Wednesday, January 30, 2013

New Orleans Is Back

It has been said that there are two ways to get the media on your side - free stuff and great food.  That seems like a reduction in the cognitive skills of said journalists, but in fairness, if they are going to combine the two into "free great food" then, we might have a situation where the tractor beam certainly locks on and never let's us loose.

And, given the fact that last night, the city of New Orleans has let loose on the greatest Super Bowl party that I have ever been subject to, filled with 50 of the city's finest restaurants bringing their proudest dishes for hundreds of media types, you would think that someone like me might be affected by that and now willing to give this city a fine review because of a full and happy belly.

Well, you would be wrong;

For, I was already celebrating the greatness of New Orleans before I consumed my first crawfish last night.

After 11 years away from New Orleans, we are back in maybe the finest Super Bowl city of them all.  Sunday, New Orleans will host its 10th giant game, pulling even with Miami for the leader in SB cities, and now that I have been attending these weeks for 12 years, I feel I am now at least sort of qualified to rate them.

And the best I have been to seem to generally revolve around those two cities and San Diego for certain built-in advantages they have that Indianapolis or Detroit just cannot compete with.  I want to attempt to keep an open mind about the New York City Super Bowl we are being asked to deal with next season, but let's be honest: the forefathers of the Super Bowl did not intend for winter coats to be part of the equation, as they put the first several Super Bowls in Los Angeles, Miami, and New Orleans.  Even in the 1960s, this was not hard to compute that in the dead of winter, the teams, their fans, and the whole world would love to find an excuse to to arrive down south and consider the possibility of short sleeves in late January/early February.

Of course, back then, it was more like mid-January, but you get the idea.  There was a reason that Green Bay and Chicago were never considered, so why they are getting stadiums approved with the condition that Indianapolis, Detroit, and New York would also get to host their big day in the sun seems absurd for a sport that doesn't need add-ons like this to be successful.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans hard in 2005, and the stadium itself, the Super Dome was converted into a temporary refuge for tens of thousands of people who had no other place to go.  They weren't worried about hosting a Super Bowl for years because they were simply trying to preserve the future of their city.  But now, in early 2013, this event is in some ways a huge milestone that things have fully recovered and the city is now at maximum levels of entertainment and energy.

From a Cowboys standpoint, New Orleans has been the site of some fantastic days, including the time the Cowboys went from being "next year's champion" to being the undisputed champ in Super Bowl VI.  It was in New Orleans where they finally were able to close the deal with Roger Staubach and Duane Thomas doing the heavy lifting on offense and Bob Griese being chased down by Bob Lilly for a sack that has been shown on NFL Films a million times.  Instead of living in disappointments after season ending-losses to Green Bay, Cleveland, and Baltimore, they finally stood on top of the world with their their heads high after crushing Miami, 24-3, cementing the relationship between your Cowboys and New Orleans for ever.

If that wasn't enough, the Cowboys came back 6 years later and played in the 1st ever Super Bowl played indoors in the Crescent City, and were able to enjoy the benefits of the Denver Broncos being a generous turnover machine, as the Cowboys won easily over the Broncos and their former QB Craig Morton, 27-10.

So, you can see that when you attend 5 Super Bowls, but have you heart broken 3 times in Miami, but win big both visits to New Orleans, that the Cowboys certainly enjoyed their adventures here back in the day.

They have never returned to the big game here, as their chances at Super Bowl 31 and the end of the triplets dynasty ended in Carolina in a year where Brett Favre returned home to win his one and only Super Bowl.  The Cowboys other 3 SB titles were in 4 short years in the early 90's, of course, in Pasadena (which hasn't hosted since), Atlanta (also hosted Super Bowl 34), and Tempe (not hosted since, although Glendale did host Super Bowl 42 and will also host Super Bowl 49).

New Orleans also has crowned the Steelers (SB 9), the Raiders (SB 15), the Bears (SB 20), the 49ers (SB 24), and was the site for the very first title of the Patriots era (SB 36), which, ahem, included that video-taping accusation of the Rams workouts as you may recall.

What makes New Orleans great is pretty difficult to narrow down.  Obviously, it is a city that is made for entertaining its guests.  It is prepared to do so with a downtown that is compacted together so that "walking distance" is always an option.  There are hundreds or restaurants and more hotels than you could ever need all right there on top of the places you want to be.

This can be taken for granted unless you have ever stayed in Georgia and had to drive in to Jacksonville each day of the Super Bowl week, or had nice long drives all over Detroit, Indianapolis, or yes, our fair city of Dallas-Fort Worth.  Centrally located?  "What is that?"is a question that was clearly not asked much when laying out the metroplex for a visitor's benefit.  We have learned to deal with it, but the visitor notices that every attraction is 40 minutes from the others.  Well, when you compare it to New Orleans, that has everything within 1-mile in any direction, the differences are obvious.

This is also a city that was packed with civic pride long before Katrina made her acquaintance.  Now, since the city was beaten up pretty badly, civic pride oozes everywhere.  The people that live here love this place, and want you to give it a chance to do the same.  Not exactly some of the other cities where the residents cannot wait for the Super Bowl to hurry up and get out of here so we can go back to our lives.

I hadn't been back here since the 2003 Final Four, when Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse took down Kansas in a Final Four that also featured Dwyane Wade and TJ Ford.  Before that, it seemed we were always coming here for something.

But, I am here to report that this city has it going on and is quite alive and well.  And as a few of us spoiled media types were discussing our annual pilgrimages to the biggest week on the NFL calendar, it did cross my mind again that if the league wanted to simply rotate the game on a basis of cities that are perfect for this event, it would go back to how Lamar Hunt and friends laid things out a long, long time ago: Miami, Los Angeles/San Diego, and New Orleans.

It might seem unfair to the Clevelands and Seattles of the world that they never get their turn, but let's be honest:  Some cities were made for weeks like this.

And clearly, New Orleans is one of them.

I will try not to eat all of the food while I am here.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Watching Super Bowl 27 - 20 Years Later

For the 20th anniversary of the Cowboys 1992 Super Bowl appearance in Pasadena in Jan 1993, I wanted to pop in the DVDs - that I have with the expressed written consent of the NFL and the Dallas Cowboys - and view Super Bowl 27 again.  Below is my running diary of the experience.

Pregame show:

Magic Johnson asks the triplets where they look for Super Bowl experience and Emmitt answers that they only have two players with experience, Ray Horton and Charles Haley.  “And everybody knows what talking to Charles is like.”  Big laughter.

Emiitt is wearing one of his trademark vests.  But, man, those triplets look very young.  And Michael, of course, has sunglasses on inside.  And adds that they “cook hamburgers better in Dallas when you are winning”. 

End of interview with Magic also involves Michael pointing out that he wants Emmitt to win the MVP because his contract is up and Troy doesn’t need it because he will always get all of the money. 

NBC have Bob Trumpy and Dick Enberg on the call for Super Bowl 27.  Trumpy says that the Bills will need to slow down Emmitt Smith and the Cowboys will need to slow down Thurman Thomas.  So, some pretty crazy commentary being thrown down here.

Trumpy on waiting for the game to begin for the players: “Even though it is hell, there is nowhere else you would rather be.”

Cornelius Bennett uses his moment on camera in starting lineups to sing some indecipherable song.

Garth Brooks seems to have performed a stirring rendition of the national anthem standing along side a lady who signed the song for America.

And here to perform the coin-flip?  OJ Simpson, of course!   Clear Buffalo bias from the Juice as the Bills win the toss and elected to receive.  The Cowboys are clearly doomed.  Dick Enberg tells us that yesterday in rehearsal, the coin toss went to Buffalo all 5 times.  Who knew that they rehearsed the coin toss with stand-ins?  He tells us the odds of the toss going to Buffalo 6 straight times is 64 to 1.  Didn’t seem likely.

Oddsmakers tell us Dallas will win by 7.  49-year old Jimmy Johnson stalks the sideline as he finishes his 4th year with the Cowboys.

1st Quarter:

Buffalo receives and trots out the “K-Gun”.   Andre Reed catches a cross for 14 yards, and the Bills up-tempo hurry is off and running.  But on 3rd and 3, Russell Maryland chases Kelly out to the left flat where Thomas Everett cleans up for a sack and they force a punt.

Cowboys take over at the 15 after the punt for their first possession.  A pass to Emmitt and a run to Emmitt gets a total of 1 yard, setting up a 3rd and long.  On 3rd and 9, Troy airmails a pass to Irvin and it is a 3 and out.  Mike Saxon to punt, and the Bills get to the punt as Steve Tasker blocks it out of bounds.  Enberg lets out his first “Oh, my!” and the Bills have the first major break of the game.  Tasker blew by #55 Robert Jones and got there, and the Bills get the ball at the Cowboys 16.

