on a low-ball offer, the ship sailed because of the work stoppage and the Cowboys waiting until the CBA was resolved to not sign any big deals they might regret. They had no fall-back depth at tackle to work with (their own fault for not hitting on any of the young tackle prospects they have tried to develop since Free) and if they were serious about bidding Marc Colombo a farewell then they had to get Free done.

So, they could argue that he was not really their left tackle of the future, but Free's representation would have a good laugh with that and then start taking calls from around the league. He was going to get left tackle money and the question was how much and where. There are simply too many teams that desire a plug-and-play tackle who is not going to get beaten like a drum by the NFL elite. The Cowboys had hours to decide and pulled the trigger and now pay Free more than the going rate for a right tackle.

But, should it matter? The Cowboys were $17 million under the cap in 2011 and were paying their right tackle, Tyron Smith 4-years, $12.5 million to play the other tackle. Combine the two, and you have $44 million for 4 years tied up in your two starting tackles who are both going to be strong points of your offensive line. That averages $5.5 million a season for each of your starting tackles and honestly, that is not a very big concern for the front office to sweat. When Tyron demands elite money because he is an elite left tackle (Which the Cowboys desperately hope) in 2015 when it is time to pay him "big boy" money, then you will not be able to afford $8m at right tackle, too. But that is 2015.

Something else to consider: Free's contract is structured to favor the Cowboys, it seems. He had $17m in guaranteed money that is primarily paid out in 2011 and 2012. However, in 2013 and 2014, $15m of the $19m he is scheduled to be paid is not guaranteed and that means that if the Cowboys feel it is not working out, they can send him packing with a minimal cap hit on the bonus money. That means they can walk away in 2013 for just $4m in dead money and can do the same in 2014 for just $2m. It is structured in a way that the Cowboys could live with and that covers them from any sort of performance drop off that is unacceptable.

And we haven't even touched on the big item here; that the Cowboys have properly developed and grown Tyron Smith. There are no promises of elite-level performance from Smith, except for his enormous tools and upside. They did not rush him to left tackle, rather they took time and worked hard with him after practice to make sure they were not throwing too much at him. I think this will pay big dividends down the road. The alternate route would have been to refuse to pay Free the money, put Smith at left tackle in his first game as a pro, and toss him to the wolves. His confidence and development may have been stunted, but they managed him properly and now feel he is ready for the next vital step in his progress.

There is no question the Cowboys have a list of transgressions that are worth complaining about when it comes to roster management and development. But, I think the idea that they did this Free/Smith situation incorrectly is stretching the confines of an accurate depiction of their situation. I have no problem whatsoever with how they did it. Now, the 3 guys between Free and Smith on the line? That was a big problem and one for another day.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Is Doug Free Being Paid Too Much To Play Right Tackle?

Hey, everybody. TC Fleming here. This week the Cowboys announced they're flip-flopping their tackles. Which is all well and good, but what about last year when Dallas agreed to pay $32 million over four years--ostensibly left tackle prices--to make Doug Free their Left Tackle of the Future? For that matter, what are left tackle prices? How do they differ from right tackle prices? And at what level would Free need to play to justify his salary at right tackle?

Starting with that second question, I put together a list of the ten highest-paid players at each offensive line position. Doing this, it jumps out pretty quickly how whacked out the rookie contracts were prior to the CBA. The two highest-paid right tackles in all of football are top-10 picks (Jason and Andre Smith) still on their rookie deals who failed to develop into left tackles. That sort of thing really has nothing to do with Doug Free. If we're going to find out if it's normal to have an $8 million right tackle, we should focus more on situations where teams had a better idea of what they were buying. Do teams setting out to buy (or re-sign) a right tackle demonstrate a willingness to pay $8 million a year or more to get that accomplished? So we're throwing out rookie contracts. With that done, let's check out this neat little table illustrating the difference in the average salaries of the 10 highest-paid players at each position:

Avg. Salary Years Total Money ∆ from LT 
Left Tackle$8.1 million6$46.2 million -
Left Guard$6.1 million6$34 million$2.0 million
Right Guard$5.4 million6$29.9 million$2.7 million 
Center$5.0 million5$26 million$3.1 million
Right Tackle $5.0 million4$22.2 million$3.1 million

The preference for left tackles is no surprise. The relative disregard for right tackles, though, is a little bit of a shock. For this exercise, the important thing is that it's true, not why it's true. To take a brief stab at why though, maybe teams are so desperate for capable left tackles that anyone with the slightest bit of tackle-playing ability gets slotted over there and the remaining talent isn't capable of commanding a decent salary? But whatever. The point is that right tackles are not paid very much. With this week's announcement, Doug Free in fact became the highest-paid right tackle in football.

Obviously, Free would need to be the highest-performing tackle to justify that salary, but by what margin? To try to get a handle on linemen performance, let's use the website They have people that look at the game film and give a numeric grade based on how well players execute their assignments. If you'd like to know more, it's on their site there. It's a handy way to make a comparison between performance and payment. I took all of the linemen graded in the 2011 season and matched them up with their salary. I added up both of those numbers and divided the two totals by each other to get an idea of what each million spent is paying for. For every million dollars spent on a player, how much higher a grade would one expect that player to have? The answer by position is in the graph below.

Grade Pts per Million Dollars 
Left Tackle9.13
Right Tackle 12.38
Left Guard14.40
Right Guard14.85

So if owners pay right tackles at a rate of about 12 grade points for every million dollars, Free would need to grade out around 59 to justify his $8 million salary. That is a humorously unreasonable expectation. 59 is not on the scale. The most productive lineman regardless of position last year graded out at a 34.6.

But, I think we're being a little harsh here. The 12 grade points per million dollars thing takes into account a good bit of getting lucky. There are a few late-round picks or undrafted free agents that step in to have competent seasons, and their decent performance and tiny salaries combine to throw the whole thing off. Then consider the fact that though it can pay off big, handing an unregarded player a starting job is not an advisable strategy. For every Carl Nicks who comes from nowhere to be an elite lineman, there are 10 Phil Costa's who come from nowhere only to show they were probably better off staying there. Having a track record and a demonstrated consistency are worth something. Sometimes one would like to pay a little extra to know what you're going to get. Looking at these numbers, I think owners are paying a little more than is reasonable for this presumed dependability, but that's a separate conversation. Going back to that list of 10 biggest free agent signings by position and doing the same salary-to-performance check, we get an idea of how much owners are willing to pay for established players:

Grade Pts per Million Dollars 
Left Guard5.69
Left Tackle5.71
Right Tackle 7.66
Right Guard7.70

Going by these numbers, we can start to at least squint and see a way for Free to be worth his money. Using the prices paid for established veteran right tackles, Free would need to grade out around a 21 in each of the remaining years of his contract. Seven offensive linemen graded out a 21 or higher, although only one was a tackle. For Free to grade out at that level would still be unprecedented, but not laughably impossible. 

