Friday, August 30, 2013

Roster to 53 - Final Version

Every year I try this on the morning after the final preseason game.  It is my best attempt at locking down the Cowboys final 53-man roster.  We must be clear, here.  This is not my pick for the 53, but rather my attempt to figure out who they select as their 53.  There is a distinction that would affect a few players who I would not put on this team, but they disagree - and obviously, their opinion matters quite a bit more than mine.

Keep in mind, this requires an impossible task - crawling inside the head of the decision makers at Valley Ranch.  It also requires us to understand the cap rules that may serve as a tie-breaker as it pertains to such things as full salary eligibility if you are on the roster in Week 1, practice squad eligibility, and veteran minimums.  On top of all of that is the looming idea that there is significant dead money that could actually make the cap situation worse if they were to cut someone like Nate Livings (his number would grow from $2.4m to around $4.5 if you cut him).

Then, you need to detach your evaluations and consider how the Cowboys see a guy.  Which guy might be claimed if we cut him versus which guy might be able to slide through to our practice squad?  Which guy needs more developmental time because he can't help us now, but we don't want to throw him back in the ocean and let someone else catch him.

There are plenty of questions for every team, and our job gets tougher because we have to figure out what exactly Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones are thinking during this process, too.  That requires a skill that we may not possess.

Anyway, all of these projections should be discussed with 2 major things in mind.  1) I don't think this is difficult enough.  What that means is when you cut from 90 to 75 and then to 53, you hope that sooner or later you arrive at the conclusion that you have "too many NFL caliber players" and you can't keep them all.  You then wrestle at your final cuts, knowing that someone is going to snap up your leavings.  Unfortunately, because of a number of circumstances that have put the Cowboys in a dangerously shallow part of the depth pool, cutting to 53 is not hard.  It is also one that doesn't seem to risk too many of your cast-offs going to other teams as a gem that was not properly identified.

And that leads us to 2) this 53 man that they get to on Saturday will not be the 53 man on Wednesday when they all start the practice week for the Giants.  Because of the shallow depth and because of the needs on this team and the ease of the cuts, I fully expect the Cowboys to be looking carefully at several potential upgrades on their roster.  Offensive and defensive lines, in particular, with linebacker and safety also candidates for fresh bodies over the weekend via the waiver wire.  Some teams won't be shopping much.  I expect Dallas to be pretty active in making sure they are fortified, knowing that another team's 55th best player may be better than your 52nd best player.  You must fix that as soon as possible.

Now, using the chart that we printed for you on Wednesday, let's go through the positions and build this 53:

Quarterbacks (2): This is pretty straight-forward.  Tony Romo and Kyle Orton make the team.  I would like to see if Alex Tanney can be my practice squad QB, but I cannot carry 3 QBs at this point.  I do want to make the point, though, that he does seem to possess some interesting skills that are worth working with if you can get him to the PS.

Running Backs (4):  DeMarco Murray, Phillip Tanner, Joseph Randle were all automatics.  I think Lance Dunbar makes my team as well as a weapon that needs to be used quite a bit for his elusiveness. I am pretty sure I will need special teams out of everyone, but Murray.  But, I do like this group and will keep all 4.

Tight Ends (4):  Jason Witten, James Hanna, Gavin Escobar, and Dante Rosario.  I was wrestling with Andre Smith against Rosario, but the special teams coach Rich Bissacia has a relationship of familiarity with Rosario and vouches for him on teams.  That is vital, because usually, 7-year vets don't play special teams as hard as 2-year vets.  Rosario looks to be on all those special teams and can catch the ball a bit, so he makes the team out of camp.

Wide Receivers (6): Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Terrence Williams, Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley, and Anthony Armstrong all make it.  I am not crazy about Beasley taking a roster spot if I don't want to do much with him, so his ability to be active each week is certainly not a given.  But, the Cowboys do like him and he does show something when they call his number.  I just wish he could return like Harris and you could combine the two players.  Armstrong is another special teams only guy, and so you can see here how the Cowboys could get by with 5.

Offensive Line (9)  :  Tyron Smith, Doug Free, Jermey Parnell, Nate Livings, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Ron Leary, Travis Frederick, Phil Costa, and Darion Weems.  As you likely know, I am not crazy about this group at all.  I think that they have to get to a point where they have reserves who are potential starters someday, and right now, they have no backups who are really pushing to ever be starters.  Costa and David Arkin are/were fringe roster guys and this is why the waiver wire might allow me to finally cut ties with one of them.  Weems has limited quality, but if Free is now a guard, then you need a 3rd tackle, but you can finally move on from Arkin.  Also, because of Livings' contract, he gets a spot but can't likely help you for a while.  Basically, you have a mess here that might be slightly better or slightly worse on the mess from 2012 and the mess from 2011.

So that is 25 for the offense.

Now, the defense:

Defensive Line (9):  DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher, Nick Hayden, George Selvie, Ben Bass, Sean Lissemore, Kyle Wilbur, Landon Cohen are my group.  I think inside, they can actually build a pretty salty rotation here when Ratliff comes back to give them anything.  I really have hopes for Bass, and Cohen is the type of guy you should try on run downs to eat that 1-technique double team.  Where this team gets edge pressure is a little iffy, but maybe Selvie and Wilbur can be ok as reserves for now.

Linebackers (6): Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Justin Durant, Ernie Sims, DeVonte Holloman, Brandon McGee, I guess.  There are literally no NFL linebackers in camp after the starters and Holloman.  Sims has had a tough go and should be on the fence, but since backup linebackers are your special teams guys, I think I need to keep McGee or Thaddeus Gibson (purely for special teams, because he is pretty much a defensive end) until the Waiver Wire yield.  This is really, really thin.  I don't mind McGee, but if they keep him, it is purely until the wire gives them something and put him on the practice squad.

Cornerbacks (5): Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, BW Webb, Sterling Moore makes up the best group on the team, potentially.  Can't imagine having a better group of 5 in a Dallas secondary.  Webb and Moore are both NFL players and cover you well in case of injury.

Safety (5) : Will Allen, Barry Church, Danny McCray, JJ Wilcox, Eric Frampton might be 1 too many. I keep McCray and Frampton for special teams help, but I might have to choose between the two and McCray does have a rather large number for just special teams at his level of play.  I don't feel good about this position right now at all, but Church and Wilcox might be ok there in a bit.  For now, Allen knows the defense and will stopgap until Wilcox can figure this out.

Specialty Players (3): Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, and LP Ladouceur - pretty simple, there.  A very good kicker, a solid punter, and a very good deep snapper.

There is my 53.

As you can see, not on the squad are David Arkin, Matt Johnson, Danny Coale, and Caleb McSurdy.  Perhaps cutting a 4th from 2011, and a 4th, 5th, an 7th from 2012 will change your perception of those drafts a bit, but this is about getting your best team for today - not trying to make people feel better about past drafts.  All are practice squad eligible, but they just haven't done anything to move the needle to verify the faith that was put in them on draft day to this point and they have all had multiple camps now.

Don't forget, I think this 53 is only good for a day, so don't celebrate too hard.  Then, on Sunday and Monday, I expect the Cowboys to keep sorting this roster - especially at LB, and OL/DL.

Last year, the Cowboys had a half-dozen disagreements with me, so let's see if I am any closer this year.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wednesday Quick Hits - Building That Roster

Here are a few related items that we must all fit on to a Wednesday or we won't get to everything this week.

#1 - Getting Down to 53

On Tuesday, the Cowboys made some procedural moves to help get down to 75 after these initial cuts:
WR Jared Green WR Eric Rodgers WR Anthony Amos QB Nick Stephens P Brett Maher OG Dennis Godfrey LB Deon Lacey TE Colin Cochart CB Brandon Underwood
Then, Tyrone Crawford and Ryan Cook went to the IR and the final move - one that we all saw coming but hoped against was Jay Ratliff being pushed to the PUP list, taking him out for 6 weeks.

Before we cover the Ratliff issue, here is something we do every August - it is cataloguing the final cut-downs of the Cowboys' roster for the last 6 seasons.  This should be useful because it does show us what the guys in this particular personnel war-room believe about building a roster.

Now, of course, we must factor in the scheme change and how moving from the 3-4 to the 4-3 will clearly and obviously reduce your need for linebackers and increase your need for defensive linemen.  So the number will still be likely 14, but now instead of 8 linebackers, they will need 6.  And we expect instead of 6-7 defensive linemen, they will keep 8 - and possibly 9 if the concern about Ratliff makes them hoard backups that might have to start.

Below is the list:


2007: 26 Offense/24 Defense/3 Specialist
2008: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist
2009: 25 Offense/24 Defense/4 Specialist
2010: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist
2011: 26 Offense/23 Defense/4 Specialist
2012: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist

Sources: Archer 2008 , Archer 2007 , MacMahon 2009, Archer 2010, and Watkins 2011.

Now you can grab the latest 75 man roster found here at the Cowboys website and begin your own chop down, being mindful of position groupings.

We will do the same after Thursday Night's game on the blog here for Friday.

It is time.

