The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys’ Most Vital Offensive Player in 2010: Tony Romo


Jonathan Bales

Tony Romo is overrated.  He’s a farce.  He chokes in big games.  He doesn’t care about football.  He’s more interested in becoming a star than a championship quarterback.

It’s difficult to convince anyone of anything when these are their thoughts about your team’s quarterback; and I hear them each and every day.

Nevermind that he’s made three Pro Bowls.  Nevermind that he’s No. 3 on the NFL’s all-time passer rating list, and No. 4 all-time in yards-per-pass.  Nevermind that he just led your ‘Boys to their first playoff win in over a decade.

Now, Romo himself has said he’s not yet an elite quarterback (although I beg to differ), but that doesn’t mean he won’t become an elite quarterback.  The great Peyton Manning didn’t win a playoff game until his sixth (sixth!) NFL season.  I didn’t hear the Indy media calling for his head back then in 2003.  When you’re the quarterback of America’s Team, though, expectations are a bit different.

Romo has already won a playoff game, but there’s no doubting the fact that now, in 2010 (technically 2011), he needs to advance (far) in the playoffs.

And what if he doesn’t?  I’m not thinking about that right now.  I have full confidence in the star-donning quarterback because I’m on Team Romo.  Amber Leigh is on Team Romo.  Are you?

The Evidence

I’ll admit it is easy to select a team’s quarterback as their most vital player–very few (perhaps zero) teams could still make a playoff run with their backup signal-caller at the helm.

But Romo surpasses the worth of an average quarterback by leaps and bounds.  There is a reason I provided him with the highest grade of any Dallas Cowboy in 2009.

Now I could try to impress you with Romo’s 4,483 yards or 26:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but the truth is, Romo just needs to do what it takes to win in 2010.

And he’s done that in the past, posting an incredible 38-17 record to date.  Of course, as fans, we want playoff wins.  We expect Romo to get to the playoffs.  But let’s not forget that these expectations only result from our overwhelming confidence in Romo.

Did we expect the same for Quincy Carter or Chad Hutchinson?  How about Ryan Leaf?  Clint Stoerner? Drew Henson?  How about the incomparable Brad Johnson, whose three-game stint in 2008 (should have) showed us how important Tony Romo is to the Dallas Cowboys.

With Romo, the Cowboys are one of the NFL’s best teams, possessing one of the most dangerous offenses in the league.  Without him, they are mediocre.  They are boring.  They are the Washington Redskins. . .crap.

And, unfortunately, that’s the only way many fans appreciate Romo’s importance–by his absence.

Michael Irvin summed it up best when he said:

Can we get Drew Bledsoe back out here (for) just a week so you guys can really fall back in love with Tony?  Let’s put Drew Bledsoe back out here, because sometimes when you have a pretty girl for awhile, you forget how pretty she is. But when you throw the ugly girl next to her, you say, ‘No, I’m really doing well.’ Maybe we need to bring Drew out so we know we’re really doing well.

Subtract any other offensive player from the Cowboys and the team will keep on rolling.  Lose Doug Free or Marc Colombo to injury?  Alex Barron can step in.  How about a receiver?  Well, that happened yesterday with the Dez Bryant injury, but the Cowboys will be fine.  Andre Gurode and Jason Witten are incredibly important players without completely reliable backups, but their losses still wouldn’t be debilitating.

Losing Romo would be crippling to the Cowboys.  Could they make the playoffs?  Perhaps.  Could they win a championship?  Not a chance.

This time, let’s not wait for a Romo injury before we realize his importance.  It’s easy to call for the backup when things aren’t going as planned, but true fans–the loyal ones–stick by their guy during times of adversity.  On which side of the fence will you be this season if the ‘Boys stumble out of the gate to a 4-4 start?  Will you be screaming for Kitna?  Or will you support your quarterback, knowing he is the most vital piece to the home Super Bowl puzzle?

So I guess I’ll ask you again. . .are you on Team Romo?

By Jonathan Bales

Dez Bryant Ankle Injury Video and Update

As we reported on our Facebook and Twitter accounts, Dez Bryant injured his ankle in practice this afternoon.  He will have an MRI tonight and we will update you as to the extent of the injury as soon as possible.

**UPDATE:  According to Jerry Jones, Bryant will be out 4-6 weeks.  That likely means the injury is a high ankle sprain.  Bryant will be questionable for the season-opener on September 12 in Washington.  More to come.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part VIII: David Buehler vs. Himself

Jonathan Bales

In the first seven parts of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the future of the nickel linebackerdefensive end, free safetyleft tacklewide receiver, tight end, and cornerback positions.

