The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Should Andre Gurode Have Been Released?

Jonathan Bales

I apologize for the lack of posts regarding the Cowboys’ third preseason game.  Many of you know I live in the Northeast, and Irene made watching Dallas’ contest against the Vikes a nightmare.  I have since reviewed the game, but decided to sprinkle my comments on it throughout upcoming posts.  My 53-man roster projection in particular will give you a good idea of who I expect the Cowboys to retain.

Since the game in Minnesota, the most shocking news in Dallas has been the release of veteran Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode.  Gurode was due $5.5 million an apparently refused to take a pay cut, so Jason Garrett sent him on his way.  I agreed with the organization’s decision to give Orlando Scandrick the big bucks, but this is a decision with which I am not on board.

Gurode is certainly an aging player whose best days are likely behind him.  He has consistently been labeled as “overrated,” and that tag might have some merit.  In my 2010 Offensive Line Grades, I gave Gurode a C+ (78.2%) overall grade.  While others saw a player who failed to protect the quarterback, I saw one whose pass protection was fine, but whose run blocking was abysmal.  Here is what I had to say about Gurode’s play:

Run Blocking: D

The Cowboys averaged nearly a full yard less per run in 2010 when Gurode was at the point-of-attack (as compared to 2009).  Even more alarming is the fact that Gurode led the team in negative plays yielded despite playing a position where he receives a ton of help.

In fairness, I think some of that has to do with Jason Garrett’s play-calling.  When you continually run the same strong side dive from the same formation, defenders tend to catch on.  Nevertheless, I didn’t expect Gurode’s run blocking numbers to be this poor.

Pass Protection:  B+

Gurode has been an unpopular player in Dallas recently, particularly due to BSPN’s take on him (oops, I meant ESPN).  Over the second half of the season, however, Gurode was excellent in pass protection.  His numbers improved across the board from 2009, and he led the team with just a 1.20 pressure rate.  I value pressure totals more than sack totals, so that’s an important number to me.  This grade would have been an “A-” had Gurode not committed seven penalties and snapped the ball whenever the hell he wanted about five times this season.

I love the youth movement Garrett is trying to employ, and I really think players like Phil Costa are ready to contribute to this football team.  Garrett preaches competition at each position, and that sort of attitude is one which is necessary for the Cowboys to take the next step.  There are veterans who should have been released (Marc Colombo, Marion Barber, etc.), and then veterans whose contributions still warrant their stay on the roster.  I think Gurode falls into the latter category.

In terms of his contract and his current skill set, Gurode wasn’t a value player.  Unlike a guy such as Victor Butler, Gurode underperforms in relation to his contract.  Garrett’s flurry of moves this offseason suggest he’s all about creating value, whether it is in the draft or in regards to the salary cap.  Overall, that’s an intelligent strategy and one with which I am completely in agreement.

Sometimes, though, retaining players who are underperforming is admissible, assuming it results in an overall team value which is higher than would be the case during the player’s absence.  With the youngsters the Cowboys currently possess on the interior line, I think that scenario is just the case with Gurode.  Despite his hefty contract, cutting him has reduced the overall talent level on the team in a way I think is rather significant.  With Gurode gone, Phil Costa is set to start at center and rookie Bill Nagy will slide in as the starting left guard.

In my opinion, Costa is ready to play.  I thought the notion of him sitting behind Montrae Holland at guard was ridiculous, so I don’t think his play at center will be much of an issue.  In fact, his upside is surely larger than that of Gurode.  It is Nagy, however, whose playing time will be increased (by about 100%) as a result of Gurode’s release.  With Nagy, Costa and rookie Tyron Smith all starting, the ‘Boys certainly have more youth and upside on the offensive line than they possessed last season. . .and more risk.  Unlike many analysts, I still think the Cowboys are a very talented football team that, if things go their way, can make the playoffs and compete in them.  Despite his lack of monetary value, Gurode would have aided the Cowboys in that task.

In addition to the mystery surrounding 3/5 of the starting offensive line, the Cowboys’ backup offensive line situation can be described as “hopeful” at best.  Sam Young are Jeremy Parnell are in line to be the backup offensive tackles, while rookie David Arkin and underachieving Montrae Holland are the primary backups at guard.  And the projected No. 2 and current starting center?  Kevin Kowalski, of course.  If I have to Google a player to make sure I spelled his name correctly, he probably shouldn’t be starting for the Dallas Cowboys.

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By Jonathan Bales

Is Orlando Scandrick Worth $27 Million?

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys recently signed cornerback Orlando Scandrick to a five-year, $27 million deal with $10 million in guaranteed money.  The extension comes as a bit of a surprise considering Scandrick is a nickel cornerback who had what most consider an average 2010 season.  While I agree that Scandrick did not necessarily deserve $27 million, I do think the Cowboys were smart to lock him up long-term.

I provided Scandrick with the highest mark of any cornerback on the team in my 2010 Cornerback Grades.  His 83.4 percent was mostly the result of very solid play down the stretch of the season.  Scandrick continued to play hard and improve as other players on defense yielded to the disappointment which accompanied the losses.  Here is what I had to say about his play:

Pass Defense:  B

Scandrick began the season poorly, but his play really picked up over the final 10 weeks or so.  His Pass Defense Rating is the worst of any cornerback, but that’s really due to the nature of his position.  He’s on the field during passing situations, meaning the rate of passes he is targeted will naturally be higher.  The 0.88 yards-per-snap that he surrendered was down from 0.95 in 2009.

Run Defense: C+

Scandrick tallied 11 less tackles last season as compared to ’09, but part of the reason for that is that he gave up fewer receptions.  His 11.4 percent missed tackle rate is neither stellar nor horrendous, although it could certainly improve.