#2 - Ratliff and the Defensive Line

One of the issues with the partnership of Jerry and Stephen Jones is that they repeat the same mistakes over and over again.  It usually involves a veteran player with a healthy dose of optimism about how "things will work out."  Those who dig deep into his mind speculate that this can all be traced back to Jerry's days wildcatting, but I won't bore you with that rerun.

What this boils down to is that the Cowboys were switching schemes on their defensive line (Will Need More DL), while losing one of your promising young DL players to jail (Will Need More DL), and another of your key players - Ratliff - only played 6 games in 2012 and looks like he may not be in perfect health in 2013 (Will Need More DL).

And yet, despite knowing all of this, they told the media that they were fine back on draft weekend:
“We feel like defensive line is a position of strength for us,” Jones responded when asked about Floyd. “In our system, we would probably put a premium on a quick-twitch potential three-technique. We [graded] him as not that, but that he certainly may be capable of getting there. That’s a case where are switch from a 3-4, he was obviously a nose tackle that had a lot of promise there at nose tackle. He’s an outstanding football player. … Again, I think you got to put our decision-making with a real focus on doing something with the interior of our offensive line.”
Now, nobody would argue that the Offensive Line might have been in an a worse overall position.  In fact, I believe I made that exact point a number of times.  But, that doesn't mean that you take one center and call it a draft on both lines of scrimmage.  Having said this a dozen times for what seems like 5 years in a row, I know it must be a broken record by now, but why they had the advantageous position of 4 picks in the Top 80 and after taking Travis Frederick decided to go TE, WR, Safety is a very sore topic for me.

They knew that Josh Brent was gone.  They knew that Jay Ratliff has not played at an elite level since 2009.  They knew that they were asking a lot of Jason Hatcher to replicate Warren Sapp or John Randle in this scheme and that says nothing about asking Anthony Spencer to be a defensive end.   And yet, when it was time to find a defensive lineman in the draft or free agency, they waltzed right by like they were totally set.

I know, I know.  They have lots of other needs that also needed to be addressed.  I would never argue that point.

But on May 6 we talked about all of the realities - even before they lost Tyrone Crawford:

Is it as big a mess as the offensive line was?  Not really, unless you are concerned with what is around the next corner.  The offensive line is present tense, but the defensive line is more of a future tense issue.  However, what has killed the Cowboys?  Lack of depth to deal with an injury.  And if Ratliff pulls up lame in training camp, what is the plan?  Full-time Lissemore at the 1-tech?  It looks like it would have to be.

I have no issue with trading back to get 2 starters for pick #18 because actually that makes sound common sense.  The issue is then spending your top 3 picks and really your entire draft without doing anything to help this group at all.  I find that flirting with disaster and don't forget what we talked about last fall after the Offensive Line situation reared its head against Cleveland again:

It isn't coaching.  It isn't effort. 

It is, however, another indictment on the continuing failures of this current front office.  I am sure when the 2012 season ends, like the secondary last spring, we will hear how fixing the offensive line in 2013 is the top priority.  And they will use many of their resources to attempt to do just that.  But, why it takes years for them to see things that are obvious to those watching their games remains a mystery. 

Then, if it is fixed, the shell game of personnel fixes will move to another department of the squad that will be overdue for renovations, too.  These are the effects of too many mistakes over the years in the personnel department.  The holes out-number the plugs, and before long, you have issues that cannot be addressed because you are out of picks and cap space.

Once you leave the port each August for another season at sea, you cannot replenish your supplies until the season voyage is over.  Meanwhile, in the middle of it, you are stuck with whatever you took with you.  From week to week, as people complain about the coaching and the players, those who remain on the voyage do the best with what they have.  But, clearly, what they have is not good enough, and no amount of effort is going to fix the issues for the long-term.
In 2013, they will leave port with a defensive line that might work but the best case/worst case scenarios are wildly problematic if there is one false step this year.
So, who replaces Jay Ratliff?  Would you believe Nick Hayden?  Hayden is one of the cool stories of camp and a guy who when I was watching him play in July seemed like a candidate to really fight for one of those final spots.  That is all you can expect of a guy who is 27 years old and has kicked around a few organizations before finding his way here, right?.  He played 33 snaps of NFL football in 2011, which is 33 more than his 0 in 2012 when he was healthy after an ankle sprain and his phone never rang after training camp.

But now, after one predictable situation with Jay Ratliff is finally revealed, the Cowboys are seemingly planning on him lining up against the Giants in Week 1 to unveil the all new Monte Kiffin defense.

Nick Hayden and George Selvie are both solid finds in the scrap heap of vagabonds.  Selvie is 26 and this will be his 4th chance to catch on and appears to have promise.   And maybe I am too gun-shy about using retread defenders after last season where they are looking on couches to fill out Rob Ryan's lineup in November and find Brady Poppinga and Charlie Peprah.  Sometimes, these reclamation projects work, but when you have a chance to fix this with typical moves to fill holes (you know, the draft!) the Cowboys are telling us everything is fine.  Now, with 11 days to go, Selvie, Hayden, and undrafted 2nd year pro Ben Bass are all going to need to play rather substantial roles it would appear.

They are also going to hope that Anthony Spencer is ready with no camp, Sean Lissemore is ready with very little camp, and Jason Hatcher heals.

Optimism never works in the NFL.  But, it appears to be a key strategy again for the Jones war-room.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Wondering Where DeMarco Is Headed

One of the talking points out of Saturday's victory over Cincinnati was the benching of DeMarco Murray by Jason Garrett after the running back put the ball on the ground in the 1st Quarter.  It seemed to annoy Murray quite a bit and it certainly has helped fill some segments of radio as we discuss the relative authority demanded and distributed by the Cowboys' coach.  We discussed how Garrett is growing into his role recently, and this did not hurt that development one bit.

The DeMarco Murray story - as we hit year 3 already - is an interesting one to say the least.  He has been billed as a fantastic heir to the running back throne in Dallas which Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith once ruled.  Whether he is close to that quality remains to be seen in more than short bursts, but it is easy to see how he can make people forget Troy Hambrick, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice.

Now, he has to prove that he is more than Julius Jones, 2004 or Marion Barber, 2007 - which is, a fantastic start to a career, but that proved to be the high-water mark rather than a sign of things to come.

Babe Laufenberg had quite interesting numbers on the broadcast on Saturday night about the falloff of the numbers from DeMarco Murray since his November 2011 which set his bar very, very high.

In fact, the numbers are actually quite interesting to look at between Julius Jones and DeMarco.

First, Murray as we separate his first 100 carries from the rest.

Attempts Yards YPA 10+ Runs Runs for Loss
1-100 674 6.74 17 18
next 225 886 3.9 15 71

And now, let's turn back the clock on Julius Jones in what is relatively the same two samples from 2004 and 2005:

Attempts Yards YPA 10+ Runs Runs for Loss
1-98 445 4.5 12 24
next 219 797 3.6 20 49

Clearly, you would rather have Murray no matter which way you slice it, but that is hardly real strong praise in that Julius Jones turned out to be a enormous falloff from Stephen Jackson - the guy that the Cowboys was thought was comparable to Jones on Draft Day 2004.

And, we better remember that Murray's drop off might have far more to do with those blocking in front of him rather than his own performance.  But, that is the discussion, right?  When it is time to pay DeMarco, you aren't going to pay him based on the quality of the offensive line.  You are going to pay him on his own quality - and it is their job to figure out where one ends and the next begins.

Which take us to what we love so much about Murray.  As his last 2 touches on Saturday night showed, he is a load to bring down.  He shoved a fantastic stiff arm into the helmet of a would-be tackler and then on the dump off pass from Kyle Orton, he made several Bengals miss on his way to the end zone.  He runs so hard.  He punishes on the way in.  He is relentless in his effort and seems to pattern his game after his predecessor at Oklahoma, Adrian Peterson (who doesn't?).

So, here come the next 2 questions about that style.

1) - Can you do it and stay healthy?

2) - Can you do it and hold on to the football?

And these, more so than the production to a certain point, are the determiners in what Murray becomes. Is he a back who is here in 2018?  Or, is he a back who is only here until he can be replaced with a new model in the 2015 draft?

The health has been detailed.  He broke his right ankle in 2011 and then sprained a foot in 2012 that kept him out of 6 weeks of action as well.  Can a player with the high miles from Oklahoma and his style stay on the field in the NFL when he plays that high and that hard?

And then, the fumbles.  It could be argued that Adrian Peterson's fumble issues in 2009 kept the Minnesota Vikings out of the Super Bowl (see NFC Championship Game in New Orleans) and in that offseason, Peterson was determined to fix it.  Since then, in 933 touches, he has fumbled a total of 6 times or once every 155 touches.

Murray, in 385 career touches has fumbled 4 times.  Not horrible, but once every 96 touches and had 2 last December that were crucial.  Once against Pittsburgh which cost the Cowboys points in a very close game as he fumbled and lost the ball at the Steelers' 7 yard line.  And then, in a tight loss to New Orleans, he fumbled in a tie game at the Cowboys 3 yard line, setting up the Saints nicely.

