Thursday, December 01, 2016

The DFW Playoff Chart



YearCowboysStarsMavericksRangers
1994NFC Champ2nd RoundMissedNO PLAYOFFS
1995NFL Champions1st RoundMissedMissed
19962nd RoundMissedMissed1st Round
1997Missed1st RoundMissedMissed
19981st Round3rd RoundMissed1st Round
19991st RoundNHL ChampionsMissed1st Round
2000MissedLost in FinalsMissedMissed
2001Missed2nd Round2nd RoundMissed
2002MissedMissed2nd RoundMissed
20031st Round2nd Round3rd RoundMissed
2004Missed1st Round1st RoundMissed
2005MissedNO SEASON2nd RoundMissed
20061st Round1st RoundLost in FinalsMissed
20071st Round1st Round1st RoundMissed
2008Missed3rd Round1st RoundMissed
20092nd RoundMissed2nd RoundMissed
2010MissedMissed1st RoundLost in W Series
2011Missed MissedNBA ChampionsLost in W Series
2012MissedMissed1st RoundWildcard
2013MissedMissedMissedMissed
20142nd Round1st Round1st RoundMissed
2015MissedMissed1st Round1st Round
2016
2nd Round1st Round1st Round
Totals10 of 2214 of 2215 of 237 of 22

Marinelli Report - Week 11 - Washington

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/12/01/sturms-marinelli-report-cowboys-defense-used-red-zone-stops-win

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Morning After - Cowboys 27, Ravens 17 - (9-1)

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/11/21/sturms-morning-tough-opponent-required-deeper-dig

The schedule brings a number of unexpected twists and turns that test a team from numerous angles. This sample size exposes weaknesses and requires a young team that believes it is good to prove it over and over -- to answer questions one week that were not asked before. Or, to confirm those answers as repeatable and sustainable.
If there is one description of the 2016 Cowboys that continues to flatter the two rookies at the helm, it seems that "repeatable and sustainable" is about the brightest compliment one could pay.
For that means there is no fluke to be found. There is no luck. There was no great fortune in finding yourself on the winning side nine times in a row. This certainly doesn't promise future success, but all indicators insist that success seems likely.
We may have to face it: The 2016 Dallas Cowboys are winning in ways that suggest they have put something together that may be good for a while. Because the way they win week after week does not suggest they are just riding a wave of fortune.
Yesterday, in a game when they appeared to wake up as the second quarter was being played (those noon starts are pretty early, you know), they took the ball away from their opponent and repeated the normal recipe for a Cowboys win.
This did not occur until the Cowboys' offense touched the ball for a fifth time. The first four drives were filled with a number of rather disappointing outcomes, each leading to a Cowboys punt. With a simmering quarterback situation that might have been inside the head of Dak Prescott -- but was definitely in the minds of all in attendance -- the quarterback's play was beyond spotty for those first several throws. He looked like a guy who had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and as is the case in this league, the Ravens were adding even more weight by repeatedly falling on him blitz after blitz.

