Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What We've Learned From OTA's

Dez Bryant is a phenomenally gifted wide receiver. If you've seen any of the practice highlights then you have undoubtedly seen some of the displays of great hands he has shown. Dez has done a good job handling the media so far. But he will always have to be on his toes because the media is doing everything in their power to turn him into a T.O. type of guy since they couldn't get Roy Williams to take the bait.

Roy Williams has realized that he better get it going or he is not only going to lose his job but he will also be run out of Dallas at the end of the season. He is working hard and saying all the right things but we won't really know if Roy has made the necessary changes until we see him produce in the games this fall.

Sean Lee is going to be a very good linebacker if his knees are healthy. He has the desire, intelligence, work ethic and natural ability to be a starter in the middle of the defense for the next decade. I love to hear how seriously he takes practice and how he strives to improve on every play. He is an exciting prospect.

Alan Ball will be the starter at free safety. The people holding out hope that the Cowboys will do something to address the position need to prepare to be disappointed. The coaches seem sold on him. He looked decent in his time last year. I have faith the coaches know what they are doing since their recent moves to cut veterans have paid off.

David Beuhler is still a work in progress but the kicking job is his to lose. The reports from the OTA practices are promising. Beuhler has been hitting his kicks but we won't really know if he can get it done until he has the pressure on him in a real game. He seems to have the mental makeup to handle the pressure but you really never can tell. Mike Vanderjagt was one of the cockiest players I have ever seen and he fell apart as the Cowboys kicker.

Patrick Crayton is not being smart. I understand his frustration with his position on the depth chart, but staying away from the team is going to accomplish nothing. If he would show up and work with the team he could at least have a chance to compete for playing time even if it is as the #4 receiver. By staying away he is giving the team a chance to practice without him and they just might realize that they can move forward without him on the roster this season. The Cowboys haven't shied away from cutting overpriced veterans over the last few years.

The Cowboys are going to keep the three man rotation going at running back. Jerry Jones commented recently that he thinks the rotation will remain unchanged but I have a hard time believing that Felix Jones won't get more touches this season. In my mind the best case scenario would involve more carries for Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Barber can handle short yardage and playing the closer role in the 4th quarter.

We don't really get any good information about the offensive line from OTA's. The only thing we do know is that the left tackle job is Doug Free's to lose. Alex Barron will probably be the backup for both tackle spots unless Free embarrasses himself during training camp or in the preseason games.

Marcus Spears is a team player. You have to give the guy a lot of credit for handling his situation with class. He has started since his rookie year but somehow he is now getting paid less money this season than both of his backups. But instead of whining and moaning about it Spears is working hard to keep his job. He still might end up getting traded but he is handling things the right way. Basically he is taking the opposite approach from Patrick Crayton.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Defense Needs to Force More Turnovers

As good as the defense was last season they had one major flaw. They had a very hard time forcing turnovers. The odd thing about that is the strength of the defense, the pass rush, is usually a recipe for turnovers. For most teams if they can get pressure in a quarterbacks face then he will make mistakes trying to throw the ball early or force the ball into coverage because they are under duress. On top of that, it you hit the quarterback a lot during games that usually results in fumbles.

But the Cowboys defense just doesn't get the results that you would expect. Last season they had just 11 interceptions. That is not a good number. The Cowboys tied for 26th in the NFL in interceptions. The league lead belonged to the Green Bay Packers who had 30 picks. Yes, 30. That makes the Cowboys interception number look embarrassing.

The Cowboys forced 17 fumbles and recovered 10. They tied for 11th in the NFL in forced fumbles and tied for 16th in fumble recoveries. Again, not good numbers. Especially when you see that the Cowboys were 7th in the NFL with 42 sacks.

So what gives? The Cowboys were 19th in points allowed per game with 22.6 points allowed per game. The defense improved in that category dramatically over the second half of the season, but the turnovers were missing all year long.

