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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


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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Felix Jones, DeMarco Murray, Tashard Choice: Projecting 2011 Touches

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys’ running game is sure to improve in 2011 simply from the release of Marion Barber.  Barber received far too many touches last season, particularly in short-yardage situations.  Last season, I suggested the Cowboys use a 50/30/20 split between Felix Jones, Tashard Choice and Marion Barber, respectively.  They used almost that identical ratio, except Barber received more touches than Choice.

Before I try to project the 2011 touches, let’s analyze each back’s skill set.  In my 2010 Running Back Grades, I noted that, although a generally underrated player, Jones needs to drastically improve his pass protection.  Despite the 86.3% overall grade, I gave Jones a C- in pass protection.  Tashard Choice received a B in pass protection.  Rookie DeMarco Murray is likely to struggle in pass protection as well, particularly having completed no offseason team work.  Speaking of Murray, let’s take a look at my scouting report on him:

Scouting Report

Murray has solid agility and start-and-stop ability.  His quickness and long speed are both really, really good.  He ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the Combine and he really does possess home run ability.  While I don’t like the timing of the pick, I think there are only a few runners in this draft who are better for Dallas than Murray.  He’s an insurance policy against a Felix Jones injury, which was really an underrated “hole” for the ‘Boys.

If you haven’t done so yet, check out Murray’s career numbers.  I don’t look at stats when I look at film because 1) they could potentially cloud my judgment and 2) I don’t particularly care.  At the running back position, though, you always want to see a guy produce no matter the circumstances.  Murray had a ridiculous 63 total touchdowns in his career and, more important to me, 157 career receptions (including 71 alone in 2010).  Running backs must be able to catch the ball nowadays, and Murray is a natural receiver.

Murray is a continuation of what appears to be a revised draft plan for the Cowboys.  He’s a versatile player who will be especially helpful in the passing game.  Tyron Smith is a versatile player who will be especially helpful in the passing game.  Bruce Carter is a versatile player who will be especially useful in the passing game.  See a trend?

Murray’s vision is solid and he makes very quick decisions with the football.  You won’t see Murray dancing in the backfield.  He isn’t great after contact, however, and his legs sometimes die after he gets hit.  He isn’t particularly effective in short-yardage situations either.  Due to his upright running style and carelessness with the football, I think he could be prone to fumbles at the next level.

A major reason I think the ‘Boys had Murray rated so highly is that he has value as a returner.  The Cowboys don’t want Dez Bryant on returns again and it’s unclear what Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and Bryan McCann can do, so Murray’s return ability could be useful as soon as 2011.

In a nutshell, Murray is Felix Jones with less experience, better natural pass-catching ability, a little less size, and superior return ability.  I love his skill set, and I think he will contribute immediately as a rookie.  Having said that, the Cowboys already have some uncertainty on their offensive line, and their ability to keep Tony Romo upright could be complicated with a small rookie running back taking on defensive ends and linebackers.

Thus, despite his receiving skills, I think Murray should play primarily on first and second down.  The Cowboys can still get him the ball in space, particularly since they should throw more first down passes anyway.  Here is a breakdown of Dallas’ third down running back usage in 2010.

With Murray able to give Jones a breather, I think both Jones and Choice should handle the majority of third downs.  And despite popular opinion, Jones should receive short-yardage touches.  Look at the numbers below.

Ultimately, I propose the Cowboys use the following breakdown of snaps (and touches):

1st Down: 65 percent Jones/25 percent Murray/10 percent Choice

2nd Down: 50 percent Jones/35 percent Murray/15 percent Choice

3rd Down: 55 percent Choice/40 percent Jones/5 percent Murray

Using the same percentage of 1st, 2nd and 3rd down plays as in 2010, this equates to Jones receiving a whopping 56 percent of the touches.  Murray would receive 26 percent, and Choice just 18 percent.

Disagree with my assessment?  Think that is too much work for Jones?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments.


As an aside, the Cowboys signed left guard Kyle Kosier to a three-year deal.  I really like the move.  Despite his age, I graded Kosier as the top offensive lineman on the team last season, giving him an 86.2% (B).  That grade, which was the seventh-highest in my Overall Player Rankings, included a C- in run blocking and an A in pass protection.  In a recent article on why the Cowboys should re-sign Kosier, I wrote:

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

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

Looks like I win again.


