Your Almost-On Schedule Dallas Cowboys 2011 Prospectus (Offense)

"…when you get fucked that badly, it’s your own goddamn fucking fault and it makes you look like a fucking shithead."

Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon)

Despite high hopes for the Cowboys’ 2010 season, they got fucked. Badly. And it was their own fault – particularly the fault of Jerry Jones’ roster management. Jones takes a lot of deserved grief for his performance as a GM since purchasing the team in ’89, but the 2010 edition of the Cowboys didn’t lack for talent. They found it in every part of the draft – Demarcus Ware (1st round), Jason Witten (3rd round), Jay Ratliff (7th round), Tony Romo (UDFA) and Miles Austin (UDFA) are among the very best players at their positions in the league. They are difference makers, and you win with difference makers. However, you have to surround those difference makers with solid performers and effective blue-collar guys, and even the most talented players can’t succeed if there are non-NFL guys in their units who can be absolutely exploited by opponents.

Jerry’s lack of attention to that aspect of roster management led to the Cowboys rolling out two non-NFL guys in 2010 – Marc Colombo at right tackle and Alan Ball at safety. Marc Colombo turned in some fine seasons for the Cowboys and Alan Ball has shown signs of being a mildly passable nickel/dime corner, but neither was able to execute even the rudiments of their position in 2010. They were so poor that on many plays they completely invalidated the efforts of everyone else on their side of the ball, allowing devastating sacks and deep strikes time and again. And they were allowed to fail, and fail, and fail again, with no player on the roster capable of stepping in and stopping the bleeding. Those two spots weren’t the sole downfall for the Cowboys in 2010 – the starting corners were awful, Igor Olshansky was invisible, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode continued to infect the team with the Penalty Virus and Marion Barber continued to run like a man who’d been paid rather than a man who wanted to get paid – but they were emblematic of the mid-roster neglect that has derailed the Cowboys too often under Jerry’s watch.

It may have been a year too late, but the Cowboys have addressed most of these problems in one way or another, but will these moves be enough to get the Boys where they want to go? We’ll evaluate the Cowboys’ effort to land their sixth Lombardi trophy, starting out with the offense.

When the Cowboys Run

While advanced statistics have become the currency of baseball discussion over the last several years, their adoption rate in NFL discussions is still trending upwards. The folks at footballoutsiders.com and profootballfocus.com are doing some great work in this area that would no doubt tempt and delight Huckleberry should he turn his gaze from the college game. For me, the most eye-opening advanced statistic I’ve seen regarding the running game in the last several years comes courtesy of KC Joyner, The Football Scientist (who takes on the mind-boggling task of single-handedly watching EVERY SNAP OF EVERY NFL GAME each season and still retains enough sanity to put out some really insightful stuff). He has started to evaluate running backs based on the yards they average each time they get a ‘good blocking’ play (defined as none of the in-line blockers getting beat at the point of attack). The reason he’s taken a shine to this as an evaluative measure is that in his research almost all running backs – from superstars to scrubs – average around 1.5 yards per carry on plays where at least one guy misses his block (one interesting exception to this last year was LaGarrette Blount of the Bucs, who averaged 3.3. yards per carry on bad-blocking runs like he was Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson succeeding even when you picked his play). If a run where four of your five guys beat their man and just one gets whipped is likely doomed to relative failure, you pretty quickly come to appreciate the value of A) eliminating really weak links and B) consistency.

The 2010 Cowboys were plagued by both a constant weak link in the person of a broken-down Marc Colombo at right tackle and a maddening lack of consistency. Leonard Davis was still capable of dominating his man, but all too often he would decide to play high on a snap and get stood up or attempt a late-career Nate Newton-esque ‘lunge and flop like a bull elephant seal fighting for a mate’ block rather than keeping his feet and engaging. Andre Gurode is still one of the most physically powerful centers in the league, but routinely shuts down his brain for maintenance leading to missed assignments at inopportune times. And once Kyle Kosier went down, the Cowboys lost their only interior OL who could consistently pull and be effective blocking on the second level. With all those factors working against them it was no wonder that the Cowboys’ blocking floundered despite heroic efforts from Jason Witten, Doug Free and (in the run game, at least) Martellus Bennett.

