The NFL is a lot of things.
The largest and most powerful professional sports league in the United States is a game, a corporation, and in many ways a reality show. We tune in week after week hinging on the storylines and being emotionally attached to specific characters.
If the NFL is a reality show, then the Dallas Cowboys are its superstar. America's Team - a humble sort of nickname - is always center stage while being simultaneously loved and hated. The drama is always seemingly more juicy when it accompanies the football club that boasts an iconic star upon their helmets.
Let's talk about that word - drama.
Drama typically runs parallel with big storylines, and boy oh boy have the Dallas Cowboys had their fair share. Over the course of time, the Cowboys were established in 1960, they have always been at the center of drama: last-second comebacks, epic victories, and an occasional off-the-field "can you believe this is happening?" moment or two.
On Thursday night the Dallas Cowboys, thanks to a Philadelphia Eagles win over the New York Giants on Thursday Night Football, locked up what every football team wants: their division, a first-round bye, the number one overall seed in their conference, and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Huzzah, baby.
The 2016 NFC East Crown was certainly not achieved without quite a bit of drama, and that's what's been on my mind ever since Eli Manning's game-clinching interception (love that dude, man). Think about the ridiculous circumstances that have served as obstacles for America's Team this season:
- Coming off a 4-12 season that was such because Tony Romo was hurt, the Cowboys failed to trade back into the 1st Round to get Memphis' Paxton Lynch.
- Later in the draft Dallas saw Michigan State's Connor Cook taken a pick ahead of where they wanted him. They'd go on to settle for someone else in the 4th Round.
- The Cowboys took a player in the 2nd Round, Jaylon Smith, who would likely wouldn't (he's on IR now) play a snap all season.
- MLB Rolando McClain didn't show up for Training Camp.
- DE Randy Gregory had offseason hiccups and was absent as well (not to mention Damien Wilson was shot in the eye with a paintball!).
- The 3rd Round Pick, Maliek Collins, got hurt and missed a ton of time.
- The reigning 4th leading rusher in the NFL, Darren McFadden, hurt his elbow.
- QB2 Kellen Moore was hurt. The settled for rookie ascended on the depth chart.
- The 1st Round Pick, RB Ezekiel Elliott, had hamstring issues at camp and was a question mark.
- QB1 Tony Romo - who's absence plagued 2015 - was hurt. The rookie inherited the keys to America's Team and all the drama that came with that title (and would definitely come).
- The first 4th Round Pick, Charles Tapper, discovered a new injury and was put on IR.
- The perceived best CB on the team, Orlando Scandrick, was hurt.
- A new star cornerback rose from his phoenix-made ashes, Morris Claiborne, and he got hurt.
- The best Left Tackle in football, Tyron Smith, got hurt.
- Stud sophomore Guard La'el Collins was hurt. Ron Leary, who had his own drama during camp, filled in.
- Dez Bryant got hurt.
- The Dez Bryant MRI Saga happened.
- Dez Bryant's father passed away.
- Gavin Escobar's father passed away.
- Tony Romo got healthy, demoted himself, and then drama really happened.
- The Cowboys lost a second game, and panic was at an all-time high.
- Jason Garrett rallied his team.
- Dallas beat Tampa Bay.
- Ezekiel Elliott raised a ton of money by jumping into a Salvation Army kettle.
- Philadelphia beat New York.
When you look through that sequence of events - one that isn't totally in chronological order for those detail-minded folks - you think... there's no way on Earth that this season could go well for this team.
It's Friday, December 23rd and the Dallas Cowboys are 12-2, NFC East Champs, the NFC's #1 seed, and the road to Super Bowl LI goes through their house (not to mention that every single game of importance from here on out will take place in Texas). It literally went as best as it possibly can... with two weeks to spare.
It's not real. It really isn't. You look at what went into it and what came out of it, and it doesn't make sense. It's not supposed to happen like this, it's not supposed to be this easy.
That's the Dallas Cowboys way though, isn't it? Everyone else lives in a world with specifications and parameters that are defined for mortals, but the legendary Dallas Cowboys find ways to conquer all.
