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Week 13 Cowboys Mailbag: Stopping Peyton Manning & Garrett’s 2nd Down Play-Calls

Q:  Do you think the Cowboys should use the 2006 game film of when they beat Peyton Manning as a template for their preparation this week?

Greg Ramone, East Brunswick, NJ

A: Perhaps as a confidence-booster, but nothing else.  Only five of the Cowboys’ defensive starters from that season are still on the roster.  On top of that, the only similarity between the 2006 defense and the 2010 version is that they’re both 3-4 alignments.  The philosophies of the two schemes are radically different.

You’ll hear people claim that the Colts’ offense is basically the same as it was then, but that’s not really the case.  Indy does even less running now than before, and Manning has been forced to get the ball out of his hands much quicker due to an inadequate offensive line.  The scheme is similar, but it’s actually rather simplistic.  What makes it deadly is the precision with which Manning & Co. run it.

Instead of focusing on 2006, Dallas needs to worry about how Manning can beat them now.  The Colts’ running game is basically non-existent, so the ‘Boys really need to focus on stopping Reggie Wayne first.  I’ll have more thoughts on the game plan later in the week.

Q:  It seems like Jason Garrett’s 2nd down play-calling has improved this season (in terms of predictability).  Is that the case?

Tyler Guyton via Twitter

A: You better believe it.  Garrett’s 2nd down play-calling last season was atrocious due to its predictability.  Regardless of an offensive coordinator’s run/pass ratio, we’d want to see that rate remain steady in specific situations regardless of the previous play-call.  For example, if a coordinator dials up a run on 80 percent of 2nd and 3-7 plays following a 1st down run, he would benefit most by calling runs at the same rate following a 1st down pass.

Here is a snippet of my 2009 study of Garrett’s 2nd down calls:

On 2nd and 3 to 7, for example, Garrett dialed up a run on only 23 of the 78 (29.5 percent) plays that followed a 1st down run. After 1st down passes, though, the Cowboys ran on 2nd down on 26 of 34 plays (76.5 percent). Thus, Dallas was 2.95 times more likely to run on 2nd and 3 to 7 after a 1st down pass than after a 1st down run.

On 3rd and 8 to 10, that trend, surprisingly, did not get much better. The team ran on only 10 of 50 plays (20.0 percent) in these scenarios following a 1st down run. After passes, Garrett called a run on 32 of 58 2nd down plays (55.2 percent), meaning the team was 2.76 times more likely to run on 2nd and 8 to 10 after a pass than a run.

On 2nd and 11 or more, the team was still 2.33 times more likely to run after a 1st down pass than after a run. Obviously Garrett did some things right in the past few years, but this sort of predictability is unacceptable.

In an early-season post, I described in further detail why Garrett’s play-calling was poor:

Note that I am not criticizing the overall rate of runs/passes.  Garrett could pass 95 percent of the time, but if his current play-call is dependent on the previous one, there will be a problem.  Again, the issue is not with the overall run/pass ratio, but rather the fact that it gets skewed based on previous calls.

For a play-caller to maximize his effectiveness, we’d want the run/pass ratio to be equal in comparable situations following a particular call.  Note that I am not advocating a 50/50 balance.  I am simply stating that it is in an offensive coordinator’s best interest to retain his particular run/pass ratio in specific down-and-distances regardless of the previous call.  If he passes 90 percent of the time on 2nd and 3-7 following a 1st down pass, he should pass 90 percent of the time in the same situation following a run.  Don’t let previous calls affect current ones.

As far as the graph above, we’d want to see the red and blue lines be as close together as possible.  The specific run/pass ratio is irrelevant–what’s important is that the lines match up, wherever that may be.

In 2010, Garrett has been magnificent with his play-calling on 2nd down.  He clearly noticed his prior mistakes and made the necessary adjustments.  Take a look at the new chart below.  Garrett’s 2nd down run rate following a 1st down pass is nearly identical to that following a 1st down run.  Tremendous job of identifying a weakness and acting accordingly.


Cowboys vs. Giants Monday Night Football Mailbag

Jonathan Bales

Check out my in-depth Cowboys-Giants preview.

Q:  Is Hakeem Nicks going to play?  Do you think he is the Giants’ top offensive weapon?