And, that is one principle reason why Garrett had to shut down Murray for a bit.  Yes, fumbles will happen.  But, as he said, a handoff has to be a safe play.  A running back is the last guy that should be fumbling.  He has to know that when he declares war on his tacklers, they will be going for that ball to teach him a lesson on going down at first contact.

The other assignment he blew on Saturday was the first play of the game when he ran past a blitzer who sacked Tony Romo.  He did not make the right read and his QB was hit hard near his own goal line.  These are big responsibilities, and he has to prove he can handle them all.

So, what does the future hold for Murray?  I imagine he controls the Cowboys season to a certain extent.  He has to stay on the field and he cannot get demoralized by poor blocking.  He can make this team a real contender if he can play anything like he did in November 2011.  But, that is historic stuff.

He is a pivotal player who can set the tone and be a leader by his ferocious style.  But, he also has to be above handing the ball over or getting himself hurt because of picking one too many battles.  It is a lot on his plate.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Morning After: Preseason - Cowboys 24, Bengals 18

If you can read anything from the preseason (and we all know it is dangerous to think you can), then you attempt to carefully read the one time in the exhibition season where both teams admit they are running out the starters for an elongated amount of time.  And when that "dress rehearsal" week is against a team that has been in the playoffs in 2011 and 2012 and is attempting to accomplish plenty as well, then you like to see the results go your way.

And on Saturday, against the Cincinnati Bengals side that is a strong candidate to represent the AFC again in the postseason, the Cowboys held up pretty well all night, and clearly got the better of the battle of the 1's as Tony Romo and his crew produced and went to halftime with a 14-7 lead.  The #1 offense hit its stride in the 2nd Quarter and while it certainly is not without negatives, they looked very strong as Dez Bryant dominated the Bengals secondary with the ease that confirms the prediction of the entire offseason that has projected Bryant to have his way with just about anyone who dares to line up across from him.

Bryant, entering his 4th season as a pro, has looked the part since about October of 2012 as the unstoppable force that Jerry Jones thought was going to be worth the trouble when he went out of his way to secure him in the 2010 draft.  Amidst the nonsense and warning signs of headaches that waited ahead, was a player that looked to have as much talent as anyone.  However, those stories are everywhere in professional sports.  The rarity is to see someone become what optimistic projections hope for.  But here is Bryant, almost without warning, becoming a top player in all of the NFL and showing signs that if things go right, he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.

His physical handling of another 1st Round pick, Dre Kirkpatrick on Saturday Night demonstrated another chapter in that developing story.

And that story, puts the Cowboys offensive strategy in an interesting spot.  One in which the mantle of "go-to" guy for Tony Romo will not be Jason Witten anymore.  Witten will certainly catch his share and work near the chains over and over again with his sit-downs in the zones, but the offense should be designed with the idea that nobody will be able to handle Bryant 1-on-1.  If they try, they should be punished, and if they roll coverage over to assist (which will be the norm), then Witten, Miles Austin, and whoever the 4th receiver will be - a 3rd WR or a 2nd TE - will all have advantageous coverage opportunities.

This continues the discussion about personnel groupings and what we have seen in the first month of camp and preseason as it pertains to the initiative from draft day to utilize multiple tight ends as the base offense.  First, I would like to point out that the training camp media talk has nothing to do with the actual play-calling on the 16 Sundays that matter in the fall.  Just because beat writers work "12 personnel is the Cowboys offense" in their stories doesn't mean it is true and it doesn't mean that many of those same writers have any idea what that means.

How much does an offense utilize its base grouping?  If "12" is the base grouping, should we expect it 30% of the time or 80% of the time?  Does anyone know?

Well, here is what we know from what we wrote on the topic back in June.

 It simply sets a baseline for this idea that "12" is going to be the base offense in 2013.  At its high water mark to this point, with a rather large amount of conviction, the most they ever ran "12" personnel was 31% of snaps back in 2011. 
In the end, as long as Jason Garrett is this team's offensive architect - and regardless of who is actually calling the plays, we are led to believe that it still will follow the blueprints that have been installed back in 2007 by Garrett, we should assume that they will always be rotating personnel groupings every snap.    Therefore, how much does the "base offense" play?  33%?  50%?  It is very difficult to conceive it being higher than that.  If it did, why would you spend a premium pick on a 3rd WR if he is not going to play? 
The Cowboys have not run an offense that has had a "base" personnel group since Troy Aikman ran the huddle.  There was a time, when the Cowboys were winning Super Bowls, that they had 2 basic personnel groups - "21" was the base, and then on 3rd Downs, they might roll out "11".  But, the idea was that the team was so good and frankly the game had not evolved too much with specialization, that the team may not substitute from Emmitt Smith, Daryl Johnston, Jay Novacek, Michael Irvin, and Alvin Harper the entire drive.

But, with Garrett, aside from the 2-minute drill, there are times where he will go an entire game without running the same personnel grouping for 2 plays in a row.  Seriously.  I have seen it a number of times.

So, let's get back to the question at hand:  Have the Cowboys demonstrated any proficiency in "12" in the preseason to make us believe that they are really going down this road as its default offense.  And the more important topic, which is never covered in the media it seems, is whether the Cowboys have made enough progress to actually try to run the traditional, balanced offense that Jason Garrett has said he desires - you know, the one that Norv Turner ran back in the glory days (where Aikman was never in shotgun, the pass set up an easy run, and the run set up an easy pass).  Can they run an offense from "under center"?  Because, if they are in shotgun, most defenses will not alter their personnel or strategy too much from "11" to "12".

Let's remember:  the whole point of changing personnel is to put the defense in a bind.  If you don't make them rethink their strategy, then anything you do is simply spinning your wheels.  But, if you take Terrence Williams off and replace him with Gavin Escobar, you would like to think there is no defender in the league that can cover both well.  If he is quick enough to stick with Williams, then he is not strong enough to handle Escobar (or tall enough) and the other way around should also be true.  However, the real beauty of "12" personnel is making the defense understand that depending on how they defend, the offense will change their plays at the line to capitalize on your shortfall.

And this bind is only properly hit if you can run your offense from under-center.  Under center is where the linebackers and safeties must respect your running game (if you have one) and move up.  This creates more space in the secondary and makes a QB's job easy.  This is why play-action passing is such a vital part of NFL offenses.  But, your Dallas Cowboys ranked 32nd in the NFL (dead last) in their use of play-action passing in 2012.  Why?  Because play-action doesn't work if the running game is non-threatening.  The linebackers snicker and drop into the passing lanes because they know they won't be needed to stop a run - the defensive line has it all by themselves.

So, let's bring this all together.  Is Gavin Escobar proving he was worth all of the trouble?  Not yet.  We have yet to see him put on a show downfield that makes this all click into place.  If he had, we may not ask ourselves tough questions, but so far, he is slow to show his quality.  And unfortunately, he is not a great run blocker.  And that is where the shortfall might put the Cowboys right back in the same place they were trying to avoid.  They want to get their running game going.  But, the offensive line has not progressed much and the negative runs were still all around on Saturday. Geno Atkins was still destroying your guards and putting the Cowboys in spots where they were allowing negative plays to lead to punts.  And Escobar cannot help balance the offense out at this point as he is still be taught how to run block on the fly.  But, more importantly, they cannot get the same 2 guards around Travis Frederick for more than a few moments.

It was Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau.  Then, Ron Leary and Bernadeau.  Then, David Arkin and Bernadeau.  Then, Bernadeau and Doug Free.  And, of course, during this time, Brandon Moore and Brian Waters were being courted to replace all of the above.  Free, by the way, looked an awful lot like Arkin in his debut inside.  When he was uncovered, he could help and get to the 2nd level with strong efficiency.  But, when he was challenged at the snap, he was outmatched.  Honestly, how did anyone think that a guy who has strength issues against 260 lb defensive ends think that he would be an option against 300 lb defensive tackles?  I understand having a plan for emergencies, but Free makes almost no sense at guard for precisely the reasons that he struggles at tackle.  It isn't the feet as much as it is the strength.  And guards have to play low and be strong.  Free is not very good at either.

The Cowboys know they have once again over-estimated their guard situation and now are trying to rally on the fly.  But, let's be realistic.  This is not likely to fall perfectly into place.  Despite improving the center position, it still appears that running the ball is going to be difficult with the guard issues that appear to be multiple.

So, why did they want to go to 12 in the first place?  To balance the offense.  To run the ball.  And to create matchup issues down the field with players who are tough to cover.

But, if they can't balance the offense and run the ball, what is the point?  And who creates better issues, the size of Escobar or the speed of Terrence Williams outside?

My conclusion after watching the 1st half on Saturday is that while things can still develop, it seems pretty clear that on August 26th, their best offense in 2013 is the same one that was their only offense in 2012.    That is putting Tony Romo in shotgun, line up 3 wide receivers and Witten and let Romo go to work.  In other words, not 12 personnel.

It is not ideal by any stretch as defenses will then make the nickel their base defense and challenge the Cowboys to run the ball, but at some point you have to make that choice that coaches discuss constantly and the media never discusses enough:  When a coach puts down his playbook and simply accepts what his offense is capable of and more importantly, not capable of, what plays and personnel groupings does he install to play the Giants in 13 days?