The stadium grew antsy as the Ravens drove the ball down the field with repeated runs at the heart of the Cowboys' defense behind their celebrated guard Marshal Yanda, and with frustration growing on offense and vulnerability appearing on defense, the Cowboys had to play with a deficit on Sunday.
And, I guess, being down 7-0 with five minutes to go in the second quarter is what passes for a challenge to this juggernaut these days.
The Cowboys took the ball on their fifth drive with 9:31 to go in the half and with great field position at their own 48-yard line. Promptly, as if they felt the Ravens were being too generous, the offensive line quickly took two penalties. Travis Frederick made it first-and-20, and then Tyron Smith walked it back 10 more after a hold for first-and-30.
First-and-30 holes nearly are impossible to climb out of. The probability charts suggest you may consider just putting your punt team on the field and saving everyone some time.
But, in a way that would make Han Solo proud, the Cowboys weren't interested in odds. This is where their day started to turn.
First-and-30: Prescott scrambled for 12 when nobody was open.
Second-and-18: Prescott finds Dez Bryant on a skinny post for 12 more.
Third-and-6: The Ravens surely know that Prescott is looking for those sticks now, so he works a "go" route to Brice Butler over the top for the Cowboys' biggest play of the day -- 41 yards down to the Ravens' 7-yard line.  
A few plays later, Prescott again rolls out -- this time to his right -- and fires a dart to Cole Beasley at the pylon before C.J. Mosley tests his collarbone in the Ravens' bench area. Touchdown, Cowboys, and after a brief examination, everyone offers a sigh of relief for the health of the rookie quarterback.
So much of this season has been about arguing the role of the quarterback and the credit of this offense, most of which has been distributed to Ezekiel Elliott and a terrific offensive line. This isn't about removing that credit, but this is to say that most of the vital moments in a game do not come down to your ability to run the ball. It relies on your passing game and getting the weapons on your offense in space, where they can do damage. Third-and-longs. Two-minute drills. Or, in this case, first-and-30. And you can sugarcoat it all you want, but Prescott has either looked flawless in some games or has recovered from slow starts in time to bring the team back on several occasions.
And that is why the credit must be given to the rookie quarterback's ability to pass yet another test Sunday. Baltimore tried to hit him hard. The hits were hard enough that you wondered how others might have withstood the same punishment.
By the time the day was over, the running game came along and did its job of dominating the clock and erasing any last chances the Ravens might have had. The offense scored on every single drive the rest of the day following that first-and-30 conversion. It went: touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal. Record: 9-1.
No short fields were offered again. The five drives totaled 359 yards and 25 minutes for 27 points. All in the final 39 minutes of the game. And you said momentum cannot be measured.
If there is one attribute we have seen from this offense, it seems to be that once the train gets rolling down the tracks, nobody slows it down. They may start poorly, but when they start feeling good about their offense, it continues until the stadium empties. How many weeks in a row do we talk about how they pound teams into a fine powder during the second halves of games?
But, let's get back to the "repeatable and sustainable" conversation. So much of this conversation about the team is wondering what its ceiling can be. Can this team actually win in the playoffs like this? Can it contend for a Super Bowl like this?
The simple answer is that there is only one way to find out.
The more nuanced answer starts with looking at how this team scores. Yes, there are some big plays that stick in our memory -- for instance, the great moments in Pittsburgh last week are front and center. But, the reason you must like the Cowboys' chances moving forward against any opponent is there is no reliance on the fireworks show from week to week.
It helps to get yards in chunks, but on Sunday, the Ravens had more explosive plays than the Cowboys, 4-2. They had more big plays of 20 yards or more, and I don't take that as a negative. I think it is great news that the Cowboys kill you with six or eight-yard chunks and that they do it in a way where the design and execution of the offense suggest someone is always open. The quarterback is not asked to pierce the eye of a needle with a throw. He has too many weapons and too much misdirection. The running back is not asked to break three tackles, for he has enough possibilities over the course of an afternoon to choose his favorite holes and take what he can. Some days there will be a chance to leave the defense in his dust, but others, like yesterday, Elliott will have just one run into the secondary for 14 yards. Everything else comes in battering-ram fashion.

The point is that if you are relying on 50-yard plays, you may not get those every week. But, if you are comfortable taking six yards per snap and running 5-8 minutes off the clock each time you step on to the field, then I think you have the basis for long-term success. Mix in a few big plays, for sure, but that must be your frosting. The cake is the way this team drives the ball and protects its defense.
That offense travels. That offense doesn't need perfect weather. Heck, that offense can survive an injury or two along the way. If you have 11 parts that are reasonably equal on an offense, and do not rely on a superstar doing special things, you have a force to be reckoned with.
And the Cowboys definitely have that.
Good teams have followed this recipe for years. The Seahawks do not rely on a series of huge plays and magic tricks to beat you. New England is different, but similar. These powers have been built on moving the chains and repeating the process until you succumb. Other teams do rely on one player carrying them with a tight-rope walk, but the repeatability is more difficult to achieve.
I think you should strongly prefer this -- the dominant effort that looks simple. Another 400-yard day with five consecutive scoring drives and very few SportsCenter-worthy highlight clips. This is death by 1,000 paper cuts. This is repeatable. Week after week, opponent after opponent.
Some weeks there will be drama, and some weeks you simply will get the ball with 8:16 to go and practically not let Baltimore touch the ball again. Your ground-and-pound has taken another victim.
Baltimore was a very good opponent that tried to make this a physical slugfest. The great news is that while it got the Cowboys' attention, they were able to push back and take over once they zeroed in.
It all looks so simple. And yet, if you have been following the Cowboys for a few decades, you know it is not. This is rare dominance, and when the sun shines down on you, you must soak it in and enjoy it.
Just three days until they go at it again.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Morning After - Week 9 - Steelers