If the Cowboys can improve their turnover ratio it will result in more wins and more lopsided victories at that. What can they do differently? They are pressuring the quarterback early and often and that will pay off in the long run if they improve in some other areas.

There are a few dynamic playmakers that seem to look for the ball. Demarcus Ware makes an effort any time he is near the quarterback to get the ball. Mike Jenkins always finds a way to get his hands on the ball. Terence Newman is around the ball but he often lets big opportunities slip through his hands. Maybe Sensabaugh will come up with more picks playing without a cast this season. But, overall, I think the defense isn't focused on taking the ball away from the offense.

So is it coaching? The defensive schemes have to play a role in the problem. The defense doesn't focus on gambling for turnovers like the Packers or Saints. But there is a flip side to that. The Packers and Saints also give up big plays on a regular basis because they are gambling for interceptions. The Cowboys philosophy seems to be permanently focused on the conservative approach defensively.

I'd like to see a change from a coaching standpoint next season. Obviously part of the issue is just not having a lot of players who are big turnover machines. But I think the coaches need to give the players more chances to gamble on a pick go for the big hit to jar the ball loose. I'm all for the conservative approach if it is going to limit points for the opposition. But there are situations in the game where the players can take a chance or anticipate quick throws. For example, why in the world are the DB's always playing soft coverage on the goal line? There are times to get up on the receivers and all too often the receivers get a free release in situations that really seem to require press coverage.

When the Cowboys send an all out blitz the DB's should be jumping the quick slants, quick hitches and quick outs. A blitz usually results in the quarterback getting rid of the ball quickly. The cornerbacks shouldn't be 7-10 yards off the receivers in those situations. I'm not saying they get up in press coverage on every blitz because the offense would know what was coming. But even playing off they can jump the short routes if the are given the freedom to take a chance now and then.

I can see that Mike Jenkins has the mentality of a guy who wants to take the ball away. Wade Phillips needs to turn him loose a few times a game in the right situations. And the same goes for the rest of the defensive backs. I don't want the whole scheme changed. I would just like to see the Cowboys mix it up a little bit with the coverage to give the defense more opportunities at turnovers.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Does There Have to Be a #1 Receiver?

The Cowboys are stacked at wide receiver. It is obvious. Miles Austin broke out last season to establish himself as a starter and potentially a star player. Roy Williams still hasn't lived up to his billing but he puts fear in the defense whether you want to admit that or not. And Dez Bryant is probably the most athletically gifted receiver of the three. Add Kevin Ogletree, Patrick Crayton and Sam Hurd into the mix and there are more receivers than the Cowboys need on the roster. I realize Patrick Crayton is staying away from OTA's, but he will be a Cowboy next year unless the Cowboys decide they don't want him anymore. He has no leverage.

The thing that a lot of people need to realize ahead of time is that the Cowboys have a great problem. None of the receivers are going to have 100 receptions. There are so many options in the passing game that they can't get the ball to everyone all the time. The defenses are going to be constantly under pressure as long as the offensive line can give Tony Romo a little time. But don't expect big numbers from any particular player in the passing game except maybe Jason Witten.

People want to label Roy Williams a bust and really he has been so far. But part of the problem with Roy is that Romo has so many options it is easy to lose favor in the offensive scheme. If Romo doesn't have confidence in you he will just move on to the next guy because there are usually multiple open receivers on any given play. And Tony's options will only increase as Dez Bryant gets integrated into the offense.

I think if you really felt the need to put a #1 label on a wide receiver it would be Miles Austin. But I would be willing to bet that #1 receiver position will rotate between Miles Austin, Roy Williams, and Dez Bryant depending on matchups and defensive schemes. And that is a good thing. It prevents the defense from focusing on shutting down any one player and stopping the offense.

A lot of people want to run Roy Williams out of Dallas. I want him here. Like I said earlier he gets the attention of the defense whether you want to admit that or not. He did score seven TD's last year even with his limited receptions so he is a target in the red zone. And I view him as a first down machine along with Jason Witten in the passing game.