Today, I will analyze the oft-overlooked, yet extremely critical kicker position.  A couple years ago, I conducted a study on the importance of kickers. I found that the difference between a 70 percent kicker and a 90 percent kicker is about one extra win per year–a pretty big deal in the context of a 16-game season.

Thus, it is imperative for the Cowboys to secure a reliable kicker, whether it David Buehler or somebody else.  The inherent lack of season-to-season stability at the position could mean Buehler is the right guy for the job.

Recently, however, Peter King reported the organization seems “worried, really worried” about the kicker position.  Veterans John Carney and Matt Stover are still free agents.  King believes the ‘Boys will sign one of them by Week Three of the preseason if Buehler doesn’t show he can handle all kicking duties.

As of now, however, Buehler’s only true competition is himself.

Scouting Report

I’ve never really scouted a kicker, but Buehler must be the most athletic one in NFL history.  He ran a 4.57 forty-yard dash at 6’2”, 222 pounds and performed 25 reps on the bench press.  That would be an impressive weight/strength/speed combination for a running back, much less a kicker.

None of that really matters if Buehler is to be the Cowboys’ placekicker, of course.  Obviously he has a ton of leg, leading the NFL in touchbacks as a rookie.  His issue will be accuracy (as is the case with just about every NFL kicker).

Perhaps being an athlete will help Buehler in his quest for accuracy.  Kicking is as much (or perhaps more) mental as it is physical, and Buehler, as an athlete, has the confidence and mindset to rebound from a miss.  Anyone can get on a roll, but the best kickers don’t allow previous misses to negatively impact future kicks.

Pros/Cons of Using Buehler at Placekicker. . .

The biggest advantage to using Buehler for all kicking duties is the “extra” roster spot that would be saved.  Buehler will make the squad as a kickoff specialist whether he tanks field goals or not, so the addition of another kicker would mean the disappearance of a positional player.

On the bright side, Buehler can again participate on the coverage units if he is retained solely as a kickoff specialist.  In this way, Dallas wouldn’t be losing a full roster spot–more like half of one.

Advantage

I predicted Buehler would win all kicking duties in my last 53-man roster projection.  I am not as confident in him now as I was then, however.  He is certainly on a short leash.  If he performs perfectly in preseason, he should retain his job.  The first sign of trouble in either the preseason or start of the regular season, though, would likely result in the Cowboys signing a veteran and moving Buehler back to kickoff specialist/special teams ace.

By Jonathan Bales

Mailbag, 7/30/10: Dez Bryant Rookie of the Year?


Q:  According to your film study, who was the most improved Cowboys player last season?

Nicholas Florentino, Amarillo, TX

A: The easy answer is wide receiver Miles Austin, and you really couldn’t go wrong in selecting him.  He had a touchdown rate of 8.7 percent (tops on the team) and dropped only 2.2 percent of passes thrown his way.  Who knows where Dallas would have ended up had Austin not broken out in Kansas City in Week Five?  Check out my 2009 Wide Receiver Grades and a breakdown of Austin’s catches for further proof of his dominance.

Austin certainly improved in 2009, but a lot of his success was due to increased opportunity.  The most improved player, in my opinion, was outside linebacker Anthony Spencer.

Spencer, who was in coverage more than any other outside linebacker at 14.9 percent of snaps, racked up the most tackles of any outside linebacker in the league (67).  He also missed only 6.5 percent of all tackles–better than DeMarcus Ware.  Spencer’s .055 hits-per-rush also led the NFL and nearly doubled Ware’s rate.  These are all reasons I graded him so well in my 2009 Outside Linebacker Grades.

Having said that, Spencer is a candidate for an even bigger year in 2010.  He has a legitimate shot at racking up 15-20 sacks.  Look for him to be a Pro Bowler this season.

Q:  Who has had the best training camp so far?

Aaron Stamps, Los Angeles, CA

A: I’ll give you an offensive player and a defensive player.  On offense, it has to be rookie Dez Bryant.  I hate to hype this kid up even more, but he deserves it right now.  His work ethic and on-field attitude have been phenomenal.  Bryant’s refusal to carry Roy Williams’ pads made headlines, but that issue seems to be squashed for now.

I looked at a little homemade practice film of Bryant (below)and did a quick scouting report on him.  He has shown tremendous speed out of breaks and incredible hands.  I believe he has yet to drop a ball to date.  He has been able to separate from cornerbacks, including Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman.  He needs to work on his release against press coverage, but so far, he appears to be the real deal.  He’s Vegas’ favorite to win Rookie of the Year.

On defense, outside linebacker Brandon Williams has shown why the ‘Boys selected him last season.  As far as reps, he is really a rookie.  He was able to become comfortable in the scheme last year (from a mental standpoint), though, so now he can just go out and play.

