Friday, September 30, 2016

DMN - Mailbag Sept 30

So, you are three games into your season at 2-1, favored in Game #4, and life is great because your rookie class is already contributing in several spots! It's very rare around here to have so many things falling properly.
Unfortunately, we can't stop there, can we? Ominous storm clouds are rolling in. NFL success requires keeping the key players on your roster healthy and part of your workforce.  Every team will sustain injuries. But the randomization of these injuries seems to control standings by the end of the year.  
So, here we are, on the final day of September, and the Cowboys do not feel good about their three most pricey assets:  Tony Romo's health never seems consistent, Dez Bryant has a hairline fracture in his knee, and Tyron Smith's back keeps locking up. Our friends at Spotrac have a full page on the Cowboys' investments, and the names at the top verify the poor injury fortune so far.

It certainly isn't an exact science, but in the case of the Cowboys, it sure looks close. That is, in July, you ask me "Who are the three guys you must keep healthy in 2016?" I am likely saying Romo, Bryant, and Tyron. Maybe Sean Lee gets in there, too. But, man.  
The issue here is how serious Tyron's situation is. Any time we start talking about back issues, we worry. Then, we look back at how much training camp Smith missed. And, how he didn't play much in the preseason (20 snaps in Seattle). He couldn't get through the opener. He didn't even play in Week 3 and looks likely to miss Week 4. It might be time for us to start looking at the breadcrumbs a bit. Smith's back issues might be a bigger deal than the Cowboys are letting on- which is actually something we should be used to.
I am officially worried about Tyron Smith. And Chaz Green is not a step down - he is a flight of stairs down. The Bears did not expose how much it will hurt if Tyron cannot return at full strength. Stay tuned.
Now, after that buzzkill, let's answer more emails and comments:
Q: Who are the 49ers players that Cowboys fans should be concerned about Sunday?
Well, luckily, they have about as pedestrian an offense as we will see all season - even including the Bears.  At least Alshon Jeffrey and Kevin White represent some premium talent at WR. San Francisco has nothing on offense beyond RB Carlos Hyde, and he is still looking for his first 500-yard season.
The 49ers have a so-so offensive line, very poor QB play and nothing out wide to bother Dallas. In other words, the Cowboys are playing two of the worst offenses in football in consecutive weeks- and still get to play Cleveland later in the year! Yay fourth-place schedules!
Now, on defense, the 49ers are pretty good. CB Navorro Bowman is a stud. They have solid edge rushers (although my favorite, Aaron Lynch, is suspended for one more week) with Eli Harold and Ahmad Brooks on the blitz, and they're very stout against the run up front with Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner. The secondary is strong, too.  
In other words, do not underestimate this opponent. They are a different team at home. Let me prove it. Here are the home/road defensive splits for the 49ers since the start of 2015. They are not easy to break down in their own stadium. This might take all day.

