Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Annual Playoff Reminders

With just 8 days until the first game of the 2014 NFL season, perhaps we should take a minute to identify some things to consider when putting your NFC playoff field together.

First, I constructed this grid this morning which keeps a rolling 10-year grid on NFC playoff participation.  Below, you can see that 7 is the high total for playoff appearances in the last decade for Seattle and Green Bay, while 1 is the low - held by Detroit and St Louis.  

Dallas is at 3, which is out paced by 7 NFC organizations, and has a drought since 2009.  Teams with a longer drought than 2009 in the NFC without a playoff appearance are only Tampa Bay and St Louis - (Arizona also has not been in since 2009)

Green Bay has been to the playoffs 5 consecutive years which is the highest for any NFC team.  San Francisco is at 3 straight and Seattle 2, with no other team having an active streak of playoff appearances.

Team 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 Total
Dallas X X X 3
Phil X X  X X X X 6
Wash X X
X 3
Atl X X X X X 5
Car X


NO X X X X X 5
TB X X 2
Chi X X X 3
Det X 1
X X 7
Minn X X X X 4
Arz X X 2
St L X 1
Sea X X X X X X X 7

(a Bold "X" denotes a Super Bowl appearance)

So, now you know who has made it and how many times.

But, what about this annual game where we try to project who the participants in the 2014 Playoffs will be? We all enjoy it every August, but most of my research seems to show that most of us just pick the same 6 teams who made the playoffs last year. They just look too good to reel in.
But, if you are planning on picking the Seahawks, Panthers, Packers, and Eagles to all win their divisions and then the Saints and 49ers to grab the Wildcards, then you need to know about this number -


What does the number 5.7 represent? Well, that is the average number since the playoffs expanded in 1991 of the number of new teams that qualify for the playoffs every year. If only 12 teams make the playoffs each year and 5.7 (or pretty much half) are going to be teams that were NOT there last year, as history tells us, then who is going out of these 12 teams?

NFC: Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay, New Orleans, Carolina, Philadelphia
AFC: Denver, New England, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City, San Diego

By the way, although we do believe this to be a truth that will stand the test of time, obviously if 5.7 is the average, there are years where we go to the high end and the low end of this. In 2003, we actually had 8 new teams enter the playoffs in a year that seemed completely upside down and random. Then, in 1995 and last year, only 4 new teams made the tournament - just 1 new team in the AFC - making some believe that this thing is determined before the season even begins.

Here is the chart for your examination of the year-by-year progression:

Year# NewNew Teams making Playoffs
19926Min, SF, Phi, Mia, Pit, KC
19935Det, GB, NYG, Oak, Den
19945Chi, Mia, Clev, NE, SD
19954Phi, Atl, Ind, Buf
19965Min, Car, Jac, Den, NE
19975NYG, Det, TB, KC, Mia
19985Arz, Dal, Atl, NYJ, Buf
19997Det, TB, StL, Was, Sea, Ten, Ind
20006Phi, NYG, NO, Den, Bal, Oak
20016SF, GB, Chi, Pit, NE, NYJ
20025NYG, Atl, Ten, Cle, Ind
20038Stl, Car, Dal, Sea, NE, KC, Bal, Den
20045Min, Atl, SD, Pit, NYJ
20057Was, Car, TB, NYG, Chi, Cin, Jac
20067Phi. Dal, NO, SD, Bal, NYJ, KC
20076Was, TB, GB, Pit, Ten, Jac
20087Phi, Atl, Car, Min, Arz, Mia, Bal
20096Dal, GB, NO, Cin, NE, NYJ
20105Sea, Atl, Chi, Pitt, KC
20116NYG, SF, Det, Cin, Hou, Den
20124Was, Sea, Min, Indy
20135NO, Phi, Car, KC, SD

Is that your greatest case for Dallas getting into the 2014 playoffs?  The fact that every year the NFC seems to put 3 new teams in the tournament?

Personally, I am still working on my picks.  But, the annual reminder of 5.7 certainly makes this exercise more complicated than we are willing to admit.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tuesday Quick Hits - Building That Roster

The Final week of August and right until Labor Day is a big time for decision making amongst the personnel departments all around the National Football League.  The easy times of 90 man rosters with bodies everywhere morph into the "go time" of getting the rosters to the 53 which are required to start the season.

This means that 1,036 players will be released league-wide in the next 7 days (counting those who have already been cut loose), which opens up endless possibilities of thinking whether the 54th or 55th best players in Houston, San Francisco, or Pittsburgh could be better than the 53rd man in your own camp.

We have no way of knowing how many players who the Cowboys have not even met will be on the Week 1 roster against the 49ers, but you can assume that there will be at least a few.  It seems to happen every year.

Anyway, before we can start projecting our 53 man rosters based on what we have seen over the last 5 weeks of training camp and preseason games, we need to take a look at how this roster has been set up in the past.  Of course, you will need to note that in 2013, the roster was built for the 4-3, and all the years prior to that were in the 3-4.  Therefore, note the difference in quantity between the defensive linemen and the linebackers from 2012 to 2013.  And, of course, expect comparable quantities as we look to the 2014 final cuts.  They must get to 75 today and to 53 by Saturday at 3pm central.

Below is the list:


2007: 26 Offense/24 Defense/3 Specialist
2008: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist
2009: 25 Offense/24 Defense/4 Specialist
2010: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist
2011: 26 Offense/23 Defense/4 Specialist
2012: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist
2013: 24 Offense/26 Defense/3 Specialist

Now you can grab the latest 75 man roster found here at the Cowboys website and begin your own chop down, being mindful of position groupings.

We will do the same after Thursday Night's game on the blog here for Friday.

As of right now, here is how I see the 53:

QB - (2):  This is not that difficult.  I have seen almost nothing that says I should keep anything more than Tony Romo and Brandon Weeden.  I would very much like to find my developmental QB, and Dustin Vaughan is going to be on my practice squad, but only if I get him through waivers where I do not anticipate a problem.  Caleb Hanie is cut.

RB - (5):  I figure this is where we will put a huge number on the board by keeping 5 RBs.  I am not saying this position is stacked, but with DeMarco Murray a given, then we have to look at Lance Dunbar being loved by the organization as they love his potential to really be a weapon.  Beyond that Joseph Randle can really help special teams, Ryan Williams has been so flashy that I don't think they want to lose his upside, and Tyler Clutts allows some personnel versatility to run 21 and 22 personnel, but also he has been on every special teams unit in the preseason.  So, we are keeping 5.

TE - (3):  Again, this was determined long ago, with the only possibility of change was if James Hanna was outplayed by somebody in camp.  But, I didn't see that at all and his special teams ability puts him on the roster for his 3rd year, with the givens of Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar already in the bag.  If they could find a 4th who was a great blocker and ST guy, they might consider it, but with extra RBs, they need to go a bit thin here.

WR - (5):  I really like some of the fringe WRs here, and I assume that it will be difficult to discard Chris Boyd and Jamar Newsome.  LaRon Byrd has also been a nice player in camp at times.  However, all 3 are going to be cut loose and perhaps be brought back on the PS.  However, again, the 5 WR jobs were pretty much known since draft day:  Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris, and Devin Street.  I would not be shocked to hear they decided on a 6th, but I have 5 for now.

OL - (9):  Here is a place where I think they absolutely want to find something in the NFL cut piles next week.  I think they need 9 for the season, but I can't find 9 I like.  So here are the best 9:  Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free, Ron Leary, Mackenzy Bernadeau, followed by the 3 that should not feel safe, but by default the pricey Jermey Parnell, John Wetzel, and Uche Nwaneri. As you can see, there is a lot of talent, but one injury or two could really make this position thin.  Especially if a tackle goes down.

Ok, now it is time to be honest.  That was easy.  What you are about to witness is going to be very, very difficult.  I will be quite honest and say that although I have 26 defensive players on my roster, I could cut about 10 of them and not look back once.  They are here because there is nobody better in camp.

DL - (9):  Here are the givens: George Selvie, Tyrone Crawford, Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey, and DeMarcus Lawrence.  Yes, Lawrence has to be on the 53 before they move him to the in-season IR designated to return after 6 weeks or more.  After that, Terrell McClain and Nick Hayden are tied together, because they want McClain to make Hayden expendable, but McClain has hardly been in a practice.  So, for now, I think they both stay.  That means, I can keep Davon Coleman and Kenneth Boatright (STs), but I have to risk losing Ken Bishop and Zach Minter through cuts and try to rescue them after I move Lawrence to the IR.

