Dez Bryant is poised for a huge breakout season in 2012, based upon several 2011 statistics and a slew of factors that will favor his production moving forward.
You often read stories about an athlete being poised for a breakout year, but what is the logic behind these claims? How does someone go about deciding an athlete is primed for a big season, is it just a hunch, an opinion, a story built around a headline designed to get lots of page views?
Hopefully you will find this article a bit more substantial.
Here are the logical steps I follow when predicting a breakout year:
1) Investigate how much production/experience preceded breakout seasons of other star wide receivers.
2) Find sophisticated metrics that indicate elite receiver status other than total yards, that are predictive of stong production going forward.
3) Look for external factors that have held back the player in the past that have now been removed.
4) Look for new external factors that are benefiting the player
Here we go
To fully grasp why Bryant’s 2011 numbers point to a 2012 explosion in production, it’s important to look at the careers of a few notable receivers.
So why not start with the last Cowboy to wear the number 88?
Michael Irvin’s rookie year was in 1988, which is coincidentally, the same year Dez Bryant was born.
Because Irvin is now a Hall of Famer, it’s easy to forget that his career started slowly.
His rookie year he played 14 games and caught 32 balls.
His second year he played only six games before tearing an ACL.
His third year, he played 12 games and caught only 20 passes
Irvin played in 32 games, amassed 1445 yards in 78 receptions and scored 12 touchdowns in the first three years that preceded his breakout year in 1991. In his breakout year, he amassed more yards than the previous three combined: 1523 yards.
Due to injuries he suffered in ‘89 and ‘90, Irvin’s numbers over his first three years are comparable to Bryant’s first two years.
Here is where Bryant stands after two seasons:
Bryant has played in 27 games, amassed 1489 yards in 108 receptions and has scored 15 touchdowns.
This kind of development for NFL receivers is not unusual. The pro game is far more demanding, mentally and physically, than the college game. Here are some other examples:
Marvin Harrison: In his first three seasons, his yardage totals were 836, 866 and 776 and then he blew up to 1663 his fourth year. He is one of the greatest WR’s in NFL history.
Wes Welker: In 2005: 434 yards; in 2006: 687; in 2007: 1175.
Steve Smith: In 2001:154 yards; 2002: 872; 2003: over 1110.
Jordy Nelson: 2008:366 yards; 2009: 320 yards; 2010: 582 yards; 2011:1263
From a developmental standpoint, Bryant appears to be very close to where each of these receiving greats were just prior to their breakout season.
Averaging the total career yards for these players (including Irvin) prior to their breakout year, we come to 1468 yards. In the breakout year that follows, they average 1346 yards for the year.
In other words, these players amassed 91 percent of their prior career totals during their break out year. Amazing.
The Hidden Stats That Predict The Coming Breakout Year
In his first year in the league, Bryant’s Pro Football Focus WR Rating was 18th among all receivers that were targeted at least 25% of the time. That was a good start, considering he had been out of football for nearly a year, thanks to an NCAA suspension, had no off-season and was injured through most of training camp.
In his second year his PFF rating jumped to eighth. (Note: PFF’s WR Rating takes into account several variable, not just receiving yards)
The Importance of Scoring Production
The most ideal wide receiver would score a touchdown every time you threw him the ball. There is no more succinct definition of a perfect wide receiver than that.
So with that as the ideal, a stat that looks at how many yards receiving a player amasses between TD’s gives us a good indication of how well his production translates into scores.
Among the top ten receivers in 2011, (according to PFF’s Ratings) only Jordy Nelson had a lower receiving yards /TD’s ratio than Dez Bryant.
Nelson caught a TD for every 84 yards of receiving, Bryant caught a TD for every 103 yards. Next closest was Calvin Johnson who caught a TD for every 105 yards.
It’s worth noting that no other receivers were even close to these ratios. These ratios indicate very potent deep ball and red zone threats. And again, Bryant is second in the league in this metric among starting WR’s.
Nelson also ranks number one in catch-rate of deep passes. He was targeted 21 times and caught 15, giving him a catch rate of 71.4. Seven went for TD’s.
Bryant, meanwhile was targeted 19 times, but only seven were considered catchable and he caught all seven. Remarkably, Bryant scored TD’s on five of the seven deep balls he caught last year.
He scored 71 percent of the time Romo connected with him on a deep ball. That is by far the best in the NFL for 2011. Jordy Nelson was next closest, scoring on 46% of deep pass completions.
Obviously the Cowboys are aware of Bryant’s gift with the deep pass. Expect to see a lot more coming his way in 2012.
Other notable stats for Bryant in 2011:
- The lowest drop rate for any starting wide receiver.
- Fourth in TD receptions (despite being targeted 28th most overall)
- Fourth in total TD’s on deep passes (despite being targeted only 29th most on deep balls)
More Indicators of an Impending Breakout
At the start of the 2011 season, Bryant had only 12 games and 45 receptions worth of experience. Laurent Robinson was added, a fifth-year receiver familiar with the offense. Robinson would go on to have his breakout year. As a result, he caught several passes that might have gone to Bryant.