Q: How much of what Zeke did against the Bears was him beginning to find his way and the fact that Chicago is pretty bad?
In the words of my friends in England, the song "Can we play you every week" comes to mind.  The Bears are bad, they were banged up, and they were on a short week. So, yes, seeing a lot of good things for the Cowboys that night is fun, but we should also keep the opponent in mind. Styles make fights and this fight was over early. The Bears can't compete right now with many teams on their schedule.  
That said, Zeke was about to break out against anyone. This week, when the running lanes are far more difficult to find, we'll learn more.
Q:  How hurtful is the La'el Collins injury to this team if he's out 9-10 games?
It sure isn't great. If you limit it to a simple Leary for Collins trade, everything is fine. But it never works that way. We now see Leary and Green getting starts which isn't ideal. If another one hits, the Cowboys will really be scrambling. So much of this sport comes down to keeping guys healthy and ready to go every seven days.
Q: Saw where oddsmakers had Philly as NFC East favorite now. How do you see the division at this point?
I imagine everyone likes the Eagles now. I might have expected six or seven wins from them this year and they already have three in September. That is great. But two wins came against the hapless Bears and the Browns. The Steelers win is great, but I still have massive questions about the Eagles. Lane Johnson's suspension appeal is huge - if he misses 10 games they are really in trouble. 
Carson Wentz has been nice, but his growth process has featured short passes and ideal defensive contributions. Just like people are betting against Dak Prescott keeping this up, I imagine Wentz can't do it for 16 games with that group of skill players, either. Not only that, take a look at the Eagles schedule from Week 6 on. They have a run of games in the final two to three months that would bring most teams to their knees. So I am not buying Eagles stock right now. They are good, but don't let 3-0 fool you.  
My views on the division are still the same: It is all bunched together between seven and nine wins, and all four teams can fall in that range.  
Q: Cowboys' OL a little banged up. Is 49ers' front 7 good enough to cause Dallas problems if OL isn't what it usually is?
Yes. The 49ers are going to cause issues on Sunday for sure with their front seven. Do not underestimate that group - especially with the left side of the Cowboys OL likely weakened and likely no Dez. Beware.
Q: So does Terrance Williams, who hasn't been too good anyway, become a non-factor if Dez is out for any length of time? Can Brice Butler make a difference?
That is the test, right? Both Williams and Butler are going into free agency and this is a perfect chance for one of them to show the front office they need a nice extension. If they fail without Dez, the team might decide it needs a WR in the draft and let this entire cast of guys around Bryant and Beasley go and start over again.  
Butler has always impressed in camp, but now we need to see it on the field in games. One of these two needs to take another step. Williams is more proven but obviously has more people to convince he's worth what it would take to keep him here.
Q:  Why has Colin Kaepernick gone from a Super Bowl QB to a guy who can't beat out Blaine Gabbert?
Well, let's suggest that Jim Harbaugh is a genius to get Kaepernick to the Super Bowl and on the brink of winning it. But let's also keep open the possibility that he may have another chapter to his book and it could start this week. I still think that Kaepernick's skill set fits perfectly with Chip Kelly's scheme, but perhaps they are just convinced he is a lost cause. Then again Gabbert is just not very good at all.
I think we might see Kaepernick on Sunday and if we do, I will be curious what that does to the emotion of the game in the stadium and so forth. It might be quite the wildcard for Kelly to play.
Q:  What would be three key points for the Cowboys to get a win vs. the 49ers?
Let's go with:  1) Prove you can run the ball against this front. 2) Get Prescott space to create with his dual-threat options and 3) Win the line of scrimmage on defense - don't let Hyde get loose.
This one is going to be close and will take three hours to decide.  The 49ers are no joke.  
Beware! Ambush awaits in Santa Clara.  Enjoy the game and your weekend.  I have the Cowboys in a tight finish.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Dez Is Hurt Again. Now What?

I think it is safe to imagine that in the back of every owner/general manager's mind when they sign a long-term NFL deal with a star player is the worst-case scenario.  For instance, in early July 2015 when the Cowboys locked down Dez Bryant for 5 years at $70 million, the idea was that you would enjoy more of the same from 2014 when he was one of the best receivers in the sport, not lose him to injury after injury.

Unfortunately, in the first year of his deal, his age-26 season was almost completely washed out with painful incidents.  First, in the season opener against the Giants and then again in the end zone when he made an amazing catch against the Eagles in early November. 
The plan in 2016 was that his age-27 season was going to be far better.  The training in the offseason put him in a position to bounce back to superstar status that was last seen that day at Lambeau Field in January of 2015.  But, it now appears another work-related injury has appeared and will make the Cowboys do something they were not prepared to do last year: move the ball without Dez Bryant.
The problems that are associated with playing without Tony Romo and Bryant are enough to cause massive heartburn among any Cowboys loyalist, largely because the Cowboys looked so ill prepared to pull off such a feat just last season.  But, Dak Prescott has filled the masses with confidence as not only a reasonable understudy to Romo, but causing a whole new generation to learn the name Wally Pipp. 
But, that was with the elite value of Bryant.  Not always in fantasy football statistics, but more importantly, in the reality of dictating coverages.  Opposing defensive coordinators spend every week learning how to take away your strength.  Dez Bryant is the main focus that occupies the secondary.  Many weeks, the opponent will demand that you beat them with Cole Beasley, Jason Witten, or that vaunted running game.  Because Bryant affects the math with his presence, they often do win that way.
This week, though, and likely through the bye week, the Cowboys are expected to have to figure things out without Bryant and Romo all over again.  This time, Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett are determined to get it right.  This will require doing it against more tightly compacted defenses that crowd the line of scrimmage to take away the running game and safe underneath throws. 