LB - (7):  Justin Durant, Bruce Carter, Kyle Wilber, Anthony Hitchens, and Rolando McClain are the easiest 5 - although I wish the competition made it more difficult to select.  And then, after that, I am making 2 purely special teams calls here and grabbing Cam Lawrence and Orie Lemon as guys I can depend on to cover kicks pretty well.  Dallas is thin at Linebacker right now.

DB - (10): This one is complicated for sure. Givens: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, JJ Wilcox.  Orlando Scandrick won't count on cuts as he is suspended.  Now, we need 3 more corners for September, and I am grabbing Sterling Moore, Tyler Patmon, and BW Webb.  And, since special teams need to be special, Jeff Heath is back, and Ahmad Dixon is on the squad, with Jakar Hamilton as my 10th and on very shaky ground.

ST - (3): Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, LP Ladouceur.

Now, like I said, these cuts are not in stone and I suppose Thursday could change my mind on some and others might get injured.  But, for now, if I am making the cuts, these are the 53 I end up with.

But, also, if I am the GM, I am using the 1,036 cuts league-wide to repopulate my roster with plenty of fresh blood to make these decisions more difficult.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Morning After: Preseason Week 3 at Miami

Once again this week after the preseason affair, we will not be providing a game recap or any sort of exhaustive breakdown of the events in Miami after the 25-20 loss - however, the 490 yards conceded to the Dolphins are a bit disconcerting.

As we pointed out last year, the Cowboys had given up 6 games of 490+ yards in 2013, which is about a decade's worth of those affairs, but in the Cowboys case all jammed in between San Diego in Week 4 and Chicago in Week 13.  Remarkable if you think about it.  

However, since the Dolphins had a rather pedestrian 173 yards at the half (when the starters and top roster players on both sides were playing), we won't freak out too much about what this all means for the much talked about defense.  But, rest assured, the Dolphins 2s and 3s seemed to have no trouble moving the ball on the Cowboys 2s and 3s depth defensive options.  Of course, on the other hand, the Cowboys offensive-1s had 32 snaps in the 1st half and found a mere 110 yards out there.  We don't have to dive into advanced metrics to know that 3.43 yards per snap and 4.8 yards per passing attempt from Tony Romo are about as low and non consequential as we are going to see.

If that was supposed to put us at ease about this offense, well, it didn't really work.  

In fact, if anyone has skated without too much close examination this off-season, it seems to be the offense.  Somehow, they have been elevated by many in the elite category, making us wonder if those people who want to tell us how devastating the offense can be actually watched the 2013 season.  Sure, they put up some nice yardage on their terms, but when the offense needed to win a NBA-style game where the team with the ball last should win, they were consistently disappointing.

Games in New Orleans and Chicago were both set up for the Cowboys offense to explode and give them a chance to win, and they were left in the dust by their opponents to a point where the games were decided by halftime.  

Nobody wants to blame the offense for that, but if they want to be considered an elite offense, then you would need many more performances like the Denver game, and frankly, that was far more the exception rather than the rule.  

I have heard many claim that they are a "Top 5" and "elite" offense.  Well, those offenses score points by the bushels, the Dallas offense had only 3 games of 35 points (NYG, Den, GB) and 3 games of 400 yards (Den, GB, Phil).  Denver had 14 games of 400 yards, by comparison.  Philadelphia had 12.  San Diego had 8. New England, New Orleans, and Green Bay did it 7 times each.  3 games?  All at home?  Tough to call that elite.  

If you are wondering, by the way, 400 yards has often been the benchmark target by many coaches for a "successful" offensive day.  In recent years, we have had 3 levels of offense, with 400 being a great day, 360 being good, and anything below that threshold is listed as poor.  In case you are wondering, in 2013, the average yards for the average offense in a game was 348.  That is up from 20 seasons ago, when in 1993, the league averaged 310 yards a game.  Yards are easier to come by than ever before, so if we are going to call an offense elite, we are going to need more offensive explosions.  But, for the Cowboys to only have 3 400-yard performances in 2013 - all at home - makes us wonder why the fandom is crowning them before they have actually accomplished anything.    

For this offense to be truly elite, it will need a truly elite offensive line.  And although we all trumpet the fact that this team has drafted 3 offensive linemen in the last 4 1st rounds (at the expense of the  defense), we do not know how this will actually translate to the field for 16 straight weekends. 

But, perhaps, we were reminded that even if each of the 3 1st rounders are fantastic, that leaves 2 positions where the team might still hope for the best: left guard and right tackle.

Right tackle is Doug Free, a player the team was pretty sure they were walking away from just 18 months ago, and in fairness, he might just be keeping right tackle warm for Zack Martin in 2015.  Either way, he has always had issues in 1-on-1 situations with elite edge rushers so we expected Cameron Wake was going to test that edge with ferocity and we weren't disappointed.  Here are the 2 sacks he had 16 pass rush attempts.  

SACK #1 

Above you can see Wake dipping his right shoulder underneath Free and getting around the edge, as 68 tries to move his feet.  You can actually see how Shotgun gives Free more distance to cover and an easier angle to the QB.  That is to help with inside rushes from DTs like Jared Odrick-98 who is fork lifting Bernadeau at left guard right into Tony Romo and the QB can quickly see that this 3rd Down is not going well before he gets down.

If you want to score the play, you would say that the 3 1st round picks all passed easily, while LG and RT both failed.  They didn't give Free any help because Murray had to deal with a blitzing LB and he did so quite well.  Expect opposing defenses to attack in a similar means on 3rd Downs - with the objective being to isolate Free against a solid edge rusher.


Here is a similar look from the Dolphins with a variation.  You can see in Sack #1 that Murray looks for Daniel Ellerbe-59 through the B-gap on the right (between Martin and Free).  In this one, it looks similar for Lance Dunbar, but he needs to stay home and be sure rather than shoot right through that gap.  Why?  Because Ellerbe and Wake were running a stunt where Wake goes through that B-gap, hoping to take out the RT and the RB, leaving Ellerbe with a free run at the QB.  What happened?  They both got home.  Disastrous and another reason why I am not too high on Dunbar to be honest.  For a 3rd Down back to be effective, he has to be trustworthy to diagnose and snuff out blitzing LBs and I just don't like his size for this job.

My best 1st/2nd down back is Murray.  But, he is also my best 3rd Down back.  An ideal 3rd Down back can handle LBs blitzing and I am not sure there is a guy like that on the roster.  Again.

So, if there isn't, I need to take my best RB and I think Ryan Williams proved he is that guy on Saturday night.  Then it comes down to Randle vs Dunbar and I think Randle is more useful on special teams, but I do think Jerry is in love with the concept of Lance Dunbar going back to the Oakland game last year.

But, if you want to score sack #2, it looks like RT and RB were the clear culprits and the rest of the line is fine.  But, you can see how a weak link can make everyone look rough.


I also wanted to take a look at consecutive plays from the 1st Quarter for the defense as it pertains to "gap control" or "gap integrity" or basics of this defense.

Here we have a 1st and 10 from the Cowboys 31 yard line, and as you can see the Cowboys are blitzing the weak-side with Barry Church.

Unfortunately, the Dolphins are zone-right, away from the blitz, with a seal block from their tight end Charles Clay coming back left and catching Church right at the moment of truth.  If Clay doesn't get Church, this play is dead.  He does, and it is the dreaded 20-yard run.

Now, it looks like the Cowboys are out-numbered here on the strong side, but the more you look at it, you can see the difference between Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens at MLB.  The Cowboys are playing gaps, so if it seems pretty clear that 66-Bishop has the A-gap on the right, and 60-Coleman has the B-gap on the left, we must ask who is filling between the center and guard to the play-side in this scenario.  And it sure looks like this is where Hitchens needs Bishop have to keep the center 69-Samson Satele from taking them both out.

As you can see above, if Hitchens reads it a bit quicker, he does not get sealed off by the center.  He  is right in there and then Knowshon Moreno doesn't have a hole you could drive a truck through.  But, when you combine Hitchens hesitating on his read (surely the crossing TE made him wonder which way the play was going) and Satele mauling Bishop (with help from the LG) before he gets to Hitchens and faces him, the play becomes a huge gash.  

Tough to blame Hitchens too much because Bishop has to keep the center off the MLB, and maybe this helps you appreciate Nick Hayden and his anchor a bit more as he is pretty stout in situations like these.  But, it sure looks like taking candy from babies if you are going to leave an interior gap wide open.  