In hindsight, I actually think I should have given Scandrick a higher grade.  It is sometimes difficult to properly assess the play of cornerbacks because their success or failure is so heavily linked to the pass rush.  Although it seems minute, the difference between being asked to consistently cover a receiver for three seconds as compared to 3.5 seconds is actually rather monumental.  I think Scandrick’s solid coverage in 2010 went largely overlooked (even by me, I admit) because of the lack of a formidable pass rush.  There’s a reason I ranked him as one of the Cowboys’ 10 best draft picks since 2000.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan obviously agrees, as he undoubtedly signed off on Scandrick’s extension.  Ryan likely sees a player with top-notch speed who is asked to play arguably the most difficult position on defense (slot cornerback), as well as one who possesses a trait I didn’t give enough attention in my cornerback grades–the ability to blitz from the slot.  Ryan often calls for blitzes from the secondary in his unique 3-4 defense, and many people forget Scandrick was (sadly) one of the Cowboys’ top blitzers in 2010.  With Ryan in town, I think you’ll see an improvement in all facets of Scandrick’s game (due mostly to an increase in pressure).

Scandrick’s value to the Cowboys seems apparent, but was he worth $27 million?  That is starting cornerback money, and while Terence Newman is probably set to play his last season in Dallas, third cornerbacks don’t typically see that sort of payday.  To me, that is evidence that Ryan & Co. see Scandrick as a starter opposite Mike Jenkins by 2012–and possibly sooner.

Nonetheless, there is no reason to pay a player more than market value for his services.  This shows me the organization believes Scandrick is primed for a breakout 2011 campaign and decided signing him now–even if it meant “overpaying” at the time–is superior to waiting for him to cash in on the free agent market.  From that standpoint, I agree with the decision.

Of course, contracts aren’t always what they appear.  Receiving $10 million guaranteed isn’t a gigantic amount on a five-year deal, so it isn’t like the team is “stuck” with O-Scan (I can call him that because we’re pretty good friends.  Never met, but I Facebook message him pretty regularly. . .it’s whatever).  Plus, we don’t know how much of that $27 million is “potential” money linked to performance-based bonuses.  In reality, this might be a steal for Dallas.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part III: Tashard Choice vs. Phillip Tanner vs. Lonyae Miller

Jonathan Bales

Click here to read Part I or Part II of the “Training Camp Battles” Series.

Despite not playing a single down all preseason, rookie DeMarco Murray’s roster spot at running back is obviously safe.  With Felix Jones set to be a bit of a workhorse this season, the Cowboys’ final running back will likely need to play special teams.  One of the contenders–Tashard Choice–doesn’t particularly enjoy playing special teams.  Of the other two options, one (Lonyae Miller) has run tentatively in the preseason, while the other (Phillips Tanner) has been outstanding.  Let’s break down the cases for each player. . .

  • Tashard Choice

Choice had an up-and-down 2010 season, finishing with a C+ (78.9%) overall grade.  In my 2010 Running Back Grades, I graded Choice as follows:

Short-Yardage Running: B-

Choice’s sample size of 10 short-yardage runs isn’t enough for those stats to mean much, so we have to judge his performance with film.  To me, Choice did just an average job on short-yardage in 2010, but I think he’s a better player than what his numbers indicate (70.0 percent conversion rate).  He doesn’t have incredible explosiveness, but he always seems to be either elusive or strong enough to adequately perform his job.  Still, Choice’s yards-after-contact and broken tackle numbers need to improve.

Overall Running:  C-

Again, I don’t think Choice’s numbers match up with his actual ability.  I think Choice is the type of player who performs well as he becomes accustomed to the flow of the game.  He needs some time to get going.  Is that ideal?  No, but it does appear to be the case.

When Choice has received that extra playing time in the past, he’s done well.  He’ll never be a feature back, but I certainly believe he can be a very productive No. 2 option.  He’s solid in every aspect of running back play, but will Garrett even want him around in 2011?

Receiving:  B-

Choice is a natural pass-catcher.  Again, he’s not flashy and won’t take a screen pass 60 yards to the house, but he will consistently put himself in position to convert first downs.

Pass Protection:  B

I think Choice regressed just a bit in his pass protection this season.  He really struggled in the preseason, but he got it cleaned up (for the most part) during the regular season.  I attributed one sack and three pressures to Choice.

Choice has been a productive player for the Cowboys when given snaps, but Jason Garrett doesn’t like that Choice won’t play special teams (and for good reason).  As a No. 3 back, it should be a given that special teams duties are in your future.

If the Cowboys cut or trade Choice, they could be in some trouble.  Rookie DeMarco Murray is a true unknown at this point, and it would be quite risky to have No. 2 and No. 3 running backs with zero NFL experience behind a starter who has an above average chance of getting injured.

Thus, I think you’ll see Choice either get traded or make the final roster.  If Garrett can get a mid-round draft pick for him, he’ll probably pull the trigger.  If not, I don’t think Choice will be released and he may even enter the season as the No. 2 running back.

Running: 5

Receiving: 7

Pass Protection: 7

Special Teams: 0

Total: 19

  • Lonyae Miller

Miller has been awful in the preseason.  Outside of a pancake block on Sunday night, he has been poor as a runner, receiver and pass protector.  No. 3 running backs need to do a variety of things well, and Miller doesn’t do any of them at a particularly high level.  He’ll play special teams, but again, that should be a given.

Running: 2

Receiving: 3

Pass Protection: 4

Special Teams: 5

Total: 14

  • Phillip Tanner

Tanner has been one of the biggest surprises for Dallas this preseason.  He has run with power and explosiveness, highlighted by his breakout performance on Sunday night.  He kind of reminds me of a young Marion Barber, but with a lot more wiggle.  He’s not afraid to lower his pads and hit a defender in the mouth, but he can run around them too.  You know that kind of attitude will translate well to special teams.