The solutions don't fill you with optimism.  Brice Butler looks the part, but he has not been given enough chance to demonstrate the ability to produce yet.  Terrance Williams seems far more suited to complementary roles where he is not counted upon to get open.  Gavin Escobar is merely a special teams body these days. 
Bryant keeps opponents honest, which is something that nobody else on this offense can do past 10 yards.  We saw what happened last year because of that.  The vertical game died, the safeties walked up, and even the shorter windows closed because they were not scared of your threats getting behind them. 
I have been impressed with the creativity of the offense to this point in 2016, but now, any plans of keeping Prescott out of tough spots is likely gone.  He will have to win with his feet, fit the ball into traffic, and expand more on the zone-read game with Ezekiel Elliott that we saw a few weeks back.
But, until they prove they can still move the ball without Bryant threatening opponents, you can bet this represents Jerry Jones' worst-case scenario of how that contract would pay off back in July of 2015.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Marinelli Report - Week 3 - Bears

The season is now 3 weeks old and we are still trying to evaluate the caliber of the Cowboys defense from a number of perspectives.   Every week I am sent a report with where the Cowboys rank in a number of categories on both sides of the ball to see where they sit, relative to the rest of the league. 
Weeks like Sunday offer a view that is awfully misleading, because it is built on raw statistics rather than context-based considerations.  For instance, the Cowboys surrendered around 390 yards on Sunday, which is quite a few.  But, I felt that most of them were in what we would describe as "garbage time", when the defense stops caring about yards allowed and starts trying to get you to burn what remains of the clock and to end the game.
For instance, of the Bears' 390 yards, nearly 300 were gained after halftime.  Of those, 188 of those were in the fourth quarter with the Cowboys up 31-10 with 9 minutes to go.  Garbage time.  They count, but I contend they don't matter.
Now, there is no filter on these stats to demonstrate how defenses give up their yards.  It would be nice to eliminate garbage time numbers in prevent defenses, but in the end, all roads lead back to the discussion that the only stat that matters is winning.  And they did that on Sunday comfortably, against one of the softest rosters they will face.  
We don't want to completely discount what Brian Hoyer and his receivers accomplished on Sunday -- 6 explosive plays against Dallas is disconcerting -- but, very little of it felt important when the Bears were run out of the building on both sides of the ball in the first half.  At 24-3, with plenty of their roster in street clothes, the Bears were merely playing for fantasy football participants.  
Regardless, every team has a story to tell, and for now, the Cowboys' rankings on defense tell us they are in the bottom third of the league in the following defensive categories through three weeks:
  • 22nd in yards per game allowed - 379 yards
  • 25th in yards allowed per play - 6.22
  • 28th in rushing yards per play - 4.79
  • 23rd in passing yards per game - 290
  • 25th in sacks per passing attempt percentage - 3.25
As for those explosives, the Cowboys have surrendered 15 plays of 20 yards or more, including six on Sunday night.  That means they have given up 12 in the last 2 weeks and that is going to be a real problematic issue if it continues.  
New Orleans and Oakland have both given up 17, Tennessee is at 16, Green Bay and Dallas sit third at 15 against through 3 weeks.  A few of those defenses are known as high-risk defenses that understand part of the cost of their blitz rate is going to get burned from time to time.  But, we know the Cowboys are as conservative as it gets.  They are blitzing even less than last year when they blitzed less than anyone.  So, we don't want to give up a half-dozen big plays a week if you are dropping 7 in coverage.  
You certainly have to be pleased about the great job on third down from this defense on Sunday night and the job they have done so far at getting off the field on the money down.  They are tied for 11th in the league in third down defense and this represents a very promising start.  This and takeaways control everything on defense and we don't want to underestimate what we talked about on Monday in the Morning After column:  
Last night, they caused a few fumbles and came up with them and in the first two weeks it was interceptions. We know the limitations of this defense, but, if they can just go get the ball a few times, they will survive most weeks. Four takeaways don't impress you? Well, in 2015, they got their fourth takeaway on November 1.
That multiple takeaway game takes them to 30-9 under Jason Garrett when the defense takes the ball twice.  
Pretty amazing how much the Bears went at the right sideline -- Morris Claiborne's side -- and how many times Hoyer threw the ball out of bounds.   Claiborne is the player I am asked the most about by readers and listeners.  The opinions range quite a bit, but everyone wants to talk about him and his progress.  
So, let's do it:

