Friday, September 20, 2013

Cowboys Mailbag - 9/20 - Rams Preview

The St Louis Rams come to Arlington for the 2nd time since the stadium opened, with the 1st game being the most memorable run and game in DeMarco Murray's career.  You can break down the memories of such an occasion here from our Xs and Os breakout from that week in 2011.

Or, you can look at the video of the 91-yard run here to remember the biggest run since Tony Dorsett's famous Monday Night Football run.

Murray also had a 43-yard run on that day as he posted a franchise-record-smashing day as he found 253 yards against a defense that we were all pretty sure was just awful.  And they were.  But, the 2011 Rams are not coming to town on Sunday.  The 2013 Rams have so few carry-overs from that squad that it is almost silly to even discuss that team and to compare it to this squad.

But, since we enjoy memories, here is the 2nd to last time the Rams came to town.  A young QB named Tony Romo had one of the best 4-yard carries in NFL history.

In between was a horrendous 2008 trip to St Louis which is best remembered for being the 1 half of football in which the careers of Roy Williams and Roy Williams intersected after the Cowboys ill-conceived trade with Detroit for the Texas Wide Receiver and before the Oklahoma safety broke his forearm and ended his memorable stay in Dallas.  Romo was out that day, and Brad Johnson reminded us why Romo is vital to the health of the franchise in a 35-14 loss.

That trip down memory lane is nice, and all, but it won't really apply to what we will see on the field on Sunday.  As we learned in the study about "homegrown" organizations, the Rams are quickly becoming a team that is rising up in drafting and developing their own players.  They now rank 11th in the league in the number of players who have never played anywhere else, and the teams in the top 10 indicate that this can be correlated to winning in today's NFL.

The Rams feature 2011 draftees: Robert Quinn, Lance Kendricks, and Austin Pettis in their starting lineup.  2012 picks: Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Daryl Richardson, and Trumaine Johnson.  And then 2013 picks:  Alec Ogletree, TJ McDonald, Tavon Austin, Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham, Stedman Bailey, Barrett Jones, and Brandon McGee.

If you add that to the holdovers in Sam Bradford, James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold, and Chris Long, then, you quickly see a very young and very populated group of talented players who are building in a division that has far more quality recently then we can recall.

The ability for the Rams to step up to the lofty heights that the 49ers and Seahawks have set will largely depend on sorting out their offense in the post-Steven Jackson era (not that the offense had anything besides him when he was here all of those years.  It basically will come down to Sam Bradford and his group of talented tight ends and speedy/small receivers making their offense dynamic enough to compete at a high level.  All of this behind an offensive line which has not had much success in the draft, but has grabbed solid veterans from different outposts to build a reasonable group: Jake Long (Miami), Scott Wells (Green Bay), and Harvey Dahl (Atlanta).  Jake Long, in particular, looks the part of a left tackle that the Rams have been looking for and the entire Rams unit uses quick drops and solid protection to have played 2 games so far and have not conceded a sack.

However, the match-up that I will be watching with great interest will come down very much to the ability of the Cowboys to stand up to Jeff Fisher's defense which has always featured a rush with a capable defensive line and ambush blitzes that can rattle an offense as they attack - just like in Tennessee in his day.

The Rams defensive line features Chris Long (1st Round), Michael Brockers (1st Round) and Robert Quinn (1st Round).  It is a fantastic group and Long and Quinn on the ends absolutely crush weak opponents (ask Levi Brown about Quinn - it was ugly).  Quinn is part of an amazing 2011 draft class in the 1st half of Round 1 that might match-up with the top half of almost any.  Only the QB's who were over-drafted like Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder make you scratch your head.  Otherwise, Cam Newton, Von Miller, Julio Jones, AJ Green, Aldon Smith, JJ Watt, Tyron Smith, Patrick Peterson, Mike Pouncey, and perhaps even Nick Fairly all look the part of wonderful players in this league.