Tanner’s biggest con is his lack of experience.  The Cowboys know what they have in Choice and even Miller, but Tanner’s uncertainty might scare off Garrett.  If Jones gets injured and Murray isn’t as advertised, what happens if Tanner isn’t what we saw the other night?

Running: 8

Receiving: 6

Pass Protection: 6

Special Teams: 7

Total: 27

Conclusions

So far, I have been assuming the Cowboys will retain just three running backs.  That is standard practice, especially with so many potential fullbacks and tight ends on the team.  Of course, you want to keep as close to the best 53 guys on the team as possible, and if four running backs deserve to be on the squad, then they should all make it.

If Tanner continues to play as he did Sunday night, I don’t know how Garrett will cut him.  It would be a bonehead move to try to sneak him onto the practice squad, in my opinion, because a running back-hungry team will scoop him up in no time.  His presence on the roster would lead to too much inexperience at running back, however, so I think he should be the fourth running back–behind Jones, Murray and Choice.  Unless Miller can suddenly learn to kick field goals with great accuracy, he isn’t making this team.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. San Diego Chargers Week 2 Post-Game Observations

Jonathan Bales

In case you missed it, I did a live blog of last night’s game. Here are some of my observations. . .

  • Felix Jones looks remarkable.  He is the clear No. 1 and should be a workhorse for Dallas.  People will argue he cannot withstand the punishment of receiving 15+ touches a game, but I disagree.  You have to feed the ball to your most talented players, and the Cowboys are a far more dynamic offense with Jones on the field.  Jones has a greater chance of getting injured if he receives more touches, but that is simply because of a larger selection of plays on which he can get hurt.  He is no more likely (at least not substantially so) to get injured on his 20th touch than his first.  Give him the ball.
  • By the way. . .anyone else see Jones’ beard?  Yikes.
  • Tyron Smith looks really good.  His footwork needs to be developed, but he is far ahead of where I thought he might be at this point.  He’s already a large upgrade over Marc Colombo and offers the Cowboys left/right tackle versatility.  I still don’t like Jason Garrett giving him more snaps than the other first-team offensive linemen, though.  I realize he needs work, but do we really want to see Sam Young starting?
  • Tony Romo’s interception came on a playaction pass out of ‘Ace’ formation.  The ‘Boys love to run playaction out of ‘Ace’ (particularly screens), and Romo checked into this particular play.  It wasn’t that the audible was poor as much as the throw, as Romo simply made a lackluster read.  In my 2010 Quarterback Grades, I analyzed Romo’s audibles for the entire season (stats below).

  • The cornerbacks are playing quite a bit of off coverage.  I’m not sure if this will continue into the regular season, but I think Rob Ryan is dialing it up because he’s afraid the defensive backs could get beat deep.  With Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins still out, it is tough to ask Alan Ball and Orlando Scandrick to be too physical at the line.
  • In the early part of the game, we saw Abram Elam, Danny McCray and Bryan McCann all blitz.  Using unconventional defenders (i.e. secondary) to blitz is a trademark of Rob Ryan’s defense.  The reason it works is because offensive line’s rarely account for a nickel cornerback, for example.  While blitzing players from the secondary (or, similarly, dropping defensive linemen/outside linebackers into coverage) is not inherently value-maximizing, it can still often lead to maximum value for a defense.  This is due to the fact that football is a zero-sum game (meaning the success of one team necessarily means the failure of the other).  If we assign a “normal” blitz with 500 “value points” and give the offense 450 points in their ability to effectively block it, it creates less of a disparity than an exotic blitz which is worth just 400 points (intrinsically “less” valuable than the normal blitz) but gives the offense 300 points in their ability to halt it.  The points are arbitrary, but they show that Ryan’s defense works because it creates the largest disparity between offensive and defensive efficiency, not because it is valuable in and of itself.
  • Barry Church had a nice night.  He made a couple plays on special teams and looked pretty good in coverage (sans one pass interference call).  His ability to stop the run has always been considered a strength, so it is nice to see him improving against the pass.  I think he offers versatility as a blitzer as well, and at this point, I think he has a better chance to make the team than Danny McCray.  The two may be in a battle for a roster spot.
  • Gerald Sensabaugh already looks much improved after showing hesitancy in Ryan’s scheme last week.  He nearly made a really nice interception and looked solid overall.  Don’t forget the Cowboys were smart to retain Sensabaugh on a one-year deal.
  • Stephen McGee continues to improve.  He has all the tools to succeed, but he still needs to display more consistency.  Sometimes he stands tall in the pocket and delivers the football, and other times he bails when there is no apparent pressure at all.  He uses his mobility in a manner similar to Romo, scrambling behind the line-of-scrimmage to find open receivers as opposed to taking off on the ground.  With sub-par accuracy, he needs to use that mobility–but not when it isn’t necessary.
  • Lonyae Miller continues to struggle, and I don’t think he has much of a chance to make the roster anymore.  He runs hesitantly and displays little burst.  He leveled a linebacker in pass protection, but he’s inconsistent in that area as well.  The real story at running back right now is Phillip Tanner.  The kid showed a lot last night–tremendous burst, good pass protection, and incredible toughness.  If he keeps it up, the ‘Boys won’t be able to stash him on the practice squad.  If I was Garrett, I would be heading into the 2011 season with four tailbacks on my roster–Jones, Murray, Choice and Tanner–and I’d be looking to move Choice.
  • Jeremy Parnell is the third-best offensive tackle on this team right now.  That doesn’t bode well for the offensive line, but Parnell has shown a nice combination of power in the run game and quickness in pass pro.  I think he’ll make the 53-man roster.
  • The more I watch the rookies, the more I think David Arkin is going to be a future starter at guard.  The knock on him was an inability to move around well in space, but that isn’t what I see.  He’s shown me he can get to the second level just fine, giving the offense the ability to continue to run screens when he’s in the game.
  • Kevin Ogletree and Manuel Johnson both had solid nights.  I’d still like to see Dwayne Harris win the No. 3 receiving job, but Ogletree has experience on his side.  Johnson is probably in a fight with Jesse Holley for the final receiver spot on the roster.