Coach Wade Phillips has even compared Williams to Ware on more than one occasion.  If he keeps it up, he will be the primary backup behind Ware and Spencer and could see 15 snaps a game.

Q:  Which players have underperformed the most so far in training camp?

Adam Reich, Houston, TX

A: I’ll again give you two names, both on defense.  The first is second-year inside linebacker Jason Williams.  Williams has looked a bit lost and has had some trouble recognizing routes.  He has exceptional athleticism and certainly has all the tools to get the job done, but rookie Sean Lee is currently the favorite to win nickel linebacker duties.

You also won’t want to hear this, but free safety Alan Ball has been just mediocre.  It isn’t that Ball has performed extremely poor, but rather that he has yet to make many big plays.  Meanwhile, second-year player Michael Hamlin and undrafted rookie Barry Church have both played quite well.

The good news is that secondary coach Dave Campo has said Ball has been in position and the big plays will come.  Having released veteran Ken Hamlin due to his lack of game-breaking ability, however, Ball needs to step it up.

Q:  Will the Cowboys duplicate their No. 2 overall defensive rank from last season?

Tony Silvestri

A: I’m going to say no, but that may not be a bad thing.  The reason is that, with such am emphasis being placed on creating turnovers this season, the Dallas defense could yield more yardage than last season in an effort to get the ball back for the offense.

The extent to which this philosophy is successful will be determined by how many extra yards they give up compared to how many extra takeaways they garner.  If they can force 10 more turnovers while only yielding 10 extra yards-per-game, I think the coaches would be happy with that.

Overall, their final ranking will come down to their ability to limit big plays by the offense while still making some of their own.  Do I think they’ll be in the top two again in terms of yardage?  No.  Do they have the requisite talent to be there?  Of course.  Will any of that matter if they are top five in takeaways?  Probably not.

By Jonathan Bales

From the Archives: Cowboys’ Motion Statistics

Jonathan Bales

NFL teams use motion for a variety of reasons: to uncover defensive coverages, to get defenders out of position, to exploit positive match-ups, and so on.  The frequency of motions also differs greatly among teams.   Some, like the Bengals, like to motion very frequently.  Others, such as Peyton Manning’s Colts, almost never motion.

I analyzed our film database to determine just how many plays the Cowboys motioned in 2010 and exactly how effective those plays turned out. The results, shown below, were a bit surprising.

As you can see, the Cowboys tend to run the ball at higher rate after motions than on plays where there is no pre-snap movement (46.4 percent runs after motion versus 36.2 percent non-motion).

However, this is not necessarily a knock on Jason Garrett, as the Cowboys frequently remain static pre-snap in situations where the defense knows they are going to pass.

For example, when the Cowboys lined up in “Gun TE Spread” (shown to the right), a formation that they threw out of 83.3 percent of all plays, the offense motioned only 12.5 percent of the time (as compared to a 42.8 percent motion rate on all plays).   Thus, while the run/pass ratio after motions is a bit skewed, it creates no real competitive advantage for the defense.

More significant than the rate at which Dallas runs or passes after motioning is the efficiency (or lack thereof) of the post-motion plays.  As you can see, the Cowboys gained significantly less yards-per-play on both runs and passes after motions (.7 yards less on passes and a full yard less on runs).

Why is this the case?  Are the Cowboys simply less effective on offense when they motion?

It is tough to say, but my initial thought was that the the drop in yards-per-play was caused by a possible tendency to motion on short-yardage plays.  Thus, the upside would be limited and the averages would suffer.

However, on short-yardage plays (which I defined as three yards-to-go or less), the Cowboys motioned just 44.8 percent of the time–barely more than the 42.5 percent overall rate.  Thus, while it is good that Garrett effectively spreads out motions among various downs and distances, the low yards-per-play on motions cannot be attributed to an abundance of short-yardage plays.

Another possible explanation is that, because the Cowboys rarely motion in their hurry-up offense, the yards-per-play might be greater on non-motion plays because defenses are more likely to play soft and give up yardage.

The Cowboys poor running average on motion plays is not due to an abundance of short-yardage situations.

However, this could only explain the difference in passing average between motion and non-motion plays, as teams rarely run the ball in hurry-up scenarios.

Further, the Cowboys actually only ran a true hurry-up offense only 80 times in 2009, or just 8.0 percent of all plays. Thus, it appears that the Cowboys success when not motioning is actually due to something meaningful rather than just down and distance or game situation.

This notion is strengthened by both the rate of big plays garnered and negative plays yielded in motion and non-motion situations.   As the chart shows, the Cowboys had their highest rate of big plays (10+ yards) out of static formations.

