Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bag of Pucks - Feb 26

There is nothing more enjoyable as a fan than to see a player grow up before your very eyes.  And in the last 4 years we have had the chance in Dallas to witness the growth of Jamie Benn at a rapid pace and seemingly on the elevator to greatness.

This week was clearly no exception as he had a very memorable stretch of games, including one of those nights - on Saturday against San Jose - that might help define his career.

I am not sure when the Stars will be looking for a new captain - 3 months from now or 3 years? - but, when they do have to replace Brenden Morrow as the man who wears the "C" for this franchise, it seems that #14 is growing into the role.

Captain is sometimes a difficult term to define, especially in these days where it seems organizations have changed their focus on who is given the responsibility.  In the past, it seems that captain was a spot that was earned by years of showing the character and determination of a player who was the heart and soul of the squad.  The player who would demand more from his mates and would never take a night off because he didn't quite feel it.  Now days, as salaries have escalated and produced more divides in the dressing room, it seems teams try to put the captaincy on their highest paid player as a challenge to him to not be about personal achievement, but team goals first.

A few months ago, I wasn't sure Jamie is up for the spot.  That might be more of my fault than anything he has done in the last several games, but he doesn't seem comfortable in front of a microphone and part of being captain should be speaking for the team when everyone else hides from the camera.  That is one of Morrow's finest traits as captain.  No matter how badly the night goes, he never hides from the questions that need to be answered.  Benn can figure that part out.

But, one of the issues about having a special player with special talents is whether he can handle being a leader of men.  And part of that is the ability to drag the team into a game that they might not always be up for.  The other is to fight valiantly for the puck when he is being challenged physically.  And that is the thread of his DNA I really enjoy.

Benn doesn't back down to a challenge.  In fact, he has a fuse that can be lit very easily and it makes him extremely competitive.  He doesn't shy from a challenge from the opponents, but rather feeds off it.  He wants contact and wants to give it back.  He is not as nuts as some at this (young Jeremy Roenick in Chicago is one of the best examples) where he seeks a big hit, fight, or scrum if the game needs it, just as much as he might go looking for a goal or an assist.

He is a large man who wants to mix it up.  Someday, we might all regret that if he suffers some of the injuries young Roenick did because of his fuse, but for now, Benn looks like a guy who can be counted upon to lead his team into battle on a lot of nights.  And that, is what we call a captain.

As much as we all love Mike Modano, that is why I always found it curious to make him the captain.  Sure, he was the man with the most authority in the room and he was also as tough as nails, but he was not the type of guy to finish whatever has been started physically out there on the ice.  Said another way, if he was challenged to a scrap, he would skate away and let someone else step in.  And by the way, there is nothing wrong with that at all.  Almost every elite offensive player does the same thing.  I just never fully understood making those guys captains because they generally step aside when a game turns into a war.

But, that is what might make Benn an amazing specimen.  Is he the type that can lead the team in scoring and still have a message sent around the league that if you mess with him, you might prepare to deal with him personally.  And don't think for a second that every guy on the bench doesn't watch that and admire it.  They see the best player on the ice ready to mix it up and that is a personal challenge to every man wearing the same jersey.

Which leads us to Saturday's game of greatness.  Jumbo Joe Thornton and Benn had something going that appeared to involve sticks into various sensitive areas on each-other's mid-sections, and neither seemed willing to back down.  When 6'4, 230 and 6'2, 210 meet in a battle, with fists and hair flying everywhere, the arena goes nuts.  Because those are the two most talented men on the ice and they are ready to make a statement at the other's expense.  The game jumped several levels of intensity at that moment in time, and when the penalties expired and each man returned to his bench, every player saluted the statement with banging sticks and respect.

Then, the game kept escalating.  Benn continued to play his style of being a bull in a china shop who the opponents cannot knock off the puck very often.  Together with Jaromir Jagr and Morrow on his line, he played a determined game all night and added a perfect assist on Jagr's goal and then slammed the door shut on a desperate Sharks' team with a goal moments after big Douglas Murray tried to send him to the ice.  Benn bounced off him and stayed on his feet, received the puck, and scored the dagger through traffic.  And there it was, the Gordie Howe hat-trick.

The Gordie Howe hat trick is a stat that has not been kept too long in the NHL.  It goes back officially to 1996, although it is still not really official.  Brenden Shanahan is the career GHHT leader with 17 all-time and Howe himself only had 2.

It could be called over-rated or even something that doesn't matter as much as some would argue, but I would counter by saying Benn controlled Saturday's victory because he was able to perform all 3 of those check-marks with great ease.  Every single phase mattered in that win, and although they are not always that significant, it does seem to argue that the player involved - if even for one night - is capable of contributing to the offense of the team and able to mix it up with the opponent.  Sergei Zubov or Brett Hull are not going to get one of these, because they aren't dropping their mitts.

And they are fine with that.

Here is the all-time Dallas Stars Gordie Howe Hat-Trick Registry:

Dave Barrat Edmonton11/19/93
Dave Gagnervs NYR2/26/94
Grant MarshallAt St Louis11/21/98
Brenden MorrowAt Phoenix2/3/00
Brenden Morrowvs Minnesota2/21/01
Bill Guerinvs Anaheim10/11/02
Brenden Morrowvs Los Angeles1/7/03
Brenden Morrowvs Nashville11/2/03
Shayne Corsonvs San Jose3/7/04
Brenden Morrowvs Phoenix1/23/06
Brenden Dillonvs Phoenix2/1/13
Jamie Bennvs San Jose2/23/13

Perhaps, that list makes you appreciate what a force of nature Brenden Morrow has been around here for so long.  It is easy to live in the present tense and to evaluate what a player looks like right now.  Admittedly, Morrow doesn't look like he once did, but let's not forget how great he has been in so many regards for the Stars for so long.

Morrow is 4th in games, 3rd in goals (about to be 2nd when he passes Jere Lehtinen with 3 more), 3rd in assists, 3rd in points (Zubov is in range in 2nd), 2nd in power play goals, 1st in penalty minutes, and 2nd in game winning goals.  There is no question that he is slowing down, but what a career for Morrow.

It will be interesting to see how the Stars figure out his future this summer when he is a free agent, but perhaps we have not heard the end of the the captain.  Father Time waits for no man, but when Morrow's time is up, they appear to know who their next captain will be.


We already did the fight of the week, and keeping with the goal of the week, I have no problem keeping it in the Dallas Stars' family.  This one is also going to Mr. Benn, as his opening shift against Vancouver on Thursday night was pretty silly, too.

Take a look:

Good gracious.

Plenty of more talking points from the Monday night in Nashville, including my curiosity about Stephane Robidas' rib cage after his unfortunate run-in with the door on the Predators' bench, but everything else will have to wait until our next version.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Learning the Draft, Part 3: Offensive G & C

If you fancy yourself a nerd/student of the NFL Draft, this qualifies as a fun time in the process as the NFL Combine is in full swing in Indianapolis.  For those of us who have been doing this for a long time, it is amazing how the entire combine is now televised from front to back on the NFL Network, as less than a decade ago, there was nothing on TV from this once-secret event.  

Now, though, we can lay our eyes on each of these players for just about every drill that they run in the so-called "underwear olympics" and when you combine this with looking at readily available college footage, you can actually get a pretty good profile of each of these players without working for your local NFL team.  

As we enter the 2013 Draft season, just know that for once, the Dallas Cowboys have a unique opportunity that puts them in a rather odd spot.  That is, they have their full allotment of picks (aside from their 7th rounder) and more importantly, are taking part in a draft where their primary needs match up wonderfully with the primary strengths in this draft class.

The 2013 draft - as any draft that has taken place in decades - is loaded with NFL talent that should populate the league for years to come.  But, what makes it slightly different than the last few is that there is no real lock-down on who the top 5 picks are so far.  It seems that this one might be a more evenly laid out draft in that beauty will be in the eye of the beholder instead of there being a no-brainer best player or players at the very top that teams are pondering a trade to go get. 

What also makes it interesting is that there are a number of players at both offensive and defensive line that seem to be filling up the top 50 and top 100 spots in this draft.  It is a league where size seems to play a large role in things. 