The Bills get stuffed by Kenny Gant who is described as having the Shark Dance, and then on 3rd Down Charles Haley destroys Left Tackle Will Wolford and causes a sack and fumble.  But, a very late flag on Larry Brown holding on James Lofton gives the Bills an automatic 1st Down.  Thurman Thomas capitalizes and goes off right tackle for a short touchdown and the Bills strike 1st.  7-0 Bills.

It is time to discuss the last AFC win in the Super Bowl back in 1984 when the Raiders beat the Redskins.  That was also a game where the AFC team blocked a punt.  Hmmmm.

Cowboys 2nd possession starts with Emmitt getting nothing on 1st Down.  A dump down to a “true cowboy”, Jay Novacek who we are told competed in the 1984 Olympic trials in the decathlon.  Enberg is telling us everything about everyone now.   Here is one on Jimmy Johnson: “the son of a super intendent of an ice cream factory.”

Trumpy tries to blame Michael Irvin not lining up correctly on Super Bowl nerves.  Not sure I buy that, but a false start backs the Cowboys up and is made worse when Novacek drops a pass and Cornelius Bennett right in Aikman’s face.  A 3rd and long pass is behind Kelvin Martin on another Buffalo blitz and it seems Aikman is not locked in so far.  Saxon on again to punt and Robert Jones has been replaced by Dixon Edwards on the punt block team.

Bills 3rd possession starts at their 20, and Maryland blows up a run play to Thurman Thomas.  On 2nd Down, Tony Casillas does the same and the defensive line looks very active.  Haley can do whatever he wants against Wolford who is thought of as a fantastic left tackle normally.  3rd and long is a poor throw, but Leon Lett gets flagged for roughing Jim Kelly after the throw.  Enberg tells us Dave Wannstedt calls Lett the best backup tackle in football, but that is a dumb penalty. 

The Bills then hit Andre Reed out at midfield on the next play, but on 1st Down from there, Kelly challenges James Washington again and this time James steps up and picks it off.  Pete Metzelaars slipped and a Cowboys blitz from Gant made Kelly cough it up, and the Cowboys take over at the Bills 47.

But, the Cowboys have 2 more negative plays to start this opportunity and on 3rd and 16.  This time, Aikman steps into a strong pass for 20 yards to Irvin on that Bang 8 across the face of the safety.  Bread and butter.  Emmitt moves the chains again down to the 22 of Buffalo on the lead draw. 

When they went into the 1990 draft, they wanted the linebacker James Francis, so they traded up from 22 to 17, but the Bengals took Francis and the Cowboys settled for Smith.  The best player on their board was Seau that year. 

On the next play, Aikman finds Novacek on a seam route down the numbers and this game is tied at 7.  On the extra point, Tommie Agee just grabs the face mask of a defender and forces a 30 yard extra point, but it is converted.   1:36 left in the 1st Quarter.

The Bills are backed up after a kickoff penalty and on the 1st play of the possession from their 10, Charles Haley again destroys Howard Ballard and sacks Kelly who loses the ball right to Jimmie Jones and the big man falls into the endzone for a defensive score.  Lin Elliott makes it 14-7.  Haley must be considered for MVP so far.

Bills ball again, barely, after the kick return was fumbled, but Buffalo gets it back after Gant strips the ball from the returner, Brad Lamb.  Kenneth Davis with a few useful carries as Thurman Thomas is limping around on the sideline as the quarter ends.

The 21 points is the highest scoring 1st Quarter in Super Bowl history.

2nd Quarter:

The quarter opens with a huge cross to Andre Reed from the slot as Reed runs away from Gant all the way down to the 5-yard line.  He has 3 catches for 74 yards already.  Thomas puts the ball down to the 1 on another counter to RT, then limps off again.  Davis runs into Ken Norton at the goal line and that is a huge play. Levy has to decide what to do on 4th and goal from 1-foot from pay-dirt, and keeps his offense on the field.

The 4th down pass is a rollout right for Kelly and when things get jammed up with Tolbert bringing pressure, he tries for his tight end Metzelaars, but Thomas Everett sits on that and picks it off again in the endzone for the Bills 3rd giveaway already.   11:59 left in the half, and the Cowboys take over at the 20.

Enberg confuses Leon Lett with Godfrey Miles which seems difficult to do, but Miles looks to be injured and is eventually carted off with a knee.  Aikman shows some scrambling ability as he moves the chains out to the 43.   Drive stalls as the Bills aren’t letting Emmitt get loose and Saxon must punt it back to the Bills.

Another linebacker blitz ruins a play as Ken Norton causes a poor pass and leaves Kelly on the field in considerable pain on that bad knee.  And it looked pretty bad on replay as Norton was in mid-air after being cut by a running back and thus crushed Kelly who is helped off.  So, here comes Frank Reich on 3rd and 3, who does a nice job on his 1st play to hit Metzelaars for a 1st down to 40. 

Then, he hits Reed in the seam of a zone for 38 more yards and Reich has started very well.  Kelly is keeping  his helmet on as he is carted off.  Don Beebe is open for a slant but Larry Brown recovers and might have tipped the ball.  Or, Beebe just dropped it. 

Haley has never lifted weights in his life – Trumpy

3rd and 1 for Reich from the 4 yard line and Thomas cannot get there as Haley does it again.  This time, Levy is kicking with Steve Christie and the Bills settle for a FG and it is 14-10.

Enberg continues to elaborate on Novacek’s private life, this time detailing his channel selection in his cabin in Nebraska.  Just 1 channel!  Amazing.

Now, on the final play before the 2 minute warning, Moose gets a big block and Emmitt hits it for 38 yards on the lead draw to the Bills 19.  On the next play, Bang 8 on the other side this time to Irvin for the Touchdown.   This play is better described here by Troy Himself in a previous blog post I have written and Part 2 is here.  It is well worth reading.  The Norv Turner timing-based offense legend grows on this play and the lead grows to 21-10 with 1:54 to go in the half.

So, the Bills take over and try a safe pass to Thurman Thomas on the swing to the right, but as he fights for yards, Thomas is stripped by Lett and the Bills turn the ball over again!  4th Giveaway and Jimmie Jones recovers and now the Cowboys can go for the kill shot with a +4.

It takes one play, and Troy finds Irvin on a deep out to the right sideline.  Irvin attacks the ball against corner James Williams and then twists and falls across the goal-line to put the score to 28-10.  Kelly and Thurman Thomas have been the major reasons why the Bills are getting destroyed. 

Enberg: Jimmy Johnson doesn’t like jokes, but does like Don Rickles.   No idea.

Bills just trying to get to the room, but Kenneth Davis almost fumbled the ball away again.  The Bills decided that they might still find some points before halftime decide to throw a deep pass to Beebe, and Larry Brown gets in front of it for takeaway #5 in the 1st half alone.  Amazing.

Jimmy and his Miami ring story.  Could become the only coach to win a Super Bowl and a national championship – although Paul Brown won the college and NFL titles, too. 

The Cowboys run out the half and take the +5 turnover margin out with a huge 28-10 halftime lead. 

2 Touchdowns in 15 seconds, then 2 Touchdowns in 18 seconds for the Cowboys.


Michael Jackson performs at halftime in an effort to defeat OJ Simpson in “the most notable celebrity involved in Super Bowl 27 who could not be part of Super Bowl 47” contest.

His performance seems to be mostly about standing and letting the Rose Bowl crowd go insane in his honor for what seems to be at least 2 minutes.   Then, we get Billie Jean, Black or White, and the loudest cheers of the day. 

3RD Quarter:

A quick look at those halftime stats show us that Buffalo has more 1st downs and time of possession.  The Cowboys have 28 more yards, but when turnovers are 5-0, all of those other stats are just here for comedy.

Cowboys get the ball first, and it goes to Emmitt for 8 yards and then Emmitt for 12 more.  The 23-year old now has 79 yards rushing today.  On 3rd and 3 from their 46, Aikman hits a wide-open Irvin on a comeback and he runs for a gain of 24 and a big 1st Down to continue to do whatever they want on the 5-step drops with the timing throws.   2 more middle runs moves the ball inside the Bills’ 20.  And Jim Kelly now comes out on crutches and a stylish pair of light blue jeans.  His day is over and that means it will all be up to Frank Reich.  Keep in mind the biggest Super Bowl deficit overcome is the Redskins versus Denver when they were down 10-0 and scored 42 unanswered.

Another quick out to Irvin, and it is now first and goal.   Then, Novacek brings the all to the 2.  On 3rd and goal, Aikman misses his receiver, so Lin Elliott comes on to kick a chip shot and push the lead to 31-10.   A long drive eats up half of the 3rd quarter and extends the lead to 3 touchdowns.

No gainer for Derrick Gainer - Enberg. 

Reich brings the Bills on for their first shot in the 2nd half, and hits his tight ends underneath with Keith McKeller to the 40.  But, their first non-descript drive ends in a punt, but Kelvin Martin shoots up the field with an explosion on the return and heads 30 yards up the field to put the Cowboys in a fantastic spot to the 41.

