Wednesday, May 28, 2014

News: Sean Lee Injured ACL - Lost for 2014

At least last year they made it to the first training camp drill in July before the injury train derailed.

In a story that seems too cruel for the Cowboys to survive, Sean Lee's knee collapsed under the stress of a rather normal football movement yesterday in the very first day of OTAs on May 27th.  Reports suggest his ACL is torn and will require surgery and a rehabilitation process that will cause him to start preparing now for 2015.

Today is surely a day for the media to nod in agreement that everyone saw this coming.  I know most of us who covered the draft knew about Sean Lee's history with ACL injuries and therefore raised an eyebrow when his name was selected.  At the same time, in the now-famous leaked out draft board, we remember that Sean Lee was the 14th highest rated player on the Cowboys board - that means overall!

In other words, they did their medical homework and cleared him and clearly, others did not.  Does that reveal a major flaw in the way the Cowboys assume medical risks?  Yes, but let's not get too carried away.

The fact is that teams in all sports do understand that injuries happen.  In fact, in the sport of football, if you get to your NFL physical and have no damage, then you almost assuredly did not play major college football.  The players from Alabama have a particular reputation as Nick Saban reportedly runs practices like actual games and the players there compete at such an absurd level that NFL people are suspicious about how much their bodies are used up by the time they get to the NFL.

Hearing a player has a knee issue from high school or the pros, or that a pitcher had Tommy John as a high school senior, or that a basketball player has had a chronic ankle issue is important to note.  But, as you examine a player with an athletic history, you must consider their past, but if they are fully fit and recovered and performing all of your requests at 100% levels, you must consider and weigh the cost/risk analysis and make a decision.

Guys fall in a draft or in a free agency season because of a number of reasons.  Sometimes, their school is too small.  Sometimes, their coach says they party too much.  Sometimes, like with Drew Brees, the injury happened too recently.  Miami wouldn't clear his shoulder when he hit free agency and New Orleans swooped in.  Guess how many times he has hurt his shoulder since 2005?  Did New Orleans ignore all of the medical evidence that said he would be hurt all of the time if they signed him?  Or did they do the cost/risk analysis and decided the upside outweighed the downside?

Lee missed 2008 with his right ACL.  He missed a month in 2009 with his left ACL (simply a sprain).  He missed action in his rookie year in 2010 with a hamstring injured in the season opener in Washington.  Again in 2011, it was a wrist that went the wrong way.  In 2012, in Carolina, he was lost for the year with a major toe/foot injury.  Then, in 2013, with everything finally seemingly better he had more hamstring problems and missed action from New Orleans pretty much until the end of the year, save for a brief appearance in Chicago.  And, of course, now, we know that he won't touch the field in pads in 2014.

This history would have to be considered the worst case scenario of what sort of injuries could beset a man if we thought of everything going wrong.  And all of this happening to a guy that the Cowboys love so much that they would hand the keys of the franchise to him even if they were intimately aware of the baggage he brings:
"Sean is Superman, and I mean it. I remember back before the draft, ESPN did a special on him, and I think members of his team called him God. He has such a will that if anybody can come back sooner than what you ought to be coming back from, he can do it. He’s rehabbing at the most intense level you can, and if anybody can get back here in a couple of weeks, he can do it." - Jerry Jones - November 2013
By the way, it should be noted that anyone that watches him play agrees with the overall football analysis of Sean's play.  From his monster game in his rookie season against the Colts and Peyton Manning to his stunning display against the Redskins in 2013, he really is all that they hoped he would be when he is lined up between the hash marks.

He has more interceptions than any LB in the sport since he has been in the league and his tackle totals are exceptional.  He reads and diagnoses in very short order, then seeks and destroys quite well.

But that darned body, just 6'2/236 makes you wonder if his body wasn't designed for this type of beating.  Also, at 4.78 in the 40, can the mind continue to make up the difference that his knees cannot sustain?

Over the course of his Cowboys career, Lee has been on the field for 49% of the defensive snaps.  Given that he is a 3-down Linebacker, that sets off alarms with regards to his attendance record.

In 2010, he played 17% of snaps, then 83% in 2011, 32% in 2012, and 62% in 2013.  Take away 2010 because he was being brought along behind Bradie James and Keith Brooking, and you get a career number of 59% of snaps from 2011-2013.  And, of course, we assume 0% in 2014.  We can assume that after this season, his career snap percentage will be in the high 30s.  Which means that on the scale of Cal Ripken to Greg Oden, he is certainly not Superman.

Now, are they covered if his health never cooperates?  For the most part.  There will be dead money if he decides to give in, but A) I don't think he will at age 27 and B) the dead money is not substantial.  And moving forward, he had incentives that could drive up his money based on 80% snap attendance, but I believe the numbers above suggest that isn't a major consideration right now.

More importantly, what do they do about his absence?  Well, let us nod in their favor for picking need over want in the 4th round a few week ago when they snagged Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens.  He has some limitations, but overall, I think you can expect reasonable play at the Mike from him.  I wrote a full report on him last week and you may wish to check that out now.

Basically, they are not dead without Sean Lee, but as one NFL blogger pointed out yesterday online, the Cowboys had a historically bad defense last year and now have lost their 3 best players from that group in Jason Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware, and Sean Lee for 2014.  Wow.  That is a startling truth that is a ominous indicator of what could lie ahead.

It really comes back to this - and this, dear reader, is why I cringe in utter agony when the Cowboys delude themselves into another trade up on draft day to get that "one piece" that they have to have - that lack of depth is rearing its head again.  This team is so paper thin that they usually cannot sustain injuries at any normal level without complete and utter collapse.  Yet, year after year, they trade 2 picks for 1 guy and continue the top-heavy approach to team building in the NFL.  When you trade up for Dez Bryant or Sean Lee or DeMarcus Lawrence or Morris Claiborne or Mike Jenkins or Roy Williams, then they had better be awesome and available.  Dez qualifies, but the others all have either fallen short of "awesome" or have had injury issues (so far).  But, consolidating 2 picks into 1 man puts enormous leverage on those players delivering on the hope and promise.

The alternate approach is to treat each asset as dear and vital and spread your assets more evenly up and down your roster.  This allows for less sizzle, but possibly more steak.  You can sustain injuries or underperformance better and have a suitable replacement ready.

They are using one of their key depth chips in May as Hitchens now moves up the depth chart by necessity.  There are spots all over the field where there is no replacement ready above waiver wire caliber.  They can survive this.  But, if they lose 2 or 3 more regulars at any point in 2014 (which, of course, could all happen in Week 1), the whole repeatable process of implosion followed by street free agents could begin anew.

You needed bodies.  Lots of quality bodies.  That is why you don't trade up every year.  But, they ignore history and then get bit.  The beauty is that when they get bit, they often act shocked and forget that you have to save money for an unexpected car repair as a matter of routine.

I really don't blame them much for Sean Lee.  If he was Drew Brees and healthy, we would be mad at them for listening to their doctors.  But, I do blame them for not realizing that when you invest in players with injury histories, you better realize the importance of quality depth behind them.  And by drafting Hitchens, they may have figured that out partially, but clearly with their Post-Parcells draft approach they don't seem ready to admit that their frivolous use of picks is a dangerous game that beats them up in May and July when Lee and Tyrone Crawford are lost and the scrambling begins all over again for another year.

I hope Lee recovers and returns.  He is too good a player to never see him for a full season.  But, unfortunately, we are seeing that durability is still as undervalued amongst fans and media as any skill in this destructive sport.  You only consider a player's fragility when he limps off the field.  A team has to be far more aware of these realities to avoid treating the sport like a game of blackjack where a "bad beat" will send you to the poor house.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Draft Profile: Rd 5, Pick #146 - Devin Street - WR - Pittsburgh

Miles Austin will certainly go down as one of the more interesting Cowboys careers of this era.  For instance, he was one of those 2006 camp bodies (along with Sam Hurd) that were featured in the stories that July and August for being the puppies that new veteran signee Terrell Owens had spent time with ushering along.  Owens was thought of at that time (and for most of his career) as too hot to handle by many NFL people, and therefore, it seemed one of his ways to demonstrate how wrong everyone was about him and how delightful he really was as a human showed itself as he would work with undrafted free agents in his position group to show them the way.

Then, Austin tried to help win a playoff game in that rookie year of 2006 as he famously returned a kick while watching himself on the screen in Seattle to see if anyone was catching him from behind.  From there, a few quieter seasons of special teams and depth at receiver where in 2007 and 2008 he had 18 catches combined and was still joined at the hip as a "depth/special teams" guy.  He actually had 3 Touchdowns in the first 5 games in 2008, before the Cowboys moved heaven and earth to trade for Roy Williams, making one wonder how things might have been different if they stayed with Austin, saved those picks and money, and played it out from there.  