Outside of odious play in the secondary, OL woes did more to shoot the wheels off the Cowboys’ season than any other factor. With regards to those ‘good blocking’ plays, the Cowboys managed them just 44% of the time they ran the ball (by way of comparison, the Jets came in first at a fantastic 59%). Change in the trenches was called for, and changes were made – the sheer number of changes swiftly moving from "breath of fresh air" territory to "who the hell are all these guys"-ville for Cowboys fans. Will the new OL faces keying the new-look Cowboy run game be enough to bring comparisons to the dominant Dallas ground attack of the early ‘90s – or at least be enough to pick up a damned 3rd and one?

As the Cowboys played "out with the old, move one of the old over a couple of spots, now in with the new" with the OL this season, the overriding theme was mobility. If the Cowboys are going to recapture ‘90s run game glory they’ll be doing it with a bunch that bears little resemblance to the man-mountain maulers that paved the way for Emmitt. At left tackle the Cowboys made re-signing Doug Free their #1 off-season priority for a reason. He’s an A-grade athlete and combines solid pass-protection with tremendous production in the running game – he is likely the best run-blocking tackle in the league when you factor both in-line power and the ability to be mobile and hit a target five (or sometimes fifty) yards downfield. His bookend will be 20-year old wunderkind right tackle Tyron Smith out of USC, whose talents spurred Jerry Jones to spend a first-round pick on an O-lineman for the first time in his tenure as owner. Through camp and the preseason he’s handled everything not named DeMarcus Ware that’s been thrown at him in both the run and pass game. A hyperextended knee puts his early-season availability in question as of this writing and I sincerely hope he’s not rushed into action before he’s healthy as he is going to be a fun one to watch this year. The backup tackle, former college BBall player Jeremy Parnell, inspires no confidence whatsoever and could swiftly hospitalize Romo if he takes the field for extended snaps.

The interior of the line seen a major overhaul as well, with Kyle Kosier back from injury and making the switch from left to right guard. Kosier’s run-game presence is more predicated on the ability to pull, trap and hit linebackers in space despite his advancing age than it is on rooting 320-pound DTs off the line, though he at least rarely whiffs on run blocks. The genesis (shout-out to Landry Jones!) of this move was to avoid the precarious situation of starting two rookies side-by-side – which brings us to the prospects of rookie guard Bill Nagy. Nagy, a 7th rounder out of Wisconsin who fell in the draft due to injury and limited playing time his senior year, evidently absorbed enough of Paul Chryst’s teachings to impress the Cowboys in camp and win the starting job. He’s physically limited but displays solid Midwestern values like grit, tenacity and low pad level. He managed to not embarrass himself while facing man-mountain NT Antonio Garay in the preseason, so that’s something. Backup David Arkin, a fourth-round rookie out of Missouri State (where he started at tackle for most of his tenure) was also front and center (just left of center at LG, to be precise)after Montrae Holland ate his way out of the job battled injury through the early part of camp. The early read on Arkin is that he’s a battler who may get beat in-line but will likely be punching, kicking at biting the DL as it happens. He’s already displaying good pulling mobility – particularly for a converted OT – and that’s likely to be the strongest part of his game this year should he need to step in for Nagy.

At center, Andre Gurode was jettisoned late in the preseason after refusing to take a paycut. This was possibly the biggest "I don’t know that Garrett is in charge, but he’s sure getting some big input on personnel" moment of the preseason. Gurode was a still-capable veteran and one of the ‘spilled blood’ guys that Jerry loves to reward with inflated contracts and job security regardless of performance (sound familiar to anyone)? However, he also made a ton of mental mistakes that no doubt drove Garrett insane, and was yet another guy to show up to camp overweight and get shown the door before the season began. Taking the reins at center is second year-guy Phil Costa. Costa is built enough like a fire hydrant that dogs are banned from the Cowboys’ practice facility, and his strength has also earned him some cross-training at guard. The staff seemed very high on him throughout training camp and he looked solid in the preseason, so ideally he’ll come close to Gurode’s level of physicality while avoiding Gurode’s mental midgetry and tendency to turn in a circus-like shotgun snap at least once a game.