Yes, this is a contract year for Claiborne, but so was last year.  He was brought back on a 1-year "prove it" deal and then moved from right corner to left corner.  This is kind of a big deal as that is clearly the high traffic side in the NFL.  Every week, you are going against someone who is pretty great (or expected to be pretty great very soon).    
Every week, he is going to see tons of action and the Cowboys are asking him to stand up to it.  As I have said a few times, I am not eager to get carried away with how great he is doing.  In fact, we covered this last Friday in our mailbag:  
I think Mo Claiborne is playing some solid football. Not perfect, but much better than what we have seen. He just needs to stay on the field. He has to play. He just has never played as much as he needs to and cornerbacks are all about snap counts. They have to stay on the field or their value is zero. 
Look at the snap count difference between Claiborne and Brandon Carr. They both got here in 2012, so they have both had the same number of available snaps. Carr has been in 4,305 plays (all of them) and Claiborne has played in 2,319. That is roughly 54 percent of Carr's total. I have always defended Carr and never defended Claiborne based on this simple idea. Carr may not pick off enough passes and stop enough plays, but he battles and battles for three hours every Sunday. Claiborne has not proven he can be counted upon. 
So, we never get to a technique discussion. One is present and one is not. That is why I don't get carried away when Claiborne plays two good games. Call me when he plays a full season (at any level of quality) to prove he is worthy of a monetary investment moving forward.
Granted, that seems a bit harsh, but I was watching him on Sunday get all sorts of action again and for the most part, you can see he is battling his tail off and competing at a reasonably high level.  Again, there will be no "mission accomplished" banners until we see this for a full season, but I thought Sunday was pretty good.  Let's look a this work:
I love this first play.  This is early in the second quarter and the team is now in the red zone.  Third down and in the red zone.  The object of the game is to get off the field and hold them to three.  The Bears want to beat him to the sticks, but Claiborne cuts off the angle, forces him back to his help, and then completes the stop on his own.  Third down stops are key and he played it well.
Here we are again.  Zone coverage, hand your man to the safety, and then go protect the flats.  Nothing special here, but that is the point.  Just solid zone corner play.
2-Man here in the fourth quarter, and they want to isolate Mo in the flat.  One on one play and Claiborne is having none of it.
We said this is a league where you are always going to be attacked and good players are going to do great things at times.  Kevin White hasn't done much in this league, but I suspect he will.  I loved him coming out of West Virginia, and the degree of difficulty of this catch is pretty high.  At first, I thought Mo didn't look for the ball in time, but he did.  Just a great catch.
So, that catch above made the Bears go right back to it.  This time, Claiborne is even more aggressive in his coverage and backs White right through the sideline.  Great technique there.
I think he is coming along.  I still need to see it as a long-term fixture, but his start is offering optimism.
In addition to those plays that Claiborne made - both on 3rd downs, I think the player who made a nice difference again was Tyrone Crawford.  He is the member of that 2012 draft the team has invested in and it is now vital for him to continue to pay off that investment.  
It sure looks like playing him more at DE is working for now and I think Maliek Collins is showing that is something they can afford to do. 
The player I need more of is David Irving.  They play him so sparingly, but he flashes every single time.  The team was not credited for a sack on Sunday, but I thought when Irving and Mayowa were able to force the fumble from Hoyer, they deserved one.  I guess the stat people think that Hoyer just fell and fumbled with no help.  I disagree.
Here is where we are so far through three games.  The beauty here is that they are now very close to getting DeMarcus Lawrence back and they have stayed healthy on defense.  Knock on wood.
We are still figuring out what this group is capable of and who can hurt them.  In a few weeks after playing playoff teams in Cincinnati and Green Bay, we will know more.  But, this San Francisco game should not be underestimated.  The good news is that they have almost nothing on their offense that scares anyone with a poor QB, mediocre OL, and anonymous WR group filled with retreads.  This is perhaps even less dynamic than Chicago from that standpoint.
But, it is also a road game in the NFL and this will be a good test for the entire squad to see if they can go do what they are supposed to do.  Leave with a win on the West Coast.  It doesn't even have to be pretty, but it starts with this defense getting off the field on third down and holding those explosive plays down to 2 or 3, not 5 or 6.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Decoding Linehan - Week 3 -