In 2009, after a series of unfortunate events (Owens cut, Roy Williams injured, Sam Hurd coming off a rough outing in Denver), Austin had a breakout game in Kansas City that most of us will never forget.  10 catches for 250 yards and the winning Touchdown in overtime.  In that 2009 playoff season, Austin went crazy as a guy who started the year as surplus, but by the end had 4 games of 139 yards or more, 1,320 yards, and 11 touchdowns.  He also needed a contract.

So, with the cap-less 2010 season in front of them, the Cowboys gave Austin a 7-year/$54m deal with his entire 2010 guaranteed salary of $17m.  He had 3 monster games in early 2010 to continue his run of form, but from the time Tony Romo broke his collarbone in 2010 until the Cowboys released Austin in March of 2014, the two had never regained that level of excellence.  This period would be best remembered for the two not connecting on that fateful "ball lost in the lights" 2011 moment against the Giants, for numerous hamstring incidents that kept Miles from ever looking right, and finally the odd moment against Green Bay late where Romo looked for Austin on an ill-advised decision that Sam Shields intercepted while Miles was open for a touchdown with a better throw.

This is clearly a weird way to profile Devin Street, but I thought it bears dissecting to see how Austin was under-utilized, disregarded, then over-compensated, before returning to rather average production for his final 3 seasons here.  In other words, the Cowboys, because of depth issues on their roster and exceptional timing on Austin's part, paid Austin between $35m and $40m for what amounted to 1 dynamite season (The final 10 weeks of 2009 and the first 6 weeks of 2010).

So, in 2013 and 2014, the Cowboys knew that they had to get deeper and younger (and cheaper).  Dwayne Harris is now their oldest receiver at 26, and Dez the oldest regular at 25.  Baylor's Terrance Williams was selected in Round 3 in 2013 as a #3 who would replace Austin to be the #2 in year 2.  That meant for the 2014 season, they needed another WR to be their #3.  And that led them to Devin Street in Round 5.

Just watching them below, I can squint and see Miles Austin:

Street was the 22nd wide receiver taken in this draft in a year where 33 were taken.  Sources have told many of us in the media that the Cowboys had him graded as a 3rd round talent on their board, so they got a bit antsy when the 5th round was happening and he was still there - partly because there was a fair amount of noise at pick #119 when they took Anthony Hitchens to grab Street there.  However, the arguments for Hitchens won the day (defense, special teams) and the Cowboys knew that with several more draft-able receivers still available, they might get the one they wanted later.  

What they didn't know is that Street could make it to them in Round 5.  And they weren't about to take chances once he fell to #146.  That is where they sent #158 and #229 to Detroit to go get their guy, who was the all-time leading receiver at Pittsburgh, which knows a thing or two about passing the ball around over the years.

Street is an interesting study to say the least.  He is tall and lanky, measuring just a shade below 6'3 and a sandwich below 200 lbs.  He has proper speed, but would not be considered a burner.  In fact, amazingly, James Hanna still has the fastest 40 time of any of Romo's targets at 4.48.  But, Williams, Dez Bryant, Street, and Dwayne Harris all measured between 4.51 and 4.55 (Cole Beasley did not attend the combine).

I watched quite a bit of his college action and it is clear what the Cowboys are seeing.  They want a slot option who is not Beasley, and in this particular draft, there are very few slot receivers who are more accomplished than Street.  Yet, he is anything but a prototypical slot in that he is very tall and able to compete as much like a tight end in that he can win passes in the air more than with elite quickness.  This, of course, means that a big target takes lots of big hits, so his ability to get back up will be tested on Sundays.  Here is Street (below) on the wrong end of a kill shot that is somewhat famous in the .gif community.

He is also very strong at winning balls that need to be won.  I like his ability to go up in traffic and come down with a ball, and the best part about his game as a slot receiver is also his ability to go deep a ton.  To call him a slot is deceiving, because with Beasley that means that they are only going to run him on routes less than 10 yards.  Street is not this at all.  He is running deep routes more than short at Pitt, with deep outs, go's, and post routes that start inside the numbers, as well as your normal allotment of slants, outs, and hooks that we get from the inside receivers traditionally.

I know the Cowboys want him to be another outside option as well, but that remains to be seen as Pitt used him sparingly in that capacity.  Basically, to be an ideal outside receiver in the NFL, you had better be able to get off the line against press coverage, and honestly, that looks like Street's number one area of question.  Already, discussions of "getting him in the strength program" have been tossed about in the press briefings to improve his abilities when he is not given the free release that we often see from slot receivers.  

He runs very strong routes and looks like he can be a multi-faceted receiver who will grow into a strong pro.  If he really is all that we think, we will be wondering how he fell through to the 5th round.  Generally, receivers that fall this far in the draft have some major warts, but there doesn't seem to be much not to like about him and honestly, he does look like a young Miles Austin in many respects.  Not all of the tools are the same, but their abilities allow them to plug Street in a similar spot that Miles would play when he was healthy in the last few years.  

In 2014, it is difficult to figure out what the Cowboys plan on being their ideal personnel grouping, but we know that "11 personnel" will always be the 3rd down/2-minute warning look, and they use that more than any other grouping.  Talk "12 personnel" all you want, but on 3rd and 10 against nickel or dime, you are never going to prefer tight ends to receivers who can stress secondaries and isolate weak links.  

Street will no doubt be brought along slowly, but when it comes to picks that you can't believe you had a chance to grab in the 5th Round, Street absolutely looks like a kid to be high on.  And as a human, it sure seems like everyone who knows him speaks very highly of the type of guy he is and how his teammates regard him as a leader of men.  

I always target a player or two that I am particularly optimistic about heading into camp, and I really think this is my guy in 2014 and a player we will be hearing from for several years to come.  Now it is up to him to prove he belongs.  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

England Trip 2014

This morning, I wanted to recap my recent trip to England in a blog that will be read by some, bookmarked by others (for their own trip planning), and totally ignored by many.  Figure out whatever category you belong in and carry on.  It is all good.

For those new to my non-NFL/American Sports addictions, I have very few vices in this world.  But, I make up for it with going completely over-board with my sports interests.  In this particular case, my long-time love affair with world football is where I actually take trans-Atlantic journeys to feed.  Somehow, my lovely bride has accepted the fact that once every few years I am going to leave for 5-6  days to watch as much English Football as I can get my hands on, and then come back even more obsessed with it.

It started in 2002, then 2004, 2007, 2010, 2012, and now 2 weeks ago here in May of 2014.  For a brief history of the other journeys and blog recaps, follow this link and catch yourself up.

This year, being the Liverpool fanatic that I have become, it was a rather easy target once we could sort out the available weekends of our traveling party.  I wanted to see Liverpool, in their quest to win their first title since 1990, in a vital match and witness some level of history either way.  I did.  More on that later.

But, once you pick a weekend - for me, it was to see Liverpool in London at a ground that I have been led to believe in worth the experience by itself (Crystal Palace) - then you work with what is left on the schedule and make a full weekend out of it.

This was not difficult as that particular weekend, many London teams were all home at the same time.  Below is a map showing all of the major stadiums in London (at least the ones that I am aware of - I am sure I am missing several).  It is a massive city with a love for the beautiful game.  If you are like me and want to see a ton of matches in a short amount of time, it is always best to make it a London-based trip, because obviously, the choices for enjoying the rest of your time there are endless in a city that is one of my favorites.  I took the liberty to use pink font so that you could actually figure out what was what.  It is clearly a very colorful map - but you get the idea, I hope.

The point of that exercise was to show you that with a 30 minute train/tube/taxi ride, you can get to 10 different stadiums from a nice central London hotel.  So, the prospect of seeing 2-4 matches in one weekend is ambitious and expensive, but possible.

In our case, we had a number of options as West Ham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Millwall, and Crystal Palace were all home.  I knew I would be a Selhurst Park, but the other thing you must know is that the times/dates are a little like college football in that they can get moved around with little notice for TV.  But, unlike college football, they can also jump dates.  So, when you are planning, they all say Saturday at 3pm kickoffs.  But, about 3 weeks out, they all move for TV, and therefore Liverpool went to Monday (so, I had to get another day off work and change my plane tickets at that point), Arsenal and Chelsea both moved to Sunday, and Saturday was rather wide open with West Ham and Millwall as our choices.

Now, how do you get tickets?  This is the question I get no less than once a week for the last decade.  And the answer never changes - prepare for 2 things: difficulty and pricey.  Now, this can all be modified by what you want to see, because there are plenty of places to watch football in England that are cheap and easy, and my trip to Southend United was both, but also a wonderful experience for sure.  But, most of you are like me and suggest if you are going to travel that far you want to live what you see on TV at the famous grounds watching the biggest clubs in the most storied environments.  I don't blame you, but that brings us back to difficulty and pricey.

