Friday, January 11, 2013

Cowboys E-Mail Bag 1/11/13

Time for another award-winning, week-ending Cowboys mailbag!

This week, I want to take a look at a few items that are front and center (or should be) on the mind of people that follow this organization and the league in general.

With the NFL down to its final 8 teams, we are reminded that the most important number in football remains the same in the post-season.  Turnovers.  Not home-field, not more-experienced QB, not anything else.  Simply taking care of the football.  Since 1991, the team that finished a +1 in a playoff game is 167-32 (84%) for a win percentage in the playoffs that borders on indisputable.  For teams who are even better at winning the turnover game, a +2 gets you a 118-10 record (92%).

Meanwhile, home teams since the start of the 2007 playoffs do have a winning record at 32-22, but a 59% win percentage does leave plenty of wiggle room for discussion on the real advantages that this could bring.  Of course, you would rather be the home team, but if, like Seattle, Washington gives you a turnover advantage, you are in great shape to grab a road win like so many teams have been doing in recent years.

In 2012, the regular season turnover margin W-L record for the NFL was 162-42-1 (79%) for +1 or better, and a +2 or better got teams to 98-12 (89%).  There is little room for discussion here it seems on the questions about this stats importance.  The 2012 Cowboys, a team that had very few takeaways, follows this trend quite closely - They are 4-0 when winning the turnover battle, 7-1 when even or better, and 1-7 when they are a -1 or worse (with their lone win against Tampa Bay in Week 3).

So, perhaps the questions this weekend will be "who do you trust to take care of the football?"  And, when you look at the all-time list of lowest interception percentage for QBs, and you see in the top 2 QBs in the history of the league are Aaron Rodgers at 1.7% and Tom Brady at 2.1% you have a pretty good idea of who is not going to throw the games away.  Rodgers has thrown just 46 career interceptions in 2,665 passes.  Brady just 123 career picks in 5,958 passes.  Matt Ryan weighs in at 7th all-time in this category (2.3%), Matt Schaub 13th (2.5), and Peyton Manning is 22nd (2.7).

Meanwhile, of the 8 teams still remaining in the league, here are the rankings for fewest giveaways of each of the offenses:  t2nd, t2nd, t2nd, t2nd, 6th, t7th, t7th, and 16th.  Basically, Denver is the only team at league average with giveaways.  Every other team is ranked in the top 8.  Put another way, if you are ranked in the top 8, you have a 87% chance of playing this weekend.  If you rank between 9th and 32nd in the NFL in giveaways this season, you have a 4% chance of still being alive in the playoffs.

The AFC games seem a bit more cut and dried with Brady and Manning hosting games in which they seem to have certain match-up issues that will be difficult to over-come.  I don't care for Houston's offensive showings recently as they appear far less dynamic than earlier in the year.  Baltimore has a chance to cause issues, but Manning at altitude in the playoffs and no-huddle, I really think Denver is going to be tough to beat.  So, I am taking both home teams.

The NFC is much more complex as Green Bay at San Francisco would be delicious enough if it was just a simple rematch of Week 1.  It would seem that SF has the proper defensive personnel to slow Rodgers down, and a pass rush to give him one of those days where he has no time to do much of anything.  But, the idea that the great experiment of Jim Harbaugh is taking place where we wonder what sort of Colin Kaepernick performance we are going to get takes this game to the next level.

San Francisco is the healthiest team in the NFL statistically, while Green Bay is the least healthiest.  And yet, the Packers appear to be getting guys back (Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Charles Woodson) while the 49ers have a few question marks in that department, most notably Justin Smith's ability.

If we knew that the weight of the game was not going to trouble Kaepernick, it would be one thing, but the idea of Green Bay enjoying road playoff games (see 2010) and Rodgers already has as many road playoff wins as Brett Favre did in 16 seasons with the Green Bay, coupled with the enormity of the game for a player who does not get a rehearsal, puts this game up for grabs.  Now, add to it the issues both teams are having with kickers and you know, flip a coin.

Seattle at Atlanta also has a toss-up feel to it, with Seattle being the "team on a roll" that makes people nervous versus an Atlanta team that hasn't played a playoff-team since October 7th.  The Falcons have the pressure of previous playoff failures, but do enjoy an entire week of everybody talking themselves into Seattle.

I would be taking Seattle in this game if Chris Clemons was still with them, but given his injury, I am going to defy convention here and take Atlanta.

So, there you go.  Manning vs Brady in the AFC title game and Green Bay at Atlanta.  Those are my picks, but I don't have much confidence in the NFC side.

On to your emails:

"Bob, Do you believe that Monte Kiffin is a good hire?"

Having been asked that question dozens of times last night, I thought this is the most obvious place to jump off today into the discussion of the uncomfortable changes at Valley Ranch.

Kiffin is a legendary name in the coaching world for a number of reasons, but most notably forming and fashioning the Tampa-2 with Tony Dungy for those great years in Tampa Bay from the Mid-90s until Jon Gruden left the Bucs.  They had an exceptionally physical and at times scary defense which rivaled any other great defenses of the era in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

I would often vouch for his brilliance in bringing their divisional rival, Green Bay, all manner of discomfort when Brett Favre was at the top of his game.  It was a scheme that slowed the west coast offense very well and never made anything easy.  It attacked, bruised, and battered - and wasn't bad at turning the ball over, too.