Mark Fox, Flint, MI

Nicks made the trip to Dallas, so it looks as though he will probably suit up.  Normally, I would say he is New York’s most explosive offensive weapon, but hamstring injuries can be quite limiting.  I have no idea how healthy he truly is or how significantly the Giants have implemented him in the game plan.  Dallas should initially defend him as though he is fully healthy.

Q:  What will be the key to stopping the Giants on offense tonight?

Thomas Renshaw via Twitter

Halting the running game.  I wrote in my pre-game Manifesto that the Cowboys should focus on Ahmad Bradshaw, not Brandon Jacobs (in the running game).  The Cowboys don’t want to allow New York to move the football down the field in large chunks, and the easiest way for them to do that is the playaction pass.  If the running game is not working, however, there’s really no reason for the Cowboys defenders to respect Giants’ play-fakes.

I also think the Dallas defense needs to play much more aggressively.  They often seem to leave plays on the field in return for not yielding any of their own.  This team is 1-4 though.  What is there to lose?

Q:  Why don’t the Cowboys’ defensive backs make more plays in the secondary?  They always play so far off and make it impossible to get interceptions.

Clay Angstadt via Twitter

The reason is related to my final point in the previous question.  The Cowboys’ cornerbacks and safeties play so far off because it is part of Coach Phillips’ scheme.  He wants to be rather aggressive in the front seven with the secondary back deep to make sure the front seven’s inability to get to the passer doesn’t result in a huge play.  It results in the opposition needing to consistently move the ball down the field to score.

But, as Vince Grey pointed out in a recent article, it also results in a lack of takeaways.  If the front seven don’t force a turnover, it’s very difficult for a secondary who is often playing with “off-technique” to force one.

Q:  How are the Cowboys going to stop all of the Giants’ pass-rushers?  I don’t think Romo will have much time to throw.

Fred Marstellar via Facebook

The first way to neutralize pass-rushers like Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul is to run right at them.  They are pass-rushers first and run-defenders second (or not at all).  I think the Cowboys can find a lot of success tonight on “3rd and medium” runs (even up to 3rd and 6 or 7).

Next, the Cowboys could benefit from running a couple of designed rollouts.  Jason Garrett isn’t fond of calling them, but you might see one or two tonight.

Another way to combat a defense with such a tremendous pass rush is to throw some screens.  The Cowboys may have overdone it on screens last week, but this week they could be very useful.

Finally, Dallas might find some success in implementing max protection a few plays.  Here is what I wrote earlier in the week:

Last week, the Cowboys threw the ball 10 yards or more downfield just THREE times all game.  They threw an incredible 18 passes behind the line of scrimmage.

The Cowboys’ offensive line hasn’t been awful in pass protection this year except against the Titans.  Romo makes it look better than it is, but there’s certainly been enough time for the ‘Boys to take some shots down the field.

This week, the Cowboys’ pass protection duties don’t get any easier.  They’ll have to deal with Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Chris Canty all night long.  If three-receiver sets aren’t working, Dallas needs to implement one or two-man routes to create big plays.  Either way, the ball has to get down the field.

Q:  Do you think Wade Phillips could get fired if the Cowboys lose this game?

Alan Florek, Cherokee, IA

No.  I don’t really see any way Phillips gets fired during the season, barring losses in just about every game from now.

Q:  Who are “X-Factors” on offense and defense for Dallas against the Giants this week?  How about for New York?

Taylor Draper, Tucson, AZ

On offense, I think Marc Colombo is the X-Factor.  Everyone knows about Leonard Davis’ struggles this season, but Colombo has been worse.  He could really struggle tonight against the Giants’ pass rush.  If he can hold his own, however, it would go a long way in allowing the Cowboys to get Dez Bryant on the field in some three-receiver sets.

On defense, it’s Orlando Scandrick.  He played incredibly against the Vikings last week after struggling to begin the season.  He’ll be covering Steve Smith much of the game, and he if can do to Smith what he did to Percy Harvin last week, it will be huge for Dallas.

The X-Factor for the Giants (on offense) is Ahmad Bradshaw.  He’s the sort of back with which the Cowboys have traditionally struggled–shifty and a great receiver out of the backfield.  I personally think they should place Gerald Sensabaugh, not a linebacker, on Bradshaw.