I am lucky enough to have connections now after all of these trips, so I have an easier path that I use, but unfortunately, I cannot really help you in your trip.  However, my connections have not covered all the matches I have seen and I will tell you that my trip to Old Trafford and my trip to Stamford Bridge in these last 2 trips were purchased just like you would - through the expensive outlets available to all.  I used Stubhub UK for my Manchester United visit and paid about £175 (British pounds) each, then for Chelsea this time it was £195 through my hotel concierge.  Very expensive, but I highly recommend you bite the bullet and buy them this way then look for a cheaper route and end up with counterfeit tickets.  Trust me, you don't want this.  I will elaborate more on this in a bit.

Now, on to the recap:


West Ham hosting Tottenham would have been the preferred pick on this day, but Upton Park was proving difficult to get tickets, and therefore, we decided to call in a favor with a friend and his fantastic Millwall connections.

I don't know if you know anything about Millwall, but they are a very famous club that has not been in the top flight since 1990.  But, they are well-known for many, shall we say, non-football reasons as demonstrated by fiction (Green Street Hooligans) and non-fiction works (Watch this documentary from 1977 if you really care).  They are a fan base that lives by the slogan that "No one likes us and we don't care", which you kind of admire.  But, just don't think your fan base is tougher than theirs.  They have been defending that reputation for quite a while.

Honestly, our trip to the Den was certainly with a bit of trepidation, but we met nothing but nice people who were nervous because they needed to win a match to insure that they would stay up in the Championship for next season.  I don't have time to give you a full relegation lesson right now, but know that the prospect of getting kicked down a level is the ultimate stomach punch to a side, and therefore, the tension was high on the last day of the season when my group sampled their match day scene.

They were playing Bournemouth, a much better side that day, but also a side that was secured in their finishing place, while Millwall needed all 3 points or they could be going down.  Given that I had never witnessed a match with this much on the line, it was pretty cool to soak all of that in and to see the pitch invasion that followed which you can kind of see in this over-exposed selfie right at the end of the match (Below).   

You may also note that I am dressed a bit nicer than one would expect from a t-shirt type, and that is because we were given access to their version of the Platinum level and spent time in the prematch in their hospitality suites.  This allowed us the very odd opportunity to see the Millwall manager (the great Ian Holloway who I remember best for getting Blackpool into the Premiership a few years back) address the crowd of VIPs less than 10 minutes before kickoff.  I found this to be so odd to imagine Rick Carlisle or Jason Garrett have to stand up in front of fans and explain his lineup and tactical ideas for the day and to encourage everyone to "stay on our side" and to know how important your support is to the club.  It seemed like a real beating to have to explain yourself to the supporters while you should be worrying about the match, but over there it appears to be a major part of the gig. 

It was only the 2nd time I had ever witnessed a match over there that was not part of the "Premiership", but the crowd was packed, the songs were loud, and it was a very intense display of football that I think anyone would enjoy.

Also, aside from those that ran out on to the field to challenge the authorities, I saw nobody get punched which in a way made me happy and safe, and in a way disappointed me because of their reputation which might have been part of the reason I wanted to see what all of the talk was about in the first place.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Millwall and wish them nothing but the best success in the Championship another year in 2014-15.  They seem like a proud, loyal side that doesn't care what you think of them.

Easy in and out train access from London Bridge train station and we were back at our hotel in plenty of time to watch Everton and Manchester City as I hoped that Liverpool's neighbor could do them a solid and get LFC back in control of their own destiny after the very unfortunate slip (pun intended) against Chelsea.

It didn't really work out for me.


The mission on Sunday hatched only because we had never been to Stamford Bridge. It really didn’t make sense otherwise, because most travelers would love to see West Brom at Arsenal and just be satisfied. But, even though there is a Gunner in our group, we can all agree that Emirates Stadium has all of the charm of Cowboys Stadium – except no awesome big screen and certainly no Sky Mirror.

It isn’t that the stadium isn’t nice – it is. Every seat has a great view of the action and of course, Arsenal is Arsenal, so the football is quite pleasing to the eye. But, the fan experience of feeling you are caught up in a wave of emotion never really hits there like it did at the old place. Did they make their new stadium too big and forsake the genius of Highbury? Maybe, but you should see the matchday revenues! They make tons of money and have luxury suites and the rich of London seem to really enjoy Arsenal, so if it isn’t broke….

Regardless, we saw Chelsea play at Arsenal in 2012 and if that match cannot produce a rowdy atmosphere, then West Brom in Week 37 is not going to work, either. And while it isn’t horrible, it just wasn’t enough to hold our interest.

When our ticket efforts to get into Chelsea (for Norwich City) were unsuccessful at first, we jumped on tickets to Arsenal (so as not to have no matches on Sunday), only to have some regrets that we were letting Stamford Bridge get away from us again. For me, this was my 6th trip to England and 5th to London, and I still have never been to the Bridge (which looks simply fantastic on television most matches). It didn’t take much persuading and after one of our group started quoting the principles of “YOLO”, we decided to pay our hotel’s absurd prices to get us into that match. Visa agreed to borrow us the cash at a small fee, and I must now apologize to the family about the college fund.

Anyway, this was going to be difficult because now we were actually going to try 2 matches in 1 afternoon – having tickets to both Arsenal (1:30pm) and Chelsea (4:00pm). On our 2012 trip, we did a 2 match day already (London is the best city in the world for a soccer fan with at least 10 large stadiums at various parts of the massive area) with Arsenal at 12:45pm and Queens Park Rangers at 5:30. But, as you can see, that is hardly a conflict with each match done in less than 2 hours. This one, with a 38 minute train ride in between was going to be most aggressive. But, knowing that we were only going to live once, we went for it.  The video directly below is the shaky footage from my phone that documented the mission:

It started with taking the train from our hotel at King’s Cross/St Pancras up to the Arsenal tube stop on the Piccadilly line at about 12pm.  We tracked down our tickets and enjoyed the Arsenal fan scene which is quite impressive and enjoyable with lots of gatherings and pubs everywhere.  Our seats were 3 rows from the top, but still in one corner with great sight lines and a good look at everything there was to see.
As expected, West Brom was on the run most of the day, and Olivier Giroud put home a header in the 1st half of a corner from the shockingly diminutive Santi Cazorla to put Arsenal ahead. We saw many more chances, but at about the 65 minute mark (or 2:55pm) we decided it was time to make our move. We budgeted 5-10 minutes to get to the tube platform, then 38 minutes to get from Arsenal to Chelsea, and wanted to not risk getting there any later than 3:45 to allow for the congestion around the Bridge and getting to our seats by the time 4:00pm hit and the 2nd game started.

Our plans actually went perfectly. As you might imagine, leaving a match early allows for a completely empty scene outside the stadium and the trip to the tube was lonely except for all of the authorities wondering what we were up to as we arrived significantly earlier than they expected anyone to arrive. We jogged our way down to the platform at the Arsenal stop and jumped back to the southbound Piccadilly line.

2:59 the train pulls up and we hop in. Change at South Kensington at 3:25, new train arrives at 3:28 on the District line now down to Fulham Broadway which is the preferred stop for Chelsea Football Club. And no kidding, the Iphone app that told me 38 minutes nailed it right on the money. 3:37pm, we join the masses of blue-clad Chelsea fans and a brave group of Norwich City rowdies that are ready to try to cheer their team out of the relegation spot they find themselves in (thanks a lot, Sunderland!).

After the short walk with noise, singing, and smells of various foods in the air, we arrive on a cloudless London day at the Bridge at 3:43pm, stand in line, walk up the stairs, stand in a quick concession queue (Pork Shoulder/Stuffing/Apple Hoagie for 6 pounds– not that bad!), and then to our seats at 3:54pm or with 6 entire minutes to spare. I could not have been timed more perfectly, I do not believe.

Unfortunately, the match did not explode into the battle we had hoped as Chelsea’s title dreams died a few weeks earlier and then their Champions League campaigned also died on this same pitch at midweek. So, a less than inspired Chelsea side looked the part against a Norwich side that did not have the man-power to find the 3 points that they desperately needed to stay up. Some substitutes at the half (Eden Hazard and David Luiz) spiced it up quite a bit, but still no goals and a frustrated Bridge crowd was unhappy with a 0-0 draw that removed any miracles of a title completely off the board.

I will report, though, that the atmosphere at the Bridge was much more my speed in terms of a stadium that you can tell can really shake on a proper night. It is old, tight, and full of personality. I suppose that is another way of saying old, but I will argue that the “progress” in building sports stadiums is highly debatable as any additions of comforts and facilities to meet the needs of the affluent have come at the expense of electricity and atmosphere, which is a real shame. But, to this point, the deep pockets of Roman Abromovich have not been supplemented with several levels of life-sucking suites, so credit there to that very rich man and his team of rich men.

Overall, it was one of my favorite stadiums to visit, and I would recommend that you give that one a try if you are in the area and wish to see what it is all about.