While this statistic could be affected by the aforementioned tendency of Dallas to not motion in hurry-up situations, the most surprising and meaningful statistic, in my opinion, is the rate of negative plays given up in each scenario.   The Cowboys actually gave up a sack after motions at nearly 2.4 times the rate they yielded a sack on non-motion plays. The sample size of both types of plays makes that number statistically significant.

Further, the rate of overall negative plays (sacks, negative runs, and negative passes) was nearly twice as high on plays where the Cowboys moved a player pre-snap.

But why is this the case?  Why do the Cowboys have a larger downside without an increased upside on plays that they motion, despite not running these plays in “low upside” situations?

The answer is not entirely clear.  Perhaps Tony Romo is just much better at reading defenses than anyone thought.  Maybe motions give him no advantage in reading coverage.  I don’t want to put him on the same level as a Peyton Manning just yet, but perhaps he is approaching a portion of his career where, like Manning, he can effectively read a defense without resorting to pre-snap motions.

The Cowboys may be better off motioning less so defenses cannot decipher their play calls.

Another possibility (and the most likely, in my opinion) is that the Cowboys’ motions are giving the defense an idea of where the play is going to be run.  After watching as much film as I do, there are times when I can predict with great precision what play the Cowboys are going to run.  How and where they motion is a big factor in my ability to do this.

This last explanation would explain the significant gap between motion and non-motion run average, as it is easier for a defense to decipher a particular run play from a motion than a pass. Dallas will frequently motion fullback Deon Anderson to the play-side just before the snap, for example.  Only rarely does Anderson motion to the side of the formation opposite the play-call.

Conclusions

The Cowboys are quite obviously less effective on plays which involve a pre-snap motion.  The reason for this does not seem to be due to particular game situations.

So where should the Cowboys go from here?   Should they scrap motioning completely and resort to an Indianapolis-esque offense?

Like my solution to many of Dallas’ woes, I believe the “Nash equilibrium” should be implemented.  Again, this is the point where the Cowboys’ total yards would be maximized.

Thus, Garrett should steadily decrease the motion rate until the defense compensates enough that the Cowboys’ yards-per-play reaches its peak.  My guess is that this is around 25.0 percent. At this point, it is likely the rate of big plays and negative plays will also be maximized and minimized, respectively, creating situations of generally optimal efficiency for the Cowboys’ offense.

By Jonathan Bales

Fantasy Football: When Does Consistency Matter?

By Jonathan Bales

A lot of fantasy football owners focus on week-to-week consistency when making differentiations between similar players.  Why is Tony Romo perhaps a better option than Jay Cutler?  Romo is steady in putting up respectable numbers, while Cutler’s week-to-week play is a roller coaster.

But is this sort of consistency important in winning a fantasy championship?  In my experience, yes and no.  Of course, the numbers, and not my experience, are what matter, so let’s take a look at some of the stats.

In a Pro-Football-Reference article on quarterback/wide receiver combinations, statistics showed that poor fantasy football teams could benefit from being inconsistent.  This is because inconsistent teams, from time to time, can score a ton of points.  If Players A, B, and C each have a 40 percent chance of putting up top-five numbers in a given week, for example, then there is a 6.4 percent chance that all three will score big.

Now, a more consistent team might average more points, but does it really matter if that average is well below the league mean?  A consistently poor team might have a near-zero percent chance of taking down the top dog in their league, while an inconsistent one would have an excellent shot of doing so about 6.4 percent of the time (using the example above).

Thus, dynasty league owners with currently poor squads might want to pair a quarterback with his wide receiver (or tight end), as this creates a more inconsistent team (with much higher upside).  They may also want to load up on “inconsistent” players such as Jay Cutler and Chad Ochocinco.  Get better by becoming inconsistent?  What a novel idea.

Top-tier teams, on the other hand, would be smart to minimize their downside.  Pairing quarterbacks with receivers is a “no-no” for good fantasy teams, while drafting “sure things,” such as Tony Romo and Wes Welker, is optimal.

A quick side note related to consistency: don’t worry about bye weeks! Every year, owners select very specific players so their bye weeks are spread out, but studies have shown again and again that bye week spacing does not matter.  This is more evidence that drafting players based on week-to-week consistency is generally a poor idea.

VORP, represented in the graph above, is irrelevant without predictable seasonal consistency.

Consistency does have its place in fantasy football, however.  Year-to-year consistency (as opposed t0 in-season consistency) is vital to properly drafting your team.

In the past, I’ve explained how utilizing VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) is imperative to securing maximum value (you can read about VORP in my article on why you should draft a quarterback early in 2010 and in my post on how to use your opponent’s beliefs against them). In short, VORP is the extra value garnered by selecting a player at a specific position as opposed to waiting a set number of rounds.  VORP is the base of fantasy football tiers.