The Cowboys’ blocking efforts are aided and abetted by one of the best one-two run blocking punches at tight end in NFL history in Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett. Witten needs little introduction as the best all-around tight end in the game, and his best blocking attribute might be his versatility. Not only is he adept at the more ‘traditional’ TE blocking roles – double-teaming the DE to create an edge, combo blocking and heading upfield to lock up a LB, and even taking on DE’s one on one – but he’s frequently lining up in the backfield and not only lead-blocking the first man in the hole but even being assigned to wham-block defensive tackles. When you watch the Cowboys this season, make sure to focus on Witten whenever you can – he’s an absolute joy to watch. His partner in crime, YouTube sensation "Marty B" Bennett, may not be as versatile but his mix of power and athleticism make him the most devastating blocking TE in the league once he’s locked on. Marty B has caught a lot of grief ever since his initial "Hard Knocks" appearance for his lack of attention to detail and frequent mental lapses, but he takes run blocking deadly serious and deserves a ton of credit for his work there.

Let’s pause a moment to take stock. Big and athletic tackles with the ability to move in space, athletic guards who have trouble at the point of attack and a pair of devastating edge blockers at tight end. If that spells "outside running game" to you then I commend you on your football knowledge and your likely dominance at Words With Friends. You’ll see a heavy dose of counters, pulls and tosses from the Boys this year as well as one of Garrett’s favorites where one of the TEs blocks down and the tackle pulls around him to annihilate the first defender he sees. With a set of blocking surfaces geared towards an outside run game, how well is Dallas’ corps of runners set up to succeed in such a scenario?

The RB conversation starts with 2008 first-rounder Felix Jones. Jones has impressed in spots during his NFL career but has also resembled china in a bull closet, ending up on the shelf far too often for Cowboy fans’ liking and failing to match the accomplishments of fellow 2008 running backs like Chris Johnson, Rashard Mendenhall and Ray Rice. After sharing time with an underperforming Marion Barber and Tashard Choice it looks like Jones will be the bell cow this year as 2011 3rd rounder Demarco Murray’s development was hindered by a nearly inevitable completely shocking and unprecedented injury in training camp. Jones has strong straight-line speed, decent but unexceptional shake and performs better in a between-the-tackles role than he’s often given credit for (provided he receives a modicum of decent blocking). His strength is hitting stretch, sweep and toss plays on the edge, however, and those should play a major role in the makeup of the Dallas attack. Backup RB Murray profiles fairly similarly, even down to the injury history, while Tashard Choice tends to be competent in limited action when he’s not coughing up mind-numbingly stupid season-altering fumbles against division rivals.

I’m forecasting an effective if unspectacular run game from the Cowboys this year that will be characterized by more hit-and-miss big plays than consistent five and six yard gainers.