Now, look at the very next play.  This is how it is supposed to look.  

Another zone stretch to the right and this time there is a Cowboys in every gap.  

Coleman wins, Crawford holds up the edge nicely, Durant flows to clean up, and the Marinelli defense looks like it needs to look.

But, both of these plays show how you need everyone in their gap and at least tying up their guy.  The second someone collapses and allows one OL to take out two defenders, the scheme is useless.

So, as expected, especially with low priority players playing both tackle spots, there is some good and some bad from the Cowboys front 7.

Later in the week, let's look at how the roster is coming together, but that is enough for now.

'13 Rewind: Week 16 - The End Against The Eagles

Throughout the first few weeks in August, we will carefully review the 2013 season week by week. I do this as a matter of habit during every training camp because the offseason allows too many things to fall from my memory banks and I think as I get older, that issue becomes bigger. But, since I write about this team daily and I forget most of the details, I thought perhaps you would like to take this trip as well. Some of you will, I assume most of you will pass on this endeavor, but the blog space is free so don't say that I didn't offer. 

Here is the Morning After From Week 16 - The End:

From December 30, 2013:

And so ends another season on this treadmill of mediocrity at Valley Ranch…

It is different, in many respects, because this time the culprits are some who were not even part of the story just a year or two ago, with names like Monte Kiffin and Bill Callahan at the top of the list of people sitting on seats that may in fact be warming to hot.  There are new coaches and players in the chairs of blame and some will be replaced and some will not.

But, in the end, as over 91,000 fans paid top dollar to witness the spectacle last night, it all wraps up the same exact way that 2012 and 2011 did before it, with a break-even record of 8-8 that will thoroughly frustrate even the most optimistic of fans that remain on board the Dallas Cowboys ship.

This franchise is doing something that in many ways is impossible in today's National Football League. In a league where parity and tightly-knit competition insures that teams will fluctuate every single year, the Cowboys are stuck in a rut that they cannot escape from, sitting in their spot in the standings as teams rise and fall all around them.

Amazingly, they are neither good enough to rise up and take that half-step up the leader board which would put them in the playoffs and make them re-evaluate just how far away they seem to be, but they are also not bad enough to fall down the standings into the true dregs of professional football and see themselves as failures that need to be dismissed en masse.  It is particularly frustrating for anyone to make an argument in either extreme.  This franchise is not utterly pitiful, as we can see examples of that all around them; but they are also not approaching acceptable by any metric (both by the franchise's gold standards, nor the normal expectations of a franchise in today's NFL).

And that is why on a morning like this one, given that I have been at this keyboard typing a "Morning After" summary for every Cowboys game going back years and years, I am almost speechless knowing that it must all be repeated again.  Another few weeks of aftermath is coming where the public wants a significant change in the organization, ranging from the unrealistic hope that the owner/general manager/dictator steps aside, to something a bit more possible like yet another head coach finally being led to the public gallows.  Then, whatever change happens (if any at all), we work our ways into the normal routine of the Senior Bowl, the NFL Playoffs (where surely we can rationalize some franchise who is going on a run being like the Cowboys in some way which will offer hope to how close this organization actually is if one play goes a little different and maybe Kyle Orton throws a slightly better pass to Miles Austin on the final drive).

That is followed by Super Bowl week, the NFL Combine, Free agency or as we call it in Dallas, "Contract restructuring season", then the NFL Draft, and the practices and camps start all over again.  By that time, in May or June, the bitter taste of this 8-8 season that collapsed into another 1-3 December will be a bit fuzzy in the memory banks and we can discuss how great Tony Romo's back looks, how up to snuff some of these new draft picks appear, and a shiny new depth chart that is unaffected by injuries (hey, Tyrone Crawford is back!) as we head for Oxnard.

It is the merry-go-round of pro sports that we have all signed up for, and one that shows no signs of stopping around here as long as 91,000 of the Cowboys biggest loyalists fill that stadium at any price tag to watch the same episode as many times as they will be allowed to do so.  If all they have to do is open the doors to sell out the largest stadium in pro football and if your loyalty is tied to the 30-year mortgage that you opened to be a part of Cowboys Stadium, then by my count, we have about 25 more years before we can expect that stadium not to be full on night's like that to show fan disapproval.

I didn't mean to depress you.  Although, if I did (and your favorite team did not), then you clearly haven't been paying close attention to this team and therefore likely aren't even reading this in the first place.

But, this organization did it to you again, and in a normal setting, there is a steady balance between the organization's management and the feelings of the public to guarantee that the customers continue to come to the stadium and to leave their money there.  But, once the franchise was able to get everyone to sign PSL agreements that ran through the 2038 season, they organized one of the most amazing deals with their adoring public that any corporation could ever dream of (aside from taxpayer-funded stadiums, of course) - they lost the incentive to please anyone but themselves.

So, before I spend time on the specifics of last night, I want to make sure it is in writing that there is not another situation in professional sports where the fan base is as powerless as this one and where a once-proud franchise needed significant and meaningful change at the top worse than this one.  The long-term mediocrity that this organization has exhibited for almost 2 full decades now is laughable by almost any metric, and yet they cannot print tickets fast enough.  The genius ability of Jerry Jones as a business man surely makes his pitiful performance as a football franchise architect possible.  And what is worse, as the sole ruler on when his reign should end, you are his subjects who must hope that somehow as he ages, he improves despite not having a real incentive to strive to improve.

Sorry.  But, Jerry Jones is the only person who can actually fix this and he also might be the only person who doesn't know it is broken.  If given the choice, financial success is more important than football success to Jerry, than the Cowboys are exhibiting the results that he so desires.  And that is why he may not consider this an unsuccessful season.  The Cowboys' revenues will dwarf the rest of the league and in this sport, with a harsh salary cap, he is not allowed to spend those profits to fix this team's losing.  He is allowed to enjoy the spoils of it without incentive to change.

Here, from Brandon George's piece in the Dallas Morning News is all you have to see:
Only once did Jones get a bit testy with the line of questioning late Sunday night. That was when he was asked if he gets embarrassed by the Cowboys’ results of late and how that’s shaped the national perspective of the once-proud franchise. 
“I don’t know,” Jones fired back. “Would you get embarrassed if you were standing in this stadium? Seriously. The answer is no, not at all.”
Oh boy.

Now, there is no way to sveltely segue into the events of Game #16 from the 2013 season after that rant, but I must attempt to do so.

The Cowboys did many things on Sunday night that are worthy of your admiration, partly because the Eagles are unstoppable to most NFL defenses.  Meanwhile, the Cowboys couldn't stop anyone all season, including quite a list of backup Quarterbacks, and somehow still were able to stop the Eagles in 2 different games.

In 2 game, the Cowboys allowed the Eagles just 27 total points.  In the 14 other games for Chip Kelly and his offense, they averaged 29.6 points PER game.  Also, only 4 times all season were the Eagles held below 400 yards.  Twice, however, to Monte Kiffin and this defense made up of castaways and castaway understudies.

The Eagles only had 278 yards in that matchup in Philadelphia, and then followed it up with just 366 last night in Dallas.  Given that they averaged 431 yards in the other 14 games, this is both unlikely and difficult to explain.  In addition - or perhaps related - the pass rush schemes and strategies of the Cowboys front was able to trouble the Eagles any time they had to pass.

I am not trying to give the impression that the defense stopped the Eagles, but 24 points was a dream and the ability to use the Eagles punter 5 times, and another drive ended with a takeaway, and yet another ended with a turnover on downs means that the Cowboys were able to get 7 stops of this unstoppable force.

That had to be enough.

Meanwhile, when Dallas brought in Kyle Orton on a 3 year deal worth over $10 million, it was always with this game in mind.  If you lose your QB for 2 months, you are screwed.  But, if you lose him for 2-3 games, do you have a QB who can step in and put you in a position to win a crucial game?

In the case of Orton and Sunday night, it is clear that they believed he was that guy, and on the whole, he performed in a way that indicates that they weren't wrong.  This was a game that looked winnable right until the final throw that was picked off when Orton threw behind Austin on yet another play that ended in the resting arms of an enemy defensive back.

The offense struggled all night because the running game was not as productive as it hinted it might have been early.  And once the running game started getting backed up, then the 3rd and longs invited blitz after blitz, and Orton is certainly not going to hang in the pocket and roll the dice.  Instead, he is getting the ball out quickly - usually to Witten or Murray in the flat, which means well short of the sticks and bring on the punting team more often that not.