A hidden assumption of VORP (and one I have not previously discussed), however, is consistency.  For example, let’s assume (for argument’s sake) that the top defense each year scores 300 points, with the rest under 200.  Securing that top defense is obviously crucial to winning your league, so you should attempt to do so as early as possible, correct?  After all, the VORP (over 100 points) is greater than at any other position.

The answer is no.  Each year, defenses are erratic (both week-to-week and season-to-season).  In fact, a good defense from last year is no more likely to be good this year than a poor one from last year.  Thus, although the VORP is greatest between the No. 1 and No. 2 defense each season (in my hypothetical league), this is a non-issue in regards to draft strategy due to the incredibly weak strength of correlation (basically zero).

Of course, there’s also the possibility that weekly consistency, ironically, is not very consistent.  That is, predicting a player’s future consistency from his past consistency is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  In much the same way that the inherent difficulty in predicting year-to-year production of defenses necessitates bypassing them in the early rounds of a draft, the complexity involved in projecting week-to-week production among all positions makes consistency, at least in the short-term, irrelevant.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Quotes, Dez Bryant: “Ya’ll are trying to put me and Roy against each other.”

Quotes from recent post-training camp practice interviews:

  • Jason Witten

(On John Phillips) “Obviously John’s been playing out of this world. It’s great to see.  He takes it from the meeting rooms to practice–individual and then into the team drills.  He’s playing really well. . .He’s one of the hardest working players on the team.”

(On Doug Free) “He’s so consistent.  He plays so hard.  I think he really embraces the role he has. . .I think the tenacity he plays with is contagious for a team.  He’s always trying to make the extra block.”

  • Patrick Crayton

“I’ve been the underdog for seven years.  Ever since I put on a Cowboys uniform I’ve been an underdog.  So all I do is look up.  I’ve never been able to look down.  I look up all the time.”

“Just keep working at it and do what you’re supposed to do and give it your all, and everything will pay off.”

  • Orlando Scandrick

“I’m one injury away.  If anything happens to Terence or Mike, I would be the guy, so I have to prepare like I am the guy.”

(On Alan Ball) “He breaks on the ball and covers a lot of ground.  He is going to be big for us this year.”

(On his broken hand) “It may be stiff for the entire season, but I’m ready to do whatever it takes to help this team win ball games.”

(On pre-game speeches) “It has no impact on the way we play.  The way we play is the way we practice during the week.  If we prepare well, we come out and play well.  If we prepare bad, it shows.”

  • Marcus Spears

“We gotta create more turnovers.  We need to get started faster.”

  • Jason Garrett

“We like Dez.  What we are seeing from Dez is what we thought we’d see when we evaluated him.  He’s a very talented football player, but more than that, he has great passion and enthusiasm for the game.  He loves to play.  He’s a good young man, working really hard. . .It’s fun to coach him and be around him.  He has a long way to go.  He has a lot to learn about what we’re trying to get across to him as coaches, but he comes to work everyday.”

  • Sean Lee

(On Keith Brooking) “I’ve been watching him and mimicking him because he is an unbelievable player and a guy I want to be like.  He’s the pinnacle of what I want to be.”

“There’s no room for mistakes in the NFL.  You take a false step in college and you can make up for it.  You take a false step here–the linemen are too fast, the running backs are too quick.”

  • Dez Bryant

(On pad-carrying issue) “I shouldn’t have to say anything.  You have been watching the same thing I’ve been watching.  I’ve been doing the right thing, and I’m going to continue to do the right thing. . .Ya’ll are trying to put me and Roy against each other.  That’s not going to happen.”

  • Felix Jones

(On adding extra weight)  ”I feel like it is an advantage for me.  I just need to keep working with it. . .Last season, I averaged about 216 (pounds).  Now it is about 220.”

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part VII: Martellus Bennett vs. John Phillips


By Jonathan Bales

In the first six parts of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the future of the nickel linebackerdefensive end, free safetyleft tackle, wide receiver, and cornerback positions.

Today, I will take a look at the current battle between tight ends Martellus Bennett and John Phillips for the No. 2 job behind starter Jason Witten.  Recently, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett seemed to indicate that the competition for the second tight end spot is quite open.  He said there will be “healthy competition” at every position and when referring to Phillips, Garrett claimed:

Every opportunity he gets, he seems to make the catch, make the block, do the little thing that helps our football team. He did that really all throughout last year in a limited role, and he has a little bit more of a role with Martellus out here the first four or five practices. He’s doing it. It’s not always flashy, but he always seems to make the block or make the catch or do something that helps our offense.

With Bennett currently sidelined due to an ankle injury, Phillips has stepped up.  On Monday, he had what Jason Witten labeled “his best practice ever,” followed by perhaps an even better performance on Tuesday.