Grading the ‘Boys, Part III: Running Backs

In Parts I and II of our “Grading the ‘Boys” Series, we analyzed the efficiency of six Cowboys’ offensive linemen in both run blocking and pass protection. In doing so, we attempted to isolate one component of the offense as effectively as possible to determine the worth of individual players.

In reality, of course, offenses are holistic systems. The productivity of each position indirectly affects the ability of players at each other position to properly perform. In the running game, the success of linemen is affected greatly by the talent level of the running backs, and vice versa.

In Part III of our “Grading the ‘Boys” Series, we will study the productivity of Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. These three players all contributed in different ways and in distinct situations, so we will keep this in mind when analyzing the statistics we gathered from our film study.

Marion Barber was surprisingly ineffective on runs up the middle in 2009.


  • In this particular analysis, we will grade each running back on four components: short-yardage running, overall running, receiving, and pass protection.
  • The four components of the overall grade are not all equal. They will be weighted 15/45/20/20, respectively.
  • All totals include the playoffs.
  • As always, the best stats are circled in blue, the worst in red.


  • Marion Barber

Short-Yardage Running: D-

Barber had by far the lowest average on the team on runs up the middle and in short-yardage situations, averaging just 2.8 yards-per-carry and converting a ridiculously low 56.0 (14 for 25) percent of the time with just one yard to go (for either a first down or a touchdown). His yards after contact and number of broken tackles were both down significantly from prior seasons.

Would you have guessed Felix Jones led the team in broken tackles?

Overall Running: C

Barber was more effective on draws and counters than in short-yardage situations. His 4.2 average was mediocre, but he did carry the ball a lot more in these short-yardage and goal-to-go scenarios. He still scored seven touchdowns, but only about once every 29 carries.

Receiving: B

Barber was again solid in the passing game, although his receptions decreased due to the presence of both Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Barber does an excellent job of disguising his intentions on screen passes.

Pass Protection: B

Marion gave up the most sacks of any running back (three), but he was also on the field during pass plays about twice as much as the other backs. He does a great job of taking on defenders much larger than him, usually coming out on top.

Overall Grade: 77.2 (C+)

  • Felix Jones

Short-Yardage Running: B+

Despite not receiving a lot of short-yardage carries (five), Felix Jones converted on them 100.0 percent of the time. His runs up the middle, which may be more indicative of his short-yardage abilities than such a small sample size, is still solid at 4.1 yards-per-carry. It is hard to relate this number to Barber’s, though, because Barber had more short-yardage runs up the middle which would have decreased his average.

Overall Running: A

Jones really displayed his value to the Cowboys in 2009. He averaged a ridiculous 6.2 yards-per-carry, including 220 yards on 22 counters. He also surprisingly led the team in yards after contact and broken tackles.

Receiving: B

Jones’ receiving numbers were solid, but with his explosiveness, we would expect them to be a bit higher. They should increase next season, particularly with teams focusing in on the run when he is in the game.

Pass Protection: B

We think Jones is underrated in pass protection. He gave up one sack on the season, but he is rather good at an aspect of his game which most believe is his biggest weakness.

Overall Grade: 89.8 (A-)

  • Tashard Choice

Short-Yardage Running: B+

It is difficult to grade this aspect of Choice’s game. He was a respectable 5 for 7 in short-yardage situations and also led the team (by a lot) with a 5.8 yards-per-carry average on runs up the middle. However, he averaged only 1.9 yards after contact and broke just three tackles all season.

Felix Jones was incredible on counter runs, averaging 10.0 yards per attempt.

Overall Running: B

Choice averaged 5.0 yards-per-rush on the season, with a large chunk of his rushing yards coming from the Wildcat formation. It seemed like he was more comfortable taking the direct snap than on other runs, as he was worst on the team in both counter and draw average. His 5.1 percent touchdown rate led the squad.

Receiving: B+

Choice led the team in reception average, which you would expect out of your third-down back. He isn’t incredibly fast or strong, but just solid in all aspects of the game.

Pass Protection: A-

Choice really has done an excellent job in pass protection since his rookie season. According to our film study, he didn’t allow a sack all season.