There's one other thing to consider: As you can see from all these tables, guards--especially left guards--are treated as decidedly more valuable than right tackles. An established left guard being paid $8 million would only be expected to just grade out around a 6. 45 offensive linemen (7 left guards) graded out at 6 or above. It doesn't seem very hard at all for Free to reach those levels. Then again, he's never played guard. Given the difference in salary, left guard must be more difficult to play than right tackle. On the other hand, Free proved in 2010 that he was capable of the even-more-difficult position of left tackle. Plus we all remember Leonard Davis going from pedestrian left tackle to exceptional guard (though that was right guard and not left). Given the instability on the interior of the Cowboys' line, there's an opportunity there to shuffle things around to give Free a shot at the available position where he might be most valuable. Going just by the numbers here without any scouting indicating how his attributes would translate to the new position, I'd say a move to left guard is most assuredly the best shot for him to give $8 million or more in value each year.

It's worth mentioning that given Tyron Smith's superb grade last year (14, fourth among tackles) and reasonable salary under the new rookie wage scale (a little over $3 million annually), he is an excellent choice to play left tackle. If he repeats his performance, he will be one of the more cost-effective offensive linemen around.

The Tyron Smith aspect of this decision will probably work out well. Free, however, will have tremendous trouble justifying his contract if he stays at right tackle.

If you're interested in the numbers and everything I used to put all this together, they can be found on this spreadsheet:

Deadline Day

In the 12 days since I spent 1500 words talking about the Stars and their need to be sellers on this trade deadline day, a few things have happened.

For instance, they lost their best player and leading scorer to a skate laceration and still await his return which could be less than a week away.

They also lost a back-to-back set of games the following weekend against the Coyotes and Predators. In the Nashville game, they conceded a back breaking goal with less than :01 to go in the first period. It seemed to be a thumbnail description of the season in many ways. Try hard while a piano falls on your head like in the cartoons.

So, when the Stars boarded an airplane for Montreal 7 days ago, the column still was 100% of my feeling about the direction that Joe Nieuwendyk should take as his phone rings this morning in Frisco.

Then, the last 7 days happened.

First, a 3-0 win in Montreal. Not the biggest win ever, and certainly not an opponent that has demonstrated a whole lot of resolve or quality, but a road win that looked like a complete performance given the absence of Benn and Brenden Morrow.

Then, a gritty 3rd period was needed for the ambush victory in Chicago against a team that is talented and playing their own brand of desperate hockey to attempt to qualify for the postseason. You don't want to get carried away about a 2-game winning streak, but it had been a while since the Stars had put back to back performances together. In fact, over a month.

On Friday, they would play yet another back-to-back where they had been 0-9-2 in such scenarios all season long. Could they finally end that trend and beat a Minnesota team that was in need of a win themselves? With great ease, they could, winning 4-1 and jumping into sole possession of the coveted #8 seed in the western conference.

Finally, yesterday, the Benn-less Stars would attempt to beat the #1 team in the National Hockey League as Vancouver came calling. They fell behind 2-0 to a team that never concedes leads and clawed all the way back up the mountain to score in the final minute and get the winner in overtime to boot. Beating a team that hammered them 4 times last season to the tune of 20-5 is no small accomplishment. The arena was rocking and the Stars had won their 4th consecutive game and had collected 8 very valuable points in one week's time.

As fate would have it, the NHL trade deadline would hit the very next day. Now, a clear decision to sell has been made murky by this unforeseen run of form from a Dallas squad that had not strung 3 wins together since early December. But, the team-game has rounded nicely into form and it appears the Stars in losing Benn temporarily has figured out how to play the proper style to earn points on a regular basis; a simple, rough, and dedicated team style that has 5 defending and then opportunistic and gritty in the offensive zone. Limit the easy chances for the opponent and capitalize when the game offers you a chance to cash in.

The Stars open their eyes this morning and find that they are sitting 8th in the West, but just 3 points out of 3rd as they now trail the divisional leaders in Phoenix. San Jose is 1 point ahead and Los Angeles is 2 points behind. To say that they are right in the middle of the race with 19 games to play is an understatement, and this is where leadership now have to make up their minds.

I said, "Sell, sell, sell". And most of me still says that you have to think about the big picture here and not get too carried away about one week where the team looks like it is playing so that everybody can stay together. I have really enjoyed seeing this team play this style and if it could sustain for 82 games and into the playoffs, I would totally buy in. But, this core has been in place for a while now, and we know that a great week is usually followed by a down week where they can't collect hardly any points because they just don't have the horses to compete in the long term (Payroll, talent, the usual bit).

Most of the attention here at the deadline revolves around two fan favorites: Steve Ott and Mike Ribeiro. If Ott goes, you deflate your fan base and maybe your dressing room in the short term. He is a big part of the heart of this team, and whatever you have left for a fan base that has bought what you are selling has a soft place in their heart for Ott. He plays hard and I have no doubt in my mind that he will be a huge add for any team trying to win a Stanley Cup. Is he irreplaceable? Not at all, but, I better get something awfully good to sell a guy who has given everything he has for the team that drafted him. If I can get some players well south of 25 years old that are part of my core moving forward for Ott, I have to think about it. But, I am not selling him off for fair value. I need someone to overpay for a guy who could be my captain soon.

Ribeiro is a different deal. The emotional ties for him are different than Ott. You don't see #63 jerseys everywhere you look. But, you do see his fingerprints on just about everything the Stars are accomplishing on offense right now. His performance with Michael Ryder and Loui Eriksson in February demonstrates how talented a center he is, and with Brad Richards long gone, it isn't as if the Stars have much in the cupboard at that position once you get past Benn. Ribs has his warts and he can be moody and a man on an island at times, but he also is a worthy player of his cap number and I do not feel compelled to move him along either for the sake of doing so. I think if you trade Ribeiro, then you are conceding any playoff chances this year, and that is why I don't believe he will be packing today.

Beyond that, as much as it hurts, I could see listening on a number of newer pieces. Sheldon Souray has been a good add, but if the Stars think this is only a 1-year fit, then you should trade him now if you can net an asset out of it. Ryder is on a 2-year deal, but with 25 goals already, could you flip him for a 1st rounder and a prospect? If so, you would take a lump now, but you might be happy you did down the road.

Or, do you go the safe route and do nothing. Let this team play their hearts out for the final 6 weeks and hope for the best? But, what is the best? Make the playoffs and get bounced 10 days later? Or, do you really think this team is a team that could go on a serious run in the post-season.

Maybe the biggest problem mediocre teams suffer from is falling in love with their own players. And as many wisemen have once said, "hope is not a strategy". You must collect talent, no when to hold them and when to fold them. You cannot make decisions based on one week of good hockey if you have been watching them as their general manager for 3 seasons. On the other hand, you don't make a move just to make one. Sometimes, the best move is the one you pass on.