But, there is every reason to believe that this was a 50/50 game that was highly winnable in the end.  Like the Kansas City, Denver, Detroit, Minnesota, Giants, Green Bay, and even last week's Washington game, it would come down to making a play for or against after the 2-minute warning of the 4th Quarter.  In those games, they did make enough plays in 3 of the 8 games, where a 4-4 record in those 8 games likely puts them in the playoffs.

That is the margin for error.  Like the ball lost in the lights in 2011 to Miles or the fingertips of Dez landing out of bounds in 2012, the distance between the Cowboys and the NFC East divisional title is no wider than the width of a piece of paper.

And yet it exists.

Which is why we sit here on another Monday morning and wonder what it will take for the Cowboys to break out of this rut.

Surely, there are many that work tirelessly around the clock to get this right.  Many players who have dedicated every moment of their football career to get the Cowboys over this hump.  Many in the organization who believe that the gap can be bridged and soon.

But, for most, the distance between the time this franchise was a NFL power and now is growing and the memories are fading.  The excitement level that was once reserved for their favorite football franchise has been redirected to other outlets and diversions.  The hope is there, but not what it once was.

Meanwhile, Jerry Jones can only assume that the seats will be filled again in 2014, regardless of what he does this offseason.

Because they always are filled.


Decoding Callahan - Week 17 - All the many blitzes the Cowboys face

Kiffin Report - Week 17 - The more they blitzed, the fewer takeaways they found

This is the end of our 2013 Rewind.  I hope you found it enlightening.  And now, within 2 weeks, we start 2014 and wonder what lies ahead.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

'13 Rewind: Week 15 - Romo's Last Stand

Throughout the first few weeks in August, we will carefully review the 2013 season week by week. I do this as a matter of habit during every training camp because the offseason allows too many things to fall from my memory banks and I think as I get older, that issue becomes bigger. But, since I write about this team daily and I forget most of the details, I thought perhaps you would like to take this trip as well. Some of you will, I assume most of you will pass on this endeavor, but the blog space is free so don't say that I didn't offer. 

Here is the Week 15 summary from the Dramatic Win in Washington:

December 24, 2013

I will spare you the speech about how difficult it is to win in the NFL – especially on the road in the division against arguably your most hated rival.  By now, if you read what I write, either you disagree and offer a customary “meh, they are a 3-win team” or you agree with me that horrible things happen on the road for merely every team in pro football.  The Cowboys have had to scratch and claw this year for anything and everything this season and you wouldn’t expect things to change at this point, right?

Clearly, my holiday schedule has burned me this morning, as I planned on writing about the game against the Redskins and leave a look at the Eagles for those who are not snowbound in a Wisconsin town, but the events of Monday are certainly front and center now.  Tony Romo’s status for Game #16 is now a central plot line that must be addressed as well and we will attempt to visit about both this morning before my wife scolds me for not really being on vacation if I am still typing about football.

Let’s start with Sunday.  I did not expect the Cowboys to win on Sunday going into the game because I know that Jim Haslett and his defense has given the Cowboys fits over the last several meetings with his endless array of blitzes and exotic pass rushes.  It isn’t just about the blitzes in numbers, but it is the constant mental gymnastics that are caused with his linebackers rushing from such close starting points that you often have 7 players lined up across the line of scrimmage at the same distance.  Then, many times, 3 will drop off, but you never know which 3 and this is what can allow for free rushers to come through because of assignment confusion and they can still drop up to 7 players in coverage which willl occasionally have a QB throw hit them right in the numbers as he never expected them to be where they are.

If pass protection and blitz pickup is still the number one kryptonite of this offense and Haslett seems to tailor his attack perfectly to upset the Romo/Garrett attack, well then you can understand that once I factor in the ineptitude of the defense – especially when Sean Lee is unavailable – it seemed rather easy to offer some pessimism about this team’s ability to push the season’s stakes ahead to the final week with a road win in Washington.

And, offensively, it did appear that the Redskins troubled the Cowboys throughout the affair with a combo-platter of blitzes and pressures that limited the Cowboys yardage to another pedestrian total that just barely topped 300 yards on the game’s final play.  But, that final play – all 10 yards of it – meant so much that you can understand the team not caring about only 309 yards when they hopped on the plane with 1 victory to show for their hard work.

If you consider that the first TD drive was just 3 yards after a lovely Christmas gift from new and temporary return man Michael Spurlock on his first touch with the organization, you really can see how things were not very good for the offense from that point until the 4th Quarter. 
The 2nd drive ended because a free rusher was bearing down on Romo and he had to unload the ball on 3rd and long.  The 3rd drive was the rare 8 man blitz (something we have not seen in several years of tracking the opponent’s blitz plans for the Cowboys) for a sack that brought on the punt team again.  Dallas then answered the bell in the 4th drive with all heavy lifting performed by Romo, DeMarco Murray for his huge run of 43 yards and then one of the best plays of Romo’s career to stay alive under duress for long enough to deliver a touchdown on a post to Dez Bryant late in the 2nd Quarter.

From there, the opening drive of the 2nd half brought more pressure and shorter time in the pocket for Romo who then hit new fullback Tyler Clutts in the flat for his first opportunity to touch the ball as a Cowboy when a hit from Josh Wilson knocked the ball loose and the ball was turned over.  It was the worst possible way to start the 2nd half by giving Washington life with a short field and they immediately cashed it in for touchdown and the game was back on. 

Then, the very next drive showed promise until a back shoulder fade to Dez appeared to lose all hope when Bryant slipped and the ball that likely shouldn’t have been thrown anyway was now easily received by Cowboys’ nemesis DeAngelo Hall for another giveaway.  This, as expected, was also cashed in for a short-field Touchdown and now a game that the Cowboys were steering all afternoon was flipped with 2 turnovers and 2 touchdowns for Washington. 

They had life, the stadium was rocking, and the Cowboys were in trouble, down 20-14.

And now, with a 2nd half with composure slipping away, the very next drive also would be marked under the failure heading as it included an incompletion on 1st down to Dez against a blitz, an incompletion on 2nd down to Dez against the blitz, and finally a Ryan Kerrigan sack on a blitz that included a stunt and a big hit on Romo to end the drive with a demoralizing punt with the game slipping away. 

This, of course, is where you have to recognize that this is very much a team sport that requires both sides of the ball (and special teams) to pull their own weight and sometimes the weight of the other sides that are underperforming.  The much-maligned defense has been struggling to do anything for the last several weeks and now are in a spot where getting a stop is a rare occasion and worthy of celebrations.  The Redskins, with a steady diet of Kirk Cousins to Pierre Garcon and Alfred Morris on the zone runs were getting way too comfortable against the accommodating Dallas defense.

From the mid point of the 1st Quarter until early 4th, the Redskins had the ball 6 timed and scored on 5 of them with the only unsuccessful drive being a missed throw to Santana Moss in the red zone that Jeff Heath intercepted.  But, all 6 drives either ended with points or with a trip to the red zone.  That is more of the same from Chicago and Green Bay and when JJ Wilcox inexplicably piled on Moss late in the 3rd to extend a Redskins drive that was dead, the unraveling was underway again.  A few plays later, Washington kicks another field goal, and now, with the 4th Quarter left, they are up 23-14 and the heartbeat of the season was certainly lacking strength in Dallas.

But, the 4th Quarter contained many, many talking points of note.  First, on a 3rd and 4 play to start the Cowboys 9th drive (and first that would be successful since the Romo to Bryant TD way back in the 2nd Quarter), Terrance Williams made a wonderful catch before being hit hard by Brandon Meriweather on the sideline to move the chains.  But, the big moment here is that Brian Orakpo injured his groin as he pushed against Tyron Smith with little success and was lost for the remainder of the contest.

Orakpo is a fantastic pass rusher and someone who is not always available due to injury to Haslett, and I found his response to his absence to be interesting.  From that injury until the end of the game, Haslett almost completely stopped blitzing.  In fact, on 9 of the last 11 passes, there was only 4 men rushing and this is where the Cowboys were successful through the air. 

In fact,  Romo went 7 for 11 on those final 2 drives for 125 yards and a touchdown all with an injury that occurred on the very first throw of that sequence.  Romo was clearly hurt and unable to move very well, and yet Haslett stopped blitzing him when his mobility and perhaps his mental resolve to hold the ball and make a play would have been at its worse.  This combination of events really requires explanation from a Redskins’ coaching staff that has befuddled on a regular basis this season.  

The best moment on the drive that ended with a Dan Bailey chip shot was the play to Cole Beasley on 4th and 6 that went for 20 yards.  Beasley has really developed this season for a QB who has a history of only trusting those who he believes has earned it, and Cole clearly has that trust to get opportunities on so many big 3rd and 4th down situations.  Dez and Romo just missed on a replay of the 2nd Quarter Touchdown as the ball could have been better delivered and better received so they settle for the kick and it is 23-17 with 6 minutes to play. 

The defense has had very few moments to scream about in December, but their stops late are worth mentioning.  Alfred Morris scored a touchdown with 3:41 to go in the 3rd Quarter and at the moment had 19 carries for 83 yards for a powerful 4.37 yards per carry.  But, in the 4th Quarter as the Redskins are trying to kill the game with the ground and pound approach, they limited Morris to 5 carries for 5 yards.  This was an unexpected and impressive stand over the final quarter that saved the game for the Cowboys, mostly due to forcing repeated 3rd and longs in the final quarter.  One was extended by JJ Wilcox’s poor judgment, but the others were all longer passes that resulted in one conversion and 2 stops for the Dallas defense that all started with run stops on early downs, with particular credit going to Nick Hayden who has not had much nice said about him this season, but crashed through at a few critical times late.  Orlando Scandrick’s play on Garcon on a 3rd and 6 brought on the punt team and set the table for another do-or-die drive for Romo and his troops.

The best way to stay out of 3rd Downs when you are very poor at converting them is to convert early, and on 2nd and 10 Romo hit Williams for 15 and then on the next 2nd and 10, it was a double move and a huge 51 yard pass to Williams again over the top as Romo and Williams went to work on Josh Wilson again and his slip made it all possible.  From there, a quick pass to Dez Bryant put the ball inside the 5 with a 1st and goal with 2:16 to play. 

1st down showed DeMarco barreling down to the 1.  But, after the 2:00 warning, 2 consecutive plays showed that while the offensive line is improved, they are not bullies and the interior of the Redskins DL, led by Chris Baker and Barry Cofield, pushed back Ron Leary and Travis Frederick on consecutive plays – the 2nd of which caused the incredibly rare 9 yard loss as Murray was perhaps too eager to fight and not accept his moderate loss in exchange for a gigantic loss. 

So, now it was down to one play.  4th and goal from the 10.  Again, Haslett, with the game on the line allows Romo to only face a 4-man rush, perhaps playing the scenario out that he cannot let Dez or Witten find any space on this 1 play that will decide the game.  And, dropping 7 worked well for those targets in the endzone.  Lucky for Romo, it did not account well for DeMarco who was in a check-and-release posture and after chipping Kerrigan on Doug Free, Murray received the ball at about the 4 and beat DeAngelo Hall to the pylon. 

The play, like the 4th down to Beasley earlier, was a play that required perfection or the game and season was over and Romo delivered in a situation that took some intestinal fortitude and determination with the cynical football world watching and waiting for another wave of judgment on his entire body of work. 

It was a very big win and like I said, one I didn’t really expect.  They now set themselves up to play for the entire divisional title in a home matchup with the Eagles that will also allow them to complete a season with divisional sweeps of all others in the NFC East.  The rarest of divisional sweeps that would certainly determine the best team in this rather mediocre division.

However, the complications of Monday make this a bit more difficult to decipher as the status of Romo has been declared “out” by many respected media members (with their inside sources).  Now, I cannot help but be skeptical because I know Romo’s reputation of staying in the action even when in intense pain and because the media assured us Dez Bryant was out last year and he played through it.

I have no idea if Romo can play, but I certainly want him to do exactly that.  Kyle Orton should provide reasonable play, but this team needs Romo to function at their best and he needs this moment as well.

But, with the wildcards of Jerry Jones and Cowboys drama swirling all week, we will have to wait all week to find out who is under center on Sunday night with the world watching Arlington, Texas. 

It certainly is never dull around here.  Why would it start now?


Week 15 - Decoding Callahan 

Week 15 - Kiffin Report 

Next, it ends at home at Philadelphia without Tony Romo...

Friday, August 22, 2014

'13 Rewind: Week 14 - Catastrophic Collapse At Home

Throughout the first few weeks in August, we will carefully review the 2013 season week by week. I do this as a matter of habit during every training camp because the offseason allows too many things to fall from my memory banks and I think as I get older, that issue becomes bigger. But, since I write about this team daily and I forget most of the details, I thought perhaps you would like to take this trip as well. Some of you will, I assume most of you will pass on this endeavor, but the blog space is free so don't say that I didn't offer. 

Here is the Morning After on the Amazing Collapse vs Green Bay:

December 16, 2013

Let's get the positive spin out of the way at the very top here.  The positive spin of such a day like yesterday is that nothing much changed in the pursuit of the NFC East and its divisional title which will still come down completely to whether or not the Cowboys can handle its divisional mates who come with just as much inconsistency and disfunction as they do.  The idea that they only need to beat a Washington team that doesn't beat anybody this season and then prepare for a no-hold-barred, anything-goes showdown in Week 17 for the entire divisional flag against those Philadelphia Eagles in the climate-controlled home confines is still very much alive and well (thanks to the Eagles equally silly loss to a Vikings team that was playing without their best player and isn't very good even when he does play).


Otherwise, there is nothing that anyone wants to hear on a morning like this one that will smooth over the catastrophe that occurred at the Death Star on Sunday afternoon with a ridiculous loss to a Green Bay Packers side that appeared accepting of its fate for much of the day.  The Packers, playing without their machine gun QB for yet another depressing week, had almost no fight and resolve for the entire 1st half of football that was a masterpiece of ease and domination from the Cowboys.  Green Bay was ready to be put out its misery down 26-3 at the half and Dallas might have enjoyed the intermission considering a scenario where Week 17's matchup with Philadelphia might not even matter anymore.

The 332 yards and 26 points in the first half exceeded the yardage output of 8 games from this season and the points output of 5 games.  Meanwhile, Green Bay needed a final play before the half that was merely cosmetic in its yardage compiled to exceed 100 yards in the half and embarrassingly wandered back into its own locker-room to ponder 2014 and its poor fortune with QB health.


This is the NFL.  That isn't to mean that halftime leads of 26-3 dissolve on a routine basis, because they don't.  Teams don't blow leads of that magnitude very often - in fact, according to Scott Kacsmar, the NFL has only blown 3 home leads of this size since 1999.  3 times, of which the Cowboys have authored 2 of the 3 with Jason Garrett and Tony Romo at the helm.  That's right.  The Cowboys have done it twice in the last 3 seasons with this loss and the home loss to Detroit back in 2011 (when they enjoyed a 27-3 lead early in the 3rd Quarter before ultimately losing).

Realizing that the margin for error in both of those seasons is a single win separating a divisional title from another season on the outside of the playoffs, those facts alone might be enough to get many coaches fired under the "fireable offenses" bylaws that circulate around professional football.

We can get to the discussion of how close the Jason Garrett era is to ending in the next 14 days where it will either be put to bed or it will happen, as I am now convinced that the next 2 weeks decide his job future 100%.  This loss is unpardonable on the heels of the disaster in Chicago and considering the way this team has a history of playing just well enough to stay alive in the race until the end and just poor enough to spit the bit at the moment of truth.

The easy narratives are something I always cringe at.  I don't like the anchors looking at each other, shrugging, and wondering why this always happens to Tony Romo and the Cowboys and why December is so difficult for them to navigate as if they are some victims of a curse or a magical spell that when the calendar turns they are hopelessly futile.  I like to dig deeper and have logical explanations that seem to make more sense to very complicated questions without the most simplistic answers being applied:

"They choke."

"The Pressure got to them again."

I don't like any of those explanations.  They don't consider 100 different nuanced factors that bring this team to its knees at this time of year - every single year.  They don't look at the attrition that then takes us down the trails of poor drafts, even poorer salary cap management, and the diseased ways of Jerry Jones running an organization straight into the ground while coordinating art work, underwear emporiums, and monster truck rallies at his temple constructed unto himself.

Instead, it puts the blame on Tony Romo and Jason Garrett.

And today, I may not like those easy narratives, but much like last year in Washington, I cannot battle them with a clean conscience.  Because they are seemingly spot on.

Yes, there are many other things that go into what makes a football team good.  Yes, this thing is hopelessly diseased and the necessary changes will not be made because the man with all the money doesn't want to make changes that take away his favorite toy.  But, no, there is no real way to make this week's catastrophe about Jerry.  At least, directly.

This loss, as painful and ridiculous as it truly was, must go to those who coordinate the decisions made by the offense.  And since we cannot decipher whether Tony Romo is in charge of Jason Garrett or Garrett is in charge of Romo, we will, in this space, split the blame right down the middle for the insane game management of the 2nd half of yesterday's game where they played as if they were needing more points.

The reason I feel that I look to those two - the two easiest targets, admittedly, but sometimes the easiest targets are the correct ones - is that the defense is the defense.  Yes, it is poor, but it is consistently poor and nothing can help that lot, especially on Sundays where Sean Lee isn't available to minimize the ridiculousness.  To ask the defense to handle its business is asking your toddler to get a job.  It would be nice if he would help pay the bills, but evidence shows you are wasting your time on that front.  Such is life with the Cowboys defense these days.

But, the offense?  They are capable of the highest highs.  They have near perfect health and fantastic resources that allow them to show their might when they are on their game.  And for most of yesterday, they were very much on their game.  Explosive plays, success in run and pass.  Romo at 250 yards at the half, DeMarco at 93 on the ground, and Dez at 102.  All at the half!

And yet, in the 2nd half, when the game clearly called for the Cowboys to shorten the contest with each snap, and to understand that their defense did not suddenly turn into the Doomsday squad of domination, the Cowboys kept looking for kill shots - despite being up 3 scores.

The offense ran 30 plays in the 2nd half, almost half with double-digit leads, and yet, they did not seem to grasp the concept of shortening the game.  Why did they stop running the ball late in the 3rd Quarter?  Nobody really knows.

They ran 7 plays in the 2nd half on the ground.  In order, they gained: 5, 1, 6, 6, 5, 5, and 4.  That is 32 yards on 7 carries for over 4.5 yards per carry.  If the Packers stop you on the ground, then they stop you.  But, Green Bay never did.  There were only 2 runs the entire game that were unsuccessful (1 in each half) and yet, the Cowboys stopped running the ball despite averaging 7.5 yards a carry over the entire game.

Why would you stop?  Why would you do something riskier when there was no reason to do it?  Why would you risk stopping the clock, lengthening the game, or even worse, giving Green Bay the ball back with a short field if you make a mistake?

During this run with Garrett/Romo at the helm of the Cowboys franchise, there have been a group of games that have been lost because Romo made a very poor decision/throw at just the wrong time and another group of games that have been lost because the coach didn't seem to grasp the concepts of game management.  But, this one was a great example of shared responsibility between the two where putting it all on either one would be unfair to the other's culpability.

Because the Cowboys obliged Green Bay in lengthening the game (they had one possession with 3 pass plays run off just 1:09 late in the 3rd Quarter, with the time elapsing only because the Cowboys kept the clock running after a sack) and continued to pass the ball, there was life on the other sideline in a game they surely already had in the loss column.  This simply must fall to Garrett.  They start a possession at their own 15, throw 3 times, punt from the back of the end zone and give Green Bay the ball nearly in the red zone to make it a game again.  Yes, his QB has the power to make adjustments, but you simply must get in his ear and if necessary, remind him of Detroit 2011 or other blown lead debacles and just start playing the clock.

But, they didn't.  And then, because the defense began resembling the defense, the game started getting interesting again.  How, 6 days after a game where they never forced a punt, Dallas could forget that they generally cannot stop anyone with their patchwork defense is, again, a clear demonstration that their head coach might not be right for this job.

By the time James Starks ran in to make it 29-24 with 12:47 left, you could sense the feeling of dread that took over the stadium.

From there, Dallas had to figure out how to get more points, because now, 29 was not going to be enough.  And here is where they barely avoided a costly interception when a Romo pass was ruled an interception by Tramon Williams on the field but over-ruled on replay when the tip of the ball touched the ground giving Dallas 2nd life.  7 plays later - all of them passes - the ball was in the end zone again with a fantastic catch by Dez Bryant who managed to get both feet in bounds when it appeared nearly impossible.  36-24 with 7:55 to go.  This lead is safe, right?  Well, actually, this also reminded us of 2011 - this time Week 13 in the home game against the Giants when a Dez Bryant TD gave the Cowboys a 34-22 lead with 5:41 to go.

That game, like this one, now had a win probability that was almost completely on Dallas.  For it to go wrong, the opponent would have to win the next 4 possessions.  On the 2 offensive possessions, they would need touchdowns - even a field goal would end the game.  And, on the 2 defensive possessions, they would need stops - 0 points.  And, like when the Giants went 4 for 4 in December of 2011, the Packers went 4 for 4 in December of 2013.

First, a Green Bay drive - that featured multiple runs to Eddie Lacy - cut the score to 36-31 on a James Jones TD with 4:17 to play.  Then, the Cowboys 11th drive of the day (having scored on 7 of the first 10 drives) is the one you will never forget.  Playing a Green Bay defense that pushed all 11 defenders to within 6 yards of the line of scrimmage, Romo saw passing opportunities.  And normally, you can understand his logic.  11 up mean that there is no safety over the top, and one reception can go for 80 yards - just like in the Detroit game earlier this year.  But, one false move and the clock stops or worse, you lose possession.

Deep shot to Dez was open, but the ball was under thrown for an incompletion.  2nd Down was another sack after Romo was able to stay alive, but nobody broke open down the field.  Now, it is 3rd and 12 and there is way too much time left.  So, they elect to throw the ball here, on a brilliant slant to Dez who gets 13 yards and keeps the clock running for a first down down under 3 minutes.  One detail that seemed small at the time, but turned out to be big was that Dez looked like he cramped up on the play and needed to miss a few snaps to be stretched out on the sideline.

Then, a Murray run sets up a 2nd and 6.  Green Bay again shows 11 up close to the line.  The Cowboys have a prepackaged play which is supposed to be a zone right to Murray which will, at worst, cause Green Bay to use its final timeout and at best get a 1st Down and kill the game.  Instead, because of no safeties deep, Romo switches to a 1 on 1 battle to Miles Austin (remember where Dez was?) on the backside.  Why?  Because he assumed the run wasn't going anywhere and subconsciously knew what happens if they punt with 2:00 to go against a Packers offense that had 4 touchdowns on 4 possessions in that half.  I am not saying he was right to make this decision, but if you look at it from that perspective, it at least is understandable logic.

So, Romo opts to a pass on a play where nobody but Austin and Romo know it is a pass, and as Romo is supposed to be throwing the ball, Austin's slow release opens on the slant just as an unblocked Clay Matthews arrives on Romo's lap.  Romo amazingly eludes him, but, now the play is off schedule and Romo regathers and throws late and behind Austin.  This brings the speedy Sam Shields back into the play and before you can blink, the ball has been turned over at the worst possible minute.

This is where things get murky.  Yes, Romo opted out of a run play, but only because the play is designed to give the QB the responsibility to diagnose the defense first.  If this happened at any other portion of the game, it is called running the offense.  But, at that point, you need to know how vital clock management is.  You need to realize that two runs take the ball to 2:00 at least.  But, if you punt at 2:00, does Green Bay still score from their own 20?

The real issue is the throw was poor and missed where you simply cannot miss.  A veteran QB, burned so many times with early down interceptions that seem unnecessary, just could not do that.  The interception was then, of course, quickly converted into another Eddie Lacy touchdown, and now Dallas is down 37-36, but still has all kinds of time and even a timeout to go get in Dan Bailey's range which seems to be anywhere these days.

Finally, as if his critics wrote the script, on the final drive, Romo obliges with a 2nd and 1 interception that was first ruled incomplete, but then - as instant replay giveth and taketh away - the same Tramon Williams was awarded his takeaway and the game was over.

Jason Garrett and Tony Romo will always be joined at the hip when we look back at this era of Cowboys football.  And rightfully so in this case.  They both shared deeply in very poor game management and help aid the full meltdown that cost Dallas an important game.

Meanwhile, after the game, Garrett uncharacteristically did not protect his QB to the media.  This can be described as the scramble for the available life jackets and boats that always occur when people know their time is short.

They can still save themselves, and Romo, by virtue of his contract that was unnecessarily given last spring, is assured to be here in 2014.  But, for Garrett, after this inexcusable loss, the writing seems very much on the wall.

