Sunday, September 25, 2016

Grading Week 3

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/09/25/grading-cowboys-offense-thrives-must-win-game-bears

Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket host Bob Sturm grades the Dallas Cowboys in their win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday night.

OFFENSE: A- 

This offense rolled up a massive day that easily went over 400 yards, converted a majority of 3rd downs, and punched every last red-zone drive into the end zone for a touchdown. Dak Prescott was again solid through the air, and now the offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott was able to survive a night without Tyron Smith yet still ground and pound throughout the evening, averaging about five yards per carry. If not for a missed field goal and a fumble by Terrance Williams, it is reasonable to assume this offense was going to put up 40 points - without Tony Romo and with relative ease.

DEFENSE: C+ 


The effectiveness of the defense is often dependent on what you are asked to do and who you are required to stop. On this occasion, they were seldom stressed by the hapless Bears attack, which, given the lack of a consistent pass rush, was probably fortunate. The defensive secondary (without Orlando Scandrick) had a very solid game with several broken up passes. They simply must get their pass rush going, but the work against the run and on third down was quite good and they found two vital takeaways. They certainly were satisfactory, surrendering some cosmetic yardage but remaining rather untested overall on the evening.

COACHING: B 

 Overall, the Cowboys were in total control from an offensive standpoint, and this must be credited to the coaching staff for successfully integrating a rookie QB and a rookie RB into what looks like a very competitive group. The scheme is altered from a Romo playbook, and they have put Prescott in a position to be successful. They called a game that followed the blueprint of eating the clock while moving the chains. Defensively, they were not going to gamble against Brian Hoyer and a Chicago offense that lacked any sort of confidence or swagger. It was the proper game plan that was well executed.

OVERALL: B 

 This was a game that absolutely needed to go into the win column for this team to remain competitive when Romo can return. They were big favorites against a battered opponent and had to establish the ability to win at home. Not only did they do all of that, but they made it look very easy again, putting the Bears well behind in the second quarter. They seem to have found some rhythm and continuity, and they will only gain more confidence heading into San Francisco to play another team that appears beatable. There were a lot of solid signs from this outing.

Friday, September 23, 2016

DMN - Mailbag Sept 23 -

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/09/23/sturms-weekly-cowboys-mailbag-demarcus-lawrence-mo-claiborne-plenty-tony-romo


Let's do a mailbag!
Before we start, a thought on the Bears. I spent a few hours on them last night and cannot remember a less interesting roster than what Chicago has right now. Yes, they are beat up already, but even at full strength, you are trying to talk yourself into the concept of them being good -- rather than the reality.
In other words, you cannot lose to these guys on Sunday. There are must-win games, and then there are "you will regret this the rest of the year if you let this bunch take a win out of your building" games.
You really should pound them. And I realize the Cowboys are flawed. But, man, Chicago has a ways to go before they get out of picking in the top 10 in the draft.  
On to the questions:
Q:  Why do you think the Cowboys can't win at home? Jerry didn't buy a 1.3 billion dollar playpen for losses, I have to think...
This is in reference to what I wrote yesterday about the Cowboys issues with winning at AT&T Stadium and how it gets turned around.
People wanted solutions and I did not present many because there are no real trends that stick out. Obviously, Tony Romo's attendance record is at the heart of the issue. But then again, that seems like barking at the moon. If the solution to everything is "keep Tony Romo healthy," then we are all wasting a lot of time analyzing the team and, also, maybe quarterback wins are real stats.