Tick, tock. The clock expires at 2pm today. Many Stars fans are holding their breath. And the phone is ringing in Frisco.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What Is Wrong With Big 12 Wide Outs?

Going into every draft season, there are a few players that everyone universally agrees will be a star at the next level based on what we saw on college football afternoons. These players were simply too dominant at the last level to not translate in the NFL.

Maybe the best case of "can't miss" that I can remember in the last decade for me, personally, was Michigan State receiver, Charles Rogers. He was a truly superstar every Saturday for the Michigan State Spartans in 2001 and 2002, playing in just 24 college games and catching 25 TDs and 2551 yards. You will not find very many receivers who walk right in to major college football and average a TD and over 100 yards (at over 20 yards a catch) over the course of their entire career. Breaking records and even putting up a 270 yard game, he appeared to be the next star waiting for Sundays.

When the 2003 draft arrived, the hometown Detroit Lions could not wait to take a local kid at #2 after Carson Palmer went to the Bengals at #1. The #3 pick was Houston's, and they allowed Andre Johnson to fall into their laps out of Miami of Florida. Since that day, only Reggie Wayne has out-produced Johnson in receiving yards in the entire league. Johnson has been one of the very best of this generation. And Rogers? Well, Rogers was out of the league in less than 3 years - a player that was suspended multiple times for drugs and had a work ethic that even the Lions would not tolerate. He has had regular scrapes with the law after football and is another cautionary tale of how bad things can go on draft day if we are not careful. By the way, it was subsequently discovered that he had failed drug tests at Michigan State, too, and Detroit either did not do their homework or did not care.

This history lesson starts us out on a discussion about Wide Receivers and the fact that two local "can't miss" players at that position in the last 3 drafts so far have not set the NFL on fire.

Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree had moments at the college level in the Big 12 that were amazing. His production was off the charts, even by Rogers' standards. 3,127 yards and 41 Touchdowns in 26 college games before turning pro. His slide in the draft down to #10 in 2009 where San Francisco snapped him up was the news of the day and surely a break they would very much enjoy. And yet, 3 seasons into his NFL career, he has had very ordinary production. Still looking for his first 900 yard season, Crabtree has not set the world on fire. Surely, his QB situation doesn't help, but even in a year where the 49ers won many games and were just short of the Super Bowl, Crabtree was a player on the periphery of their game plan to the end.

And Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant was the apple in Jerry Jones' eye in the 2010 draft. Many teams had taken him off their draft board altogether and this had allowed Bryant to fall to Dallas at #24. His college production was not as impressive as Crabtree's, mostly due to off field issues with the NCAA. But in his full season of 2008, Bryant put up 19 TDs and 1,480 yards in 13 games for OSU. His ability had many experts saying he perhaps was the best player in the draft, but the baggage made him a risk. Now, 2 years into his career, he has flashed brilliance, but also proven to be a handful of side issues. His one 100-yard game in his career came with the back-up QB, Jon Kitna, despite playing in one of the more productive offenses in the league. For whatever reason, at this point, most would categorize his production at this point at least a modest disappointment compared to the expectations put on him by his own franchise when they rushed to give him jersey "88" as a sign that he was cut from the Drew Pearson-Michael Irvin cloth.

Crabtree and Bryant had a few things in common. Their Texas ties, the ties to Deion Sanders/Eugene Parker in the build-up to the draft, and the fact that they were the best the Big 12 South had to offer during a prolific passing era. Then, to see that they both had trouble initially exploding with success at the NFL level made some of us wonder about the way the ball is passed in the Big 12, and whether it is truly a great way to prepare for the NFL game. Was there enough "press coverage" in the conference, or were there simply "free releases" for every route? The free releases would not prepare these players for the next level, and when NFL corners would press them at the line, something teams do to Bryant and Crabtree regularly, would that cause their abilities to be somewhat mitigated?

And, can you judge an entire conference with the same standard?

The following list is the entire 13 player list of Wide Receivers from the Big 12 who have been selected in either the 1st or 2nd Round of the NFL Draft since the year 2000. With the exceptions of Jordy Nelson and Jeremy Maclin, it seems the entire list would either be labeled a complete disappointment or in the case of Bryant and Crabtree, mild disappointments so far on their road:

2001Quincy MorganKan St#33Clev62466
2001Robert FergusonTex A&M#41GB81993
2003Bethel JohnsonTex A&M#45NE4606
2004Roy WilliamsTexas#7Det85715
2004Rashaun WoodsOk St#31SF1160
2005Mark ClaytonOU#22Balt73448
2005Mark BradleyOU#39Chi51283
2005Terence MurphyTex A&M#58GB136
2008Jordy NelsonKan St#36GB42531
2008Limas SweedTexas#53Pitt269
2009Michael CrabtreeTex Tech#10SF32240
2009Jeremy MaclinMissouri#19Phil32585
2010Dez BryantOk St#24Dal21489

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Of course, every story and every player is different. But, if a league now known for slinging the ball all over the yard and having games approach 100 points some days in total, it makes you wonder how an entire conference could not really have one receiver crack the rankings of top NFL receivers over a 12-year period.

Actually, the Big 12 has had a prolific receiver in the NFL over the last half-dozen years. In fact, Wes Welker, with 4-1,000 yard seasons to his name has out-produced the entire list above where all 13 of those players have just 2-1,000 yard seasons (Roy Williams, 2006 & Jordy Nelson, 2011). But, Welker was undrafted and unregarded leaving college by just about everyone and seen as a special teams-only player.

Upon discovering this data, I had someone suggest to me that Justin Blackmon (OSU) and Kendall Wright (Baylor) will change all of that this year. And that is entirely possible. Both are thought of as 1st Round talents, and Blackmon has been projected by some as better than Crabtree or Bryant. Time will tell, of course, but they will not be the first two Big 12 receivers to get "can't miss" rankings before a snap is taken. But, they might be the first two to actually not miss on Sundays in a long time from this conference.

Now, you might say, aren't there other conferences with a similar track record? Well looking at the Top 25 most productive wide receivers from this era (2003-2011 was the window used), we see that the ACC, Big East, and Big 10 were well represented with the Pac 10 having a few, and small schools representing a rather large number themselves. But, the SEC just had Hines Ward on this list and the Big 12 just had Wes Welker. The SEC would never claim to have adopted the spread offense, but there have been more than a few wide receivers from that conference who have disappointed at the top level despite running "pro offenses" predominantly through this era.

Also, you might suggest that taking a Wide Receiver high in the draft is a bad idea because of the bust factor. But, if you decided to never do that, you would have disqualified yourself from 15 of the 25 most productive Wide Receivers in these drafts as 9 were 1st Rounders and 6 more went in the 2nd round.