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/11/14/sturms-morning-future-appears-now

That is why we follow the sport.  That Cowboys-Steelers game is one of the few that will stick out when you look back at any season.  To know a classic from just another Sunday, you ask yourself if you will remember this day in a decade. 
Well, as far as I am concerned, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest you will remember where you were when the Cowboys, led by their rookies (again), walked into Pittsburgh, traded body-blows and haymakers for three hours, and then left with the coveted win. 
This was not your typical win.  This was an extraordinary back-and-forth effort that will be given the "instant classic" label and perhaps require a second viewing over watching Monday Night Football this week. 

Pittsburgh threw a lot at the Cowboys and got superb efforts from many -- including their star QB Ben Roethlisberger, not to mention Le'Veon Bell and Antoino Brown who all were able to do some pretty impressive things in a home game where they needed to stop the bleeding to their season.  They rallied the troops and whipped their home crowd into a frenzy.  It was a late game on a November afternoon where the whole football nation would be locked in, wondering if this upstart squad from Dallas was worth all of the hype.
Indeed.
Oh, sure, there were many things the Cowboys could have done better on this day in Pittsburgh.  There is no doubt that the defense has to be better and that the health of their secondary was exposed when Roethlisberger threw for over 400 yards and had the team backed up against the wall as the Steelers took the lead in the final minute.  It was the first time a Cowboys opponent had passed for 400 yards in the Rod Marinelli era (since 2014).  In fact, it reminded us of that Monte Kiffin year in 2013 when Dallas allowed 400 yards three different times to Matthew Stafford and both Manning brothers. 
The offense found itself getting a bit frustrated because it could not put much together in the first half beyond an unbelievable 83-yard screen play where Dak Prescott timed a throw to Ezekiel Elliott, who then hit the turbo and followed a convoy of the two guards and the center who were clearing out Steelers in the path.  Elliott needed one last nudge from Terrance Williams at midfield and it was over.  This young talent can take any play to the end zone, and this one quickly served notice to those in attendance that this was going to be a ballgame.  That pulled a 12-3 game back to 12-10, and the afternoon of intrigue was underway.
This season continues to be about a player who has yet to even play a snap -- Tony Romo.  He helped lay the foundation for this season and so many people in these parts regard Romo as the only hero at QB they have ever known.  There is nothing like your first love, and if you are a Cowboys fan of a certain age, you may only go back to the very end of Aikman, all the retreads in between, and that glorious day when they finally put Tony into the game in 2006.  Since then, you have been debating people on his behalf against Eli Manning or Donovan McNabb and were certain the Cowboys had their version that, simply lacking the appropriate supporting cast to ever go as far as he deserved.