The Giants’ defensive X-Factor is Osi Umenyiora.  He’s a fantastic pass-rusher but he’s been benched in the past because he simply doesn’t defend the run.  If the Cowboys can find success on the ground by running right at Umenyiora (or Jason Pierre-Paul), it will draw a safety into the box and really aid Romo and the Dallas passing game.

Q:  Do you think Jason Garrett will actually stick with the run tonight?  The Cowboys are a much better offense when they keep balance on offense.

Miriam Teran via Twitter

I think (and hope) Garrett will stick with whatever is working.  I do think there’s a great chance the Cowboys can pound the ball on the ground tonight, but there’s no reason to continue to run late into the game if it isn’t working.  There is certainly a correlation between running the football and winning, but that’s usually because winning teams run the ball late in the game.

Rushing efficiency, not rushing attempts, is more indicative of a team’s true success.  The Cowboys don’t need to maintain offensive balance to win football games.  They need to maintain efficiency in the running game to set up big plays in the passing game.  This offense needs quick, easy scores.  Those will usually come on passes, and the Cowboys’ rushing game is only important insofar as it aids the air attack.

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Mailbag, 8/28/10: Carrying Just Four Wide Receivers?

Today’s mailbag is a quick one-hitter.  I liked this question and wanted to address it before the Cowboys make their upcoming roster cuts.

Q:  What are the chances that we go with only four wide receivers on the roster (Austin/Williams/Bryant/Crayton) to free up one or two roster spots for other, less secure roster positions?  For example, we could keep nine linebackers (Ware/Brookings/James/Spencer/BWilliams/JWilliams/Lee/VButler/LWilliams) and six safeties (Ball/Sensabaugh/AOA/Hamlin/McCray/Church).

I think we’d have a better return on our investment if we kept more special team players and backups for injuries than we would having a wide receiver who never sees the field because we’re always running two tight-end sets.

What are your thoughts?

Dusty McGuire via Facebook

A: I like the idea of having depth at the “weaker” positions, but there’s no way Dallas will carry less than five wide receivers.  The offense did employ more two-tight end sets than anyone in the NFL last season, but that will change this year.  Dez Bryant and Patrick Crayton are too talented to be left off of the field in favor of Martellus Bennett or Deon Anderson.

Further, the injury to John Phillips is actually more debilitating than a lot of people realize.  His presence on the field was counted in the team’s total of two-tight end sets last year, but he frequently lined up as a fullback or F-Back (fullback/tight end hybrid).  Without him, the Cowboys don’t really have a true motion tight end.  Jason Witten is capable of it, but he thrives in his traditional tight end role and in the slot.  Martellus Bennett rarely motions and is not at all an F-Back.

Also, an injury to one of the four receivers would cripple the Cowboys.  What would the offense do if a receiver (or even two) got injured during a game in which the team was losing?  There are times when four-receiver sets are superior to two-tight end sets, but those would be an impossibility with any injury.

Dallas would also have to cut (or trade) two very good players in Kevin Ogletree and Sam Hurd.  Ogletree has struggled in the preseason and Hurd may very well end up getting dealt, but is either player truly less valuable than the “extra” player the Cowboys could retain, such as Leon Williams or Danny McCray?  No way.  You’d be adding depth to one position by stealing it from another.

On a side note, I can’t see the Cowboys keeping six safeties.  I have seen a lot of projections with just that scenario, but the ‘Boys would be leaving themselves awfully thin at another spot.  I think five is a possibility, particularly because Alan Ball and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah can be considered safeties/cornerbacks.  That means the final roster spot at safety is probably up for grabs between Barry Church and Danny McCray.  I personally like Church to win that battle.


Mailbag, 8/27/10: Could Felix put up Chris Johnson-type numbers?

Q:  Do you think if Felix Jones got as many carries as Chris Johnson that he’d put up the same type of numbers?

Blake Scurlock, Houston, TX

A: Without looking at the statistics, I can tell you  the answer is no.  Even though Jones is a bigger running back, his running style and skill set make him more prone to injury.  Johnson is able to handle a rather hefty workload because he rarely takes big hits.  His quickness and elusiveness are his weapons against the big boys.