Bryant was still in the midst of a steep learning curve with Garrett’s offense, but Robinson was further along.
Now Robinson is gone. The third wide receiver that emerges from the group in camp is unlikely to get the number of targets that Robinson got last year, meaning more will go to Bryant.
Having no real off-season with the club up until now has held Bryant back. In his rookie year he didn’t sign a contract until July. Then he was hampered by ankle and hamstring injuries throughout training camp. The off-season in year two didn’t happen for anyone, due to the lock out.
Woicik and Robinson
Now that Bryant is having his first true off-season with the club, he is benefiting from the coach who holds the record for most Super Bowl wins. Mike Woicik strength and conditioning coach for the Cowboys has six Super Bowl Rings. He won three with the Cowboys of the nineties and three with the Patriots.
Given that strength and explosiveness is a big part of what makes Bryant special, having the best strength coach in the NFL supervising his off-season is a big plus.
Another person that is greatly benefiting Bryant this off-season is Jimmy Robinson, wide receivers coach. Robinson worked for the Green Bay Packers from 2006 to 2010. He helped mold their wide receiving corps into Super Bowl winners, before coming to Dallas in 2011.
A Better Line Should Lead to More WR Catches
The Cowboys have put serious effort into improving their offensive line this off-season. They signed two veteran guards, switched their tackles and brought in several UDFA linemen to compete in camp.
But the biggest move was adding yet another coach with Super Bowl experience. Bill Callahan, offensive line coach/offensive coordinator, took the Raiders to the Super Bowl back in 2000. He set franchise records for passing and rushing during his tenure with the team. In fact, Callahan has set records pretty much everywhere he’s been.
Dallas will have an improved line in 2012, which should lead to more catches for all receivers. Furthermore, Callahan will be tasked with helping to create the game plans each week. His experience and fresh perspective could be a boost to the passing game.
Bryant’s Mental Game May Be Improving
It’s always foolish to try to predict future behavior for intensely passionate athletes. Michael Irvin certainly was unpredictable off the field during his career. But in practice and on game day, you knew you would get 100 percent effort. Nothing ever meant more to Irvin than winning the game.
Many have questioned Bryant’s mental toughness. His passion for the game is evident, but questions exist about his ability to stay focused and remember his assignments in the heat of the battle.
This was especially true in 2010 and early 2011. But toward the latter part of the 2011, it appeared to many, including Michael Irvin that Bryant was beginning to put it all together.
Hopefully for Bryant, this is the case, because the mental aspect of the game is the only thing that can hold him back in 2012, provided he stays healthy.
Taken all together, Bryant appears to be on the brink of the breakout year that fans have been anticipating. His grasp of the offense, his conditioning, his comfort level with the team and his connection with Romo all appear to have crossed the threshold that should lead to the breakout that Dallas needs from him.
A full off-season with a Super Bowl-winning receivers coach and a six-time Super Bowl-winning strength coach, along with the experience of two NFL seasons and upgrades to the offensive line all point toward Bryant’s first truly big year.
But perhaps the most important reason to expect a breakout year from Bryant is what the former 88, Michael Irvin had to say recently about the new number 88:
“I thought Dez made great strides this year on the football field,” Irvin said according to the Dallas Morning News. “He has a lot of room to continue to grow, but he made great strides. When Dez really locks it all in, understands it, Dez will be the best receiver in the NFL.”
Notice that Irvin said when, not if, he puts it all together. Irvin’s opinion is significant because he was such a similar receiver in so many ways. He was fiery, he was passionate, he would rant and rave on the sidelines during the game, he got into all kinds of trouble off-field, battled numerous demons, and yet he produced on game day. Also notice that Irvin believes Bryant will be the best in all of football. As an NFL analyst, Irvin is putting his credibility on the line with that statement. Something he doesn’t take lightly.
2012 Projections for Dez Bryant
Here are projections for Bryant’s production in 2012. The first is based upon the average percentage improvement in the breakout year for all the receivers mentioned above.
The second is based solely upon the percentage improvement for Michael Irvin in his breakout year.
(Average Breakout Percentage Improvements)
These projections assume that Garrett and Callahan will field a decent offensive line in 2012. It’s safe to day that breakout years for WR’s don’t generally happen when the offensive line is a mess.
My guess is that Dallas will sign a veteran center toward the end of camp as insurance. This is certainly not ideal, since you want your center to be very comfortable with your QB and the offensive scheme. But it will most likely be necessary, unless Costa or Kowalski end up looking fantastic during pre-season.
Even if the line is only mediocre, I am still bullish on Bryant for this season. With solid line play, I fully expect him to have an Irvin-like breakout year. With shaky line play, I still see him going over 1200 yards.
Andre Holmes has an enormous amount of potential to help the Dallas Cowboys in 2012. He is big, he catches well, he has good speed and he is appears to willing to scrap with defenders to get position and get his hands on the ball. Right now is just one of the many wide receivers currently on the roster for the Dallas Cowboys who will be fighting for a roster spot this summer.