When the offense looks like it currently does, you shake your head a bit. Remember, this is a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back. This is supposed to come with some considerable growing pains and speed bumps.
They may still arrive around the next turn, but for now, if you had to evaluate the offense based on three games, you would point out that this rookie quarterback has not thrown an interception while leading the NFL in third-down efficiency. They are moving the chains better than any offense in football and still not turning the ball over or taking sacks. That is a remarkable trick.
Through three weeks, the Cowboys' offense is in the top half of the league in every single category and in the top five in many of them. They are staying ahead of the chains and keeping themselves in proper down-and-distance situations.

I am constantly getting questions like, "Is Dak Prescott's performance sustainable?" The answer is that surely he is going to have some bad weeks -- every quarterback does. But have the Cowboys' offensive minds altered their approach to the attack because, instead of having a star, veteran quarterback who does certain things well and other things that must be avoided (for his health), they have a rookie quarterback who can put you in so many personnel binds because of his combination of passing, running and frankly, a sturdiness that allows for a few more risks?  
Basically, Dak Prescott gives you math issues as a defense. And if he can make you pay with his arm, then the legs take care of themselves.
Let's look at a few examples of what I am suggesting:
The Cowboys are running two personnel groupings and formations more and more each week. It is Shotgun01 (four wide receivers, one tight end, zero running backs) and S11e, which is what I call the "Shotgun 11 empty" personnel when they put the running back out as a receiver.
I distinguish the difference because I believe the defenses will treat Ezekiel Elliott and Brice Butler differently, and if they don't, then I will motion Zeke back in and we will run the ball like that until they change their defensive deployment. Basically, like so many great coaching innovations in today's game, the defense can never be "right." An offensive mind wants to make you choose, and then, regardless of your choice, they want to make you wish you went the other way.
The Cowboys used S11e four times. They only passed once. The other three times, Dak encountered a look that made him just use his feet to move the chains.
The Bears look like they are in Cover 1 with a free man below to double Witten and spy the quarterback a bit. Dak uses his feet to move the chains and then hits the ground quickly.
This one is far more of an improv move, but he won't force a throw. Then he uses his athleticism to get around the corner for another big gain. This was 17 yards out of nothing. Textbook example of "defying the Xs and Os."
This is even better. If you drop into coverage, he will use his feet to extend the drive. If you stay up by the line, he will pass over you. This is repeatable and exciting.
Here is the fourth and final time you saw S11e, and he did make a throw. The touchdown to Dez Bryant on a deep slant.