While Jones is very quick, he isn’t nearly as elusive as Johnson.  In a short area, Jones is much more likely to take hits.  I just don’t think he’d hold up with a workload of more than about 15 touches a game.

Nonetheless, I always look at the statistics.  So let’s check ’em out. . .

Over his two-year NFL career, Johnson has rushed for 3,234 yards on 609 carries (5.31 yards-per-rush).  Over that same period, Jones has rushed for 951 yards on 146 carries (6.51 yards-per-rush).  Obviously Jones’ yards-per-carry is sensational, but the question is whether he could maintain such a high figure after rushing the ball four times as much as he already has.

In my opinion, the answer is no.  Not only is it likely that Jones would break down before reaching the 300 carry-per-season mark, but his efficiency would plummet with the extra work.  Right now, the Cowboys use Jones in situations with high upside–in between the 20-yard lines and on runs such as draws, counters, and tosses.  Actually, Jones averaged 10.0 yards-per-carry on counters last season.

It is truly remarkable that Johnson has been able to maintain a 5.31 yards-per-carry mark over such a large sample size of runs.  Even when LenDale White was in Tennessee, Johnson frequently remained on the field in goal line and other short-yardage situations, particularly last season.

Jones doesn’t stay on the field for Dallas in those scenarios.  One of the most incredible stats I came across this year was that Jones has never carried the football inside the opposition’s five-yard line.  Let that sink in.

So, while Jones is certainly an awesome running back and a very vital cog in the Cowboys’ offensive attack, he isn’t on the same level as Johnson just yet.

Q:  Why do the Cowboys use Robert Brewster at left tackle sometimes?  He isn’t athletic and was meant to play right tackle.

Greg Driscoe

A: Actually, I really don’t know.  Brewster has gotten a lot of reps on the left side during the preseason, and I’m assuming it is because they want to see if he can be their swing tackle of the future (if he doesn’t prove he can start at right tackle).  Alex Barron probably isn’t a long-term solution for the Cowboys, meaning they would probably like Brewster to be the primary backup tackle at both spots by next season.

However, I agree that his skill set is not suited for the left side.  He isn’t exactly agile and his quickness leaves something to be desired.  He played well in the Cowboys’ last preseason game when on the  right side, and I agree that is where he should stay.

Barron is going to get the start at right tackle tomorrow night against the Texans.  His play will be very indicative of Dallas’ future moves at the offensive tackle position.  Brewster is currently running with the second-team at left tackle, but I think you’ll see him move back to the right side (for good) if Barron struggles.

Q:  What kind of play-calling can we expect from Jason Garrett against the Texans since we play them during the regular season? He probably won’t give away much.

Timothy Solt via Twitter

A: Vanilla.  Very, very vanilla.  Garrett has already said as much:

Preseason games are used primarily to evaluate talent and to set your roster.  Also, you don’t want to show too much, particularly in a game like the one upcoming against Houston because we play them in the regular season.  So you certainly hold things back. Things that you want to do. . .you’re almost chomping at the bit to say, “Hey, this play would really work.”  But we can’t use it because we play them during the season, so you become very vanilla, very basic.  You’re still sound, there are still good plays but they’re base plays, they’re common plays that almost everybody has but you’re still using them to evaluate talent.

The stats show that Garrett has indeed been very “simplistic” (not necessarily a bad thing) during the preseason.  The Cowboys have motioned on just 26.8 percent of plays, down from 42.5 percent during the 2009 regular season.  You can expect the number of pre-snap motions and shifts (of which there have been zero) to increase dramatically come September 12.

Dallas has also continued to run the same plays from the same formations, including a strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong” 85.7 percent of the time.

The predictability of Garrett’s preseason play-calling really means nothing since teams aren’t game-planning particularly hard for the Cowboys during this time of the year.  Garrett wants to see the fringe players simply react and play football instead of worrying about assignments.  Thus, the basic plays are dialed up again and again.

The Cowboys’ last game against the Chargers is a perfect example of this.  Although the Cowboys ran the aforementioned strong side dive seven times in that ballgame, it was not called once with the starters in the game (the first 18 plays).  And what was play number 19–the first play for the second-teamers?  You guessed it. . .a strong side dive out of “Double Tight Strong.”

