Monday, June 29, 2009

Jason Witten - Part 2 - Receiving

This is part 2 of my series on Jason Witten. Today I am going to focus on Jason Witten as a receiver. Over the next few days I'll post new parts to this series. I am certain that he is the best tight end in the NFL right now. He may go down as the best tight end in NFL history when his career is over. Hopefully this will open the eyes of anyone who doubts how good this guy is in every way imaginable.

Receiving numbers is what makes a tight end a household name. Well, Jason Witten certainly puts up monster stats when it comes to a tight end. Over the first 6 years of his career Jason has already put up numbers that make him the best tight end the Cowboys have ever had. And that is saying a lot when you have guys like Jay Novacek, Mike Ditka, Billy Joe Dupree and Doug Cosbie to compete with. Here are the numbers that Jason has put up so far, and keep in mind that he is only 27 since he was drafted when he was only 20 coming out of Tennessee as a junior.

Receptions: 429
Yards: 4,935
Touchdowns: 25
Fumbles: 3

Those numbers are pretty amazing and he already ranks 5th all-time in career receptions for the Cowboys. Michael Irvin is first with 750 receptions but Jason will pass that total easily in a few years if he can stay healthy.

Let's look beyond the numbers for a minute to determine what makes Jason Witten such a great pass-catching tight end. First of all, just as he does as a blocker, he works tirelessly to perfect his footwork and defensive recognition. He isn't the fastest or quickest guy on the field so he has to get himself open through technique and intelligence. Really this just boils down to a guy who wants to do the little things right and is willing to work in any way he can to make himself better.

He has earned the trust of his quarterback and that is probably the most important factor to the amazing numbers he is amassing. Tony Romo knows that he can trust Jason to run the right route, make the right reads, and make the tough catch in traffic. He is the security blanket for Tony because Jason is always in the right place and finds a way to get separation from his defender.

Even before Romo became the starting quarterback Jason Witten was already putting up big numbers as a receiver. That is because he has an uncanny ability to find open spaces and get himself away from defenders. Some of that is his size and strength, but most of it just boils down to being the hardest worker on the field. He only runs a 4.7-4.8 40, but he finds a way to get himself behind the defense on seam routes. Little things with footwork and hand checks can do wonders for a receiver in terms of getting himself open and Jason is always working to improve himself in those areas.

The career stat that impresses me the most is that with 429 receptions, Jason has only fumbled 3 times. That is pretty amazing considering that he is usually catching the ball with defenders around him who are ready to lay big hits on him and try to strip the ball. His size and strength certainly play a role in it but he also has the awareness to protect the ball when defenders are near him.

So far I've talked about Jason Witten in terms of technique and statistics, but in my next entry I'll discuss how tough he is. When you see the list of injuries he has played through you will be pretty amazed at the toughness and desire he possesses if you don't already know.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jason Witten - Part 1 - Blocking

This is first part of my series on Jason Witten. Today I am going to focus on Jason Witten as a blocker. Over the next few days I'll post new parts to this series. I am certain that he is the best tight end in the NFL right now. He may go down as the best tight end in NFL history when his career is over. Hopefully this will open the eyes of anyone who doubts how good this guy is in every way imaginable.

If you watch Jason closely during any game you can see how he has worked on his footwork to allow him to get in position to block players who are often bigger and quicker than he is. He is truly a student of the game and his footwork is testament to that. Blocking isn't always who is stronger or faster. It is usually a battle that is won through superior technique. Jason clearly works hard to be a great blocker.

In every game Jason Witten is placed in formations that allow him to be the key blocker on run plays. He has impeccable ability to not only block his man, but then get down field to help turn short gains into big plays. The most obvious example of how good he is run blocking can be seen when the Cowboys motion him into the backfield to be the lead blocker on run plays. He is often asked to seal the end of the line on outside running plays and is almost always able to get the job done.

Another great example of his blocking abilities can be seen on some pass plays. In certain situations the Cowboys ask him to stay in as an extra pass blocker. This sometimes matches him up man-to-man with the best pass rusher from the opposing team. While he may not dominate these players, he very rarely allows his man to apply any pressure to the quarterback. Again, his technique allows him to deal with players who are sometimes athletically superior to him.

On pass plays where other receivers get the ball you can be sure that Jason will be hustling to get into position to help the receiver after the catch. While some guys just loaf around after a teammate catches the ball, Jason is always looking for a way to get involved in the play. He just has the desire to help his team win in any way that he can.