In a perfect world scenario I view the wide receivers like this. Miles Austin is the all-around guy for now. He can go deep, catch crossing routes, run after the catch, and make yards on the screens. Roy is the first down guy and the red zone target. Dez is going to be a big play guy at least early in his career. Rookie receivers have a hard time adjusting to the complexity of an NFL offense but his talent will give him the ability to make big plays. Kevin Ogletree is great on the quick screens and catches everything thrown his way. He might end up moving inside to the slot depending on how things play out with Patrick Crayton.

It is entirely possible that the top wide receiver will only have 60-70 receptions. The only "go-to guy" will probably still be Jason Witten. The #1 wide receiver will be determined week by week. I think Miles Austin is the lead guy but I really don't that title will have much meaning if the offense runs like it should.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Can Martellus Turn It Around This Year?

Last offseason had a lot of us believing that Martellus Bennett was the secret weapon in the Cowboys offensive attack. In the preseason it really looked like the Cowboys were going to have a role for him in the passing game. But in the early part of the season it became apparent that Martellus was not ready for an increased role in the passing game.

He seemed clueless when it came to pre-snap alignment on a ridiculously high number of his offensive snaps. There were incorrect routes run in games and even a few dropped passes. The worst thing that happened to Martellus was that he lost the confidence of his coaches and his quarterback. As the season wore on it became obvious that he was no longer a significant player in the passing game.

On the plus side for Martellus he did do an excellent job blocking in the running game. I have to give him credit for continuing to give a strong effort blocking while he was slowly phased out of the passing game. John Phillips started getting some looks in passing situations late in the season. Again, to the credit of Martellus, he didn't go crying to the media.

I'm not going to lie. I'm no fan of Martellus and his antics. I watched him act like a complete fool while the rest of the team was stretching and warming up for a training camp practice last season. He didn't seem very serious about his job. Having fun is one thing, but acting like an immature fool while the rest of the team is working is unacceptable. I was really hoping the Cowboys would trade him during the draft.

The only way things are going to change for Marty B is if he has a new attitude and a new level of maturity this offseason. He has all the natural physical tools to be not only a good player, but a great player. It all boils down to desire and maybe intelligence for Martellus. I don't want to insult his intelligence but when a guy can't even line up before the snap without his quarterback or a teammate telling him where to go it is embarrassing. His lack of preparation and focus is flat out unprofessional.

Either he hasn't cared enough to learn the offense or he doesn't have the mental capacity to learn it. In his second season he actually seemed to regress in his level of play and mental preparation. But the great thing about sports is that you have a chance to redefine yourself every season. If he comes out this season and plays well then all will be forgiven. We'll all talk about how he just needed time mature because he came into the league so young.

But if he goes through another season like last year I think we can come to the conclusion that he is what he is. I hope he turns the corner but I honestly believe the coaches should put their stock in John Phillips. I'm not saying Martellus shouldn't play. He still needs to be the #2 tight end because he is a big part of the running game. But John Phillips should be the second tight end option in the passing game until Martellus earns the right to get some passes. That would come from proving he knows the offense and is ready to take his job seriously.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Carpenter for Barron is a Rare Win-Win Trade

Jerry Jones and the rest of the front office must have wide smiles right now. And I'll bet the Rams front office feels the same way. Bobby Carpenter was almost undoubtedly going to be cut sometime before training camp. And the Rams wanted to unload Alex Barron and were considering cutting him as well. But just when all hope seemed lost on getting something...anything for Bobby Carpenter the Rams came along.

The Cowboys needed depth on the offensive line. Cutting Flozell Adams was a bold move but it also left them extremely thin at offensive tackle. Last year's swing tackle, Doug Free, has been promoted to starter at left tackle. So the Cowboys were scrambling to find someone capable of stepping in if an injury pops up. They tried to address the need in the draft but Dez Bryant fell in their lap and all of the top tackle prospects went off the draft board early. So they walked away from the draft without finding any immediate help.