Why aren't there interceptions? Because the balls primarily are going to safe spots on the field, where danger doesn't live. Almost every throw is outside the numbers or shallow crosses. This, frankly, is modern football. Eliminate the danger, add another element with the feet, and off we go.


The above box is what offensive perfection looks like. Every stat up there is exactly where you want to see things -- an average of 3.7 yards to go on third downs is comical. I have kept these numbers for years and don't ever recall seeing anything that low. A 6.6 average to go on second down also is remarkably low. They hadn't been down there since the 2015 opener. This team is rolling with a ground game and aerial attack that are teaming up to hum along through three weeks with impressive ease. This looks like the Cowboys when Tony Romo is really in a groove, to be honest.


This is what we were looking at earlier with the S11e grouping that somehow -- despite an empty backfield -- went to the run on three of four snaps because Dak Prescott decided to keep the ball and do it with his feet.
That, of course, skews the numbers a bit between run and pass because that is a pass call that goes down as a run number and makes the running game look even more dominant. Again, this is modern football, but if you are like me and only track the Cowboys' offense on a regular basis, you realize that the Cowboys have not really been participating in the modern, dual-threat quarterback math issues that defenses face on a regular basis. Again, I am not suggesting this way is superior to what Drew Brees and Tom Brady do, but man does it make playing defense more of a headache.
Otherwise, it is clear that "12" personnel started running the ball better -- 17 carries for 90 yards (5.3 average) is much better than what we were seeing.
Now, let's have some fun. I want to invite you to listen to a few minutes of Jason Witten talking football on our radio show about the plays I will show you below:
While you are listening to Jason, I will show you the plays here:
The first one is from the second drive -- the Cowboys faced a third-and-1.  
As you can see, the motion comes over and the run route with Beasley and Witten allows a simple pitch-and-catch and a nice, easy third-down conversion.
You know that corner sees the same motion to Witten's side and he's sure what is coming. So he sneaks under Witten to get to Beasley in the flat and the Cowboys are ready for that adjustment with one of their own:
That is just beautiful and Beasley catches the first "go" route of his career.
Like Witten says, this chess game is what makes you love football.


Here is where the rubber meets the road on where this season might go. The Cowboys played Monday night without Tyron Smith and now will play much of the season without La'el Collins (it appears). For whatever reason, I spent the summer assuming this would be the year the O-line is hit with injuries because they have gone several years without being hit, like many other teams having had to use an eighth or ninth offensive lineman for weeks at a time.
In 2013, they used the same five guys up front for the entire year. In 2014, they used Jermey Parnell for five weeks, but otherwise had 100-percent health again. Then in 2015, they had full health again aside from Ron Leary's groin strain that opened the door for Collins.
In other words, they haven't had a significant injury on the offensive line in several years. It is one thing to have high-quality players -- it's another for them to be so durable. Travis Frederick has never missed a snap. Zack Martin has duplicated that since getting drafted, too. Smith just missed his first game since 2012.
Not trading Ron Leary was something I campaigned for since July because I was sure he was going to play a role this year. It was just a matter of time. Now, they need him. Let's hope they don't need anyone else off the bench to become a regular.


I have been very encouraged with the work of Scott Linehan and Dak Prescott to not only design something that can be successful, but maybe more importantly, something that can be repeatable.
There is a fair amount of creativity and wrinkles we have not seen until this point. They are employing a number of either/or scenarios that put the quarterback in a comfortable spot in decision-making while allowing for advantageous places to go with the ball. All of this behind an offensive line that doesn't allow pass pressure and can get a zone-running game going with Zeke behind it.
Again, it all seems legitimate.
I don't know where this goes when Tony Romo is healthy. I assume it might go back to the way they used to do things with No. 9 under center. But, I am comfortable that this team can consider continuing down this path and following this blueprint until they must make a decision.
In other words, this doesn't look like a fluke.
In closing, enjoy this: