Thursday, July 31, 2014

Issues in Oxnard: Building The Offensive Line

Great, awesome, fantastic news finally reached Cowboys camp yesterday as Tyron Smith has been locked in as a real foundation piece for the many years with the signing of a extension of 8-years, $98 million.  This, added to the 2-years left on the deal, make the whole of it all 10-years, $109m with $40m in guaranteed money.  

Now, that is a ton of money.  A ton.  An average of $12.25 over the extension and the biggest offensive line contract deal in the history of the sport.

Contracts like these often give fans indigestion because of the size and the implied risk of what could happen in a worst-case scenario.  And there is no doubt that if Tyron Smith faces a major injury or if somehow this money changes his desire to be the best he can be, then that amount of guaranteed money can really turn into a problem.

But, that is the beauty of this deal.  Tyron Smith has been as solid as a rock.  In 2013, Tyron Smith surrendered 1 sack (Denver) and 1 holding penalty (Detroit).  He has really never looked like he was out of place or up against someone better.  You can watch him all day and never see a crack in his foundation.  He is simply - at Age 23 - already an elite left tackle.  Those players don't come along very often.  And when they do, you lock them down.  It has certainly been said that the Cowboys would be in a different spot in this NFC if they had taken JJ Watt with this pick in the 2011 draft, and that is a fair hypothetical.  But, the truth is that while Watt is flashier and certainly more famous, most GMs will tell you a elite pass rusher and elite left tackle are the two priorities after a QB when building a team.  

And with a decade ahead of him, there is not another tackle in the sport you would rather have than Smith.  

So, now, with the contract done and dusted, it allows us to get the conversation about how the Cowboys have built a fantastically young and potential-filled offensive line over the last few years.

Of course, they have done so at the most expensive price possible - with 3 1st round picks in 4 seasons.  Then, they have just put $100m on their left tackle, so it isn't like they found an offensive line in their couch cushions.  But, sometimes if you want quality, you have to pay the price.  And the Cowboys have.  

In doing so, they have ignored other departments of the team that might have equally required a 1st round pick or two (Defensive Line, Safety, and yes, Quarterback), but it is clear that after the debacles of 2010 and 2011 in the O-Line category, they knew they had to get serious about throwing resources at this problem immediately.  

And now, with Tyron in 2011, Ron Leary in 2012, Travis Frederick in 2013, and Zack Martin in 2014, the Cowboys are banking on the idea that at least the 3 1st rounders are all the basis for the line in 2016, 2017, and 2018, too.

Here is the history during the Jason Garrett era of the offensive line, including ages of each player when the year ended to show you how the Cowboys went from a line that averaged 30.6 years old in 2010, to a line that averaged 25.2 in 2014:

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
2007 F Adams 32 K Kosier 29 A Gurode 28 L Davis 29 M Colombo 29
2008 F Adams 33 C Proctor 26 A Gurode 29 L Davis 30 M Colombo 30
2009 F Adams 34 K Kosier 31 A Gurode 30 L Davis 31 M Colombo 31
2010 D Free 26 K Kosier 32 A Gurode 31 L Davis 32 M Colombo 32
2011 D Free 27 M Holland 31 P Costa 24 K Kosier 33 T Smith 21
2012 T Smith 22 N Livings 30 R Cook 29 Bernadeau 26 D Free 28
2013 T Smith 23 R Leary 24 T Frederick 22 Bernadeau 27 D Free 29 
2014 T Smith 24 R Leary 25 T Frederick 23 Z Martin 24 D Free 30
With the Jones family's decision making, you do always wonder if these decisions get made without the salary cap forcing them.  In 2010, they were sinking huge dollars into an old line, but there were no signs of a youth movement until that cap space was needed elsewhere.  That may remind you of the defensive line exodus in 2013 when they went from Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, and DeMarcus Ware at around $30m total to a projected starting defensive line that totals a little over $5m against the 2014 cap.  

Did they want to do it or did poor financial management force them to do it?  In other words, if they were left to their football decision making and convictions of who makes them a better team, I will bet you a dollar that Ware and Hatcher are still starting on this defensive line.  But, with this team, financials seem to drive the bus.  

Regardless, the 2010 exodus which just about got Romo killed in 2011 happened.  From there, they had to rebuild this thing and make it sustainable.  They appear to have a chance to have something pretty special building here right now, although I am on record being skeptical about the wisdom of taking a guard that high in the draft (John Manziel and Calvin Pryor).  If he turns out to be a fantastic successor to Doug Free at Right Tackle, then they gambled right.  But, we have very little basis to prove that he can do that in 2015.  Martin played left tackle throughout at Notre Dame, although NFL scouts seem to like him as a flex guy and not a left tackle in the NFL.  And, unless you forgot, the Cowboys have LT pretty settled until 2023.  

Now, because they hide it so well, we wonder about their game theory convictions.  In other words, if you have decided the foundation of your team is going to be the offensive line, then I trust you are planning to use them.  For instance, San Francisco has placed tons of resources into their front.  They utilize that by attempting to physically wear teams into a fine powder over the course of a game or a season.  That is done by physical play and running the ball right at you with pulling guards and bully tactics.  

But, to do that, you feel like you might need a coach like Jim Harbaugh who believes in that style.  He learned at the feet of Mike Ditka who wanted to turn football into a street fight.  Jason Garrett learned at the feet of Norv Turner who once believed in that, but his resume in the last 15 years show a man who thinks shotgun and 60% pass rates are great.  Garrett and Scott Linehan have no problem going even higher still as the Cowboys were at 65% and Linehan's Lions in 2012 were 67%.  Playoff teams are down around 55% in today's NFL, but that memo hasn't quite reached everyone.  

But, everyone swears they are going to make this work.  And soon, we will discuss the run rates and run successes that were there in 2013.  Maybe this will actually become their philosophy.  Or, maybe we will sit here next year and the Cowboys will have hired a new coaching staff that will get to enjoy all of these young OL types and they will have those Harbaugh sensibilities.  

Either way, the cupboard is full again and now they hope to be transformed from a finesse offense to a physical offense that can ground out big leads and not remain the 1-dimensional offense that only knows how to throw in the 4th Quarter.

It looks great on paper.  Now, let's see it done.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Issues In Oxnard: DeMarcus Lawrence Out for 8-10 Weeks

When it comes to the Cowboys defense these days, there is almost an expectation for bad news, it seems.  You expect it to rain when you wish for sunshine, because no matter which way you walk, a cloud is going to follow you.

And it happened again, yesterday.  Just as many of us in the media were buzzing about the new and flashy edge rusher from Boise State - DeMarcus Lawrence was starting to show on practice snaps as a guy who stood out - down he went.  Holding his ankle in pain.

I am no medical professional, so I will just follow the reporters' work and say that this is the last we shall see of Mr Lawrence until October.  What a shame for a man who had a lot to offer from the looks of it.

Now, this might be considered a small blessing in disguise because I have feared the unreasonable expectations that are being put on the kid.  Those likely will all convert to the equivalent of redshirting the rookie, now, but when you are playing the same position, and have the same first name, and were the target of a trade up in the draft....Let's just say that anything less than 8-10 sacks for that rookie was going to be very difficult to achieve.  But, it seemed that the expectation level was pretty much there.

Thankfully, Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News addressed that properly over the weekend:
In the previous 10 drafts (2004-13), there have been 50 defensive ends and outside linebackers — your potential edge rushers — selected in the second round. Those 50 averaged only 1.7 sacks in their rookie seasons. Only four of the 50 managed five or more sacks as rookies. 
Thirty of the 50 collected one sack or less as rookies. Twenty failed to sack a single quarterback in their rookie seasons and 10 failed to sack a quarterback in their NFL careers. Thirty-two of the 50 have fewer than 10 career sacks.

Now, we should just be happy if he becomes a regular in the 2nd half of the season and demonstrates the ability to contribute.  In the meantime, this likely tells us where his fellow Boise State alum, Tyrone Crawford will play (LDE rather than tackle) and join George Selvie there.  Meanwhile, depth signing veteran Jeremy Mincey and some emerging name (No, we don' t think Anthony Spencer is going to be ready by Opening Day) that I can't possibly imagine will have to deal with that right side for Week 1-7 or so.

Just add more to the plate of Rod Marinelli and this defense.  You thought the defense was bad last year?  Well what if we take Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware away?  No issue?  Well, that is silly.  What if we then take Sean Lee away with a knee injury?  Not in tears yet?  Ok, here goes DeMarcus Lawrence.

The point is that this defense CAN be worse.  If the takeaways dry up or the fumble luck expires, it can get worse.  I don't think it will be, because they do have more depth and this is not catastrophic, but it certainly does take away the one young "difference maker" that appeared on the depth chart.

However, it does speak back to an issue I have been very clear about, which is the Cowboys constant risks in roster building that are a result of their trade up mentality.  This puts all eggs into fewer baskets, which makes you more susceptible to the freak injury.  If, for instance, you had Kony Ealy and Will Sutton, or Timmy Jernigan and Louis Nix instead of both picks stacked onto the shoulders of DeMarcus Lawrence, you spread out your risk to multiple players and one bad step doesn't threaten to ruin your draft's impact on 2014.

But, here we are.  One injury, and suddenly, we are concerned about no draft upgrades on the defense for the entirety of the 1st half of the season.

I wrote about this at great length as one of my real issues with how Jerry does business back in May:
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.
DeMarcus Lawrence is not injury prone.  You could argue this is a freak injury that will be just a small detail in his bio some day that develops into a Pro Bowl career.  It could have happened to anyone yesterday.  So, all of this is a cheap second guess, right?

Not if we have said it over and over.  And if you read this blog, you know I have.  You cannot pay the cost of 2 starting players to get 1 because it weakens your roster and over-leverages how much you depend on that 1 target to change everything.  It is gambling.  In fact, it is doubling-down constantly.

Once in a while, you can survive that wildcatting mentality.  But, over the course of several years, you take 12 Top 100 picks and flip them for 6 players.  If they all turn into Dez Bryant, you are fine.  But, of course, they never could because Dez is the outlier.

Again, this sort of bad news becomes expected around here.  I think they are digging out of their defensive hole, but this is a real setback and the cloud of bad news remains hanging over head.

Luckily, if this was August 30th, they would be in a much worse predicament.  July 30 gives them plenty of time to figure out a plan, even though they may be choosing from a list of less-than-ideal plans right now.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Issues in Oxnard: 3rd Down Problems Must Be Solved

As we spend days at camp pondering how the Dallas Cowboys can be a better football team, I wanted to make sure I tackle the bigger issues and take a deeper look.  I think the team thinks this way, and certainly a proper coach thinks this way, so why shouldn't we?

Now, we can debate how much each problem contributes to keeping a team out of the playoffs or the Super Bowl, but there are certain way to identify each season by what they couldn't do very well.  And in the case of the 2013 Dallas Cowboys, one of the more frustrating identifiers of that team from an offensive standpoint was that they had a heck of a time converting on 3rd Downs.

3rd Downs are the money down in the sport, and where games are won or lost.  What is interesting is that the 3rd Down conversion game is similar to the Red Zone conversion game.  In 2012, the Cowboys were much better on 3rd Downs, but much worse in converting Red Zone possessions into Touchdowns.  In 2013, the script flipped and they drastically improved their Red Zone TD percentage, but the 3rd Downs fell back down the ladder.

Season 3rd Down % and Rank Red Zone TD % and Rank
2012 93-212, 44%, 5th 25-49, 51%, 20th
2013 63-180, 35%, 25th  35-51, 69%, 3rd

So, last training camp, we sat right here and talked about how the Cowboys should be a better Red Zone team and used their 3rd Down ability as a reason.  If they can convert on 3rd Downs this well, shouldn't they be able to get more done in the red zone?

And, throughout the season, the answer seemed to be a resounding yes.  In 2013, with nearly the same exact number of red zone drives as they had in 2012, they punched it into the end zone 10 more times!  That is an absurd jump in productivity.  Only 2 teams had a better efficiency in the red zone (Denver and Cincinnati) and only 1 team had more touchdowns than the Cowboys from red zone drives (Denver).

But, what happened to the 3rd Downs?

On 3rd Downs, a spot where the Cowboys under Romo have been good over the years, had a horrendous time.  They dropped down 30 conversions from 2012 and therefore their attempts dropped down to a league-low 180.

People will say the best way to deal with 3rd Downs is to "stay out of 3rd Downs" and I won't disagree in general.  It is rather clear a team like Denver can stay on the field all day long and still have the 29th most 3rd Down attempts in the NFL.  In fact, Seattle had the 30th most 3rd Down attempts, so the 2 Super Bowl teams were actually ranked right above Dallas in this category, as the Cowboys ranked 32nd in 3rd Down opportunities.  The difference comes in the conversions as Seattle was simply league average in moving the chains in these situations (nobody would ever argue that they are great at 3rd Downs) and Denver was 2nd in the NFL in conversions.  Meanwhile, Dallas was dead last in conversions with only 63 (or fewer than 4 per game) ranked below the offensive machines in Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.

Jason Garrett was asked about this at his daily press conference the other day, and here were his thoughts:

"You always address situational football and we have to get better on 3rd Down.  I tell the guys we are going to work these situations more than any team you have ever been on.  

It is a combination of things.  Third Downs are interesting.  If you make 1 more a game, or 16 more over the course in a season, then you go from being in the bottom third in the league into the top 10 or top 5.  Those plays are critical and we can point to games where we have success and point to a 3rd Down conversion."

Nothing terribly earth-shattering there from the coach in what he is dispensing about his feelings on this crucial portion of game theory.  His math is a bit faulty, but you get the point.

Let's look at the math to understand the 3rd Down game a bit better.  The average NFL team in 2013 converted 83 3rd Downs at a 38.1% clip.  The average playoff team had 87 conversions at 41% of their opportunities.  To finish in the Top 5, you would need 95 conversions and a rate at least at 43%.

So, to review, the Cowboys converted a league low 63 3rd Downs at 35% (25th).  They would need more than 1 more per game as the coach indicated, but I get his point.

As I said, if you go back the last several years, 2013 looks like an anomaly.  They do have a system and personnel that have performed much better over the course of a season and have never been this poor as they were in 2013.  The fact that season was counterbalanced with their best red zone year in ages is equally befuddling.

Here is another element for the stew:  If you follow this blog, you know that I have long believed that the Cowboys have a different posture away from home.  My belief is that we don't see the same aggression in either play-calling or execution from the QB when they have left their friendly confines over the last season or so.  Now, it isn't always the same, exactly.  But, on the whole, it seems that the Cowboys are quite risk-averse when they are away from home.  I think they do not roll the dice or attack as much, and often enter the game with the setting of "a punt is better than a mistake" in their offensive game plan.

Well, have a look at the home/away splits on 3rd Down:

Home Away
36-91, 39.6% - 15th 27-89, 30% - 31st

If 38% is league average, this seems to find the issue with a bit more clarity.  I can take it a step further as well, but to do so, you will need to allow me to dabble in an issue that hasn't exactly been admitted on the record.  

There were plenty of us who cover this team that concluded that the play-calling mantle shifted last year after the New Orleans game.  Remember, that was the 10th game of the season and easily the low-point of the 2013 season when the Cowboys played their worst game at the Super Dome and were steamrolled like few teams have been humiliated.  They looked awful and the season appeared to be lost.  That, it seemed, would cost Jason Garrett his position and maybe his career (at least as a Head Coach).  Something had to happen, and although there were certainly no public proclamations, it is believed by many that Garrett started calling the plays again from there on out and basically took the card back from Bill Callahan.  

In that Cowboys way of doing things, they had no interest in sharing the info with the public (and you can easily argue that there is no reason to do so), but there were several adjustments made to the offense in the final 6 games (starting with the game at New York after the bye week until the Philadelphia game).  Regardless of what I can prove, the Cowboys magically figured out 3rd Downs during this stretch - at least to the point where they were almost in the "top third" of the league.

Weeks 1-10 Weeks 11-16
38-116, 32.8% - 30th 25-64, 39.1% - 12th

Also, look at the road splits during 2013:

Weeks 1-10 Weeks 11-16
14-58, 24% - 32nd 13-31, 42% - 7th

Now, there are a number of reasons for all of this.  For instance, the biggest key to converting 3rd Downs is what you do on 1st and 2nd down to stay out of 3rd and long.  If your average yards to go on 3rd Down are low, the Cowboys are fine.  But, 3rd and long (6 yards or more), this team is down at 21% conversion.  Now, understand that nobody is great on 3rd and long - NFL average is only 26% - but the issues are worse here.  

So, in a few days when I examine the running game and the massive uptick in that department after the New Orleans game as well, we can connect the two and say that when the Cowboys run the ball better, then 3rd Down yards to go drop to "3rd and manageable".  And, then this allows for more 3rd Down success.

Conversely, when exclusive passing is the order of the day, that means that an incompletion and a penalty puts you in 3rd and 13 and nobody converts those with any regularity.  

Also, let's not forget the alterations in Romo's game.  Whether it was his health or his sanity, he is not taking as many beatings because he is making more "business decisions" in the pocket.  He has changed his aggressiveness and seems to get the ball out much quicker.  That makes sense unless you need to buy time for your receivers to get past the sticks.  If you can encourage him to unload quickly with blitzers and have to take an underneath route on 3rd and 8, then the defense has won even though they don't get a sack out of the blitzing.  And, in the NFL, if a team doesn't like being blitzed, they face more blitzes.  

We have seen the blitz rate rise on 3rd Down against the Cowboys, which led us to the Cowboys trying more "empty" personnel groups during 2013 to spread out the defense and thus make blitzing more difficult.  It worked for a bit, but defenses adjusted.  

Jason Garrett and Romo love Shotgun 11 personnel on 3rd Downs (and hurry up) and ran some variation of that grouping more than any other group (by miles).  That means that Miles Austin will need a replacement as he was on the field in most 3rd Down situations.  Cole Beasley seems to be the likely candidate to replace him in the slot, but he did play fewer than 250 snaps in 2013.  To double or triple that total might require some faith.  Devin Street is also in the mix, but his camp will tell us more on that front as to his readiness for big play downs in his rookie season.

Regardless, the Cowboys need to get back to 5 conversions a game.  They were at 3.9 in 2013, and that 1 more per game will do wonders.  They were the worst team in the NFL at sustaining drives, and there is no doubt that this is the culprit in conjunction with the early downs not putting you in better 3rd Down situations (RUN THE BALL).

If you can't sustain drives, then your defense comes back on the field again.  And if you have a horrible defense, then you are in big trouble (See 2013).

And that is a good place to lead into our study of the run game in our next edition.  

Saturday, July 26, 2014

How The Cowboys Were Built

Every season I like to spend some time at the start of another year by looking at how the team was put together.  I try to assemble the chart you will see below to provide some context about how a modern NFL team (or, at least this particular NFL team) is built.

The first thing we do is we figure out how each player is acquired.  They fall into 3 different categories, although that was only done for simplicity.  Just about every player takes a different path to the league and many are the non-traditional routes.  Traditional, of course, would be through the draft or the players who are signed by a team after the draft.  Those are labeled as Undrafted College Free Agents and over the years the Cowboys have excelled at finding pieces through that method, including their franchise QB Tony Romo, their defensive leader, Barry Church, their slot receiver, Cole Beasley, and a starting guard, Ron Leary.  And that doesn't even mention a kicker and a punter who are both solid, with Dan Bailey being amongst the better kickers in the league.

Meanwhile, the draft is where the teams that win have built most of their squad, and the Cowboys are certainly making every effort to make this their principle mode of acquisition.

Of the 62 names listed below, 31 are Cowboys Draft Picks.  That includes 9 from the 2014 draft, so they have yet to actually make the squad, but we will give them the benefit of the doubt for this exercise in late July.  Add that to the 12 college free agents who have already made a Cowboys roster at least once, and you have 43 as your "homegrown" number.  That is actually a very healthy number that Dallas should be happy about - but, of course, that doesn't measure the quality of the 43.  For instance, are their enough stars in that group?  Are they starting quality at least?  And, is making the Cowboys roster easier than other rosters because of the soft bottom portion of the roster?

Free Agency and trades were the calling card of the Jerry Jones Cowboys in the 1990s with large level acquisitions.  In the decade that followed, there were still some big moments, including one that you could easily suggest still hurts them (Roy Williams trade of 2008 which gutted the 2009 draft), but for the most part, you can see that aside from Brandon Carr, they really have nobody on their roster who was a big money/asset acquisition from another team.  All of the other free agents and trade targets were really low-level signings until Henry Melton this spring.  Melton's deal, of course, is also very manageable, so they have resisted the large money signings - although the cynics could point to a lack of cap room as the reason for this, rather than a conviction that it is not a correct way to build a roster.

One other thing to keep in mind is the colors of the chart.  It represents the different head coaching regimes.  The upper silver is Jason Garrett (2011-2014) even though Garrett also had part of 2010, the players listed were brought in under Wade.  Wade Phillips is the blue region (2007-2010).  Wade had some good teams, but the 2007-2010 personnel-acquisiton performance was about as poor as it gets - especially if you just zero in on 2007-2009.  Brutal.  It is easy to see why the Cowboys needed to rebuild in 2010 and 2011.

Then, the bottom silver is Bill Parcells.  His group was nearly cleaned out in the last 12 months with the exits of Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin, and Jason Hatcher.  But, given that this is about to be the 8th season post-Parcells, his impact speaks for itself.  Especially since Jason Witten and Tony Romo both go back to his 1st year in office.

Check out the newest version of the chart below:

2014Martin, Lawrence, Hitchens, Street,
Dixon, Mitchell, Gardner, Bishop, Smith
Melton, T McClain, Mincey, R McClain, Weeden, Hanie, 
R Williams, A Okoye
Many, Many
2013Frederick, Escobar, T Williams, Wilcox, Randle, Webb, HollomanSelvie, Hayden, Clutts, Rayford, M Wilson, LemonHeath, Hamilton, C. Lawrence
2012Claiborne, Crawford, Wilber, Johnson, HannaBernardeau, Carr, 
Moore*, Weems
Beasley, Leary, Dunbar, Bass
2011Smith, Carter, Murray, Harris
Jones, Bailey
2010Dez Bryant, Sean LeeJ Parnell, B Church

2008Orlando Scandrick
2007Anthony Spencer, Doug Free

LP Ladocuer

2003Jason WittenTony Romo

Since our last version of this in 2013, we have taken down the names of the following:

2012: Coale, Livings, McSurdy, Orton, Vickers, Sims, Moore
2011: Arkin, Kowalski, Tanner, Callaway, Albright,
2010: Lissemore, Brent, Costa, McCray
2006: Hatcher, Austin
2005: Ware, Ratliff

Of course, Josh Brent might (will) return this season.  And Sterling Moore is complicated because he left and returned a time or two.

So, 62 players are listed above and many of the players at camp are not listed.  Only 53 will make the opening roster, so I will run this chart again after final cuts.

But, for now, there is no doubt this is Jason Garrett's roster.  3 Parcells players remain and only 7 Wade players are left, too.  That leaves 52 players who have been here for 3 seasons or less.  And as amazing as it sounds, 33 players who have only been here for 1 season or less.

So, when you hear the Cowboys boast of having a young roster, we will have to wait to see the rankings relative to the entire NFL.  But, they are clearly playing with many, many young and hungry players who will get a chance to prove what they can do because they are not watching established veterans in front of them.

Now, let's see if they are better than their predecessors.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

And Off We Go To Oxnard....Yet Again

The blogging season begins again in earnest from 32,000 feet on the flight from DFW to LAX as my 17th Dallas Cowboys training camp has begun with the "state of the team" address without me on Wednesday Night.  But, by the time you read this, I will be in my radio tent beside the practice fields and the latest version of the Cowboys will be on the field preparing for yet another season of Cowboys football.

With all due respect to the 2013 blog entry that was similarly named and written, here we go (again):

The 2014 NFL season represents the 19th year since Super Bowl 30 for the Dallas Cowboys. To this point, 18 seasons have been played since they won their 5th Super Bowl, and 297 games have been played during that stretch (regular and post season).

There have been some good times and some good teams, but given the unreasonably high bar that Cowboys' teams and eras of the past have set, the final results of each of those 18 seasons have left their vast fan-base with feelings of disappointment. They had become accustomed to better. It is not a matter of deserving anything, because that is not how sports work. But, if you would have told the millions of Cowboys fans on that glorious night in Tempe, Arizona, when Jerry Jones held a Lombardi Trophy that did not require Jimmy Johnson's (direct and immediate) assistance, that the next 18 years would include nothing but "break-even" football, it would likely not be believed.

But, here they are. Starting season 19 since their last Super Bowl and with those 297 games behind them, we look at the results to check that win total:


To be fair, if you deduct the playoff games (2-7), the record shifts to 146-142 through 18 seasons. That, of course, comes out to an average record of 8.1 wins and 7.9 losses per season year after year.

Since 2006, the year Tony Romo became their "QB1", they have a 73-59 mark (72-56 regular season) which equates to a average record of 9 and 7, and does account for one of those 2 playoff wins since Super Bowl 30 (the other being the wildcard round win against the Vikings in 1996 or year #1 post Super Bowl 30).

Jason Garrett took over as coach of the Cowboys at midseason of 2010. Since that time, he has coached the Cowboys in 56 games, compiling a record of 29-27. He has not been to the playoffs to this point in his coaching tenure, which stands as a large impediment to any progress he has made in solidifying a roster and building a program that might be heading in the right direction.

Results matter and the results for Jerry Jones, Tony Romo, and Jason Garrett have all been right around 8-8.

And so, with 2011, 2012, and 2013 all being 8-8 seasons, the Cowboys start another training camp with optimism in their words and a fresh start in their minds. They will talk about winning football and ideas on how this particular season will be different from the others. They will, Jerry, especially, even mention the Super Bowl as the final destination and goal and talk about a window being open and trying to keep it from closing and how they are closer than you think.

These are the things we do as we go to training camp with the Cowboys year after year. And in 2014, where optimism has been beaten down by the teams that have come before them, you actually can sense a fan base that has morphed into numb and at times, hopeless about the present condition evolving into that of a perennial contender.

* Author's note: The preceding 10 paragraphs of the 12 you see above are identical (save for updated statistics and wording) to the 2013 column to start training camp.  I am not one to "mail in" a column unless there is a point to all of this.  And the point, if you haven't already surmised is simple - nearly every last detail from 1 year ago today is right where we left it.  As I considered how I felt about things involving this team that I attempt to follow as close as a team can be followed, it occurred to me that I already wrote those feelings down on July 19, 2013.  Hilarious, if it wasn't so defeating.

There are some notable differences to the makeup of the 2014 Cowboys compared to its previous editions, which are difficult to fully sell as upgrades since the top several are about a historically bad defense losing 3 key components that would likely all be listed in some order as the 3 players who lead the entire unit in quality.  DeMarcus Ware is a living Cowboys legend and will battle for the historical title of best Cowboys player of this generation.  Jason Hatcher was a 8-year contributor who played his best football in 2013 and now plays in Washington.  And, of course, the player that would be a strong candidate to lead any revival of the defense and perhaps be the very best player on the entire roster, Sean Lee, has been lost for 2014 to another dreaded knee injury from OTAs back in May.  

The Cowboys hope to mitigate the loss of Hatcher with the signing of Henry Melton on the defensive line and this is a move of quality that should excite any fan of the team.  He is younger, he is cheaper, and if his knee is right, he is a better player than Hatcher.  I think Melton is capable of some significant things moving forward (all predicated on his health), and that addition of a proper 3-technique on the defensive line gives you a fighting chance.  

The loss of Ware, as we have discussed, falls to finding more depth along the defensive line that starts with the pass rusher that they believe was worth plenty of trouble in the draft, Demarcus Lawrence from Boise State.  He has quickness around the corner that should help quite a bit, but the comparisons that have already begun (nobody puts more public pressure on a rookie like Jerry Jones) that have identified him as the right defensive end or weak side defensive end does not seem to account for realistic views of a player trying to figure out the NFL for the first time.  Surely, much will be written about his daily practice stats versus Tyron Smith which will either kill his confidence (given Tyron is now very difficult to beat for anyone in this league) or triple the DeMarcus v Demarcus comparisons between now and Labor Day.  

Either way, the depth on the defensive line should help the Cowboys deal with the rotation better and eventual injuries.  And Ware wasn't exactly Ware anymore (at least not his prime) so you can make the case that they might be ok up front - which simply means a Top 20 DL.  Stay out of 32nd!  

The issues with the defense are 3-fold, all of which we will elaborate on as camp carries on:

1) - What can be done to replace Sean Lee's ability since his injury happened after the draft and free agency finished and therefore all available replacements were gone and most available money was spent.

2) - What can be done to fix the Cowboys 2 young and most highly-leveraged defenders - Morris Claiborne and Bruce Carter - who both appear to be on the path of Mike Jenkins or Felix Jones.  That is a bad path, by the way.  That means that they go from highly-touted building blocks or foundation stones to guys you don't even offer contracts to when their rookie deals expire.  For Carter that deal expires this season and for Claiborne it will be 2015.  But, if you had the make the call right now on whether you want to back up the truck and spend $20m (Carter) to $40m (Claiborne) to lock up their primes, you would likely pass on both.  And that cannot happen for this team to continue to move forward,  Those 2 must be fixed and by the holidays, our tune on both needs to have dramatically changed.

3) - What happens if the Cowboys cannot produce the same bounty of takeaways that they did in 2013?  Somehow, the defense generated 28 takeaways and a fantastic +10 in the turnover differential in 2013.  The previous 5 years, the NFL had averaged 28 for playoff teams, while the Cowboys had averaged under 23.  This margin is huge, and if the Cowboys give back 6 or 7 takeaways in an effort to concede fewer 500 and 600 yardage disasters, you can see that they might be running in circles.

As I said, there will be time to give each of those topics their proper time and attention over the next 46 days until September 7th, when the Cowboys host San Francisco in the regular season opener.  

Additionally, we will discuss the offense and the modifications there which have been far less disconcerting save for the issues regarding Tony Romo's back (Note: I will not be among those who think this is an over-stated and exaggerated issue.  In fact, if you would like to get a feel for where I stand on this particular topic, you may review my thoughts from January by clicking here).  Beyond that, offensively, we will look at the relative merits of power running and play-calling and Scott Linehan's effects.  As well as discussing the replacements for Miles Austin, Mackenzy Bernadeau, and the expiration of DeMarco Murray's contract and what that means to the need for a RB for the future. I know Dez Bryant's contract is also expiring, but I figure by the last week in August that deal will be announced and the ensuing news frenzy will be loud and impressive.  Rightfully so.

But, as I hammer out my first training camp blog from 2014, I am led back to my overall view of the story that will not be discussed by most I am guessing.  While the mainstream media may talk about the energy level of Rod Marinelli relative to Monte Kiffin and how Gavin Escobar is the "breakout" candidate of the week, I would like to circle back to where I started last season.

On my way to camp in 2013, I was pretty sure that head coach Jason Garrett was under extreme pressure to produce a winning season of great substance or face the gallows.  His life cycle had been nearing the point where either you show us that you are the next great architect of the Cowboys or you are replaced.  He then oversaw a season that finished with the exact frustrating conclusion (lose 3 of 4 in December with a disappointing final death blow at the hands of a division rival) as 2011 and 2012 featured.  Not only did this not result in his dismissal, but it almost seemed to fortify his position here.  I was amazed.

There is no question that a reasonable search of this blog's archives would reveal that I have been a Jason Garrett supporter for much of his tenure.  I think he is a very smart man who has plenty of ability and is certainly hamstrung with limitations his organization provides that are not his fault, nor does he have the ability to repair.  And yet, a student of the NFL knows that the margins in this league are non-existent and to consider a 2013 season where games that were lost that simply should not have been lost again cost this team its prize seems to be a very problematic issue.

Over the last few weeks, I have reviewed 2013 and come to terms with the details and results.  However, there are 2 games in that schedule that remain games that were "fireable offenses" as it pertains to a coach in his 4th season without a playoff berth.  They were, at Detroit and home to Green Bay.  I plan on reviewing the 2013 season in great detail as July and August carry on, but in short, the Detroit and Green Bay games are both won if the Head Coach simply plays the percentages and conventional thinking.

Taking a knee on 3rd Down in Detroit takes the clock to almost nothing.  Instead, the Cowboys ran the ball, took a penalty, and stopped the clock - allowing for the Lions to have another chance against the horrendous secondary that the Cowboys had on the field that day against Calvin Johnson.  

Meanwhile, the ability to lose a game in which you were ahead 26-3 at home against a Green Bay team that had seemed to quit and did not have Aaron Rodgers on the field would have been the end of many coaches with the dreaded phone call from the owner the next morning.  

Win either of those games and your season changes.  Win them both and the Philadelphia game would not have mattered as they would not have been able to catch Dallas.  Instead, they lost them both and in my estimation, despite logical shared blame, the decisions made by the head coach too closely resembled the decisions that cost this team valuable games in 2011 and 2012.  In short, it seemed that the Cowboys had a rookie coach making rookie coaching mistakes.  The experience at the helm was not showing in the team's results.

And if he cannot be fired after that season, I honestly wonder how hot the temperature on his seat might be in 2014.   Maybe not hot at all.  Perhaps, he is simply blessed by having an owner that is determined for this relationship to work and will not alter his path at this stage of the game.  I would have fired Garrett after the Washington loss in 2012, but perhaps Jerry will not fire Garrett even after a 2014 that disappoints.  It seems to be my mistake to misread the urgency of the owner as badly as I clearly did.  

Garrett is the 10th longest tenured coach in the NFL now, and nobody else in the Top 15 in coaching tenure lacks playoff wins or at least a division title.  Garrett doesn't even have a playoff berth, let alone a win or a divisional title.  

Is Garrett the man for this job or are the Cowboys spinning their wheels for another season of similar results?  Are the issues deeper and not fixable by a coach, or are those deeper issues the reason that you must have a coach who is part of the solution and not part of the problem?

If this was my team, I would likely be introducing Mike Zimmer or someone else as my new head coach in 2014.  But, I am clearly not in that position of authority.  

Garrett is still the coach here, and he sits to the right of Jerry Jones as they meet the media on the tennis court in Oxnard.  

We are back and so is he.  For his sake and the sake of all Cowboys' fans, let's hope that experience will start to pay off.  

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Picking Your Very Own Soccer Team

If there has been one thing I have been consistently asked over and over again to write during my summer "Cowboys Blogging Hiatus" (which ends in about 2 weeks already!), it has been to please write a helpful column for people who are looking to join in the year-round addiction that is sweeping the globe, and finally assist those who are trying to pick a team.

They have given the World Cup a chance and have enjoyed it.  Now, they need to know how to join the EPL game, too.

I am happy to do this, but I will tell you it is complicated.  And I will tell you that since you asked me, you are going to get my views and not the next guy's (or the guy in the next cubicle over).  I am jaded and biased.  So, let's go.

First, some over-riding thoughts on such an endeavor:


#1 - Having a team/club is absolutely the way to fully enjoy the experience.  I am not saying you have to do so, but if you are planning to understand English or Spanish soccer on any level below "background noise", then it is vital you look beyond the game and learn the characters and the villains in the show.  Because that is what sports is.  We sometimes forget that when we follow any sport, we are following basically what amounts to soap operas for men.  Oh, sure, we like the competition and the highlight goals, but if you follow the Cowboys, imagine if you didn't know why Jerry Jones and Tony Romo are not just extras in the movie.  Imagine if you didn't feel strongly about playing the Giants or watching the Redskins suffer.  The point is that because you know all of the likes and dislikes and heroes and villains and story lines and subplots, you can get caught up in the drama that is the NFL or the NBA.  You aren't just watching football, you are watching Dallas Cowboys Football and all that this implies - which is decades and decades of stories and history and so forth.   If you didn't have that, it would be like randomly turning on Oregon State versus Arizona late one night and not knowing any players, coaches, or history.  It would be just a game.

#2 - FC Dallas is your home team, but don't consider it the same thing.  I started following the Dallas Burn right when I got to town in 1998.  I have attended their games ever since and I believe that aside from the all-soccer media, I like my chances with winning any MLS-Dallas quiz amongst my all-sports media colleagues around here.  I follow them pretty closely.  Colin Clarke, Steve Morrow, Mike Jeffries, and Dave Dir all have places in my heart.  However, much like you consider your favorite HS football team, favorite college team, and favorite NFL team to be non conflicting as you follow football on 3 different levels, I would do the same thing in soccer.  MLS is a growing enterprise and will only continue to grow, but the simple truth to any biased observer is that the coverage of the MLS compared to the English Premiership would be like comparing the press coverage of North Texas to the Cowboys.  Yes, there are people that try very hard to present the sport in a big-time manner, but the trappings and the obsession is still at its early stages.  Will there be a day when Major League Soccer is the biggest show in town?  I have my doubts.  But, over there, there is no NBA, NFL, MLB, or NHL.  It is pretty much all coverage of the sport they are obsessed with.  And therefore, you can wake up any morning and read dozens of stories about your club and the lineup changes, and the transfer rumors, and the game previews, and so on.  You won't believe how many people across the world are obsessing about that one club.  Unfortunately, that likely will never be the case with our domestic league.  That is ok, by the way, because nobody worldwide obsesses about Coppell High School football and still, it is fun to follow that, too.  But, to gain an experience that will resemble the World Cup experience that has you interested in doing this, I believe you will need a team from one of the big leagues in Europe.

#3 - You should not choose your team.  Your team should choose you.  You have to trust me on this.  In my 14 seasons of following the English game, I have seen so many friends and colleagues try to get on board.  There is great excitement early and then some are hooked for life and some go do something else.  I am convinced through this experience that the only people that really fall in love are those that end up falling in love with their club.  For this reason, you should not rush in.  You shouldn't pick a club because they have a cool name (90% of these people end up with Arsenal or Chelsea). or a cool logo (99% of these people end up with Arsenal), or they are the rival of your buddies favorite team, or you know the Beatles are from there (Liverpool or Everton) or that you know Oasis like them (Manchester City).

You have to have your own reasons.  You have to feel it.  If you don't, then within a few months, you will want to go to this other team that has caught your eye and divorce your first team.  Then your friends will have a laugh.  Don't do that.  Consider it like it is dating.  You don't propose on your first date with the first girl you meet.  You carefully consider that this is a big decision and you want to make the right one.  You want to know that you will still love that club when they lose 3-0 - because they will - as you do when they win 5-0.  You want to commit through thick and thin, through sickness and health.

For that reason, don't be afraid to tell everyone to slow down.  You want to do this right.  You want to think it over and make the decision that you will be happy with.  So, honestly, I think you should wait and watch, read, and feel a little bit before you go pledging your allegiance to any team.  I know you want this to get done before the games start, but this is your first season.  Relax and plan to enjoy over the long haul.  There is no reason you should be as sick as I am this quickly.  Like it says on the headline of this point, you don't choose your team.  It will choose you.  And you will know when it does, because it will be love (or hate, which in sports is a form of love).



Ok, with those 3 simple premises established, let's dive a little deeper.  You want to follow soccer on the highest level and you do want a club.  You want to find enjoyment in it, which on the surface means you want a team that is going to be winning constantly.  We all have that built inside of us, because most of the teams we follow us already are able to bum us out on their own merits.  They don't need help from a losing soccer club overseas.

I think you should also strongly consider someone from England.  The reasons are endless.

1) you likely speak English and read English for 99% of your life (if not higher).  If you follow a German or Spanish or Italian (or even Mexican) team, you better be pretty fluent in other languages if you want to consume the media coverage - which I think is vital.  Therefore, as enjoyable as following Bayern Munich or Barcelona likely are, I am not able to consider either club on a regular basis simply because the broadcasts and the newspapers are not always available in English.  Big problem.

2) At least for now, every match from England is on TV and free TV, too.  NBC Sports has made a strong commitment to the EPL (in HD!) that the other leagues don't have.  I pay for Bein Sport and Fox Sports 2 because I am sick.  But, for newbies, you don't want to pay hundreds of dollars a year to see your team play when you can do it for free.  England does this now, but at the present, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain do not.

3) I would argue that the English league has the best competitive balance of the big leagues in Europe.  Yes, the same teams generally finish in the some places, but I don't believe it is near as exaggerated as it is in other countries.  For instance, in La Liga (Spain), in the last decade, only Real Madrid and Barcelona have finished 1st or 2nd in every single year but once.  Last year, Atletico Madrid finished 1st - which was one of the greatest upsets ever, and in 2008 Villareal finished 2nd.  That's it.  Otherwise, 1st place has always been Real or Barca, with the other finishing 2nd.  EVERY YEAR.  The Bundesliga isn't as pronounced, but it still has the same few teams at the same position.  But, in England, the race for the Top 4 in 2014-15 is going to be insane.  The incumbents, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool still believe they will maintain, but here comes Manchester United back up with Tottenham and Everton thinking they can break through.  It is insanely competitive at the top, and the bottom is no slouch.  We all assume that Chelsea and City will finish in the Top 3, but beyond that, it is very wide open.

4) If you enjoy the communal experience, know that in America, most of your fellow soccer men will be following the EPL every week and the Champions League.  You can go off on your own, but it won't be as enjoyable I believe.


What team?

Ok. There are a few ways we can do this.  And from here on out I think I need to disclose my leanings.   This is Bob's Blog, therefore everything from here on out is undeniably how I see the world.

I love Liverpool.  In fact, I think I am as obsessed about them as any team in my life below the Packers.  I read about Liverpool and every rumor and every news item 365 days a year.  It has really taken over my remaining hard drive space.  I can still see straight as I am wired to not be a cheerleader, but I do think that you should know how I feel.  I really want Liverpool to do well.  And my relationship with them found great confusion years back when Tom Hicks bought them (only to torture me) and attempt to bleed every dollar out of them in one of his "Flip This House" routines and without remorse drove them down from 3rd or 4th each year to 7th. Now, the rebuild is going well, and Hicks is long been replaced by John Henry (who may not be a great owner, but he is certainly better than Hicks).  I could try to sell you on joining my club, but since they haven't won the title since 1990, you may find more joy elsewhere.  However, I do believe the current leadership are serious about winning and they have many, many young and talented players who make us believe they are in for good times ahead.

Beyond that, I have always admired Arsenal.  In fact, I have seen Arsenal play in person more times than any other club.  My favorite player of all time is likely Thierry Henry as he introduced me to how special a special player can truly be.  He blew my mind from 2000-2005 at Highbury, and I think he will always hold that rank as the best.  Their fan base is easily the most proactive here in DFW and sensitive, but that doesn't mean that I don't always enjoy watching them play under Wenger.  I have no issues with the Arsenal and think that they represent an attractive case for any prospective fan.

Chelsea is a team that I have mixed feelings about.  Partially because most new fans of the Premiership (08 and later) invariably were brought in by the Jose-Roman tractor beam of winning.  I don't blame you, of course, but I have had a few experiences with Chelsea fans (the most notable one being stuck on a train that was stalled in 2010 for about an hour with hundreds of drunk Chelsea fans who were looking for trouble) that has permanently scarred my ability to want to see Chelsea fans happy.  Since this is my blog, I hope you don't mind me actually being honest with you.  But, when it comes to some of my favorite strikers ever, Jimmy Floyd and Didier are both geniuses in their own way.  Also, they sold Liverpool Daniel Sturridge after paying 50 million for Fernando Torres' corpse, so that will always be appreciated.  They are an awesome club and have more money than almost anyone, so as insufferable their fan base truly is, that wouldn't be the worst pick either.

Manchester United is without question Liverpool's greatest enemy.  I have nothing good to say about them - aside from admiring some of their best footballers - as their management has always vowed to vanquish Liverpool and their fans and Liverpool's fans have a disgusting no-holds barred barrage of insults that never cease and that would make you sick (from both directions).  I wish them the worst and hope they lose every match.  In any match where they are playing, I will root for the other team without fail - and usually walk away disappointed.  They just endured the worst season they have had in ages, but don't think that means anything in the big picture except that they hired who Sir Alex wanted and that turned into an absurd disaster.  That has been cleaned up and they will go right back into the mix.  Since I have followed the EPL, they have finished 1, 1, 3, 1, 3, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 7.  So, trust me, if you want everyone to lose respect for your pick because you like the Yankees and Heat, here you go.

Manchester City is a club that has been purchased by the richest men in the world and they win quite a bit since that happened.  They have finished 1, 2, 1 since they have invested every dollar in the world in their side, but have a remarkably anonymous past before this windfall of middle eastern oil money.  Honestly, you almost never meet a Manchester City fan (imagine if the Timberwolves were bought by the richest man in the world and started dominating the NBA) and even now, nobody hates them because nobody knows what to make of them.  They are a club that is filled with players even their fans don't really know (because they have all been there about 15 minutes) and their stadium often has marginal crowds despite this incredible performance.  It is actually quite odd.

The other 3 you should consider are Newcastle, Tottenham, and Everton.  They all have a lot of people from here following them and all have fantastic stadiums, competitive clubs, and fervent fan bases you will enjoy.  However, I would be lying to you if I argued they have any real threats to dethrone the powers at the very top (for now, it seems), but also are not going to stop fielding entertaining teams.  Everton in the last decade is always no higher than 5th and no lower than 10th.  And, Tottenham is pretty much a mirror image.  Newcastle used to be up there, but times have been tough recently even with a relegation.  They are often ridiculed for only wishing to finish higher than their next-door neighbors, Everton with Liverpool 500 yards away and Tottenham has Arsenal right up the street, but that is an insult.  I always think they are proper clubs that have their charm.  If you loathe front-running and want to build for that one miracle year, perhaps these are your choices.

The rest of the field in England is a crapshoot of teams that all have something to offer, but also flirt with relegation from time to time.  If you don't know what that is, you will soon enough.  But, trust me, if your club is relegated, all I said about access and media coverage may dissipate quite a bit.  There are several smaller clubs that I admire, but since they don't always have funds for players, it can be frustrating to give your heart to them.  If you do, here are my favorites.  Queenspark Rangers, Crystal Palace, Portsmouth (not currently in the top level), and West Ham are all on my list, partly because I have been to matches at all of their places and actually enjoyed those experiences more than the big clubs.  However, I will tell you that most fans of those clubs start the year hoping they stay up in the Premiership and usually have their hands full to do so.

Other than the clubs mentioned above, you are on your own.  If you want to go off the page and cheer for Aston Villa or Bolton, have fun.  They all have stories to tell.  I just wouldn't advise it any more than I would advise someone new to the USA to take up Jacksonville Jaguar football.


In closing, I hope this helps.  I know it will just lead to more questions or offended fans of Liverpool rivals who have their feelings all hurt that I don't love their club as much as they do.  That is usually followed by a Luis Suarez joke and reminding me that my club sucks and they have a great one.

In many ways, it is just another way to follow sports and be insufferable to your friends.

Have fun, but don't rush in to pledging allegiance to a club you have just now discovered.  Because nothing is worse than meeting a guy who is a "die hard" Portsmouth fan who then became a "die hard" Chelsea fan because he moved too quickly and realized he liked winning too much to like Pompey.

Don't be that guy.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

It Happens Every Summer

The older we get in life, the more we learn, it seems.  For me, it is always a case where I wish
"older me" could have a talk with "younger me" and explain a few vital things.

I wasn't really taught too much about diet and exercise as a kid.  I sort of figured to simply do what seems right and see where that takes me.  And, I like to cut corners in life.  I like to invest in myself, but the bare minimum to get by.  And then, once I cut a corner, I rinse and repeat - feeling like I beat the system.

I listed these life views above, because when it comes to taking care of myself and my body, it is very easy for me to look for the shortest possible route to the results I want.  Then, when I get to where I am going, I like to celebrate by stopping all of the good habits I have instilled in my life and just go back to doing whatever I want, which in this case includes eating whatever occurs to me at the time and working out whenever I feel like it.

Well, that doesn't cut it for a guy who has just turned 42.  If only 34-year old me would have listened.

So, let me tell you where I am right now on my quest for fitness and wellness and just overall feeling great and liking what I see in the mirror.

Many years ago, my friend George DiGianni approached me about getting serious about accomplishing these goals.  At the time, the idea of a 21-day Body Makeover seemed pretty revolutionary to me and it appealed to my sensibilities of getting results fast and then allowing me to go on with my life.

Well, George wants you to not treat it as a cheating mechanism in your life, but rather a new way to live all of the time to continue the results.  But, as they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink.  George led me to the right plan, and honestly, for years it has never clicked for me after the 21-days.  I will explain more about that in a minute.

But, his plan, which I have believed in and participated in for years is as good as advertised.  I have done it many times and so has my wife and many of our friends who have signed up and found their results from George's strategies and supplements.  It honestly, for me, is now a part of my annual calendar.  You know, we will take a vacation here, we will do taxes here, we will clean the garage and change the oil here, and then I will get my body right here.

The 21 days only requires you to buy-in mentally.  If you do, everything in the plan is simple.  The eating is great - provided you follow the recipes and have committed to it.  I actually look forward to the eating program because it is clean foods and clean eating.  I have seen a few who were not committed and they just won't get the results if they are looking to cheat here and there or make too many exceptions.  I challenge anyone to really sell out to make this work.  If you do, the results will be there.

Basically, follow the road map for 21 days with food, your tasty morning shake, your tablets, and your exercise.

Exercise?  Yes.  You simply must make your body work to get results, but you already know that by looking in the mirror, right?

For me, I have always been a jogger, but George has certainly shared with me the truth that pushing your body for results does not happen by jogging.  Yes, there are some good effects to running 5 miles in 40 minutes, but not the same as burst training or a full body workout over a much shorter time but with much greater intensity.  Include your whole body in workouts that follow George's helpful videos and you will spend half the time getting twice the results.

This time, in the 21 days, I dropped down 15 pounds and could really tell the midsection transformation where, honestly, age has taken its toll.

I was sleeping better again and having more energy.  I am telling you, it works every time.

Now, I know what you are saying.  Bob, if it works so well, why do you allow yourself to ride the roller coaster where you need to keep doing it?

Well, 2 things.  #1 - I think doing this program annually is not a bad plan for many other reasons besides weight loss.  I think the supplements do in many ways reset your body to optimal conditions, just like going to the dentist for an annual cleaning helps keep your teeth healthy.  I think the results say to do it for many reasons beyond weight loss and I will continue to do so indefinitely.

But, #2 - you are right.  Why do I ride this roller coaster of weight?  And, to be honest, the hills and valleys keep getting gradually higher.  In the past, when dropping 15 pounds, I would be back near my early college weight.  Now, my finishing weight after the program was what my starting weight before the program would be years back.  That isn't good.

That is why I am really challenging myself to continue most of this eating protocol beyond 21 days.  But, that is where personal commitment has to happen.

I live a busy schedule and the ability to prepare and eat clean foods is not always readily available.  George will remind me to be prepared for these situations and if you are prepared, you will never have to compromise your commitment.  He is right, but that is not always something I can do.

However, I finished the program on June 27.  Here we are on July 9th, and I have not gone back to my old eating habits.  Sure, I will enjoy a nice meal (last night had some pizza with the family) and have a few nights where I allow myself to order what I want, but the rest of the time I am eating exactly what I was eating on the program (which is not difficult).  My breakfast, lunch, and snacks between are still right on point so my body is not taking in more than it is using.

Eating clean is a decision you have to make and I am finally there.  But, without the 21-day body makeover from George, I just don't think that I would ever have the motivation to fix my diet and continue to feel that I am living far healthier in my 40s than I ever did in my 20s or 30s.

It is also interesting how my kids notice this difference in my eating and exercise and how they suddenly begin to make alterations in their habits, as well.  If my wife and I can affect my kids sensibilities as they grow up, perhaps, they don't need to get to 40 to figure out that we are what we eat and to look and feel great requires a little strategy and education about how the body functions.

I only believe in this process because I have done it.  I have seen the program continue to develop and what George is doing now is better than ever.

If you want to give it a shot, George wanted me to let you know about a P1 deal right now where if you order the program here and enter the promo code: P1, you will receive $30 off your price.  That is a little price break for you, so perhaps it is time for you to give this a shot.  I have done it several times and am always happy I have done it.

This time, I am going beyond 21 days.  I would like to believe this commitment will lead me back to my college weight and have me feeling even better.  We shall see, but perhaps now is the time for you to get going on this as well.

Good luck!  If you are committed, you will get the results.  And if you are still reading this, something tells me you are already committed.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Bag of Pucks: Summer Free Agency Edition

I have to admit that reading glowing reviews on the direction of an organization without equal time to cynicism is quite a change around here (at least for this particular writer).  I am sure it won't continue indefinitely, but with regards to the Dallas Stars and their 14 month run with the organizational makeover, the news continues to be better than good.  In the last several days, the Stars have again upgraded their mix with Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, Patrick Eaves, and Anders Lindback.  2 Top 6 forwards in 1 day, and 2 depth additions as well.  Then, on top of that was the unexpected signing of Vern Fiddler, after most expected that he would elect to take more money and ice time elsewhere.

Frankly, the reviews are fantastic with respect to the talent acquisition department, and the continued influx of players who are now ready to add to the troops that took this franchise back to the playoffs this past spring.

Jim Nill and his staff is receiving the accolades for these acquisitions again, like the "summer of Seguin" in 2013, and there is no debate that if you were to rank the transactions in the last 14 months, the #1 move should remain the hiring of a General Manager who is regarded across the league as one of the best in the business.  The feelings, going back to last spring, were that whoever could convince Nill to take over the helm of their organization would reap the benefits for years and years.  That much has delivered to be true so far, with the future seemingly plenty bright.

However, I don't want to forget to recognize the ownership that has made this possible.  As I have said before, Joe Nieuwendyk had his stamp on the farm system full of talented kids, but was sabotaged by bankruptcy and indifferent ownership for much of his tenure.  Tom Gaglardi wanted his own guy to run things when he was ready to invest heavily in the side, and Nieuwendyk did not represent a fresh start.  Gaglardi had Nill identified by Jim Lites and company, and then got the deal done to hire his guy.  From there, it would only work with aggressive moves, cash investment, and faith in the process.

And for that, I want to make sure Gaglardi is recognized as vital and imperative to this process.  When I was younger, I counted owners of franchises as unimportant figureheads who were just the suits they would show in the crowd and pretty much interchangeable.  And maybe, in the 1980s when I had that impression, that was closer to the truth.  But, in the present day sports-landscape, either a team has an owner that has ambition to push his team to achievement or you wish you did.  An owner's motivation could be to fill his arena (to maximize profits) or to get the Cup, or both.  The Stars' last owner was driven to get a Cup and was a fan's dream.  But, when he over expanded his sports empire, he was bitten by spending more than he had and he suddenly became a fan's nightmare - An owner who could not be bothered with a team's fortunes because his financial empire was collapsing.

For that reason, we should be slow in our judgements of this owner in the long-term.  Only the actions over many, many years will reveal his full body of work.  However, based on what we do know, I am tickled that Gaglardi appears to be everything I hoped - a guy who wanted badly to put a great team together and is willing to trust brilliant people to help him do that (the one flaw in Jerry Jones' game).  So, enter Nill and then, Lindy Ruff.

But, if you wanted to know if they were satisfied with all of the good signs from 2013-14, then the first week in July 2014 should help you see.  No, they are not.

There were several things about the 2013-14 Stars that were very impressive.  However, the power play was never completely sorted out, the face-off wins were barely more than the face-off losses, and it could easily be argued that the Stars 2nd line was actually one of the best 3rd lines in the sport.

Enter Jason Spezza.

Below is a complete list of the 9 centers in hockey who were both both above 200 points in the last 4 seasons (at least 50 points a year - including the lockout year) and in the Top 50 face-off men in hockey:

Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Pavel Datsyuk, Jason Spezza, Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux and Anze Kopitar.

That is the entire list.  Now, please examine that list for players who were available on the open market.

Maybe Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza.  Spezza, by the way, missed nearly the entire season in 2012-2013, otherwise, he might be well up that chart even higher.

I won't lie, I might have preferred Thornton because of my better familiarity with his complete game, his size, and his 3 years under contract, and his mastery of the power play; but it doesn't appear he will be moved by the Sharks.  Of course, he is also 4 years older than Spezza and therefore if the Stars can make sure this isn't a 1-year rental, then there are tons of things to like here.

They did give up some fine young players, Alex Chiasson the one most are familiar with.  For me, I hoped all along to flip Chiasson this summer as the center piece for a number of reasons, including my personal feelings that he was overachieving with his production early in his career (Sell high!) and that the Stars are loaded at wing in their system.  He made the most sense to be valuable to others and to be able to center a big deal, and it worked perfectly.

Spezza is not without a few concerns, as trusted voices from around the league have argued he is a bit "too perimeter" these days, but I am more than interested in seeing how a change of scenery suits him.  He seems to be exactly what they need as they have lacked a perfect #2 center compliment to Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn and now they seem to have it.  Add to that Ales Hemsky on a reasonable 3 year deal on a proven winger who turns 31 in August, and the Stars have a 2nd line just like that.  Valeri Nichushkin goes to one line and the other wing can go to either Erik Cole, Colton Sceviour, or my pick, young Brett Ritchie by Thanksgiving.

That fixes your depth issue as Eakin/Roussel/Garbutt are a fine #3 line that jumps on the opposition #1s, your face-off issue - with Spezza, Fiddler, Benn, and Eakin (who is by far the worst, but partly because he is taking draws against that list of centers above), your power play issue as Spezza can really add something there, and you really haven't lost anything of note off your playoff team.


Now, many of you are asking how this fixes the blue-line, and I did not forget I have been pounding that table for years and years.  But, the idea that they could grow and develop their defense group without losing any of them in their pursuit of Spezza and Seguin is fantastic work.  Now, we expect the full arrivals of Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, and John Klingberg in the next 12 months, with Trevor Daley/Alex Goligoski and Jordie Benn/Brenden Dillon providing strong play on the way into the playoffs last year.  It isn't Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but it is homegrown (mostly), reasonably priced, and young with younger pushing them from behind.

The bottom line there is that the best defense is to keep the puck.  And the Stars weren't Los Angeles or Chicago in puck possession or Corsi last year, but they were in the Top 10 with the truly strong teams in the NHL.  Now, they are adding a formidable 2nd line and the ability to win draws at a very high rate (so they start plays with the puck).  This means you are not dropping back and playing defense in your own end all day, and that keeps your defensemen from having to defend.

It looks good on paper, and it looked good on the ice last year.  This seems to make too much sense not to try for the prices they paid.