December 21st, 2014: #DallasCowboys Clinch NFC East. December 22nd, 2016: #DallasCowboys Clinch NFC East and #1 Seed in NFC. Amazing.
The Cowboys captured their second division title in three years literally two years and one day apart. That's not real! You couldn't write that even if you tried! I'm sitting here - writing - and I'm telling you that you could not dream up this dream that has become the 2016 Cowboys.
That division title in 2014? It only featured a quarterback playing at an MVP level (he'd finish second in voting) and the NFL's leading rusher. This season, 2016, LITERALLY HAS THOSE EXACT SAME THINGS... AND THEY ARE ROOKIES! If Jason Garrett doesn't win Coach of the Year, I am going to lose my mind.
Ever since Dez Bryant caught that ball at Lambeau Field it's felt like the Dallas Cowboys have been scratching and clawing for their chance to get back to that same position - one game away from the NFC Championship. On Thursday night they officially did as they are back in the Divisional Round, one game away from the NFC Championship. It actually happened! Two years later. No big deal.
It takes you beyond the grains of modern logic when you try to fully comprehend what the Dallas Cowboys have done this season. You can't even qualify the whole thing by saying that they've defied expectations because there are no expectations for what they've done... it's that ridiculously uncommon.
The only explanation for the phenomenon that has been the 2016 Dallas Cowboys season - down to the detail that the Philadelphia Eagles were the ones that in fact clinched everything for them - is really just five simple words.
This is the Dallas Cowboys.
This is life. And what a life it is.
Dallas Cowboys’ Starters Don’t Need to Play in Preseason “Dress Rehearsal”
The third game of the preseason has long been considered the "dress rehearsal" game for NFL teams. It's the game where teams generally played their starters for at least a half and sometimes into the second half so that coaches and players could practice communicating adjustments during half time. With the conversation about the future of the preseason focused on reducing the number of exhibition games teams play, it's time for the Dallas Cowboys to follow several other teams and sit their starters and principle role players for the third preseason game.
The Los Angeles Rams, among other teams, have made a conscious decision not to play their starters in the third preseason game for several years under Head Coach Sean McVay. And if you look back at how they've handled the preseason this offseason, Jared Goff and Todd Gurley, haven't played a single snap. They also haven't played Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, or Cooper Kupp. The Rams have been one of the best offensive teams in the NFL but haven't played their primary skill position players in the preseason in two years.
The Dallas Cowboys and every other team in the NFL can take a lesson. But based on a report from Todd Archer of ESPN, the Dallas Cowboys have different plans. Even planning to play the oft-injured Sean Lee this weekend.
Linebacker Sean Lee has practiced the last three days, and anticipates he will play Saturday at least some against the Houston Texans. Lee suffered a slightly sprained medial collateral ligament in the first padded practice while in Oxnard, California,... https://t.co/zZ4KNvWdua
There's very little reason at this point to play your starters and risk injuries that could derail what the Dallas Cowboys hope is a Super Bowl run. Jason Garrett's an old school coach from an older way of thinking that believes it's important to get those reps against live competition. To an extent, it is important to work on things against a team that doesn't know you as well as your own players. On the other hand, does the benefit outweigh the risk?
Last night, with the Carolina Panthers facing the New England Patriots in their third preseason game, Cam Newton took several big hits that led to him having to leave the game with a foot or ankle injury. Now, for Carolina's sake, they better hope it's a minor thing that will heal with some rest, because if Cam Newton has to miss an extended period of time, they can go ahead and write off the 2019 season, especially in the NFC South.
With as effective as the first-team offense has looked in the first two preseason games, does it make sense to risk Dak Prescott or one of the other starters on offense to injury in order to get them more live competition?
The offensive line is already ailing a bit with Tyron Smith missing last week's matchup with the Los Angeles Rams due to yet another back issue. Zack Martin sat out the game in Hawaii as well with a bulging disc in his back that has held him out of practice as well. It's unlikely that either of these guys will play Saturday night along with any of the other players dealing with injuries right now. However, what's the point of playing the guys who aren't injured.