Against Houston, you can expect a lot of the same from Dallas.  Strong side dives, little motion or shifts, and whole lot of ‘base’ personnel.


Mailbag, 8/20/10: Sleepers to Make the 53-Man Roster

Note:  We’ve added a “Gameday” tab above.  Hover over it and you will find pre and post-game notes, grades, and film study observations for every Cowboys game this season.

Q:  How did Travis Bright perform against the Raiders?   Did his run blocking get any better?  How about his pass blocking?  For the strongest guy on the team, he wasn’t explosive against the Bengals.

Dusty McGuire

A: Bright struggled quite a bit against Oakland.  I credited him with giving up a sack, and he was dominated on a few other plays.  He was also over-matched in the run game.  Overall, I gave him a “D” for the game.

Bright’s struggles forced me to leave him off of my latest 53-man roster projection.  Instead, I opted for Phil Costa, whose versatility could be an asset to a Dallas team without a true backup center.  Kyle Kosier was the backup center before he went down with an MCL sprain, but even he never took a snap at the position in his career.

Q:  Who are some sleepers who could make the roster or players who are expected to make it but might not?

Kerry Delmas, Plano, TX

A: There are actually quite a few roster spots up for grabs.  I don’t know how many players are “sleepers” per se, but a few unheralded guys I expect to make the team are supplemental seventh-round nose tackle Jose Brent, cornerback Bryan McCann, tight end Scott Sicko, and guard Phil Costa.

Brent is a high-energy player who reminds me of Jay Ratliff.  I have personally guaranteed he earns a roster spot.  McCann is another one of my favorite players.  Behind the “big three” cornerbacks, he has the best cover skills.  Sicko is almost a necessity after John Phillips season-ending ACL tear, and like I said above, Costa has a great opportunity after Kosier’s injury.

There are also a few players I am not projecting to make the roster, yet still could sneak in with good play over the final three preseason games.  These would be fullback Chris Gronkowski, wide receiver Jesse Holley, safety Danny McCray, and cornerback Teddy Williams.

Gronkowski’s versatility is his biggest asset, although I’m not sure the Cowboys can retain fullback Deon Anderson, Sicko, and him.  Two fullbacks and three tight ends on a pass-first team would be strange.  Holley has been great on special teams and could take Sam Hurd’s roster spot.  I haven’t been as high on McCray as others, but he’s performed well in practice.  Finally, it will be tough for the Cowboys to part ways with the freaky athleticism, speed, and upside of Williams.

As far as big-time “surprise” cuts, don’t expect too many.  However, you could see wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, wide receiver Sam Hurd, safety Michael Hamlin, inside linebacker Jason Williams, and up to three draft picks not make the squad.

Ogletree has looked terrible over the first two preseason games, although he has apparently turned up the intensity as of late.  If the Cowboys deem Holley ready for prime time, Hurd and his $1.75 million salary will walk.  Hamlin is very unlikely to get released, but he hasn’t shown much in the first two preseason games and there are talented rookies (McCray and Barry Church) breathing down his neck.  Jason Williams looked better in the second preseason game, but the Cowboys may opt to keep another Williams–Leon–over him.  Finally, don’t be surprised to see cornerback Jamar Wall, defensive tackle Sean Lissemore, and right tackle Sam Young not make the team, although Young has the best shot.

Q:  Do you think we will see more screen passes from the Cowboys this season?

Mark Owens, Jacksonville, FL

A: Yes I do, and for a few reasons.  First, the offensive line is obviously a bit suspect right now.  Left guard Kyle Kosier is already going to be out for the first couple of regular season games.  The unit does have the potential to play well, but they also have the potential to implode.  Screen passes are a great way to compensate for a struggling line.

Further, the Cowboys will try to get running back Felix Jones in the open field as much as possible.  While he has yet to show he is a totally natural pass-catcher, screen passes could be an effective way to get him the ball in a non-traditional way, if he can handle it.

The Cowboys also like to run screens to their wide receivers, and with great run-after-catch receivers like Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, why not?  You could see even more smoke, bubble, and quick screens this season to combat the blitz, particularly against teams like the Eagles.