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By Jonathan Bales

15 Things to Watch in Dallas Cowboys vs. San Diego Chargers Week 2 Preseason Game

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys took down the Broncos in a thriller during Week One of the preseason.  Here is what we learned during that game.  This weekend, the ‘Boys will host the San Diego Chargers.  Here are a few things I will be watching. .

Mike Jenkins vs. Vincent Jackson: In his first game of the preseason, how will Jenkins fair when matched up with physical wide receiver Vincent Jackson?  He will be asked to do more press coverage with Rob Ryan in town, and that could be a problem against players like Jackson.  Expect to see more of a press and bail technique from Jenkins rather than a true jam.  The preseason will be a great opportunity for Jenkins to regain some of the confidence which seemed to be missing in 2010.

Dwayne Harris: After busting out for 127 yards and two touchdowns last week, let’s see how Harris responds.  He has a legitimate shot to beat out Kevin Ogletree for slot receiver duties, and I personally hope he wins.  He seems to be a harder worker, more intelligent, and superior after the catch.  Jason Garrett will not be afraid to play the rookie ahead of an under-achieving Ogletree.

Screen Passes: Garrett called a few more screens than usual last week, and I think that is a trend which will continue into the regular season.  With more athletic offensive linemen and Felix Jones/DeMarco Murray in the backfield, why not?  Here are the 2010 screen stats.  Expect at least 100 screens this season.

Tyron Smith vs. Shaun Phillips: I thought the rookie offensive tackle had a solid outing in Week One.  He looks powerful in the running game and agile out in space.  He’ll face an incredibly difficult match-up this week against Shaun Phillips.  If he excels here, I think the ‘Boys found a keeper.

Dan Bailey: David Buehler is out with a hip injury, so Bailey will get plenty of work.  He struggled with field goals this week in practice, but I’m more concerned with his kickoffs.  Consistent touchbacks will put Buehler’s roster spot in jeopardy.

Victor Butler vs. Marcus McNeill: In my breakdown of the Victor Butler-Anthony Spencer position battle, I argued that Butler should be the starter:

At the very least, Rob Ryan should increase Butler’s snaps until the production and efficiency of both players (combined) is maximized.  At that point, the Nash equilibrium of outside linebacker production will be reached.

Think of it like this: as Butler’s snaps increase, his production will, at some point, decline (due to fatigue, increased attention from the offense and so on).  Once his efficiency declines to the point of Spencer’s, the Nash equilibrium will be reached.  Although neither player’s individual production will be maximized, the overall efficiency of the outside linebacker position will be at its peak.

When you have an All-World player like DeMarcus Ware, the Nash equilibrium is shifted to Ware playing as many snaps as possible, i.e. a tired Ware is better than anyone else.  Spencer isn’t Ware.  When he is tired, he needs to come out of the game.  Ryan should shift the snap count of Spencer and Butler until the ‘Boys reach their Nash equilibrium of outside linebacker production.  I have a strong feeling that equilibrium would result in Butler receiving the majority of snaps.

And why do I think Butler should receive significantly more playing time?  You can see to the left that Butler recorded the highest pressure rate of any player on the team in 2010.  Detractors argue that this is because Butler played less snaps against the run than Spencer or Ware, but that’s flat wrong.  Butler actually played the run on 39.5% of snaps–highest of any outside linebacker.  Oh yeah, he also didn’t miss a tackle all season (Spencer missed six).

Bryan McCann: McCann looked awful in Week One, and that’s a bad sign for Cowboys fans.  As of now, he is this team’s nickel cornerback.  With Terence Newman’s health always in question, McCann needs to be ready to go this season.  He’ll get some time against San Diego’s first team, so let’s see how he responds to adversity.

Shaun Chapas’ Lead Blocking: The rookie fullback was brought in because the Cowboys need a better lead-blocking fullback.  Chris Gronkowski is an okay player, but he’s not the sort of bruiser a team can rely on in short-yardage situations.  Is Chapas?  Look for some dives from Double Tight Strong with Chapas in the game, as Garrett will want to test the youngster.

Kenyon Coleman: Coleman will receive his first start as a Cowboy, replacing Igor Olshansky.  In my breakdown of the defensive end battle, I argued that neither Coleman nor Olshansky should be starting.  Despite being perhaps the team’s best pass-rushing defensive end, I think Jason Hatcher should start football games opposite Marcus Spears.  I’m not overly familiar with Coleman’s game, though, and he has a chance to impress tonight.

Clifton Geathers: No matter who starts at defensive end, a heavy rotation will be used.  That’s in part due to fatigue, but also because none of the players are all that great.  Geathers had a sack last week and showed some things against the run, so I’m looking forward to studying him more to see what sort of potential impact he might be able to make down the road.

Patrick Crayton: He’s back in town and doesn’t seem to have many nice things to say about the Cowboys.  This isn’t a particularly big story to me, particularly in the preseason, but I know others are interested.

Lonyae Miller: Miller looked terrible against the Broncos.  With Tashard Choice and DeMarco Murray still sidelined, this is his opportunity to grab a roster spot.  Unless something changes quickly, that won’t happen.

Akwasi Owusu-Ansah: Owusu-Ansah has been riddled with injuries during his short NFL career, but he is healthy now.  I still think he has great potential, but now is the time to show it.  If he doesn’t make a play at safety or in the return game, he might not make this team.