Quinn and Long versus Tyron Smith and Doug Free might be what controls this game either way.  Don't look for too much running (although all of the talk this week and the DeMarco Murray history against the Rams will certainly keep the Fox crew busy) but Quinn and Long will collapse the pocket and we know Romo is not looking to test his ribs again soon.

This should be a decent match-up, but the Cowboys at home need to put opponents like this in the win column if they have any playoff aspirations.

OK, on to your emails....


Dear Sportssturm,
I hate to say this, but anything that Jason Garrett says, I want to challenge.  But, sometimes, I don't have your resources to do so.  So, could you verify or reject his claim about turnovers being the single statistic that most correlates to winning?
Dave in Joliet

With great pleasure, Dave!  This is a good theme as the Cowboys won a game that they dominated the turnover stat and then lost a game in which they went -2 in Kansas City.  Let me start by saying I share your views of general cynicism of the words that come out of any football coach's mouth during the press conference barrage that we are all put through during the season.  However, Mr Garrett and I agree 100% on this, and this is very much a passion of mine.  Let me express my views in All-Caps to demonstrate:


Think of all of the reasons that we think a team wins;  home field advantage, better QB, better talent, better coaching, red zone efficiency, starting field position, better defense.  These are all good reasons that sometimes matter.

But, there is no way to see what leads to the win column more than turnover difference.  It doesn't matter the teams, the location, or the point spread.  It simply matters if you take the ball away more than you get it.  Even a simply margin of +1 in the turnover battle means the following:  In the last 5 seasons combined, the winner of the turnover battle won the game a shocking 78.7% of the time or 812 of 1,032 games.

In fact, look at the consistency of this number over the 5 years.  The 5 years show very little fluctuation to demonstrate that there isn't much of one.  Basically, if you take the ball away once more than your opponent, you will win 4 of every 5 games - regardless of the two teams involved.  That never ceases to stun me.


Year Win-Loss Win %
2008 158-48 76.7%
2009 164-47 77.7%
2010 172-40 81.1%
2011 156-43 78.3%
2012 162-42-1 79.0%
Totals 812-220 78.7%

So, how does this hold for Cowboys games?  Almost exactly the same.  The league says it hits at 78.7%, and in games involving the Cowboys?  78.3%.  Virtually identical.

2008-2012 Win-Loss Win %
When Cowboys win Turnovers  25-6 80.6%
When Cowboys lose Turnovers 9-29 23.7%
Winner of Turnover Battle in Dallas Games  54-15 78.3%

Does this get reported enough?  Why is this not talked about more?  And keep in mind, that is only +1/-1 numbers.  If you want to see 99% correlation, check out -3 in turnovers.  -2 is around 90%.  Again, Garrett said it, and so has every coach ever.  You simply must take care of the football.  Punts are not evil.  Turnovers are.  So, next time you see a QB like Alex Smith who frustrates you because of his safe passing, just know that he enters the game refusing to turn the ball over.  And that is why his team generally seems to win a lot, even though most people think he is pretty average.


Here are 2 emails that are somewhat similar in the topic matter:

Bob, I truly value your perspective on things so wanted to ask your thoughts on a concern I have with Morris Claiborne.  I really like him and want him to earn his 1st round pick but I see one glaring weakness that I'd exploit over and over if I competed against him.  I don't think he covers anyone going to his left, often trailing by a full step or two.  Going to his right he's on the guy like glue but to his left he seems to always be standing flat-footed.  Seems the coaches would work with him on this but he's started just as poorly as he played last year. 
Regards, W. A.
And this one:
Hey Bob,
Please believe me when I say this isn't a knee-jerk overreaction by me. From watching a lot of Claiborne during his first year and a bit of NFL, I have to say that I am severely unimpressed. It seems that on occasions he will have good coverage, but he has a penchant for, I guess, overplaying the ball (he's supposed to have great ball skills?!?!). He failed against KC and if you recall against Carolina last year, he probably should've been flagged on that last 3rd or 4th down play when he was covering Louis Murphy. There have been others, but those two stick out. For a player that was touted as the second coming of Neon Deion, he's been lackluster to say the least. That's just my opinion though.
What's your assessment of him so far?
Really enjoy your work!
Thanks, guys.  I certainly get this a lot, and since the Cowboys are playing the team that they traded with to get Claiborne in the 2012 draft, let's tackle that today.  If you want my opinion from the day after the 2012 draft - an opinion that really hasn't changed - you might wish to read this essay from then that is linked here.