The key for Dallas will be being unpredictable in their usage of screen passes.  Last season, the rate of screens more than tripled following playaction passes.  If the Cowboys can utilize them in the right situations, such as when they anticipate a blitz or a heavy pass rush, screens could become an effective tool in their offensive arsenal.

Q:  How do you come up with your overall player grades for each game?

Jonathan Bales (I just wanted to answer this question)

A: Well self, the overall grades (as seen here) are a combination of grades from different components of each position.  For example, I give linemen a run blocking grade and a pass blocking grade.  Because the Cowboys pass 60 percent of the time, I have decided to weight the pass protection 1.5 times as much as the run blocking grade (to represent the 3:2 pass-to-run ratio).  I do a similar thing for each position, and the methodology is basically the same as that which I use for my yearly grades.


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Mailbag, 8/11/10: Marion Barber Still Starting, Red Zone Woes

Q:  Why is Marion Barber still the starting running back?  Felix Jones is clearly the better runner and gives the Cowboys a home run threat.

Allen Royster, Rochester, NY

A: Well, the starter is less important than the distribution of touches.  I agree Jones should receive the highest percentage of carries this season, but Barber and Tashard Choice still have vital roles.

Don’t forget Barber played nearly all of last season with a hole in his quad, and before that he was leading the NFL in yards-per-carry.  I actually think his pass-catching and protection abilities mean he should play more on third down.

Choice struggled a bit in the Hall of Fame Game, but he is an all-around good player.  He doesn’t have the explosiveness of Jones, but he may very well be the Cowboys’ top short-yardage runner.  I previously explained why the Cowboys should use Choice more in the Wildcat formation.

Don’t be surprised to see a split close to 40/40/20 this season.  Although the Cowboys will likely use Barber in short-yardage and Choice in third downs, I would switch up those roles.  Jones should receive 15 or so touches a game, and that can be done whether he starts or not.

I also saw an interesting stat today regarding Felix Jones: 29.8 percent of his career rushing yards have come on SIX carries!  Not sure how that might influence your opinion of him starting, but it is at least noteworthy.

Q:  Do you think Stephen Bowen will be the starting defensive end once Marcus Spears returns?

Mike Ringer, Dallas, TX

A: It is possible, but probably not.  Coach Wade Phillips likes Bowen’s pass rush ability and considers him a better fit for right end.  Teams typically put their strongest pass rushers on that side and their best run defenders on the left side of the defense because offenses are usually “right-handed”–they run slightly more to that side of the formation.  Phillips considers Jason Hatcher a very strong run defender, so if someone pushes Spears out of the starting lineup, it will probably be him.

Q:  What is with Jason Garrett’s red zone playcalling?  The team is placing an emphasis on scoring touchdowns once they are there, but he keeps calling passes by the goal line.

Tyler Frederick, Los Angeles, CA

A: Remember that this was just one preseason game.  It will take a multitude of games before we can decipher (with any statistical relevance) whether Garrett’s red zone playcalling has changed.

Here is ESPN analysts Mark Schlereth’s take on the Cowboys’ red zone issues:

There are a few problems with Schlereth’s reasoning here.  First, the Cowboys ran a draw for a would-be touchdown on 1st and Goal from the five-yard line but Felix Jones fumbled the ball away (they got it back due to an offsides penalty).

Second, as I explained in my film study observations, the Cowboys actually had a run play called on the ensuing 1st and goal.  Tony Romo made a signal to Roy Williams, checking out of the play and attempting a back shoulder fade (unsuccessfully).

The only play-call about which I have an issue is the 2nd and Goal call.  The Cowboys again attempted a pass, but tight end Jason Witten was not in a route.  In my proposal of how the Cowboys can fix their red zone woes, I explained why running the ball more inside the 10-yard line (and less outside the 10) and targeting Witten were two surefire ways to improve inside the opposition’s 20-yard line.

Q:  What are your thoughts on Stephen McGee’s play in the Hall of Fame game?  I thought he did well.

Krystal Gorgiano, Trenton, NJ

A: I was pleasantly surprised with McGee’s athleticism and arm strength.  He was an option quarterback his first three years at Texas A&M, but he really scrambled better than I predicted.