He was originally signed by the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2010. The Vikings waived him and Dallas signed him to their practice squad.
In the 2011 season, Dallas prepared for the Lions by using Holmes on their scout team to imitate Calvin Johnson.
Johnson is 6’5″, 232 lbs and runs a 4.32
Holmes is 6’5″, 210 lbs and runs a 4.45
Former NFL scout, Brian Broaddus, now with DallasCowboys.com, had this to say about Holmes:
Holmes did a nice job of adjusting his body along the sideline to keep his feet in bounds and catch the ball. He played with technique to free himself in routes, using an arm-over move to buy himself some space. He was a willing blocker, not a killer, but more of a get-in-the-way type. His team brought him in motion to crack on the edge.
Holmes did play some on the slot. He used his hands to snatch the ball, and did a good job of getting up field once he had the ball in his hands. He has outstanding timed speed and you see it when he ran crossing routes. He can really cover some ground when on the move and will get vertical.
This by itself, is encouraging. The fact that he has good hands to go along with a great combination of size and speed, the fact that he has good technique and the fact that he looks good in crossing routes, are all positives.
More from Broaddus:
He will catch the ball with men on his back in traffic, and was willing to take his route inside, catch the ball and take a hit from the defender. He will lay out for the ball down the field. He knows how to push off to buy himself some separation, and showed the ability to adjust to the low ball.
He was a raw route-runner in college—there was not much smoothness or purpose in this area. But he was clearly better than anyone who tried to cover him, so he wasn’t taxed like he would be in the NFL…
Now, Holmes is over a year removed from the games that I was able to study, so you have to feel like there would be improvements in many of the critical areas that I pointed out. His measurables are quite impressive along with his ability to catch the ball, so he has that going for him.
Much will depend upon his ability to learn the offense, run better routes, block correctly in the run game and above all else, contribute on special teams.
But you have to love that the guy catches well in traffic, can take a hit, lays out for the ball and is scrappy enough to battle with corner backs to get separation.
Holmes has the things you can’t teach: size, speed and hands. And Miles Austin can certainly advise him about cracking the lineup as an UDFA. If he is quick to pick up the rest, he will not only make the team, but also see some playing time this year.
The Dallas Cowboys are in desperate need of an offensive scheme re-tooling. They finished 2011 in the middle of the pack and relied far to much on Romo’s ability to scramble and make plays without a pocket.
Some have noted that Dallas threw far fewer down-field passes in 2011 and are hoping for a substantial improvement in pass blocking plus a more vertical attack in 2012. After all Eli Manning had a marginal offensive line, was constantly under pressure, and managed to throw more deep balls than anyone in the league.
But I would disagree with that kind of thinking. Both Manning brothers have displayed an uncanny knack for avoiding sacks when pressured. Something I suspect they learned from their father or inherited through superior QB genes. They both have several seasons in their history where they were sacked on less than 12 percent of pressures. Most QB’s and many great QB’s, end up taking sacks on about 20 percent of the pressures they encounter. Romo has averaged a sack percentage of around 20-24.
It is probably too much to hope that the Cowboys offensive line will make a quantum leap forward in pass blocking in one off-season. A more prudent approach would be to add more west-coast style to Garrett’s scheme and get the ball out of Romo’s hands faster and into the hands of backs like Murray and Jones in shallow patterns.
The rebuttal to this argument goes like this: If you are throwing more to backs, you have to throw less to your talented WR’s and tight ends, because there are typically only 60-65 offensive snaps a game.
Certainly that makes sense.
Or does it? Isn’t it true that if an offense is truly unstoppable, it will have the ball for a much greater percentage of the game? Doesn’t that translate to more snaps and more plays for everyone?
In fact it does. The New Orleans Saints are case in point. They executed exactly 100 more offensive plays than Dallas did last year. Here is a quick comparison of their offense with the Cowboys offense in 2011:
Pass Attempts: 662
Passing yardage: 5347
Passing yardage to backs: 1231
Passing yardage, top tight end: Graham: 1310
Running attemps: 431
Rushing yardage: 2127
Pass Attempts: 570
Passing yardage: 4201
Passing yardage to backs: 497
Passing yardage, top tight end, Witten: 942
Running attempts: 408
Rushing yardage: 1802
Note that the Saints passed 92 more times than the Cowboys overall. They got over 700 more yards in receiving from their backs than the Cowboys.
But they also compiled more yardage of every kind than the Cowboys. The wealth was substantial and the wealth was spread around to everyone.
This dispels the notion that “there are only so many balls to go around”. Actually, if you run their scheme with their players, it seems pretty clear that you get more and more opportunities to run plays, because few people are ever stopping you.
And having more plays, means more balls to go around. So the backs can catch lots of passes, the tight end gets his share, and the receivers get their share—and you can still run the ball a lot. The Saints finished sixth in the league in rushing.