While there are tight ends in the league who do the same thing as blockers, there aren't many who excel at blocking while also being the center of the passing game. In part 2 of this series I'll focus on Jason Witten as a receiver.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jason Witten Is The Best Tight End in the NFL

Not only is he the best tight end in the league, but he is a nice guy and he has quickly become my favorite player of all time. I plan on writing about what makes him the best tight end in the NFL in the next few days, but for now you can enjoy these video highlights. He is a class act and a great player. I wish we had more guys like him playing for the Dallas Cowboys.

T.O. Is the Victim Once Again

Just as he has done in his two previous stops, Terrell Owens is now portraying himself as the victim in his release from the Cowboys. Big surprise. We all saw in his three years with the Cowboys that nothing was ever his fault. In San Francisco it was Jeff Garcia's fault. In Philadelphia it was Donovan McNabb's fault. And now in Dallas it is Tony Romo and Jerry Jones. I sense a trend there. I'm guessing it will be Trent Edwards next.

Just throw him the ball on every play and the Cowboys will win every game, right? Well, they tried forcing him the ball this season and it resulted in interception after interception from Tony Romo. Over one half of Romo's interceptions last season came on passes intended for Terrell Owens. The elite receivers in the league beat press coverage and double coverage regularly, but Owens has lost something over the last few years and he can no longer do it consistently. Don't tell him that because he'll tell you that it is everyone but him. Amazing. Everyone in the world is wrong about him in his warped mind.

The garbage that Owens is spewing while in Dallas this week is exactly why he was run out of town. There is no doubt that the Cowboys will miss him this season, but I am a firm believer that the team gains more than it loses by running him out of town. The worst part of T.O. is the fact that he has a tendency to undermine the leadership of the team. He won't allow any players to become true leaders because he refuses to follow anyone. Younger players see that and, unfortunately, think that T.O.'s behavior is something to be copied. I just hope they got rid of him before he permanently damaged the attitude of any other players on the team.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

We have hit the slowest time in the NFL offseason. Mini-camp is over and the tidbits of information we can get about the Cowboys are few and far between. This is the time of year that is the toughest for me to endure. The season is only 81 days away but right now that feels like forever.

What makes this year harder than the last few years is that we really can't predict what we are going to get from the Cowboys this season. As I have previously mentioned, the team has undergone some major changes this offseason so we really don't know how the newly assembled roster will come together during training camp. The one thing that is safe to say is that there are no more excuses for some of the key members of the team.

There are so many questions that pop in my head I don't know where to start. What will we get out of Roy Williams? Is Tony Romo going to step up and be a vocal leader on and off the field? Can Felix Jones stay healthy? Is Miles Austin ready to be an integral part of the offense? Can Demarcus Ware continue to dominate without Greg Ellis on the other side of the line? Is Sensabaugh the answer at safety? Can Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick take the next step in their development? Does Keith Brooking have a good season left in him? Is Martellus Bennett ready to play a bigger role in the offense? Will the special teams be improved? Can Anthony Spencer keep opposing offenses from doubling Demarcus Ware every play? Is the offensive line going to play better? Will the tackling improve? How can all of the running backs be utilized? Is Bobby Carpenter finally going to get on the field?

There are too many questions to list them all, but there is still a long time to wait before we start to get some real answers. And we won't get an answer to the most important question until January...can this team finally win a playoff game?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Romo Plans to Protect the Ball

During minicamp this week Tony Romo stated several times that he plans to do a better job protecting the ball this season. I hope he sticks to his plan but I also don't want him to think he needs to turn into a "bus driver" and throw the ball away before taking any risks. I would hate to see Romo lose sight of what makes him a great player. I think minimizing his turnovers is definitely a priority as long as it is not done so much that he becomes overly conservative. Romo is a big play quarterback and I hope we continue to see the big plays out of him. He just needs to eliminate the dumb throws where he just throws it into double coverage for no reason and he needs to protect the ball better when there are pass rushers around him in the pocket.

Last offseason Tony Romo tried to emulate what Tom Brady did with his footwork in the pocket. While it seemed like a good change at first, what the change really did was limit his ability to elude pass rushers. He was basically dropping back and standing still in the pocket while making his reads. After the first 4 or 5 games he was back to his old ways of moving around and in some ways it made him better. Staying in the pocket is important but not so much that he goes against his instincts and hurts his big play abilities.