To top off a day full of football, what do you think I would do? Well, if you guessed walk the 1.9 miles across Fulham to see Craven Cottage (even though it was empty and matchless), you win! The Cottage houses Fulham FC, and despite their relegation, I would very much like to see a match there sometime soon as again, on television, it always seems lively. Their ground sits right on the banks of the River Thames, and is connected to a park that is a wonderful walk and quite beautiful. Sadly, the Michael Jackson statue stands there no longer, but otherwise, it all appeared to be in solid repair, despite being another ground with serious age spots.


OK, now the main event. Let's be clear here - most Liverpool fans knew we weren't winning the league this year after Everton didn't do LFC a favor against City.  Regardless of the results of Liverpool's final 2 matches, if Manchester City won their 2 home matches against Aston Villa and West Ham, then it was over.  Nothing that happened at Palace would matter unless Manchester City choked.  And, most of us knew that wasn't going to happen before this match was even played.  So, the possibility of witnessing Liverpool's historic night was cancelled the weak prior.

However, I still couldn't wait to see my guys in person for the first time since 2010.  I have seen Liverpool twice before, both at Anfield, but they didn't score a single goal in either match and were pretty poor in 2010 with a coach that was about to be out and no striker to speak of.  Now, they had the #1 and #2 scorers in the league and a team that played wonderfully all year.  They finished 7th and were generally in nobody's pick to finish in the Top 4.  Now, they could do no worse than 2nd and needed a miracle to get 1st with a week to go.

But, in truth, I would have made this same trip if Liverpool was 7th.  I wanted to see my club and see them play in a place where everyone speaks so highly about the amazing atmosphere of a small south London club where the fans make the place come alive.  And that absolutely happened.

From the first second you get off the train, it is amazing.  It is in a small neighborhood which is a 5 minute walk from the train station.  You are walking with hundreds and since the match was on a Monday night, you could just sense that Palace was getting a rare chance to show off their scene with the whole nation watching.  They had your undivided attention and they were going to show you everything they had.

When I go to these matches, I never have tickets in hand.  I usually am told to pick them up at a given ticket window and I always get nervous about showing up and them not having any idea who I am.  I think it is more of a reflection of my personality than it is an actual legitimate fear because it has always worked out for me, but since my mind enjoys considering the worst possible outcome of events, it is always there.

Anyway, we arrived about an hour before kickoff (7pm) and worked our way through the thousands of fans who were crowded around this neighborhood stadium.  It is quite a sight to behold as there are houses in every direction but this old stadium sits right in the middle.

I got to the window and gave my name.  The girl searched and searched and found nothing with my name.  She shrugged and asked for alternate spellings.  I gave the most popular misspelling of Sturm which of course, is Strum.  Panic was starting to set in.  This is why I wanted to go on the trip and I simply couldn't miss this match.  I started thinking of alternative options, but buying from the scalpers seemed quite ill-advised given all of the warnings in the press for this particular match about counterfeit tickets that were everywhere.  It would be expensive and then highly risky to buy outside.

Thankfully, after a 30-minute search in which I produced a verification email from one of their ticket managers (or I might have been out of luck), they finally found my tickets under my connection's name in their computer.  They asked if he was coming and I said he would not be as he is back in Texas.  But, if we must, I could try to get him on the phone.  They seemed convinced with that offer and printed up my tickets.  The search took us until nearly 7:40, but they were nice enough and we finally could go inside, so no problems.

Below is the ticket from that night, complete with everything but my friend's name blocked out.  I wanted you to see it to verify all of the specifics which include a number of items that would be difficult to duplicate if you are one to counterfeit tickets.

So, we get in the park and go directly to our seats.  We had 4 tickets, but only a group of 3 (long and uninteresting story there) and knew we were going to have an open seat - which appeared to be the only seat that was unfilled in the entire stadium.

With about 10 minutes until kickoff, I am trying to take a nice selfie with the entire Liverpool squad no more than 15 yards behind me warming up right by my seats.  I am fairly used to being close to athletes and teams I admire, but I will confess that being so close to those I have watched on TV for so many seasons and to have pulled off this dream mission was a moment to savor.  I had this wild idea to go see my club in their potentially historic title run (sad face) and picked a match and pulled it off.  It all fell perfectly into place.  So, at the moment of the picture to the right, everything has gone well and you are seeing a satisfied smile.

At this moment, a man comes down the aisle and halts my selfie party to tell me I am in his seat.  I thought that seemed like a reasonable accusation as I very well might have been.  So, I grab my ticket and verify my aisle and seat numbers and then cross reference with the section number and end up disagreeing with him.  I am in my proper seat!

Now, he is confused and looks back at his ticket.  No, this is his seat.  But, I am sure it is mine.  By now, it is rather clear that English is his 2nd (or 4th) language, and I later find out he was in from Sweden on business and bought his ticket out front for a reasonable £250.  I don't want any trouble, so we all remain calm and we hold our tickets side by side.  They are identical.  I mean, identical.  Right down to my friend's name printed on his ticket.  It made no sense and given how every seat was taken in the entire stadium, my nervousness returned as I started to consider how this might be worked out.  Most notably because my prematch indigestion had started with both teams walking on to the field.

The usher was called and then after his confusion set in, the head usher was called.  The Swedish business man could sense how the wind was blowing and started to throw himself at the feet of the judge as he realized he had been duped out front to the tune of about $450.  Meanwhile, since my friend was on the ticket and my email verified my connection, I started to figure out how to make our 4th seat available to the man who had endured this mess with me.

The head usher came over and listened to the story - given how loud the stadium now was, that consisted of yelling in each other's ears from close range.  He heard my story and then asked me if I was Ben Sturm.  I said that was close enough and he agreed that Bob and Ben were essentially the same name and told me I was good.  He wanted to run the Swedish dude out, but I told him that I wanted to give him our 4th seat.  The usher didn't care much, but then pulled 3 more copies of my ticket out of his pocket and said he had been catching these all night with my exact seat.  I have no idea how this all happened, but evidently, someone made multiple copies of my ticket at the Crystal Palace computers and then they got into the hands of the scalpers.  I am not saying the club had anything to do with it, but a club operative had to have been involved.  If you think about it, the brilliance of this scam is easy to see.  Make bogus tickets, give to scalpers, they sell for hundreds of pounds, the counterfeits get caught, the scalpers disappear, and the cops can't do anything to fix it.  I was told an Australian tourist also was duped and during the match 2 college kids from South Korea walked in, again, with my tickets.

It was unsettling, but I was back into the scene by kickoff, so I accepted my lowly role in an international ticketing scandal.  Also, a meat pie was brought to me by my buddy who made a concessions run and I must say it was amazingly better than I ever imagined anything called a meat pie could be.

The match was amazing.  It really was.  Liverpool was trying to win by 8 and with their record scoring ability, they broke it open after halftime with 2 quick goals to go up 3-0.  I would imagine in the English Premiership that a 3-0 lead is closed out about 99.9% of the time.  The reason why it is impossible to come back from 3 goals is that most teams cannot score 3 times in a game and because the other team is smart enough to protect the lead.  But, not Liverpool who doesn't protect leads well, and not that night as Liverpool had this foolish idea that they could fix the enormous goal difference deficit to Manchester City.  To do so, they would have had to win by 9 or 10, but at the time, they were pretty confident and a bit overly dismissive of a Crystal Palace side who had killed a few giants already at home.

Anyway, as anyone who is reading this already knows, I witnessed the collapse of Liverpool that night in an epic fashion.  A 3-0 lead with 78 minutes gone became 3-1 at 79, 3-2 at 81, and 3-3 at the 88 minute mark.  You can watch 1,000 matches and never see that again.  It was bonkers in that stadium all night, but the final 15 minutes were unlike anything I ever saw or heard.

Words cannot describe how awesome the crowd was.  I put it above Loftus Road (QPR), Highbury (old Arsenal), Anfield (Liverpool), Upton Park (West Ham), and Fratton Park (Portsmouth) as the best scenes I have ever been a part of.  It was electric and it wasn't just when they scored.  From the moment the fans walked in they were loud and self-motivated all night long trying to will their team to victory.  I left very impressed with Crystal Palace and their supporters.  It is clear that the teams who are not givens to be in the Premiership have the best fan bases.  QPR and Palace, in particular, seem free of the rich, entitled group and full of just hard core loyalists who are thrilled to be in the top flight.

I must admit it is an odd feeling to see your team throw up in front of you when you have flown 4,000+ miles to see them play.  I think it would have been a million times worse if the Chelsea moment had not happened and this choke actually cost them their first title in 24 years.  In reality, this  horrible night really was surely memorable (if just for that picture of Luis Suarez crying), but it really didn't decide anything for the title.  City never slipped and Liverpool already had.

But, man, to be in that stadium that night was something so awesome.  Yes, my club collapsed, but for some reason, it was secondary to my best soccer night ever.

Knowing I could never do it justice with words, I made sure I rolled some video with my phone.  There might be a naughty word here (very salty language around me), but I think it captures the night pretty well.

So, 4 matches in 3 days caps off another fantastic soccer journey.  It is my 6th and surely not my last. Can't wait for 2016 to do it all over again.  

Monday, May 19, 2014

Draft Profile: Rd 4, Pick #119 - Anthony Hitchens - LB - Iowa

The following is part of a series of draft profiles for the Dallas Cowboys' selected players from the 2014 draft. These profiles are put together after watching significant amounts of game tape from each player, and is an attempt to examine their resumes and play to get an idea of how they might fit in best with Dallas come training camp in Oxnard this summer.

When there is a team that has as many holes in their depth chart has Cowboys have had over the last few years, it is easy to repeat the phrase we have used here over and over.  It is, "There are no wrong answers, and there are no right answers."  This simply means that whatever you take, it does help.  But, whatever you take means you are ignoring other needs that could be argued that would rank "more pressing".  

I think that is what struck so many of us when the Cowboys selected Anthony Hitchens from Iowa as their 3rd player taken and 4th round pick - 85 picks after the Cowboys traded up to get DeMarcus Lawrence from Boise State.  Sitting for 85 picks and watching attractive names go off the board can cause anxiety in many, but it also causes us to really narrow down and predict where the next pick might be directed at.  If someone were to poll the Cowboys fandom, I am reasonably sure that a back-up middle linebacker was not where the masses were leaning.  Nevertheless, the Cowboys grabbed Hitchens, leaving highly regarded linebackers on the board who seemed to fit more pressing needs in pass rusher/MLB candidate Carl Bradford from Arizona State (#121) and particularly, the sliding but potential Will LB Telvin Smith from Florida State (#144).

Beginning with the draft call, it seemed rather clear that a great amount of the Cowboys attraction to Hitchens is his special teams ability, with Special Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia apparently pounding the table to get the LB from Iowa with this pick The Cowboys selected Hitchens in the fourth round, and Jones informed Hitchens of the selection. After exchanging pleasantries, Jones said: “You’ve got a special teams coach over here that laid in front of the train for you. Whatever you do, you’re going to have to be the best special teams player we’ve got.”

Again, this might be a great case of Jerry saying too many things in public that don't need to be said, but it is a reality in the NFL that special teams are a tremendous consideration that can decide good seasons from bad seasons.  If there is one thing clear about Hitchens in my viewing, he is the type of guy that you can line up at R1 or L1 and have him run right down the hash marks as an opening day special teams contributor and not worry about his ability.  The reason for this is simple - unlike many draftees, Hitchens won't have to remember how to play special teams because he never stopped at Iowa.  Even as their leading tackler, he was always covering kicks and doing a great job in doing so.  The question simply becomes how much is that worth to you?  Surely, you must have special teams, but with (at the time) 6 7th round picks, many organizations would argue that you certainly don't need to target special teams that high in the draft.  Which, of course, leads us to look at what he can do on your defense.  

I have spent much of the last week breaking down a tremendous amount of Iowa games, including Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and LSU from 2013.  Iowa had a very talented defense in 2013, clearly led by a group of 3 veteran linebackers who are all going to have a chance to play on Sundays.       Pick #71 to Cleveland was Christian Kirksey, who was said to be a target of the Cowboys in the 3rd round (provided they had a pick in that round. There was some speculation that pick #71 might have been the 3rd that the Cowboys might have received if they had traded down to #26 with Cleveland so the Browns would jump to #16 and take Johnny Manziel).  Then, Hitchens went at #119, and James Morris was left undrafted but was quickly signed by New England and will make a bid to grab a roster spot there.  

Their linebackers jumped off the screen at you as they seemed to interchange roles quite a bit, and the coaching staff at Iowa certainly used their experience and ability to tilt the defense to one that was built around this group.  You never knew which Linebacker was going to be coming downhill to meet your QB or RB in the backfield, but it was often 1 or 2 of this group of 3.  They were quite good.

Of the three, Hitchens played a ton of weak side LB, with Morris taking more of the MLB duties, and Kirksey up on the line of scrimmage as the strong-side LB.  Again, this was the majority of the time, but clearly, they interchanged them quite a bit which was a real luxury for a scheme.  This is likely a good time to mention that the caliber QB one faces in the Big 10 is miles from the NFL, and therefore, most observers wouldn't consider Hitchens an ideal fit for WLB in the NFL because of all of the pass coverage this means on Sundays.  At Iowa, he could play this spot and not get matched up with receivers in man coverage almost at all.  They would have him drop back into zones, and I think I would call him comfortable in his zone drops with fine ball awareness, and while I don't want him chasing Darren Sproles or Danny Woodhead around the field, I think in basic pass coverages, he would do just fine.  

If you want to know where Hitchens really excels, to me it is in two particular spots.  One, it is clear that he is a very intelligent player who understands the concepts of a defense and can help his team-mates also see this big picture.  I cannot stress enough how important this is for a scheme to have 11 defenders on the same page, and if he is going to be the QB of your defense, he better get this concept.  Knowing where you need to be is a given.  If you want to be a middle linebacker, you need to know where everyone needs to be.  And Hitchens can be seen moving guys and adjusting things very well.  I think that is encouraging.  And then, of course, he is also a force on the defense which means that not only does he understand it (any of us could aspire to that), he can also do something about plays in his area with his ability (which is something that keeps us on the couch).  It should also be noted - and this might have been the scheme more than a revealing look at his personality - he appeared to be the most conservative of the 3 LBs when it came to angles or deployment.  He appeared to be the careful LB who often would "play it safe" and allow Kirksey and Morris to look for the big splash plays.  Again, that could very well be the way it was coached.   

The other aspect of his game that is exceptional is his ability to win on running plays to the edge.  This will get more difficult at the next level, but I love a player who can mirror the running back and then meet him at the corner on a stretch play and not let the runner pass.  This is a key move that we see Sean Lee execute, and if the object of this pick is to have adequate play in the likely event Sean Lee doesn't play 16 weeks, then you better figure out how to get an ideal replacement out there.  Ernie Sims, Cam Lawrence, and Devonte Holloman all took turns in the late stages of the season and all were out of their depths.  In theory, Hitchens should be able to play a brand of LB that shows you only a small drop-off which is what you want from a reserve.  Substantial drop offs are what have been killing this team and proving a lack of depth.  This should be a different story.

What are the issues he will have to overcome that had many thinking he might be a 6th or 7th rounder?  Well, unfortunately, he doesn't seem to have a whole lot of "shed" in his game.  When a guard or a FB get to him, there were mostly situations where he was done.  He gets blocked and while he is not getting steamrolled, he is also not beating his man and destroying the ball carrier.  That is where Lee is exceptional, and I am not sure Hitchens was blessed with the quickness that is required for that.  This also results in some real strength mismatches as he was rag dolled a few times by gigantic linemen who got to him and then were able to demonstrate weight class differences for 300 vs 240.  

That isn't to say he didn't make a lot of plays between the tackles, but most of those are where he comes free through a gap and is missed by whoever had him as their assignment.  In those situations, he is very capable and is a solid tackler and flies to the ball.  But, in space sometimes it is hit or miss.

He also times the "A-gap" blitzes well and is at his best going north.  And, it should be noted, seems to have the ability to make a play, as his strip and recovery to save Senior Day versus Michigan will live in Iowa lore.  

Ball carriers - always use your outside hand!

The Cowboys grabbed a good football player here.  Telvin Smith is a real question for me, as I didn't like him in the 1st or 2nd, but to get a LB who could run and more importantly cover them from Bruce Carter reliance seemed appealing to me, but they opted for solid special teams and making sure they had a Sean Lee insurance policy.  That is fine and so is Hitchens.  

If he is really good, you could find ways to get him on the field, but for now, I believe they want him as a depth LB who can grow into more.  Obviously, with a Carter contract situation coming, they have some flexibility at Mike, but very little at Will (is Will Smith the only backup at Will right now?  I think so).  Could Lee move to Will?  I think they don't want to do that, but for now, this is a nice pick-up for the defense, although his quality will determine whether it is a solid 4th or a solid 6th round choice.

But, ask a Hawkeye fan and they will tell you that you have secured a solid player who will give you plenty.  Let's see how that translates.  

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Cowboys Mailbag - May 15 - Draft Feedback

I am presently knee deep in Iowa and Pitt games working on profiles for Devin Street and Anthony Hitchens, in particular.  I realize I am taking too long for some of you (as my emails/twitter reflect), but hopefully we can all agree it is a long off-season and the urgency is not as instant as some are indicating.  In other words, relax.  We now have very little to do as football people until very late July.  

That said, I don't want to completely leave you hanging, so here I shall answer some of the emails from the last week that have rolled in.  

My overall view on the 2014 Cowboys draft is one where I am a bit intrigued, but mostly disappointed in the idea to take the "quick fix" route rather than the patient approach.  I think covering 16 drafts for the Cowboys allows one to notice trends.  The trends from the last 8 years (think post-Parcells) alert us to the Cowboys always seeing something shiny and not resisting the urge to exhibit self control.  The throwing around of valuable currency to shoot up the board to get the guy "we just have to have" is a fool's errand, and yet the Cowboys seem to not have the ability to resist.

So, I write this the week before the draft when asked if I would trade up to go get Aaron Donald - the guy I admitted was the player in this draft that most fits what the Cowboys need:

I don't trade up this year for anyone if I have to use my 2nd round pick to do so. I just don't even consider it. I think everyone who reads me knows that I was against the Claiborne trade when it happened for this same reason, and let me state it.
The 2nd round of the NFL draft is where you find starters. Starters who can give you exceptionally cheap labor and can fill your team with quality that doesn't hurt your cap. Everyone can find starters in the 1st round, but what makes the great drafting teams great is their ability to find great quality in Rounds 2-3. If you don't consistently do this, then you can't put together a roster year after year because one 1st rounder is not enough on a football roster with 22 starters. You need 3-4 a year to keep the lineup fresh, young, and cheap. 
So, 47 is a weapon, and this year, I think #47 is right in the middle of fantastic quality. I really believe this is a very deep draft and I love the 4-5 names that will be there when they pick. They can get tremendous quality there every year, but this year is even better. So, do I love Aaron Donald? Yes. Does the trade idea make sense? Yes. But the Cowboys need to resist this type of deal because they need a starter at #16 and a starter at #47. And they can get one in each spot if they simply stay put.
So, not only do they trade up, but instead of giving away their 2nd, they give away their 3rd.  But, instead of getting THE BEST defensive tackle in the draft, they trade up to get the 3rd or 4th best defensive end.  

That makes us wonder a few things.  What about trading your 1st and 3rd to move up in the first to get Donald?  If you are committed to overpaying to get premium quality, would the 1st and 3rd combo get up to #13 and get St Louis to move out?  I am sure they tried that.  

Then, what if they just took Lawrence at #16?  If he is what you had to have and he was as good as you say, do you take him instead of Martin and then have your 2nd and 3rd to get more starters, using the 2nd on DE/OL and the 3rd on more of the same.  

Regardless, I hate to be stubborn here, but if I felt before the draft that they must leave with 3 starters and then they don't - and admit that their 4th rounder Hitchens is a special teams selection (at first), then I cannot contradict my views and say it is all worth it.  In other words, even though some responders to what I write are convinced that I pan whatever Jerry Jones does in the draft rooms, I humbly disagree.  But, I do have a polar opposite view to how he does business with regards to trading many picks to get the one guy.  The many eggs in one basket theory has been researched and when it comes to the NFL Draft, it doesn't work.  

So, again, as an overview - I like Martin and Lawrence - but, I do believe the Cowboys did something they can't afford to do.  But, I covered that in great depth in my piece on Monday, so review that if you need more elaboration.  Now, let's answer your emails:


Email #1
Of course, I am waiting on your analysis of the Hitchens pick. However, it reminded me of when the Cowboys took Jason Williams in the 3rd round during the Wade Phillips era. I remember seeing Wade Phillips jumping for joy saying that the Cowboys pulled off a huge steal with the pick. But, Jason Williams was horrible - Freak athlete…no football sense.  
Some analysts had Hitchens as a 6th round pick. The Cowboys think they got a steal getting him with a 4th round pick. With this pick, we should be able to tell if the Cowboys drafting process has improved. What do you think? 
By the way, I got to go to the Draft on Saturday. It was awesome! 
Bob Woodyard
Well, Bob, having never attended the draft in person, I am interested in that experience.  I am sure some day I will get there, but I may have to wait until Norm no longer wishes to do so.  

As for Hitchens, I am about ready to write him up.  I think he has some very solid attributes, and should provide 2 vital things in Dallas.  1) he is an insurance policy for what seems like the annual "Sean Lee is banged up and could miss 4-6 weeks" period.  and 2) he appears to be ready and willing to anchor your special teams as a rookie.  And that is something that is a major consideration in today's NFL with the cap and injury issues that face teams.  Some guys get over-drafted and others get debited simply on their ability in years 1 and 2 to play special teams well.  Hitchens played special teams as a college senior which most draftees do not.  Once they reach a position on their squad of regard, they are often taken off teams.  So, when the get to the NFL, they have to be taught covering kicks and punts all over again or maybe for the first time ever.  Believe it or not, this really matters in the middle rounds to certain franchises.  And from everything Jerry said, it sounds like the special teams department really argued for Hitchens here and that is one reason why he went in front of Telvin Smith from Florida State.

I will write Hitchens up at great length next week.  But, I want to make clear that he can play.  It is just at what level that needs to be discussed.  

Email #2
Hi Bob,
Please excuse the informality since we have never met but I wanted to throw out a bit that I, as a listener, would find interesting. It would be interesting for you and Norm to armchair GM the cowboys draft while it is going on. Obviously, you would not be able to make trades but you could make your pick when they are on the clock. Revisiting your respective drafts each year, it would be interesting to see how your picks theoretically may have panned out versus the Cowboys actual picks.
Great idea, Gary.  I need to institute this for next season.  I love accountability by us in the media on draft day, since it is something that is not fact-checked very much.  In this case, I have stated what I would have done for the first 4 picks, so let me put them here for historical security:

16) - Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
47) - Jeremiah Attaocho, DE, Georgia Tech
78) - Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
119) - Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State

That, is a lot of defense being brought in!

Email #3
I heard you talking today about the draft and how most players who make the roster come from the first three rounds or top 100 picks. Because that's the case, why don't most teams attempt to trade all of their lower picks to convert as many of them as possible to picks from rounds 1-3 or 4 at the latest? Why bother making any selections from rounds outside the top 100? 
Just curious. I love your take on things. You have a great analytical mind.

I think great drafting teams realize that at a certain point, it becomes a numbers game and that volume shooting is the only solution.  Therefore, after first few rounds, you are better off with 6 picks and hoping you hit on 1 or 2, rather than adding them altogether to try to get pick #95 and trying to hope that he is all that glitters.  

But, make no mistake, most starters are in Top 3 rounds.  Rounds 4-7 are generally depth and special teams.  

Email #4
Thanks for all the draft analysis. It really helped me enjoy watching the draft this year. Even though you correctly predicted the Martin pick, you seemed a little underwhelmed by it. Sounds like you would have liked a Safety. But I think they (for whatever reason) are really high on Wilcox. In camp last year they cut Allen because they thought Wilcox was the real deal. Then he missed time because his mother died, had injuries, etc./etc. So they want to give him one more year. I think if Wilcox doesn't emerge this year they will address the position in free agency or the draft next year. But they believe that Wilcox still has the ability to be a really good starting safety. (In their minds, I think the safety position was not dissimilar to the Tight End or Cornernback positions - they have young recently drafted guys that they want to give one more year.) Additionally, I think they also saw value in Martin because they know that if Free plays well this year he will likely earn a big contract next year - so the ability to have Martin hopefully step in in year two and be a dominant right tackle at a less expensive price was attractive to them. So to me the Martin pick made a lot of sense, and I was a little surprised you weren't more of fan of that pick.. 
Well, that is the question that I am not prepared to answer - how close is JJ Wilcox to being the safety partner to Barry Church that we are looking for?  There is no question that he has shown flashes, but when Calvin Pryor is there, I was too tempted to fix it once and for all.  Then, what do I do with Wilcox if I take Pryor?  Good question.  Is he my 3rd flex safety learning behind Church to ultimately replace him?  Maybe, but like I have said a number of times, it has been so long since this franchise has had premium safety play and the league seems to really value this more by the year, that I would love to have found out how much Calvin Pryor could have made the corners and linebackers look better.

However, with Martin, I feel like I have written this a lot, but let me recap again.  Very good player with very good upside.  But, if I took him because I wanted to fix guard, then I can get a really strong guard in Round 3 or 4.  There are a number of examples, including the Redskins taking one I didn't really know in Nebraska's Spencer Long with the Cowboys 78th pick!  Then Gabe Jackson went to Oakland at #81 - who is a really strong player.  Trai Turner, who I really loved went at #92.  Dakota Dozier at #137 and David Yankey at #145.  So, if I want a guard, they are there and are quality well deep in the draft.

Meanwhile, if we project him as a right tackle, again, I think right tackles seldom (if ever) go at #16.  Morgan Moses and Billy Turner went at #66 and #67 and those were the two I liked best who fell a bit into Round 3.  