There had been talk about the Cowboys signing a veteran or even bringing Flozell Adams back as a backup. Flozell was never coming back just for the record but it was a nice thought. But the free agent crop had been picked pretty clean and only a few scraps remained. And it isn't like the Cowboys were looking for a starter. Just a veteran at a bargain price.

When Sean Lee was drafted it became obvious that Bobby Carpenter was on his way out. I assumed that no one would give any thought to a trade with Dallas for Carpenter. If they knew he was on his way out I figured they would just wait until he was released and get him at a bargain price. I kept saying for the last two years that Bobby needed a real chance to play before they gave up on him. He got his time last year and he was ok but he showed he was never going to be much more than just ok. He seems like a nice guy who works hard but he doesn't have the skills to excel in the Cowboys defense.

But just when you thought Bobby Carpenter would be cut with nothing to show for the Cowboys 2006 first round draft pick the Rams came calling. Sure, Alex Barron is no prize. But getting anything for Bobby Carpenter after his time in Dallas feels like stealing. The Rams may feel the same way about Barron but at least Barron has logged some serious time as a starter. And Barron's true value is difficult to gauge since he has been stuck on an awful team for his entire career. Remember how everyone thought Leonard Davis was a bust in Arizona? I'm not saying Barron is going to be that good but he could definitely play the role of swing tackle.

It is a good day for the Cowboys. The offensive line suddenly seems pretty strong if you believe that Doug Free can get the job done as the starter. Now they have depth at tackle with Barron and depth at guard and center with Montrae Holland. Keep your fingers crossed that the coaches are right about Doug Free. But even if they are wrong at least there is someone on the team who can step in to play who has real experience as a starter.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Should Crayton Stay or Go?

Patrick Crayton is not happy. And I can't say I totally blame him either. He has been producing good, but not great numbers for several years. He has done everything the team has asked of him and played above his draft status for a long time. But the NFL is a business and Jerry Jones, Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett have to do what is best for the team. That means Patrick Crayton is going to lose playing time if he stays with the Cowboys.

Crayton has been a valuable asset for a few years now but he is obviously not irreplaceable. And his age (31) is not helping his cause. He wants to be traded. But why would anyone trade for Crayton if they know he is probably going to be cut in the long run anway? I have to believe that the Cowboys would choose Sam Hurd over Patrick Crayton if push came to shove. Hurd is younger and has more long term potential. But it is possible that Crayton and Hurd will be gone.

The Cowboys are suddenly very strong at the wide receiver position. Miles Austin, Roy Williams, and Dez Bryant have the top three spots locked up. Then there is Kevin Ogletree who flashed some impressive playmaking skills last season. So that leaves probably one more spot on the roster for a wide receiver. The Cowboys are unlikely to keep six. So it will probably come down to Hurd or Crayton.

I think I would prefer to keep Sam Hurd for a few reasons. Sam Hurd generally keeps his mouth shut which is going to be important. It is unlikely that Hurd or Crayton is going to get the playing time they desire. There is too much talent at wide receiver to get either of them on the field on a regular basis. While Crayton has proven he can make plays he is starting to hit the down side of his career. A guy with marginal talent like Crayton doesn't have to lose very much of his athleticism before he becomes a non-factor. Hurd hasn't ever made plays consistently but he has improved from year to year and he has shown some flashes that he can get the job done if given the opportunity.

I'll be surprised if Crayton is back next year. I don't think he wants to be in Dallas regardless of his contract or what promises the coaches might make him about playing time. I think Hurd could be convinced that Dallas is still the place for him to be. They can't both stay. In the past you might have been able to argue that the Cowboys need Crayton for punt returns. But it appears Dez Bryant and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah both have punt return skills. And Kevin Ogletree has worked on punt returns with Joe DeCamillis as well.

If the Cowboys could get even a late round pick for Crayton I would be thrilled. But it is much more likely that he will be released sometime before training camp starts in July. I appreciate what he did for the Cowboys but the team is doing the right thing by going with the younger, more talented and cheaper options at wide receiver.