Why don’t the Cowboys do this? What are their limitations in personnel? Running backs are great. Check. Receivers are great. Check. QB is great. Check. Tight end is great. Check. Offensive line is hopefully, improved enough this year. Certainly it wouldn’t prevent you from running this scheme. If anything, the shorter routes and dump offs will protect Romo, making the line look better.
Unless I am missing something, there really isn’t anything preventing Dallas from implementing a system that looks more like what the Saints are doing. As complex as Garrett’s system is, I am sure it includes enough of the same plays at Payton’s system. It really just comes down to calling them more frequently. With the Saints leading the league in offense, it’s hard to argue with the results.
Danny Coale, remember him? This is an article I wrote for another site a few weeks ago. Since then Coale has broken his foot, had surgery, been fitted for a walking boot and is now about to get the thing off. In the meantime, other receivers, like Andre Holmes have grabbed the spotlight in OTA’s and mini-camp.
But Danny Coale is a guy that many people, myself included, are still very interested to see compete for the third receiver spot.
Anyway, here is the article, as I wrote it back then:
When the Dallas Cowboys finally got around to drafting a receiver in the fifth round, but the selection of Danny Coale sent many Dallas fans to Google in search for answers to many questions.
The first one being: “who the heck is this guy?”
A little bit of digging was all it took before the Wes Welker similarities started to jump out. But Welker is a very special player with a very special story, so a deeper search into the backgrounds of these players seemed warranted.
First, a quick look at the surface similarities that prompted the initial interest:
- Both receivers play the slot position.
- Both are 6’ or less.
- Both had pre-Draft 40 times that failed to impress
- Both were very productive in college.
Taking a Closer Look—Comparing and Contrasting
- Welker had a great college career at Texas Tech. He played in Mike Leache’s spread offense, one of the most prolific passing systems in college football.
- Welker caught 259 passes over four years for 3019 yards and 21 touchdowns.
- Welker averaged 11.8 yards per reception.
- Coale also had a great college career, playing at Virginia Tech. He finished with 2658 yards and 8 TD’s. He was the 2nd all-time leading receiver in Virginia Tech history.
- A key difference in their college careers to note: Welker played in a heavy passing offense, which helped him amass his college career numbers.
- Coale played in an offense with a 70/30 run/pass ratio.
- According to Brian Broadus, Coale was held back by an inaccurate quarterback while at Virginia Tech.
- While Coale was given fewer opportunities to catch passes in Virginia Tech’s run-dominant offense, he made the most of his 165 catches by averaging 16.1 yards a catch.
Welker went undrafted because NFL teams weren’t about to draft a 5’8” kid who weighed 185lbs soaking wet, ran a 4.65 40 and had a vertical of 30 inches. There are 240 lb, 6’5” tight ends that run faster and jump higher than that.
What teams overlooked was that Welker owned the NCAA record for punt returns for touchdowns in a single season with 8. This was one stat that couldn’t be written off as a function of Leache’s tricked-up spread offense.
Owning that record meant that Welker had special field vision, special quickness and special agility. But none of this came across in the typical measurables and scouts chose to ignore what they were seeing on tape.
For Coale, the measureables look much better.
Coale has run a 40 as low as 4.38, although his official Combine result was 4.5
He is 6’, 201 lbs.
He has a great 3 cone drill number: 6.69, which was second-best among all receivers—meaning he changes direction very quickly.
His vertical is a very respectable 35 inches, meaning he can go up and get passes that might be out of reach for other slot receivers.
With solid college production and good measureables at the Combine, Coale was drafted by the Cowboys in the fifth round.
It’s tempting to get excited and point to the fact that Coale is faster and quicker and jumps higher than Welker. He also averaged 16.1 yards a reception in college compared to Welker’s 11.8.
One could even speculate that if Coale had been in a spread offense, his other college receiving numbers would have been as good as Welker’s or better.
And then we could deduce from all of that statistical-wishful-thinking that indeed, Dallas pulled off the steal of the draft by grabbing the next Wes Welker for a mere fifth-round pick.
But, alas, it’s early May and we should probably at least wait until OTA’s are over before we put him in the Hall of Fame.
So that’s the conclusion of what I wrote a few weeks ago. I would add to that a few points.
Coale is receiver who is just as comfortable on the outside as he is in the slot. I think he and Austin could really give defenses fits, by taking turns in the slot, going in motion a lot and changing the look of the formation, etc.
Coale served as a back up punter for Virginia Tech. He punted for them on several occasions. I could see a scenario where they put him in there on a fourth and short, see how the opposition reacts, and either punt or run for it. He has also returned punts in college. The guy is pretty versatile.
The Dallas Cowboys have several very interesting WR prospects in camp battling for position. The position is number three. Numbers one and two are locked up by Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. But beyond that, it’s wide open.
Whoever emerges as the third wide receiver will have a large impact on how this offense goes about moving the chains and scoring points.
The list of potential third receivers is fascinating in its variety. They range from small to large and from fast to crazy- fast.