Win the NFC East or else.


Decoding Callahan - Week 14 - The #1 Ranked Running Game & Romo's Poor Decision

Kiffin Report - Week 14 - Matt Flynn against the Cowboys blitzing idiocy

Tomorrow, we focus on the shining moment in Washington for Christmas...

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The League's Worst Blitzing Defense

One important issue we attempt to address in this blog space is the idea that not everything we hear and think we know about football is able to be seen in the numbers.

As it pertains to Cowboys defense, I would point no further back than last December when the Cowboys - known for poor Decembers - had one of the worst final months of the season in memory.

So, in something I just reviewed for our "13 Rewind" series, the Chicago game came along.  Where for another week, the Cowboys got to play an opponent without their starting QB (this was a major theme in 2013 during the final half of the season) and for another week were absolutely skewered by their inability to stop them.

This time, it was 490 yards surrendered to the Bears (celebrate: not 500!) and their backup QB Josh McCown who later signed a fantastic contract with Tampa Bay, partly thanks to this evening.

If you are a bit fuzzy on what happened next, it was a most bizarre week of panic and spin coming from on high at Valley Ranch.  The team's owner and general manager made one of his many weekly media appearances to show his grasp on the situation.  It was, as usual, incredible.  He sounded like the dude on the next bar stool over:
“We just need to take more risks,” Jones said. “In a more conservative approach like Monday, the results are going to be the same, so we might as well try to somehow get more turnovers.”
Logical football observational analysis has told us for decades that if the QB has too much time, we must blitz.  Then, when we blitz, good things happen.  So, take a bad defense and blitz more, and presto!  Improvements, right?

Unless, you follow (or run!) the Dallas Cowboys.  Then, you should know that the 2013 Dallas Cowboys were the WORST STATISTICAL BLITZING TEAM IN THE RECORDED HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE.

That is right, they surrendered an unheard of and obscene QB rating when blitzing of 117.5 which makes them tied for worst all time with the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles.  But, since they were tied on rating, I figured the tie-breaker for such a dubious distinction had to be that the 2013 Cowboys decided to blitz nearly 50 more times than the 2012 Eagles.  This should tell you that in the final season of Andy Reid, at least the Eagles figured out their were awful at this and stopped doing it.  Not the Cowboys, though.  Dallas blitzed more and more as the season went along.  It is as if they did not have internet access at Valley Ranch and were not aware of how poor they were at it - even though they were over 30 points worse than the league average of 85.7 QB Rating against the blitz.

But, the GM and his coaches still decided that the best way to improve a lousy situation was to make it worse?  This is one of the most confusing discussions about Cowboys football 2013.  Here is the blitzing by week from a defensive staff that traditionally doesn't blitz (you know, because they don't believe in it).  

One of the pillars of the Tampa 2 defense is based on a pass rush that can be generated with just 4 rush men getting home.  From there, you have 7 in coverage and can do a number of exotic things in coverage, because you are defending the field with volume.  The zone/man hybrid options are endless, and more than anything, it speaks to the idea that if you don't have world class safeties cleaning up all of the messes in the secondary, you are better off try to use more men to cover than to rush.

Does this lead to a QB having all day to pick you apart?  Well, yes, that can happen.  But, what happens just as much or more is a coverage sack because there is nowhere to throw and you allow your rushers that extra second to get home because he couldn't find his man.

Now, I can definitely understand why this might be a controversial stance, because it isn't like the Cowboys were great when they weren't blitzing.  In fact, if you have read the piece from the Weekend when we reviewed their place in the rankings, you know that they were pretty bad against the league QB's regardless of what defense they were in.  This, cries out for addressing your personnel in the offseason to fix this defense, not tinkering with the scheme, by the way.  

But, overall, the defense is only 12% worse than league average.  But, when they blitz?  37% worse than league average.  I feel like we need the kids sitting around the table in the commercial to ask which is better, 12% or 37%?

Now, admittedly, we are talking about shades of grey as it pertains to how much worse are the Cowboys than league average?  We all aspire to a day when we are talking about topics in which they are much better than the league and choosing from great choices.  But, that is why on draft day, we wonder about the wisdom of throwing more resources at the offensive line when Calvin Pryor and every other safety in a deep safety draft is on the board when the Cowboys pick.  

Could the Cowboys have internal solutions to this issue?  We are led to believe that JJ Wilcox has made great strides, but we will remain unconvinced until it is proven on Sundays.  

Incidentally, if you remain unconvinced about the Cowboys and the blitz, I took the liberty to run the numbers for the last 4 years combined (the Jason Garrett era).  They weren't just dead last in 2013.  This would remove the scheme/coordinator issues and pretty much focus on the idea that the Cowboys don't pay safeties since the Roy Williams experience burned them so badly.  If there is a position on the roster that they have tried to get by with retreads, unknowns, and bargains, it would seem to be safety in the post Williams/Woodson world.  

Well, here are the 2010-2013 NFL rankings for blitzing the opponents:

Rank Team Attempts Opp Pass Rating
32. Dallas 620 107.3
31. Jacksonville 519 95.6
30. New England 590 91.9
29. Oakland 742 91.9
28. Minnesota 555 91.5
27. Detroit 421 90.1
3. Tennessee 644 73.7
2. Seattle 608 72.9
1. Chicago 556 68.4

There is a lot to look at here.  First, on the list of bad blitzing teams, somehow the Cowboys do it more than all of them (most by a large margin) but Oakland.  Ah yes, Oakland also seems like a team that might not run the numbers very often.

Meanwhile, there is Chicago as the very best team in using the blitz.  The team that the Cowboys are attempting to replicate with scheme and coach.  Should we note that they are doing way better in results while blitzing way less frequently?

As we have always said, blitzing as a luxury is a great weapon.  Blitzing as a necessity will get you destroyed.  And with a very impressive margin between the Cowboys and the next worst team, it is safe to say they have been destroyed.  

'13 Rewind: Week 13 - Annihilated On Monday Night

Throughout the first few weeks in August, we will carefully review the 2013 season week by week. I do this as a matter of habit during every training camp because the offseason allows too many things to fall from my memory banks and I think as I get older, that issue becomes bigger. But, since I write about this team daily and I forget most of the details, I thought perhaps you would like to take this trip as well. Some of you will, I assume most of you will pass on this endeavor, but the blog space is free so don't say that I didn't offer. 

Here is the Morning after the Morning After in Chicago:

December 11, 2013

The defense betrayed the Cowboys on Monday night in Chicago at levels that on one hand seem historic for their absurdities, and on the other hand resemble exactly the level of sub-standard play that we saw in New Orleans, Detroit, and of course, against Denver.  

If we consider 360 yards to be a normal day and 400 yards to be a great day, then 475 is off the charts, right?  Well, with the Bears going for 490, this is the 6th time in 2013 that the team has allowed at least 475, or just as many times as the franchise had allowed 475+ from 2006-2012 combined.  

Now, we can go on and on about how Monte Kiffin has allowed the sport to pass him by (which is the easy narrative for those coaches with too much gray, but often times is unfair), or we can go on and on about the injuries that have made this defense implode yet again.  Instead, I choose to look at the bigger picture which has been written about year after year in this space.  

This team fails in December for one primary and simple reason: The roster doesn't contain the quality personnel that is required to sustain the assaults of a 16-game campaign in the NFL. 
Think about it: When does the team fail? December. In a 4-month season, which month would best reveal your depth and quality down the roster that can compensate for fatigue and injuries? December. The truth is that the Cowboys have enough talent on the top of their roster to compete with some of the best teams in the league. Romo, Ware, Witten, Austin, Ratliff are a very solid "Top 5". Bryant, Lee, Murray, Smith, and Jenkins are a reasonable 6-10 on a roster. But, then the drop-off begins on the roster. And if the season was just 8-10 games long, they would likely be able to hang in there. Any Cowboys historian will confirm that the team certainly gets to Thanksgiving in great shape nearly every season. So, what changes? Is it really that turning the calendar to the month of December is what makes a magical spell fall over Romo and the team where they can no longer compete? 
Good teams in the NFL have quality from 1-10, but also from 11-53, too. When fatigue strikes Jay Ratliff, they have a player behind him who can bridge the gap. If Ware is being double-teamed, someone else can rise up. When the line is under siege, a solid veteran can do a reasonable job and protect his QB. The good teams have enough quality on their roster that they can construct a solid team effort for the regular season. Sure, they count on their stars to perform, but beyond that, there are starters and reserves that never find a magazine cover that do their job admirably. 
And then I spent a paragraph 2 years ago on the defense.  Just take out Rob Ryan's name and put in Monte Kiffin's if you want to enjoy the irony of this all:

And, then there is the defense. A change of coordinators and schemes disguised the truth for a period of time. But in the end, we see the truth again: The personnel on the defense has some top-side talent (Ware, Ratliff, and Lee) but not enough to compensate for a unit that has weaknesses in many other spots. Putting tape on a shot-gun wound will cause many to blame Rob Ryan, but I would love to see what coordinator could make sense of what he was given. No offseason. No upgrades. No help from the draft. No expenditures. Just take the worst defense in franchise history and fix it with your magical formula. Good luck, Rob. 