Sure, this game could give Dak Prescott and Michael Gallup some more reps to work on their chemistry or snaps for Travis Frederick and Jason Witten to get in game shape after a year layoff. However, there's so much more to be lost than gained if one of the starters or primary role-players is injured in this game. Prescott and Gallup have looked great in practice. Frederick and Witten will work into game shape.
You can't play football worried about players getting hurt, but you can save your risk-taking for a time when the games actually matter to your win-loss ledger. Let the back half of your 90 man roster get all the snaps they can get in this game and the next. Perhaps those extra snaps help the coaching staff separate those players on the bubble for the 53-man roster.
Though we will watch the game Saturday night to see what those Dallas Cowboys who do play are able to accomplish against the Houston Texans, we will be watching with bated breath. Hoping that the Dallas Cowboys don't suffer an injury that could derail their chances of contending for a Super Bowl.
Cowboys en Español: Extensión de Jaylon, Pronóstico Para Elliott
Los Dallas Cowboys han sido uno de los equipos más importantes a seguir este offseason. ¿El motivo? Tres super estrellas en espera de extensiones de contrato. Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott y Amari Cooper han sido el enfoque para medios y aficionados cuando se trata del equipo de Jerry Jones. Sin embargo, ninguno de ellos fue el primero en llegar un acuerdo con el equipo. El linebacker Jaylon Smith consiguió llevarse la primera rebanada del pastel.
Jaylon Smith se ha perfilado como uno de los mejores linebackers en toda la NFL después de una excelente temporada en 2018. Al recordar su historia, es increíble ver hasta donde ha llegado. Fue en 2016 cuando, jugando su último partido de football universitario con Notre Dame, el linebacker sufrió una lesión de rodilla lo suficientemente seria para poner en duda si volvería a jugar en su vida. Quien hubiera sido probablemente una de las primeras cinco selecciones en su respectivo NFL Draft, terminó cayendo hasta la segunda ronda, donde los Cowboys terminaron su desliz y lo llamaron a Dallas sabiendo que podría tardar hasta más de un año en regresar al campo.
Después de perderse la campaña del 2016, en 2017 fue apresurado al emparrillado y a pesar de verse prometedor, no brilló tanto como lo hizo el año pasado. Estando completamente sano, Smith se lució como el linebacker central de la defensiva de los Cowboys que sorprendió a toda la liga. Realmente vimos a la fuerza que todos esperaban ver de su parte cuando era un prospecto de Notre Dame.
Ahora, firma una extensión de contrato que realmente es amigable con el equipo. Después de un offseason en el que Bobby Wagner (Seahawks) recibió 18 millones de dólares en promedio al año y C.J. Mosley 17, el valor de Smith pudo haber estado alrededor de los 15. Sin embargo, el promedio de la extensión de 5 años de Jaylon es de 12.8.
Jaylon Smith al parecer le dio un descuento al equipo que creyó en el cuando su carrera era un signo de interrogación. Los Cowboys aseguran un gran talento para el futuro, y otro defensivo en torno a quien pueden construir una defensiva para el largo plazo. Tanto la directiva como el jugador se merecen un fuerte aplauso por esta noticia.
Mientras tanto, rumores sobre la situación de Ezekiel Elliott continúan. La historia, por el momento, sigue siendo la misma. Zeke no se ha reportado con el equipo y está de vuelta en Cabo después de haber viajado (e ilusionado a muchos fans en el proceso) a Dallas hace unos días.
Muchos se han dado a la tarea de entrar en pánico, pero yo los invito a que tomen un fuerte respiro. Sí, la temporada regular está muy cerca. Sin duda, Elliott estará en forma pero el no haber trabajado con el equipo en training camp podría resultar en el corredor super estrella tardando un poco en adaptarse.
Habiendo dicho eso, me sorprendería mucho si Zeke se pierde un segundo de temporada regular. Jeff Darlington, reportero de ESPN, comentó al aire que su predicción era que Elliott se reportará para la semana 1 y no podría estar más de acuerdo con él.
Se ha sabido que ambas partes siguen trabajando para acordar una extensión y que los Cowboys lo quieren para el futuro, incluso ofreciendo un contrato que lo convertiría en el segundo mejor pagado en su posición de la NFL.