Clearly, there are questions about this hire that do make you wonder.  For instance, is the scheme as effective in this ever-changing NFL world where teams seem to be obsessed with pushing the envelope on offensive schemes that are working in college.  Put another way, is the Tampa 2 going to help the Cowboys slow down Washington for the next 5 years if Robert Griffin and that design from the Shanahans are the gold standard in this division?  And if so, do we have to consider the 700 yards that Oregon put on Kiffin's defense at USC back in November?

At 72, is Kiffin still up for the grind of this schedule?  Yes, there are outliers who can coach forever and do a great job, but when everyone tells us in the profession that it is a young man's game, then we either take that generalization as a meaningful thought or we ignore it.  Many coaches have gone into their 70's and some into their 80's.  This is a lesser issue with me, but the idea that the Cowboys sometimes only use the network of people Jerry Jones has standing around him to pool names together often lead us to a certain demographic and that group is not getting younger.

Do the Cowboys have the personnel to switch to the Tampa 2?  Well, I would argue any defense - including the Bears who ran this scheme for years - runs more than one defense.  The concerns about the corners playing zone instead of man is not something I would worry about.  Charles Tillman and Ronde Barber have played plenty of man and plenty of zone.  Good corners are good corners, and the Cowboys have some.

I have been asked if the Cowboys have the right safeties for this scheme?  In my opinion, the answer is that they don't have good enough safeties for any scheme right now.  If Gerald Sensabaugh is my best safety, that is a problem.  He needs to be my 2nd best, and his partner last year - which changed multiple times - is another problem altogether.  I don't know where safety is on the list of priorities, but my 2nd or 3rd round pick might need to be the best safety on the board.

But, what seems to be missing is the right 3-technique defensive tackle who can cause issues.  I don't see Warren Sapp or Tommie Harris here, and remember, the Tampa 2 works if you get to the QB with 4.  These teams have always been great at that.  Then, the "Double A-Gap" blitzes from the LBs is a great compliment which scare people half to death.  But, you have to get there with 4, and that is why I do not like this talk about the Cowboys not being able to afford Anthony Spencer.

If they use #18 on a DT, but lose Spencer, then I am not sure you have gained a whole lot.  I imagine that would mean trying to play Ware-Ratliff-New DT-Hatcher as your front 4, but I like Hatcher inside and Spencer at DE.  Then, I also think it is reckless to expect Ratliff to be a 800 snap guy anymore, so I have myself covered inside.  But, these are the problems the cap is causing.

Overall, do I like the Kiffin hire?  Sure, I think he is a genius.  But, I can't tell you that in 2013 he knows more football or is more of a strong defensive mind than Rob Ryan.  He may not have the same abrasive personality and he may not be a head coaching threat to Jason Garrett, but if this is all about the deployment of troops, then I might argue that this is swap of similar items.

"What are your plans for covering the draft in the next several months?"

As per usual, I will be doing what I do for the draft.  What does that mean?  That means I love this season as much as any dork with a blog could love it. As the playoffs move along, just know that spreadsheets are being built, videos are being viewed, and we are waiting for the Senior Bowl and the Combine with great anticipation.

My goal is to try to get us ready for the Top 50-100 players in the draft.  We want to identify those guys and of course, cross-reference them with obvious issues and spots on the Cowboys roster to try to figure out what might be cooking.

Some years, we have great success.

Other years, like 2012, we spend 3 months preparing for every possibility for the Cowboys at pick #14 and then they jump up to #6 and take Morris Claiborne who we didn't bother with since he seemed well out of their reach.

But, will that discourage our efforts?  Not in the slightest.

Here is the Cowboys draft allotment for 2013:

RoundPickOverall - (Approx)
Rd 1#18#18
Rd 2#17#49
Rd 3#18#82
Rd 4#17#113
Rd 5#18#146
Rd 6#17#177
Rd 7#18#210 - Traded to Miami for Ryan Cook

So, we will pretty much try to figure out options and plans for picks #18 and #49, with some additional thoughts on #82.  And that will keep us plenty busy along with free agency and other Cowboys items for the next several months.

We will collect names, reports, videos, and try to do our own homework in terms of evaluating player versus player and just do what we have been doing here for several years with varying levels of success.

We will be looking heavily at the positions of greatest need on the Cowboys: Offensive Line, Defensive Line, and Safety, and building much of our work around that.

As we sit here today, as usual, it appears the Cowboys have more needs than they do resources to fill them all, so it may require some creative decision making with the cap and with contracts of current players, knowing that gigantic extensions await Dez Bryant and Sean Lee in the very near future and we have to retain resources for that.

If I have to replace Anthony Spencer, fix my Offensive Line, get a safety, and a back-up RB and I don't have free agency dollars, then you can understand why there will be some urgency to try to re-do contracts to Tony Romo and Brandon Carr, as well as figure out if Miles Austin, Jay Ratliff, and especially Doug Free have a spot moving forward.

And we will tackle all of these issues in the days and weeks to come.

Enjoy the weekend, and get your off-season thinking caps going.  We have a long ride to September.

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