Now, back to Gaglardi - I have received a number of questions about how many players are on the roster and how close the Stars are to the cap ceiling.  That's right - the cap CEILING!  This tells us that they are looking to make more moves, I would think to gain back some cap room that will allow them to make a move at the deadline to give them that final boost over the finish line next season.  Yes, kids, we are back to the days of considering the cap ceiling, not signing Eric Nystrom off waivers to get into compliance with the salary cap floor like the Stars did 2011.

There is great competition to overcome and higher hills to climb than merely the #8 seed, but if this doesn't get you fired up for Opening Night, I don't know what to tell you.

This thing is being built right before your very eyes.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Morning After: Belgium 2, USA 1 - USA Eliminated

In the end, 31 teams go home from the World Cup with a sense of disappointment and sadness.

Tuesday was our turn.

After an excruciatingly tense evening in Brazil that saw the United States once again on the defending side of a contest with a world power, the levee finally broke in extra time as Romelu Lukaku came on and with a combination of great speed and power was able to drive past tired US defenders and help create 2 goals.

The Americans pulled one back on the first World Cup touch of the ball for young Julian Green, but with 14 minutes to find an equalizer, the run finally ended as the 2014 World Cup collapsed under the relentless siege of the Belgians.

The hero for the USA on Tuesday is consistent with a career where he has generally been considered one of the best in the world, goalkeeper Tim Howard.  Howard, whether it is for his club teams in England over the years or his national team in the stars and stripes, is always ready for that big moment and once again demonstrated his quality on the world's largest stage.

Save after heroic save was made by Howard as he urged on his team with encouragement and chastisement as the afternoon went along after he would deflect another speeding missile away from the net.  He was magnificent, and in making an absurd 16 saves (the most since the 1962 World Cup), kept the USA in a match that they really had little business being in.

But, there they were.  92 minutes into the match, remaining level at 0-0.  It was still there to be won if a miracle goal could be scored to support the insane effort of Howard.  The ball was lobbed into the area and there, Jermaine Jones fought to flick the ball on with his head into the path of a charging Chris Wondolowski.  Wondo is the people's champ, and someone it seemed most soccer people were rooting to get a chance to contribute to the World Cup roster back when choices were being made on who gets the tickets to Brazil.

So, the moment happened.  Wondo had the ball fall to his feet with nobody between him and the goal, but the Belgium keeper, Thibaut Courtois.  Courtois knows he is at the mercy of Wondo, so he lunges at the ball to hopefully break the concentration of the striker who has him dead.  If Wondo can just simply side foot the ball on the ground, the USA is in the Quarterfinals.

Instead, things happened fast and the ball hits Wondolowski's foot and goes over the goal.  The broadcast seemed to indicate as it happened that it was called offside.  But, it wasn't.  Ian Darke clarified that the call was simply the flag for a goal-kick, and if Wondo had finished the play, the goal was a good one.  But, the moment happened and the USA missed it.  In a match they had no business winning, they actually could have pulled the ultimate robbery at the final whistle.

The moment passed.

Meanwhile, in the space between regulation and extra time, Belguim smartly substituted one young world class striker, Origi, for another in Lukaku, who was their first choice when the tournament started.  Both troubled the US all day long, and to have fresh legs available and a striker who had something to prove in the extra 30 minutes was a luxury that the Americans could simply not deal with.

Kevin De Bruyne scored the first goal of the match 3 minutes into the extra 30 on a play that Lukaku generated down the right flank, and the De Bruyne - who had been excellent all day - came back against the grain before beating Howard at the far post in a very precise finish.  Then, Lukaku barreled in for a 2nd with a fantastic finish that Howard could only wave at in vain as it threatened to puncture the back of the net.

As mentioned before, Julian Green was then brought on by Jurgen Klinsmann at the break in the 30, but personally, the belief here is that this substitute needed to happen after the first goal.  It seemed clear that in the late stages of another exhausting match, energy at the top of the attack was called for, and once it was clear that Jozy Altidore had no ability to assist, then Green was the only option.  The team needed a boost of energy and to wait until it was 2-0 seemed to lose the plot.

Nevertheless, when Green came on, he was able to cut the lead in half with one touch and perfect finish.

But, even as the goal was scored, most wondered if there would be even a sniff for an equalizer.

And then, amazingly, they earned a free kick from a considerable distance.  What happened next is shown below (Courtesy of Gooooal on Vine) and has to be a candidate for one of the best executed set pieces in this World Cup.  It was orchestrated beautifully and no doubt practiced endlessly for such an occasion.

Michael Bradley would take the kick from 30 yards away, but would side foot it to a cutting Wondolowski who had come around the fence and back towards Bradley.  Then, from the opposite side, Clint Dempsey would time his run from the wall of Belgians towards the goal and Wondolowski would have a chance to angle a one-timer pass right into his path.

It happened just as they hoped and as you can see above, if Dempsey can settle the pass just a bit better, they again have a chance to at least force penalty kicks to advance.  Instead, the ball gets away from Dempsey, Courtois again comes off his line to trouble the shooter, and the chance gets away from the United States.

Those two moments above are the moments that will be talked about for years for those of us who enjoy the USMNT this much.  The World Cup is a passionate event for the simple reasons that you only get a shot history once every 4 years.  When it sails by with close-calls and regrets, you have a story to tell.

But, in fairness to reality, it seems important to note that the United States had a chance to win that match, but were clearly not a team that deserved to win.  Of course, we have been reminded that "deserve" has nothing to do with the outcome of these matches, nevertheless, the US has to be concerned with some realities about their 4 match stay at the World Cup.

Most notably, according to research done by Steve Fenn, the USA was a -53 in shot differential in the 4 matches in the tournament.  That is a stunning average of over 13 per match.  We can debate the relative difficulty level of shots and whether it is a tell-all stat or simply one that should be acknowledged, but conceding 13 more shots than you attempt every match is simply not a recipe for long-term success.

And that comes back to some of the more over-reaching story lines about the state of affairs for the United States National Team in general.  The resolve is awesome.  The battle is fantastic.  The talent pool is expanding.  The youth is improving (although, compare teenagers or players on the roster under 20 or 22 or 24 with Belgium and see how we measure up (hint: It isn't good)).

But, overall, for the USA to continue its upward trajectory toward the real world powers in this sport, the improvement will have to continue to come through the technical skills that are required to possess the ball more.  And not simple possession numbers that might mislead, but the ability to boss a match in the opposing half with skill and precision that puts the opponent on its heels.

If we were to be fair, we would say that the USA never owned the ball in the 4 matches, aside from small slivers of attacks.  Overall, Ghana had the ball for most of the match, Portugal was the closest to even, and then Germany and Belgium were both able to make the US chase.  This depletes energy for late stages of the match when you need reserves available.

The USA doesn't choose to play this way.  In fact, when Klinsmann was hired, the talk was about more attacks and possession based game plans.  However, you can plan all you want.  Until you have the players in the midfield who can carry out this plan, you are always going to be stuck playing the only style you can survive with - which appears to be to play with 10 behind the ball and a lone striker who will attempt to set up counter attacks (a tactic hurt badly without Jozy available for the entire WC run).

This, of course, in the international game is not something that you fix in free agency.  This requires patience as a new generation attempt to replace the old between now and 2018 or 2022.  Right now, hopefully, there are American 14 year olds who will be able to play 50/50 ball with the 14 year olds in Belgium or Germany.  As most people know, that is a lot to expect, but the USA has made tremendous strides.  Now, it is up to the next generation to hopefully carry on for what Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and Michael Bradley have done.  Bradley should still be available in 2018, but the rest are likely done being the best players in the USMNT mix.

Now, it is time to take this major progress of qualifying for the World Cup and routinely advancing out of Group Play to the next level.  But, that is for Green and DeAndre Yedlin and others to accomplish.

It was a great run and proof that Klinsmann is the man for the job.  This team was noticed around the world for its brave defending and resolve.  But, to keep this from being its identity, they are going to need more special players who can take over a match with their skill.

It will be interesting to see what this all looks like for 2018.

Until then, it is great to know that what has been accomplished.  The team did so much and the scenes from around the country might be the most enduring images.  The pictures of thousands living and dying with the fortunes on the field are images that most of our sports ventures do not offer.  We all have our own teams and segments of society that get us to stand up for a moment.

But, the national team?  That brings everyone to the same agenda and cause.  And in 2014, that is something that seems a bit rare in society.  Who knew it was a soccer team that would get us to find out the joys of all being on the same page?

Anyway, for our boys, the trip to Brazil was both successful and disappointing.  Great moments and gutting, as well.

But, they can return with their heads up high.  They squeezed everything they could out of what they had.

Now, we just need to find more.