Overall Grade: 87.3 (B+)

Final Running Back Rankings

1. Felix Jones: 89.8 (A-)

2. Tashard Choice: 87.3 (B+)

3. Marion Barber: 77.2 (C+)

A lot of fans are calling for the Cowboys to trade Marion Barber. Other than the fact that his contract makes this basically impossible, we don’t think it would be a smart move. Barber still has his place on the team. If the ‘Boys would trade any of their backs, they would turn a positional strength into a possible weakness. The team would be just one injury shy of having only one experienced running back on the roster. Three good running backs is certainly a luxury, but it also is an important component in the success of the Dallas offense.

So how should Jason Garrett alter how he utilizes each of these players in 2010? First, Barber needs to get fewer carries. He received 54.3 percent of the regular-season rushes in ’09, with Jones garnering 29.5 percent and Choice 16.2 percent. In 2010, we would advise the following breakdown:

  • Felix Jones: 50 percent
  • Tashard Choice: 30 percent
  • Marion Barber: 20 percent

Some may argue that we would be giving up on Barber too quickly, but now is not the time to wait on players. The Cowboys are built to win now, and the most productive players should play.

These percentages could be attained by starting Jones and letting him play two series for each of Tashard Choice’s one. We would also use Tashard Choice on short-yardage runs, including a bit more Wildcat. Barber would come in to spell Jones and Choice, particularly on third down, and to finish games out. In baseball, closers are only successful because they haven’t pitched all game. The same is true for Marion Barber. By saving his energy, he could effectively return to the “closer” role, creating the most efficient Dallas Cowboys backfield possible.

In our next “Grading the ‘Boys” segment, we will analyze the productivity of the cornerbacks.


The Spread Offense: Six (Very Bold) Predictions and Their Effect on the Dallas Cowboys

NFL teams will continue to transition toward the spread offense, forcing a ton of personnel changes.

Variations of the spread offense, such as the pass-happy version the Patriots run or the Wildcat in Miami, are taking over the NFL. In this article, we will explain how the transition of NFL offenses to the spread will affect the game, providing six fairly bold predictions and detailing how these changes will alter the Dallas Cowboys’ personnel philosophy moving forward.

1. Within ten years, all NFL teams will be running some form of the spread as their base offense.

We’ve already seen this prediction become a reality for some teams, such as the Patriots and Saints. Not coincidentally, these teams also generally score the most points. Even teams that have traditionally been known as running squads, such as the Steelers and Ravens, have transitioned to a more spread-like attack in recent years.

A conversion to a spread offense, however, does not necessarily mean more passing. The Dolphins version of the offense is extremely run-heavy, proving that the spread can allow for a diverse array of play calls.

A quick peak at college football can also yield great insights as to what the pro game will become in the near future. There are spread offenses that throw nearly every play (Texas Tech, Hawaii), and spread offenses that run the ball a ton (Florida).

But why would college football get it right before the NFL? First, there is no “right” offense to run. The NFL goes through cycles where offenses adapt and defenses counter, creating periods where sometimes big, strong players are in vogue and other times small, fast players are the norm.

Second, NFL coaches are on such a short leash that a complete shift in offensive philosophy would just take too much time to manifest itself in a winning team. A coach that leads a 5-11 team with a traditional offense is much more likely to stick around for another year than one who led the same team with an unconventional offense. NFL owners, GM’s, and fans just have not seen enough results from a spread attack to know it will work, and thus are hesitant to embrace change. Eventually, however, NFL offenses will slowly become more aggressive and spread offenses will become prevalent.

Impact On Cowboys: The Cowboys are still running a “traditional” offense, implementing two tight ends more than any team in the NFL in 2009. Still, Jason Garrett is no stranger to spreading the field. The team ran Shotgun an incredible 460 plays this season, or 46.3 percent of their meaningful plays (discounting spikes, quarterback kneels, etc).

This transition to a spread attack will continue to grow in 2010. The Cowboys have been fairly predictable in their playcalling out of certain formations recently (see our study on Double Tight Right Strong Right). Expect that to change in the coming years, with more and more running plays called out of Shotgun formation.

The versatility of hybrid players such as Dexter McCluster will become very valuable in the coming years.

This means that the number of two tight end sets will eventually decline. In 2009, the team implemented two or more tight ends on 556 plays (55.9 percent), making it their base offense. Despite the presence of three excellent tight ends, that number could dip to around 50 percent by next season. Also expect the Cowboys to move their tight ends around the field even more when they are in the game, creating natural pre-snap running lanes.