The reason I bring up the Tom Brady example is because I hope that Tony learned his lesson on learning new things from other quarterbacks. He was leaving the pocket too fast at times but he overcorrected the problem and hurt his overall play. It is always good to improve and seek better ways to get the job done, but he can't lose sight of who he is as a player. I hope he continues to improve by studying other quarterbacks but I still want to see his gunslinger mentality on the field.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some Mini-Camp Thoughts

ESPN has fallen in love with the fact that Jason Garrett told Tony Romo that he needs to lose weight. Big deal. We all could see with our own eyes that Romo was overweight at the end of the season. I'm sure part of it could be attributed to his back injury but it needed to be addressed regardless of the reasons. Why is this news? I'm not sure but ESPN loves to make a mountain out of a molehill. I would be willing to bet that there are a lot of players, including quarterbacks, on every team that were told to lose X amount of pounds.

Roy Williams looks leaner and quicker now that his foot is healthy again. I like the fact that he is out there working his butt off every day. All of the scrutiny surrounding his play and what the Cowboys gave up to get him seems to be great motivation for his offseason work. I hope his work can translate into a big 2009 season.

Overall, there is a new found motivation surrounding the team. A lot of players cruised through the offseason last year as if the Super Bowl had already been guaranteed to them. Not this year. The disappointments of last season combined with the roster moves have added intensity and a competitive nature that has been missing ever since the 2007 13-3 campaign.

Some of the injuries are becoming more and more concerning by the day. Miles Austin and Sam Hurd are both working on the side during mini-camp and that is not a good sign after they both battled injuries last season. The Cowboys are counting on these guys to be big contributors and if they can't stay healthy then I would expect a move for a wide receiver before training camp. Felix Jones is out and I am really starting to fear that he is going to be the guy who is explosive when healthy but never seems to be able to get on the field. I hope Felix Jones has a great season in 2009 and quiets my fears but I will be holding my breath every time he touches the ball out of fear for another injury.

The secondary seems loaded with talent suddenly. Gerald Sensabaugh is proving to be quite a steal for the low cost deal the Cowboys gave him. Mike Mickens might be the late round surprise of the entire 2009 NFL draft. And it looks like Mike Jenkins is starting to settle into the role as the starter opposite from Newman. I would love to see Newman and Jenkins outside with Scandrick covering the slot. Things are looking up for the pass defense. The big question mark on defense is now Anthony Spencer and the depth at outside linebacker. We'll have to wait and see how it plays out.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Welcome Back, Matt McBriar!

The news came today that not only was Matt McBriar participating in minicamp practices, but he was back to his old form. Punts were booming off his previously broken foot and that is bigger news for the 2009 Dallas Cowboys than many people realize. As most people still vividly remember, the season took a major turn for the worst in the overtime session of the week 6 Arizona game last season. Everyone remembers that Romo broke his pinkie, but Matt McBriar's injury on the blocked punt was felt for the remainder of the season.

McBriar was on his way to his best season in 2008 before he was injured. He was averaging 49 yards per punt with a net average of 38.8 yards. Sam Paulescu was signed off the street to fill in and did an admirable job, but he was obviously a major downgrade at the position. His net average was 35.2 which wasn't terrible but the more telling statistic was his 41.8 gross average. 7.2 yards per punt doesn't sound like much difference but you also have to consider the trajectory of the ball. McBriar booms the ball high which in turn allows the coverage unit to get down the field to stop the punt returner. Not only was Paulescu shorter with his punts but they were lower and misdirected as well.

I still blame Paulescu as one of the main culprits in the Pittsburgh meltdown because his kicked the ball low and to the wrong side of the field which allowed a huge return late in the 4th quarter of the game. He was signed off the street to fill in for McBriar so we shouldn't have expected much but he should at least be able to punt the ball to the correct side of the field. There is a very good chance that Pittsburgh would have run out of time trying to tie the game up had they been forced to drive the ball down the field rather than starting deep in the Cowboys' end of the field which resulted in a quick score.

I hate rehashing the Pittsburgh game again, but my point is that a punter can make a huge difference in the outcome of not only a game, but the entire season. McBriar's injury cost the Cowboys countless yards in the field position battle and, in my mind, quite possibly a playoff-clinching victory against the eventual Super Bowl champions. A healthy McBriar in 2009 is going to improve the special teams more than anything else this offseason. I am a fan of Joe DeCamillis, but Matt McBriar has power in his leg that you can't coach.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Silence is Golden

After the recent rehash of the T.O. drama and the Pacman Jones talk things suddenly got very quiet in the world of the Dallas Cowboys. The last week actually gave me a chance to recharge my batteries for next season. It is amazing how nice it was to have no drama or rumor/speculation about the team even if it only lasts a week. Maybe this has been what all of the offseason moves have been about. I'm sure a lot of the players, coaches, and front office executives are happy about the new found calm surrounding the team.

