The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Top Five Things Dallas Cowboys Must Do Before Start of 2011 Season

Jonathan Bales

Despite a horrific 2010 season, the ‘Boys are still in position to make a run this year.  Here is what they need to do to escalate their opportunity for success. . .

5. Hold Open Kicking Competition

I know a lot of DCT readers disagree with me on this, but I don’t think David Buehler should be kicking field goals for the Cowboys in 2011.  Buehler should be given a fair shake at winning all kicking duties and, unless he wins handily in training camp (unlikely), he should remain on the roster as a kickoff specialist/special-teamer only.  I realize using two roster spots on kickers is less than ideal, but the alternative is potentially watching Buehler shank field goals and extra points again.  Plus, Buehler’s special teams ability makes it more like using 1.5 roster spots.

One of the first articles I did on this site was a study of the importance of kickers.  I concluded that the difference between a top kicker (90 percent accuracy) and a sub-par one (70 percent accuracy) is an “extra” win per season.  Even with the inherent unpredictability of kickers’ performances, that is a substantial enough difference for me to be fine with two kickers on the roster.   I like Kris Brown and, if I had to predict right now, I’d say he will be kicking field goals for the ‘Boys this season.  I’m okay with him, or another quality veteran.  Buehler can continue to develop and work on his craft while learning behind a veteran.

It is worth noting that one of the perks of having Buehler kick field goals is that, because he is erratic, Jason Garrett was (and will be) more likely to go for it on fourth down.  He should be doing that more anyway (and I think he knows it), so Buehler’s presence as the placekicker is a built-in excuse for Garrett to make what is the statistically correct decision anyway.

4. Re-Sign Doug Free, Kyle Kosier, Stephen Bowen and Gerald Sensabaugh

Re-signing Doug Free should really be the Cowboys’ top offseason priority.  He proved he is a very solid (but not yet spectacular) tackle last season, yielding only three sacks and seven quarterback hits at the most difficult-to-play position on the line.  I gave him a B- for the season in my 2010 Offensive Line Grades.  I think Kosier deserves a two-year contract, and I’ve already explained why here.

I think the Cowboys should let Jason Hatcher walk and re-sign Bowen.  He’s a superior player with a better pass-rush repertoire, even if he has not yet lived up to his potential.  His production should improve with Rob Ryan in town.

The B+ grade I provided Sensabaugh in my 2010 Safety Grades was one of the highest on the entire team.  He allowed only 6.95 yards-per-attempt and one touchdown in 2011, compared to 10.07 and seven for Alan Ball (yes, Ball’s free safety spot is more difficult to play, but not by that much).  Since there are an abundance of talented safeties on the market and I am higher on Sensabaugh than most, I think the ‘Boys should be able to re-sign him for a reasonable price.

3. Cut Marc Colombo, Marion Barber and Igor Olshansky

The first two are so obvious I won’t even talk about them.  The last one might be less clear because, if the ‘Boys re-sign Bowen but let Hatcher walk, they could be dangerously thin at defensive end.  Of course, the position could be upgraded in a big way if a certain nose tackle who is already on the roster kicks outside.

“But the Cowboys don’t have a nose tackle to take over for Jay Ratliff if he moves to end!?”. . .read on.

2. Sign Free Agents Michael Huff and Aubrayo Franklin

Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is going to be a free agent and, in my opinion, he’s an extremely underrated player.  The Cowboys may have to compete with a few other teams, including the Redskins, for Franklin’s services.  If they can land him, though, the upgrade at both nose tackle and defensive end would be enormous.  Pro Football Focus rated Franklin as the 13th best defensive tackle and No. 2 run-stuffing defensive tackle in the NFL in 2010.  He deserves those accolades.

Another player on whom both PFF and I are high is Michael Huff.  Huff has been heavily linked to Dallas, and at this point, I would consider it a minor upset if he is not wearing a star on his helmet in 2011.

1. Hand Sean Lee Starting Job

I’m fine with Keith Brooking staying on the team (I’m indifferent, really), as long as he is a role player and leader.  There is no way he should be starting or receiving significant snaps at inside linebacker.

I wasn’t high on Lee at the start of the 2010 season, but I sure am now.  His improvement over the course of the year was staggering, and you can bet he will have made significant improvements to his game by the time the 2011 season begins.  I gave him a B- and rated him as the Cowboys’ top inside linebacker in my 2010 Inside Linebacker Grades.  I think he has a chance to be an “A- player” this year.