If the offense cannot physically compete in the interior of the offensive line, you have to make logical choices that give you the best chance to win.  Ideally, they want to do a number of things, but there is nothing ideal about demoralizing your team and stadium by running into your guards who are being pushed back into the running lanes because they are not strong enough to hold up.  So, you stop running - which defeats the entire scheme of "12 personnel".  Not to say you won't see it, but if you think that they are rolling this out 40-50% of their snaps, we will disagree strongly.

You have a major personnel advantage - but it is not in "12".  Rather, "11" personnel, as we saw Saturday and in 2012, is still where you have a chance to put up yards, points, and wins.  It is not fundamentally ideal, but it is realistic.

In April-August, you can talk ideal views and hopeful projections.  But, as September approaches, the coaching staff is starting to see what most of us feared all along.  Unless Escobar blows people away as an un-coverable force, then spending a 2nd round pick on a 2nd tight end might seem like a superfluous use of resources when he isn't even part of your best grouping.  And while it is early, Escobar having a chance might be tightly linked to your guards allowing you to run the ball.

It is time to get realistic - so expect this offense to use much more Terrence Williams than Escobar in September.  I know I am.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Camp Blog: Concerns for Leary's Knee and For Cowboys Depth

Reports in cyberspace over the last 24 hours give us considerable concerns with regards to Ronald Leary's knee issues and by extension, the makeup of the entire offensive line as we look ahead to the season opener on September 8 against the Giants.

Leary was an undrafted free agent after the 2012 draft where the Cowboys invested an extraordinary amount of cash for a player that was passed over again and again in the draft itself.  The Cowboys liked him and decided to live with his medical checks that surely knocked him off of many team's lists - including any pick the Cowboys might spend on Caleb McSurdy.

Leary has been a top performer in Oxnard and has given me tremendous optimism about his level of play - his bad knee pending.  But, as we have said a number of times here and everywhere, the trouble with injury prone players is that they spend a considerable amount of time injured.  And when he leaves the team on August 13 - rather than mid November - we are reminded how far the squad has to go in terms of depth.

This is particularly true on both the offensive and defensive line and it is a stark reminder to many of the    hole that this team is trying to dig out of during the present tense to fix the problems of the past tense.

As I have said for several years, the Cowboys top talent is comparable and competitive with those who are in the playoffs every year.  If you'd like, we can say that 1-10 or even 1-15, the Cowboys roster is very good.  It could be better, but it is more than passable with elite talent on its roster.  But, this league is about the ability to show your resolve and ability over the course of 6 months.  And during that time there are a number of physical challenges that result in attrition and subtraction to your resources.  It happens every year as in 2012 when we saw the Cowboys repeatedly sign street free agents who had to not only jump right onto the game-day roster, but many times right onto the field as a starter or key reserve.

Where the Cowboys run into major issues is when they are asked to matchup the bottom 30 on their roster with the bottom 30 elsewhere in the league.  For it is spots 16-45 on game-day that end up winning and losing many seasons.  And often times, during a year, someone in that group will have to elevate and replace someone who is lost from your elite.  If there is a significant drop-off in performance, you are then up a creek without a paddle.  But, if they can supply an adequate replacement, then you can survive.  That is why teams win in this league.  Nobody avoids attrition altogether.  Not all injury totals or injury victims are created equal, but championship teams are built to sustain a certain amount of damage.

So, a team that has little depth has certain spots where it simply cannot afford a hit.  And on this team, for a long, long time, it has been the interior of both the offensive line and the defensive line in total.  Do they have enough players to fill holes with some amount of excellence to survive and play on?  Or, because of the presence of a fringe NFL player who is elevated to start, is the squad no longer able to protect their QB and run their offense.  Are they no longer able to run the Tampa 2 as it is designed?

Rob Ryan will tell you that in 2012, his defense was never seen.  Rather, it was the defense that he was able to run with guys being plugged in every week as brand new players.  Nobody is here to argue that he did a fantastic job as defensive coordinator last year, but if somebody believes that another coordinator could have done more with Dan Connor, Brady Poppinga, and Ernie Sims playing linebacker and Eric Frampton and Charlie Peprah splitting safety duties in Week 17 at Washington, they are likely delusional.

The best teams in this league - as in the deepest - have reserves that are often draft picks that they are developing for just this moment.  San Francisco last season is a great example as their top 2 picks were not even used until December when injuries hit.  But, when they did, they plugged in AJ Jenkins and LaMichael James for the first time in Week 14.  That, is the complete opposite of signing Brady Poppinga off his couch and playing him that Sunday.

Now, that is an extreme example, but when this team now sees Brian Waters as a savior - a guy who hasn't played since 2011 and who is 36 years and is also on his couch right now, it does serve as a reminder that the roster has been greatly improved, but there is a long ways to go.  Waters, of course, is the savior this time, since Brandon Moore wants to retire instead of start at right guard.  And, Waters was the first choice in 2011 (he opted for New England), when the Cowboys ended up keeping another old guard Derrick Dockery from retirement - although his performance was amazingly forgettable.

These are your choices when Stephen Peterman, Pat McQuistan, Robert Brewster, Sam Young, and David Arkin don't pan out.

It is the treadmill of the NFL.  You make a mistake and you now have to make up for it.  You can sit there and say all teams make mistakes, because they do.  But, that doesn't help when Kevin Kowalski is  joining Phil Costa and Dockery trying to block Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre Paul in Week 17 of 2011.

If you want to know why Tony Romo and the Cowboys get killed for their December records, look no further than spots 16-45 on the roster.  When your ship leaves port at Labor Day each year, it can not resupply during the season.  Every player you lose is either replaced by somebody on board or you are grasping at the couch crews.  By December, you have lost 8 pieces of your group and have to plug them internally with picks and prospects.  But, what if you have a hole in your roster the size of 2008 and 2009?

Then, you are hoping Nate Living and Ron Leary hold up health-wise.  And that says nothing about Jay Ratliff playing and playing well for 16 Sundays.  And what if either Ratliff or Jason Hatcher are lost to injury?  What defensive tackle depth have they built?  So little that veteran free agent Nick Hayden and undrafted free agent Ben Bass look to be right with Sean Lissemore as your best options.  Yikes.  Not a ton of rotation players there.

This is a good team.  But, they remain paper thin in spots.  And although everyone is thin at certain spots, there are fewer spots to be thin at than on the line of scrimmage in both directions.  Which leads us back to the question of, "if you have 4 picks in the Top 80, can you afford to take luxury items like a tight end and another wide receiver?"

I was bothered by it in April, but I think we will all be bothered by it in November when we are seeing that the draft priorities in 2014 will be the same as what they should have been in 2012 and 2013; Getting as many 300 pound quality bodies in here as possible.

It is still quite possible that Leary will be able to stay healthy and give this team plenty of quality for the next bunch of years, but David Arkin is starting on Saturday in Arizona and I am still pretty convinced that he is a fringe roster player and certainly not a starter.  Costa remains undersized and out-powered as well, and Livings seems to have a way to go health-wise.

The Cowboys have been drafting better, I believe, but have been operating at a deficit for years and will need several more Bruce Carter home runs before they are back in the black.  In the meantime, cross your fingers and hold your breath.  It is August and the offensive line looks beat up and patched together already.

That is generally not a great sign.

Hope for the best on those medical updates over the next 3 weeks.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Camp Blog: DeMarcus Ware's Trip To The Top

13 days ago, DeMarcus Ware turned 31 years old.  If that isn't enough to make you feel old and a reminder of how quickly NFL careers can zoom by, then I don't know what will.

Ware has been - along with Jason Witten - the identifiable hero of this era and on the fast track to be in both the Ring of Honor and the Pro Football Hall of Fame when those two careers come to a close.  They are the coach's dream types that you never have to worry about and you just hope the younger players are smart enough to watch and learn every chance they get from the best in the business.

He is off to begin his 9th season and from the look of his form at camp so far, he appears destined to have another fantastic season.  And what does that mean for DeMarcus Ware?  Well, you can always start with the simple idea that aside from everything else, he will shock the league if he DOESN'T get double-digit sack totals.

Here are his year to year totals since being drafted in 2005:

2005 8.0
2006 11.5
2007 14.0
2008 20.0
2009 11.0
2010 15.5
2011 19.5
2012 11.5
Totals 111.0 

He just keeps chugging along.  His streak of 7 consecutive seasons with 10+ sacks is an active record in the NFL, and puts him in a rare class with Reggie White and Bruce Smith for that type of thing.

He is already 4th in the NFL in active career sacks, trailing just 3 players still in the league in John Abraham (122), Jared Allen (117), and Julius Peppers (111.5).  Those 3 all preceded Ware into the league and the closes player to Ware who entered the league at the same time as him?  Trent Cole has 71 career sacks - a full 40 behind Ware.

Allen actually has a current streak of 6 seasons of 10+ sacks, but Abraham's career high is 2 seasons in a row and Peppers has never done more than 3 straight.  And yet, Ware has done it every year since 2006 and is still at the top of his game.