2. Much like the OLB/DE 3-4 hybrid position, NFL offenses will see more and more RB/WR hybrid players.

Running backs with great receiving skills have been around for awhile (Marshall Faulk comes to mind as the ultimate RB/WR), but the game is seeing a shift from running backs who can catch the ball to true hybrid players. Reggie Bush and Percy Harvin are two current players whose games are predictive of what we will see in the near future. College stars such as Ole Miss’s Dexter McCluster and Florida’s Jeffrey Demps are blurring the line between running back and wide receiver more than ever before.

The nature of most spread offenses is the reason for these sorts of players. Ironically, the various personnel packages and subsequent specialization that the spread has created has led to the importance of these do-it-all-players.

The reason a great pass-catching tight end is so valuable, for example, is because of his versatility. Tight ends that can block make defenses stay in their base personnel grouping, meaning the pass-catching ability of these players will be on display with a slower linebacker in coverage. Should the defense bring in nickel personnel and put an extra cornerback in the game, the tight end’s blocking ability then becomes an extremely lucrative asset.

Much like the tight end position, these RB/WR hybrid players create matchup nightmares for defenses. A personnel package that contains a player or two whose running ability is as indefensible as his receiving ability gives the defense no hint as to a possible play call, thus creating the inability to make the proper personnel substitutions.

Impact on Cowboys: This shift in the fundamental nature of offensive positions will force the Cowboys to eventually shift their personnel as well. This could happen sooner rather than later. While we believe the addition of Reggie Bush could create nightmare matchups for a defense and provide the Cowboys with the sort of offensive threat to which they are not accustomed, there are also a variety of players in this year’s draft who have similar traits.

The Cowboys figure to use Choice more in 2010, particularly in the Wildcat formation, which they ran 16 times in 2009.

RB/WR/Returner Dexter McCluster out of Ole Miss comes to mind first. We love his skill set so much that we labeled him as the Cowboys’ second round pick this year. Even players such as Cincinnati’s Mardy Gilyard who do not possess the versatility of McCluster are altering what a “prototypical” wide receiver looks like. It is no secret the Cowboys value big, strong pass-catchers, but expect the team to add at least one smaller play-making hybrid player before the start of the 2010 season.

3. The “Wildcat,” as one version of the spread, will flourish with better passers taking the snap.

In some ways, the Wildcat offense was already around when Michael Vick was in Atlanta. In that version of the offense, however, the snap-taker could throw the ball incredibly well. Before Ronnie Brown went down for the Dolphins, they had been running the Wildcat very effectively with a running back who has limited passing skills. Imagine the efficiency of that offense with a player who could throw the ball like Michael Vick.

The reason that the Wildcat can be so effective is because the offense can use an extra blocker with the snap-taker running the football. No quarterback is needed to hand the ball off. Offenses can also stay in base personnel if their regular passer is versatile enough to run. This will keep defenses off balance in both their personnel groupings and their play-calling. It is much less risky to blitz both cornerbacks with Ronnie Brown at “quarterback” than it would be to bring pressure with Vick taking the snap.

Pat White was the first player truly taken to be a Wildcat “QB,” and there are more of them coming. Of course, Tim Tebow is the ultimate spread offense, Wildcat-type college quarterback, and, consequently, the ultimate question mark for NFL general managers. The range of opinions regarding Tebow’s skills varies greatly, but any team that selects him will have to implement a Florida-like spread attack to be successful.

Michael Vick was truly the originator of the Wildcat. Dual-threat quarterbacks like him will become the norm in the future.

Only time will tell if these running quarterbacks and the Wildcat offense are just fads, but we believe that, once the NFL embraces all variations of the spread, both will have their place in the league.

Impact on Cowboys: The Cowboys tried their hand at the Wildcat a bit more in 2009, running a play out of the formation 16 times. All 16 plays were runs by Tashard Choice, five of them being inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. Jason Garrett was smart to implement the Wildcat in goal line situations because, with little room to throw the ball and defenses expecting run anyway, the Wildcat allows the offense an extra blocker.

Despite running the ball in many short-yardage situations with limited upside, the Cowboys were fairly successful with the formation, averaging 5.7 yards-per-carry. Expect both the number of Wildcat attempts and the average yards-per-attempt to increase next season with additional practice.