By Jonathan Bales

Assessing the Play of Kyle Kosier in 2010: Should He Be Re-Signed?

Jonathan Bales

Last offseason, I named left guard Kyle Kosier the most underrated player on the Dallas Cowboys.  Kosier was coming off of a season in which he yielded just one sack.  Guards are frequently seen as players who should be great run blockers before great pass blockers, but I disagree.  Protecting the quarterback up the middle is nearly just as important as doing so on the edges, and, despite being an average run blocker, Kosier’s pass protection over the years has been outstanding.

In my opinion, Kosier’s run blocking slipped a bit in 2010.  He once again had the fewest rate of 10+ yard runs and the ‘Boys had only one run of 20+ yards when he was at the point-of-attack.  Kosier does a nice job of positioning his body on blocks and excels on runs like counters and draws, but he will never be the dominating man-on-man blocker that it seems Jason Garrett wishes he had.  Is this enough of a reason to not re-sign Kosier?

I don’t think so.  Kosier’s pass protection was as good as ever in 2010.  Actually, I credited him with not allowing a single sack all season.  That’s in 495 plays in which he was in pass protection.  He also surrendered just two quarterback hits and committed only three penalties in 2010.  It’s no wonder I have him an “A” in my 2010 Cowboys Offensive Line Grades.

Kosier’s ability to protect the quarterback and the lack of a starting-quality guards behind him on the roster makes me think the Cowboys will be re-signing Kosier whenever that is made possible.  And that is the right move.  Kosier shouldn’t get a huge contract, but signing him to a two-year deal makes a lot of sense to me.

Leonard Davis, on the other hand, may not be so lucky.

By Jonathan Bales

Miles Austin shops at WalMart

This really has nothing to do with anything, but I thought it was cool that the $57 million man still goes to WalMart.  Truly a humble person who I think will have a big year in 2011.

I apologize for the lack of posts of late, as I have been really busy writing some other pieces.  I have a nice article coming out in USA Today’s Season Preview Mag concerning the aggressiveness of the Cowboys in 2011.  I will let you know when it hits stands.

By Jonathan Bales

Jason Witten’s 2010 Red Zone Performance

Jonathan Bales

A couple days ago I posted a study detailing one of the reasons the Cowboys were successful in their 2010 red zone performance.  I argued that Jason Garrett’s first down play-calling more appropriately fit with advanced red zone statistics, namely that teams should run the ball more on first down only when inside their opponent’s 10-yard line.  The analysis was the result of a look back at a 2009 article in which I stated three ways by which the Cowboys could improve their red zone performance in the upcoming season.

In addition to first down play-calling, I also argued that the team needed to find Jason Witten more often while in the red zone.  Witten’s two touchdowns in 2009 were surpassed by a remarkable 21 tight ends that year.  Even though touchdowns can be a fluky stat, there is no reason a player with the talent and size of Witten should ever have just a pair of touchdowns in a season.

At first glance of Witten’s 2010 statistics, you might conclude the ‘Boys did a better job of finding him in the red zone.  Witten caught a career-high nine touchdowns, eight of which came in the red zone (the other one was 22 yards).  On closer inspection, however, we see that Garrett targeted Witten only a bit more in the red zone in 2010 than in 2009, and not more at all as compared to the rest of the field.

Although Witten was out in a route on 77.5% of 2010 red zone plays (up from 69.4% in 2009), that rate is barely higher than the 76.2% of overall passing plays in 2010.  The ‘Boys were slightly more effective in the red zone when Witten was in a route, averaging almost a yard more per play and scoring on 27.2% of dropbacks.

Despite the success, Witten was actually targeted just 14 times in the red zone all season. That equates to just 19.7% of all red zone dropbacks–lower than the 20.9% overall rate at which Witten was targeted.  Witten’s low red zone target numbers means a ridiculous 57.1% of his red zone targets resulted in touchdowns. Incredible efficiency, but not nearly enough looks.  Expect that to change in 2011.