Top 25 WRs (2003-2011) - Where drafted (based on total receiving yards):

Rd 19
Rd 26
Rd 34
Rd 42
Rd 50
Rd 60
Rd 73
undrafted1 (Welker)

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So, as you might expect, the best receivers do go in the top few rounds, so if you want a star like Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Wayne, or Larry Fitzgerald, that is where you have to take them. The 7th rounders, Marques Colston, TJ Houshmandzadeh, and Donald Driver do exist, but the odds are quite remote comparatively speaking.

I don't necessarily have a great theory as to why the Big 12 receivers are having a difficult time translating to the next level, but with Blackmon and Wright ready, perhaps the equalizers are on their way.

The combine will reveal more of this story this weekend. But, of course, the only thing that will matter historically will be production on Sundays.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Evaluating the 2011 Dallas Cowboys Draft Class

This week provides plenty of time to look at 2012 Draft prospects for the NFL as the Cowboys and the other 31 teams head back to Indianapolis for the Combine at the end of the week. Over the next few months, teams will build a board and begin to figure out how to populate their rosters with young, healthy bodies to move forward. Every team wants to "churn its roster", keeping things fresh and fostering a spirit of intense competition for each and every spot and snap.

One exercise worth getting to this week before we totally turn out the lights on 2011 is looking at the first group that new coach Jason Garrett brought in. Identifying his role in the "war room" and the personnel collection department with GM Jerry Jones and the normal staff in that regard is still difficult to completely nail down, however, he certainly has influence, and it is interesting to note that 2011 seemed to bring in a number of useable parts moving forward. If the Cowboys can find as many bodies in 2012 as they seemed to bring in in 2011, they will be doing a nice, quiet job of rebuilding this roster the cheap way - through college players.

The following is a look at the new bodies who have joined the Cowboys in the last year straight from college. The players included on this list are only those that had some level of roster impact in 2011. Therefore, developmental signings to take to camp next year are not included. Just 2011 draft picks and undrafted free agents that spent at least a little time on the roster.

First, let's review the 2011 Cowboys Draft, player by player:

Round 1, Pick 9 - Tyron Smith, Tackle, USC

About a year ago this month, Smith was identified as a player of great interest for the Dallas Cowboys. After examining a good portion of his 2010 season at USC and seeing all of his tools and abilities, it seemed like a cinch for the Cowboys to make him a cornerstone for their squad moving forward. He was very young, but he could be good right away and had a chance to be great in a few years. Well, after one season where he started by learning a lot of lessons at the hands of opposing pass rushers, we have already seen giant leaps from Smith. He is being heavily considered to switch to left tackle for the start of business in 2012, and then provided the Cowboys can continue to develop him, there is no reason that he cannot be elite at that vital position for a long, long time. Health and motivation will always be considerations for young tackles, but it sure looks like the Cowboys might have been able to do something wonderful here. There is no doubt that JJ Watt would have helped this squad at #9 (as I have written countless times), but there can be no second-guessing this pick at this spot. He appears to be as important an add to this roster as any player since DeMarcus Ware.

Round 2, Pick 40 - Bruce Carter, Linebacker, North Carolina

Unlike Smith, this Carter selection took me completely off guard. It did not seem a particular position of need and the player was 6 months from being healthy after a significant knee injury. Speculation suggested that if he was healthy, he would have been in the 1st Round, and that is what Dallas is banking on. His contributions in 2011 were rather small, with a special teams play or two that stood out (at Washington), but for the most part, he spent a year getting acclimated to his surroundings and getting his knee healthy. Clearly, with Keith Brooking and Bradie James exiting, a middle linebacker situation that has 2010 addition Sean Lee and 2011 addition Bruce Carter nailing down that spot for years to come can get people excited. However, there was very little about his 2011 season from a defensive standpoint that gave us any indication of what he is capable of at the NFL level. Wait and see is the proper approach for Carter, but with names of great substance on the board when this pick was made (Brooks Read, every safety, and many defensive line prospects) there is a fair number of us who wonder about this selection and did at moment it was made, too. 2012 will be gigantic for him to put that discussion to rest.

Round 3, Pick 71 - DeMarco Murray, Running Back, Oklahoma

Murray was another pick that caused stirring in the media room at Valley Ranch. The selection signaled the idea that the Cowboys felt that Felix Jones was not the #1 running back that they had hoped he would be when they invested so much in him on draft day 2008. Murray would compete for the #1 job as soon as he was ready, and that happened by early October. And for the next few months, it became rather obvious to any observer that Murray was ready for the NFL and for that job. He was fantastic for a big stretch of the year before the Giants game in Arlington where he broke his ankle and ended his year. Nobody knows how things might have been different if he had stayed healthy, and now heading into 2012, the idea that the Cowboys have running back squared away really allows the team to turn their attention to other spots after never really finding a true #1 for years. Murray appears to be another high-quality pick for the 2011 draft and has the potential to make this draft a success.

Round 4, Pick 110 - David Arkin, Guard, Missouri State

Anytime that a team takes a small college offensive lineman, you hope that they have some inside intelligence that tells you they have slipped one by the rest of the league. Then, that small school prospect never suits up one time all season and you get rather concerned that they got too cute and out-smarted themselves. Think about it, as bad as they were at guard last year, they never allowed Arkin to show his ability in public. This redshirt year may have brought him along in the weight room, but for now, I think caution is the best way to proceed with Arkin. He may still have a lot of the ability that they liked last April, and it should be noted that he would not be the first lineman to not play his rookie year and still turn out well, but we need to see some signs that this important pick has something. To not even get a snap from a 4th round pick is not a great start to a career. Stay tuned.

Round 5, Pick 143 - Josh Thomas, Cornerback, Buffalo

Clearly the worst pick of the draft, as Thomas did not make the team out of camp at a position of great need. Instead, they went with a retread, Frank Walker, and sent Thomas away. He was claimed by Carolina the next day, and plays with the Panthers to this day, although he was only active once in 2011. This pick hurts a lot when you consider the Cowboys needed a corner in Round 5 and passed over Richard Sherman from Stanford who went off the board a few picks later at the same position and had an outstanding rookie season in Seattle. If they had Sherman, there would be a completely different feel to the 2012 offseason in Dallas. Instead, their search for young corners continues.

Round 6, Pick 176 - Dwayne Harris, Wide Receiver, East Carolina

Harris had a very strong training camp and preseason and had many believing that he could win and hold down the #3 Wide Receiver role at times in August. However, things did not materialize and he ended up playing one offensive snap in 2011. Meanwhile, Laurent Robinson stepped right in and took over that position as Harris was back and forth from the practice squad to the roster. Whether Harris is simply another name in the media guide or a part of the future moving forward will depend on his development by August. His return game and his receiving ability from the slot seemed useful enough on the 6th Round spot, but so far, there has been very little to sink your teeth into here.

Round 7, Pick 220 - Shaun Chapas, Fullback, Georgia

It was clear the Cowboys were ready to find a true fullback after the tough 2010 for Chris Gronkowski and they took a 7th round shot on Chapas. At the time, they had no way of knowing they would find Tony Fiammetta in September and that brought a quick close to Chapas it seemed in 2011. However, because of Fiammetta's illness, Chapas did actually play in Arizona for 8 snaps and remains on the roster to this day. I do not see him passing Fiammetta moving forward, but he will get the offseason to show his usefulness in 2012.