At the tallest end of the spectrum, we have Andre Holmes, picked up by Dallas last year and added to the practice squad where he made a big impression on receivers coach Jimmy Robinson. He is 6’5″, 208 lbs. and has run a 40 as low as 4.45.
At the shortest end of the spectrum, we have Cole Beasely, 5’8″, 185, and Dwayne Harris, 5’10″, 208 lbs. Beasely is undrafted, out of SMU. Harris was drafted in the sixth round in 2011. Dallas released him in October but then brought him back. He wasn’t ready to take the third wide receiver spot last year, which is why the Cowboys went looking for other options and wound up with Laurent Robinson.
In between these extremes, are the following candidates:
Raymond Radway, 6’3″, 193 lbs., lowest 40-time: 4.32, which is truly elite speed. The combination of his height and speed is very rare. He broke an ankle in the final preseason game of 2011 and spent the year on IR.
Danny Coale, just drafted in the fifth round. He runs a 40 as low as 4.37, but was officially clocked at 4.5 in the combine. Second all-time leading receiver at Virginia Tech, Coale averaged over 16 yards per reception. Danny is 5’11″ and 201 lbs., known for finding the soft spots in zones and having great hands.
Coale has already been compared to Wes Welker but is actually stronger and faster than Welker. He posted the second best three-cone drill time of all receivers in the draft.
Donavan Kemp: undrafted, 6’1″, 195. Kemp has run a 40 as low as 4.37, jumped 11’2″ at his pro day in the broad jump, which would have been the best jump in the combine had he been invited. Has a 37.5 inch vertical and a bench press number of 16. What this tells you, in aggregate, is that this guy is explosive. Look for comments from coaches about his first step.
Saalim Hakin, undrafted, 5’11″, 185. He is the lightest and the fastest individual on the Cowboys roster. He has been clocked in the 40 at 4.31. That is crazy fast. But remember, he is competing for a roster spot with Radway who has been with Dallas a year now and is nearly as fast but is four inches taller.
Kevin Ogletree, undrafted, has been with the club since 2009 and has never stepped up to take the third spot, despite numerous opportunities. This summer is his last chance. He has the advantage of being familiar with the system, but my guess is he will wash out.
Dallas will keep no more than six receivers, possibly only five, if they don’t feel like a sixth is worth the roster spot. My guess is that they will keep six.
My best guess for who takes the third receiver spot would be Danny Coale. I think he will improve his route running, devour the playbook and win this spot. He was academically very strong and scored a 28 on the Wonderlic Test (Dez Bryant scored a 16).
He will be a quick study picking up the offense and getting in sync with Romo. He was prolific in college, despite having a mediocre quarterback with suspect accuracy. When he starts working with Tony Romo, I believe the coaches will see that they drafted the right guy.
If Radway rises up and takes the third receiving spot, I think all Cowboys fans would rejoice. No other receiver will look more like the second coming of Laurent Robinson than Radway, should he advance his game enough to pull this off. Robinson is 6’2″, 194 and has runs a 4.38 40.
So if Radway, who is an inch taller and 4/100ths of a second faster, could manage to convince his coaches that they are seeing another Robinson emerge, I think they would hand him the position.
Then again, maybe Kemp, with his freakish explosiveness, will prove to be so dangerous in slant-and-go routes that he demands the spot.
Or maybe Hakim, with his DeSean Jackson-like speed, will blow everyone away.
This is truly one of the more interesting position battles that will take place this summer. My money is on Coale, Radway or Holmes to win the third spot.
Of the remaining receivers, I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to who will make the team. It will come down to how they perform on special teams. August 29 is likely to be a huge day for at least one of these prospects. That’s the day of the final preseason game, and it will be someone’s last chance to earn the star.
This is an article that I wrote specifically for the TheDCTimes.com. I decided to write about the problem that the Eagle’s offense creates for the Dallas defense, but I also wanted to write about the upcoming challenge that RGIII will pose. Here is what I came up with:
Michael Vick and the Eagles offense is a puzzle Dallas has yet to solve.
Now, RGIII arrives this fall with the potential to bring more of the same pain to Cowboys fans, unless Dallas can create a solution to the run/pass threat posed by the rookie.
Trying to simulate Vick in practice is very challenging. Dez Bryant has played that role in the past. He actually has a fairly strong arm and plenty of athleticism, but Bryant doesn’t have the electric quickness of a player like Vick.
In 2010, Dallas was beaten 30-27 in their first match-up with the Eagles. In the second contest, Vick didn’t play. Dallas won a hollow victory in a pointless game.
In 2011, the ‘Boys were blown out in Philadelphia 34-7. In the second game, they started Stephen McGee in what amounted to a pre-season game in December, losing 20-7.
Over the course of two years, Dallas has played only two meaningful games against Vick’s Eagles. That’s hardly enough exposure to solve this puzzling, explosive offense.
Now, along comes Robert Griffin III. He has the potential to be a better NFL passer than Vick and he will likely be equally as dangerous with his feet. Even if he doesn’t run for as much yardage, RGIII will be able to use his feet to extend plays and find open receivers. The zone-boot that is the bread and butter of Shanahan’s offense is perfectly designed for this purpose.
The Cowboys now reside in a division where two-thirds of their opponents deploy West Coast offenses with dangerous running quarterbacks. The ‘Boys will be forced to respond to this challenge by putting speed on the field at all costs.
When Sean Lee injured his wrist and left in the first quarter of the first Eagles match-up last season, it became painfully apparent that the Cowboys were molasses-slow inside. Bradie James and Sean Lee had their hands full and would have been challenged all day; Bradie James and Keith Brooking were a tandem destined for embarrassment.
Fortunately, Dallas has responded to the upcoming challenges with several personnel moves. Inside linebacker Dan Connor and physical cornerback Brandon Carr were smart free agent acquisitions.
Drafting cornerback Morris Claiborne, considered by most analysts to be the top defensive player in the draft, was a bold stroke that will help slow down the passing aspect of these multi-threat offenses.
As Dallas continues the turnover of its roster toward younger, faster defenders, the time has arrived for Sean Lissemore and Victor Butler to start as well. Lissemore may be the only defensive end in the NFL who is a former sprinter.
At 310 lbs, he probably wouldn’t win many track meets these days, but if he can meet at the quarterback with DeMarcus Ware, Dallas will be on its way to the defense it needs.
But what about the Giants? They won it all, so shouldn’t the Cowboy be creating a defense to stop them?
As great a run as the Giants went on at the end of the season and through the playoffs, their offense isn’t the one that should scare Cowboys fans. Manning isn’t terribly mobile and Pro Football Focus rated his line dead last in 2011. It’s a miracle he stayed upright long enough to hoist another Lombardi trophy. Although his wide outs are fantastic, their numbers were padded by a schedule that featured several anemic pass defenses.
Here is the list of pass defenses the Giants faced in their last nine games, including the Super Bowl: Packers, 29th in pass rush; Cowboys, 26th in pass coverage; Redskins, 22nd in pass coverage; Jets, 28th in pass rush; Cowboys, 26th in pass coverage; Falcons, 18th in pass coverage; Packers, 29th in pass rush; 49ers, 4th in pass coverage, but gave away the win by muffing two punt returns; Patriots, 27th in pass coverage.
I doubt any other Super Bowl winner was ever given a smoother, more gently-winding road for its offense to navigate. The only bump in the road was the 49ers, who had a concussed rookie fielding punts. His two muffs essentially handed the Giants the game.
That isn’t to say that the Giants aren’t a formidable offense. They are solid, but the solution is simple: get a secondary to go with your pass rush. Dallas has done that. But beating the Eagles and the Redskins will require more.
Dallas must continue to build its defense to stop the monster that is already growing in Washington and the monster that is fully developed in Philadelphia.
These offenses will require linebackers that can cover sideline-to-sideline, ball-hawking defensive backs, and defensive linemen that arrive quickly and with bad intentions.
Once Dallas can shut down the Eagles offense, stopping the Giants offense will seem rudimentary by comparison. . .and they’ll have the Redskins to thank for it.
Roger Light is a sports writer and founder of sportsbrainpower.com, a site dedicated to providing coaches and athletes with sports psychology and brain-health resources.
This is an article I posted recently on Bleacher Report. I have long been intrigued by the Saints and Patriots. Their offensive schemes combined with their personnel are almost unstoppable. Most teams only hope to slow them down and find a way to outscore them. As someone who has made a living for over 20 years as an independent artist, I can appreciate Garrett’s desire to be original and not simply copy another teams offense. On the other hand, wow, the results these teams are getting are amazing. It would be nice to see Garrett incorporate more of their “stuff”. Anyway, here is my reason for hope:
As the Dallas Cowboy’s offense continues to evolve, it appears Jason Garrett may be ready to incorporate some characteristics from two perennial offensive juggernauts.
The New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots are offensive powerhouses that keep defenses off-balance.
They accomplish this in different ways, but there are some similarities.
- Each has a play-making tight end and at least one dynamic wide receiver
- Each averages over 300 yards passing per game while averaging over eight yards per catch.
- Each has a great quarterback
There are some significant differences, however, in how these great offenses go about piling up yards and points.
New England is Changing the Game With Two Tight Ends
New England threw 2237 yards to tight ends.
Wes Welker added over 1500 yards from the slot.
The Patriots focus on hitting tight ends leads them to 8.6 yards per catch.
New Orleans Attacks With Running Backs
New Orleans threw over 1000 yards to running backs and ran for over 2100 yards with them.
They also threw for over 1300 yards to their tight end Jimmy Graham and more than 1100 to Marques Colston.
The Saints love of passing to running backs contributed to a yards per catch average of 8.3. Lower than the Patriots, but still pretty high.
The Saints are little more ball control, the Patriots are more explosive.
The Patriots are special in that they are the only team in the modern era with two top-five receiving tight ends.