With such a talented quarterback at the helm, though, the Cowboys do not have as much need for the Wildcat as a team like the Dolphins. Still, if the teams continues to find success with it, there is no reason to stop.

4. In much the same way that teams have utilized two or three running backs, the majority of NFL teams will regularly use two quarterbacks.

There is no doubt that one of the main reasons against using a running quarterback in the NFL is economical. The majority of signal-callers get paid so much money that franchises are just too invested in one player to let him get injured.

To overcome this conundrum, NFL teams will begin to use two quarterbacks. One may be more of a passer than a runner, and the other vice versa, but both will be versatile enough so that the defense cannot predict the play call simply from the personnel. By having two, or even three, viable running quarterbacks, offenses can make any play call without hesitation, knowing that an injury to one player would not set the team back incredibly far, either economically or from a personnel standpoint. Traditionally, an injured quarterback basically means the end of all Super Bowl hopes for a team, but with the implementation of a two-quarterback system that the spread will invoke, this is not the case.

Furthermore, we will see teams use both quarterbacks on the field at the same time. This will allow teams to become more aggressive in their play-calling, using more throwbacks, reverses, and so on where these hybrid players can throw downfield.

Imagine the Dolphins Wildcat system, for example, with Tim Tebow taking the snap (instead of Ronnie Brown) and Michael Vick running across on the read (instead of Ricky Williams). There is no doubt that Brown and Williams are incredibly talented runners, but neither holds the passing ability to truly keep defenses honest. With two QB/RB players running that scheme, the options for an offense become seemingly endless just from one play. Tebow could keep it and run, keep it and pass, give it and have Vick run, give it and have Vick pass, give it and have Vick throwback, and so on.

Impact on Cowboys: This scenario is much further down the road than the other predictions. Still, just as Dallas transitioned from a one-running back offense to a three-headed rushing attack, the same sort of alteration will take place at quarterback. Instead of being worried about the season being flushed down the toilet with an injury to the star quarterback, the Cowboys will be able to let these playmakers run free without hesitation.

Jason Witten's ability to block is the primary reason for his pass-catching success.

Further, the money that will be saved by not dishing out tens of millions of dollars to a franchise quarterback can be used to stockpile talent at the other positions. Eventually, however, the value of these hybrid players will decrease and, like all NFL trends, the cycle will repeat itself.

5. The pure pass-catching tight end will die out and be replaced by a more versatile hybrid player.

As I explained before, tight ends are so valuable to an offense because of their versatility. Defenses must stay in base personnel to account for the tight end’s ability to block, creating mismatches on the tight end when he goes out in a route.

More and more, however, NFL teams are drafting tight ends who simply cannot block well. This allows defenses to substitute nickel personnel when the tight end is in the game, knowing that he will not be able to block well enough for his offense to sustain a viable rushing attack. The extra cornerback who is in the game can usually match up well with the tight end, who, although he has good receiving skills, is not as quick or talented as a pure wide receiver. Thus, the entire reason for using a tight end– to create a mismatch– is ruined.

Impact on Cowboys: In many ways, the Cowboys have already made this prediction a reality. All three of their tight ends, in addition to being viable receiving threats, are superb blockers. This ability to block is actually what leads to their success in the passing game. Does anyone truly believe Witten is a more talented receiver than, say, Sam Hurd? In terms of athleticism and quickness, it is not even close. Witten is much more effective than Hurd and almost all NFL pass-catchers, though, because his blocking ability allows him to attain matchups with linebackers who simply have no shot at covering him.

Although superb in man coverage, Terence Newman has the strength and versatility to convert to any defensive scheme.

6. True man coverage will all but disappear and more teams will run a 3-4 defense.

The reason for the disappearance of man coverage is two-fold. First, the NFL’s illegal contact rule has made man-to-man coverage nearly impossible. Even when teams appear to be in man coverage, the cornerback generally has safety help over the top.

Second, with the offenses transitioning to running quarterbacks, the risk of playing man coverage, or even 2-man under (man coverage underneath with two safeties deep), is just too great. With defenders’ backs turned to the quarterback, it will just become too easy for the quarterback to scramble. This man coverage-less defensive scheme was used against Michael Vick when he was quarterbacking Atlanta.