When the Cowboys Throw

As any conversation about a running attack starts with the OL, when you talk about a passing game you begin with the QB. Tony Romo may inspire more diversity of opinion than any other QB in the league, with some pointing to his record as a starter and placement at the very top of the league’s all-time adjusted yards per attempt standings as evidence that he’s an elite QB, while others focus on his sub-par playoff record and high-risk/gunslinger reputation as evidence that he’ll never take the Cowboys where they want to go. I fall more in the former camp than the latter, mainly because I’ve seen an evolution in his play that really began with the Cowboys’ 2009 loss to the Giants in the Jerryworld home opener. After heedless INTs led to a loss despite the Cowboys moving the ball nearly at will, Romo spoke of finally ‘getting it’ when it came to curtailing the more reckless aspects of his play. After a few games’ adjustment period where a cautious Romo kept the offense in neutral, he emerged from the other side as an accurate downfield passer who made much better decisions with the ball and also took much better care of it in the pocket. Since then, Romo has been a true upper-echelon QB – he was one of the league’s top performers in 2009 and the Cowboys’ poor record in 2010 during his starts was much more due to the Penalty Virus and shoddy defense than poor play under center. Roughly two of his seven INTs were not of the volleyball set variety, and the absence of Roy Williams’ shoddy routes and penchant for dropped/popped up passes should help him clean things up even further. When he’s at his best, Romo is one of the league’s most accurate downfield passers and does a great job of moving and sliding to avoid pressure while keeping his eyes downfield. He has the arm to make all the throws and both the accuracy and weapons to pressure a defense at all levels.

Those weapons begin with a terrific pair of wideouts in Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Austin emerged from undrafted obscurity and after toiling as a bottom-of-the-roster special teamer for a few seasons emerged with a fury in 2009, exploding for 250 yards against the Chiefs and not looking back to record a 1300 yard season. He followed up with another 1000 yard effort in 2010 and was off to a strong start in 2011 until Romo went down and his deep ball activities were curtailed by Kitna’s 3-step-drop-and-fire approach (which was the right move given the execrable OL play). Austin is a threat with the ball in his hands and uses his size well in the short passing game, but it’s downfield where he truly thrives. He’s complemented ably by Dez Bryant, who may make the leap to stardom in his second season. Bryant is a physical freak who calls to mind a young Terrell Owens for his ability to make acrobatic grabs downfield and stiffarm DBs to turn hitch routes into 40 yard gains. He’ll see a lot of smoke routes and screens in addition to deeper stuff and may actually lead the team in catches this season if he steals enough targets from Jason Witten. This pair of wideouts is the reason Philly went all out to get Asomugha while making sure to mollify Asante Samuel and keep him around.

The rest of the wide receivers don’t inspire nearly as much confidence, but given Jason Garrett’s fondness for 2-TE sets they may not see the field all that much anyway. Kevin Ogletree is sort of intriguing as a slot receiver and can do some nifty things with the ball in his hands on screens, but the mental/maturity part of his game still has a ways to go. The addition of frequently-broken Laurent Robinson is interesting – on the rare occasions when he’s healthy he can provide a solid downfield threat, and his presence on the outside would allow Austin to operate in the slot where he can be especially dangerous. Michael Irvin reality TV find Jesse Holley and fifth rounder Dwayne Harris both had some moments in the preseason but aren’t likely to contribute anywhere but special teams in 2011.

For all those extra parts, the Cowboys’ third wide receiver is essentially All-Everything TE Jason Witten. In addition to his stellar blocking, Witten is an elite receiving TE who runs tremendous routes and has the best hands on the team. His ability to make sharp cuts gets him open against linebackers over the middle and he has the size/speed combo to be a big headache for safeties going up the seam. Backup TE Marty B has the size, speed and athleticism to be a 50-catch, 700 yard guy in the league but has shown no attention to detail in the pass game from his first Hard Knocks appearance to now. He’ll stone drop a key third down pass like he was put on Earth solely to torment me and tends to be in the wrong place at the wrong time on far too many of his routes.

The Cowboys should have good receiving options out of the backfield, with Felix Jones logging a 48 catch season in 2010 and posing a good threat to catch 60 or more balls this year. The Cowboys may be one of the league’s best screen teams this year and figure to work that aspect of the passing game early and often to blunt pass-rush pressure on a young OL. Demarco Murray is a tremendously polished receiver for a rookie RB and figures to make his biggest contributions as a receiver in his first year.

All in all, if the Cowboys’ new blood on OL helps them solve the missed assignments and right-edge whippings that threatened the safety of their QBs last season, they should have one of the league’s five or six most dynamic passing attacks.

What say you?

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