He needs to work on his pocket awareness and hitting check downs.  There were times when he panicked and jumped out of the pocket despite no immediate danger.  He also missed a few open receivers underneath while staring down players running deep.

Overall, he made good decisions and performed pretty well.  I gave him a “B+” for the game in my Preseason Week 1 Player Grades.


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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.


Fantasy Football Mailbag 6/29/10: Wide Receivers in Rounds One AND Two?

Q:  You said 2010 is the year to draft a quarterback in the first round.  Which players would you select ahead of the No. 1 QB?  Would you still pick a quarterback that high in leagues that reward a point per reception?

Mark Clancy, Warren, MI

A: There are currently only four players I would select ahead of my top-rated quarterback (Aaron Rodgers)–Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and Maurice Jones-Drew (in that order).

Incredibly, the numbers work out in this way whether the league is PPR (point-per-reception) or not.  Also, this is only for leagues that start one quarterback.  In two quarterback leagues, I might think about taking Rodgers as high as the second overall selection.

You can read more about why I will be selecting quarterbacks so high in 2010.

Q:  I have the last selection in a 12-man redraft league that rewards a point for receptions (standard starting requirements).  I am expecting the top running backs, a few of the top receivers, and one or two quarterbacks to be off the board.  Who would you suggest taking?

Bruce Pelligrini, Doylestown, PA

A: It really depends on which direction you see the other owners going in rounds two and three.  If you expect there to be a run on quarterbacks, you may want to be sure to grab a top signal-caller early (either Rodgers, Brees, or Manning should be available).

If you think the other owners will select primarily running backs and wide receivers in rounds two and three, I would bypass the quarterback position and select two stud wide receivers.  Two players out of this group should be available: Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne, Miles Austin.

I had a ton of success going WR/WR with a late draft pick last year.  The VORP (explained here) adds up in your favor, and with the nature of the running backs position changing and the stud RBs off the board, it makes sense.  Wide receivers, while inconsistent from week to week, are generally fairly consistent over the course of a season.

Plus, you can get a quarterback of comparable value to Brees or Manning at the end of the third/start of the fourth.  I currently have Matt Schaub, Tony Romo, and Jay Cutler all in that same tier.  Here’s a post on how to use tiers to gain maximum value.

Again, you must use game theory to determine what will be available for you later (here is an excellent article on how to use your opponents’ beliefs in your favor), but I would most likely go WR-WR-QB-RB.  Be sure to stack up on running backs in the middle rounds, of  course.

Q:  I am in a 12-man dynasty league (standard scoring/starters) and have been offered Reggie Wayne for Jamaal Charles.  I know Charles has a lot of upside, but Wayne is a sure thing.  Should I pull the trigger?

Troy Barnett, Dallas, TX

A: It really depends on the rest of your roster.  Are you loaded at the running back position?  If you have a replacement player of comparable value to Charles, then it might be in your best interest to make the trade.

Ultimately, the math has to work out in your favor.  Here’s how to use mathematics to ensure you are receiving good value in a fantasy football trade.

Of course, the fact that you are in a dynasty league complicates matters.  Charles is obviously the better long-term player, so the numbers really have to work out for you to make the deal.


Be sure to check out our 2010 Fantasy Football Subscription!  You’ll receive my personal projections/rankings, cheat sheets, players to target/avoid, mock drafts, and more.


Mailbag: 6/10/10 (Slot WR, Second-Year Players, and RB Touches)

Q:  Who will be starting at defensive end for the Cowboys in 2010?  It seems Jason Hatcher or Stephen Bowen might be able to step into the starting lineup.

Martin Young, Ft. Worth, TX

A:  Hatcher and Bowen played fairly well in 2009, but expect Spears to start again this season.  Despite being labeled a “semi-bust” by fans and much of the Dallas media, Spears is an above-average run defender.  He recorded zero penalties and a tackle on 4.11 percent of plays–second only to Igor Olshansky.

As a 3-4 defensive end, Spears came into Dallas with unrealistic expectations.  No matter how well he plays, the numbers he can put up from that spot will never be “good enough.”