But how long can that last?  Well, back in the spring, we played the hypothetical game of what would Ware be worth in a trade and found out about pass rushers after age 31:
History tells us that pass rushers can have great careers past 31. 
Bruce Smith had 94 sacks after his 31st birthday.  Reggie White, who was 31 when he signed in Green Bay, still had 74 more sacks after his 31st birthday.  Kevin Greene had 87.5 sacks after that birthday, too.  Chris Doleman had 74.5 starting with the season after turning 31.  Even Michael Strahan had 57 sacks beyond age 31.   
There is plenty of reason to believe, based on looking at the 5 best sackers of all-time that you can still do plenty of damage after the age of 31.  Running backs don't age well, but apparently there is still a lot of miles left for the elite guys at getting to the QB if they stay in great shape.  And Ware appears to be one of those for sure.  And if he puts up numbers like those 5 players, he will jump a few of them and make a run at the Bruce Smith's all-time number of 200.  He needs 89 more sacks.
Only 8 players in NFL history can boast having 8 seasons or more of 10+ sacks.  I don't mean consecutive seasons, but just 8 seasons at all.   The list of 10+ sack seasons in a career:

Bruce Smith - HOF 13
Reggie White - HOF  12
Kevin Greene  10
John Randle - HOF 9
Richard Dent - HOF 8
Chris Doleman - HOF  8
Leslie O'Neal 8
Simeon Rice  8
DeMarcus Ware and others  7      

As you can see, it seems odd that Kevin Greene cannot get into the Hall of Fame, given his accomplishments over the course of his awesome career.  But, he still has some time.  

I also find it interesting how he is right behind Simeon Rice.  Rice is a very under-rated player from the last 20 years as he spent the 2nd half of his career in Tampa Bay playing the exact spot in the Tampa-2 for Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli that Ware will now play from 2013-.  Rice had 57.5 sacks in 5 years for the Bucs from 2001-2005, so he the bar for DeMarcus is very high.

There are 2 significant questions that remain in this equation.  Who is going to effectively play the role of Warren Sapp in his prime?  It is one thing to say UFA-to-be Jason Hatcher (also 31 as he is actually 3 weeks older than Ware) is having a nice camp.  It is altogether different to say he is ready to do anything close to what Sapp did to the NFL during his time in Tampa.  Sapp was the gold standard for the 3-technique and no matter how hard you squint, it is impossible to see that the Cowboys will have that type of force.  

And remember, the Tampa-2 and much of what Kiffin preaches is based on the front 4 getting pressure and stopping the run by themselves.  This leaves 7 players for coverage and flying around making tackles.  But, if your 4 cannot whip their 5, then the defense falls apart.  And that is why we wonder if Tony Dungy was right when he argued that the Cowboys might need 2 drafts to get the personnel right to run this defense.  

I suppose that is why Sharrif Floyd is still in the back of everyone's mind who follows this team.  The Cowboys needed Travis Frederick to have a solid offense, but they also needed a young, quality 3-technique to be in an ideal position defensively.  Floyd is in Minnesota and they will bring him along behind Kevin Williams for now.  Meanwhile, the 2 interior players for the Cowboys are Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher with Sean Lissemore and Ben Bass behind them, it seems.  Is there a realistic view that sees that being disruptive enough to stress the opponent's OL?

The second significant question with the Ware topic goes back to the looming contract issues.  After 2013, he has 4 years and about $62 million remaining on his deal which includes a cap hit in 2014 for $16 million and in 2015 for $17.5 million.  With Tony Romo at $21.7m and $25.3m in those 2 years, you can see how a salary-cap stressed franchise is going to have to be creative to figure out the rest of the puzzle to make this all work out.  

But, beyond that, it is a fantastic luxury to have DeMarcus Ware on this franchise with plenty of good years in front of him.  The next time someone next to you argues that he is over-rated or the silly discussion that he doesn't get "big sacks", feel free to move to a different seat elsewhere.

He is an absolute legend.  

BaD Radio Weekly Podcasts

Our Latest Weekly Podcast:

Weekly Pod for 8/10/13 - Episode #222 - Johnny Manziel investigation and NCAA injustice, Alex Rios acquired by TEX, Ask Donovan Anything, Ask Tom Grieve Anything, Tecmo Trivia Bowl, Danny McCray Interviewed by Drops, Jason Garrett visits the tent.

The Full Archive From 2013:

Weekly Pod for 1/5/13 - Episode #192 - Cowboys come up short in D.C., the final Jason Witten show of the season, goodbye to a few interns, hello to a few others, Chris Kaman, Ghetto Jeopardy.

Weekly Pod for 1/12/13 - Episode #193 - Monte Kiffin hired as Cowboys defensive coordinator, Best Funeral Ever reviews, JFF crushes it in the Cotton Bowl, Big Game Brent, Friday Game Show.

Weekly Pod for 1/19/13 - Episode #194 - Initial reaction to the Manti Te'O story, Jaromir "Puff Nuts" Jagr , Chris Kaman show, John Beckwith of the show "Best Funeral Ever", Monkey News, Friday Game Show.

Weekly Pod for 1/26/13 - Episode #195 - Will Bill Callahan be calling plays for the Cowboys, "Waterboy" reviewed, MLK tribute, Chris Kaman's talk is real, GAMESHOW!

Weekly Pod for 2/2/13 - Episode #196 - Super Bowl 27 review, a trip to the 9th Ward, Bobby Hebert, the cast of The League on Radio Row, Super Bowl week bits.

Weekly Pod for 2/9/13 - Episode #197 - Super Bowl Talk complete with Phil Simms AND power outage e-brake audio, Rangers off-season issues, Chris Kaman, PED talk, and a gameshow courtesy of Kevin Turner.

Weekly Pod for 2/16/13 - Episode #198 - Jason Garrett is sounding like Miley Cyrus on salvia in press conferences, Gary Edwards of the "Carter Boys", classic audio from Bob's first time, Shawn Marion in studio, Grapevine Fugitive talk, Chris Kaman show.

Weekly Pod for 2/23/13 - Episode #199 - Josh Hamilton is now trolling the Rangers fan, Ticketstock songs, Monkey News, Meme of the Month: Harlem Shake, Tweetgrubes/Anthony Andro/Kittenface.

Weekly Pod for 3/2/13 - Episode #200 - Tony Romo contract extension talk, Oscars reviews, Jon Daniels, "Die Hard" review, Jere Lehtinen in studio, Craig Ludwig in studio, Homer Call of the Year Winner Brian Snow.

Weekly Pod for 3/9/13 - Episode #201 - Rangers power struggle, Britney Griner in studio, Dan Birthday Fun, Alamo Quiz with Jeremy Lin and Kevin McHale, Last Week's Gameshow.

Weekly Pod for 3/16/13 - Episode #202 - Bill Guerin in studio, An Ode To Cumulus for the sales department from Tom Gribble, John McCaa gets a hotplate from Donovan, Gordon Jago, Game Show featuring Mavs dancers.

Weekly Pod for 3/23/13 - Episode #203 - Marshall Henderson talk, Lance Berkman, Behind The Bit: The Upper Decker, Chris Kaman, young Dan with Mel Hall audio, Monkey News.

Weekly Pod for 3/30/13 - Episode #204 - Brendan Morrow traded, Chris Kaman in studio, Lunchpails from the NCAA tournament, Stars assistant GM Frank Provenzano talks analytics, Walt Goggins, a KT Game Show.

Weekly Pod for 4/6/13 - Episode #205 - Romo extension, Tick Talk, Darvish near perfect, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Bob joins Farrell On The Bench, Rangers Opening Day song.

Weekly Pod for 4/13/13 - Episode #206 - Josh Hamilton's return to Arlington, Scoops Callahan and Johnny Football, Derian Hatcher, Bob with Brett Favre, Screenless.

Weekly Pod for 4/20/13 - Episode #207 - Initial reaction to the bombings at the Boston Marathon, director of "Primer" and "Upstream Color" Shane Carruth, Dirk in studio, Monkey News, Uncle Ruslan audio.

Weekly Pod for 4/27/13 - Episode #208 - Review of Cowboys moves in Round 1 of the NFL Draft, 1st Round Pick Travis Frederick, "Eddie" reviewed, an update on The Year of Dan, Dan's Name Game, Evan gets engaged.

Weekly Pod for 5/4/13 - Episode #209 - A complete NFL Draft 2013 review including analysis, audio, and a call from Computer, Josh Hamilton is not a patient hitter so say the "advanced metrics", The Future of Horse Racing, Derek Holland.

 Weekly Pod for 5/11/13 - Episode #210 - We laugh at the Angels and Josh Hamilton, we celebrate Elvis Andrus by interviewing him, Cleveland News, the Mavs D12 and CP3 dreams, and some Mother's Day Fun.

Weekly Pod for 5/18/13 - Episode #211 - Darvish vs. Verlander, News teases during sweeps, Sean Lee, Donovan meets Ludacris, What Are Atheletes Using Twitter For?, Urban Family Feud.

Weekly Pod for 5/25/13 - Episode #212 - Jon Daniels, Murder  News from Southlake, Dave Cameron of, Dan Game Show with P1 Contestants, Tony Hale (Buster Bluth).