Round 7, Pick 252 - Bill Nagy, Center, Wisconsin

Nagy was a bit of a surprise pick, too, given his lack of a locked down spot even at Wisconsin in 2010. But, the Cowboys made a bet on the system up there and may have hit on a guy who has versatility and can become either a swing back-up or throw his name into the mix and center moving forward. They had the poor idea of having Phil Costa and Nagy start from Week 1 at center and left guard and together it was a real mess. Neither player had the raw strength to hold up in the trenches so stacking them together was a target for defenses to attack. Nagy broke his leg in New England in the 5th game and ended his year. But, moving forward, there is reason to believe that he could have an impact if surrounded by reasonable players on the line. Might be a solid 7th round pick.

And 4 undrafted free agents who contributed:

Kevin Kowalski, Center/Guard, Toledo

Kowalski is another of the raw young offensive line that could go either way. Like Costa, Nagy, and Arkin, he appears to have strength issues that need to be fixed, but he is another body that has age on his side. If you are going to stock an offensive line with backups, make them young enough that you might even find a starter in the group at some point. Opportunity is certainly knocking for this group. Kowalski played over 100 snaps and will have an idea what he needs to do to get better.

Dan Bailey, Kicker, Oklahoma State

Here is one of the major plus marks of the offseason, when the Cowboys found their kicker. Bailey was outstanding all year long and seemed to bring the kicking carousel to a stop. Whether he can be consistent as a kickoff man remains to be seen, but as far as accuracy as a kicker, the Cowboys did themselves a big favor after dealing with David Buehler for a few seasons of frustration. This is a key pickup.

Alex Albright, Linebacker, Boston College

A player in the mix to be another edge rusher in the 3-4, Albright played enough special teams to make himself useful. Down the depth chart from Victor Butler, Albright seemed capable in his role, and now will need to earn his stripes to move up the board, but I know he has his fans inside Valley Ranch.

Phillip Tanner, Running Back, Middle Tennessee State

Called into emergency duty for a while because of injuries and depth issues, Tanner also demonstrated that he can play at the NFL level as a special teams/depth guy if he keeps working. Whether he can be a candidate to be a legitimate backup running back remains to be seen, but if he had stayed healthy late in the season, it would have been interesting how many chances he would have received that ended up going to Sammy Morris.

11 names that still remain on the roster were found last spring and summer and added to this Cowboys roster. Smith and Murray appear to be clear starters and maybe stars, with Carter as a prospect to start as well. Beyond that, it may be a number of bottom of the roster depth-guys who get switched out for new players this year, but several of them have a chance to push their way further up the depth chart if they can emerge. That includes the offensive line group, where the Cowboys are using a numbers approach - collecting many bodies in hopes of finding a keeper or two.

Overall, I think the 2011 group has a chance to put the 2009 and 2010 groups to shame. In the case of 2009, that doesn't say too much, but the scouts, Garrett, and his staff did an under-rated job of finding players who could make this roster in 2011. Time to continue the job this spring in big numbers, as much more talent is needed in short order.

Dirk's Demise Greatly Exaggerated

It has been the greatest year in the man's life, but probably the longest, too. Think about the last 12 months for Dirk Nowitzki. How many people can put together 52 weeks like he just did?

365 days ago, he was at another all-star game, going through those All-Star Game motions in Los Angeles and gearing up for what would be the most memorable stretch run to a season in his entire life.

Nobody knew what last spring would hold for Nowitzki (especially those of us who predicted with great confidence a one-and-done playoff campaign), but when things were all said and done on that magical Sunday Night in Miami last June, Nowitzki had taken his spot in basketball immortality among the legends. After 13 seasons, he had finally put together that 2 month run that required him to dig deeper than he ever had before. The bumps, bruises, and even injuries had taken their toll, but with the NBA Title that he had likely thought he may never see finally in his grasp, he had arrived at the top of the rarest of mountains.

And then the summer happened.

The events of the summer were partially well-documented. There was the parade and rally in Dallas - a place where we had never seen Nowitzki so happy and so ready to share his joy with all of his adoring fans. There was the rally in Germany, where he was met with thousands of his countrymen and celebrated for his miraculous performance. There were other moments; late-night tv appearances, quite a few Texas Rangers games, and being seen at various night spots around Dallas.

There was also a summer that included Dirk loading up and playing again for Germany in an attempt to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. That did not go nearly as well as the Mavericks run to the NBA Title, by the way.

But, somewhere during the summer and fall, between the night in Miami and the Christmas Day rematch against Miami, Dirk's body changed. Some suggest it had plenty to do with a long summer of partying and a departure from his normal routine where he does 2-a-days with Holger and refines and develops his game in most years. Others, especially those of us who don't mind admitting that we root for arguably the greatest athlete in Dallas history, wonder about the wear and tear that his body sustained during the playoff run had caught up with him a bit. That he needed a prolonged rest to get his body right, but in doing so, his aches and pains had rendered Dirk less-than-prepared when it was time to reassemble the champions in December.

This seems a distinction worth making, whether he was ill prepared to start the season because of basketball reasons or party reasons, but either way, he certainly did not look himself for the first 5 weeks of the season. From December 25 through the first game in February showed us statistics that were well down (16.2 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game) from his career numbers (23 points per game, 8 rebounds) that were as consistent as the sunrise. His shooting was horribly off, 43% from the field (last year 52%) and 17% from 3-point range (last year 39%), and he looked bad physically, as if he was running with rocks in his shoes. The discomfort was difficult to watch.

And for that, the Mavericks decided to shut him down once, and even upon his return, many of us were calling for it to happen again.

He had recently passed 1,000 games and 37,000 minutes. It is easy to see where most stars drop off in their careers around those same milestones. And Nowitzki was not a typical NBA player. He was a 7-footer who had put a different type of wear and tear on his body in those 1,000 battles in the regular season and 124 more playoff games (say nothing about his regular appearances for Germany in the "offseason).

On February 1st, the Mavericks faded down the stretch of a home game against Oklahoma City because they kept going to Dirk and Dirk didn't have it again. He shot 2-15 and looked way out of form again. After the game, it certainly occurred to me that shutting him down for several weeks and getting his body completely right was a reasonable idea. He just wasn't himself.

The next day, Charles Barkley made some public comments on Dallas Radio to Randy Galloway on the topic:

Dirk's getting old bro. Father Time is undefeated. You know, Dirk's been a great great player for a long time and he's been in the playoffs pretty much every year. Father Time is catching up with him.

That's the way it happens, you drop off the face of the earth. His days of being the man are over. I hate to break it to you. I lived it. When you're a great player it hits you quicker, too, more than anybody because you have further to fall. You can be a guy like who's a good solid player and you can hide it for a couple years, but when you're a great player you have further to fall.