NBC shows Aikman’s numbers and not only are they near perfect for the game, but with 7 TDs and 0 INTs in the playoffs, they are stealing the show for the month.  Meanwhile, Mark Tuinei is keeping Bruce Smith very quiet on the edge.  3rd and 7 to Novacek moves the chains again as they cross midfield.    

Emmitt has an inside run that gets him to 100 yards, something only Barry Foster accomplished against the Bills in all of 1992.  Enberg points out Emmitt’s family runs a football card store that he owns, where you can buy an Emmitt for $50 and a Trumpy for 38 cents.

The Cowboys faced a 4th and 4 and decided to go for it, but Aikman’s perfect game runs out of luck as Marcvus Patton bats down the pass and the Bills actually get a stop.

One thing that should be said is that the Cowboys run almost the same 21 personnel group (2 RB, 1 TE, and 2 WR) almost the entire game, save for 3rd Down when they bring in K-Mart for Moose and switch to 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR).  The game is far more strategically complex 20 years later.

Bills take over at their 38 with 2:10 left in a fast moving 3rd Quarter.  Andre Reed with another crossing reception for a 1st down, but is nailed hard by Everett and is hobbled.   On 3rd and 13, Reich looked like he had crossed the line of scrimmage before he threw a long, high throw to Beebe for a wide-open touchdown, but no flag was thrown.  So, the Bills appeared to get away with a clear violation, but with no replay, Buffalo cuts the lead to 31-17.

4th Quarter:

Cowboys get the ball back and Aikman shows exceptional speed running up the middle for 21 yards.  Very impressive wheels, there.  On the very next play, Emmitt cut back and Bruce Smith stripped the ball into the backfield, where Aikman is paying attention and dived on the ball.  That could have been a huge moment for the Bills.  But, it didn’t happen, and Dallas almost converted a 3rd and 19 with a dump off to Emmitt Smith in the flat, and Emmitt made it interesting., but just short at the Buffalo 48.  The punt team is sent on and the punt is briefly fumbled but retained by the Bills.

The Bills continue to look discombobulated offensively as almost no passes have gone to James Lofton.  The 3rd Down pass does head to Lofton, but the throw isn’t close against Issac Holt.  3 and out and the Bills punt. 

Emmitt for 12 into Bills’ territory as the offensive line is starting to destroy Buffalo.  The next play is a perfect play action fake and then Alvin Harper is found galloping down the right sideline for a long, 45-yard touchdown that Harper then dunks on the goal-post.  Harper, of course, had a long, crucial TD last week in San Francisco, and Aikman has 4 touchdowns.

Dallas 38, Buffalo 17 – 10:04 to play.

The Bills have one play destroyed by Jimmie Jones, but then Reich on the next play is looking inside to Lofton and Thomas Everett jumps the play for an easy interception run back inside the Buffalo 10.  Jerry Jones is jumping up and down on the sideline as he celebrates turnover #6. 

NBC shows a graphic that demonstrates Aikman is close to a 5 TD day which only Joe Montana has had in a Super Bowl (24), but it will not happen as Emmitt Smith is given the ball on 3rd and goal and tornado-spins his way into the endzone for yet another TD with an extra point that gets it to 45-17.

It appears rather clear that the NFC is about to win its 9th straight Super Bowl now. 

Just as the tv shows new Bears coach Dave Wannstedt wrapping up his job in Dallas, the Cowboys are gifted yet another TD as Reich basically just flips the ball into the air on a mis-handled shotgun snap and to Ken Norton, who runs it in for an easy score making another pair of TDs within 41 seconds.  It is now 52-17 with 7 minutes to go on the Bills 7th turnover. 

Norton now has a goal-line stand, a knocked out Jim Kelly, and a touchdown to round out his day.  Certainly, well done. 

We also have a record for points in a Super Bowl game with 69 combined, and the Cowboys are 3 short of the 49ers record of 55 in a game. 

On the next drive, it happens again, as Steve Tasker is hit and stripped by Leon Lett and yet another fumble and loss of possession to the Cowboys.  Just ridiculous.

On comes Steve Beuerlein for Dallas, who still has half of a quarter to kill.  The Bills 8th turnover ties them with Denver’s 8 in Super Bowl 12 and passes the Baltimore 7 in Super Bowl 5 for most all-time.  All 3 performances are against Dallas.  Somehow, the Colts won Super Bowl 5. 

Gainer fumbled the ball back as a gesture of charity, and the Cowboys commit their first giveaway. 

The next Bills drive is spent mostly focusing on Jerry Jones, his smiles, and his college football pictures at 1964 at Arkansas.

But, that conversation is broken up for one of the more famous plays of a 5-touchdown game, as Leon Lett picks up a fumble and runs the ball back only to start celebrating at the 5 yard line and is caught from behind by Don Beebe.  The ball is knocked back through the endzone and the ball is ruled a touchback.   The play has become legendary, but it had nothing to do with the game whatsoever really. 

The game really becomes about running down the clock from this point, but Buffalo keeps throwing the ball around so the announcers spend time pondering how damaging losing 3 straight Super Bowls might be. 

Jimmy is doused with Gatorade and the hair is hardly bothered.  The play was executed by Irvin hugging him as a distraction before the Gatorade arrived from behind.  Then, Emmitt is allowed to mess up his hair and hilarity ensues.

Jerry Jones arrives with a comb and Trumpy tells us that the league envies their work relationship where there is no go-between with coach and owner.  If they only knew the future.

Reich hits Lofton in the endzone with a pass that is flat-out dropped.  It has been a very forgettable day for Lofton.  Lett gets in for a final sack and the game clock expires.

The Cowboys win Super Bowl 27: 52-17.

Enberg wonders if the Cowboys are a dynasty to be in the 1990s after this. 


The MVP goes to Aikman, and although I thought Charles Haley had more to do with the Cowboys taking a lead they were never going to lose, I happily concede that Aikman was so good that with 4 Touchdowns, you could not ignore him.  He did a lot of heavy lifting on 3rd Downs and really impressed.

Maybe the most revealing and odd moments of the post game as Paul Tagliabue presents the Vince Lombardi trophy to Jerry and Jimmy.  As Costas takes over the interview, he says that Jerry signs the checks so he should go first.  Jerry agrees, “I will go first.”

As Costas interviews Jerry and Jimmy, both of them place their hands on the trophy, and neither will take their hands off.  4 hands remain on the trophy for almost 5 minutes straight with Costas in the middle.  It almost looked like they might wrestle for it. 

It was a fantastically dominating performance where the Cowboys flexed their considerable muscle.  And it was the first of what would be a magical 4 year run.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Learning The Draft - DT Edition

These types of posts will show up periodically over the next few months and you certainly will have to decide how badly you want to follow along.  I won't be offended if you are the type to only care about the draft when it happens and you might want to read about the first few guys that the Cowboys take.

However, I am not wired that way, and while there are many who spend more time on the draft than I do, I would argue that I certainly may have a problem to have already spent countless hours on this thing with about 90 days to go.

My goal is not to know everything, nor is it to give you my "mock draft" for all 7 rounds as some people do (I cannot think of a bigger waste of energy than that).  Rather, I just want to try to zero in on the top few rounds and top few picks of the Dallas Cowboys.  Look at every option from every angle, and attempt to build our preferences and ideas solely around that effort.

Mocks and boards are out there and useful, but for us, we just want to see the following:  1) What do the Cowboys need?  2) What are the options at each spot?  3) What do we think they should do?

Sounds easy, but it will take us the next 3 months to do it.  And we will likely still not nail it, because Jerry always has a Morris Claiborne trade up idea that we never see coming.

But, it is still a passion and therefore, we will at least learn the top players about to join the NFL.

Before we dig too deep, let's get a handle on what the Cowboys have at their disposal in the April draft.  As you can see, it is their normal full allotment, save for the 7th that they had to burn last September for Ryan Cook.  Given that they received 837 snaps from Cook in 2012, they will have to admit that investment was worthwhile.  His quality level was not fantastic, but it also wasn't bad.

Here is what they have:

RoundPickOverall - (Approx)
Rd 1#18#18
Rd 2#19#51
Rd 3#18#82
Rd 4#19#115
Rd 5#18#146
Rd 6#19#179
Rd 7#18#220 - Traded to Miami for Ryan Cook

That means that we will attempt to get ready for 3 picks in the Top 82.  Beyond that, there are plenty of other places to find people to speculate about pick #146, but I will draw the line at basically the "Top 100".

When discussing the Cowboys needs, we can go on and on for quite a while.  Looking at the offense, they need a young QB, a RB, a WR, and as many OL as they can grab.  Defensively, they could use DT, DE, OLB, FS, and SS.  And while you are at it, does anyone have enough cornerbacks?