So, guard or right tackle, I overspent.  But, if he is just elite quality and you don't care because you want that to be the calling card of your team - a dominating offensive line that takes over games, then I have to respect a very sound strategy and say to make it work now.  

Email #5
Anyone besides me think Jerry's adoration of his quarterback borders on bizarre? Could that be why he only drafts offense at expense of defense since he signed that contract?
Makes one think more offensive picks are coming instead of the defense Cowboys need! 
I would just say this - Jerry has absolutely invested plenty in Tony Romo.  He has done everything he can to make the Tony Romo experiment work.  He wants it to work so badly that he has paid him as an elite QB, then made all of the investments in the team Romo-friendly.  He has drafted for Romo, he has signed for Romo, he has paid Romo, and yes, he has even hired a coach for Romo.

At this point, is it throwing good money after bad?  Maybe.  But, I might have said the same thing about Mark Cuban and Dirk once upon a time.  

They have made it clear that they sink or swim with the QB that they brought to the dance.  His contract, his back, his late game decisions, all of it.  They are in on #9 and so are you.  They were never taking Johnny Manziel because of this and that is that.

Email #6
Guards and centers are not first round picks, unless they're generational types? Am I wrong in not liking taking a center and a guard as first rounders in consecutive years? If you want Romo protection, shouldn't the pick be the best OT left on the board, which in my opinion was Cyrus Kuandjio? 
I personally didn't like Kuandijo, but I am in agreement that G/C is not a 1st round spot traditionally.  That said, there are exceptions and the Cowboys are banking on the fact that Martin is the exception - partly because they think he will spend most of his career at tackle.  And they might be right, based on how many analysts seem to love him.  

Also, and this has not been said at all, what happens if Tyron Smith blows out a knee?  What was this team going to do?  Well, now, it appears they have a capable option to fill that hole and this could save a season.  Cover every situation and then nothing destroys your campaign.

Email #7

Bob, what do you think about the impact Jerry's comments pre-draft might have had on their positioning in the first round? He said that no one was interested in trading up with them in round 1 to grab Manziel, how much of that do you attribute to him stating unequivocally a week before the draft that the Cowboys had no interest in Manziel? You'd think with the one skill this guy supposedly has, business savvy, he'd know not to give away posture like that before the draft. Who knows how they might have been able to adjust had the Browns or some other team considered the Cowboys a legitimate threat to take him? I feel like this is a narrative we haven't even considered yet in evaluating a mediocre first couple of rounds.

California P1 and former intern James
If I could change anything about the way the Jerry Cowboys work, it would be their information/intelligence department having loose lips.  This, of course, is more Jerry than any mole down the food chain.  He says so many things that don't need to be said.  But, it is as if he cannot help himself.  People often credit him with doing all of this on purpose, but over the years he says so many damaging things that are used against him - Romo is Peyton Manning here, Defensive line is a strength, Manziel was the highest player on our board, 12 personnel, etc - that it clearly is not strategic.  

They accidentally make their draft board public - twice in 4 years!  And they allow the world to look inside their war-room when there is no reason to, only to see a major disagreement happening on live broadcast!  

Stop!  Protect your secrets.  Don't be so public.  Don't try to run a franchise and a reality show.  You already have the biggest audience, so you cannot sell more tickets.

But, I have said this for years.  They don't listen to me.  Which is likely a good idea, anyway, given how many wins I have on my ledger.

Talk next week.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Morning After: The Cowboys 2014 NFL Draft Weekend

Another draft weekend is in the books and another round of talented football players are on their way to the Valley Ranch facilities to hold up new jerseys and to get to work as a part of the "hope springs eternal" football news cycle.  In this case, it is the hope that the 2014 NFL Draft will supplement the 2014 Cowboys roster with enough bright, young faces that the issues of 2013 will be but a faded memory.

And, at this point, all seems optimistic - even from this chair - as I start sorting through the tape, resumes, and reputations of the players that the Cowboys have chosen.  I think, it you sorted through this blog's archives, you would see a similar view just about every season on the day after draft weekend.  The fact is, there are many talented players in college football every year who populate the NFL, and the Cowboys get their share.

Unfortunately, until we see them play on Sundays, many of us are taking wild guesses.  It would be more assuring if you could take the guesswork out of drafting players (or for us, just evaluating the process of drafting players), but unfortunately, there is no way for NFL franchises to actually do that, despite all of the time and manpower you can imagine.  There simply is no way to predict with conclusive success how a young man will deal with a major step up in competition, a major amount of money in his pocket, a new level of pressures, expectations, and life experiences, and just the most under-rated burden of his body staying fit enough to contribute.

Therefore, we have tried to learned what works the best for teams who are drafting well.  And what constitutes drafting well?

Well, from this spot, it appears that we have learned that the best teams in drafting over the last NFL generation: Baltimore, Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay, New England, Pittsburgh all seem to come up when we have these conversations - all have a few things in common.  It starts with the fact that everyone of them make mistakes.  They make a lot of mistakes.  They spend high picks on guys who fail and don't even make the team.  They think they have gold when in reality they don't.  They swing as hard as they can and they miss.

So, how are they still able to be thought of as one of the best drafting teams in the business if they are making these mistakes?

Numbers.  They throw numbers at the problem.  They use the shotgun approach, rather than the sniper tactics.  You can use your precision shooting, we are going to follow a process and a prototype for all of our picks and we are just going to grab the highest candidate who falls to our spot, rinse, and repeat.

Now, this certainly doesn't mean that those teams aren't trading up when the time is right.  They all do.  It also doesn't mean that they aren't trading for veteran players with draft picks or whiffing altogether on a move where they swung too hard.  But, it does know that they realize that the batting average is not the whole story.  Sometimes, the number of at bats is what truly matters.

That is a way of saying that the thing that troubles me about the 2014 Cowboys draft was that they did something that I believe they simply could not do.  And something they have done too many times in this Cowboys era (2007-present, or said another way, since Jerry Jones sat back in the king's throne with no equal power broker).

They did what we call, "trading up to get your guy."  We call it that because just about every draft in this era, we have "traded up to get our guy" used in a post-draft press conference when describing someone in the Top 3 rounds.  To do so, they spend a ton of assets, and put all of their proverbial eggs in one basket.

In 2007, they traded up to get Anthony Spencer (a 2nd, a 3rd, and a 5th), Mike Jenkins in 2008 (traded up using a 1st, 5th, and 7th), Dez Bryant in 2010 (a 1st and a 3rd for Dez and a 4th), Sean Lee (a 2nd and a 4th), and in 2012, Morris Claiborne (a 1st and a 2nd).  Add in the 2009 Roy Williams trade (a 1st, a 3rd, and a 6th for Roy and a 7th), and this weekend's Demarcus Lawrence trade (a 2nd and a 3rd) the total is shocking:  7 players for 17 picks (and 2 additional lesser picks in return).

In each case, afterwards, those who wish to look at the cup as half full reason the deal as saying, "well, if you are sure that he is that good you should secure the player."  But, in aggregate, you continue to give away bodies.  If you consider Top 100 picks where teams find the majority of their starters (and most experts do), then you gave 2 starters for Spencer, 2 for Dez, 2 for Lee, 2 for Claiborne, 2 for Roy Williams, and 2 for Demarcus Lawrence.  In other words, 6 players at the cost of 12 starters.

If we do a 2 for 1 deal once in a while for the right guy - Seattle thinks Percy Harvin (a 1st, a 3rd, and a 7th) was worth it, Green Bay wanted to move up to get Clay Matthews (a 2nd, a 3rd, and a 3rd), then fine.  But, can you do it 6 times in 8 years?  The Cowboys just did.

So, let's go back to the discussion of how to throw numbers at a problem.  My friend and fellow draft nerd, David Newbury tabulated "Top 100" picks over this 2007-present era to find out how the Cowboys rate with bullets in their guns.  As many of you have grown frustrated because of poor 2nd and 3rd round picks, it is amazing how many have decided they aren't worth anything anymore.  Robert Brewster, Jason Williams, and even Martellus Bennett have made people think that if the Cowboys had more picks in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, they would just screw them up anyway.  If you are that defeated by the incompetence of your favorite franchise, there may not be anything I can say that will make you feel better.  But, let's examine what he found:

MOST TOP 100 PICKS (2007-2014)

Team Total Picks
New England  31
Detroit 29
Cincinnati 28
St Louis 28
Miami 28

LEAST TOP 100 PICKS (2007-2014)

Team Total Picks
Washington  18
Seattle 19
New Orleans  19
Dallas  20
New York Jets 20

The league average over this time span is 24.7 picks in the Top 100, which of course, are generally 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round (a few 4ths) players over a span of 7 seasons which should constitute players between the ages of 22 and 29 on your roster.  In other words, the very spine of your roster going into 2014.