Weekly Pod for 6/1/13 - Episode #213 - Rangers audio, the Tom Grieve show, "Sandlot" reviewed, Dan's trip to Six Flags, Anthony Jeselnik in studio, Donovan and Scoops Callahan meet Seth Rogen, the 2013 GBL Draft.

Weekly Pod for 6/8/13 - Episode #214 - The Tom Grieve show, Bob has a bobcat in his backyard, Monkey News,  Joe Nathan talks pitching and "Ted," the annual BaD Radio Spelling Bee.

Weekly Pod for 6/15/13 - Episode #215 - Trip to the ballpark brings us interviews with Ron Washington and Jurickson Profar, a GBL interview with writer Drew Magary, there is a snake problem in Coppell, we reveal our Summer Bash guest, and Tom has a newsy gameshow.

Weekly Pod for 6/29/13 - Episode #217 - Bob and Dan aren't going anywhere, Bob's birthday celebration including Craig Hodges and Ask Bob Anything, and Vacation Talk.

Weekly Pod for 7/12/13 - Episode #218 - Donovan talks about his vacation in Greece and has a Friday game show. The guys talk to Danny Trejo, Tyler Seguin, and Gabe Kapler. Finally the fellas talk about the amazing cinematic masterpiece Sharknado!

Weekly Pod for 7/20/13 - Episode #219 - Daryl Hannah, former co-host of the Tom Green Show Glenn Humplik, Sweet Brown, EuroTrip, Trey's Bad B Movie Game Show.

Weekly Pod for 7/27/13 - Episode #220 - Jason Witten live in the tent, Do NFL Rookies know the divisions in their own league, Gabe Kapler rips the tent apart, the show takes a trip to Anthony Jeselnik's studio show, Anthony Weiner is in trouble again.

Weekly Pod for 8/3/13 - Episode #221 - Kidd Kraddick's passing, Johnny Football talk, Riley Cooper is "in the news," Dan Cortese, Dan's World (Hey Did You Hear About Piolin?), George St. Pierre, a wedding at Cowboys Stadium.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Monday After Preseason: Oakland 19, Dallas 17

In preseason Game #2, the Cowboys slowly ramped up their use of starters to give us our first look in the 2013 camp of Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, and others who will be doing the lion's share of the heavy lifting this season when the games really matter.

Clearly, we saw plenty of things that tell us positive things - like a fantastic delayed blitz from Sean Lee that came free and caused another takeaway (can we all imagine what this thing might be capable of if takeaways are no longer a foreign concept?).  It also revealed that there is plenty of work to do with regards to self-inflicted wounds.

Most notably, we are back to an unreasonable amount of offensive penalties that continue to kill drives and put the team behind the chains when trying to make things happen on the scoreboard.  This team always has absurd amounts of yardage and not enough points to show for it.  That comes down to a number of factors that are all linked together in the offensive game.  They are most easily traced back to red zone inefficiency which is often brought down by "drive killers."  And what are drive killers?  Sacks, negative runs, but most inexcusably, penalties.  And what from the penalty family is enough to frustrate everyone?  Presnap penalties?

False start of James Hanna.  False start of Ron Leary.  Holding on Jason Witten.  All in the first 2 drives of the Cowboys (the drives where everyone played) that otherwise could have been worth 14 points.  Instead, they left with 3 points.  That is familiar inefficiency.  On a team where Doug Free led all tackles in penalties in the entire league, and where Tyron Smith and Witten both ranked very highly in their positional groups, then to call that an initiative this season is a fair idea.

Beyond that, there were some fine adjustments made between Tony Romo and Dez Bryant when Tracy Porter jumped a slant route and they improved for a big gain and more promising work from Ronald Leary and Travis Frederick inside for most of the night.  It should be noted, however, that Frederick is noticeably better at center right now than guard.  I would leave him there and not look back.  Especially given that Phil Costa still looks overpowered in certain scenarios.


One theme that constantly was heard on Friday night was the disastrous manner in which Rich Bisaccia  and his special teams took center stage and showed us they have plenty of work to do.

It is important to understand how preseason makes special teams analysis almost ridiculous.  A special teams coach does have to prepare his units to be ready to play for preseason - but those units and the group he will actually have in Week 1 are totally different.

I have been told by more than a few personnel people that if you want clues on who is likely to make a team by watching preseason games, watch who they put out to cover kicks to start games.  By the 2nd half, it is mostly comprised of players who will not make the club or who have less than a likely chance.  But, those in the 1st Quarter are the odds-on favorites to make the team based on their value to the special teams.

If you are new this season to my blog, a quick lesson on special teams.  Ask any coach the value of a special teams unit and they will often tell you it is what hinges a fringe team from making the playoffs or not.  In the Cowboys case last season alone, 2 games that were lost could have been converted to wins if the special teams group did not bust so badly.  The road games at Seattle and Baltimore were both easily sabotaged because of a huge return, a blocked kick, or another moment that broke down without warning.  Several other games were affected, and the game at Philadelphia was won with Dwayne Harris putting on a show as a punt returner.

So, if you have 53 players on your roster - with 46 dressed on game-day, you see this is not college football.  Every member of the 46 must be ready to contribute to either offense, defense, or special teams (save for your backup QBs).  Once you consider those numerical realities, you quickly see that anyone who is not playing 50 snaps or more for their offensive or defensive units, must be strong and solid coverage players on kicks and punts.  If they aren't, then you are wasting spots and once injuries hit early in a game, you are in full panic mode as a coaching staff.

Again, filling spots on special teams is not the goal.  The goal is to not lose a game and thus a playoff spot because your special teams were just filled with warm bodies and suddenly a kick return ends your season.  You must have quality and the end game must be at least to play even-up against an opponent in these 15-20 snaps a game that are often ignored by most fans and fantasy football leagues.

When we fill out our projections for the roster - which I will this week - we must place strong consideration to who can cover and block on kick teams if they are not clear-cut starters.  That is why we are foolish to not consider Eric Frampton, JJ Wilcox, Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner, Kyle Wilber, Devonte Holloman, and of course, Danny McCray as very likely spine members of Bisaccia's crew.

Coverage units are usually comprised of backup linebackers, tight ends, defensive backs, and certain running backs and wide receivers.  The more you can be trusted to tackle a return man in the open field, the more valuable you make yourself to the team.  And the more valuable you are, the more likely you are to make the team - and then to dress on game day.

Some of these guys - like Tanner, Wilber, McCray, and Holloman will play on all 4 teams - punt cover, punt return, kick cover, and kick return.  That leads to continuity, which then leads to fewer busts because you are constantly turning things over.

The opposite is what affects guys down the list at safety or wide receiver.  Can Cole Beasley help you on special teams?  It is tough given his size, unless he is the actual returner.  Now that Harris and Dez Bryant are that guy, where can Beasley help you?  If he is your 4th or 5th best wide receiver, he will not play many offensive snaps.  No snaps plus no special teams contribution mean that despite his talents, it is a tough call to put him on your roster.  If Danny Coale can play on your special teams and Cole Beasley cannot, you have to know that Beasley must be significantly better on offense to win that battle.  Matt Johnson?  Same issues, although we are just guessing because we haven't really seen him cover yet.  Lance Dunbar?  What if Will Allen is not a starter at safety in October?  Reserves with no special teams value are very difficult to justify unless they play on either line.

So, the issues BW Webb showed as a return man or the overall busts in the 2nd half don't trouble me.  Those guys won't be in those spots when it really matters.  What does concern me is the issues surrounding the units in general.  When guys are on the fringe of the roster - ALWAYS ask what they might help you accomplish on kicks and punts.  If the answer is nothing, then they will have a very hard time surviving the final cuts.

That is the numbers game that is being sorted out in the personnel rooms around the league right now.  You do not want your season to go up in smoke because you got a FG blocked or a punt returned.

If someone makes the team and you can't figure out why, know that it is very likely because Rich Bisaccia argued hard that he needs him on his specialty units.  He will assemble a spine group of 5-7 and fill in the gaps with the table scraps from Jason Garrett and Monte Kiffin.  And then he will be expected to never lose the Cowboys a game.  It is not as easy a gig as some think.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Oxnard Blog: On Parcells, Garrett, And Keepin It Real

One of the more enjoyable aspects of Hall of Fame weekend was reflecting on the coaching ability and traits of Bill Parcells.  The Hall of Fame coach did a nice job of talking about his career and thanking people, but he couldn't help but drop in a few of his philosophies of coaching that I so respected.

And it is clear, by the way, that when it comes to Parcells, and the way he believed in the sport, that it all could be traced back to his time at Army (when his friendship with Bob Knight began) and no doubt a time in his life when he saw the way a proper leadership structure can make all of the difference in the world.  Parcells knew that a team had to become a team to figure out a way to navigate through the troubled waters that a football season would present.  There will be losses, and mistakes, and injuries, and yes, occasionally a very serious off-the-field matter that would test the continuity and resolve of every member of the organization.  If they were all together and on the same agenda, they could get through it.

But, if they were on 5 different pages (See: the 2008 Cowboys) then they would take something great and turn it into something you take to the curb so that the garbage man will take it away when he makes his rounds.