Now, just as it appears his help has come, it also appears his time is vanishing.  Football isn't about fair.  It is about seizing whatever moment you have, because the future is not promised.  And this makes the "Romo loyalist" uncomfortable.  Instead of enjoying this remarkable surprise that has been dropped in Dallas -- the dynamic duo of a rookie RB and a rookie QB who together look to be too much for opponents to deal with in their first few months together and a promise of a new exciting era that could be awfully special -- the Romo loyalist is looking for details that make a win in Pittsburgh less impressive from a QB standpoint. 
They point to missed throws.  They point to Zeke as an unfair advantage.  They want their guy back as soon as possible because this new guy is just on a hot streak.  Surely, you aren't suggesting Romo is not better than this guy, Bob.
I really don't get it. 
Dak Prescott just stood tall and dueled against Roethlisberger on his turf.  You may recall he just did the same with Aaron Rodgers on his turf.  The last thing this guy needs is people to make excuses for him.  Prescott is busy beating blitzes and staring down linebackers to make throws to move the chains.  I don't think he needs to answer about the details along the way.
This sport is amazingly difficult, and the way the Cowboys executed in the second half and down the stretch of that game to pull a win out in the most hostile of circumstances was something that Aikman, Romo, or just about any QB should be proud of.  A win in Pittsburgh in the Roethlisberger era is a rare treat for a road QB, let alone a rookie QB. 
And let's not undersell the degree of difficulty.
Late in the third Quarter, the Cowboys faced a third-and-1, but just when you thought Elliott had moved the chains, Ron Leary was flagged for a holding that made it a third-and-11 from midfield.  They were down 18-16 at the time, and they were now well out of field goal range.  So, your options are to play it safe and punt or to trust your rookie to decode the blitz and find the right place to go to try to extend the drive.  In other words, this is asking a rookie QB to pass a test that franchise QBs are expected to pass.
The Steelers sent their best pressure in a layered attack.  Both inside linebackers and a safety head up the middle to try to get Prescott.  Then, two of the front will fade back into the shallow passing lanes, because a rookie QB will dump it short and they can get an easy interception if they step in the path.  Lance Dunbar was asked to step in front of the truck that is Ryan Shazier and just push him enough to let Prescott slide over. 
Here is the moment.  Prescott is doing the calculations in his head.  He knows they can't send a safety and have anything beyond Cover 1 behind it.  That means if he spots the safety that he can throw away from it into a safe spot.  He has to buy a split-second as chaos happens around him.  He now knows that Dez Bryant is the best option and he lays out a pass to Bryant that flies 50 yards in the air and lands right on the stride.  It couldn't have been more perfect.  Touchdown.
It required pocket presence, astute reads, and the a perfect throw.  There are many ways to screw that up against a big blitz on third-and-11 in a game that is on the road in a loud stadium. 
Instead, it gave the Cowboys a lead.  This kid is good. 
Again, I think it bears pointing out another time that this isn't about Prescott alone.  It is about what the coaching staff tells us about him.  There seems to be no harness where they pull back and ask him not to try this throw or this situation.  This conservative coaching staff appears to no longer believe in conservatism.  They have crossed the aisle into aggressiveness and going for the throat.  What better example than that moment late in the fourth quarter?
Down 24-23, they are squarely in field goal range.  Second-and-2 turns into third-and-8 when Shazier blows up a running play.  We are also one play from the two-minute warning.  The Jason Garrett I know plays it safe and asks Dan Bailey to give his team the lead, even if he knows that Roethlisberger will not fear a 2-point margin with another chance at the ball.
Instead, they allow this rookie to make a throw on third-and-8 and perhaps risk the entire game on his arm and decision.  How does he repay that faith? 
Steelers send pressure, Cowboys put five receivers out.  Easy math.  Five Pitt rushers and five Dallas receivers means that the Steelers can only be in one coverage.  It also means that he won't have long to get the ball out. Single-high, man under.  So, Prescott waits for Jason Witten to get to the top of his stem on that Y-Option, has Shazier pinned to the inside and heads to the sideline where Prescott puts the pass right on his hands at the sticks. 
That is a big-boy throw and a great catch.  It likely converted the game from a loss to a win, although so much happened after that.
Roethlisberger did drive the Steelers down, but also might have scored too soon. 
One last test for the two rookies was getting the ball into Bailey's range in just 42 seconds from the Dallas 25.
It might have been more complicated had the Steelers not generously grabbed two facemasks.  We will never know if Bailey was going to make a long kick, because, of course, Zeke had one more absurd run left in him.  Touchdown Cowboys.
Game.  Set.  Match. 8-1.  
I am really out of explanations or descriptions.  All I know is this train continues to not only roll, but to accelerate.  I also know that Cowboys fans are split right now on how they feel about who is playing and who is under a blanket on the bench. 
But, given that this is my 19th year covering this team, I will confirm that special seasons are increasingly rare around here.
I recommend getting on board.  This team is very good and looks like they will have a thing or two to say about who is holding the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. 
It would be a shame to waste this run with bickering about who isn't playing.  Trust me, the coaches clearly believe in who is on the field right now.  And if they have bought in, you might as well, too.
The writing is all over the walls and the field. 
The future appears to be now.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Marinelli Report - Week 8 - Cleveland

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/11/09/marinelli-report-defense-halfway-mark-exceed-expectations

The Marinelli Report

I must admit, the more we wish to be able to predict the future -- despite having more information at our fingertips than ever before -- we still have a very difficult time getting ahead of the news. The fact of the matter is: We still don't know what is going to happen until it happens.
And that's just politics.
Now, on to football. The Cowboys' defense was under the microscope all offseason. It was hard to look at last year's defense and see optimism for 2016 success. Then, they added very little -- in fact, the return of Orlando Scandrick seemed cancelled out by the losses of Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain. So far, the Cowboys' defense has faced 501 snaps. Seven different defenders have played at least 300 of those (60 percent) and all seven were part of last year's defense that got no sacks and no takeaways. Well below average on both.