By Jonathan Bales

Assessing Cowboys’ 2010 Red Zone Play-Calling

Jonathan Bales

Before the 2010 season, I wrote an article detailing three ways by which the Cowboys could improve their poor 2009 red zone performance.  In addition to targeting Jason Witten and simply getting to the red zone more often, I argued that then-offensive coordinator Jason Garrett should call more first down runs inside the opponent’s 10-yard line and more first down passes between the 10 and 20-yard lines.   The reason for this was evidence from Advanced NFL Stats that the expected points of first down passes far outweighs that of first down runs on all areas of the field except inside the opponent’s 10-yard line.

While football minds have labeled the area inside the 20-yard line as the ‘red zone,’ the “real” red zone–the one in which play-calling must change–is actually inside the 10-yard line.  Until that point, an offense’s strategy shouldn’t really alter.  The graph to the left exemplifies the expected points of running and passing on first down.  Notice that running only becomes a superior first down strategy around the opponent’s 10-yard line.

In 2009, Garrett called a first down run on 21 of 32 plays inside the opponent’s 10-yard line (65.6 percent).  That number wasn’t horrible, and the Cowboys found the end zone on eight of those runs.  Garrett did a nice job of running even more inside the 10-yard line in 2010, doing so on 20 of 27 first downs (74.1 percent).  While the yards-per-carry in this area wasn’t tremendous (upside is limited), the Cowboys gained just one total yard on their seven pass attempts in the same vicinity.

I specifically wanted to see Garrett call more pass attempts outside of the 10-yard line in 2010, and he did.  In 2009, the ‘Boys threw on just 12 of 29 first downs between the opponent’s 10 and 20-yard lines (41.4 percent).  I called for Garrett to increase that rate to around 65 percent.  He ended up calling a first down pass in this range on 17 of 26 first down plays–good for 65.4 percent.  You’re welcome, coach.  You can see in the graph to the right the efficiency on pass plays skyrocketed outside of the opponent’s 10-yard line (on the 13, 14 and 15-yard lines alone, the ‘Boys threw five passes for 50 yards and two touchdowns).  Of course this leap is to be expected with more room with which to work, but even in terms of a relative scale, the Cowboys (and all NFL teams) are more efficient on first down passes than first down runs when outside of the opponent’s 10-yard line.

Note that the black line refers to the run/pass ratio and the red and blue lines indicate the yards-per-play.  Kudos to Jason Garrett on following the statistics and altering his play-calling.  It’s really no wonder that Dallas saw a gigantic leap in red zone efficiency in 2010.

By Jonathan Bales

Chad Ochocinco Bullriding

This is ridiculous.

By Jonathan Bales

2011 NFC East Draft Grades: Which Team Did Best?

Jonathan Bales

I have already provided grades for each of the Cowboys’ eight 2011 draft picks, as well as an overall grade of a “C+” for the entire class.  To be honest, I would raise that grade to a “B-” after watching more tape and learning more about the prospects.  While I disagree with a few of the selections, you cannot argue with the team’s emphasis on high-character, hard-working players who fit into Jason Garrett’s scheme and overall philosophy.  Perhaps the ‘Boys are finally learning to create a solid team, not just a great collection of talented players.

These were the four points I took away from the Cowboys’ 2011 draft:

1) The Cowboys drafted primarily for value over need.  I’ve explained in the pastwhy selecting the best player available can be disadvantageous to a team.

2) DeMarco Murray’s presence seals Marion Barber’s fate in Dallas.  Let’s hope the same is true of Marc Colombo (Tyron Smith), and even Keith Brooking (Bruce Carter).

3) The ‘Boys emphasized hard-working, high-character players in this draft, which is great.  This may be a draft class that appears poor in 2011 but turns out to be solid in a few years, as many of the prospects seem like the type to work as hard as possible to become great.  Every single one of these players has the potential to be a Sean Lee-like worker and leader.

4) The Cowboys are clearly confident they can acquire a starting free safety in free agency.  With the weakness of this draft class, I think passing on a safety was fine.

A reader asked me to take a look at the draft classes for the other NFC East teams and provide my thoughts.  While properly assessing each individual pick would be difficult (I’m not going to just throw out a grade for late-round prospects I have not seen play), an overall team grade is workable.