So who does Dallas seek to emulate?
Cowboys Need Some of “the Big Easy”
Based upon off-season moves, Dallas may be seeking an offense that blends the best of the Saints offense into Garrett’s system.
One off-season move that Dallas made with little fan-fare, was adding Bill Callahan as offensive line coach/offensive coordinator. Callahan comes from the west-coast coaching tree. A much bigger priority is placed upon passing to running backs in his offense.
Callahan served with Sean Payton under Jon Gruden years ago in Philadelphia. He went on to run a west coast system with the Raiders, getting them to a Super Bowl.
Ultimately, Dallas needs to move the ball without having Romo scrambling for his life half the time. I think Callahan will coach up the young offensive line, but I also think he will advise Garrett to mix in more quick passes to backs.
It takes pressure off of Romo, gets the ball out almost instantly, frustrates the pass rush immensely and puts the ball into the hands of dangerous guys like Murray and Jones.
Murray was the all-time leader at Oklahoma in receiving yards by a running back, all- purpose yards and scoring. This is his first, full off-season with Dallas. His role in the offense should grow substantially.
In 2011, New Orleans showed, once again, that if you have talented running backs and you feed them the ball with both carries and passes, you will pull the safeties into the box making it easy to attack over the top with your best tight end and wide outs.
Dallas has the personnel to pull this off, they have Callahan in place to orchestrate it, and they have at least two powerful reasons to include more quick passes: the Eagles’ pass rush and the Giants’ pass rush.
So expect some Cajun flavor to the Dallas attack this year, but don’t count out New England’s influence.
Dallas Needs Some East Coast Intellect
It’s fitting that the Patriots are located in close proximity to M.I.T. The Patriots engineer high-powered, sophisticated offenses year in and year out. Their latest invention is the three headed monster of Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker in the slot. The Patriots are the first team in the history of the NFL to have three top fifteen receivers (in receptions), with two of them being tight ends and the other being a WR who led the league.
Bill Belichic wasn’t necessarily the first person to think of this, but he was the first to pull it off. Back in 2008, Garrett was seeking a second pass-catching tight end to complement Witten. Unfortunately they drafted Martellus Bennett, which didn’t work out.
Dallas is taking another shot, with James Hanna, the fastest tight end in NFL Draft this spring.
If Hanna develops quickly enough, Garrett will finally have the opportunity to create New England-like mismatches in the secondary.
Putting two pass-catching tight ends on the field with Murray, Austin and Bryant, will put defenses in a very awkward position.
That package says run, but you have five very dangerous receivers on the field in Murray, Bryant, Austin, Witten and Hanna. In Garrett’s offense, many plays are run/pass options, based upon how the defense lines up. This is why a second, big pass-catching tight end would be such a catalytic add to this offense.
If Hanna can make the transition to the NFL, he could develop into a Hernandez-type threat for Dallas. Hanna has yet to prove anything, but he is bigger, faster and taller than Hernandez, so the potential is there.
Even if Dallas doesn’t get the kind of production out of Hanna that New England has gotten out of Hernandez, the Cowboys can still benefit from an offensive threat in the second tight end role.
Hanna can hurt defenses enough to draw some attention away from wide outs Bryant and Austin. New England got enormous production from their tight ends and one receiver in Welker, but they got relatively little from their other WR’s.
In Dallas, Austin and Bryant both have the ability to take over a game, so when Dallas goes with two tight ends and two wide outs, the impact on the defense will be different.
Especially if Dallas starts hitting its running backs with more regularity. Outside of New Orleans, there may not be another offense with two running backs that catch and run as well as Murray and Jones. Which means that regardless of which back is in the game when they go with 12 personnel (one back, two TE’s, ), the runner can become a receiver in a heart beat.
With all of these weapons, look for Garrett to spread the ball around, keeping defenses one step behind.
In addition to the 12 personnel, Garret can exploit similar mismatches with 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) with new fullback, Lawrence Vickers. Vickers, a free agent add from the Texans, is 6′, 250.
Vickers has the weight of a tight end, but in a fullback’s body. This is important because it enables him to get his pad level low enough to take out the linebacker in the hole when lead blocking.
But he can also catch. His hands are better than most fullbacks, so he can go out into patterns on occasion during a play-fake. The potential is there for Vickers to be a more versatile H-back than Dallas has had in years.
Ultimately, what you want from your H-back is maximum versatility: a guy who can run, block or catch.
That way his presence on the field places a big question mark in minds of the defense, making them read and react, rather than attacking with certainty.
Back in the Dallas dynasty years, Daryl Johnston was a great multi-threat fullback. People only think of “Moose” opening holes for Emmitt Smith, but Johnston caught 32/249 and 2 TD’s in 1992, the first Super Bowl year.
With all the weapons Dallas had, Johnston was often uncovered in the flat. It seemed like he could get them 4-6 yards minimum on a dump off any time they needed it.