How large?  Well, the largest team in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens, just won the Super Bowl.  Their average roster weight of 252.75 on Opening Day was a full 4 pounds per player heavier than any other roster in the NFL.  Oddly, though, the Dallas Cowboys actually ranked 2nd in this category and since nobody every claimed that they mauled teams into surrender, we should be careful not to read too much into the questions of whether raw weight can tell us anything.

Nevertheless, the two teams in the Super Bowl had massive offensive lines, with the Ravens putting out a line where the left tackle (6'8, 354), left guard (6'5, 325), center (6'4, 305), right guard (6'4, 315), and right tackle (6'4, 315) all could tip the scales.  

Meanwhile, the 49ers drafted 2 1st-round offensive lineman in 2010 and they both weight 335, adding to their already huge offensive line as well.

But, we are not here to add up cumulative weights and assume that this leads to excellence.  Baltimore has 1,614 listed and San Francisco has 1,603.  Dallas comes in at 1,586 and may have had its worst offensive line performance in team history these last 3 seasons.  Weight has only so much to do with it.

That said, offensive line is where I have asked the Cowboys to go in the draft the last several years to fix this thing, and I certainly don't plan on stopping now.  The trouble is that we are not going to assume that the Cowboys recognize that they have offensive line problems since they clearly have not gone out of their way to fix it on draft day for years and years.  Tyron Smith is merely one pick in dozens, and given that there are 5 spots on the line, it has been horribly ignored in the last several off-seasons.

I want to draw your attention to one of several things that have been written about the Cowboys reluctance to poor draft resources into the offensive line recently from the guys at Blogging The Beast and their timeline of Jerry Jones "fixing the OL".  It is good stuff.

Basically, it references the small amount of concentration that has been put on the OL - picks like Robert Brewster, Sam Young, and David Arkin that not only cannot make the team, let alone actually fill a hole long-term.  The age of the offensive line has screamed for resources long ago, and yet Jerry continues to be Jerry.  In fact, just this weekend, ESPN's Ed Werder tweeted this:

"Jerry Jones says Tony Romo's improvisational abilities leave him more willing to play behind lesser offensive line to have best receivers"
Oh, boy.  That doesn't sound like we should expect a major influx of OL selections this April, either, it appears.

Regardless, I bravely view the Combine through the lens of hoping they target between 2-3 big dudes to fix this offensive line with their top 4 picks.  Today, let's look at some top guards and centers.  I realize that it is not trendy to pick these guys in the top 2 rounds traditionally, but I would argue that if you can find elite talent at a major position of need, you can really fix things in a hurry. And there are a few elite guards this year.

In a few days, I will look harder at tackles, since that is a real idea at #18 with Doug Free on the way out the door, it would appear:

2012 All-Pro Team Guards and Centers

C - Unger - Oregon6'530532.55.35
C - Ma Pouncey - Florida6'430432.55.29
G - Evans - Bloomsburg6'4318355.28
G - Yanda - Iowa6'3315325.15
G - Mankins - Fresno State6'4310335.06
G - Iupati - Idaho6'533134.755.24

With those numbers in mind, let's see what the Combine has shown us at the interior OL spot.  

Warmack - Alabama6'231734.75.49
Cooper - North Carolina6'2311335.07
Warford - Kentucky6'333233.35.58
Fredrick - Wisconsin6'4312335.58
Jones - Alabama6'430634.2DNR
Schwenke - California6'3314324.99
Long - Oregon6'631333.34.94
Winters - Kent State6'432032.7DNR

Let's all remember a few things about these numbers above.  First, the idea of caring what a center or guard can run the 40-yard dash in is a bit silly.  Also, we place a fantastically huge premium on arm length which is of far smaller consequence when it comes to interior linemen as well.  

What I want to see is 2 things.  1) game tape showing me that they have the proper strength to keep the pocket or run plays from collapsing behind them because they get pushed back by a very strong defensive tackle.  This happens every week and this is why I have very little patience for the Costa/Arkin experiments.  College tape doesn't say everything, but you can plainly see that Chance Warmack is not getting pushed back much.

The next thing I want to see is whether they are worth spending a top pick on or whether we can wait and draft for positions of more scarcity and come back to this later.  That is why as I look at the above list I really only see two names that are worth spending time on at #18.  Warmack - who will certainly be gone and Cooper who might be gone.  

Beyond that, these are 2nd and mostly 3rd round plays.

Below, let's look at some video of these 8 guys, because the combine is interesting, but largely just frosting.  The cake is in the game tape.  I don't want to say much more about each guy and cloud your vision with info that might bias your thoughts.  Let's just look at each guy and ask if he is amazing, solid, or not worth the selection.

Then, if you wish, share your observations below and we will chat about our findings soon.

Chance Warmack - Alabama - #65 - More Videos

Jonathan Cooper - UNC - #64 - More Videos

Larry Warford - Kentucky - #67 -  More Videos 

Travis Frederick - Wisconsin - #72  More Videos

Barrett Jones - Alabama - #75 -  More Videos

Brian Schwenke - California -  -  More Videos 

Kyle Long - Oregon  - #74   More Videos

Brian Winters - Kent State - #66 -  More Videos

There.  That is plenty and should be just about any and all that are included in the Top 100 picks.  Like I said, feel free to comment your reviews when you have seen enough and we will check out the tackles in a few days.

Offensive line and defensive line.  I know that they say you should take the best player available, but when a team like Dallas has major needs up front, you better not talk yourself into Tavon Austin.  You just need the best 300 pounder available in my estimation.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Garrett Overview - 6 Years of Data

I have been meaning to write something in follow up to the Garrett story I issued last week about the relative merits of the "Jason Garrett offense" and I thought today was as good as any.  In fact, I would like to combine it with the requests of tweets like this one:  

any chance of that decoding Garrett over his whole time in Dallas being on the way?

I think that this is an excellent idea, but understand in doing so, we have to actually have a plan going in that will help us not cause an avalanche of numbers that signify nothing.

That aforementioned story from last week focused on the premise that although Jason Garrett's claims are technically correct - that Dallas was amongst the league leaders in offense in 2012 - the data does not provide the necessary context that would reflect my view - that Dallas' offense was both unreliable and frankly, at times disastrous for a team with post-season ambitions.

How can it be both?  Can an offense be productive relative to the rest of the league and still not be practically effective in relation to its own goal of winning 10 games and being in the tournament at year's end?

I say, yes.  And I bet Jason Garrett would, too, if he wasn't feeling like he had to defend himself to a mob of reporters who might vote him out of office if they had the power to do so.

2012 was the 6th year of the "Jason Garrett offense".  Unfortunately, my database of logging every single offensive snap by personnel grouping and formation only dates back to 2008, and I am not sure I have the time or resources to ever log the entire 2007 season (if you are interested, be my guest).

However, the raw data on a year-by-year basis looks like this:

YearTotal Yds - YPARush Att-Yards YPAPass Att-Yards YPA
20075851  -  6.00419-1746  -  4.16556-4105  -  7.38
20085512  -  5.63400-1723  -  4.30579-3789  -  6.54
20096313  -  6.24417-2081  -  4.99579-4232  -  7.31
20105819  -  5.67417-1761  -  4.22610-4057  -  6.65
20116011  -  5.97395-1853  -  4.69612-4158  -  6.79
2012   5967  -  5.80335-1256  -  3.75694-4731  -  6.82

OK, that is already a lot of data to consider and I realize that I have to be careful not to lose the largest part of the audience here, but look at two things in particular above.

First, look at the raw numbers for both rush attempts and pass attempts for each year.  It went from 43%/57% run/pass balance in 2007 to 32%/68% in 2012.  That is going from a pass-heavy offense to a nearly pass-exclusive offense in a rather gradual fashion over 6 years.

Next, look at the yards per attempt in the passing game.  To compare the 2007 Cowboys to the 2012 Cowboys is not a fair comparison because there are certainly 100 variables that must be considered, but the biggest one that jumps out at you is that the 2012 pass-happy offense found 626 more yards of passing offense than the 2007 version, yet needed 138 more passes to do so.  Basically, they needed almost 5 games worth of passes to get 600 yards.  So, they pass way more, they just don't accomplish much more.