The timing of it all is interesting. However, I highly doubt that Dirk was waiting to be called out like that. I imagine being in form for a professional basketball player is a difficult thing to track with linear measurements and time. It is simply feeling confident and fit and knocking down the open shot when it comes to you. Taking over the game when the moment is right is a feel, and if your body is not willing to cooperate, then you will be in trouble.

But since that moment in time, Dirk is back. The Mavericks are winning with great routine and despite the late issues in New York yesterday, it appears that they can ride their big German again for long, key moments of games. His production for the last 3 weeks is right back where it has always been: 25.3 points per game, 7 rebounds a game, 51% from the field, and deadly from 3-point range. Dirk looks like Dirk again. The guy who has the opponents shaking their heads and the fans in visiting arenas gasping in despair when he is left open for a split second. He has that swagger and that confidence back and he simply looks the part of the talisman of this entire operation.

He is 33 and on his way to 34 in mid-June. At some point, he will have to move aside and not be a superstar anymore. But, for the time being, it appears Barkley jumped the gun. But he is right about one thing - Father Time is undefeated.

Next weekend, the NBA All-Star Game happens again, and Dirk will be there again. Funny thing is, the idea that he doesn't belong there will be brought up by bored media types looking for something to prattle on about. If we judge this sort of thing on 5 weeks, I suppose there is a point to be made for the start of the season. But, if the question is whether Dirk is still among the best in the game or has he fallen off the face of the basketball planet, then let's put that silliness to bed.

Nowitzki has had the craziest year of his career, but any reports that this year has included his inevitable decline is crazy. On the contrary, anyone who watched knows that this year has contained his masterpiece; a 21-game performance last summer that silenced critics and put a ring on his finger. The recovery time for that accomplishment was prolonged, but now he appears back to being who he has always been: Dirk.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cowboys E-Mails: 2/17/12

Let's end the week in the same manner that we have been doing it for quite a few now: With actual Cowboys-based emails from you our valued reader. If you would care to be included in the fun, email me at, and be sure to goof on me for still using AOL for email.

The first one is in response to our controversial blog this week about Anthony Spencer's future:


Is the stat of how many snaps a given NFL player plays in a season kept anywhere? I can't seem to find it. I ask, cause your blog tells me that Spencer had 3 more sacks & 30 more tackles than Butler, but not how many plays each plays.

Jason Hathaway


Yes, there is a website that keeps snap counts on a game-by-game basis. I am not sure why the NFL does not include these in their official stats, because it seems like something that would be both useful and desired by those that follow the sport. Surely, if a player can do more in fewer snaps, it makes you wonder if he would be better in full time duty.

My friends at keep these stats for each player in the league. And of the 1,053 snaps taken this season by the Dallas Cowboys defense, Anthony Spencer played 939 of them - leading the linebackers in this statistic. DeMarcus Ware played 914, Sean Lee 868, Bradie James 414, Keith Brooking 409, Victor Butler 233, Alex Albright 43, and Bruce Carter 41. So, by definition of sacks per snaps, Spencer was getting a sack once every 156 snaps while Butler once every 77.

Of course, there is more to the linebacker position than rushing the passer, but in pure pass rushing results, I believed even before this season that Butler was better at getting around the edge than Spencer. For whatever reason, Spencer doesn't have a great move to get to the QB in time to get a sack. Butler, in limited action in the NFL and extensive play in college has always figured out a way to get home.

Here are photos of the pre snap of each of Victor Butler's 3 sacks this season to see where he was lined up:

#1 - Week 3 vs Washington, Butler is in Spencer's spot and blows by the Right Tackle for a great edge sack.

#2 - Week 11 at Washington, Butler in Spencer's spot again, drops into coverage and then converges on Rex Grossman when the QB looks to scramble. This is less of a legitimate sack and more of a player forcing a QB out of play for a 1-yard loss.

#3 - Week 12 vs Miami. Interestingly here, Butler is lined up on the inside as a nickel defensive tackle. He beats Richie Incognito with a quick interior move and gets home from an odd spot on the field.

The issue that many people bring up is the idea that based on these ratios, Butler should be a fine in-house solution to the issues that Spencer's free agency presents. But, in going back and looking at many of Butler's games this week, I noticed that he seldom is in for Anthony Spencer, but when he is, it is a passing situation on 3rd Down. When Butler is in the game on 1st or 2nd down, it is generally for DeMarcus Ware. Ware, during long drives, would often require a break for a couple snaps, and they would sneak Butler on for him on 1st or 2nd down.

Why is this important to distinguish - whether Butler is more of a Ware replacement than a Spencer replacement? Because, Ware is always lined up on the weakside and Spencer is always on the strong side. Where do teams love to run the ball? On the strong side. And that is why Spencer's strength against the run is a key attribute and his ability to rush the passer is important, but not the be-all, end-all that many fans believe.

1st and 2nd down are vital to setting up 3rd and long so that you can rush the passer. If you don't stop running plays, then you get fewer sack opportunities. And it is my conclusion, that the Cowboys have never believed that Butler is a good player to stand up against the running plays that Spencer has done so well, where double teams sometimes find their way to him. Spencer makes it look rather easy at times, and the Cowboys have not really had anyone behind him for a few years who could replicate that.

Butler is a very useful player. He is a speedy edge rusher and a great pursuit guy who seems to have a superior motor to just about anyone on the defense. I want Butler around for many reasons and really like it when Rob Ryan gets all of his edge guys on the field at the same time. But, the coaching staff sees him as a fine Ware-understudy rather than a Spencer-type, based on how they use him. That is why I believe that they will either franchise Spencer or take a player like him in the draft (Courtney Upshaw, Alabama is very Spencer-like), rather than give the job to Butler. And my argument remains that while Spencer is not what I hoped, it is still a smarter decision to keep him and use my resources (especially my draft) upgrading other spots that are hurting me worse. It is all about priorities and decisions in this league and when you have 22 starters, replacing your 4th or 5th best defensive player because he is not better is missing the real challenge: Upgrading your biggest deficiencies.

The 2nd Email in our weekly mailbag is regarding the column from last week on the NFL Franchise Rankings:

Hey Sturm,

It would be interesting to see your point system for NFL Franchises applied to the league since the Cowboys' last Super Bowl in 1995. Could you rerun the numbers from 1996 to present? I would love to see how badly Jerry has ruined this franchise in the last 15 seasons.


Cowboy Bill

Sure. Although this one might hurt just a bit. Before we run the numbers, I want to make sure that any and all readers are familiar with the exercise, and for that, you might want to click on the link above and check out my annual NFL Franchise Rankings in the Super Bowl Era. I designed them based on a point system that rewarded 1 point for each playoff season, 3 points for each season a team advanced to the Final 4, 5 points for each season a team lost a Super Bowl, and 11 points for each won Super Bowl.