Gerald Sensabaugh: Sensabaugh looked lost in Rob Ryan’s defense last week.  I’m glad the ‘Boys re-signed him, and I expect his play to improve as he becomes more comfortable with the system.  Most of his mistakes appeared to be mental.

Sam Young: If Doug Free or Tyron Smith gets injured, what exactly are the Cowboys going to do?  The other offensive tackles on the roster are Young and Jermey Parnell.  Young is probably the immediate backup at right tackle (with Smith moving to left tackle in the event of an injury to Free), but is anyone really comfortable with that?  Watch the play of both Young and Parnell this week.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part II: Kenyon Coleman vs. Jason Hatcher vs. Igor Olshansky

Jonathan Bales

Click here to read Part I of the “Training Camp Battles” Series.

I was rather shocked when the Cowboys failed to secure a rookie or high-profile defensive end this offseason.  The ‘Boys did bring in Kenyon Coleman from Cleveland, and his numbers against the run were far superior to those of the Dallas defensive ends in 2010.  You can read why I think that was the case in my article on if the defensive ends can generate enough pressure in 2011.

After letting Stephen Bowen walk in free agency, the Cowboys are currently left with Coleman and Marcus Spears currently starting at defensive end (Coleman replaced Igor Olshansky on the first team yesterday), with Jason Hatcher and Olshansky on the second team.  Clifton Geathers and Sean Lissemore round out the position.

As of now, it looks as though either Coleman or Olshansky will be starting in 2011.  It is very possible that Coleman simply got the nod this week because he is more familiar with Rob Ryan’s defense and just to get some time with the ones.  If Olshansky does regain his starting gig, it will be tragic.  Olshansky has shown to be awful against the pass and, despite being known as a “run stopper,” rather mediocre against the run as well.  In my 2010 Defensive End Grades, I gave Olshansky a 70.2% overall grade.  He secured the worst sack and hit rates of any defensive end on the team.  Actually, Olshanksy failed to record a sack during any of his team-leading 574 snaps.

In my grades, I had the following analysis of Olshansky’s 2010 play:

Run Defense:  C

You wouldn’t know it from all of his celebrations, but Olshansky took a big step backwards in 2010.  His tackle rate was way down from 2009 and he simply wasn’t in on a lot of plays.  Olshansky’s average play against the run means this “run-stuffing specialist” needs to be out of Dallas next season.

Pass Defense:  D-

Olshansky was never incredible as a pass-rusher, but his inability to generate any sort of pressure makes it way too easy for the opposition to pass on first down.  Zero sacks in 574 snaps is debilitating to a defense.

Now, it wasn’t as if Hatcher was lighting it up either.  You can see had only two sacks, two hits, and a pressure rate that was barely better than Olshansky’s.  That is particularly poor news because Hatcher played more snaps against the pass than Olshansky.  Still, I think we can all agree that Hatcher undoubtedly offers more upside than Olshansky as a pass rusher.  With NFL teams passing more and more on early downs and Rob Ryan allowing the defensive ends to freelance more this season, Hatcher seems like the logical choice to start over both Olshansky and Coleman.

But why not Coleman?  He had 54 tackles in Ryan’s scheme last season and a 9.5% tackle rate.  The problem with starting Coleman is that a similar player is already playing on the opposite side of the line in Spears.  If the ‘Boys fail to stop the run as they did in their preseason opener, however, that might be the defense’s only option.

If Olshansky is still on the team by the start of the regular season, why not give him some snaps at nose tackle?  His lack of pass rush skills would be less of a liability inside, and it would allow Jay Ratliff to give the defensive end position a much needed boost.  Also don’t rule out Geathers receiving some snaps this year.  He’s a talented player who is having a solid preseason, and he could be a contributor if someone ahead of him goes down.

In the end, though, I expect the defensive end snap breakdown to go something like this (assuming the defensive ends play a total of 1,700 snaps):

  • Marcus Spears: 600
  • Kenyon Coleman: 400
  • Jason Hatcher: 400
  • Igor Olshansky: 300

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part I: Anthony Spencer vs. Victor Butler

Jonathan Bales

In last year’s “Training Camp Battles” Series, I analyzed the Cowboys’ most intriguing positional battles heading into the season.  I’m continuing the series this year with a matchup that might not even be much of a competition.  It has kind of been assumed in the past that Anthony Spencer’s starting job is secure, and that Victor Butler, Brandon Williams and company are all competing to garner snaps behind Spencer and DeMarcus Ware.  Perhaps it is because Spencer is a former first-round selection, or maybe the Cowboys think his run-stopping ability is far superior to his backups, but it needs to end.  And it needs to end in 2011.

With new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Big D, I think there is finally a legitimate shot of Butler unseating Spencer from the starting strong-side outside linebacker position.  With Ryan’s version of the 3-4 defense calling for multiple pass-rushing linebackers on the field together, Butler at least figures to see far more than the 157 snaps he saw in 2010.  But even 300 snaps is not nearly enough for a player who, in my opinion, should be starting opposite Ware from Week 1.  Here is why. . .

In my 2010 Outside Linebacker Grades, I provided Butler with a 89.9% and Spencer with an 84.6% (for the record, Ware received a 94.0%).  My grades are obviously based on efficiency as opposed to total production, but the gap between Butler and Spencer, in terms of pure efficiency, was rather vast.  You can see to the right that Butler’s sacks-per-rush were over twice that of Spencer.  With only 157 snaps, though, I think sacks are a poor indicator of Butler’s play.  The same can be said for hits, which are perhaps even more fluky than sacks.