This will lead team’s to use a zone blitz for the majority of their pressures. More and more teams will convert to a 3-4 to allow more athleticism on the field for these zone schemes to work. Having a 350-pound defensive tackle drop into zone coverage may work once or twice a game because it can confuse a quarterback, but with the majority of blitzes becoming of the zone variety, defenses will need smaller, quicker players to combat how offenses will attack.

Impact on Cowboys: The transition to the 3-4 to combat spread attacks is obviously something Dallas has already completed. Eventually, this could even morph into a 3-3-5 (five defensive backs and three linebackers, as compared to four of each in a 3-4).

The Cowboys are one of the few teams left that plays a lot of man coverage, but they get away with it because of the talent they have in Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins. Further, Wade Phillips rarely dials up all-out blitzes, so the corners often have a safety or two back deep to help.

Eventually, if opposing teams acquire running quarterbacks, the Cowboys will have to ditch some of their man-to-man schemes. Right now, though, the abilities of Newman and Jenkins allow the Cowboys’ current system to flourish.


The Cowboys implementation of a 3-4 defense and Wildcat formation could be seen as changes caused by the popularity of the spread offense. As we stated, further alterations are inescapable. Some of these could include:

  • More Shotgun and less two tight end sets
  • Acquisition of a Reggie Bush/Dexter McCluster type hybrid player
  • More Wildcat, including the possible acquisition of a true quarterback to run the system
  • Utilization of more dime packages on defense (four cornerbacks, two linebackers)

These predictions are certainly very bold and definitely not immune to criticism. Feel free to leave feedback regarding anything with which you may agree, and anywhere you think we may have gone wrong.


News and Notes

Tashard Choice Mic’ed Up


Note: Tomorrow we will be posting an interview with Cowboys’ LB Jason Williams.


News and Notes

  • NT Jay Ratliff may have been the Cowboys’ defensive MVP, and he underwent surgery today.
  • Calvin Watkins takes a look at what the Cowboys might do with some of their free agents.


  • In addition to Emmitt Smith, a few other Cowboys figure to reach the Hall of Fame soon enough.


Mailbag: 2/10/10

Trading away Tashard Choice would leave the Cowboys thin at running back.

Q: I think the Cowboys have a great backfield with Barber, Jones, and Choice, but do you think it is a good time to trade one of them for a wide receiver or other position of need?

Bruce M. B.

A: This is a great question, as there were recent rumors that the Cowboys were in talks with the San Diego Chargers to swap Tashard Choice for CB Antonio Cromartie. Cowboys’ reps quickly shot down that notion, and with good reason. Cromartie would come in and be a nickel corner at best, and that sort of upside is not worth the risk that losing Choice would pose.

If the Cowboys are interested in trading a running back, it has to be Marion Barber. Barber showed obvious signs of wearing down last year, doing poorly even in short-yardage situations where he once thrived. The problem is Barber is heading into just the third year of a seven-year, $45 million contract and is due a guaranteed $3.8 million roster bonus. It is unlikely that another team would take on that contract, and Barber’s trade value is not particularly high right now.

Trading away a part of the ‘Boys three-headed monster at RB would also leave the team thin at the position. Felix Jones is guaranteed to stay and probably take on the majority of the carries next season, but his health is always a concern. If you trade away Barber or Choice and Felix gets injured, all of a sudden you are left with just one solid back.

The team could always use a draft pick on the position, but as you alluded, there are other positions that must be upgraded first. The Cowboys would probably only get a second-rounder at best for Choice, so why trade away a proven commodity for a draft pick you will have to use just to replace what you gave away?

Jerry Jones is probably one owner rooting for the disappearance of a salary cap.

Q: Given the high likelihood of an uncapped season and Jerry Jones’ deep pockets, do you think this could help or hurt Dallas, both in the short-term and the long run?

Carl Thomas, Jacksonville, FL

A: If the Cowboys play their cards right, the uncapped season can be an advantage for this team. Mr. Jones, as everyone knows, is not afraid to dole out cash to improve his team. Some are afraid that, without a spending limit, the Cowboys could overspend and be in trouble in future seasons.

Fortunately, there is a bit of a loophole in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, basically allowing teams to dish out ridiculous signing bonuses. This would allow the Cowboys to not overspend on players’ base salaries in future seasons, thus keeping them solid money-wise should the salary cap return.