So, yes, they have new guys contributing -- Maliek Collins, Terrell McClain, Anthony Brown, Benson Mayowa and Cedric Thornton have all played plenty, but just not over that 300-snap barrier. They are helping, but not doing all of the heavy lifting. But, of course, one sign of a very effective defensive front is the ability to show depth and come at an offense in waves. Fewer snaps may mean a higher motor when you play, which is reflected in the eyeball test.
Now, after a day in Cleveland when the defense shut down the Browns at every turn, let's take a look at some of the very interesting results at the halfway point of the season. We are exactly 50 percent of the way through the regular season, and the sinking feeling that the defense would be exposed has gone the way of many other predictions recently. The defense has been quite solid.

SACKS

Sacks were something the defense had not been able to get in years. Basically, since DeMarcus Ware had his last great season in 2011 with 19.5 sacks at the age of 29, the Cowboys have been well below the league-average line. We have certainly found in many cases that if one side of the ball is elite (as the offense appears to be), then the objective for success is largely based around whether the other side can just get to "league average." Trying to get both the offense and defense to No. 1 is unreasonable in a league like this, but if one can be at the top and the other in the middle, you can be a real contender.
So, sack totals are in blue and league average is in red:

Here, in 2016 they are on pace to get to 36 sacks, where the league average has been at recently. It seems pretty interesting that they have shown an uptick in sacks in the past month. Through the first four games of the season, they had six sacks (a pace of 24). Then, in the next four games, they had 12 sacks.
Surely, the return of DeMarcus Lawrence should not be overlooked. I have been rather underwhelmed by his first four game -- and his sack total still is the same as Dan Bailey's -- but given how this defense works in concert with stunts, games and rushes that require several players working together, it would be wrong to assume he has not had any impact.
Regardless, the team has 18 sacks, which is impressive and puts them right at league average. And, no player has more than the 3.5 of Tyrone Crawford, so you could argue that they have no elite pass rusher, or you could argue that they are well balanced with what you would hope -- 11 different players who have been in on a sack.

TAKEAWAYS

Now, on to takeaways -- where, as a reminder, no team in NFL history had fewer takeaways than the Cowboys did last season. They had 11, and the league average was 23.3. This year, through eight games, they sit at 10 for a pace of 20. This is hardly great and it still doesn't get them to league average, but the blue line is much closer to the red line:

Now, again, I think it is important to remember "game effects" when comparing 2014-2016. The more you play with the lead, the more an opponent is passing and the more that allows for sacks and interceptions. In 2014 and 2016, the defense almost always has played with a lead and in 2015 it did not at all.
So, it will be interesting to see if this holds up, but the 2016 upticks in both categories is very encouraging and somewhat predictable with the situations they have been put in.
Here are the numbers from Cleveland -- and they are pretty incredible:

DATA BOX



So, where should we start? Ten points! ... 222 yards??? This is the lowest of the season and the lowest since that ridiculous game in Miami last year.
Then, add only one explosive play allowed (that trick formation on the second play of the game) and 4 sacks?  Then, chase it home with just 1 third down conversion.
Can they play the Browns every week?  Sadly, no.  It will get tougher this week in Pittsburgh.