In my view, quarterback pressures are the best determiner of a pass rusher’s worth.  Of course you want a player who can bring the quarterback down once he reaches him, but past sacks have been shown to be a worse predictor of future sacks than past pressures, i.e. despite being less valuable in games, pressures are “more valuable” than sacks in statistical analysis.  Butler’s pressure rate of .118 is incredible–even better than that of Ware.

But what about Butler’s run-stopping ability?  He’s a pass-rush specialist, some argue, and his numbers are inflated due to an increased percentage of snaps against the pass.  Errrntttt. (Like a buzzer.  Like at the end of games, ya know?  Like I’m saying the hypothetical Butler “hater” is wrong in his assessment of Butler’s efficiency.  Whatever.)

On the contrary, Butler actually played the highest percentage of snaps against the run of any outside linebacker in 2010.  39.5% compared to Spencer’s 38.6%.  Good numbers for us, because it makes the statistics of the two players very comparable.  You can see Butler’s production against the run is arguably superior to that of Spencer.  He recorded a tackle on 7.6% of his snaps in 2010, compared to 5.6% for the former Purdue Boilermaker.  And oh yeah, Butler also didn’t miss a single tackle.  Spencer missed six.

Some might argue that we should expect Butler’s stats to be superior to Spencer’s because Butler’s lack of sizable snaps means he is always at near-100%.  Efficiency numbers might be a poor barometer of value because we should expect the players who receive the most snaps to get a little tired and see at least a small decline in play.

That is certainly the best argument in favor of Spencer retaining his starting job, but it is also in some ways irrelevant to Butler.  He has played incredibly while in the game, and that’s all he can do.  At the very least, it is the job of the coaches to make sure the players who are performing at the highest level receive the most playing time.  Butler’s 157 snaps in 2010 is a joke.  DCT readers knew before the 2010 season began that Butler was a rising player (dare I say potential star?) who deserved more snaps.  Actually, just prior to the season I wrote:

Victor Butler will play close to 250 snaps and will record at least five sacks.

The kid has shown he is ready for more playing time.  There’s no way Coach Phillips wants DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer playing 1,100+ snaps again this season, so either Butler or Brandon Williams will have to step up.

Butler was phenomenal in the preseason, particularly against the run (and we know he can get to the passer).

So why didn’t Butler get the snaps in 2010?  Unlike Wade Phillips, I think Rob Ryan has the guts to sit a veteran in favor of a more productive player.  At the very least, he should increase Butler’s snaps until the production and efficiency of both players (combined) is maximized.  At that point, the Nash equilibrium of outside linebacker production will be reached.

Think of it like this: as Butler’s snaps increase, his production will, at some point, decline (due to fatigue, increased attention from the offense and so on).  Once his efficiency declines to the point of Spencer’s, the Nash equilibrium will be reached.  Although neither player’s individual production will be maximized, the overall efficiency of the outside linebacker position will be at its peak.

When you have an All-World player like DeMarcus Ware, the Nash equilibrium is shifted to Ware playing as many snaps as possible, i.e. a tired Ware is better than anyone else.  Spencer isn’t Ware.  When he is tired, he needs to come out of the game.  Ryan should shift the snap count of Spencer and Butler until the ‘Boys reach their Nash equilibrium of outside linebacker production.  I have a strong feeling that equilibrium would result in Butler receiving the majority of snaps.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. Denver Broncos Preseason Week 1: What We Learned

Jonathan Bales

There’s a lot we can take away from the Cowboys’ 24-23 win over the Denver Broncos last night, so let’s dive right in. . .

  • I was impressed with rookie Dan Bailey’s kickoffs.  If he can consistently garner touchbacks, he should make the roster over David Buehler.  If he cannot, I think the Cowboys should carry two kickers.  Despite the 42-yard field goal last night, Buehler’s placekicking is simply too erratic to count on.
  • The defense did some blitzing, but the pre-snap alignments weren’t as chaotic as I anticipated.  It is likely that Rob Ryan was playing “vanilla” due to a lack of practice time and the fact that he wants to see players’ athleticism take over (as opposed to them “thinking” too much about assignments).
  • The numbers don’t really show it, but the Cowboys need to improve their run defense at the point-of-attack.  Too often this team lets the running back get five yards downfield before anyone puts a hat on him.  Having said that, I liked the play of the defensive ends, particularly Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher.  Both will be allowed to freelance far more in 2011 than last season.  Hatcher looks a lot quicker than usual.
  • Felix Jones could have a big-time year.  If he stays healthy (a big if), he has the explosiveness to be one of the premiere running backs in this league.  He has home run ability, is underrated in short-yardage and between-the-tackles running, and is improving mightily as a receiver.  He was my sixth-highest rated Cowboy in 2010, and I think he has a legitimate chance at being a top three player on the team in 2011.  Early prediction: if healthy, 1400 total yards and 8-10 touchdowns.
  • One of the reasons I think Jones will have a career season is the offense’s ability to run screens.  With Marc Colombo and Leonard Davis gone, this offensive line is far, far more mobile.  I wrote on Twitter last night that you can expect a lot more screens from Dallas in 2011.  Here are some 2010 screen statistics.  Dallas ran 71 screens in 2010, including 44 to running backs.  You can expect these totals to increase to around 100 and 70.
  • You can still expect Jason Garrett to dial up plenty of screens following playaction looks.  The ‘Boys did it a couple of times again last night.  In my 2010 Playaction Pass Guide, I noted the Cowboys ran a screen on 19.3% of playaction passes–nearly double the 10.0% rate on non-playaction looks.  Garrett loves to run screens out of Ace formation.