So, they need a lot of positions, and they also have to decide overall what is more pressing A) do they address the lacking physical prowess of a team that was routinely bullied along the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense.  Or B) do they realize that the entire league is basing just about every decision and advancement on one term: speed.

Unfortunately, those are two completely different objectives.  Improve the ability to be physical and win a game with strength and draft OL, DL, OL in the first 3 rounds or understand that the league is in a spot where you need to pass and stop the pass - therefore finding another perimeter weapon WR, a change-up RB, and a safety or corner.  You can't do both.  But, it would only be nice if you could.

Instead, you have to examine how to best fix what is broken and figure out how to best use your assets in a way that gets you ready to go.

Many of these points that have been made require elaboration - remember, we have 100 days til the draft and 200+ to opening day - but for now, I will fast forward ahead to my personal conclusions.  I fully believe that they best way to pass the ball is to provide your QB the opportunity to progress through his reads while keeping his eye level high on the receivers, not low on his failing protection.  I also believe that the best way to stop Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Drew Brees is to hit them repeatedly and make them uncomfortable.  And that is why I want to go big in this draft.  Big and strong on the offensive line and defensive line is where this team needs an infusion of youthful talent.

The last major investment in the defensive line was.....a long ways back.  In fact, 2005 might be the last real major DL moves on draft day.  And, before Tyron Smith, we all know that it had been a lifetime since the Cowboys spent high on that unit.

Well, it is time to invest in big.  WR and RB are needs, safety is always an issue, but I need this April to be about 300 pounders, not smallish skill position guys with Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Dez Bryant, and Claiborne.

Got to swing the balance back to a tough, strong squad that is not filling those gaps with other team's leftovers.

With that in mind, we will begin to look at specific positions and give you some viewing material to digest and "get to know" some candidates on some very early initial lists.


Here is the list of CURRENT NFL All-Pro players at the position.  Forgive the fact that Ngata is a 3-4 DT, Wilfork plays DT in multiple fronts, and Atkins and Suh are 4-3 DTs.  But, I do think it is helpful to compare the relative sizes of the best in the business at these spots as we consider prospects for the next level.


And then here are the top DT prospects that appear to be the consensus top handfuls of guys we better learn about for April:

Hankins-Ohio St6'3322-5.30

Of this list, just about everyone feels that the top 2, Lotulelei and Hankins will be long gone before we get to pick #18.  While we won't ignore them, we also won't spend too much time on them since the Cowboys do not seem to be a candidate to trade up (although that didn't stop them last year).  

But, the next 5 names, starting with Richardson all the way down to Jenkins, we see names that both fit the profile of the Cowboys needs and seem to fit the range of Dallas' top 2 picks.  It is very difficult to determine which players would be a fit at #18 or #51 at this juncture, but I wanted to look at plenty of video on each player and get familiar with these guys in particular.

So, here are some games for you to look at:

Sylvester Williams - North Carolina - 25games - 8.5 sacks

 Vs Maryland


 Vs Va Tech


 Kawann Short - Purdue - 50g - 19.5 sacks

 Vs Notre Dame


 Vs Ohio State


 Vs Illinois


 John Jenkins - Georgia - 27g - 4 sacks

 Vs Auburn


 Vs South Carolina


 Vs Missouri


 Sheldon Richardson - Missouri - 24g - 6 Sacks

 Vs Alabama


Vs Florida


 Sharrif Floyd - Florida - 37g - 4.5 sacks

 vs Texas A&M

 Vs Florida State

This is a lot of information and plenty of things to consider.  If you are like me, you will spend the next few days watching all of this with a notebook and trying to determine which 2 or 3 you like and which you don't care for.

Watch for Jenkins, Short, and Williams in the Senior Bowl on Saturday, and we will start comparing notes next week.

Also, we will move on to Defensive Ends and then to the Offensive Line.

It is officially Draft Season.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Draft Hindsight #1: Tyron over JJ Watt

This is the time of year where we do 2 things as football fans:  1) we prepare for the Super Bowl and  2) we ponder the current roster of our favorite squad; what we need and what decisions did we make that put us in this position that we are not playing this weekend.

The 2nd objective is what will keep me busy in this space for much of the next 3 months.  Several times a week, I want to make sure that we are on top of the Cowboys current situation, but I also want to make sure that we give enough time to looking over the past and learn what can be learned as fans and media so that our opinions are informed.

So, to do that, I think it would be enjoyable to look at some of the moments in the draft past and evaluate whether the Cowboys got the pick right or not.

"Hindsight is 20/20" is what many of you say whenever we go into a study like this as a way to express your feelings about 2nd guessing.  The answer to that is, "of course, it is".  But, we are choosing to do this anyway.  So, if your default observation is going to be that hindsight is 20/20, then don't waste your time with these conversations - it is clearly too much for you to handle.

Hindsight is not 20/20 until the careers are over.  So, we don't know the outcome of some of these picks, but rather we are checking in during this present tense to see how the picks went.  And while doing this, we must remember that for us, we can chalk everything up to hindsight.  The most studious of anyone reading this is that they might have watched 4 or 5 games of each player while in college.  But, if you are the Cowboys and are picking in the NFL draft, you have watched their every snap, you have met with them personally, and you have worked him out and evaluated him as a player and as a human.  You have met for hours about every scenario and have attempted to project each player 5 years down the road.

For us, it is a discussion on a blog or at a bar.  For these men, it can shape the very fortunes of their franchises for the next decade.  This is not a decision they made lightly or loosely.  They have to get these decisions right, especially on those extremely rare occasions where they are in the Top 10 of the draft.

So, if our conclusions are "hindsight is 20/20" as vindication for any wrong move, then we are letting our front office off the hook way to easily.  They must be able to project as well as possible and as well as their competition.

Very few picks are going to be as significant as the 1st one we pick off, but I thought we would start with the one that has dazzled many of you for the last 2 years.

2011 Draft - Pick #9 - Tyron Smith, Tackle, USC

In 2012, here is the entire list of starting NFL tackles that gave up fewer sacks than Tyron Smith:  Ryan Clady, Jeff Backus, Russell Okung, Matt Kalil, and D'Brickashaw Ferguson.

In 2012, according to Pro Football Focus, here is the entire list of starting tackles who graded out better at run blocking than Tyron Smith:  Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, Duane Brown, Phil Loadholt, William Beatty and Andre Smith.

Tyron Smith is your starting left tackle.  He is one of those rare guys who rates very highly in run blocking (where he can be dominant) and pass protection where he gives up just 3 sacks in a year when the Cowboys pass the ball on most plays.  Entering his 3rd season in the NFL, what on earth could be your problem with any of that?

The 2011 draft - although extremely early in the game as we look at it in January of 2013 - appears to be a classic draft from a star power standpoint in the top half of the 1st round.  Cam Newton went with the 1st pick, Von Miller to Denver with pick #2, AJ Green went 4th to the Bengals, Patrick Peterson #5 to Arizona, Julio Jones was in that giant trade and was a Falcon at #6, and Aldon Smith from Missouri landed in San Francisco at #7.  Only Marcell Dareus in Buffalo, Jake Locker to Tennessee, and Blaine Gabbert to Jacksonville are the picks that are undetermined in the Top dozen - with a fair amount of question directed at Christian Ponder to Minnesota at #12.  After that, in the next 5 picks, Nick Fairley, Mike Pouncey, Ryan Kerrigan, and Nate Solder all jumped into the league and right on to the field for their teams.

The draft has actually gone very similar to what the masses thought when the draft started.  The studs would be packed up top, and then as we get to the back half of the 1st round, we would have a bunch of players that might be good, but all have some questions.  And, as pros, we are still waiting on Danny Watkins, James Carpenter, Gabe Carimi, and Derek Sherrod to all offer something on the offensive line.  Although there have been significant health issues with several of those names - which is part of the projection process in some cases.

But, the first 3 tackles to go off the board, Tyron Smith at #9, Solder at #17, and Anthony Castonzo at #22 have all jumped right onto the field and have all played very well in 2 seasons.  Whereas the next 4 OL (Watkins, Carpenter, Carimi, and Sherrod) to be taken have all disappointed.  Then, the 8th, Orlando Franklin, taken at pick #46 by Denver, has stepped right on to that Broncos line and played very well.  He was selected 6 picks after Bruce Carter.

On the defensive line, Dareus went very high to Buffalo, then Watt, then Robert Quinn (11 sacks in 2012) to St Louis, and Adrian Clayborn to Tampa (you may recall him destroying the Cowboys and then injurying his knee back in September), Cameron Jordan (8 sacks) to the Saints.  3-4 players, Corey Liuget in San Diego, Muhammad Wilkerson to New York, and Cameron Heyward to Pittsburgh have all had flashes of performance and Wilkerson and Liuget appear to be real studs moving forward.

Overall, a very interesting draft that I think could hinge on the Cowboys at #9.