In many ways, so much of Parcells' message on Saturday night in Canton was built around unity, leadership, and team.  I think perhaps the one that hit home the most was a story he told near the end of his speech about a moment he had with Giants' owner Wellington Mara moments after Parcells was first named the head coach decades ago.  Mara walked him over to a plaque on the wall in the Giants' locker-room and showed him the following inscription.

"Losers assemble in little groups and complain.  Winners assemble as a team and find ways to win." - Emlen Tunnell

There are certainly fun little sayings that we all email to each-other and then forget about, but there are times where a quote seems to properly capture what a person is all about.  In this case, I feel that Parcells lived this quote as a coach and installed it on the hard drive of any player who would listen.  I think the single most important trait of a football team that achieves greatness can be found on that plaque.  And that is why I have hope for the Jason Garrett Dallas Cowboys.

We don't know what goes on behind closed doors as fans or media.  We can guess and piece together anecdotal evidence of things operating smoothly or not.  But, it was clear to me that when Parcells left the Cowboys, there was a real climate change in the room.

Now, many players enjoyed the heck out of this change. To them, the freedom of not being afraid that the principal was stalking the hallways was labeled as "treats us like men" as they described Wade Phillips to the media.  They were tired of being treated like schoolboys and being told how to behave and to cut that hair and to get back in line.

But, now, we are allowed to conduct ourselves as we please and say what we want.  We can wear our uniform as we wish and workout back home if we want and even take a little vacation during the bye week (Cabo!).  Isn't it great that we are allowed to make our own decisions?  Why did Parcells treat us like we were in high school?

Eventually, having a head coach who did not demand respect, but instead asked politely for it began to cause alternate agendas.  It even started on the coaching staff where assistants, hired before Phillips in some cases, would not fully protect the authority of the head coach and at times either undermine him or stand down when someone else would.  The pyramid of authority and chain of command that was so thoroughly in place from 2003 to 2006 had all but disappeared when we heard of a legendary and divisive spat in the offense to wear Terrell Owens and company took on Jason Garrett and Tony Romo, even suggesting that Romo played favorites with his pal, Jason Witten, at the expense of getting Owens and his fellow receivers the ball.

By the way, this sort of thing springs up anywhere football is played.  The difference between a Parcells staff and a Jerry Jones staff is that Parcells staff would have weeded that out of the room about a nanosecond after it presented itself.  Instead, with players unhappy, the coaching staff fractured, leading the team to collapse, and ultimately they quit on several occasions in that '08 season and I look back and wonder how that would have been handled differently if they simply assembled as a team and found a way.

Instead, we got "Keepin' It Real Thursdays" in the next few years where receivers would get in their positional meetings and speak their minds about how they aren't being used properly.  Good gracious.  They actually gave those who thought they knew more than the head coach or offensive coordinator a forum to speak?  I doubt this happened much at West Point.

Losers assemble in little groups and complain. 

I don't know what kind of coach Ray Sherman is these days (WR Coach in St Louis), but when he was in Dallas, he helped create an environment that harbored complaining and separate agendas rather than uniting behind his superior.  He was painted as a player's coach, which is something that sounds good in print but seldom plays well when a head coach loses his team because his assistants are trying to set themselves up for their job promotion.

It is possible that Sherman thought he could design an offense better than Jason Garrett.  And maybe he was right, but as it was happening, the offense would undermine Romo to their sources and we are still trying to pick up the pieces of Romo's assassinated character despite his solid play throughout his career.  The factions created on this team when Phillips had no idea how to lead as a head coach were severe and difficult to heal.

But, I believe Jason Garrett is making big progress in this department.

Now, again, we don't know exactly what goes on behind closed doors, but one thing I have seen in the last 3 seasons is a feeling that the Jason Garrett Cowboys swing closer to the Parcells' days than the Phillips days with regards to structure, unity, and weeding out divisive forces that tend to cause issues in the name of personal agendas.  Now, certainly, Rob Ryan's bravado did not help Garrett's unified message and it is clear that Jerry Jones does not realize that it all starts with making sure the assistants that work here are working with loyalty to the head coach as their top priority.

But, expecting Jerry Jones to understand what Tunnell was saying is sadly, an unreasonable goal.

Does Garrett understand it, and more importantly desire that?  I believe he absolutely does.

Hopefully, you had a chance to see him address the team from a few weeks back (if not, watch it here) or you had the opportunity to hear him on our radio show on Wednesday (if not, the audio is here).  In both cases, you can see him without his normal "press conference mode" setting on that frustrates so many.

He is a football man from a football family.  His dad was a football coach when Jason was born.  He understands what loyalty and unity can do to maximize a team's performance.  He knows when adversity hits, it can go two ways and a team that is unified has a better chance not to implode under its own pressure.

Now, unlike Bill Parcells, Garrett did not name his entire staff, nor does he have the credibility of winning Super Bowls that allowed the old coach to act in any sort of Darth Vader way he wanted and get away with it.  He still has a boss that doesn't seem to acknowledge that a military chain of command that ends with the head coach is a proven way to win in this league, rather than the meddling owner model that seems to usually end in unintentional comedy.

But, I believe the program is being built. I loved what I saw from the head coach in 2012 when great adversity hit the team and they played some of their most inspired ball as they were going through the Josh Brent/Jerry Brown tragedy.  They also never quit when injury after injury hurt the team's quality, rather we started to see the "next man up" mentality that is adapted by the good teams in the NFL.

Parcells mentioned in his Hall of Fame speech that on several occasions, his career almost ended before it started because of a losing streak.  He thought he was one loss from being fired and it took a great escape or we would never know his story or his life lessons.

Now, many of you will read this and remind me that Parcells didn't set the world on fire in Dallas, and that Wade actually was the coach to get an elusive playoff win - not the Big Tuna.  And that would be true, and short sighted.

The best leaders on today's Dallas Cowboys were all trained as young players by Parcells back in their formative years.  Romo, Witten, DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and Miles Austin all were Parcells' guys with his memories and quotes in their heads.  Unfortunately, the legacy that Wade left is never talked about and Wade's guys are pretty much all gone already.

Nobody will make the case that Garrett has it all figured out.  He makes mistakes and has issues like any coach in the league.  He also is at a place in his career where it can go either way.  He is 21-19 and if he doesn't hit the gas soon, Jerry will get the itch again to find his next headline grabbing hire.

But those traits that made Parcells great are traits that Garrett values.  He preaches and promotes unity and coming together as a team and leaving your personal gripes in the trash.  And for these reasons - among others (including his ability to assemble young promising talent), I believe he still has a real chance to be considered a strong head coach in the next 24-36 months.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Oxnard Blog: Brandon Moore Edition

Perhaps in many respects, what we have seen in the last 12 hours is simply how life in the NFL works.

A rookie emerges.  A veteran blows out his knee.  A prospect retires.  A signing changes his mind.  It is a roller coaster of emotions surrounding a series of practice sessions.

For it was around 10pm Central time last night when word started circulating that a deal with Brandon Moore was close for the Cowboys.  Then, within the hour, word broke from a number of reliable sources that, in fact, the deal was done.  They had signed a right guard who had played 11 seasons in the same New York Jets uniform, starting most of those 11 seasons and playing at a very high level with impressive health.

I watched about 200 of his snaps last night to break down his ability from 2012 on this blog and I will tell you that although I would not consider him to be Carl Nicks or Mike Iupati when it comes to All-Pro Guards, he would have easily been the best guard the Cowboys had in their lineup since Leonard Davis in 2007 or so.

Watching Moore play a strong game for a Jets team that was a squad that had no choice but to play a strong and powerful run game made you understand how strength is a real factor in running zone stretch plays, but more importantly, inside runs and pulling guard opportunities.  He was stout and almost never turned back (Vince Wilfork could do it) and when he got on the move - which the Jets featured often - he was a very impressive player who would seek and physically dominate guys around the corner as he opened a path for his running back.

In pass protection, he hardly had anything to criticize.  He was confident and strong and generally not challenged on pass rushes and looked like he had seen everything 1,000 times.  Most likely, because he had.

If you have read my work for a week, you know my feelings about the offensive line.  And therefore you likely realize that I was pretty excited about the prospect of adding a guy like this who almost nobody in the NFL circles have anything bad to say about the guy.  He would have filled out that 3rd interior spot with a level of play that was beyond my expectations since the Cowboys neglected to upgrade their guard situation in the spring when it is best addressed.

Brandon Moore would easily walk from the street to being perhaps the offensive lineman you would rate behind Tyron Smith as the guy you least have to worry about in 2013.  And, he verbally agreed to terms last night and was going to fly in, and medicals pending, sign today.

Well, that changed at sunrise.

Moore decided that he second thoughts and instead has decided to retire.  He had played from his house for 11 years and with his family had settled in nicely.  To change all of that and leave them all to move to Dallas for 1 more year (most likely) was something that he tried to sleep on and couldn't.

He also told Sirius NFL Radio that the time to prepare was critical as well, as he had no desire to show up in August and not play at his normal level.  Had this been in March or April, he could have confidently prepared as he normally does, but now just 1 month from the opener was not enough time for him to feel good about where he would be in Week 1.   He wanted to do this because of his personal regard for Bill Callahan, but between family and preparation time, he had cold feet this morning.