It’s unlikely that Vickers will attain the production that Johnston did but if he can be another element of uncertainty for opposing defenses by making a surprise catch now and then, it will go along way toward making Garrett’s scheme work. Tony Fiametta didn’t do that last year. He had only three catches.
“New” Dallas Offense: a Little New Orleans and a Little New England
If Dallas can stay healthy this year and get the right blend of New Orleans and New England into their offense, there is no reason they can’t become an offensive juggernaut. The weak links in the Eagles and Giant’s defenses have been their linebackers and safeties. The Saints and the Patriots offenses are great at attacking these positions with a variety of weapons.
Garrett has shown the ability to keep Romo in rhythm while targeting a wide variety of receivers. In 2012, he may have the most diverse arsenal he has ever enjoyed. Cowboys fans should hope for a “New” approach.
Tyrone Crawford, taken by the Dallas Cowboys in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, has all of the measureables that scouts look for in a pass-rushing 3-4 defensive end. In fact, he has a number of things in common with Jason Pierre-Paul, the New York Giants’ defensive lineman who exploded into prominence in 2011.
This may seem like an absurd comparison to draw, given that Crawford hasn’t even played a snap in an NFL preseason game, but it’s June and what else am I going to write about. So, I am going to lay out some comparisons and contrasts between these two players and make a strong case for Crawford’s potential. But don’t worry, I’m not actually anointing him yet.
JPP didn’t start his collegiate career at a major athletic program, but at a little school named College of the Canyons, in California. Next, he transferred to Fort Scott Community College and played a season there. He transferred yet again in 2009, to the University of South Florida.
Crawford started his collegiate career at a Bakersfield College in California. Next, he transferred to Boise State. He played two seasons at Boise State before entering the draft.
JPP played 13 games for South Florida with seven starts and totaled 45 tackles (16.5 for losses), 6.5 sacks, one interception (returned 18 yards for a touchdown), broke up three passes and forced two fumbles. He was named First-Team All-America by Pro Football Weekly, and was also First-Team All-Big East.
Crawford totaled 13.5 sacks, 27 tackles for a loss and 76 tackles in 25 games at Boise State from 2010-2011. Crawford had a production ratio of 1.62, the highest of any defensive linemen in the 2012 draft.
Now you see, this comparison idea wasn’t as crazy as it might have seemed. Here is more:
JPP: 6’ 5”, 278 lbs
40 time: 4.71, Vertical Jump: 30.5 inches, Broad Jump: 9’7”, 20 Yard Shuttle: 4.67
3 Cone Drill: 7.18, Bench Press: 19
Crawford: 6’4”, 282 lbs
40 time: 4.89, Vertical Jump: 33, Broad Jump: 9’5”, 20 Yard Shuttle: 4.44
3 Cone Drill: 7.07, Bench Press: 28
Note that Crawford is slightly more compact at 6’4” and slightly heavier, but has a very similar build to JPP. Crawford’s 40 time is 18 hundreths of a second slower, but his vertical is better, his broad jump is only two inches less, his 20 yard shuttle is 23/100ths faster, his three-cone is 11 hundredths faster and his bench press number is much better, at 28. And folks, for a pass rusher, the 20 yard shuttle and three cone drill are pretty important metrics. Being 23 hundredths faster in the 20 yards shuttle is much more significant than having an edge in the forty time. If your defensive end is running 40 yards, something has gone terribly wrong. But the shuttle and the three cone drill speak to burst and quickness and changing direction–all very relevant for a pass rusher. And having a 28 in the bench press speaks to great upper body strength, which is essential for translating speed to power at the point of attack as you engage and shed blockers. This is good stuff.
So in most of these numbers, Crawford is actually better than JPP. What remains to be seen is if there is another level in Crawford that can be developed.
JPP had 4.5 sacks in his first season. It wasn’t until his second year that he really exploded, finishing with 16.5 sacks and a full highlight reel of game-changing plays made throughout the season.
JPP had another level in him to be developed. In high school, JPP’s sport was basketball. He didn’t start playing high school ball until late in his junior year. He was learning on the fly in high school, at two JUCOs and South Florida. There was a great deal of football skill and IQ yet to be cultivated when the Giants drafted him.
Crawford didn’t start playing football until his freshman year of high school in Canada. He also starred in basketball. He also had much to learn about the game in junior college and at Boise State.
For JPP, he was such an athletic freak that after one year of transition to the pro game, he has become one of the most disruptive and productive defensive linemen in the NFL.
Crawford has very comparable measureables, has a similar background of limited exposure to football, worked his way up from junior college to the NFL and is known to have a strong work ethic.
The question is: Will Crawford make the transition as quickly as JPP?
Does he have another level to develop, like JPP did?
Cowboys fans should expect a fair amount of learning on the job this year. Crawford isn’t likely to start for a while, but should be part of the rotation at defensive end early in the season.
JPP finished his first year with 4.5 sacks. If Crawford puts up similar numbers in 2012 and shows flashes of JPP-like disruption, there will be substantial reason for optimism.