And yet, the 2012 version can claim that they actually out-gained the 2007 version.  Which offense would you want?

Now, back to the running game.  Below is a sheet from the good folks at Stats.  They have an amazing ability to sort things any way you like, so I thought it would be important to demonstrate how little Jason Garrett offenses run the football.  So, I asked them to sort the rushing attack of the 53 Dallas Cowboys teams since the team became a franchise in 1960.

Here is what they found:

It demonstrates that the 2012 Cowboys had the 52nd best season in Cowboys history in running the football.  Technically, they had the worst rushing season in Cowboys history on a per-game basis, but the 1960 Cowboys finish last due to a 12 game season.  Had they 16 weeks, we are reasonably sure that the '60 Cowboys might have been able to find 217 more yards on the ground.

Think about that.  Of all of the Cowboys teams ever, you might have just witnessed the single worst year of rushing the ball.  Brutal on every level.

In fact, if you wish, the Cowboys seasons of running the football with Jason Garrett as the offensive architect rank 52nd, 35th, 37th, 20th, 42nd, and 40th in Cowboys history.  That's right.  His best season is only 20th best in the history of the franchise.  And before you tell me it is because the league has changed to a passing league, explain this:  The New England Patriots (perhaps the most pass-first team in the NFL, right?) have run the ball 398 more times than the Cowboys in the Garrett-era.  And as you can see, 398 represents an entire season of Garrett rushing attempts.  I will repeat: the Patriots have run an entire year's worth of rushing plays more than Garrett in 6 seasons.


I had some people take issue with my blog post from last week as they claimed that yardage can be ranked free of context because the Cowboys were still in many of those games that I called garbage time.  I cited the Cowboys continuous scrapping of their game-plan in many games and resorting to an elongated 2-minute drill that employed a personnel grouping that is pass-exclusive and plays against defenses that had 20+ point leads that were certainly off and soft and willing to concede yardage in exchange for time on the clock elapsing.

I will concede that it is difficult to define "garbage time" sometimes.  Was it garbage time when the Cowboys were down 23-0 to the Giants at halftime?  Or, 28-3 to the Redskins at the half on Thanksgiving?  And if so, didn't the Cowboys almost win the Giants game and at least make the Redskins sweat a bit?

I would say that arguing this, though, is missing the point of trying to identify the Cowboys offensive ability in 2012.

My point, would be this:  In 2012, the Cowboys' would spend all week designing a game plan that they thought would best work against their opponents.  Then, at game-time, they would find that their game plan was completely ineffective and scrap it.  This would happen at halftime sometimes, 3rd Quarter other times, and even sometimes well before halftime.  When they would scrap their game plan (a balanced attack with multiple personnel groupings and formations) and go exclusively to a 2-minute drill offense that was 100% shotgun and 100% 11 personnel, they would then find the ability to get yards and ultimately, points.

The score in the game here is interesting, but not the trigger.  The trigger is that moment when Garrett and/or Romo says to the other, "this isn't working.  Let's do what we know works."

And that happened over and over and over in 2012.  Especially at home.  The following is a look at the amount of time the Cowboys had the ball with the lead in their 8 home games.  The information is accurate and impossible to believe.

OpponentTime with the lead
Tampa Bay17:58
New York 1:08
New Orleans0:00

That is right.  36 minutes and 36 seconds the entire year.  This is a team that fell behind early almost every single home game.  Why?  Because their game-plan week after week was not working.

Why?  I could offer 100 ideas.  But, the point is, they weren't working.  And, from there, when Romo and Garrett would take it and throw it in the trash, that is when the Cowboys were able to turn these games into competitive contests by going back to Shotgun-11 personnel.  Then, and only then, was this offense able to get anything done.  

Under center?  Rushing the ball?  Declaring run and getting a tough yard?  Under center and run play action and hit one over the top?  In all of these scenarios, 2012 was about as bad a year as Garrett has on record.

Let me now show you how much they used their 2-minute/3rd Down offense in comparison to other seasons under Garrett to prove that it was pretty much their identity in 2012.

YearTotal Plays-YardsShotgun-11 Plays-Yards% of Off Plays in S11 - Yds
2008979 - 5512385 - 259439% - 47%
20091011 - 6313293 - 203829% - 32%
20101027 - 5819369 - 252136% - 43%
20111007 - 6011303 - 173330% - 29%
2012   1029 - 5967479 - 314147% - 53%

If that doesn't prove it, I don't know what would.   Admittedly, I am only providing data here and not solutions.  But, look at that data.  This year, the Cowboys found 47% of their snaps and 53% of their yards from just scrapping their plans and running the same 8 plays over and over again from their 2-minute/3rd Down offense.  

This leads to bigger issues - such as being one of the easiest teams in the league to game plan against and also putting all of your success on your QB.  So much for "Romo-Friendly".  Now, it is "Romo only" and one of those years where you wonder what might have happened if he got hurt.

But, think about what this says.  This says that all of that film breakdown and game planning all week was largely an exercise in futility.  They keep coming back to the only thing they could do.

How do you fix it?  It starts with fixing your offensive line so that you can actually depend on them for something once in a while.  

But, we will continue to visit about that as we go.  I just wanted to demonstrate a clear explanation on how yards do not tell the story.  One team can gain 5,800 yards in a traditional way with a balanced and unpredictable offense and be efficient and effective.  Another can gain 5,900 yards and be inefficient and predictable while being way out of balance.  

Both will be amongst the league leaders in production and yet we will know better if we were watching carefully and not just believing what we are told.  

The Cowboys simply must get back to an offense where they are using S11 as the frosting on their cake.  But, in 2012, they were trying to get by on eating just frosting with no cake at all.

And it gave everyone indigestion.  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bag of Pucks - Feb 19

Another week of hockey, another bag of pucks...

Since last we visited, the Stars played 4 games with two wonderful victories and two difficult-to-swallow defeats.  Such is life when the grind of the season leaves very little time for regrouping or even the occasional practice.  It is a dogfight of the highest order and the Stars find themselves sitting in the familiar position of 8th in the Western Conference, a spot they have seemed to occupy for most of the last 2 or 3 years.

Up and down they yo-yo around the conference standings, feeling better than the very worst teams and worse than the very best.  They are similar to the present day Dallas Cowboys in that they can see that they are nowhere near elite and yet, not that far away from teams who have done elite things recently (See: Los Angeles Kings).  It is also known as "No Man's Land."

But, while many fans have told me that they have had it with this organization (a few people who claim to love the sport have actually decided they would support the Stars actually moving out of Dallas.  Now, that is fed up!) and don't see a particular upside right now, I am here to tell you that at the risk of sounding like a homer for the first time in years, I am actually rather excited about where the Stars are these days.

If you hung in with this team for the last several seasons, through the Tom Hicks miscalculation period post-lockout (the first one) and pre-sale last November, you know that this was a team that did not appear to be heading anywhere fast.  They had a roster filled with waiver-wire pickups and retreads and players who were making their last pre-retirement stop.  It was ugly and seemed to have no future.

But, now, I would argue that the Stars have a number of kids who the rest of the league would love to get their hands on, with more on the way.  And finally, this week, we are seeing the tangible results simply by looking at the score-sheet.  When Jamie Benn found Brenden Dillon on a cross-ice pass late in the game in Vancouver, those who have hung in there with this team jumped off their collective couches in unison celebrating the kids of this franchise winning a game where the 4 goals were scored. One by a 20-year old (Reilly Smith), one by a 21-year old (Cody Eakin), one by a 22-year old (Dillon), and one by a 23-year old (Antoine Roussel).  4 goals by 4 different men were the collective age was 86 years old?  I dare you to find that in the Stars record books, because I would wager it has been a long time.

Then, Sunday, in a painful loss to Calgary (more on that in a second), the scorers were again Smith, Roussel (off a shot from Eakin) and old man Ryan Garbutt (27).  Put simply, that means the last Stars goal scored by someone who hasn't lived in Austin this year would have been a 2nd period goal last Wednesday by Stars' captain Brenden Morrow who just turned 34 years old.  That was 8 periods ago.