We have suggested the Cowboys continue to start Spears and Olshansky, replacing them with Hatcher and Bowen on passing downs.  Since Spears is unlikely to be a Cowboy next year, the team could slowly transition either Hatcher or Bowen.  Despite also being restricted free agents, both of those players are more likely than Spears to sign a long-term deal with the Cowboys, so you could see both acquire more reps as the season progresses.

For comparison’s sake, we provided Spears, Hatcher, and Bowen with nearly identical grades for their 2009 play.


Q:  Miles Austin has been lining up in the slot during Cowboys OTAs.  Do you think that is a legitimate spot for him?  Is Patrick Crayton already out of three-receiver sets?

Damon Hill, Cleveland, OH

A:  Don’t forget that Austin was lining up in the slot when Crayton was absent from OTAs.  Now, the Cowboys have Hurd in the slot, as rookie Dez Bryant is sidelined with a minor hamstring injury.  Crayton is running with the two’s.

Of course Crayton is not going to be below Hurd on the depth-chart, so his current demotion is due to his previous absence.  You can probably expect Crayton to regain his position in the slot once training camp begins.  Whether he retains that spot throughout camp, though, is a mystery.

As far as Austin is concerned, he certainly has the ability to be moved around the field.  He lost about 10 pounds this offseason, so perhaps his improved quickness would make him a good fit for some slot duties. 

Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett might be well-served to try a variety of players in different positions.  The only player that really doesn’t have the skill set to play in the slot is Roy Williams.  Other than that, you’d think that either Austin, Bryant, or Kevin Ogletree could pick up the nuances of lining up inside.  Crayton has the edge in experience, but not in numbers.

Nonetheless, you’ll most likely see Crayton as the team’s opening day starter in the slot (assuming he isn’t traded or released).

Q:  You published a poll asking us which Cowboys second-year player would have the biggest impact.  Who do you think it will be?

Sharon Taylor, Eden Prarie, MN

A:  Personally, I think Brandon Williams has the best shot to contribute in 2010.  The reason is the nature of his skill set and the need for a reliable outside linebacker to relieve starters DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer of some early down work.

According to our stats, Ware and Spencer played 1093 and 1112 snaps in 2009, respectively.  That is way too many for both players.  If coach Wade Phillips decides to give either player a breather, however, it is unlikely to come on passing downs.

Thus, Williams has the edge over fellow second-year player Victor Butler, who is more of a pass-rush specialist.  I think you’ll see Butler’s snaps remain steady (or even slightly decrease), while Williams’ should approach 200.

My selection of Williams is also related to limited opportunities for other “redshirt” players.  Safety Michael Hamlin will compete for the free safety job, but that is Alan Ball’s to lose.  Inside linebacker Jason Williams has a great shot at contributing in 2010, but he has to fight off second-rounder Sean Lee.  John Phillips showed flashes last season, but with the addition of Dez Bryant, how many opportunities can we truly expect him to receive?

Q:  Who is going to win Game 4 of the NBA Finals?

Marcus Gregario via Twitter

A:  Lakers, of course.

Q:  Marion Barber played almost all of last season with a torn quad.  Does this, along with the great shape he is currently in, change how the coaches might plan to use him?

Adam Natal, Odessa, TX

A:  I don’t think so.  You will probably still see Felix Jones start and receive the most touches.  However, I think the overall split could be closer to even than most people think. 

We have suggested the Cowboys provide Jones, Choice, and Barber with 50, 30, and 20 percent of the touches, respectively.  We’d love to see Jones start and receive two touches for every one of Choice’s, with Choice handling short-yardage duties and Barber taking third downs and the fourth quarter.

Of course, the touch distribution should be flexible.  The “hot” player should receive the bulk of the touches in any particular game.  If that results in a 33/33/33 split, then so be it.  More likely, however, is that this method would optimize the ratio by season’s end, with the “best” running back earning the most touches.


Audio Mailbag: 5/28/10 (Sean Lee, Doug Free, Alan Ball)

Today’s audio Mailbag features all of your roster-related Cowboys questions, including how many WRs Dallas will retain and two sleepers to make the final cut.  Click below to listen.

Alan Ball missed 22.2% of tackles last year. Will he be the Cowboys' opening day starter at FS?

DC Times Mailbag May 27 2010 2