Before the draft, it seemed that the Cowboys had locked in on 2 players that they loved and thought were going to be available at #9.  Smith and JJ Watt from Wisconsin.

I remember the discussion like it was yesterday with some people close to the scene:  There is no wrong answer here.  It is a play on "What is versus What could be".  That means, quite simply, that JJ Watt is seen as a very productive player who is a really hard worker and team leader.  But, Smith is the youngest player in the draft and could be a generational talent at left tackle.  He is good, but he could be amazingly great.

So, given that both positions were positions of extreme need, you are going to have to choose.  And whichever you don't choose, will likely have a void at that spot until you address it down the road.

At the time, I was completely sold that Smith was the right pick.  Especially given the Cowboys state of chaos at offensive line.  They knew that they had Doug Free, but otherwise, the cupboard was bare at tackle throughout the entire organization.  Meanwhile, they at least had replacement level defensive ends for the 3-4.  And, they treated that position as a very low-level priority in that scheme anyway, explaining to all who would listen that the job of the 3-4 DE is not to rack up stats.  Even though we know that this is not true in many places not named Dallas.

Offensive line and defensive line are, of course, extremely different from the perspective of what the public notices.  When your QB is getting tossed about and you cannot pick up a 1st Down because of your inferior OL, it is easy to see and point out.  However, when Igor Olshansky plays for several years without making a discernible impact, you don't discuss him because a defensive end can get lost in the dialogue for months at a time - until someone asks why he hasn't made a play, that is.

So, when discussing urgency, you can see that replacing Marc Colombo after Jason Babin destroyed him in 2010 was more urgent than replacing non-descript defensive ends in the 3-4.

Next, looking at each player extensively from a college game-tape perspective, it did seem that both were exceptional players - everyone seemed to agree they were both 2 of the best 15 players available in the draft.  The process becomes to determine which is more valuable to your franchise for the next decade.

Were we looking at finished products?  Absolutely not.  Smith was just a pup, and what made him great was that despite being so young and inexperienced, he was dripping with potential.

Watt, on the other hand, did not seem to be a guy with a much higher ceiling than he currently had.  He was very good on certain Saturdays, but in others, he was just ok.

Tyron Smith 2010

JJ Watt 2010 - Final college game vs TCU

In the end, this is a spot where the 2nd guessing of Jerry Jones and the scouting department is pretty difficult.  Sure, a re-draft today makes Watt the easy choice, but in that scenario, it is possible he shoots all the way up to the top 3-5.

What a draft it was for star power.  Pass rushers include Watt, Aldon Smith, and Von Miller.  Need a QB for the next decade?  Cam Newton or Coin Kaepernick join Andy Dalton and Blaine Gabbert/Jake Locker as options.   AJ Green or Julio Jones at WR?

But, the best offensive lineman might still be Tyron Smith.  And in several years we might say the same thing.

Is Watt a better player than Tyron Smith right now?  Absolutely.  Watt was given consideration for league MVP in many circles, whereas Tyron looks to be the Cowboys best offensive lineman and a real building block for the future.

Tyron is entering year 3 of a 4-year, $12.5m deal, which means he will hit free agency as a 4-year starter who is just 24 years old after 2014.  The Cowboys are going to have to make him one of the highest paid linemen in the NFL or they will lose him.  The same will be true in Houston with JJ Watt, who had a slightly lower deal, but that will change in the next 12 months I am sure.  The Texans are poised to break the bank on that face of the franchise.

There will be other editions of "Draft Hindsight" where we will find a verdict that is much harsher on Jones and company.  But, although this one will be considered a mistake some places, I would simply suggest that the Cowboys made a sound football decision that was necessary because of other mistakes along the way.

A more fortified roster can afford to take the "best player available", but the Cowboys always have enough holes in their 2-deep that they scramble every spring just to prepare their team for the fall schedule.

VERDICT:  While conceding that Watt is a better player today, the belief that the Cowboys found a left tackle who is a long-term solution and potentially elite at his position is still true.  If we believe that position scarcity is a consideration and that left tackle is a spot that most NFC teams desperately need, then it is quite difficult to get too harsh.  Tyron Smith may not be the most glamourous pick, but if one imagines the mess the offensive line would be in without him, it likely settles the debate.

HINDSIGHT GRADE (out of 10): A solid 8.  32 games into a career that could last 200, Smith is one of your most valuable assets on the roster.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What I Was Doing At Age 17

So, you were getting in trouble, huh?

Well, I had a U2 tape and 2 VCRs (actually one VCR and my Dad's camcorder which could serve the same purpose) and wanted to make my own sports music videos.

So, here is what I came up with.  It is a bit choppy, but I stand by it as my finest work in my Junior year of high school.

Newbury On the 4-3 Under

David Newbury, of Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket, has volunteered to walk us through some of the strategic points of the various defensive looks the Cowboys may be headed towards.  I think you will find this quite informative. - Bob

Since the Cowboy’s made the decision to hire Monte Kiffin,  I have heard different media sources speculate whether or not Dallas has the personnel to run Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2.  Tony Dungy told the Dallas Morning News ’sports reporter, Rick Gosselin,  that the Cowboy’s are 2 drafts away from having the pieces Kiffin needs. So let me get this straight, Monte Kiffin took a defensive coordinator job in which he will not have the pieces to coach a successful defense until he is 75 years old?  Dungy might think the Cowboys are two drafts away.  The question is, “are they”?

By no means am I an expert.  I’m going to give you a brief introduction to the different fronts the Cowboys’ run.  I’m sure you have heard one time or another that the Cowboys’ run a hybrid 3-4. This is true.  I get the feeling that the national media thinks the Cowboys’ run a traditional 3-4.  They don’t.   Let’s compare the 3-4 the Cowboys’ run to the traditional 3-4 run by the Steelers’.

Here’s a picture of the Steelers’ 3-4 defense:

 Let’s start by focusing on the 3 defensive linemen that have their hands on the ground.  Notice how you can see the numbers on their back. If you look closely you can see that the NT Casey Hampton is barely putting any weight on his hand.  The defensive ends Brett Kiesel and Ziggy Hood have their weight on their heels. They do not look like they are going to fire off the ball in attempt to get in the backfield.  Notice that the three defensive linemen are not lined up in between offensive lineman in a gap.  Instead, they are lined up directly over the tackles and centers.  Hampton, Kiesel and Hood have positioned themselves to control a total of 6 gaps. For that to work, each man must control 2 gaps.  They do this by controlling the man.  Their goal is to hold their ground, look past the blockers, read what is going on in the backfield and then react.  These defensive linemen are selfless players.  They do a lot of dirty work that allows the linebackers around them to play more freely.

The goal of the 3-4 Defense is to create confusion each snap by disguising which linebacker or defensive back is blitzing and which is dropping into coverage.   To do this effectively each LB must rush the passer AND drop into coverage.   The best pass rusher often drops into coverage.  The best coverage player often blitzes.   The 3-4 Defense thrives on unpredictability. The 3-4 Defense can’t have obvious tendencies.  It’s easy for an offense to set their protection if they know which player is rushing the passer.

Now let’s take a look at the Cowboy’s 3-4:

Let’s start by looking at the 3 defensive linemen and compare them to the Steelers.  First of all notice how you can’t see the numbers on their back. They have their butts in the air and look like they are about to fire off the ball. Notice how they are not lined head up, instead they are positioned in gaps.  Their assignment on this play is to control 1 gap, the gap they are lined up in.

The major difference between the Steelers’ 3-4 and the Cowboys is DeMarcus Ware. As Bob Sturm notes, DeMarcus Ware rushes the passer 88% of the time.  The offense assumes every single snap that Ware is going to rush the passer. They treat him as if he were a defensive end in a 4-3.

The Cowboys 3-4 has a lot of one gap components to it. Their roster demands it. The best 2 gap players on the Cowboys’ roster last year were Josh Brent and Kenyon Coleman. Coleman missed the final 8 games and Brent missed the final 4.

This leads us to the 4-3 defense.  There are two primary 4-3 fronts that are still used today. The first is the 4-3 Under, perfected by Monte Kiffin during the 1970’s.  The second is the 4-3 Over perfected by Jimmy Johnson in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

The 4-3 under and over are both primarily one gap systems designed to attack the line of scrimmage.  Each defensive lineman is placed in a gap and is responsible for that one gap. This allows the defensive lineman to play very aggressively by attacking the gap and reading their keys on the run.  The defensive linemen do not have to read and then react like the defensive lineman in a 3-4 system.  You could argue that the 4-3 under/over allow the defensive lineman to defend the run while on their way to pressuring the quarterback.   

Monte Kiffin has run a variation of the 4-3 since his days at Nebraska and Arkansas. During the 1970’s college football was dominated by teams that could run the football and pass off the run.  Kiffin tweaked his 4-3 to better stop the run and pressure the quarterback.  The 4-3 Under has been one of the most popular fronts in football because of its ability to stop the run.