The numbers are arbitrary, but then again, so is the choice to rank from Super Bowl 1 to the present. The Steelers and the Cowboys are tied with a league-best 108 points during that stretch, with Pittsburgh owning the tie-breaker of most won Super Bowls. If you would rate since the inception of the NFL, then Green Bay and their 13 World Titles would be on top and Chicago would be close behind. If you rate since 1980, the San Francisco 49ers would lead the rankings, followed by New England and the New York Giants.

But, in answer to Cowboy Bill's query, If we simply open business in our rankings on the day following Super Bowl 30 in Arizona until present, the top 5 teams will look like this:


1.New England56
3.Green Bay37
4.New York G32

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Above are the 5 teams that have really hit the gas in this present generation, basically since the start of the salary cap and true free agency, although again, Cowboy Bill's methodology is certainly not gracious to the Cowboys. Now, let's get the bad news as we see the Cowboys and the teams that finish below them in the standings:


26.Kansas City4

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There is the sad reality about the last 16 seasons here in Dallas. 7 playoff berths, with a 2-7 record inside those playoff runs with the two wins (Minnesota '96, Philadelphia '09) coming in the wildcard round. They lose the tiebreaker against Arizona as the Cardinals has a Super Bowl tie breaker having played in Super Bowl 43. That ranks Dallas in 24th place since their last Super Bowl.

I actually thought it could have been worse, but imagine life in Cleveland or Detroit, a place that hasn't had a strong era since players started wearing face masks.

The grass isn't always greener if the other side of the fence is in Cleveland.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

That Familiar Sinking Feeling

It happened so quickly, really.

35 days ago, the Dallas Stars pulled a tough game in Los Angeles out of the fire deep in the night and won their 24th game of the season. Their record at the time, 24-17-1, was not knocking the leg's socks off, but it put them right at the cusp of the Western Conference playoff picture. In the opinion of most, the Stars were exceeding expectations and were doing many of it under the proud banner of "Pesky".

Sadly, since that night in Los Angeles, the Stars are 4-8-2, compiling just 10 points in a crucial 14-game stretch, and falling to a position in the standings (12th in the West) that the tail-lights of those in the playoff mix are becoming dimmer on the horizon.

Yes, there have been injuries to consider. But, everyone deals with injuries. There have been bad bounces and bad calls and tough breaks and difficult schedule challenges.

On the other hand, they have played two teams at home in the last week who they battle for playoff positioning. Both teams had played the night before as the Stars were resting. And both teams left with 2 points and the Stars were left wondering where the "pesky" and the "battle" was for 60 minutes inside their team.

Tough to play against. Battle for every inch. Will beats skill. Pesky to the end.

These are statements that teams use when they have no other alternative in house. They champion the ability to be pesky and tough to play against because they know if this comes down to simple skill-based execution, then, they are going to be in a heap of trouble.

The problem is, of course, that over the marathon of the 82-game schedule in the National Hockey League, very few teams can "out-work" the competition often enough to rise above the talent that is put together on the roster. The energy it would take for a team to "out-pesky" its opponents often doesn't exist for 82 game stretches.

A pesky month? Sure. A pesky 6 weeks? Why not? But, I don't see a team riding the "pesky" mantra all the way to the playoffs and beyond.

Now, I don't blame the Stars for attempting to find an identity this past off-season. With no budget to work with - except for the mandate from the collective bargaining agreement that they must comply with the salary cap floor when assembling their roster - The Stars had to spend what they had (peanuts) and come up with the same philosophy that every team in the league talks about.

We will be tough to play against! We will out work our opponents! We will dig for the puck in the corners! And we will fight for our ice in the premium scoring areas!

All 30 teams say this. Heck every youth team on the continent is claiming the same thing for their kids every time they play a game.

Work is not a substitute for cash. Rather, it is a wonderful compliment to cash. The standings do not reflect the payrolls in the NHL, and a team with a large payroll can stink. Columbus shows us that. Further, teams can out perform their expenditures, like Phoenix. but I might submit that their coach, Dave Tippett, has put together an identity that has 20 foot soldiers buying in every night.

But, the Stars, for the 4th straight year, appear to be on the outside looking in when the post-season begins. Sure, it is too early to call it a season with 26 games to play, but when they haven't made the playoffs since 2008, the benefit of the doubt is no longer a wise option for observers.

If you are General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk, you have an important decision to make in the next 12 days. February 27th is the NHL trade deadline and there are buyers and sellers in the market-place. Teams are looking for that last piece of the puzzle, while teams out of the mix must play for their future.

And while fans may keep the optimism alive in their hearts until the bitter end, he needs to move swiftly to plan for 2012-13. As much regard as any of us have for the core that has been assembled for the last several years in Dallas, it seems that a roster with this much age must look to unload veterans and find players well south of 30 years old to move the franchise forward.

With the exception of Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson, Alex Goligoski, and Kari Lehtonen, I would listen to offers on the rest. There are some that I would resist the urge to move unless I was blown away with an offer (Steve Ott, Trevor Daley) and there are others that I would be happy to flip for any reasonable offer.

The Stars have a new owner who says all of the right things, but we are well past the time of just believing the words of owners around here. Tom Gaglardi is certainly a hockey fan who can talk the game, but is he really willing to infuse the amount of cash into this roster so that we aren't sitting here in 12 months still wondering why the Stars cannot "out-pesky" teams and out perform their payroll ranking of 29th? Once upon a time, Tom Hicks wanted to compete with the New York Yankees dollar for dollar, but by the end, the hot dog vendors were hardly seeing paychecks.

Talk is cheap. And so is this roster. If the Stars want a team that can last 7-9 months in the meat grinder of the NHL season and compete with the big boys like they did in the good old days, they are going to have get bold and aggressive. If they want to slow build of developing from within with 18 year-olds through the draft, then I fear in 2015 when those guys are ready to contribute that the season ticket base will be down to double-digits.

The organization has been categorized as "Not good enough" for about 300 games now. Being out-classed in Detroit last night is not a rare feat in the NHL, but those failures on home ice since the All-Star break are damaging and difficult to recover from. Especially difficult when you see a steady diet of difficult match-ups in Vancouver, Chicago, and San Jose ahead, and 7 games north of the border at the most important time of the season in March. But, if this team cannot deal with tired teams on home ice, what does it matter who they play down the stretch?

I am normally thought of as a Stars optimist, but it comes down to this: This team is not particularly good at anything as a team. Goals per game? 20th. Goals against? Tied for 18th. Power Play? 27th. Penalty Kill? 23rd. Shot differential? 26th.

16 teams make the playoffs, and they can't crack the top 16 in any of these vital team statistics.

The evidence is not completely in, but I think Nieuwendyk has enough collected to know what to do. He must navigate around a fair number of no trade clauses, and nobody really knows what his budget is to work with.

But, fans don't care about those things. Fans want a team that is ready to win. Soon.

I would hope the message is crystal clear to those making the decisions for the Stars. It is time to open the window for the sale. Not everything must go, but all offers will be considered.

There is no question whether the Stars should be buyers or sellers this year.

Sell! Sell! Sell!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Decoding Garrett - Final Data 2011

Warning: The Following Data is only for those with a gigantic thirst for knowledge about the Dallas Cowboys offense. For those with only an in-season interest for the Cowboys and minutia related to the Cowboys, check back tomorrow for something more main-stream.

Today, let's us finally get around to closing the book on offensive data as it pertains to the 2011 Dallas Cowboys offense. We already know their rankings for the 2011 season based on simple yardage and point totals. They averaged 15th in points per game (23.1), 11th in yards per game (375), 7th in passing yards (262), and 18th in rushing yards (112).

Basically, they were somewhere between average and slightly above average as an offense. Which seems to properly summarize how the team was as a whole in 2011. Not horrid and not great. Somewhere around room temperature, or to summarize in one simple word: lukewarm.

But, that data can be and must be separated for a coaching staff to see what was working and what needs to either go into the garbage can or at least back to the drawing board. And, since my computer is filled with data about every offensive snap since the start of the 2008 season when I got this idea in my head, I wanted you to be able to reference this as you try to get a handle on your thoughts about where the franchise is going and where it has been.

4 years is a ton of data, so you might wish to just sit on the 2011 numbers, which will be shared here at the very top of the blog entry.

Below, please find the key code for each personnel group that the Cowboys run. I think after reading it, you will be able to understand each grouping, and therefore will have a feel for comparing production from group to group.

Personnel PackageDescription
111 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR
121 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR
131 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR
212 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR
222 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR
232 RB, 3 TE
S01Shotgun, 0 RB, 1 TE, 4WR
S02Shotgun, 0 RB, 2 TE, 3WR
S11Shotgun, 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR
S12Shotgun, 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR

Table Tutorial

The easiest way to understand how an offense works is to recognize that every play has 5 offensive linemen and 1 QB. So, basically an offensive coordinator must figure out what he wants to do with his other 5 men. He can go to extreme running groups like 2 RB and 3 TE, or he can go to an extreme pass receiving group of 5 WR. Usually, though, a coordinator will want to find something in between that keeps the defense wondering at the snap of the ball whether a run or pass is coming. This is why you always hear coaches talking about keeping the defense "off balance" or guessing.

Here is the data for every personnel group that averaged 1 snap a game. If the Cowboys only showed a group for 2 snaps all season, I have record of it, but I don't want to complicate this any further than it already is. Check out the chart to see the production of each grouping:

Totals by Personnel Groups:
PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass

Table Tutorial

The running game was rather weak this year in many groups. But, with FB Tony Fiammetta in the lineup, the Cowboys found that 21 and 22 personnel were very effective on the ground. The difference in the running game with and without the FB was as shocking as any year we have ever tracked. But, we also saw that DeMarco Murray seemed to prefer a FB and Felix Jones did not seem nearly as comfortable with a FB. The passing game was at its best from under center in 12 personnel, not any of the shotgun packages which many fans would believe. This remains an issue moving forward as the successful teams in the NFL have great success out of "Shotgun 11" and the Cowboys do not. Very disconcerting given the amount of time that the Cowboys are in that personnel package.

The following is the average game in 2011. We wanted a profile of what 1/16th of the offensive production would look like as a baseline for comparing every game. Here it is:
Totals by Personnel Groups:
PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass

Table Tutorial


Ok, now, we begin to sort it out based on each personnel grouping that was heavily used in the Cowboys offense. We have separated the Top 6 groupings and will compare the year to year production below:

"12 Personnel" - 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR - 224 Snaps in 2011 - 22% of all snaps

12 personnel is the way of the future (just ask New England) and finding those Tight End mismatches is something that Jason Garrett has dreamed about for years. Unfortunately, 4 seasons into Martellus Bennett's career, and his production level has never come close to fulfilling expectations. Now he is a free agent and everyone is comfortable letting him go. But, should we all think it is a slam dunk? The nearly 1500 yards of production from this personnel group with Bennett and Witten on the field at the same time was more productive per snap (6.6 yards per snap!) than any package in the offense. And the total yardage ranked 2nd overall to their 2-minute offense. Incredibly productive. One is not saying Bennett is responsible primarily, but you must wonder the effect of losing him, because John Phillips will not be to present the same questions to a defense in both run and pass situations.


HTML Tables

"13 Personnel" - 1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR - 98 snaps - 10% of all snaps

"13" puts all 3 TEs on the field at the same time. They ran this package more this year than any other year (obviously, getting Phillips healthy again helped) but the production was not good. 2.66 yards per snap for 98 plays means this package was not fooling anyone.


HTML Tables

"21 Personnel" - 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR - 91 snaps - 9% of all snaps

"21" brought us the Tony Fiammetta/DeMarco Murray partnership that nobody saw coming in August. 7 yards per carry over 51 run plays and 7 yards per pass in 40 passes says that the Cowboys had wonderful balance and production from this grouping. The only reason it wasn't used more was the health of both of those players over 16 games.


HTML Tables

"22 Personnel" - 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR - 124 snaps - 12% of all snaps

2011 brought us the return of "22". In 2009, "22" personnel was out of this world great for the Cowboys on their playoff run. But, the production dropped on the ground in 2010 substantially with Chris Gronkowski replacing Deon Anderson at FB. But, in 2011, Fiammetta was able to help boost this group back up to nearly 6 yards a carry again. "22" causes all sorts of defensive issues and the Cowboys were able to ground and pound out of this group rather well.


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"Shotgun 11 Personnel" - Shotgun, 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR - 303 snaps - 30 % of all snaps

Whether it was a 3 WR group of Terrell Owens, Patrick Crayton, and Roy Williams or a 3 WR group of Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and Laurent Robinson, we have never quite understood why the Cowboys aren't better in this group at causing matchup issues everywhere. Especially having a generational Tight End working the middle of the field. My theory has been that the Cowboys do not run enough shallow crossing routes, but whatever the case, the Cowboys run this group for nearly every 3rd Down and every 2-minute drill exclusively. That is why 5.83 yards per attempt is not enough for my liking and I assume Garrett's. This group is 30% of the entire offense and it has never been a strength in the Garrett/Romo era since we have tracked it.


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"Shotgun 12 Personnel" - Shotgun, 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR - 93 snaps - 9% of all snaps

And finally, this variation of the Shotgun offense where Bennett replaces the slot WR and tries to find matchup issues in the secondary. Trouble is, the defense stays in their nickel and dares Martellus to beat a DB, something that he hasn't done in his career with any degree of consistency.


HTML Tables

If you have made it this far, you are quite interested in this information. If it requires more clarification or elaboration, email me at and we will write more on the data.

Our 2011 Preseason Decoding Garrett Write-up