CODY KESSLER THROW CHART


Young, right-handed quarterbacks don't always throw well to their blind side, do they?
He also was sacked four times -- let's take a look:
First one -- five-man pressure, where two linebackers blitz and a defensive end, Mayowa (No. 93) drops into coverage. You can see the objective is simple. The defensive end on the right of your screen is trying to take the right tackle wide. The defensive tackle wants to occupy the left guard and tackle. That leaves the Browns' center and right guard to deal with three Cowboys. This should leave a free blitzer and that is exactly what happens -- the running back tries to clean up No. 57, Damien Wilson. Wilson shows great athleticism by bouncing back up and getting to the quarterback at the same time as No. 59, Anthony Hitchens, on the inside. Score one for the scheme and those young, fast linebackers showing some splash.
This is just great from No. 96, Maliek Collins. He is a really nice player and we knew that when they drafted him in the third round. He is a 3-technique who has a fine combination of strength and quickness, making it very difficult to stay in front of him for too long. If you want to enjoy more from the 2016 draft, just focus on this guy and what he brings to the table. Simply the best draft in forever. Just a dominant display.
Here is a coverage sack. Kessler is looking, looking and finally tries to leave the pocket. Justin Durant is waiting for him to try to get out and meets him for a sack, but this is about a quarterback not seeing anything downfield. Again, there is plenty of deception on which players the Cowboys are rushing, leaving players not blocking anyone, and again, we credit the scheme work by Marinelli and his crew. Also, very active movement from the pass rushers.
And here is the fourth and final sack. Five-man protection against a five-man pass rush. You can see the Cowboys are starting to bring pressure a bit more often and this time, he has Scandrick off the right side and a pirate stunt underneath, with Collins coming around his other defensive tackle and end to lose his man for a free run at the quarterback. Again, look how well Collins runs. They have really hit on something great there.

SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 8


And here are the standings for total splash plays:

SEASON SPLASHES


SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

The beat goes on. This from the Cowboys' post-game notes:
For the eighth straight game, the Dallas defense did not allow a 100-yard rusher or a 100-yard receiver against the opposing offense. It is the only team in the NFL to not allow a 100-yard rusher or 100-yard receiver in a single game. It is also the longest such streak since the team had nine-straight games in the 2009 season (9/28/09-11/26/09).
So, no 100-yard rusher and no 100-yard receiver. And no opponent has reached 24 points.
And you thought this defense was going to stink this year, right? We all sort of did.
So far, so good.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Decoding Linehan - 6 Week Checkup

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/10/26/sturm-decoding-linehan-results-bye-week-phenomenal

By Thursday, our full attention will turn to the Sunday night affair with the Philadelphia Eagles. This is a vital division game that can really help the Cowboys set the tone for the second half of the season if they can get this into the win column.
But let's spend a few moments this morning looking at the data from the first six games. The Cowboys offense has been a force of nature so far, and to describe how far that is above expectations will be difficult. As you surely know, we have been led to believe there is simply no offense without Tony Romo in Dallas. He is the man who makes everything happen and brings it to levels that cannot be attained otherwise, regardless of adjustments or ideas. The whole franchise is simply dependent on No. 9 forevermore.  
At least, that is what 2015 made us think. And why wouldn't it?
Forgive many of us for still not fully believing what we've seen from this offense in 2016. Now, it is much too early to declare anything's conclusive, because it is a long season and posers will still be exposed (not to mention that the Cowboys will likely rush back to Romo as soon as possible). But, doggone, the job that Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Scott Linehan and friends have done in six games is nothing short of phenomenal.  
Now, you might say that phenomenal can mean a few different things. Are they good compared to a putrid 2015 or are they just good? I would say neither. They are better than good. They are bordering on being declared a top NFL offense if they sustain this performance -- and there are very few signs that the NFL has many ideas on how to slow it down. This is why upcoming tests with some defensively strong sides (like the Eagles) are so widely anticipated. We expect Fletcher Cox, Jim Schwartz and those boys from Philadelphia will have some ideas. But, so far, nobody else has made heads or tails of anything resembling a sound plan to stop Dallas.
COWBOYS OFFENSIVE DATA - THRU 6 GAMES