Claiborne was a huge price and the Rams used that trade and the Redskins trade for RGIII to rebuild their roster (much more credit goes to Washington in this endeavor) and it is the ultimate NFL question of trading picks that should all be starters on your roster for 1 player.  If you get the franchise QB of your dreams, it is probably worth it.  If you just get a corner who is "pretty good" and you gave up a 1st and 2nd which should represent solid starters (and you are not allowed to counter with the "Dallas would have just screwed up those picks" defense) then you likely shouldn't have done that deal.

Now, it is too early to label Claiborne anything.  He is not a bust, because he is on the field and playing each week.  He is not failing and he is not being routinely attacked any more or less than your average NFL corner.  He has tremendous upside and in his rookie season, he had the ability to find the ball which is worth noting.  But, he is not approaching "elite" status.  And frankly, if I am moving heaven and earth to get someone at that point of the draft, then I better be getting elite.

I don't see his technique as being particularly different going from one direction or the other, and as loose as the overall secondary has looked, it is difficult to identify his busts from someone leaving him out to dry.  But, like I said, I don't see him being routinely attacked.  He does not have a piece of meat hanging around his neck as the savage dogs of the NFL go after him.  He can stand up to the survival of the fittest test that is out there each week.  He also plays hurt and does what he can.

I never thought they should have made that deal.  I think they overpaid.  But, I also maintain the belief that Claiborne is not worth getting excited about just yet.  Let's give any 1st round pick 3 years to prove whether he can be invested in moving forward.  Claiborne is still on the path.

I see a lot of your fellow media members treating player rankings from Pro Football Focus as gospel and using them as a basis for evaluating players.  It seems to me that they use very flawed metrics to rank players ( for example, way too much emphasis on penalties) and it's typical lazy journalism to just blindly go off their grading system.  I know you don't do this and actually take the time to study the tape but what are your thoughts on this issue?

- Jason 
This is a good email, Jason.  I have enjoyed Pro Football Focus for several years and do look at their grades.  However, I also cringe when I see media people citing the grades as a meaningful replacement for actually studying their performance yourself.  Grading players is a very subjective exercise, but if I am going to write a review of a player, I am absolutely not going to let someone else (who I have never met) do the homework.  I may be wrong, but it will be my opinion.  I hope that makes sense.

So, I use them quite a bit and often cross-reference my reviews with theirs to see if others are seeing what I saw myself.  But, I encourage anyone in our business to take the time and view the player in question yourself.  It is much more worthwhile than depending on someone else to do it for you.  And in 2013, there are resources everywhere - including the coach's film itself at  Amazing.

I think one thing that has perennially doomed the Garrett/Callahan offense has been the tendency to snap the ball at the last second. I think this is bad for a few reasons: (a) Romo is flustered at the outset of the play and not calm, cool and composed as he should be; (b) the defense is able to time its rush/blitz. 
When I watch other offenses, I don't feel they make this mistake as often, but without data, I have no backing for this theory. Is this something you've studied? Perhaps a % of plays snapped with less than 3 seconds on play clock statistic for the Cowboys vs. top 5 offenses last week would be interesting to examine
- Jeffry
This is something I might like to start tracking.  I do think it impairs them if for no other reason than they simply allow the defense to time their blitzes.  If the QB is making his calls and adjustments at :07 or :05 then I don't care if he chooses to take it all the way down.  But, I agree with you that the Cowboys for years have flirted with the last second and it often seems like it is because they need it all to get organized and set.

I will take note of it this week and see if we notice any improvement.  But, to this point, I have never consistently tracked this number to have a baseline to compare it with.  Maybe it is time to start.

Enjoy your weekend and enjoy the game.

1 comment:

Not my Needs said...

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