Will the less flashy second-year man be able to overtake Bennett for the backup tight end spot?  Let’s take a look at the scouting reports.

Scouting Reports

  • Martellus Bennett

Bennett may still need to mature off of the field before he can flourish on it.  He isn’t a bad kid by any means, but he sometimes does boneheaded things.  He’s even led me to question if Dallas would be better off without him.

On the field, Bennett is actually a little underrated (at least in terms of blocking).  Take a look at what I wrote about him in my 2009 Tight End Grades:

Blocking:  B+

Despite the general consensus among fans that Bennett had a horrible 2009 season, he actually performed quite well as a blocker.  It is ironic that such an athletic player has developed faster as a blocker than a pass-catcher, but perhaps the way in which Witten goes about his business is rubbing off on Bennett.

Like Witten, though, we’d like to see Bennett’s penalty count decrease.  Yes, it is difficult for tight ends to often block larger defensive ends, but a few of Bennett’s penalties were offensive pass interference.

Receiving:  C-

Bennett obviously regressed as a pass-catcher in 2009.  He caught only 51.7% of balls thrown his way, and just 15/21 on-target passes (71.4%).  Bennett doesn’t have poor hands, so we think this was due more to a lack of concentration than anything else.

Bennett is dangerous after catching the ball (4.8 yards-after-catch-per-reception–wow, that is a lot of hyphens), so the key to his 2010 success will be mastering the mental aspect of the game so he can let his athleticism take over.

  • John Phillips

Also from my 2009 Tight End Grades:

Blocking:  C-

Phillips’ pass-blocking sample size (only 26 snaps) is too small to draw meaningful conclusions, but not so for his run-blocking sample (126 snaps).  In a study I performed on the effectiveness of fullback Deon Anderson, I compared Anderson’s stats to those of Phillips.  What I discovered (listed below) was that Phillips was far inferior to Anderson as a blocker, at least out of the backfield.

The Cowboys averaged nearly two more yards-per-carry with Anderson in the game as compared to Phillips, and, surprisingly, .2 more yards-per-pass.  Phillips’ rookie play was a pleasant surprise in 2009, but he has a long way to go before he can be considered a dominant blocker.

Receiving:  B-

It is tough to grade Phillips as a receiver because of his limited sample size (only seven regular season catches).  Rather than use purely statistics, this grade is based more on what I saw from Phillips on film.  He displayed good route-running ability and solid hands (zero drops and a natural receiver).  He averaged an impressive 6.6 yards-after-catch and showed he is capable of being an adequate runner after receiving the football.

Pros/Cons of Starting. . .

  • Martellus Bennett

Bennett is more athletic than Phillips and offers a higher upside.  He has the potential to be an outstanding all-around tight end.  The problem is that he suffers from frequent mental lapses and has yet to cash in on that potential.

Bennett’s skill set makes him more of an in-line tight end/slot player.  He can be split out wide and, although he struggled there last season, possesses the ability to play as a sort of “big receiver.”

The addition of Dez Bryant means the Cowboys will likely use more three-receiver sets and spread formations, though, so Bennett’s snaps could be limited.  After all, who would you prefer line up outside for the ‘Boys on 3rd and 7:  Bryant or Bennett?

  • John Phillips

Like Bennett, Phillips can be moved around the field.  He will not flourish out wide, however, and is even inferior to Bennett as an in-line tight end at this time.  Phillips does have the ability to play as an H-Back (a tight end/fullback hybrid), however, which Bennett really does not.  This could be of use to a Dallas offense that figures to be more spread out in 2010.

Some have been predicting the Cowboys might even retain no true fullback, using Phillips at the spot when needed.  However, as I stated above, Phillips has a long way to go as a blocker, so expect Deon Anderson to hold onto his job–for now.

Advantage

The Bennett/Phillips battle is an interesting one due to the varying nature of their skill sets.  Bennett is currently a much better blocker and has the ability to succeed out wide, but the addition of Dez Bryant could make the former trait less valuable (if the team is in less two-tight end sets) and the latter irrelevant altogether.

Right now, Phillips is making up ground on Bennett, but he is also competing just as much with fullback Deon Anderson for playing time.  I believe Anderson is the superior blocker, but Phillips obviously offers more athleticism as a legitimate pass-catching threat.

Once Bennett returns from injury, it will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Jason Garrett splits up the tight ends reps.  You can probably expect Bennett to regain his No. 2 gig.  Don’t think for a second the coaching staff doesn’t value his blocking ability.

Bennett is on a much shorter leash this year than in the previous two, however, meaning an outstanding preseason from Phillips, particularly as a blocker, could win him the job.