You may see some pretty strong teams in the lower list and some poor teams in the higher list.  This is where batting average does come in.  Also, bounty gate cost the Saints, RG 3 cost the Redskins, and the Jets and Seahawks have also made veteran trades - almost none as poorly done as the Roy Williams deal.

Conversely, the Rams shook down the Redskins, the Patriots get everyone to give them Top 100 picks, and I have no idea about how Detroit has done so average with so many assets.

The point is that there is no question that other teams make major draft day mistakes.  No GM is perfect and no GM is hitless.  The issue in this league always seems to be depth, and the ability to navigate through a 6 month brutal marathon and to be able to withstand health issues and to be able to plug in a capable backup, rather than beg a guy out of retirement or off his couch to come start for you.

Which is why, on a day like Friday, when the Cowboys have to trade up to "go get their guy" who is described as the "guy they needed" and the "last dynamic pass rusher", you generally get guys like me who start with the indigestion even though I personally like Lawrence quite a bit.

But, desperation allows for poor decisions and overpaying.  Overpaying allows for a top-heavy roster which can and will be taken down every year after Thanksgiving or so when attrition has had its effect on every roster in the league.  We talk about injury luck like it is a real thing.  In reality, injury luck is needed much more by teams who don't buy injury insurance in the April draft each year.

So, which are you?  Shotgun or sniper?


OK.  Enough about my griping.  I said they needed 3 starters minimum from this draft and it appears they started looking for depth when they picked on Day 3.  In fact, when they took Anthony Hitchens, the linebacker from Iowa, they put this in the newspaper:
Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens received the call of a lifetime Saturday afternoon from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. 
The Cowboys selected Hitchens in the fourth round, and Jones informed Hitchens of the selection. After exchanging pleasantries, Jones said: “You’ve got a special teams coach over here that laid in front of the train for you. Whatever you do, you’re going to have to be the best special teams player we’ve got.”
Whoa.  That isn't weird at all to draft guys to start in special teams and challenge them to dominate, but you would think that several teams would not be so bold as to tell the 3rd player chosen in their draft publicly, that he is here for special teams.  At least one that is coming off a season where the number of holes far out-weighed the number of plugs.

That said, Hitchens, as well as WR from Pittsbugh Devin Street and the 7th round bounty of DE Ben Gardner of Stanford, LB Will Smith from Texas Tech, S Ahmad Dixon from Bayor, DT Ken Bishop of Northern Illinois, and CB Terrance Mitchell from Oregon mostly seem like players (DT excepted) who will have to make this team initially on the strength of special teams play.   However, I want to make clear that the only player from this group that I studied with any sort of depth is Dixon.  So, I will review Lawrence and Dixon here, but reserve judgement on Hitchens, Street, and the rest of the 7ths until I have done my due diligence.

Overall, there is a lot of defense, but not a lot of immediate boost, it appears.  They put a ton of their eggs in their free agent strikes:  Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey, and Terrell McClain to fix their defensive line with the returns of Tyrone Crawford, Anthony Spencer, and Ben Bass from seasons lost (and in Spencer's case the potential of worse) to injuries.  Basically, discount finds from last summer in George Selvie and Nick Hayden are the only returning contributors and the rest is from a group of injury returnees (3), free agents (3), and defensive line rookies (3) from this draft.  In other words, for this part of the team, they did throw numbers at the problem.  In fact, anyone who has completely ruled out Josh Brent should likely not do so just yet (sizable suspension pending). 9 new bodies on the defensive line.  If they can find 5-6 keepers from that group, they might be building in the right direction.

Otherwise, they may have found an outside depth option at WR in Street which they really needed and perhaps another depth option at linebacker in Hitchens.  Those breakdowns will be coming soon.

Now, on to Lawrence and Dixon.

I wanted to reprint my reports on these two players from when I wrote them earlier in the spring and had no idea they were going to be Cowboys.  This will hopefully capture a bias-free look before the optimism of new picks rushes in:

Here is Lawrence's review from April 25th:

Demarcus Lawrence - Boise State - 6'3 - 244 - 4.80 
Lawrence is a name that you are hearing more and more as the draft season develops, with people even making the case that he might belong in the 1st round.  But, there are many things for us to consider as we break him down. 
First, he ran a speed at the combine in his quickness and agility drills that is problematic for his position and size.  4.80 with 1.68 splits is not what we are looking for from a guy who is another ideal edge rusher in the 3-4 as a standup guy. 
The good news is that he plays faster than his time is on the watch.  If you pop in one of his games from last fall, you will see a very explosive edge rusher who has LB quickness and is able to cause plenty of problems from a rushing standpoint, and different than Marcus Smith, he is taking on and defeating tackles routinely. 
Lawrence has a smaller body of work, as he was a community college guy before he got to Boise and was also a guy who was suspended 3 times for different violations of team rules in just 2 seasons which is really quite a pace. 
But, when you look at him closely, you see a Marinelli motor and a guy who has some real skills off the corner that cause you to see what the Cowboys clearly see in him.  The question is how far up the charts will he go. 

31 plays behind the line of scrimmage in 2013 and another 4 fumbles forced tell you that he is exciting, but man, what do you do with him on 1st and 2nd down when teams wish to run the ball right at you?  He doesn't love run defense, but perhaps in this day where the Redskins and Eagles are certainly not running a traditional FB, I-formation offense anymore, the Cowboys are content going undersized at the edges and replace it with quickness and a number of "rush men". 
If they have decided that guys who look like 3-4 outside linebackers are what they want to run at weak side defensive end to carry the torch in the post-DeMarcus Ware era, then guys like this make more sense.  He seems really undersized, but really interesting to go get sacks.  This type of guy is interesting to me at #47, but it is highly likely he is gone before that.
As you can see, I am absolutely fine with this type of player.  But, would I rather have Timmy Jernigan or Jeremiah Attaochu at #47 added to Will Sutton or Louis Nix at #78?  I think you know my philosophy on adding many quality bodies to the mix over placing all eggs in the basket of one guy.  I think Attaochu is the only other edge rusher comparable to Lawrence (but maybe a step down) so their careers will be linked in my mind.

But, I do like Lawrence plenty.  So, while over-payment and lack of depth are significant issues, at least it is a player who is well regarded.

And then the very well-known and controversial safety from Baylor, Ahmad Dixon.

Here is Dixon's review from February 19th:

Ahmad Dixon - Baylor - 5'11 - 205 - 4.56 40
Let me confess that one of the players I really became fascinated with over the last few years is Dixon from Baylor.  He does things to get noticed and he has many of the things I prefer in a safety, including confidence, force, and intimidation skills. 
When he hits you, and then tells you about it, you will be well aware that he has been there.  He leaves a mark, no doubt about it. 
All of that tells me he will continue to achieve and play many years in the NFL and likely do things to get his name noticed at that level, too. 
But, when we break down his skill set, we see all of the features of a strong safety - which is a close relative to a small linebacker, rather than a free safety - relatives of the cornerback.  And if there is something this particular NFL outfit doesn't need, it is another safety that is a biscuit or two from playing LB.  And, in today's game, strong safety is less interesting because of the idea that at some point, he is going to have to man-up in space against a world-class athlete and hold his own.


I love Dixon's effort and his makeup to a certain extent.  To watch his head to head battle with Texas Tech's Jace Amaro was entertaining and they both got their licks in.  But, Amaro won the day (Dixon won the game, of course) and was able to get open with a fair bit of ease.  Dixon would hit him and hit him hard, but that seems to be his one answer to a lot of problems, looking for the huge hit.  But, I just don't think that works long term against complicated pass offenses, and I certainly don't see him as a free safety candidate.  He is uncomfortable in man coverage and surely can't be a free safety solution. 
I watched plenty more than that one game (also Texas and TCU), but the Texas Tech game did really scare me about what happens when he has to deal with the athletic tight ends of the NFL. 
At the right price, I would take him here, but like several other safeties in this draft, I just don't think Dixon is a particular fit in Dallas.
My summary here is not flattering, but that is back when people were asking about him as a Top 100 player.  To get this guy at pick #248 is what I would consider exceptional value and while I don't think he can be an every down safety in the NFL, he will now have every chance to prove it.  But, am I excited about having a hitting machine on my special teams for the reasonable price of a 7th?  Absolutely.

Well played, there.

I don't have a draft grade for you, because as I said, I need to spend at least an hour on each of these players I don't know and even then I only studied the Top 100 players so to act like I know what was on the board relative to what they picked is both disingenuous and silly.

But, when asked what I think about the 2014 draft, I believe a lot of it will rest on the Cowboys ability to evaluate JJ Wilcox as a fine option at free safety so they can ignore Calvin Pryor, improving the line with Zack Martin to give depth and options when Doug Free is out, assuming Tony Romo will be fine health-wise, and that they have done enough to keep from being susceptible to injury attrition in the upcoming holiday season.  

That is a lot of "ifs", but hopefully fewer of those questions than when they entered this offseason.