  • Good news and bad news.  The bad news is Garrett is still running a lot of plays from Double Tight Strong.  In my study on the formation, I noted he called a strong side dive from it on 77.6% of runs and 64.2% of the time overall.  The team averaged only 2.15 YPC on these runs.   The good news is 1) Garrett called far more runs from the formation in the preseason last year than he did in the regular season, so its presence in 2011 could be as a gauge to judge players, and 2) he ran weak side out of the formation more often than usual.  If he can use his “predictability” out of the formation to his advantage by occasionally faking the strong side dive and throwing deep, it can be a valuable tool.  Otherwise, it needs to be scrapped.
  • Victor Butler is a beast.  He is a terror off of the edge and dramatically improved against the run.  He had an incredible move last night that led to a Clifton Geathers sack of Tim Tebow.  He needs a legitimate chance to beat out Anthony Spencer.  I’m not as low on Spencer as most, but I now think Butler is the superior player.
  • Rookie cornerback Josh Thomas and Alan Ball could be battling for a roster spot.  I think Thomas wins the job due to upside and incredibly quick feet.
  • Bryan McCann struggled last night.  He was called for pass interference once and got away with another penalty on Brandon Lloyd in the end zone.  With Terence Newman’s injury history, McCann needs to step up this season.
  • I really liked what I saw from Tyron Smith.  His versatility is incredible, as he can overpower in the run game and get out in space on screens.  I didn’t like that Garrett kept him in the game for so long.  He’s far more valuable to the offense than most people realize.
  • Sean Lissemore played a lot of nose tackle last night.  He looks noticeably bigger and his versatility should land him a roster spot.  Hopefully it comes at the expense of Igor Olshansky.
  • After a rough start, Stephen McGee rebounded to go 14-for-24 for 208 yards, three scores and a pick.  He is still struggling to read the blitz and get out of the way of pressure, but his athleticism makes up for it sometimes.  He’s improving.
  • Rookie receiver Dwayne Harris had a monster game.  The stats were nice (five receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns), and his run-after-catch ability is superb.  If he keeps it up, he could beat out Kevin Ogletree for slot receiver duties.  I’m pulling for him.
  • I liked what I saw from rookie guard David Arkin.  He surprised me with his ability to get out in space and move around–a trait that wasn’t considered his strong point.  Still, I’m not sure the Cowboys can count on him for much production in 2011.

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys 2011 Preseason Schedule: Previewing Denver, San Diego, Minnesota and Miami

Jonathan Bales

With all of the hoopla that surrounded the end of the lockout and the start of free agency, it is a bit hard to believe the Cowboys’ preseason opener is just two days away.  While a team’s play during the preseason is a poor predictor of their regular season record, there are still plenty of things which we can learn from each game.  Among other things, it is always nice to watch the play of rookies and newly-acquired free agents.  The preseason is also our first opportunity to get a glimpse of defensive coordinator’s 3-4 scheme in Big D.  Here are a few notes and things I will be watching this preseason. . .

Denver Broncos – Thurs, Aug 11

  • The majority of the starters will play just a series or two on Thursday.  Of course the primary starter to watch is rookie right tackle Tyron Smith.  He will get a few snaps against Broncos DE Elvis Dumervil, which will be a nice challenge for the youngster.
  • Watch for Kyle Kosier’s play at his new right guard position.  The ‘Boys plan to play him there to help rookie Tyron Smith with line calls.  The learning curve should not be dramatic for the veteran.
  • The sample size will not be too large, but let’s see who Tony Romo targets in the passing game.  Jason Witten, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are kind of 1A, 1B and 1C in the passing game, in no particular order.
  • With the new kickoff rules, let’s see how far David Buehler booms the ball through the end zone.  More importantly, watch rookie Dan Bailey’s kickoffs.  If he can consistently garner touchbacks, Buehler’s roster spot is in trouble.
  • Victor Butler should see a good amount of playing time in all of the preseason games.  I think he has a chance to receive a lot of snaps in 2011, and perhaps even overtake Anthony Spencer for a starting outside linebacker spot at some point.

  • In addition to Tyron Smith, be sure to watch the play of Dwayne Harris, David Arkin, Shaun Chapas and the other rooks.  DeMarco Murray and Bruce Carter will be out with injuries.
  • Safety Abram Elam was one of the Cowboys’ only free agent signings.  He is familiar with Rob Ryan’s scheme from his time in Cleveland, and Thursday night will be our first chance to see him in action in Dallas.
  • Is Sean Lee ready to start?  I think so, but we’ll see this preseason.
  • Lonyae Miller has been tearing it up in camp.  With Tashard Choice and Murray injured, Miller has a shot to win No. 2 running back duties.  On the other hand, if he does not make the roster, here is how I expect the Cowboys to split up carries.
  • This is basically Akwasi Owusu-Ansah’s “second” rookie season.  I think he has starting safety potential, but he needs to have a big preseason.
  • The Cowboys have been notoriously poor at stopping mobile quarterbacks in the past, and with Michael Vick in the division, that’s a big no-no.  Tim Tebow is a different kind of runner, but the task of halting his ground game will be a nice test for the defense.
  • Denver WR Brandon Lloyd will represent a great challenge for CBs Orlando Scandrick and Bryan McCann.  Both Newman and Jenkins are out.

San Diego Chargers – Sun, Aug 21

  • The starters should see about a quarter of play in this contest.  The Chargers were one of the most “unlucky” teams in 2010, missing the playoffs despite finishing first in both offense and defense.  They are a really good football team.
  • DeMarco Murray may be healthy by this point.  He won’t get a ton of work even if he is ready to go, but it will be nice to see the rookie in action.
  • The Chargers’ passing attack, led by Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson, will be a big-time challenge for a Dallas pass defense that was one of the worst in the league last season.  Keep your eye on the Jenkins-Jackson and Lee-Gates matchups.
  • The ‘Boys have had some trouble on offense when facing 3-4 defenses.  San Diego has one of the best in the NFL.  Look for Dallas to try to get Felix Jones and perhaps Murray isolated against San Diego’s big outside linebackers.
  • How will Tyron Smith fare against Shaun Phillips?  Another awesome test for the rookie against a 3-4 defensive scheme he rarely saw in college.
  • With a full quarter to play, this will be our first legitimate chance to see if Rob Ryan can get the first-team defense to generate pressure.  Victor Butler/Anthony Spencer vs. Marcus McNeill will be a great matchup to watch.