By Jonathan Bales

From the Archives: Analyzing Cowboys Weak Side Runs and Using Game Theory on Offense

By Jonathan Bales

Throughout my film study articles, I have chronicled the trends of the Cowboys in certain specific situations, attempting to isolate the cause of their success or failure.   Some statistics are subjective, such as missed tackles, but I strive to obtain statistics that are objective as possible.

In this study, I will analyze the Cowboys’ weak side runs.  Like prior pieces, there is some “gray area” here.   What is a weak side run?  Is the weak side always opposite the tight end?

For this analysis, I have designated the weak side of the formation as that which is opposite the tight end and has less than three skill position players.  Thus, in “Twins Left,” the right side is the strong side. In “Twins Left, Weak Left” (below), however, the left side is strong.

If a formation has no tight end, the strong side is simply the side with the most skill position players.  Also, a multitude of formations have no strong or weak side, such as “Ace” (below).   These formations were not counted toward my results.

The findings I gathered are listed below.   The Cowboys averaged 5.2 yards-per-carry on weak side runs, compared to just 4.7 yards-per-carry on strong side runs.

Why did the Cowboys have more success running weak side than strong?   One possibility is that it surprises the defense. Dallas ran weak side on just 19.5 percent of all run plays. Thus, with the defense generally anticipating a strong side run, the success rate of running weak side increases despite a lesser number of blockers.

The lack of blockers to the weak side can also be a good thing because defenses generally line up according to the formation.   Less blockers, then, means less people to block, and less chance for mistake.

Still, if this theory is correct, we might expect the Cowboys percentage of big plays to increase significantly when running weak side.  This is actually not the case.  The Cowboys ran for a play of 10+ yards on 15.3 percent of all weak side run plays in 2009, compared to 14.5 percent on all strong side runs. This small difference is not statistically significant enough for us to draw meaningful conclusions.

Further, the percentage of negative runs is also approximately the same (9.4 percent on weak side runs versus 11.0 percent on all strong side runs).

With this lack of outliers, it appears as though weak side runs are just slightly more effective for the Cowboys than strong side runs. The results are not simply skewed by a pair of 80-yard rushes, for example.

How should this information affect the Cowboys and Jason Garrett’s play-calling?  Well, as I detailed in my Witten blocking study, the play-calling should shift until it reaches the “Nash Equilibrium.”   Simply put, this is the point when the overall yards-per-rush will peak.

Jason Garrett will maximize offensive efficiency by always being one step ahead of defensive coordinators.

Note that Garrett cannot simply call all weak side runs because football is a game of opposing minds.   A drastic increase in weak side runs would obviously be met by a large percentage of defensive weak side blitzes.

Instead, game theory suggests Garrett should slowly increase the number of weak side runs until the average yards-per-carry is maximized.

But how will we know when that number is reached?  The answer would be simple if we assumed those people drawing up plays to try to stop the Cowboys offense–the opposing defensive coordinators–were perfectly rational.   In that scenario, the defense would call an increasing number of weak side blitzes until they minimized the overall yards-per-carry.   They would in effect create their own Nash equilibrium.

Of course, defensive coordinators do not always call plays in a rational manner. Their knowledge is not unlimited, and so sometimes they may call too many weak side blitzes or not enough.  Perhaps sometimes the number of weak side blitzes they dial up has no correlation at all with the offenses’s weak side running rates or successes.

Garrett’s job, then, must be to take into account the thoughts and tendencies of defensive coordinators (perhaps easier said than done), and then adjust his play-calling accordingly.   If Team X calls an inordinate amount of weak side blitzes, for example, then the Cowboys own Nash equilibrium will be shifted to include more strong side runs (and vice versa).

Thus, play-calling (or effective play-calling anyway) is not simply about knowing your own players.   It is about successfully predicting the calls of defensive coordinators by knowing their tendencies.   This may sound extremely difficult (and it is from the standpoint of one individual play), but aberrations tend to flatten out over the course of a game in such a way that, despite not knowing individual play calls, a team can assume a “regression to the mean” of sorts where a team’s overall tendencies will always eventually shine through.

For Garrett, this means being one step ahead of the game.  Instead of simply knowing what you want to do, you have to know what your opponent thinks you are going to do, then adjust accordingly.  When playing against a really stealthy coach, you may have to know what he thinks that you think that he thinks about what play you are going to call.

If you are an offensive coordinator and have called three straight weak side runs in a row, for example, your natural inclination may be to deviate from this tendency.  You might do this in an effort to “mix it up.”   But game theory suggests you should take into account the opposition’s thoughts before making a decision.

Perhaps you know that he is thinking that you are thinking that he will call a weak side blitz to combat your recent success. Knowing this, you would assume he may call a strong side blitz (or none at all), and you would be correct.   Thus, despite three straight weak side runs, the best play call is yet another weak side run.