Take a look at what it looks like:

Let’s start by identifying where the tight end is. The defense will set their front based off the strength of the offense, often where the tight end lines up. On this play Witten is lined up on the right, the defense’s left.  In a   4-3 Under defense the 3  technique defensive tackle lines up on the opposite side from the tight end  in between the guard and tackle. He is responsible for the weak side B gap. Think Warren Sapp and Geno Atkins.  He doesn’t have to be big because he does not face that many double teams. The other defensive tackle is lined up as 1 technique (gap  in between the guard and centre) to the strong side.  The 1 tech DT (or nose tackle) is responsible for the strongside A gap.  He will face constant double teams, therefore needs to be big and strong.  The strongside defensive end lines up on the outside shoulder of the tackle.  He is playing a 5 technique.  He is responsible for the strongside C gap. The strongside defensive end is usually a good run defender. He needs to be able to hold up against double teams.  The weakside defensive end has more freedom and is usually the best pass rusher.  He lines up as a 5 technique (tackles outside shoulder) but has the freedom to widen out to get a better pass rush. However, he must still be disciplined. He is still responsible for the weakside C gap.  It is very important that he does not get kicked out or hooked.

The linebackers also lineup according to the strength of the formation.  The SAM linebacker lines up outside of the tight end. He can be on the line as a 9 technique or off the line (“loose” 9).  The SAM linebacker is responsible for the strong side D gap.  He, like the weak side defensive end,   cannot  get hooked or kicked out!  It is imperative that he sets the edge and spills the play back inside.  The SAM LB needs to be a special player. He must be big enough to take on blocks and fast enough to cover tight ends.   The MLB is responsible for the strongside B gap.  The WLB is responsible for the backside A gap. He does not have to be big because he is often protected by the big bodies in front of him.  The MLB and WLB are responsible for covering the running backs in man to man coverage.  The MLB and WLB are two gap players. Their responsibilities change once the ball is snapped. 

This is a basic introduction to the 4-3 defense.  A lot changes once the ball is snapped.  Everyone on the defense is on the same page. Each player attacks the play with his outside arm free with the goal of turning the play inside.  The MLB and WLB will make a lot of tackles in this system. The 4-3 Under is a great system that allows coaches to get the most out of their personnel. The biggest strength of the 4-3 Under,  is that it reduces the amount of thinking and therefore allows the players to fly around the field. The system demands unity.  If one player does not do his job then the system breaks down. 

The 4-3  Under is not as popular as it was 10 years ago because of the evolution of NFL offenses. Offenses are passing more and running less.  Defenses are trying to match up against multiple wide receiver sets.  As a result we are seeing more nickel and dime packages. 

The other popular 4-3 defense is the 4-3 Over.  The 4-3 Over gained a lot of popularity during the late 80’s and 90’s. Jimmy Johnson gave the 4-3 Over a makeover.  Johnson replaced the defensive tackles with defensive ends,  defensive ends with linebackers and linebackers with safeties.  The defensive line crowded the neutral zone and attacked the gaps. Johnson’s defenses attacked offenses and made the offenses adjust to them.   Let’s take a look at what the 4-3 Over looks like:

Where is the tight end?  He is on the defenses left.  Remember the 4-3 Over and Under are both one gap systems. In a 4-3 Under the 3 technique  is on the weakside and the 1 technique is on the strong side. In a 4-3 Over the 3 technique(black arrow) is on the strongside  and the 1 technique is on the weakside. The 3 tech DT is responsible for the strongside B gap. The NT (1 technique DT) is responsible for the weakside A gap.  The weakside defensive end’s responsibility is the same, weakside C gap. He can’t get hooked or kicked out.  The strongside DE has different responsibilities. He can’t line up as a 5 tech because the SAM LB is not lined up next to him.  The strongside DE is now responsible for setting the edge and containment.  As you can see in the picture above the defensive end has slid out wide and is playing an 8 technique. His responsibilities remain the same.  He absolutely cannot get hooked or kicked out. 

The SAM LB responsibilities are different. He is responsible for the strongside C gap.  If the strongside DE happens to get hooked then the SAM must take his place and set the edge. Some defensive coordinators will slide the defensive end back to the 5 technique,  walk their SAM LB up and have him play outside the tight end like he would  in an under front.

The makeup of the SAM LB in a 4-3 Over really depends on what the defensive coordinator prefers.  The SAM LB needs to be able to run if the DC wants to stay in base formation when the offense has multiple WR’s on the field.  If the DC wants to mix and match his personnel to the offense then the SAM might be a larger LB and a better run defender. The SAM is usually the LB taken off the field in favor of a nickel back.  

So let’s bring this full circle.  Compare what you now know about the Cowboy’s 3-4  defense  and compare it to Kiffin’s 4-3 defense.

Dallas “3-4 Over”,  Spencer is on the far right. You can see his arm.      

Atlanta’s 4-3 Over

Tampa’s 4-3 Under (below)                                                                                                            

Dallas’ 3-4(below)

Steelers 3-4                                                                                                                               

Dallas 2 Gap 3-4

In today’s NFL defenses must be versatile to have success.  Over the last 5 years we have seen the 3-4 and 4-3 slowly blend together.  We are starting to see more 2 gap variations of the 4-3.  When Dallas was in their base defense(and healthy) they ran the 2 gap 3-4 about 60% of the time.  Once Dallas lost Brent, Coleman and Ratliff they were forced to move towards a one gap system.  Once Dallas hired Monte Kiffin they made a commitment to continue moving away from a 2 gap system.  However, I don’t believe it will go away entirely.  I believe Dallas will run a 1 gap 60-70% of the time next year.  

There are pieces in place to make a successful transition to Kiffin’s 4-3. The defensive personnel needs to be tweaked not overhauled.  Dallas is not two drafts away from making a successful transition to Kiffin’s 4-3, and I can make you a promise, Jerry Jones doesn’t think so either.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Morning After: Championship Weekend

We are down to just 1 game and the unlikeliest of match ups, indeed, as the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers have both won on the road on Championship Weekend to march all of the way to Super Bowl 47 in New Orleans in 13 days.

This is a very unlikely scenario that Cowboys fans remember well.  For it was on Championship weekend 1992 when the young and inexperienced Cowboys went to Candlestick Park and got the ticket to Pasadena on the same day that Buffalo won big in Miami to meet them at Super Bowl 27.

Super Bowl 32 was the only other time since the merger it has happened, with Green Bay winning at Candlestick against the 49ers and Denver winning at Pittsburgh that same afternoon and the two teams battled 2 weeks later in San Diego for John Elway's date with destiny.

It generally seems to pay well to play championship games at home, but Atlanta and New England's days ended in tears yesterday, and for just the third time ever, the two road teams advance to the Super Bowl.

Atlanta's fate seems extra cruel, as they are being asked to take the extra long and difficult, but traditional route of taking a small step each and every year.  They finally won a playoff game last week after several years of disappointment, but when they were tossing San Francisco all over the field yesterday in the early going, it was just setting them up for another monumental collapse as a 17-0 lead vanished in rather quick fashion.

Then, their last attempt appeared to be just a feeble and hopeful toss to the first down marker and the Matt Ryan pass to Roddy White fell to the ground and the dream was dashed yet again.  A run that began in 2008 with the hiring of Mike Smith and the drafting of Matt Ryan will have to wait another year.  They have a record of 56-24 in regular season games in the last 5 seasons, but still feel like they are on the outside trying to figure out how to get in.

Back to the drawing board for the Falcons, who have to feel like they are so close and yet so far away.

The 49ers advance feeling as if this Colin Kaepernick dream run just won't stop.  And maybe it won't.  He didn't have to run almost at all, unlike last week against Green Bay, and simply let Vernon Davis and Frank Gore compliment a strong 2nd half performance from that strong defense to be the difference.  Really, statistically speaking, it is difficult to figure out exactly how the Falcons let this one get away.

Meanwhile, the other game is not nearly as difficult to figure.  One QB has a rating of 106 and the other sits at 62.  There are plenty of things that go into the QB rating that may or may not reflect completely on the QB - a dropped pass here and there - but in the end, when one QB out-produces the other like that, it is not hard to see how the game is a resounding victory.  But, Joe Flacco beating down Tom Brady like that?  Wow.

Actually, it is a great reminder of just how difficult it is to win a ring in this league.  We lose so much sight of that reality, but I try to say it all of the time.  Every season, 31 teams finish the year disappointed.  31 of 32.  That means, your odds of winning a trophy ever are very, very remote.  The odds of winning 4 in one career?  Almost impossible.

This should help us appreciate the career of Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw a bit more.  Bart Starr won 5 championships before most of us were ever alive.  Otto Graham before him did very well, but in our lifetimes, the ability to win a handful of rings is as remote as it has ever been.  More teams, larger playoffs, more parity, and there you have a guy like Brady trying to push away from Troy Aikman and win his 4th.