@Minnesota Vikings – Sat, Aug 27

  • The third game of the preseason is always the most exciting.  It will come close to resembling a regular season game, as the starters will likely play about three quarters.
  • Again, we will receive a glimpse of where Romo looks to go with the football when he is in trouble.  I think a lot of people will be surprised at how many targets Dez Bryant receives this season.
  • How will the line handle Jared Allen?  We know Doug Free is perhaps best-suited for speed rushers, but Allen has a bit of everything.  Tyron Smith will have his hands full as well in our first chance to see him play significant snaps.  Also be sure to watch the pass protection and blitz pickup ability of Felix Jones, Murray (who should definitely be back by then) and even Lonyae Miller.
  • Adrian Peterson is perhaps the most dynamic running back in the NFL.  He has game-breaking speed, incredible power, and he may even be a legitimate receiving threat this season.  It will be interesting to see how Ryan plans to limit Peterson, including if the defense can contain him without placing eight men in the box.
  • Percy Harvin is the prototypical “Cowboy-killer.”  He’s fast, shifty, and will often be matched up against linebackers and safeties.  The major problem he poses is forcing a shift in personnel. . .if you bring in the nickel to allow Scandrick or McCann to cover him, you are just asking Peterson to gash you.  The Vikings should be able to run the ball really well out of three-receiver sets this season.

@Miami Dolphins – Thurs, Sep 1

  • The Cowboys play the Dolphins in the regular season, so don’t expect to see anything but the most basic of play-calls.  With the starters sitting, this game will be considered a boring one by many.  However, it might be the most useful to the coaches, as they get to assess the play of rookies and fringe players.  David Buehler, Dan Bailey, Shaun Chapas, Chris Gronkowski, Barry Church, Jesse Holley, Teddy Williams and so on. . .you all better come to play.  Gronkowski in particular needs a stellar preseason.  His 2010 rookie season was a far cry from the year Deon Anderson had in 2009.
  • If the Dolphins run any Wildcat, we’ll see how Ryan chooses to defend it.  He will see some of it in at least two games this season against Philly.
  • In both the preseason and regular season, track Jason Garrett’s red zone play-calling.  It improved a lot in 2010.
  • Lastly, let’s see what kind of emotion the Cowboys play with in the preseason.  These games “don’t matter”…but the manner in which the team prepares for a “meaningless” game could determine their ability to effectively prepare for the ones that do count.

By Jonathan Bales

Why Re-Signing Gerald Sensabaugh Was the Right Move for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys recently re-signed safety Gerald Sensabaugh to a one-year, $2.5 million deal after letting him test the market.  A lot of fans were up in arms about the Cowboys’ lack of involvement in free agency, particularly at the safety position.  Many assumed Sensabaugh would simply be gone in 2011, as the general consensus among both fans and media is that Sensabaugh is an “average at best” player.

I disagree.  I gave Sensabaugh a B+ (87%) overall grade in my 2010 Safety Grades–the fifth-highest grade of any player on the team.  Here is what I had to say about Sensy’s 2010 play:

Pass Defense:  B+

I admit that I was pretty low on Sensabaugh going into the 2010 season.  Throughout the year, though, I noticed Sensabaugh becoming more comfortable in the defense and using his instincts to make plays.

Readers may be shocked to see this grade for a player many view as overrated, but I really believe Sensabaugh deserves it.  Despite being targeted about as often as in ’09, Sensy yielded a lower reception rate and completion percentage, fewer yards, and less yards-per-attempt and per snap.

Sensabaugh also decreased his touchdowns allowed from five to one, while increasing his interception total from one to five.  Many of you know I view interceptions as somewhat fluky and a relatively poor barometer for coverage ability, but Sensabaugh was actually usually in position to make plays in 2010.

Run Defense:  B+

More tackles, fewer missed tackles, and fewer penalties in 2010.  Sensabaugh was also one of the few players who stood out on film during the times of desperation as a player still giving it his all.

The last sentence speaks volumes, as one could argue Sensabaugh and DeMarcus Ware were the only defensive players who didn’t have noticeable lack of effort at some point in 2010.  It showed in his numbers, as Sensabaugh gave up less than seven yards-per-attempt, surrendered just one touchdown, missed just 10.4% of tackles, committed zero penalties, and secured five picks.  He also received the highest Dallas Cowboys Times Pass Defense Rating of any player on the team.

The Cowboys were smart to lock up Sensabaugh for a single season.  It is another opportunity for the safety to try to cash in for a big payday.  While the merits of such play are debatable, there is no doubt players give more effort (particularly in the preseason, during practices and so on) when they are in the final year of their contract.  You saw it from Sensabaugh last season, and you will see it again in 2011.

The primary concern Dallas fans should have is that, as of right now, Sensabaugh is playing free safety instead of his usual strong safety position due to the acquisition of Abram Elam.  Sensabaugh covered fairly well in 2010, but that was when he was closer to the line of scrimmage.  Will he be able to get depth and keep up with players like DeSean Jackson while he’s in, say, Cover 1?

With all of the blitzing Rob Ryan figures to do, you can bet the Cowboys will be in a lot of man coverage this season.  Sensabaugh’s ability to man the deep middle of the field will perhaps be the largest determiner of the defense’s ability to stop opponents.  I have confidence Ryan will be able to dial up adequate pressure on the quarterback, but will Sensabaugh do his part as a free safety?