The good news: The kids are carrying the weight of the offense right now.  The bad news: they were only supposed to be supplementing it, not carrying it.  If Mr Jagr, Mr Ryder, Mr Roy, Mr Benn, and Mr Erikkson would rejoin the crew in putting the puck in the net, we would really have something cooking here offensively.  Of course, those 5 are the Stars top 5 scorers, so we can assume they will light the lamp again very soon.

And as we know, that will need to be how the Stars get their results for now.  Scoring goals can cover some issues, but the alternative 2-1 wins are going to be rare.  Because defensively, they have a few major issues working against them.  One: Their blue-line is still a few sandwiches short of a picnic.  Since the offseason after the Western Conference Finals in 2008, when they lost their 3 top defensemen, the Stars have been working with an assortment of d-men who are guys who play hard but are not going to be confused with elite-level defensemen.  A few years ago, I asked two men in NHL personnel (who didn't work with Dallas) if ANY of the Stars defensemen would crack the Top 4 on Chicago's blue-line.  They said no, and only a few would be in the 3rd pair (Robidas and Daley at the time).

Well, time has passed and the Stars have had a hard time finding anyone to surpass either Robidas or Daley in the pecking order.  The trade for Alex Goligoski is looking worse as his confidence continues to plummet.  I am not sure what the Stars should be doing to fix this issue (as most of it has to come from him), but his play has not improved since his healthy scratch.  Some of his play on Sunday against Calgary was well below his ability and you can see him playing without swagger and frankly at times looking like a guy who would rather not have the puck.  That is most disappointing for a guy that has had so much invested in him and is supposed to hold the puck more than anyone on the power play.  Right now, they almost look like they would rather have others in that role and he is relegated to leftovers.  Jamie Oleksiak has been sent back down to continue to develop after 6 rather non-descript performances up in Dallas.  Anyone who thought he was ready to show everyone how it is done at the NHL level might need to understand that it takes a long time to develop your own 25-minute a night defenseman.

Dillon, to this point, is the outlier.  He remains a mystery to anyone who follows the NHL draft because at this juncture we are having a hard time finding his faults even though he was completely undrafted.  Most notable amongst his positive attributes is that he appears to have no reservations about his ability to belong at this level.  He hits hard, skates hard, jumps up in the play, and seldom has meltdowns in his own end.  In short, 16 games into the season and 17 into his NHL career, he appears a cinch as a Top 4 defensemen here for years to come.  If ever a team needed to hit on a player at this position with that size, it is Dallas.  And it appears that the play below was another indicator that the stage isn't too bright for this kid.

The second major issue the Stars deal with is their goaltending situation.  With Kari Lehtonen suffering a groin issue in Vancouver that is keeping him out indefinitely, we see the house of cards that the blue-line creates.  There are franchises that have a back-6 that can protect a back-up goalie, but Dallas right now cannot.  Richard Bachman will see a lot of rubber in these games, and unlike Kari, does not have the ability to win games on his own very often.

This helps explain a great deal of the Stars incredibly bad performances in back-to-backs, by the way.  Don't think it isn't all related, because it is.  The Stars are 1-15-2 in the 2nd game of back-to-back nights, and in the lion's share of these games, they are dealing with someone not named Kari between the pipes.  In fact, of the 3 times they found points in a back to back, Kari was the goalie twice.  His 1-4-1 record in these situations is nothing to write home about, but the alternative options have resulted in a record of 0-11-1.  That seems like a rather clear statistic there.

So, how does this get fixed?  Well, the only answer is getting Derian Hatcher and Sergei Zubov to time machines and bringing back the 28-year old version of themselves to fix the blue-line to a point where the guy between the pipes doesn't have to save the day every night.  Otherwise, it is not fixable without a major change in the Stars' personnel.  Kari Lehtonen gives them elite-level goaltending on most nights and the Stars pay handsomely to receive it with his paychecks.  But, when he is on the bench or worse, on the injured list, they are just not capable of withstanding the combination of tired legs and ordinary goaltending as presently constituted.

With 5 more back-to-backs, that is a major concern with each point being vital.  And that is why you can see how everyone sees Dillon and ultimately, Oleksiak as the true hopes of the franchise.  Big defensemen who can help a goalie win a game when he is not playing perfectly because they don't allow chances.  But, for now, we see that a team like Calgary can get enough chances in the 3rd period that they can score 3 times with players who collectively had scored 0 goals all season before that rally.


Meanwhile, our FIGHT OF THE WEEK is a no brainer, right?  3 fights in 4 seconds in Vancouver for our hometown guys against the Canucks.  Whether it turned the game or not cannot be proven, but the game did change at nearly this precise moment in time.

And, now for my quick editorial, if you think these fights didn't turn the game in a sport that is purely of emotion, then you might want to make sure that you aren't already pre-disposed to be anti-fighting and have a hard time seeing the forest because you are too busy looking at the trees in front of you.

This was the last game of a road-trip in which the Stars just had their lunch stolen in Calgary and were facing a game in which Vancouver was already all over them and Bachman looked shell-shocked surrendering 3 goals in short succession earlier in the period.  If any game was labeled "go quietly into the night and get to the plane as fast as possible" it was this one.  And then, the Fiddler-Nystrom-Garbutt line did something about it.  They decided to say to Vancouver that if you are going to beat us tonight, we are at least going to try to leave you with some headaches.

Fighting is a sensitive issue for many, especially those who have a hard time explaining to their friends why hockey has it when every other sport is fine without it.  Well, my answer is, "because, it does."  I didn't put it there, but for anyone to act like it doesn't affect the players on both benches and get the blood pumping and at times, inspire a team to dig a little deeper when the chips are down and the breaks are beating the boys, then they are kidding themselves.

It doesn't work every time, and it doesn't always erase a deficit in games where you need a rally, but it is sometimes the best idea the guys on the bench have.  Especially a defensive line like that one.  They decided to go out on the ice and get back at Vancouver for a big hit they didn't like.  Sometimes that is by hitting everything that moves on your next shift and sometimes that is dropping the gloves.

But, to act like it was choreographed or staged is just flat out wrong.  They had their manhood challenged and did not back down.  And then when Garbutt was fighting first, Fiddler started chirping. Then, it was his turn, and Nystrom engaged in verbal sparring with another Canuck.  Before long, all 3 fought and stirred up the hornet's nest.

Again, I cannot prove that it always leads to a rally, because it doesn't.  But, it does make the entire bench forget about the long plane ride, the short sleep, and even the score.  They just want to go out there and get their own adrenaline moment.  That is hockey.  A game of pure adrenaline.

Full marks to those boys for dragging the rest of the squad into a game that looked like it was lost.  See it for yourself below:

GOAL OF THE WEEK:  This week I am going with this beauty from Saturday in Edmonton where the veteran Ales Hemsky put on a number of moves on Colorado's D-man Shane O'Brien and then beat the goaltender off a turnover in the Avalanche end.

THE ARE-YOU-KIDDING-ME CALL OF THE WEEK: This is just brutal in yesterday's Colorado-Nashville game.  Amazing.  Perhaps we need a coach-challenge system in the NHL.

Talk to you next week.

Chatting With Cowboys Friends

Today, I thought we would get together with a few of my favorite online Cowboys' friends, David Newbury and Rafael Vela.  Newbury is on Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket and can be followed on Twitter at @Newbury1310 while Vela has been blogging on the Cowboys online for years and years.  His current home is Cowboys Nation and is a fantastic resource.  You can also follow him on Twitter at @cowboysnation1 and both are worthwhile follows.  

Bob Sturm:  I would like to start by getting both of you to elaborate on your thoughts going into the offseason on the topics of the veterans who might be gone, the cap situation, and how that affects Anthony Spencer and any free agency ideas you have.  Can he be kept?  If not, how big of a deal is this?  Would you franchise or extend for years?  And, is Romo a no-brainer for a 4-5 year extension?

That should get the ball rolling.  Whoever would like first, fire away!

David Newbury: The Cowboys’ head into the 2013 offseason with a payroll north of $134 million and 43 players under contract.  As of today Dallas has $90 million committed to 10 players.  Romo, Carr and Ware have a combined cap number of $44.4 million.  Free, Austin, Ratliff, Connor and Sensabaugh currently combine for $33.6 million towards the 2013 cap.  Dallas also has a cap deficit of $5 million because of their penalties.  They face two major decisions this offseason that will greatly impact the rest of their roster.  Should Dallas keep Anthony Spencer and should they extend Tony Romo? 

The fear of losing Spencer should not be the reason Dallas extends Romo.  If Jerry believes he is a Super Bowl caliber QB then he should extend him.   Unfortunately, this GM is never honest with himself.  Jerry truly believes that the Cowboys are close to being a Super Bowl contender.  It’s the reason he traded a 1st, 3rd and 6th round pick for Roy Williams and gave Leonard Davis $50 million.  Jerry is also terrified of making a move that will delay a Super Bowl appearance.  That fear lead to him overpaying Free, Austin and Williams.  Over 20% of the 2012 cap was tied up by dead money.  Dallas decided to spread part of the cap penalty and dead money to 2013 so they could be active in free agency.  Jerry chose to go for it again in 2012 instead of planning for the future.  Jerry gave Carr $60 million, Livings $18.7 million, Bernadeau $11.5 million and Dan Connor $6.5 million.  Instead of drafting Spencer’s replacement Jerry decided to trade his 2nd round pick for another corner.  I love Mo Claiborne but I hate the trade. Those decisions could keep Dallas from resigning Spencer and force them to release serviceable veterans like Sensabaugh and Austin.

Dallas needs to first decide if Spencer can be a dynamic player in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 system.  It sounds simple. However, there are too many examples of this team signing good players that don’t fit their system.  I believe he can be a dynamic player in this system.  Next, Dallas must decide how high they are willing to go to keep him and stick to that number.  Do not match a crazy contract because you don’t like the idea of him playing somewhere else. Dallas must remember that Lee, Smith and Bryant will be free agents eventually.   Dallas could franchise Spencer a second time.  This is an expensive option, but it would allow them to see how Spencer plays in a 4-3 defense.  They would have to free up $33 million before they could apply the franchise tag.  Dallas could free up $10.5 million by restructuring Carr’s deal.  In addition they would have to restructure Ware and Romo’s contracts.  They would also have to cut Free, Connor and possibly Ratliff or Sensabaugh.  That’s a lot to do to keep one player for one year.  In Spencer’s case, it could be the right thing to do.  Spencer is 29. Dallas should offer him a “team friendly” 4 yrs-$32 mil or 5 yrs- $36 million.  If he turns it down, inform him that you plan on franchising him.  Dallas can remove the franchise tag at any point.  This gives Dallas options on draft day.  Dallas can remove the franchise tag if they land a defensive end that is a better fit.  The one thing Dallas can’t do is over pay a 29 year old defensive lineman.  They made that mistake with Ratliff.

I think extending Romo is a no brainer.  He’s a good QB. The people that want to replace him forget who is running this franchise.  It’s the same guy that selected Quincy Carter in the 2nd round.  We all need to remember how many QB’s this franchise went through between Aikman and Romo.  Dallas got lucky with Romo.  The GM even admitted he was “a miracle”.  He’s not going anywhere.  The question is, how long will Romo be the QB.  He’ll turn 33 before the start of next season.  I’m not concerned with Romo’s age.  Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees are all older than Romo and are still playing at a high level.  I am concerned about the beating he takes every week.   The aforementioned QB’s all play for teams that invest heavily in their offensive lines.  Dallas needs to follow that blueprint.

This is a great year for Dallas to negotiate with Romo.  He doesn’t have the same leverage statistically as he did after the 2011 season.  However, Romo knows he holds the keys to the offseason.  I think Romo has a great chance to win over a lot of fans this offseason.  Do what Dirk did before the Mavs won the title.  Romo needs to sign a club friendly deal, even if it means taking a little less money than he could get.  The deal must be structured in a club friendly manner.  Give Dallas some financial flexibility/relief. There are a lot of people that still see him as the “if this is the worst thing that happens to me QB.”  It’s his chance to tell the fans that winning in Dallas is more important than his contract.  Romo needs to understand that Dallas will have to address the defensive line early in this draft if Spencer leaves.  That will prevent Dallas from upgrading HIS offensive line.  I think a 5 year deal for $70 million is fair.  I can’t pay him $20 million a year.  That is Super Bowl winning money.  Just like during the season, the key to winning is in Romo’s hands.

Sturm: David, you hit on quite a few things in there that are worth discussing further.  I would start with the Spencer issue that most bothers me because I always believe that a team gets in major trouble when they make mistakes on top of other mistakes to cover for the original mistakes.  This seems wordy, but I think it describes the Cowboys about as well as anything could.  They continuously are trying to fix mistakes, and end up making things worse.  

That leads me to this offseason where Spencer appears to be an ideal fit in a 4-3 as a defensive end, and generally, we can all agree that this is one of the most important spots in the scheme.  Yet, as a player who is coming off what I feel are at least 2 strong years in a row, he is being considered a cap casualty.  Part of this is real - as you documented, the cap situation in the present tense is quite difficult to manage - and part of it is anticipating the difficulty dead ahead with the contracts due to Sean Lee, Dez Bryant, and Tyron Smith which could all be huge and headed this way in a short amount of time.  

But, I continue to feel that it is backward thinking to do anything but secure your best players and sort the rest out later.  If Spencer is legitimately projected to be a top 10 player on this roster for the next several years, then you must sort it out and keep him around.  They gambled on the franchise tag as opposed to a longer extension to get him to "prove it" on the field.  Well, he did, and now his extension is likely out of the neighborhood you quoted.  That part is debatable, but what isn't is the ramifications if you let him walk.  Then, you have pretty much made your offseason about trying to find a replacement for Doug Free and a replacement for Anthony Spencer.  This, is what Bono has so properly labeled as "Running to Stand Still" and not making any headway on addressing the things on this roster that are generally ignored in the offseason - guard, center, safety, defensive tackle - but seen as overall weaknesses during the year.

I liken it to Tyson Chandler with the Mavericks - although the circumstances are significantly different, of course.  If you have a player who you think is at a premium spot and is not close to diminishing talents, then you keep the premium player and figure out the finances.  Letting a player go because you have locked up money in players you don't feel as strongly about is a problem that might hurt, but must be addressed in the order of importance.  Anything else is backwards thinking.  In effect, you build your roster by placing your top players on a board with their projected prime as a guide.  If you are giving extensions to players who don't have much left on their primes (Jay Ratliff, Jason Witten) then you are making things way more difficult on yourself, but you better not mean that you are sacrificing guys still in their prime to do so.

This is classic life-on-a-treadmill thinking that you can never get out of.  That is why the "we can't afford to keep Spencer" logic is so frustrating.  You begin you plans with a guy like Spencer, you don't wait to see what leftovers you can offer him.  Conversely, you must draw the line somewhere where you are not beholden to players who have already played their best football eating the majority of your cap and costing you chances at upgrades.

It truly is a model that is broken and getting worse each year.  I would love some explanations on the big picture plans for this cap as huge looming cap numbers approach for DeMarcus Ware next season.

Rafael Vela:  In one of his cockier moments during the Super Bowl '90s, Jerry Jones bragged that his wealth was obvious.  If everybody in the world could start with the same amount of money, he explained, the same people who currently had the biggest portfolios would do so again in short time.  Winners were winners.

Let's take Jerry's metaphor and apply it to the world of NFL drafting, where Jones has seen something less than success in his nineteen years as the sole totem atop the Cowboys pole.  (This April draft will be the 20th post Jimmy Johnson!)  In the cap-era NFL, draft picks are the major currency and the league plays a version of Jerry's wealth distribution game, giving each team seven draft picks each spring.  It's then up to the general managers to invest them wisely.  Following up on David Newbury's point that Dallas has burned an excessive amount of high picks in recent years, I decided to chart how all the NFL teams have used their priority picks in rounds 1-3.  These are the building block picks, which produce the most impact players an early starters.  

I created a frame starting in 2007, the first year after Bill Parcells abdicated the Cowboys throne.  In the six subsequent seasons, each NFL team has started with 18 picks, three in each round.  Those teams which lost priority free agents and did not replace them may have realized an extra 3rd round pick or even two in that span.  Here's the list of high picks the teams have amassed during Jerry 2.0.  (I've chopped the list a bit for space):

1.   New England  25 picks
2T.  Detroit  23 picks
2T.  Kansas City  23 picks
4T.  Cincinnati  22 picks
4T.  Denver   22 picks
6.   Miami  21 picks
7T. Baltimore 20 picks
7T. Atlanta  20 picks
7.  St. Louis 20 picks
10T.  Green Bay  19 picks
10 T.  NY GIants 19 picks
10 T.  Philadelphia  19 picks
10.T.  Pittsburgh  19 picks...
28T.  Dallas 14 picks
28T  New Orleans 14 picks
28T. Minnesota 14 pick
31T.  NY Jets 13 picks
31T.  Washington 13 picks

Any surprise that Dallas ranks in the bottom quarter of early draft pick attempts since Jerry reclaimed the helm?  He groused earlier this year that it's unacceptable for the Cowboys to continually finish one win short of the playoffs, as the  team again did in 2012, but look at the pressure he's putting on his scouts and himself by dealing away high picks.  He's had eleven fewer early round picks than Bill Belichick.  He's had six fewer than Ozzie Newsome.  In the conference, he's had six fewer picks than the Falcons' Thomas Dimitroff, and five less than the Giants Jerry Reese and the Packers' Ted Thompson.

And every one of those guys knows how to find good football players.

If Jerry had given the organization four or five extra picks up top, might he have a couple more key starters and the depth necessary to find that extra win?   That's why keeping Anthony Spencer is the team's top early off-season priority.  I think he can excel in the 4-3 and his team has made free agency an inordinately large part of its developmental program.

You can't keep pace with guys like Newsome, Reece and Belichick when they get one to two more early round picks than your team every year unless you hit it big in free agency.

It's a vicious cycle towards mediocrity.   The Jones give themselves fewer spins at the draft wheel, chasing bling players like Dez Bryant and Morris Claiborne.  They then find themselves short on depth and overall talent, which sends them to free agency.  They then give out desperation deals to guys like an over-the-hill Terrell Owens or a suspect starter like Mackenzy Bernadeau.  Until the Cowboys stop burning high picks, they give themselves no choice.

Jerry may manage his personal wealth like Warren Buffet, but he's managed his draft pick portfolio like Dez Bryant manages his money.  That's left Dallas fans all the poorer.  

Sturm: Thanks for that information there, Mr Vela.  I did not realize the deficiency in the number of picks was to that extent.  

I enjoyed this extended back and forth and I hope we can do this again real soon.  Please check both of these guys out in their various places online found up top.  It is well worth your time. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Newbury: On the New Defensive Line

David Newbury is back to examine the changes in the Cowboys defensive line as it applies to the new scheme and the players needed to fill those roles.  Enjoy.

Cowboys’ New Look Defensive Line

The Cowboys recorded 35 sacks last year.  DeMarcus Ware recorded 11.5 sacks. Anthony Spencer had 11. No other Cowboy finished the year with 5.  Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett felt like Dallas needed more plays from their defense so they made a change.  They fired Rob Ryan and his 3-4 Defense and hired Monte Kiffin.  Kiffin brings with him an impressive resume and the 4-3 defense.  So, what does the 4-3 defense bring?

Switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3

Last year the Broncos, Rams, Bengals, Vikings, Dolphins, Bears, Panthers and Titans finished in the top 10 in sacks. Those 8 teams run a variation of the 4-3 defense.  The strength of the 4-3 defense is that it allows the defensive lineman to attack the line of scrimmage and read the play on the move.  They can literally defend the run on their way to pressuring the quarterback.  Last year the Rams and Bengals recorded 35 and 32 sacks respectively on 1st and 2nd down alone.  Remember the Cowboys had 35 sacks all year.  The 3-4 Defense Dallas ran relied too much on the talent at OLB to make plays.  Dallas got 7 sacks from their entire defensive line last year.  Dallas needed a scheme change to get more production from the defensive line.

Remember the 4-3 defense is a 1 gap system.  It allows undersized defensive lineman to win with quickness and technique.  The 3-4 Defense requires specific personnel.  3-4 Defensive linemen are worker bees.  They need to do the dirty work so the linebackers around them can fly around and make plays. The 4-3 defense allows coaches to get the most out of their personnel.   Terrific players like Geno Atkins and Henry Melton excel in the 4-3 defense.  They would struggle mightily to make plays in a 3-4 Defense.  There isn’t room in a 2 gap 3-4 defense for an undersized defensive lineman.  Josh Brent and Kenyon Coleman are gone so Dallas doesn’t have a good two gapping player on their roster at the present time.  So how does the switch from a 3-4 to 4-3 impact the Cowboys defensive line?    

Monte Kiffin is known as the father of the Tampa 2 defense.  The Tampa 2 is a type of coverage; it is not a type of defense.  Kiffin has coached the 4-3 since the 70’s. He has two primary fronts,  The  4-3 Over and the 4-3 Under.  Let’s take a look at the current roster and determine where and how each player fits.

 I am going to assume that Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer will both be on the team next year.  I am also going to assume that Marcus Spears will be cut.  DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore and Tyron Crawford will be back.  Dallas signed an interesting player, Brian Price, at the end of last year.  Price at 6’2” and weighing 300 lbs was selected by Tampa Bay in 2010 in the 2nd round.  The problem is Price is recovering from a major injury, and can’t be counted on next year. . Anything he does should be considered a bonus.  Dallas will need to add to this group via the draft.  For now, let’s focus on how these players fit into Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 Over/Under defense.   

Weakside Defensive End:

The weakside defensive end is also known as the open end.  He lines up on the opposite side of the tight end.  In Kiffin’s system he is responsible for the backside C gap in both the 4-3 Over and the 4-3 Under.   This player can be undersized and is usually the best pass rusher on the team.  We know that Ware will be the weakside defensive end.   Ware has been battling left tackles for 7 seasons as an outside linebacker.  I don’t expect Ware’s responsibilities will change too much.  In fact I don’t think we should assume that he’s going to be in a 3 point stance 100% of the time.  Ware does have run responsibilities. He can’t get hooked or lose containment.  He is still responsible for the C gap.  Ware need to get better at recognizing run plays.  He took himself out of too many plays last year.  If there is a fear it’s that Ware will continue to be too aggressive and take himself out of too many plays.  His first steps will always be up field.  If he reads run then he needs to stick his foot in the ground, set the edge and keep the play on his inside shoulder.  

The strongside defensive end:

Let’s assume Spencer is back next year.  Spencer has developed into a terrific outside linebacker in a 3-4.  He’s great against the run and really came into his own as a pass rusher.  Some would say that Spencer is too small (6ft 3 and 261 lbs) to play strongside defensive end in a 4-3 system.  He’s not.  Spencer has been setting the edge against right tackles and tight ends since he became the starter.  The strongside defensive end in Kiffin’s system lines up to the same side as the tight end and is responsible for the strongside C gap.  Spencer will not have to cover tight ends nearly as often as he did from his OLB spot.  This will give him more opportunities to rush the quarterback.  According to profootballfocus.com Spencer played 872 snaps last year.  He dropped into coverage on 172 snaps, 3 times more than Ware.  Spencer can really benefit in Monte Kiffin’s system.  No player had more on his plate than Spencer did last year. He rushed the passer, played the run and dropped into coverage.  This year Spencer will be able to attack more. Like Ware, Spencer can defend the run on his way to pressuring the quarterback.  Spencer was great last year at abandoning his pass rush and setting the edge when he recognized the play was a run.  That skill and awareness will allow him to make an easy transition to strongside defensive end.

In a 4-3 Over the strongside defensive end’s alignment will vary depending on the call. Remember he can’t get hooked and must keep containment.  You will usually see him line head up on the tight end in a 6 technique.  This prevents the tight end from easily blocking down on him and helps him keep containment.  In a 4-3 Over it is important that the strongside defensive end and SAM linebacker are always on the same page.  If the DE loses containment then SAM needs to quickly step outside and set the edge.  If the DE gets too far upfield then the SAM must take over the C gap responsibilities. 
 In a 4-3 Under defense he can line up as a 5 technique because the Sam LB is lined up outside the tight end.  The SAM in a 4-3 Under is responsible for keeping containment.   The defensive end can attack the line of scrimmage freely knowing that the SAM is there to set the edge. 

I believe that Spencer will play defensive end 85% of the time next year.  I do believe that Kiffin will play Spencer at Sam LB on obvious run downs or against “running teams”.  This won’t happen often. When it does,  I believe Tyrone Crawford will take Spencer’s place at strongside defensive end.

Final analysis for defensive end:

There are a lot of teams around the NFL that would love to have Ware and Spencer.  The issue for the Cowboys at defensive end is depth.  Victor Butler is an unrestricted free agent and it would be surprising if he is back next year.   Tyrone Crawford can play end, but he isn’t going to pressure the QB consistently from the outside.  I expect Crawford to slide inside to defensive tackle when the Cowboys go to their nickel defense.  Dallas needs to find someone in the 3rd or 4th round of the upcoming draft that can get to the quarterback and add depth to the position.  Some names to remember are Lavar Edwards-LSU, William Gholston-Michigan State and Michael Buchanan- Illinois.

Dallas will need to find a defensive end early on the draft if Spencer leaves.  BYU’s Ezekie Ansah, UCLA’s Datone Jones and UT’s Alex Okafor could be first round options.

Defensive Tackle

The beauty of the 4-3 Over and Under is it allows the coaches to get the most out of their personnel.  When Jimmy Johnson was at Miami he took his defensive ends and made them defensive tackles. He took his linebackers and made them defensive ends.  Johnson wanted to win with speed and quickness, and to do that, he was willing to sacrifice size.  Kiffin has a similar philosophy.  He says “of course everyone want to find the big guy that can run fast.  If you have to sacrifice one, sacrifice size.  This system wins with quickness.”  You only need one true defensive lineman in a 4-3 Over/Under defense, the one technique.  With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the Cowboys stack up at defensive tackle. 

1 technique defensive tackle

The 1 technique (nose tackle) always lines up in between the center and the guard.  Which guard depends on the front and the tight end.  He is responsible for the A gap that he lines up in 90% of the time (Sometimes he will twist or slant, but that conversation is for another day). The 1-technique will face constant double teams from the guard and center.  He is the one guy on the defense that needs to be big.  You want your 1 technique to use his size to play with leverage, anchor and control the LOS.  The best one techniques hold up double teams long enough to keep bodies off the linebackers.  On pass plays you want him to collapse the pocket, don’t allow the quarterback to step up in a clean pocket.  In today’s NFL the 1-tech is a 2 down lineman.  He is usually replaced by a better pass rusher when the defense goes to their nickel packages. He comes off the field in favor of a better pass rusher.  Is there a player on the Cowboys’ that fits this description?

Let’s look at the roster. Josh Brent would be a great 1 technique. He’s big and stands up to double teams.  He can collapse a pocket and occasionally rush the passer.  Unfortunately, Brent will not be playing football for a long time.  I really like Jason Hatcher’s game but he is 6ft 6 and 285 lbs.  The question is, can he stay low and hold the point of attack against double teams each game?  I don’t think he can give me 40 snaps a game for 16 weeks.  I think Hatcher is better suited to rush the passer in nickel situations.  Sean Lissemore(6ft 4, 286 LBs )played 329 snaps last year.  He is young and has a friendly contract.  I love his fight and, he is a terrific role player.  However, it’s unrealistic to think Lissemore can handle the responsibilities of being a full time 1 technique.  That brings us to Jay Ratliff.  Ratliff has battled double teams since he came into the league back in 2005. It shows.  Ratliff’s body is breaking down and his production has really dipped.  Despite everything going on with him on and off the field, I expect him to be on the team in 2013.

The Cowboys’ currently do not have a full time 1 technique on their roster.  They could get by with a NT by committee in 2013.  Dallas could also draft a NT in the upcoming draft.  There will be some intriguing options staring at Dallas in the 1st and 2nd rounds.  Georgia’s John Jenkins, Ohio St’s Johnathan Hankins, Purdue’s Kawan Short and Alabama’s Jesse Williams should be there when Dallas makes their first selection. 1 techniques tend to fall in the draft because they are known as 2 down players.  They aren’t seen as elite pass rushers.  A couple of other names you should remember are Missouri Southerns’s Brandon Williams and Tennessee-Martin’s Montori  Hughes.  Both players impressed me at the Senior Bowl, and I think they both should be there in the 3rd, maybe even the 4th round.

The 3 technique

 The 3 technique defensive tackle in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 Over/Under system is the difference maker.  He is the best interior pass rusher.  Kiffin’s scheme is designed to minimize the amount of double teams the 3 technique will face.  This is why smaller players can excel in a 4-3 Over/Under.  Henry Melton terrorizes offensive linemen and he is 5 pounds lighter than Anthony Spencer.  Kiffin’s scheme was perfect for one of the greatest 3 techniques of all time, Warren Sapp.  There is little doubt that Sapp was a special talent, but Kiffin’s scheme allowed him to thrive.  Sapp was undersized, but had elite quickness.  Sapp was never asked to tie up offensive lineman in a 2 gap system.  He played in a system that allowed him to penetrate the line of scrimmage and disrupt countless plays in the back field.  Sapp averaged 10 sacks per season under Kiffin’s guidance. Today, Geno Atkins, Gerald McCoy, and Henry Melton are standout 3 techniques.  They constantly make plays behind the line of scrimmage and at times take over games. 

Dallas has players on their roster that can play the 3 technique.  Jason Hatcher intrigues me. He had 5 sacks last year while facing a lot of double teams.  He could benefit the most from Kiffin’s scheme.  Jay Ratliff was a perfect 3-technique 2 years ago.  Sean Lissemore will provide depth to the position and should make his fair share of plays.  Tyrone Crawford could be an option when Dallas goes to their nickel packages.  The combination of these players could get Dallas by in 2013. However, drafting a 3-technique in the first round could impact the entire defense.  

Take a look at the defense below.

Let’s keep the focus on the 3-technique.  The 5 technique to his outside keeps the tackle from double teaming him on passing plays.  If the tackle did double team him then the tight end would be asked to block the defensive end 1v1.  The defense would gladly take that matchup.  It would eliminate an eligible receiver and give the defensive end a matchup that he should win 7 out of 10 times.  In most cases the right tackle is going to block the defensive end leaving the 3 tech 1v1 with the guard.  

The above defense is a 4-3 Under.  The 3-technique(red arrow) and SAM linebacker (blue arrow) tell us what the front is. In a 4-3 Under the 3-technique goes to the weakside, opposite side as the tightend.  The Left tackle has to focus on Ware. This leaves the 3-tech DT 1v1 with the left guard.  Dallas must find someone in the draft that can take advantage of these 1v1 opportunities.  Maybe Jason Hatcher can do the job and maybeJay Ratliff gets back to his old self.  I still think Dallas needs to add youth and quickness to the defensive tackle position. 

A pass rushing defensive tackle changes the entire defense.  Dallas can already get to the quarterback from the outside.  I can’t tell you how many times Ware or Spencer had clean wins on the outside only for the QB to avoid the sack by stepping up in a clean pocket.  A good 3 technique would allow Dallas to blitz less.  They could rush the QB with 4 and drop 7 into coverage.  The strength of this scheme is its simplicity.  It removes a lot of thinking and allows fast players to play fast.  It doesn’t need a lot of fancy blitzes to get to the quarterback.  What this defense needs is playmaker on the inside that can take advantage of the 1v 1 matchups the scheme creates.  Dallas must find someone in the upcoming draft,  and I for one would  have no problem if they drafted two defensive tackles.  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Garrett Knows Better

"Again, we finished among the league leaders in offense this past year" - Jason Garrett  2/13/13

He really said that on Wednesday at Valley Ranch during a long press conference that was supposed to provide answers on topics such as play calling for 2013.  He is a bit defensive these days, as is understandable for anyone being asked to explain their job performance.  But, he cannot believe that his offense was one of the more productive offenses in the NFL.  There is simply no way he believes that.

Incidentally, the 376 points they scored in 2012 ranks them 10th in the NFC out of 16 teams.  That is 1 point better than the Bears, 4 points better than the Lions.  And exceedingly more productive than the Panthers, Rams, Eagles, or Cardinals.  So there is that.

They were 6th in the entire NFL in yardage, but I think most of us watched enough Cowboys football this year to see that much of that came during abnormally long stretches of "garbage time" football that the Cowboys offered in a number of home blowout losses.

There is no proof that a new play caller would do a better job.  But, there is proof that the offense under-performed badly in a year where Phil Costa was the biggest major injury they suffered if you accept DeMarco Murray's stretch of missed action a typical situation for a RB in the NFL.

And to help everyone (including the coach's memory), here is a game-by-game offensive summary:

Week 1: At New York.  Nobody would question both the balance and the production of the offense.  Fantastic work in New York that passed all tests of productivity and execution both on the ground and through the air.  441 yards and 24 points.  In a dogfight where the offense never betrayed once.  Very high marks.

Week 2: As good as everything went in New York, it crashed quickly to earth in Seattle.  The offense could not move the ball very well and it was plagued by negative runs and pass protection issues, as well as an extremely high number of drops by receivers.

Week 3: One of the worst rushing performances we can ever remember against Tampa Bay.  Negative runs all over the place and barely 300 yards of offense.  Brutal and it provided huge questions about the ability of the offensive line to keep Romo out of the hospital.

Week 4: Fell behind 24-7 to the Bears on their home field.  Turned the ball over again and again (Romo 5 interceptions) and never came close to running the football with any success again as DeMarco Murray continuously ran into offensive linemen who were pushed back into their face.  Cosmetically, the final statistics showed a very productive outing with huge points coming late in the game during garbage time.  But a giant disappointment and 400 yards doesn't mean anything.

Week 5: At Baltimore, this was a game that we will have a difficult time fully explaining as the offense suddenly fixed everything and ran and passed the ball with great success.  The Ravens did not have Terrell Suggs, but otherwise, it was the Super Bowl champion defense and the Cowboys rolled up over 225 yards on the ground and 483 yards overall.  A missed FG cost them the game, but the offense did very well.

Week 6: At Carolina, and as awesome as the offense appeared in Baltimore in a loss, the offense regressed dramatically to another sub-300 yard day in Carolina in a win.  This was the first game without Murray at RB, and the Cowboys had to sweat it out the entire day due to a very poor job in the red zone finding the end zone.  This was a rather consistent theme throughout the year from the offense.

Week 7:  Home game against the Giants, perhaps this is the best example of how stats are for losers.   They fell behind 23-0 at the half and scrapped their entire game plan again (see: Chicago) and decided just to have Tony Romo run the hurry-up Shotgun 11 personnel package the rest of the way.  Romo threw 4 more picks, but kept the team alive until the final seconds of the game as Dez Bryant's finger tips betrayed them.  17 carries for 19 yards showed that this offense cannot run the ball when it wants to.

Week 8: Again, checking the box-score in the game against Atlanta, you would see another case of strong yardage between the 20 yard lines, but anyone who watched will recall an offense that could not accomplish anything until late in the game when they again, down 16-6, decided to try their hurry-up shotgun attack and scrap their gameplan.  Here, they found a late 78 yard Touchdown drive and another 59 yards on the last 2 desperation plays that only helped the yardage totals.  0-2 again in the red zone and another disappointing week that seemed intent on protecting Romo rather than attacking.

Week 9:  At Philadelphia was yet another sub-300 yard day for the offense.  Despite that, they scored 38 points because Dwayne Harris, Brandon Carr, and Jason Hatcher all scored 4th Quarter touchdowns while the offense looked on.  The offense did put a drive or two together, but one does wonder how the offense was going to allow Romo to accomplish anything against the Eagles pass rush in the 2nd half as it stood when the long punt return changed everything early in the 4th.

Week 10: Home game against Cleveland where again Romo is battered and bruised.  So much so that again they simply scrapped their designed offense and had Romo run the 2-minute drill for the entire game snapping 52 plays out of shotgun.  7 sacks allowed to the Browns and barely 250 yards of offense when regulation ended.  They did get the win, but as was the theme for most of the year, the offense just could not begin to approach productive.  The Browns were ahead 10 points entering the 4th Quarter before the Cowboys rallied with Romo slinging it around.

Week 11: Thanksgiving Day against the Redskins:  Down 28-3 at the half, it is garbage time for half the game.  Now, the Cowboys turn into the unstoppable force against that Redskins prevent.  They drive up and down the field for tons of meaningless yards and points and finish with a gigantic yardage day that meant absolutely nothing.  Stat padding and fantasy points, but if you watched the game, you know it was a horrendous offensive day again.

Week 12: Home against Philadelphia, against a team that was not playing its starting QB (Vick), RB (McCoy), or WR (D Jackson) who had all been lost to injury.  But, the Cowboys offense looked about as good as it had all year long and thanks to the return of Murray at RB, actually accomplished plenty.  Good yardage and good point production against a very bad team, this one is a rare week where you do not question the offense.

Week 13: That memorable day at Cincinnati, where the Cowboys showed great resilience and won a game few expected.  Again, Romo took a beating and the team could not run the ball much at all.  Geno Atkins was in the backfield all day, but when the Cowboys needed it most, they were able to piece a few drives together and after being behind 19-10 heading into the 4th, they found 10 points late and won 20-19.  However, 288 yards of total offense was the 4th of 5 sub-300 yard offensive showings.  And sub-300 yard days are another way of saying unacceptable production in most NFL circles.

Week 14: With the exception of maybe the Giants win in Week 1, this is the best example of strong offensive play all season long.  An absolute dogfight against the Steelers where the offense showed constant production from a balanced attack.  Romo was strong, the pass protection was acceptable, and the running game was able to accomplish things.  Not an easy win, but a very impressive job from the offense.

Week 15: In this home game against the Saints, it was another example of giant production that seemed out of context given that it required a furious rally in the 4th Quarter down 31-17.  The Cowboys struggled mightily on 3rd Down (2-10) which gave the ball immediately back to the Saints who were not close to being stopped all day long with the make-shift Cowboys defense due to the injuries.  This game is not as bad as the home games with the Bears, Giants, and Redskins, but again, plenty of yards against prevent defenses which are letting you complete passes to run the clock.  That happened a ton this year.

Week 16: With all of the chips in the center of the table for the division title, the offense cannot produce much of anything.  Despite 7 possessions starting in Washington territory.  Yes, 7!  The Cowboys are able to convert just 3 of them into points of any kind.  They also famously throw 3 more interceptions and yet again do not eclipse the 300 yard barrier in a game of ultimate importance.  Against a QB with limited use of his leg, they are beaten on their biggest stage and have 3 turnovers and 295 yards.

So, overall, with roughly 3 games where you say the offense did what it needed to do (at NY, at Balt, and Pittsburgh) and 13 other games where the offense needed to show more than what it did to get good grades, I have very little use for hearing where it ranked in yards and points.  Granted, in some of those 13, the Cowboys showed great grit and determination, but nobody would confuse will with a fantastic offensive performance.  And least they shouldn't.

This offense was almost completely spared of injuries (comparatively speaking) and yet did not live up to the resources invested in it by any stretch of the imagination.  Looking at boxscores and totaling numbers is fun, but meaningless if you are constantly falling behind and then facing prevents to catch up.  Those numbers don't matter at all.

I appreciate the man defending his performance and thereby, his job security, but I found his optimistic appraisal of 2012 and the offense's performance to be misleading and I bet he would agree once he dug a little deeper - which I know he has in private.

You would think February would be a great time to show some transparency and concede these points, but Garrett did not take that approach as he credited his offense for their production.

I thought some equal time might be due for a small rebuttal.