But, that is way easier in magazine predictions than it is in reality.  Way, way easier.

Brady has been trying to get his 4th ring with Bill Belichick since they won #3 by beating Terrell Owens, Donovan McNabb, and the Philadelphia Eagles in Jacksonville after the 2004 season.  If you feel like 2004 was a lifetime ago, well, it was.  Duante Culpepper passed for the most yards, Shaun Alexander was the leading rusher, and Muhsin Muhammad was the league's leading receiver.  Heck, Ben Roethlisberger was rookie of the year and Eli Manning was just finishing season #1, too.

And ever since that day, Brady/Belichick have been trying to win another one.  And every day since then, they have been the "team to beat".

2,907 days as of today.  And counting.

Just to put that in perspective, Troy Aikman and the Cowboys won Super Bowl 30 in Tempe Arizona on January 28, 1996.  Then, Aikman retired when Lavar Arrington smashed him into the Texas Stadium turf late in the 2000 season.  That was a span of 1,779 days from the time Aikman started to achieve his 4th ring until he retired.  And Brady passed that mark a long, long time ago.

Now, in fairness to Brady, he is a David Tyree miracle and a Wes Welker drop from having 5 rings.  But, then again, he is a Tuck rule from having 2, so, I am not sure we can start playing the "ifs and buts" game when it comes to rings.

The point is that it is amazingly difficult to win a Super Bowl (or any championship in any major sport).  As fans, we marginalize the difficulty and blame a particular player in a team sport.  I am not here to remind people that football is so much more than a QB, but since we all accept that the best starting QBs earn a million dollars for each game they start, it is a losing battle anyway.

Winning one Super Bowl is next to impossible for NFL QBs.  So much has to happen correctly and fall into place.

 I remember thinking that Brett Favre had several more in him when he won his Super Bowl at age 27. He was winning the MVP at age 26, 27, and 28, and surely he would break through for another ring.  It never happened.

John Elway was a rookie at age 23 in 1983.  He waited until he was 37 and 38 to finally win his.  Most people were sure it would never happen for him.

Peyton Manning entered the league at 23 and worked until he was 30 before he won a ring in 2006.  I remember the post game talking heads said that now that he broke through, he could go on a run and win a bunch more.  He still searches for ring #2 and will turn 37 in 2 months.

I am always interested in this search Brady is on - partly because odds are really good that we will keep picking the Patriots until he retires, but that they will never win another Super Bowl with him.  Why is that?  Because it is really, really hard to win a Super Bowl!  Even if you are one of the best teams in the league every year.  He won in his 24, 26, and 27 year old seasons.  But, he will turn 36 in August.

Aikman won his 3 at 26, 27, and 29.  Elway is the exception, not the rule.

The point is, I cannot tell you how maddening it is to hear the nonsense about how "surely Aaron Rodgers" will win 2 or 3 more.  Or, it is a matter of time for Drew Brees or anyone.

It is next to impossible to win a ring.  But, as fans, the second they win one, we want to start the clock on their next one.  And from there, get out our charts to see where they rank with the legends.  It is fun to say, Manning or Favre "only won one time", when in reality, does anyone know how insanely difficult "only winning one" really is?

Would we say, "he only climbed Mount Everest once?"

So, here is Brady.  With ONLY 3.  We wonder if he will ever find that elusive 4th.  Then, we ask if Matt Ryan is just "another Tony Romo?" - whatever that means.

In 13 days, another QB will win his 1st title.  This will be the first Super Bowl without a Manning, Brady, or Roethlisberger since Rich Gannon and the Raiders took on Brad Johnson and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the game to end all games.

And then, we will debate where Joe Flacco or Colin Kaepernick belong in our historical frame of reference as if they have figured out how to do something that Dan Marino never could.  We do all of this because it is the easiest way to explain football to each-other.

We measure greatness by counting the rings.  Even if it is so much more complicated than that.

And we never learn how truly difficult it is to win the big one.

Even for Brady and Aikman.  As easy as they made it look, they would tell you it was next to impossible to do it

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Jamie Benn Extension

Team executives in our major sports negotiate contracts all of the time and therefore see all sorts of scenarios.  But, the rarest of them all is when they have a mountain of money and want to give it to a player, only to find out that his camp is somewhat reluctant to accept it.

That appears to be the situation here, 72 hours before opening night in the NHL, as the Dallas Stars and Jamie Benn are trying to sort out his contract situation while getting the club ready to play Saturday night with or without him.

There is very little question how they feel about him.  They have showered him with praise and adoration for a few years now, pledging their allegiance and their future to Benn.  Surely, if there was any interest in low-balling him when it was time to "Pay that man his money", they would have picked a real odd strategy in the press.

Sources suggest that the Stars have been willing to go to some pretty high neighborhoods in money to get a deal done, and are willing to stretch his term out at least to 6-years, and if the deal suits the Benn side, perhaps as far as the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will allow (8-years if resigning with your team).

The comparable contracts that have been signed for franchise-level players around the league who are still in the infancy of their NHL careers are plentiful.  Everywhere you look, quality kids - some the legal drinking age, some not - are being locked down and paid handsomely.  It is believed that the Stars would not feel that Benn is out of his depths in discussing a deal similar to many of the following:

Tyler Seguin signed a 6-year, $34.5m extension last summer through 2019.  He is 21 years old next week.

Taylor Hall: 7 years, $42m through 2020.  Hall is 21.

Jordan Eberle:  6/$36m through 2019.  Eberle is 21.

John Tavares has a slightly older deal: 6/$33m through 2018 and he is 22.

Evander Kane also is 1 year into his 6/$31.5 through 2018 and is 21.

They all seem in the same basic area, $5m-$6m a year, and in many cases getting them to free agency and their next giant payday when they are 27 or eligible for free agency (7 seasons in the NHL).

Benn is 23 and has played 3 years in the NHL, and therefore has 4 seasons left committed to the league pay-scale before he will taste the freedom of unrestricted free agency.

So, if he would like the 6 year plan, then he wouldn't become "free" again until he was 29.  And, 27 year olds do break the bank more than 29 year olds if we want to assume he is looking to be the belle of his ball when he becomes free (which would make him a normal player after seeing Ryan Suter and Zach Parise this summer).

So, what is the Benn side looking for?  That appears to be the subject of some level of speculation for all involved.  Efforts to speak directly with Benn's agent, Richard Evans, have not been successful, but the process has allowed for certain conclusions to be reached.

Either they want a shorter deal to get to free agency on July 1, 2016, or they want enough annual cash to be willing to wait on free agency.

And that is where the Stars have to decide how to deal with this.  If Benn wants shorter term, then he needs to be willing to take shorter term money.  For instance, Matt Duchene in Colorado signed one of those smaller 2/$7m "bridge contracts" that help a player move up from Entry level money without sacrificing much on arbitration or the substantial cash unrestricted free agency could bring.

Loui Eriksson signed a deal that he is now in the 3rd year of enjoying, a 6-year/$25.5m deal that will take him to age 31.  That deal of $4.25m a year is below what Benn would be worth by a good margin, but it does show us along with the Kari Lehtonen deal (5 years/$29.5m, age 29) the marriage between value and age.

I am guessing here, but if I were to guess the position of Tom Gaglardi and the Stars, it probably looks like this:  If you want security, you can have it at about a million dollars per year.  For instance, 5 years would get $5m a year and 6 years, $6m a year.  I do assume that 7 years would top out at Taylor Hall's deal (see above), but who knows?  I just am pretty sure they wouldn't give him Matt Duchene's term (2 years), but Tyler Seguin's cash (nearly $6m per).

And it is this give and take which have the Stars in the very unenviable position of perhaps disappointing their fan base (yet again) with the prospect of not having their franchise player around for opening night on Saturday.  This will bring out accusations of being cheap and the same ol bankrupt Stars, but I don't believe that is the case.  I think the Stars would love nothing more than to have Benn locked up and secure through 2019 as their centerpiece center, and move on to trying to break their playoff drought.

However, Evans and Benn might see leverage completely on their side, because it is.  If this does go into the season,  the Stars will lose in the court of public opinion, because nobody has patience for a money dispute between owner and player after enduring the larger money dispute between owners and players of the last 4 months.

If Evans and Benn decide to sit out the first few games to gain leverage, this gets uglier.  Each game is vital and every day is meaningful.  They need Benn badly, for his skill level, but also with the close proximity of games, they need their young 23-year old stud to drag the 2nd oldest team in hockey (only New Jersey is older than the Stars average age of 29.53) around the ice on some nights.  But, you can see how Evans might project how a 0-3 start would earn his client more cash in a panicked negotiation once a week passes.  But, what is the point of sabotaging your own squad that you have to return to if you are not actually being low-balled?

Nobody believes the idea that Benn wants out.  All indicators are that he loves Dallas and the organization and sees the future here.  So, to this point, nobody sees this as a play to get Benn out of here and to a city of his choosing.  So, can calm the panic on that front.

But, as of right now, it appears the Stars have a wheelbarrow of cash waiting for #14 that compares to any of the other young stars in the league who want big dollars with little service time.  They want to hop in with Benn for the long-term and are ambitious to do so.

Benn's side has been quiet to this point, leaving some tone of confusion and mystery to the motives in British Columbia.

This seems to not be that complicated.  And what amounts to an abbreviated training camp is going on without their most important player.

At least in the lockout, we saw the players wanted more and the owners wanted to give less.  This odd negotiation might be just the opposite.  The team wants to give more than the player might be willing to take - with Benn/Evans betting, of course, that untold riches might await in the summer of 2016.

In a violent sport, it is a risky play.  Especially if the bird in the hand is a giant, over-stuffed $6m-per-year bird.

So, if you are wondering why Jamie Benn might not be in uniform on Saturday night, don't worry;
The Stars are probably wondering the exact same thing.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Morning After: NFL Divisional Round

It is becoming more difficult to deny the existence of a spectacular "sea change" in the NFL in 2012.

It is happening.  The NFL is having a revolution.  And the revolution is being televised for all of us to see.

Tactics in football can often fly under the radar as millions watch every game.  When a team shifts its defensive line from a 4-3 over front to a 4-3 under, nobody notes it or knows what it means.

But, when Colin Kaepernick is running down the field for a 56-yard touchdown run in the playoffs, it is a play of fantastic substance that is swinging the balance of power in the NFL.

He ran for 181 yards and passed for 263 more as the 49ers demolished Green Bay in front of the eyes of the football world.  This, in a game in which he was the biggest question mark and one which started with Kaepernick throwing an interception for a Touchdown the other way.

He was fantastic and despite his lack of experience, or even more damning, "big game experience", it was surely a game in which he wasn't ready.  But, then he went and did that.  He ran for more yards than any QB ever did in any game in the National Football League.  And here is an even more stunning number:  He ran for 3 yards after contact.

That means, according to ESPN, he ran for 178 yards without contact.  Please, allow a moment for that to sink in.

He ran for 178 yards without being touched.

And this is the revolution of the NFL game happening right before our eyes.

99 of his yards were on the zone-read option, a play we are all becoming quite familiar with.  It features a posture out of the shotgun that allows for an inside run to a RB or an outside counter by the QB that is primarily based on the movement of the unblocked edge rusher.  If he crashes inside to get the runner, the QB keeps and has the ability to turn the corner on the unblocked man.  If he stays high to keep the corner closed off, then they take the inside run without support from the crash.  It is a multiple choice question in which the defense can hardly ever guess correctly.  It is simple, but the NFL has not gone down this road much in the past because of conventional wisdom.

Ah, conventional wisdom.  No type of wisdom slows down evolution in sports quite like the good ol "way we have always done things".  And, of course, in the NFL, that has told us that you should never run your QB.  He will get killed.  The defenders are too big and fast and strong.  You can run that all you want, but don't come to us when he is getting carried off the field.

But, what if RBs get hurt all of the time?  Is that reckless to run them down the field with the ball in their hands, looking for yardage wherever they can find it?  No.  That is the risk of playing RB.  So, why is QB different?  Usually, because in our head, RBs are built to withstand punishment.  Also, they have the uncanny ability to not take direct hits very often.  The best way to survive the vicious NFL hit is to avoid it, right?

Well, what if we could find a QB who has those same traits?  What if he was fast as a running back - or faster?  Kaepernick ran a 4.53 at the combine, which would put him right there with with some of the faster running backs - Shane Vareen (formerly of California, now of New England) is sold to us as a speedster and ran a 4.50.  Well, Kaepernick is a fraction of a second behind him.  But, a slight fraction at that.

Now, what if the scheme was built around this truth?  What if the coaches really bought in?  And what if it was happening all over the league at the same time?  What if football was changing before your eyes in a way that made you recalculate your thoughts about a sport where Pro-Style I formation is all you hold dear?

What if Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin, Cam Newton, and Kaepernick were all here at the same time?  And what if Geno Smith and Johnny Manziel appear to be next in line?  Are you buying in that this is the new direction of the league or the next passing fad that will disappear soon?

Let's be clear - we have seen fads.  We know the Wildcat rocked the NFL's world for about 1 season.  We also know that one reason this works is because it defies convention and that nobody deals with it at the NFL level.  But, if it hauls off and makes it to the Super Bowl, it will not be quirky anymore - it will be mainstream.  As Smart Football wrote about last month, this is all mostly from the lineage of the air-raid offense, and now that the entire Big 12 is running it (it seems), it will truly be tested if people see it every week.

I confess, despite the fact that my team (part-owner) was getting steam-rolled on Saturday night, I do love the evolution of the NFL game.  The moneyball question in our sport is simple:  Since it appears that teams that have Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees have a decided advantage over teams that don't, how can the rest of the league compete against truly elite QB play?  If it takes 31 points to send those teams home from the playoffs, how can we get 35 from less-than-elite QBs?

The answer might be to find an offensive scheme where our QB can be elite by entering feet into the equation and not simply the arm.  And then find that QB.

There were many QBs before this point that got us to Cam Newton.  How Michael Vick and Tim Tebow (so far) and Vince Young never reached these heights might be a discussion about arm strength,  arm accuracy, football IQ, dedication to the sport, or the fact that they never found the right scheme.  Or, we might consider the fact that 1-year ago yesterday, Tebow was still in the playoffs, QB for the Denver Broncos and pulling off a playoff win with a scheme that was not that far from what we saw on fields this year.

But, his organization and their leader, John Elway, didn't seem to believe in the experiment - especially if Peyton Manning was available.  And who can blame him?

But, Kaepernick is not a "running QB".  He is a very strong passer with accuracy that seems to be strong to quite strong, and the ability to get the ball down the field.  Griffin-like, if you will.  And, he is one of only 4 QBs in the history of college football to run for 20 Touchdowns and pass for 20 Touchdowns in the same season.  The others?  Tebow, Newton, and Manziel.  He was finding Michael Crabtree and friends with great ease at times on Saturday, and all Green Bay could do was shake their heads and go home.

Not all of these QBs are going to ever run for 181 yards in a playoff game.  Geno Smith hardly likes to run at all.  But, he runs that globetrotter ball fake-routine that would make Mike Leach proud, and then make you pay with throws to all angles of the field.  And, he will go in the Top 10 this year (some say #1, but we are 100 days from the draft).

Many are telling us that this won't last because they will get hurt.  You don't want your QB taking hits like that, right?  And yes, there are shades of grey here.  Some QBs are going to learn the hard way that contact comes with a toll.  But, what if a team so believed in the scheme that the 2nd and 3rd string guys also are run/pass hybrid QBs?  Could it work?

Of course, you will always take Andrew Luck if you have a chance.  He is a tremendous athlete, but I would be pretty shocked to see Luck on a zone-read option where he is galloping down the field like Kaepernick or even Russell Wilson - another guy that prefers to beat you with his arm.  But, this might come back to the original question:  If you don't have Brady, Manning, Rodgers or Brees and yet you are playing for the same trophy, do you try to beat them at their own game with Alex Smith, Rex Grossman, or even Matt Schaub?  Or do you try to change your entire thinking about the NFL game, look to Dana Holgorsen and Kliff Kingsbury for inspiration, and match scheme with player in a way where the league is not sure whether to mock you or copy you?

Which leads us to other tentacles of this discussion:  Looking at how Dom Capers was embarrassed by this scheme on Saturday night, do we ask if decorated defensive minds in the NFL are able to adjust to this?  He won a Super Bowl 2 years ago, so he clearly knows what he is doing, but he almost surrendered 600 yards to what appears to be a relatively typical version of this dynamic offense.  It makes you wonder if Monte Kiffin is prepared to deal with the division going through the zone read in Washington.  The Tampa 2 is to slow down the West Coast offense and the greatest show on turf over in St Louis.  How many times did Tampa have to deal with what we are seeing in 2012?

I am not sure anyone knows where this is headed.  And it would have to win a trophy or two before anyone allows it better footing in the annals of football history than the run-and-shoot or the wildcat.  People will always prefer the idea of allowing a QB to drop back in the pocket and throw for 360 and run for nothing, because that is how we all were raised on our NFL football.

But, changes happen.  Bright minds see a problem and rather than running into the walls of failure repeatedly, they try to get creative and figure out a new way around the wall.

And maybe, in 2012, in places like San Francisco, Washington, and Seattle, we are seeing where this league could be heading.

Meanwhile, who knows how many NFL GMs are sifting through the college ranks and wondering who could be the next guy to build this around?

I am not sure Manziel could have picked a better year to do what he just did in the college ranks.  The question no longer seems to be whether he can play in the NFL.  The question seems to be, "how quickly can you get here?"