Now, that leaves us with a number of questions that you have presented me with:

1) - If he is so great, why was he available on August 6th?

Well, this is the CBA these days.  Many players make a ton of money.  But, the long-time veterans get to a spot where when their contract expires, they find that multi-level deals are not offered to 33 year old guards who play at a solid level.  1-year deals for the veteran minimum are everywhere, but they are accustomed to long term details at $4m a season, they are not dying to jump across the desk to sign in May.  So, they sit out, waiting for something better.  As July arrives, they start to ponder whether they still want to play if the money is only at that level.  And that is where many vets over 30 sit right now.  If they have managed their money well, each day comes closer to them pondering if they really are that committed anymore.  Obviously, Moore decided that whatever the deal (thought to be around $2m) was not worth his trouble.  And given that he made very solid money for the last decade, you can understand that he didn't feel he had to leave his setup for a 5 month work detail in the NFL trenches.

2) - Were the Cowboys telling us that they are in big trouble on the Offensive Line?

I think that this verifies that the first 2 weeks have not told them good things about their starters from 2012 - Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau.  Both have had poor health summers after mediocre seasons and the combination of the 2 has many wondering if either were going to start on Opening Night.  This, combined with Travis Frederick at center and Ronald Leary at Left Guard playing so well has put the OL in a different spot altogether from where it was 12 months ago. The premise that they were ready to cut Bernadeau if they got Moore done is not a difficult idea to wrap your head around.  David Arkin is not a starter, Phil Costa doesn't appear to be, either.  So, with Livings out the next month, and Bernadeau is what he is, you can see that they could go with Leary-Frederick-Bernadeau if they had to, but who would argue that Leary-Frederick-Moore is a major upgrade from that and anything they have run out in 5 years?

3) - So What Do They Do Now?

Everyone is discussing Brian Waters, but he hasn't played since 2011 and I think the football department is not nearly as interested as the fan-base.  I think they saw Moore as unique opportunity because of his friendship with Callahan and saw that as an easy chance to upgrade with a guy who understood the system.  That doesn't mean that they were panicked and had to make a move and now sign the next guy.  I don't love Bernadeau starting for me, but I do think he can be ok there for now and the real idea is to get Leary and Frederick to prove their merits to see if they are truly as good as they look at this moment in time.

Either way, I feel better about the line.  But, for about 10 hours, I felt great about the upgrades when it looked like Moore was in the fold.  Now, we must return to the reality that they have plenty of work to do and plenty of "ifs" that they are going to try to prove as realities.

As teams across the NFL find out every day, there is no telling what the next 24 hours might have in store for a team preparing for a season.

Monday, August 05, 2013

The Morning After: HOF Game - Dallas 24, Miami 20

I am always up for over-analyzing something that might not require over-analyzing, but I will attempt to slow my roll given that it is a preseason game that preceded all other preseason games by a full week.

In other words, it is really early, folks.

However, entering training camp, there are 2 departments on this team that needed to prove that they were better than they have been in the recent past.  Safeties and offensive line.  Player availability and opposition efforts preclude us from reading too much into the safety play - other than JJ Wilcox is an impressive physical presence and that Matt Johnson remains a durability concern (to say the very, very least).  Other than that, I think we must wait a week or two before we talk much on the safeties based on preseason game work.  However, you can already see that they need plenty of work getting the proper depth so they don't play too shallow and risk plays over the top, but also not too deep leaving very easy 20 yard gains on digs that are beyond the linebackers and in a huge gulf short of the too deep, 2 deep safeties.

But, offensive line?  Well, that is where I spent most of my Sunday night and Monday morning on analyzing a few spots in particular.

First, some brief background - because if you need more than brief, I would encourage you to read the archives of this blog as I have spent somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 words documenting the issues of the offense in general and the offensive line in specific on why this unit on the team controls pretty much everything (regardless of what the NFL Network or ESPN try to put on the Quarterback).

In 2010, the offensive line was very poor and needed a change in many regards if they were ever going to run the football effectively.  They did change, and for a while, we were left to believe that undersized kids like Phil Costa and Bill Nagy, and retreads like Montrae Holland and Tony Fiammetta made all of the difference in the world in 2011.  However, by the end, they were exposed by the Giants (among others) and they knew that to get better in 2012, it would have to start with the OL.  But, in 2012, the "upgrades" were actually discards from other teams looking to get their own upgrades (Bengals and Panthers) and before long we saw that change doesn't always mean improvement.  For most of 2012, they couldn't run a normal, balanced offense.  It was actually worse than 2011 in many respects,  and 2011 was at times, worse than 2010.  They had 3 drastically different OL ideas in 3 consecutive seasons, but for the most part, they were limited by the negative play of the OL all 3 seasons.  Change never helped.

So, there you have a brief history of the achilles heel of Jason Garrett, Tony Romo, and pretty much the entire Cowboys offense since they last played in the post-season.

And that brings us to preseason 2013.

If you are not familiar with my training camp policies, it is basically to not read too much into practices in Oxnard for decision making.  I know many of my media colleagues disagree with this (based on the daily updates on who is winning the starting job at guard based on a Tuesday practice) but I like to treat practices and walk throughs like someone studying for their tests in college.  It is great that you studied well, son, but we are only interested if you can answer the test questions when we give you the test.  Playing at practice speed should prepare you for game speed, but practicing against other Cowboys doesn't help me very much.  I like to see them trying to deal with what another team is running out there and against players that don't know all of your tricks (or you, theirs) and therefore it seems like a more fair fight and something that should actually matter.

With that in mind, Sunday night in Canton was our first look at the 3 interior spots which to varying levels, all seem like open spots in the starting lineup and on the roster.

Here is what I saw:

RONALD LEARY - Let's start with the exciting news.  Consistent with those practice reports, we are seeing Leary look like a guy who is ready to contribute in this league at a reasonably high level.  And by that, it is fair to see him in the mix as a starter at left guard - especially if these whispers of Nate Livings knee issues are correct.  In many regards, he is very similar to Livings, which means he is strong at the point of attack, and big enough that you aren't going to go past him in pass rushing very often.  Unlike Livings, Leary actually looks comfortable on the move and getting to the 2nd level to dig guys out and they certainly enjoy pulling him on some "G Power" plays to the right.  He played a ton and I saw almost nothing that bothered me at all about his performance.  He looks way better than he did technique-wise in 2012.  Long ways to go, but they have to be very happy about what he has shown so far.

TRAVIS FREDERICK - They played him for most of the 1st half at center and then most of the 2nd half at guard.  I thought his center play was terrific, where he is basically directing traffic well and then handling his own business with ease.  He is just a really strong center (especially when compared with the Cowboys other option at center, Phil Costa) who seems to know where he is going and what he is doing already - a skill not to be overlooked for a rookie.  When they moved him to guard, he struggled a bit more and at times looked so/so.  It appears he is of average strength for a guard.  I can see that they are hoping that he could be the solution at right guard, but I think that might weaken them at both center and right guard.  Play him at his best position and figure the rest out around him, in my opinion.  Of course, his true test at center is going to be shotgun offense with live ammo and Romo changing a play, but so far, so good.

DAVID ARKIN - This is Arkin's 3rd year and he is still hoping to take his first NFL snap, but it does appear that he is noticeably better.  However, the projections that say he is ready to play 70 snaps in a game seem absurd to me, as he again really struggles when a DL threat is lined up on his head.  When uncovered, he has great feet and mobility, but when he is challenged off the snap, his strength issues come to the front quite quickly.  On those zone stretch plays, if you have a lineman who cannot hold his line, he can get pushed back into the path of the RB which leads to a tackle for loss most times.  Arkin is guilty of this a few times against the Dolphins and it wasn't like Miami had their 1s out against him very much.  I think he might be a reserve option, but this starting idea is not close for me.  Let's see his work for a few more weeks.

PHIL COSTA - Like Arkin, the issue with Costa has always been strength for me.  In 2011, he was comically over-matched against the premium nose tackles and interior men in the league and then missed 2012 almost entirely with back issues which never seem to be the recipe for getting stronger.  He replaced Frederick late in the 2nd Quarter at center and played the rest of the way and was fine in most situations, but there were about 3 different times where he was fork lifted backwards beyond the rest of the line which seems to indicate that he is still getting pushed around at the point of attack.  This can be hid a bit better than Arkin because if Costa is at center, then you have 2 strong guards protecting him, but I still don't like the idea of him at center with Frederick available.  And Arkin or Costa at guard is just not idea with your intentions to establish run and play-action passing in 2013.

Beyond that, they were surrounded by tackles that really are not candidates to make the team for most of the night, but the running game did well and there was very little inside pass protecting issues.

Overall, just seeing Leary and Frederick out there shows you that they have way better options than they have had from the youth ranks, and assuming that Livings and Bernadeau will be able to compete soon make you think that they are going to have a chance to be better.

There are 4 more preseason games to continue to work these guys and health issues can emerge at any moment, but I left the Hall of Fame Game night with some better feelings about this pivotal position on the roster that will really affect the potential of the 2013 Cowboys.