Just look at the NFL rankings in all of these categories. Solidly in the top 10 in the NFL in every single category that we hold dear. Let me say this again for those who missed it the other times -- even if Tony Romo was running this offense, we would be impressed. This is beyond impressive for a backup QB or a rookie QB, or both.  
That is why talk about who your QB should be is a legitimate conversation at this point. We no longer are discussing poise or composure or intangibles. Now, we have rather tangible evidence that this offense runs very, very well under Dak Prescott. Of course, we have never seen Tony Romo and Ezekiel Elliott together, but, there are almost no reasons to suggest that wouldn't be pretty devastating as well. And then, if you add in a dynamic wide receiver, well, you can understand the natives getting excited.
This is a powerful offense. I was skeptical, but they seem to have tapped right back into the 2014 recipe. Yes, the mysteries of 2015 remain, but they rediscovered the recipe. And, to everyone's delight, it does not seem fully dependent on a QB who is so old and beat-up that it cannot operate without him.
Let's look at a piece of art from my guy, John Daigle, who helps me with charts and graphics on these pieces here every week. This is the full season:
DAK PRESCOTT PASSING CHART - THRU 6 GAMES

Our first impressions here are "look at all of the blue!" and look how they continue to make smart passes to the outside where Prescott is very comfortable working matchups and not tempting the middle of the field. Also, because of the running advantage, he is able to work against man coverage a lot, which means that it plays to his strengths there and resembles what he saw in college for the most part.
Also, and we can't stress this enough, there is but one yellow dot. They are staying out of trouble. Like I said, turnovers will happen when trying to make plays. But, the ratio has to be right.  And at the moment, this young man has his ratio more than right. He has been near-perfect.
Let's look at how they have racked up all of this production via personnel groupings.  
PERSONNEL GROUPINGS - THRU 6 GAMES

We knew "11 personnel" -- shotgun or under center was going to be great by adding Zeke. What we didn't know was how would the team fare with multiple TEs in "12" and "13" personnel. This is where things have really taken off where they are starting to gut teams with their run/pass balance looks that just cause so much stress on a defense. It makes them "never right" as they try to anticipate what is coming next.  
You can see their run numbers with a fullback (in 21 and 22) are still pretty poor, but with multiple TEs it is strong. We know as a league that the fullback is a dying breed because a TE causes many more issues for a defense than a fullback. The Cowboys offense shows this. Fullbacks are seldom receiving concerns, but if you load up to stop the run, then the Cowboys kill you with those play-action waggles which have 2 TEs running routes at different levels. It is quite a mess to sort through.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Normally, this would be easy.  I would say to keep doing what you are doing and your path is rather clear.  For the Cowboys, they have a very odd decision to return to their golden boy or ride the hot hand.  I assume this offense is good enough that both would be successful, but make no mistake, they are doing things that you would not ask Tony Romo to do.  Not that he can't do this stuff, but it would jeopardize his health and we have learned that is not a great plan.
Romo can do things Dak can't do and Dak can do things Romo can't do.  I really don't know how we got here, but we are in a place that I would probably continue to ride a team that is performing at this level for as long as I can.  
On the other hand, the No. 1 issue with Romo has been his durability and what happens if he gets hurt.  It appears the Cowboys now have an injury-proof insurance policy for Romo.  His name is Dak Prescott.
In other words, this is a very good position to be in as we crank up another game.  Tomorrow, we start on the Eagles.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Resizing the NFC Playoff Race

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/10/25/sturm-resizing-nfc-playoff-race