Philadelphia Eagles

Selections
Round 1- Danny Watkins, G, Baylor
Round 2- Jaiquawn Jarrett, S, Temple
Round 3- Curtis Marsh, CB, Utah State
Round 4- Casey Matthews, ILB, Oregon
Round 4- Alex Henery, K, Nebraska
Round 5- Dion Lewis, RB, Pitt
Round 5- Justin Vandervelde, G, Iowa
Round 6- Jason Kelce, C, Cincinnati
Round 6- Brian Rolle, LB, Ohio State
Round 7- Greg Lloyd, LB, UConn
Round 7- Stanley Havili, FB, USC

Best Pick: Dion Lewis, RB, Pitt

I loved Lewis (past tense, now), ranking him as my No. 5 running back and No. 43 overall player on my Big Board.  I think the idea that running backs need to “complement” one another is flawed.  Lewis fits what the Eagles do very well.

Worst Pick: Danny Watkins, G, Baylor

I was honestly shocked at this selection.  Watkins will be 27 years old this season.  No. 76 on my board.

Overall Analysis

The Eagles are always among the teams with the most draft picks, which has been shown to be slightly correlated with a higher winning percentage.  I generally like the team’s drafting philosophy, but some of their picks in 2011 do not make sense to me.  Aside from Watkins, Philly also drafted an inside linebacker in Casey Matthews who I thought was borderline draftable.  I do like the selections of Jarrett and Havili, though.

Grade: C-

New York Giants

Selections


Round 1- Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
Round 2- Marvin Austin, DT, UNC
Round 3- Jerrel Jernigan, WR, Troy
Round 4- James Brewer, OT, Indiana
Round 6-  Greg Jones, ILB, Michigan State
Round 6- Tyler Sash, SS, Iowa
Round 6- Jacquian Williams, LB, USF
Round 7- Da’Rel Scott, RB, Maryland

Best Pick: Marvin Austin, DT, UNC

Even though the Giants already have solid defensive tackles, they are getting old and Austin represented tremendous value in the second round.  He was really the player I wanted the ‘Boys to take at No. 40, but they went with Austin’s teammate instead.

Worst Pick: Tyler Sash, SS, Iowa

This is really pushing it, as I don’t really think the Giants had a “bad” draft pick.  They found value throughout their draft.  Nonetheless, I don’t like Sash’s game and I think he’s a safety of the past.

Overall Analysis

This was really a tremendous draft for New York.  Even though I wasn’t incredibly high on Prince Amukamara, I still had him at No. 17 on my board and he was worth the risk for the G-Men.  The Giants also secured players on whom I was high in Jerrel Jernigan, James Brewer and Greg Jones (No. 2 inside linebacker).  Da’Rel Scott possesses the upside you seek in a late-round prospect.

Grade: B+

Washington Redskins

Selections
Round 1- Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
Round 2-  Jarvis Jenkins, DT, Clemson
Round 3- Leonard Hankerson, WR, Miami
Round 4- Roy Helu, RB, Nebraska
Round 5- Dejon Gomes, CB, Nebraska
Round 5-  Niles Paul, WR, Nebraska
Round 6- Evan Royster, RB, Penn State
Round 6- Aldrick Robinson, WR, SMU
Round 7- Brandyn Thompson, CB, Boise State
Round 7- Maurice Hurt, OL, Florida
Round 7-  Markus White, DE, FSU
Round 7- Chris Neild, NT, West Virginia

Best Pick: Niles Paul, WR, Nebraska

I was high enough on Paul to rank him as my No. 8 overall receiver.  I like his run-after-catch ability and think he could start in Washington almost immediately.

Worst Pick: Jarvis Jenkins, DT, Clemson

This reeks of a pick on which the ‘Skins got desperate.  They needed a nose tackle in their 3-4, so they reached.  I think I had Jenkins going to Dallas in Round 5 or 6 in one of my mocks.

Overall Analysis

The Redskins finally got a bunch of draft picks, but they were mostly late in a weak draft class.  I think they missed an opportunity to acquire true impact players.  Pardon my language, but this draft class sucks.

Grade: D-

Overall NFC East 2011 Draft Class Rankings
1. New York Giants: B+
2. Dallas Cowboys: C+
3. Philadelphia Eagles: C-
4. Washington Redskins: D-

By Jonathan Bales

Comparing 2010 Chris Gronkowski vs. 2009 Deon Anderson

Jonathan Bales

Last season, I published an article detailing why fullback Deon Anderson was much more vital to the Cowboys’ offense than anyone realized.  At that time, it was thought the Cowboys might cut Anderson due to (among other things) the emergence of John Phillips as a hybrid H-back-esque player.  I showed that the ‘Boys were far superior in the run game with Anderson on the field as compared to Phillips (5.6 YPC vs. 3.7 YPC), and actually slightly more effective in the passing game.  This came despite the Cowboys running the ball on 75.2 percent of Anderson’s snaps.