Yes, that is right.  2010 was the worst defense in franchise history.  Then, in 2011, the defense and offensive lines were exposed late due to the players who were left because of the "injury epidemic" that hit.

Here is a passage from what I spent time on after the 2012 season.  The theme is to fortify your defense so that you are not relying on "street free agents" late in the year ever again:

Remember that in 2012, the Dallas Cowboys signed an exceedingly troubling number of street free agents and inserted many of them directly into their lineup.  Charlie Peprah, Ernie Sims, Vince Agnew, Sterling Moore, and Brady Poppinga were all players who were completely unemployed in pro football who were all signed and put on the field by the Cowboys because of their lack of depth.  All teams have injuries, but when you are putting street free agents into your lineup, that speaks loudly that you have not fortified your roster with capable backups who are ready for an opportunity.  The object of the offseason is to find players who can be proper backups and play when called upon.  Then, you have practice squad call-ups replace injured players, not veterans who are out of work being pulled in during November.  It is both cost-effective and football smart, to only draw from your own organization for your needs that arise.  Then, you don't have to cram a playbook into their head and teach them your system.  You also don't have to pay veteran minimums and bypass your own talent. 
Feel free to insert the names of Nick Hayden, George Selvie, Everette Brown, Corvey Irvin, and Jarius Wynn if you would like up there on the list of this year's street free agents.  Everette Brown was actually opening up a yogurt store when the Cowboys called.  I admire the business plan, but this speaks to the real issues of organizational depth.

Wait a minute.  I thought this year had a historic number of injuries.  But, after 2010, 2011, and 2012, we wrote the same things about the coordinator, the injuries, and the street free agents?

Actually, if you consider the absurdity of Jerry Jones telling us all in April about how his defensive line is a position of strength, then you see how the miscalculations of the season are just more of the same.

Jones said, “In no way do I think [Jay] Ratliff has injury issues. He did last year but that was pretty unique. I think [DeMarcus] Ware’s an exception. Spencer and these guys are young 30-year-olds. Don’t get me wrong, I’m interested in long term but I’m real interested in what’s happening in the next 24-36 months. That’s really what you ought to be looking at.”
We feel like defensive line is a position of strength for us
That quote is from the April 26 edition of the Dallas Morning News and in about 15 seconds he said that Jay Ratliff has no injury issues, and that the defensive line is a position of strength.  Then, to prove it wasn't rhetoric, they used exactly 0 picks on strengthening a defensive line that we all knew was a position of considerable weakness given their poor play in 2012 and the fact that the entire new scheme was predicated on getting consistent pass rushes from your front 4.  If you do not get consistent pass rushes with your front 4, then even Kiffin will tell you that his scheme does not fit well.

This is all why I have a hard time forgetting the past when looking at the present.  It is dangerous in my business to assume that because things are always a certain way, then that must mean that things will never change.  I have said here a number of times that I do believe the Cowboys are in a much better space personnel-wise than they were a few seasons back.  I thought the combination of Jerry Jones and Wade Phillips set this franchise back a long, long ways.  The new combination of Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett is better, and in some ways much better.  But, that doesn't mean that things are fixed or that things are going to get fixed.

It simply means that to turn all of our angst to Monte Kiffin is to forget about 2010, 2011, and 2012 and to fall for the shell game of Cowboys football.  Each year, they promise to serve you up a new victim to get mad at and therefore we can continue to address the symptoms but never the disease.

Kiffin this year.  Rob Ryan last year.  Rob Ryan's scheme the year before.  But never the actual issues which continue to be paying for wasteful drafts, horrible "all your eggs in 1 basket" trade ideas (I am looking at you, Roy Williams, and you, Morris Claiborne) and salary cap mismanagement that leaves this team with a 1-deep depth chart and roster when the powers in the league seem to have a 2-deep.

Then, we can get mad again at Jason Garrett and Tony Romo and Monte Kiffin and Jeff Heath for why this team is where it is - which is getting humiliated on national TV again.

I was planning on writing today about how the offense is getting off too easily in this particular chapter of Cowboys football.  For yet another year, the offense has enjoyed decent health and with the depth they received from nearly monopolizing the entire 2013 draft, they have had more than enough weapons to not have convenient excuses ready.  And that is why I must tell you that I don't share many's opinion about the offense not needing to absorb some blame for their role in this.

I promise I have talked to too many Cowboys fans who have told me "we scored 28 in Chicago, that should be good enough to win a game!"

Please.  The offense scored 28 on technicalities which include 14 meaningless points in the 4th Quarter where both teams just wanted to get out of town.  They were down 42-14 and while the defense was doing no favors, the offense had 7 drives in the first 3 Quarters (when the game was actually a game) and only 2 of them went anywhere and possessed the ball for more than 2:03.  So, if your defense can't get a stop and can't catch their breath, the worst thing the offense can possibly do is throw 3 straight incompletions and send the tired and thin defense right back on the field.  29 minutes of possession for Chicago and 16 minutes for the Cowboys demonstrates that the offense is doing the defense no favors whatsoever.

And, then, in a fantasy football world where Tony Romo threw for 3 Touchdowns and a passer rating of 109, it is easy to think he played well enough to win.  But, I would heartily disagree with those sentiments as well.  He passed for 95 yards before the Cowboys were down 42-14 and could not afford to miss on throws in a few key spots including a crucial miss to Dez Bryant on a 3rd Down where points can cut the lead to 27-21 late in the 3rd Quarter.

Remember those yardage totals up at the top of the page?  400 is a great day, 360 is about average, and anything less than 325 is a failure?  The Cowboys' offense has 1 day of 400 yards this season (Denver) and 3 games of 360 (Denver, Rams, and at Eagles).  Dallas amassed 328 yards of offense in Chicago after Kyle Orton tacked on 75 yards to what was barely 250 with 4 minutes to go, and the other sub 325 yard games?  At Kansas City, At San Diego, at New York, at Detroit, Washington and At New Orleans.  Sense a trend here?

This team is built with smoke and mirrors on large parts of their defense, and huge money at QB, WR, and TE, with many premium picks all around.  They were supposed to be led by their offense with opportunistic defensive turnover moments that puts them in a position to win.

And yet, they put 2 drives out of 6 (the 7th was a knee at halftime) on the board and barely 250 yards against a poor and battered Chicago defense and people want to say the offense is blameless?  Let's be serious.

To whom much is given, much is to be expected, and the Cowboys offense has been given everything and their production has been unacceptable and that needs to change post haste.  The good news is they are much better at home.  And they can play 3 of their next 4 in Arlington if they keep winning.  The bad news is that eventually, they are going to have to go on the road again and it will be cold and windy and the offense looks hopeless in those situations, but let us all be so lucky as to have to worry about a January trip to Seattle.

This column feels like an obituary, but the news is still good.  The Cowboys are at 7-6 and I still feel like 9-7 wins the division.  I think they will win the NFC East by just winning their final 2 home games and that would have to be considered a successful year from just about any angle.  Get in the playoffs and give yourself a home game and a chance.

But, for this franchise to move forward, they are going to have to stop kidding themselves and address a roster that still lacks for real depth and sustainability as games 11-16 reveal your true ability to survive attrition.

And that requires leadership at the top of the organization to stop playing shell games and start being honest with the man in the mirror or we can do this same nonsensical exercise in 2014.

I know which of those two scenarios seems more likely to me.


Decoding Callahan - Week 13 - Fullback, 3rd Downs, and Protection Issues

Kiffin Report - Week 13 - Jerry wants blitzes, but the Cowboys can't blitz!

Tomorrow, the historic collapse to Green Bay.