Being “unpredictable” isn’t about changing play calls just for the sake of changing the play, but about adjusting your tendencies according to your opposition’s tendencies to create an environment where potential success will be maximized.

That may be the motto for the 2010 Dallas Cowboys– “maximize your potential.”   Should they do that, the team might just be playing in the first ever home Super Bowl.

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Most Overpaid and Underpaid Players


By Jonathan Bales

I recently stated my choices for the Cowboys’ most overrated and underrated players: Gerald Sensabaugh and Kyle Kosier, respectively.  Sensabaugh yielded five touchdowns and a 67.4 percent completion rate, while also missing 15.6 percent of tackles.  Meanwhile, Kosier allowed just one sack all season.  You can click the links above to find out more about why I selected each player.

Those ‘overrated’ and ‘underrated’ designations are nothing more than a math problem:

Actual Value – Public Opinion of Value = Extent to Which Player is Overrated/Underrated

Of course, defining a player’s ‘actual value’ and the value of ‘public opinion’ is quite difficult.  To make the determination a bit more objective, I decided to substitute players’ salaries for ‘public opinion.’

Thus, this article will actually be an attempt to decipher the team’s most overpaid and underpaid players.  It will invoke a value which I shall label “value-per-million dollars.”  In short, each player will be assigned a numerical grade which will result from the following formula:

PFF overall player value / Player’s 2009 cap value = Value-Per-Million

A few notes:

  • These values take into account only a player’s 2009 production.
  • The salaries used are not entire contracts (as these are sometimes deceiving), but rather the players’ 2009 cap value (as defined by USA Today).
  • The specific totals of the player value numbers and final ‘value-per-million’ are irrelevant.  The values themselves have no inherent meaning; that comes through a comparison of final values among players.
  • Because the ‘actual values’ are efficiency-based, I have removed some of the players without a large sample size of plays.  For example, Kevin Ogletree, Michael Hamlin, and John Phillips lead the list of most underpaid players because of small salaries, but their overall production is too minor to match that of, say, Anthony Spencer.
  • The lowest-rated player, Roy Williams, was used as a baseline for the other player values (which is why he has a value of zero).  Again, the specific numbers are irrelevant.

Analysis

  • If these numbers are any indication, the Cowboys made the right moves in releasing Flozell Adams and Ken Hamlin in favor of Doug Free and Alan Ball.  Adams and Hamlin checked in as the second and fourth-most overpaid players, while Free and Ball were the fourth and third most-underpaid.
  • We all knew Bobby Carpenter was bad, but here is more evidence.  He is especially poor because his cap charge wasn’t very much ($2.06 million).
  • It is surprising to see Terence Newman on the ‘overpaid’ list.  He had an excellent 2009 season, and even PFF rated him as a top-25 cornerback.
  • It really speaks to DeMarcus Ware’s dominance that he can make the list of most underpaid players despite a larger cap charge.
  • I expected to see Miles Austin as perhaps the most underrated player, but he only checked in at No. 7.  Of the players above him, only Ware had a greater cap value.

The point of this article is to gain general insights into the salary cap/player value relationship.  It is not without its limitations, of course. First, the formula doesn’t account for age or seasons prior to 2009.  Older players such as Keith Brooking aren’t going to break the bank.  Nonetheless, Brooking certainly deserves to be on the most underpaid list, as it relates to 2009.

Secondly, obtaining objective player values is extremely difficult.  I substituted cap values for ‘public opinion values’ to combat one subjective rating, but another still exists.

Most importantly, the formula may reward low salaries too much.  Jason Hatcher, Doug Free, and Alan Ball all played well in 2009, but there is no way they should be ranked ahead of Miles Austin.  All three were, however, due to cap charges about one-third that of Austin’s.

Taking these factors into account, here is my personal (more subjective) list of the Cowboys’ most overpaid and underpaid players.

Player/2009 Cap Charge/Dallas Cowboys Times Grade

Most Overpaid

1. Roy Williams/$5.66 million/D+

2.  Bobby Carpenter/$2.06 million/D+

3.  Flozell Adams/$3.10 million/C-

4.  Patrick Crayton/$2.70 million/C+

5.  Ken Hamlin/$5.81 million/B-

6.  Marion Barber/$2.62 million/C+

7. Marc Colombo/$2.70 million/C+

Most Underpaid

1.  Miles Austin/$1.55 million/A-

2.  Anthony Spencer/$1.42 million/A-

3.  Felix Jones/$1.45 million/A-

4.  Jay Ratliff/$2.55 million/B+

5.  Tashard Choice/$0.50 million/B+

6.  Keith Brooking/$1.90 million/B+

7.  Deon Anderson/$0.49 million/B-