Also, Cowboys backup quarterbacks have won games on the road and not at home (for whatever reason), which is a bit more difficult to explain, but the past two trips to Washington were wins by Matt Cassel and Dak Prescott (the only win either of them has ever engineered, so far -- although I bet Prescott gets his first home win on Sunday).
To be honest, it seems to me that there is a real aggressiveness element to the whole story. I think they play to win on the road more often than they do at home, but that requires a fair amount of looking at statistics from a slanted point of view. What I mean is that most play-calling is situation-dependent, therefore, to look at yards or run/pass ratios and offer conclusions can be dangerous.
Romo's record at home since 2009 is 25-18 in the regular season. That is well above 47 percent. In fact, it is above 58 percent. And he is 26-19 on the road since 2009. That is 57 percent. Pretty much identical in either place. So, it might all come down to the backups being 2-12 at home and 5-7 on the road to explain the home form versus the road form. And Romo's body.
Q: Has Jason Garrett turned the corner from being a conservative coach to a gambler or was last week just an exception?
The coaching staff did some very interesting things last week that made us think they are done frustrating us with their extreme conservatism. That includes the incredibly uncharacteristic onside-kick ambush in the third quarter. The man who gave us "you don't lay up at the Masters" has not always lived his quote.  
But, I will file this under the "I will need to see more to call this a trend" heading until we see him coaching ruthlessly more often. I think Rod Marinelli also is a guy who fits Garrett's sensibilities very well and we know Scott Linehan does. Let's continue to monitor and home that Coach Conservative breaks his mold, but unfortunately, he is becoming an older dog here in Year 7.
Q: I know everybody is hyping up Morris Claiborne to having this great year but he doesn't have any interceptions and hasn't jumped off the screen much... You think he's doing as good as everybody says?
I think Mo Claiborne is playing some solid football. Not perfect, but much better than what we have seen. He just needs to stay on the field. He has to play. He just has never played as much as he needs to and cornerbacks are all about snap counts. They have to stay on the field or their value is zero.
Look at the snap count difference between Claiborne and Brandon Carr. They both got here in 2012, so they have both had the same number of available snaps. Carr has been in 4,305 plays (all of them) and Claiborne has played in 2,319. That is roughly 54 percent of Carr's total. I have always defended Carr and never defended Claiborne based on this simple idea. Carr may not pick off enough passes and stop enough plays, but he battles and battles for three hours every Sunday. Claiborne has not proven he can be counted upon.
So, we never get to a technique discussion. One is present and one is not. That is why I don't get carried away when Claiborne plays two good games. Call me when he plays a full season (at any level of quality) to prove he is worthy of a monetary investment moving forward.

Q: Is this defensive line good enough to where when Demarcus Lawrence comes back in a couple weeks, he takes it to a decent level or is it a lost cause?
I made the claim in August that DeMarcus Lawrence is going to come back in Week 5 and still get eight sacks. I am that impressed with his progress and how he looked in camp. This may look silly in three months, but it is what I believe. I think he is terrific and I think he will make a significant difference. That said, they may also want to take their resources in the next draft and another blue-chip edge rusher, because they appear to be short on some talent.
Q: At what point do you give up on Terrance Williams and give Brice Butler a shot? He cost us the first game then disappeared in the second!
I think there is a sign they are headed that way. The weird issue is that they are both pretty much the same age and both in the final year of their deals.
But they need one of the two to step into the Alvin Harper role this year and be the deep threat. They can both do it -- Williams has done it way more -- but the underneath stuff and Dez are squared away. Now they need the big-play guy on the other side for the two or three shots a game. That is the one thing we have not seen yet -- the up-top shot to WR2.
Now, the other thing that showed up Sunday is the S01 package. This has no running backs, one tight end and four wide receivers. This includes both Butler and Williams with Bryant and Beasley. I think it was primarily a second-down look and something that really spreads out the defense. Let's see if they go back to that this week.
Q: Do you think fumbling is an issue that can be corrected in a weeks time or does it progressively get better? Will it be an issue for Zeke against Chicago?
Ezekiel Elliott has no fumble history. I don't think it is the start of one, but you can expect that his next several opponents are going to challenge him now that he has shown it can be stripped. He needs a good game soon or the criticism will increase. The Cowboys were promised the moon with this kid and the first month has not been that.
Q: Scandrick seems to be hurt again, will he ever be back to being the guy that got that big deal or is that too much to ask? ...
Q: Anthony Brown had a pick 6 in preseason, how confident are you in his ability to go out and fill in Scandrick's shoes?
Sort of the same topic here, so let's combine these. Orlando Scandrick has meant a lot to this group, so there is no doubt there is concern about how "right" he is right now. And the prospect of a sixth-rounder just stepping in and filling his shoes seems a bit crazy. I might consider sitting Scandrick for a few weeks to get him healthy if that is the issue. Chicago-San Francisco is the time to do that, because the slot threats are coming afterward.
I like Anthony Brown, but he is several levels down from Scandrick for now. Let's continue to monitor the progress of both players as we go.
Q: What's going on with Rolando McClain, did we ever let him go? and why haven't we let go of Randy Gregory yet?
I don't think we ever see McClain again. I think this is more of a sensitive substance issue that is likely just going to be a headline one day in the random future and that will be that. Gregory is a bit more vague and I won't pretend to have any idea, other than his issues have proven to be far more complex than they imagined when they spent a second-rounder on him.
Q: Do you anticipate the new guy we signed, Ryan Davis, to be active this week and is he a good player that will make a difference?
I do. And given how they played four defensive tackles at the end of the game, I would think he should be able to make some difference. As decent as the D-line looked in that game for me, I will say that I hoped for more in the first few weeks from offseason signings Benson Mayowa and Cedric Thornton. On one hand, the Cowboys are shorthanded and need help, but then the new guys can't get on the field, either? It is all a bit confusing from a personnel standpoint, although I know they are working around Tyrone Crawford and Terrell McClain's performances. Also, Maliek Collins is starting to pop.
Q: Set aside Romo's health and ability to make it through an NFL game/season. Even if he is healthy when he comes back, how rusty is he going to be? He has not played much football in the last 2 years, so I would imagine he will be really rusty for at least a few games. Is the last game he played really well the playoff game in Green Bay?

I am not worried about rust, but I am worried about the first few big hits he takes. I assume so is everyone else. He has been knocked out on about three of the past five big hits he has taken. That won't work in the NFL, where every quarterback gets hit hard twice a game. I think he will be mentally sharp, but I also don't believe the body has many big shots left to handle.
Q: Have we seen enough to know that Prescott's likely floor is an average NFL quarterback? I know sometimes the great ones can struggle early. But are there examples of QBs who have gotten off to a good/great start only to end up failing? (Only QB I can think of in that category is RGIII....)
I did not take the time to find similar cases, but I think Dak Prescott can start in this league. I have already seen plenty to indicate he is a very worthy prospect moving forward, even if Romo does regain his spot for the future.
But, I imagine, things may get interesting around here at the quarterback position in the next several months.Let's do a mailbag!
Before we start, a thought on the Bears. I spent a few hours on them last night and cannot remember a less interesting roster than what Chicago has right now. Yes, they are beat up already, but even at full strength, you are trying to talk yourself into the concept of them being good -- rather than the reality.
In other words, you cannot lose to these guys on Sunday. There are must-win games, and then there are "you will regret this the rest of the year if you let this bunch take a win out of your building" games.
You really should pound them. And I realize the Cowboys are flawed. But, man, Chicago has a ways to go before they get out of picking in the top 10 in the draft.  
On to the questions:
Q:  Why do you think the Cowboys can't win at home? Jerry didn't buy a 1.3 billion dollar playpen for losses, I have to think...
This is in reference to what I wrote yesterday about the Cowboys issues with winning at AT&T Stadium and how it gets turned around.
People wanted solutions and I did not present many because there are no real trends that stick out. Obviously, Tony Romo's attendance record is at the heart of the issue. But then again, that seems like barking at the moon. If the solution to everything is "keep Tony Romo healthy," then we are all wasting a lot of time analyzing the team and, also, maybe quarterback wins are real stats.

Also, Cowboys backup quarterbacks have won games on the road and not at home (for whatever reason), which is a bit more difficult to explain, but the past two trips to Washington were wins by Matt Cassel and Dak Prescott (the only win either of them has ever engineered, so far -- although I bet Prescott gets his first home win on Sunday).
To be honest, it seems to me that there is a real aggressiveness element to the whole story. I think they play to win on the road more often than they do at home, but that requires a fair amount of looking at statistics from a slanted point of view. What I mean is that most play-calling is situation-dependent, therefore, to look at yards or run/pass ratios and offer conclusions can be dangerous.
Romo's record at home since 2009 is 25-18 in the regular season. That is well above 47 percent. In fact, it is above 58 percent. And he is 26-19 on the road since 2009. That is 57 percent. Pretty much identical in either place. So, it might all come down to the backups being 2-12 at home and 5-7 on the road to explain the home form versus the road form. And Romo's body.
Q: Has Jason Garrett turned the corner from being a conservative coach to a gambler or was last week just an exception?
The coaching staff did some very interesting things last week that made us think they are done frustrating us with their extreme conservatism. That includes the incredibly uncharacteristic onside-kick ambush in the third quarter. The man who gave us "you don't lay up at the Masters" has not always lived his quote.  
But, I will file this under the "I will need to see more to call this a trend" heading until we see him coaching ruthlessly more often. I think Rod Marinelli also is a guy who fits Garrett's sensibilities very well and we know Scott Linehan does. Let's continue to monitor and home that Coach Conservative breaks his mold, but unfortunately, he is becoming an older dog here in Year 7.
Q: I know everybody is hyping up Morris Claiborne to having this great year but he doesn't have any interceptions and hasn't jumped off the screen much... You think he's doing as good as everybody says?
I think Mo Claiborne is playing some solid football. Not perfect, but much better than what we have seen. He just needs to stay on the field. He has to play. He just has never played as much as he needs to and cornerbacks are all about snap counts. They have to stay on the field or their value is zero.
Look at the snap count difference between Claiborne and Brandon Carr. They both got here in 2012, so they have both had the same number of available snaps. Carr has been in 4,305 plays (all of them) and Claiborne has played in 2,319. That is roughly 54 percent of Carr's total. I have always defended Carr and never defended Claiborne based on this simple idea. Carr may not pick off enough passes and stop enough plays, but he battles and battles for three hours every Sunday. Claiborne has not proven he can be counted upon.
So, we never get to a technique discussion. One is present and one is not. That is why I don't get carried away when Claiborne plays two good games. Call me when he plays a full season (at any level of quality) to prove he is worthy of a monetary investment moving forward.

Q: Is this defensive line good enough to where when Demarcus Lawrence comes back in a couple weeks, he takes it to a decent level or is it a lost cause?
I made the claim in August that DeMarcus Lawrence is going to come back in Week 5 and still get eight sacks. I am that impressed with his progress and how he looked in camp. This may look silly in three months, but it is what I believe. I think he is terrific and I think he will make a significant difference. That said, they may also want to take their resources in the next draft and another blue-chip edge rusher, because they appear to be short on some talent.
Q: At what point do you give up on Terrance Williams and give Brice Butler a shot? He cost us the first game then disappeared in the second!
I think there is a sign they are headed that way. The weird issue is that they are both pretty much the same age and both in the final year of their deals.
But they need one of the two to step into the Alvin Harper role this year and be the deep threat. They can both do it -- Williams has done it way more -- but the underneath stuff and Dez are squared away. Now they need the big-play guy on the other side for the two or three shots a game. That is the one thing we have not seen yet -- the up-top shot to WR2.
Now, the other thing that showed up Sunday is the S01 package. This has no running backs, one tight end and four wide receivers. This includes both Butler and Williams with Bryant and Beasley. I think it was primarily a second-down look and something that really spreads out the defense. Let's see if they go back to that this week.
Q: Do you think fumbling is an issue that can be corrected in a weeks time or does it progressively get better? Will it be an issue for Zeke against Chicago?
Ezekiel Elliott has no fumble history. I don't think it is the start of one, but you can expect that his next several opponents are going to challenge him now that he has shown it can be stripped. He needs a good game soon or the criticism will increase. The Cowboys were promised the moon with this kid and the first month has not been that.
Q: Scandrick seems to be hurt again, will he ever be back to being the guy that got that big deal or is that too much to ask? ...
Q: Anthony Brown had a pick 6 in preseason, how confident are you in his ability to go out and fill in Scandrick's shoes?
Sort of the same topic here, so let's combine these. Orlando Scandrick has meant a lot to this group, so there is no doubt there is concern about how "right" he is right now. And the prospect of a sixth-rounder just stepping in and filling his shoes seems a bit crazy. I might consider sitting Scandrick for a few weeks to get him healthy if that is the issue. Chicago-San Francisco is the time to do that, because the slot threats are coming afterward.
I like Anthony Brown, but he is several levels down from Scandrick for now. Let's continue to monitor the progress of both players as we go.
Q: What's going on with Rolando McClain, did we ever let him go? and why haven't we let go of Randy Gregory yet?
I don't think we ever see McClain again. I think this is more of a sensitive substance issue that is likely just going to be a headline one day in the random future and that will be that. Gregory is a bit more vague and I won't pretend to have any idea, other than his issues have proven to be far more complex than they imagined when they spent a second-rounder on him.
Q: Do you anticipate the new guy we signed, Ryan Davis, to be active this week and is he a good player that will make a difference?
I do. And given how they played four defensive tackles at the end of the game, I would think he should be able to make some difference. As decent as the D-line looked in that game for me, I will say that I hoped for more in the first few weeks from offseason signings Benson Mayowa and Cedric Thornton. On one hand, the Cowboys are shorthanded and need help, but then the new guys can't get on the field, either? It is all a bit confusing from a personnel standpoint, although I know they are working around Tyrone Crawford and Terrell McClain's performances. Also, Maliek Collins is starting to pop.
Q: Set aside Romo's health and ability to make it through an NFL game/season. Even if he is healthy when he comes back, how rusty is he going to be? He has not played much football in the last 2 years, so I would imagine he will be really rusty for at least a few games. Is the last game he played really well the playoff game in Green Bay?

I am not worried about rust, but I am worried about the first few big hits he takes. I assume so is everyone else. He has been knocked out on about three of the past five big hits he has taken. That won't work in the NFL, where every quarterback gets hit hard twice a game. I think he will be mentally sharp, but I also don't believe the body has many big shots left to handle.
Q: Have we seen enough to know that Prescott's likely floor is an average NFL quarterback? I know sometimes the great ones can struggle early. But are there examples of QBs who have gotten off to a good/great start only to end up failing? (Only QB I can think of in that category is RGIII....)
I did not take the time to find similar cases, but I think Dak Prescott can start in this league. I have already seen plenty to indicate he is a very worthy prospect moving forward, even if Romo does regain his spot for the future.
But, I imagine, things may get interesting around here at the quarterback position in the next several months.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Cowboys True Home Field Disadvantage

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/09/22/sturm-cowboys-true-home-field-disadvantage

The Cowboys have a real problem in their path to becoming a better team and a more legitimate contender in the NFC. Well, they actually have several problems, but I believe this is the elephant in the room.
It's the stadium. The thing that visiting announcers declare to be the finest building that ever housed a football game.
That could very well be true. AT&T Stadium could be easy and enticing to visit, comfortable and convenient and all of those things. It has artwork, for crying out loud. What else could you ever want?


The problem is pretty obvious, really. The problem is that they are trying to be a contender in this league without a home-field advantage. Could you imagine what Seattle or Green Bay would be like if they did not reap the benefits of their home fields? Both are significantly better teams at home. I submit that is what we are looking at here with the Cowboys in their new (not so new, anymore) stadium. 
Of course, you are no doubt thinking that I write this today because of that little issue of the bright setting-sun blinding the Cowboys receivers at least two or three times late in the game in the season opener against the Giants. Oh, there is so much more evidence than that.
The Cowboys have now played 57 games at home and 57 games on the road since 2009 and are significantly better on the road (54% winning percentage) than they are at home (47%). In fact, the Cowboys have one of the better winning percentages of any team in the NFL on the road during that stretch. They trail only New England, Green Bay, Denver, and New Orleans during that period. Those are  all teams that have won Super Bowls in the last eight years (one of them in this very building). There is almost nothing wrong with the Cowboys ability to win away from Arlington.
The real problem exists at home. Here is the entire list of teams that have lost more home games than the Dallas Cowboys since this new stadium opened: Cleveland, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Miami, Oakland, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, and Washington. Those teams have made the playoffs twice in that entire stretch -- both Washington.
In other words, they play like a heavyweight on the road and a powder-puff at home. Which, frankly, makes no sense.


Oh, there are theories that the stadium hypnotizes the fans into a state of quietness with the amazing big-screen HDTV or that the prices mean the fans who actually could impact the noise level are too high in those cheaper seats and therefore the affluent crowd down below offer no advantage at all. One of my beliefs is that the team is coached far more conservatively at home with decision-making and aggressiveness. I think I could present a case that they actually attack more on the road than they do in front of their faithful.
But, regardless of why, this must get sorted out quickly. You could try curtains, but you also might try tactical adjustments that attempt to turn this from a neutral field into a true advantageous home. 
What does it profit a football team to have the most beautiful stadium in the league, but to have one of the worst home field advantages inside it? Only three teams in the league have more road wins than home wins since 2009, and nobody has a bigger discrepancy in their form than the Cowboys.
Maybe the real solution is to ask the good voters of Arlington to build a better version with more home-field considerations in a few years.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Morning After: Cowboys 27, Redskins 23

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/09/19/sturms-morning-prescott-appears-future

Words are tough to come by when talking about this kid. He has now been on public display for about six weeks and we are still waiting for him to show us he can't handle any of this. 
He is a rookie. 
He is a QB. 
He is starting for a team that has expectations this year. 
And he isn't letting them down.
In fact, if you would like to make a list for me on players who have done more to help this Dallas Cowboys team win than Dak Prescott so far, I am anxious to see what that list has on it. Prescott continues to dazzle and his play on Sunday was perhaps far more solid and repeatable than spectacular and jaw-dropping, but isn't that the point?
He looks like he does this all of the time. And as he made his first start away from home yesterday in Washington, we were still on guard that around the next corner there could be adversity waiting. He is a rookie QB making his first divisional road start against last year's champions, so this is going to be when he learns some tough lessons.
And then he does all of that. He makes plays, he moves the chains, he puts the ball in the end zone, he makes proper decisions, and he engineers a game-winning drive.
It appears Mr. Prescott has some qualities worth expanding upon. 
As someone who thought he played remarkably well in Week 1, you can imagine that I was even more pleased with his performance yesterday. The guy puts the ball where it needs to be on a repeated basis. He makes the right read, delivers the ball on time and gives his guys a chance to make a play after the catch. He worked the middle of the field and punished Washington for their coverage decisions as they pertained to Dez Bryant. He completed about 3 of every 4 passes and did so at a pretty impressive 10 yards per attempt. And, he stayed out of trouble all day.
Yes, he missed a few things on Sunday. He did not throw a perfect game. There were a few opportunities that might have escaped his vision at times when he was under duress. But give me the last Cowboys QB who was not named Romo who could drive the length of the field in the fourth quarter of a game and punch it in for a go-ahead touchdown. Then, tell me about that guy's rookie season - especially around Week 2.
If it isn't clear what I am getting at by now, let me continue with a few other thoughts on Prescott's start.
We have now seen him play 255 snaps as a Cowboy: 109 in the preseason and then 146 more in regular season. Through it all, he really has only flirted with an interception a few times. He takes care of the ball. He plays it safe as a default setting. Somehow, that is used against him at times, but I have never met anyone who really wants their rookie QB to show up with no discerning ability to know when to throw it into triple coverage. You must be a trustworthy QB before you earn the trust to take over the offense completely. 
And seeing him survey the action yesterday and gain enough trust from the coaching staff to run a 4th down in the first quarter to Geoff Swaim off a play-action fake was just unreal. 
You can tap the brakes all you want. I am going to call it what it really is. Phenomenal. This kid has played phenomenally well to put his team in position to win the first two games. And I have no doubt he can put them in position to compete all season long if he has to. 
The reason I feel that way goes all the way back to the 255 snaps number. That is about the number of snaps that teams need to get a "book" on someone. Three to four complete games of a player or team is what any defensive coaching staff want to see. Now, I am fudging the numbers a bit, because we usually would not allow preseason to be part of those numbers, but I am going to go out on a limb and say that the Giants and Redskins both used the Rams, Dolphins and Seahawks preseason games to get a read on what Prescott can and can't do. 
Defenses now understand what he can do, and now they're trying to figure out how to slow him down. The Cowboys have scored over and over again with him at the helm in pretty much all five of these games he has played in. And, if you were to ask me how many of these games was he supplemented with a dominating rushing attack, I think a fair answer may be that he really hasn't at all. 
Through two games, the Cowboys have run the ball on 60 different occasions. Forty-one of those have gone to the No. 4 overall pick, Ezekiel Elliott, and all 60 plays combined have accumulated 203 yards.  I don't know about you, but I would like to think that 60 plays gets me closer to 300, and the staggering reality is that the running game has supplied just 3.4 yards per carry. It has not been close to what was advertised: that this team would be able to bulldoze its way down the field repeatedly, with opponents waving white flags. That was a silly offseason idea that just doesn't materialize very often in this league. The NFL doesn't have teams run to championships; teams use the run game as part of a bigger mosaic. One that always includes a QB that can make sound decisions and then execute his duties with precision and timing. 
Dak Prescott is doing all of that.
In fact, if the 2016 NFL Draft were held today, I think we all see that Prescott goes higher than just about anyone else in the draft - including Zeke. I know it is crazy and I know I am contradicting what I saw from 200 of his Mississippi State snaps from 2015, but we have gathered new information. He has proven he is capable of playing well in the NFL and in Dallas.
Anytime this topic comes up, the self-loathing factions of Cowboys fandom as well as all of those who enjoy the Cowboys failing are quick to speak up and mock any declarations of positivity around here. I get it. You have seen dynasties, and this is a team that struggled to get to 1-1 against equally mediocre teams. This defense is spotty. The "all-time great" offensive line and running game are not hitting on even half of the cylinders right now. 
But, amidst all of this and the normal circus routine from the owner/general manager is a sparkling gem. If you have a rookie QB who can play, you might have the key to the next period of competing for playoffs and beyond. 
I have spent the last few years feeling like we were approaching the final act of Tony Romo's career. I am not in a big hurry to get there, but the realities cannot be ignored.His body has been battered and used up in so many ways. He may have more to give, but I think the train has left the station in terms of ever assuming the QB situation is settled with #9 under center for years at a time. 
To replace a guy like Romo should take some massive assets. Perhaps assets that need to go elsewhere. The irony of replacing an undrafted free agent with another QB who was taken after the 4th round seems like lightning striking twice.
Look, Prescott has a long, long way to go. 
But, did you see him standing tall in the pocket, surveying the field while his pass protection battled around him? Did you see his eyes stay up as guys are hanging on him? Did you see him know to take off and run for the end zone when nothing else looked appealing? Did you see him know to take the sack rather than throw the ball up for grabs?
I'm sorry, but there is nothing wrong with admitting this guy has already surpassed your wildest dreams. You take a guy that low and he is supposed to be hidden from the field for the first few years and then attempt to be a backup QB for a few more years. 
That's it.
So, this is already casino money on Prescott. He has won a game and put the team in position to win the other. The upgrade at the position from 2015 and really every other Romo-backup is obvious. They believe he can win. And so does he.
Yes, there are many other things we could discuss about this win in Washington. We could talk about the defense standing tall and forcing field goals and getting stops when it mattered most. We could talk about Alfred Morris and Justin Durant, two low-price veterans factoring in big or the defense getting an end-zone takeaway that meant the world in that game.
But, we have all week to get to that.
I want to entertain the idea that the Cowboys have found a QB worth talking about to consider the future after Romo.   
There are no guarantees where this journey leads, but I feel like I have seen the future, and it is worth being excited about. Don't be self-loathing. It is OK to dream that you have found the next guy.  
I'm not saying he is Russell Wilson, I swear.  But, he has a chance to be very good, it appears.  And that is the No. 1 reason why you should be smiling today.

Friday, September 16, 2016

DMN - Mailbag Sept 16 - Special Teams

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/09/16/sturms-cowboys-mailbag-special-teams-role-call-dak

On we go to Week 2, where the Cowboys are packing for a Noon kick in Washington.  Divisional games are all around the NFL as they have made it a point to start and end the season with these divisional battles.  It is enjoyable, for sure.  But, wow, if you lose both of them to the Giants and Redskins right off the bat, the stress level will go way up.
The Cowboys have slim margins throughout as they have to do many things right to emerge victorious.  I am not sure this is a team that can win too many weeks when they don't play very well.  They need, as their coach will say, to be solid in "all three phases."  Of all of the things he says, most don't shed much light on anything.  But, his acknowledgement about the special teams phase is vital is something I have always appreciated.  
Special teams are not that important - until they are.  And while that sounds silly, it is the margin for so many teams.  A few years ago, a mediocre 2014 Eagles team was able to disguise their mediocrity because their special teams were getting them so many points.  In the end, they were found out, but they rode that all the way into December that year.  Meanwhile, the 2010 San Diego Chargers were just the opposite:  A playoff team on offense and defense, but a few blocks here and there and the Chargers did not make the playoffs because their special teams unit cost them a few games.  In this league, you cannot spare a few games.  
That is why on certain mailbag days, I will supplement your content with a look at the various elements of the Cowboys Special Teams under their ST coach Rich Bisaccia.  Unlike college football, this requires all sorts of mental gymnastics, because NFL teams only have 46 available on game day.  When you deduct almost every starter from the choices, then deduct almost all of the linemen from the options, all of the QBs, and then all of the players that just aren't very good at running and tackling, Bisaccia has a list of about 15 players with which to build his 4 kick and cover teams.  Field Goal and Field Goal block teams can use linemen and it is easier, but covering and returning kicks require the end of your roster.  
The object of special teams is simple:  Don't be a catastrophe.  Every coach would accept league average.  Just don't get us beat.  Now, if you can find a great special teams, then your team might erase a lot of other weaknesses.  It could be a beautiful thing.
The Cowboys haven't really been particularly special on special teams since I have been tracking them, but they also have gone several years since they have been a real problem.
Today, I wanted to share a look at the kick teams.  Soon, I will do the same with the punt teams, but not today.
Here first, is the coverage team:

Safeties on the perimeter, Church has the position called "L1" and Wilcox is over on "R1".  Jones and Brown are L2 and R2 to keep speed on the edges, and then you start stacking linebackers and tight ends on the inside for L3, L4, L5 and R3, R4, R5.  Sometimes, they put safeties inside next to the kicker, too.  This time, Jeff Heath has L5.  Usually, the L5/R5 and L2/R2 are the first to arrive, with L1/R1 playing safety, and the 2nd wave behind the 1st, is L4/R4 and L3/R3.
Now, the return team:
Here is the kick return team.  We should point out that the NFL is slowly taking out the kickoff with rules that limit how often you actually need these teams, but for now, we proceed.  
The first line is often going to be linebackers/tight ends/full backs/safeties.  Then, the Cowboys like having a diamond behind the first line of five.  Behind the diamond are the last two, #45 Rod Smith will be the lead blocker for #13 Lucky Whitehead who is barely in the picture.  
These teams change constantly, due to injuries.  I imagine when the bullets are flying, Bisaccia is trying to keep his group intact, given that any injury on offense or defense could have immediate implications to the punt team he has to run out.  Everyone has to know every scenario to keep from catastrophes during the game.  In college, you have a huge roster to account for this, but on Sundays, he has no roster and little time to come up with quick solutions.
For now, the spine of his special teams appears to be:  Kyle Wilber (21 special teams snaps in week 1), Andrew Gachkar (18), Jeff Heath (18), Rod Smith (18), Damien Wilson (18), Byron Jones (15), and Keith Smith (13).  
How is this useful information for you?  Well, of course, you want to know who to credit or debit for big special teams moments, but you also want to know which names down the roster provide added value on gameday and thus keep from being scratched or even released when they need roster room. It is very basic job security for a lot of those names above - provided they do a great job.
Now, on to your emails:
Do you think this new guy, Ryan Davis will bring a spark to the pass rush?
I sure hope so.  I am sure you have seen how this guy - who I am guessing most had never heard of - is instantly the Cowboys career sack leader on the roster with his 11.5 career sacks.  Wow.  He is 27 years old and has played plenty in this league.  The Cowboys do a decent job of targeting names and jumping on them on the waiver wire when they come available at this position.  George Selvie and David Irving both come to mind as guys they see fit their profile (high motor, active players) who can cause commotion.  I have been asked if he is a player this weekend, and while I have no idea, I suggest that he is only here to help in September for now.  So, I would not be surprised if they run solution possibilities right out there in these first four games.  
Would you change the offense at all to take advantage of more Dak skills, like maybe running the read option?
Oh, yes.  And I expect that is already their plan.  They are trying to get him prepared for so many scenarios that they are likely trying to keep things simple, but I expect that will be a real weapon this year before it is all over.  His one "keep" on Sunday was pretty effective.  But, more than anything, it is the threat that he will keep it that is most valuable.  It should keep defenses honest.
At what point would you hit the panic button on Zeke? Is it not alarming that he couldn't produce behind this offensive line?
It surely wasn't a great debut by any stretch and you already know my consternation on the idea of investing so heavily in him.  But, let's slow before we get too carried away on the debuts of Elliott or even Dez Bryant.  It was one game.  Let's chat when it gets to four or five games.  By then, either they have demonstrated their quality or we are panicking.  
People scoff at Week 2 being a "must-win" but isn't it when you consider not just starting 0-2 but being two back in the division?
All along, I was thinking 2-2 in the first four was vital.  I was planning on splitting the first two divisional games and then splitting the next two with the Bears and 49ers.  0-2 would not be ideal, but it also would not be the end of the year.  So, yeah, winning on Sunday would be a real great plan.  But, it will also be a very angry Redskins team that was humiliated on Monday Night in that same stadium.  That should make one optimistic, but it always makes me nervous when you have to play a humiliated opponent.  
Alfred Morris has been the ideal teammate and is producing in limited action. You think he's earned the right to more carries, especially against his former team?
I think Morris is quite an impressive man.  He really says all the right things and then just plays his tail off.  I would be quick to give him a heavy workload on Sunday as it will mean a lot to him to show his old team that they definitely made a poor choice.  The odd thing is, I kind of think they did the right thing.  You see, Morris as a #2 is great.  Morris as a #1 is probably not great.  I think Washington realized that, too.  The real mystery is why Washington really didn't do anything at RB and now they look like they have nothing there.
Is Dak being too safe right now? Seemed like in the preseason when he had nothing to lose he would let it rip to Dez but now he seems a little scared...
I really don't have much concern about this.  His job is to lead drives down the field and then make throws for points.  If Beasley holds his touchdown and Dez holds his, Dak fever is off the charts and the Cowboys scored 27 or so in their opener.  From what I have seen from Prescott, I would not call him "captain check-down" at all.  He did his part.  Now, as he gets more comfortable and as the coaches make adjustments (please, please), getting the ball to Dez in better spots is the goal.
Do you think the Cowboys have enough depth in the secondary? Seemed like once Scandrick went out for a bit last week things fell apart. Is Anthony Brown any good?
I like what I have seen from Brown, but I will grant you that I haven't seen much in a Cowboys uniform yet. I think they have decent depth, but they desperately need Scandrick to be Scandrick again for this to work.  He was victimized badly by Odell Beckham on Sunday and that was quite distressing.  Let's see how he is able to rally from what we are hearing is a small hamstring issue.  If he isn't special this year, things might start to fall apart in that secondary.  Brown seems capable, but they need better than that right now. 
The Cowboys have made a habit of restructuring contracts (and drafting them with an eye toward that possibility). Is this an advisable/sustainable way to allocate resources or does it risk too much dead money if players break down or underperform?
No.  It is not advisable or sustainable.  I don't like it and no team does more of it than Dallas.  In fact, I have even heard them admit that they write contracts knowing they are going to restructure the deal.  Other teams try to go the other way and find ways to do a deal where they pay a ton in Year 1 to make the end of the deal nothing.   But, the Cowboys always have this giant boulder rolling at them - take Tony Romo's deal - and they run to stay ahead of it, like Indiana Jones.  
I don't think that anyone keeps record of this, but I would love to see the league's restructuring standings in the last decade.  It would be a real shock to me if anyone did it more than Dallas does.  This type of business cost them DeMarcus Ware and it always keeps them in a financially tight spot where they never seem to catch up.
Ok, that is the mailbag this week.  Enjoy the game.  The Cowboys can definitely win it, but this one should be another tight game with 5 minutes to go.  Let's hope they make a few plays down the stretch this time.