Say what you want about cutting the talent that T.O. brought to the field. I can't argue that his talents won't be missed. But you would have to agree that the circus seems to have left town with Terrell Owens. Imagine if T.O.'s VH1 series were being filmed in Dallas. Things would be out of control at this point.

I hope that the new approach the team is taking is going to work. Getting rid of T.O., Greg Ellis and several other players completely changed the structure of the team. I know it is allowing everyone to focus on their jobs a lot more so I have to believe it will help. Time will tell.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Still a Slight Stench from Last Season

Over the last couple of weeks two of the names that I thought would be gone for good have resurfaced for the Dallas Cowboys. Of course I am talking about Terrell Owens and Pacman Jones. The locker room troublemakers from last season just won't go away quietly like I had hoped they would. I guess I was dreaming to think you could cut the cord with guys like that and think you wouldn't hear from them again.

The T.O. blame game played out just as you would expect but I thought maybe he would go away quietly this time since he claimed to have such a good relationship with his quarterback. As usual with #81 he left the team and is now bashing his quarterback, his coaches and the owner. It is always everyone else's fault when it comes to the T.O. circus. He is just proving that the Cowboys were right to ship him out. Thank goodness Tony Romo is smart enough to stay out of a war of words with T.O. He has caused enough distraction to the team and it is time to move on.

The Pacman release was announced in January but he is still hanging around Dallas and doing just enough to keep his name in the press. Jerry Jones didn't do anyone any favors by mentioning his name over the weekend. There is no way that you can justify bringing that embarrassment back under any circumstances. He proved he was unreliable off the field and he was not an enough of an impact player on the field to justify dealing with his problems.

I know this stuff is going to fade over time but it is really aggravating that months after these guys were released we are still forced to hear talk about them. They will both be forever linked with the Dallas Cowboys which is a sickening thought to me. I'd prefer that everyone could handle things with class and professionalism, but some of the players in the NFL are not capable of that. Jerry Jones made some deals with the devil when he brought these guys in and now we will all have to deal with it for years to come.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Is Anthony Spencer Ready?

The time is now. No more developmental time. No more learning curve. No more injuries. Just production on the field during games when it counts. Anthony Spencer has been given a golden opportunity to step up as a big time player on the defense.

Playing opposite Demarcus Ware is a dream come true for any pass rusher because you know the offense will focus on Ware. That means Spencer has to keep the defense honest. He has shown flashes but he hasn't been on the field enough for the fans to see if he can do it consistently. Apparently the coaches have seen enough in the games and practice to believe in him.

Spencer looked good against the run last season. He was mostly on the field in running situations while Greg Ellis was usually in the game for obvious passing downs. At least that is the current justification for Spencer's lack of sacks up to this point in his career. I do think his numbers have been hurt by not getting a chance to go all out at the quarterback because he was usually in situations where he had to play the run first. That doesn't matter any more. Now is his chance. Spencer has to beat his one-on-one blocks or Demarcus Ware will be double and triple teamed all year long.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Cowboys Cut Greg Ellis

My hope for a last minute deal for Greg Ellis was short lived. Just a few minutes ago the Cowboys announced that Greg Ellis has been cut. It is a sad ending for a player who gave everything he had to the team for 11 years. I hope he lands on his feet and gets a few more seasons out of his body.

The Cowboys will save over $4.15 million on the salary cap with the move and have eliminated the distraction of Greg Ellis whining to the media about his reduced role in the defense. I'll miss his play on the field but not his whining.

Remember This?

This video reminded me how different the Cowboys were at the start of the 2008 season before the injury bug hit. There is still plenty of talent on the offense to dominate. Felix Jones and Marion Barber may be the best tandem of running backs in the league in 2009. The offensive line needs to maul people at the line. I love the Felix Jones TD run against the Packers. Look out next season!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Keep Your Fingers Crossed for an Injury

It isn't nice to say it, but the truth is that the Cowboys really need an injury to a key pass rusher on another team. That is probably the only thing that will give the Cowboys any type of leverage in a Greg Ellis trade. As it stands right now it is unlikely that a team is going to give up much to get Ellis when the Cowboys have publicly announced that Ellis won't be back next season. It seems like Jerry Jones made a big mistake but maybe when Ellis went home from OTA's Jerry was forced to be honest about what was going on.

It appears that Ellis forced the issue on the trade since he is happy to stay home from OTA's while the Cowboys try to work something out. I would have preferred to keep him in the fold at least until we see something out of the new rookies but I don't think Ellis wanted to be the insurance policy in the event that the rookies can't step up. It doesn't really matter why he is leaving but I am hoping, for the sake of the Cowboys, that a pass rusher goes down for another team so the Cowboys can get decent trade value for Ellis.