This morning, with many teams having played 7 games already while others are still on 6, I thought it might be enjoyable to take a quick roll call on where everyone is in the NFC race to finish in the Top 6.  We seldom have the opportunity to look around and evaluate where the Cowboys sit, so let's make room for that exercise right here and right now.
Teams that are completely on to next season:  Chicago  (1-6) and San Francisco (1-6) -- These two teams have really had no impact on the season thus far aside from providing some teams with a confidence-builder Sunday along the way.  Somehow, the Bears beat the Lions and the 49ers took out the Rams, but both of these teams are miles and miles away from contending.  We have already written more than they deserve.
Teams that are pretty unlikely to factor in this race: New Orleans (2-4), Los Angeles Rams (3-4), Tampa Bay (3-3), and Carolina (1-5) -- I confess that I hate to quit on Carolina, because for some reason I can still see them going on an 8-2 run to finish in the wild card race, but perhaps I need to give it up.  I just remember the Panthers have a pretty salty roster that lost twice last season with once being in the Super Bowl.  It really makes no sense.  Otherwise, New Orleans can't stop anyone, the Rams can't score and has no QB play at the moment, and Tampa Bay likely is in a similar boat -- although maybe I should not put them any lower than Detroit on this list.
Teams that I still am not really buying despite a shiny start to the year:  Detroit (4-3) and the Giants (4-3).  The Lions still are a team that seems to have very little on defense at the moment and the Giants spent all that money and still never touch the QB and don't even pretend to run the football.  I really don't buy it and I am happy to tell you I expect swoons that take them out of the race for the Top 6 as the season moves on.
So, I have dropped 8 teams out of a 16 team race where the top 6 move on.  So let's do this now in the race for the top:
Washington (4-3) - The Redskins are secretly decent right now, with an offense that is better than you think but a defense that seems to limit their upside.  Their schedule will not help them much as they don't seem to have another softie on their schedule until late, late in the year.  This next stretch looks pretty brutal.  First place comes with a price the next year, and if they make the playoffs, they will have earned it.
Philadelphia (4-2) - This is likely to cause controversy, too.  But, I do not buy that the Eagles are ready to contend.  I believe the book is out on Wentz and that his group of skill position players and the Lane Johnson suspension are killers.  Their defense is legit so they will be in many games, but if you want to see a tough stretch, look at what Philly is about to endure for the next six weeks.  I think they would be thrilled with being 7-5 after 12 games.  But, I suspect 6-6 is about right. 
So, here are your 6 playoff teams from the NFC if someone was to predict on Oct. 25:
Arizona (3-3-1) - This might be a stretch, but I think Arizona is still a very good football team with many of the things I look for when I examine quality.  They have a lot of tough games ahead and that road schedule may be their undoing, but overall, I think the Cardinals will figure out a way to get one of the two spots that the NFC West will surely secure. 
Atlanta (4-3) - The Falcons are very difficult to fully comprehend.  If you didn't know better, you would say they are approaching "Lions with Megatron" status as they continuously force the ball into Julio Jones.  Their defense is still problematic, but they are now at least approaching average in certain categories (like pass rush) and I assume they will win their division (someone has to).  The schedule is no picnic, but they have a running game and a small amount of depth -- which is more than usual in Atlanta.  I don't trust Matt Ryan a whole lot, but they have appeared to have found a bit of a groove.
Green Bay (4-2) - The Packers season has been a mess.  The offense has looked feeble and the injuries have stacked up to where they have no running backs or corner backs and have already had their bye.  They also play four of the next five on the road.  But, they appear to have a strong offensive line, a very good defensive front, and a QB that will now throw 50 times a game that has a pretty decent resume.  I still think they might win the North, but that might be with 10 wins.
Minnesota (5-1) - The Vikings have many weaknesses and their start seems a mirage by just about all statistical accounts.  Their offense just doesn't do much of anything and there are very few signs that will improve down the stretch.  However, the Vikings haven't played Chicago or Detroit yet, so they have a chance at four wins right there on the horizon.  Their defense carries them, but I still assume their defense is only about the third best in this playoff race (Seattle and Arizona).  This many wins in the bank make them a cinch for the playoffs, but their offensive line is going to get their fragile QB hurt if something drastic doesn't change. 
Seattle (4-1-1) - The Seahawks are a pleasure to watch on defense and have been for as long as anyone can remember.  I am not sure they are on the same level as they were, but they are on a level that is plenty good enough.   Their problem is also their offensive line, which is a disaster.  They are very, very bad on offense and have already limited Russell Wilson.  There is no doubt they make the playoffs, but there is also no doubt that they appear too one-dimensional to do much after that.  Their schedule will push them here in the next few weeks, too.
Dallas (5-1) - I can't believe this, but the Cowboys look like they have an easier schedule than just about anyone, fewer question marks due to injury, and are no longer reliant on Tony Romo staying healthy.  They actually now have Tony Romo insurance.  So, not only do they have the best record in the NFC, but also the easiest schedule going in, and players returning from injury.  Not only are they the favorite to win the division now, but they are also a favorite for a bye week in the playoffs.  Even 3-2 in the next five through Thanksgiving puts them at 8-3, which should keep them on top of the NFC entering December. 
In other words, I think the NFC is asking to be won right now.  All of the normal heavyweights look flawed.  And the Cowboys look rested. 
That is the way I see it.  But, that doesn't really matter.  Let's see what happens next.  On any play in any game, an injury might change this whole thing.  But right now, the Cowboys position looks ideal.