We all know Chris Gronkowski had some struggles as a rookie in 2010, highlighted by his missed blocking assignment that resulted in Tony Romo’s broken collarbone.  But did that single event cloud our judgment on Gronkowski’s overall play?  Was he better than that for which I gave him credit?  Take a look at the chart below.

You can see that the Cowboys were far less effective with Gronkowski on the field in 2010 as compared to Anderon in 2009.  The offense averaged 1.6 yards less per run and 1.1 yards less per pass.  The sample size of around 300 plays for each player is large enough that these differences seem to mean something.

However, the Cowboys were a far more productive offensive team in 2009 as a whole.  We really can’t place all of the blame on Gronkowski for the decrease in production with a fullback on the field in 2010, as the entire unit was worse.  When we compare Anderson’s numbers to the 2009 season averages and do the same with Gronkowski in 2010, though, we see Gronkowski was still a downgrade from Anderson.

The yards-per-rush and yards-per-pass numbers with Anderson on the field in 2009 were 16.7 percent and 5.5 percent greater, respectively, than the team’s overall averages.  Meanwhile, the Cowboys decreased their rushing and passing efficiency by 4.8 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively, with Gronkowski on the field this past season.

Thus, no matter how you slice it, it appears the Cowboys desperately miss Anderson as a lead blocker.  The selection of Georgia fullback Shaun Chapas suggests Jason Garrett feels the same way.

By Jonathan Bales

Analyzing Felix Jones’ Usage, Efficiency on Turf vs. Grass

Jonathan Bales

About a year ago, I posted a study which showed that the efficiency of running backs does not change based on the field surface, even for runners of different styles, i.e. as a whole, small, quick running backs perform no better on turf as compared to grass.  I floated out the idea that a running back like Felix Jones (and now rookie DeMarco Murray) might be superior on turf because his quick-twitch, speed-based game seems to be suited for a fast track.  The evidence seemed to suggest otherwise.

Now that Jones has played three seasons in the NFL, his numbers on turf and grass are beginning to become statistically significant.  Of the 38 games in which Jones has participated (including two playoff games), 26 of them have been on turf.  On the chart to the left, you can see his efficiency on runs has remained steady regardless of the surface–he averages 5.3 yards-per-rush on both grass and turf.  He has been a bit superior as a receiver while on grass, but this is likely due to a small sample size (14 receptions on grass, 58 on turf).

While the numbers related to Jones’ efficiency are no surprise, his usage statistics are another story.  You can see that Jason Garrett has given Jones three more carries per game when the Cowboys have played on turf as compared to grass.  This may not seem like a lot, but a roughly 30 percent increase over a sample size of 38 games is pretty significant.  The probability that such a difference would be due to chance is small, meaning it looks as though Garrett provides the ball more to Jones when the ‘Boys play on what the coach considers a fast track.

That idea appears to be affirmed by Jones’ reception numbers as well, as he catches nearly twice as many balls on turf over grass.  While Jones is the recipient of dump-offs from time to time, the majority of his receptions have come on screens or other plays designed to get him the ball in space.  It really does appear as though Garrett assumes Jones is a more lethal player on turf.

Of course, the Cowboys play their home games on turf, and the team may be more likely to be winning late in home games over road games.  When leading late in the game, additional carries are likely.  However, in the 20 home games in which Jones has participated, the ‘Boys are just 11-9.  That mark is very similar to the Cowboys’ 10-8 mark on road games in which Jones has played, meaning the idea of Jones’ “extra” turf carries coming from leading late in home games is inconsistent.

Ultimately, Garrett just needs to continue to feed Jones the football, regardless of the playing surface.  The addition of DeMarco Murray via the draft provides the Cowboys with an insurance policy against a Jones injury.  Of course, Garrett may have no choice but to give Jones or Murray plenty of touches on grass, since Marion Barber will be out of Dallas in 2011 and the head coach loathes Tashard Choice.

By Jonathan Bales

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