Este equipo de los Dallas Cowboys realmente es un contendiente al Super Bowl y tanto la directiva como Elliott lo saben. Pueden estar pensando en Le'Veon Bell, pero no olviden lo diferente que estas situaciones son. Mi pronóstico coincide con el de Darlington y el de muchos otros: Zeke no se perderá ni un segundo de temporada regular.
How The Cowboys Can “Modernize” Their Offense
If there's one thing the national football world seemed to agree on last season, it's that Scott Linehan's offense had grown "stale."
After starting the Dak Prescott/Scott Linehan era off fast, with one of the league's best offenses in 2016 leading them to a 13-3 record, Dallas quickly fell down those offensive leaderboards. As pieces on the offensive line were forced to shuffle due to free agency, injury, or illness and Ezekiel Elliott faced suspension, the Cowboys offense sputtered during '17 and '18.
Though the Amari Cooper trade gave the unit a quick boost of energy en route to a division title a year ago, the Cowboys offense still seemed behind the curve when compared to the rest of the league.
Jerry Jones decided to fire offensive coordinator Scott Linehan this offseason, moving on from that "stale" offensive system. The man hired to replace Linehan? First year OC, and former backup quarterback in Dallas, Kellen Moore.
Much has been made about the hiring of Kellen Moore. Some believe he will be the one to bring much needed modern elements to the Cowboys offense, helping them compete with the loads of firepower around the NFC. Others see this as more of the same, as Jason Garrett is still the one ultimately in charge at The Star.
I decided to take a closer look at the Cowboys offensive efficiency numbers over the last three seasons to pinpoint exactly where they can improve. I also watched a bit of Kellen Moore from his quarterback days at Boise State, to see what aspects of that elite college offense he may look to incorporate with his new professional offense. The results were far from surprising, though they were certainly enlightening as we head into this 2019 campaign.
Play Action Passing
If you're on NFL Twitter as much as I am, you're probably sick of reading about play action passing. Analysts have been using the term as a sort of quick-fix for a struggling passing offense, pointing to the efficiency numbers of teams that do it well, such as the Los Angeles Rams.
The bottom line is, you need to have an efficient passing game to win in the NFL. And it's hard to be more efficient through the air than the Cowboys have been in their play action passing game.
Let's start back. In 2016, Dak Prescott dazzled all year long to earn himself Rookie of the Year honors. His best full season to date, Prescott immediately put himself into the conversation with top two picks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz for who will be the best young quarterback in that 2016 class. But, then, in 2017 things went a bit sour for Prescott, and stayed that way until Amari Cooper joined the Cowboys midway through the 2018 season.
While injuries, suspensions, and regression can all explain what has happened to the Cowboys passing offense since that miraculous rookie year, play action passing rate might do a better job than any of them. In 2016 the Cowboys finished with a 24% play action rate, placing them 3rd in the NFL in terms of usage. They averaged 9 yards per play on play action passes, with a DVOA of 45.8%. They were really good at it, and compared to the rest of the league, they did it a lot.
As play action rates around the league rose, however, the Cowboys stayed the same. They went from efficient and "smart" in 2016, their best offensive year with Dak Prescott, to outdated and stale. And they did so quickly.
In 2017 Dallas used play action just 22% of the time. While not a big dropoff from a season ago, they fell in the league rankings from 3rd to 19th. And while they remained a positive passing team in terms of DVOA overall, their passing efficiently rose 19.8% when using play action as compared to standard drop-back passing.
Then, in 2018, the Cowboys were once again in the middle of the pack in terms of play action rate at 25%. Despite their relatively low usage to the elite teams around the league, the Cowboys were 10th in play action passing DVOA. When they didn't use play action and decided to use the traditional drop-back passing, they were 27th in DVOA. In terms of DVOA differential, Dallas had the 5th biggest drop-off in the league, and were +37.7% when using play action.
In other words, the Cowboys were really good passing the ball after the play fake. Yet, for whatever reason, they didn't utilize it nearly enough last season.
If they are going to become "modern" or "cutting edge," they should be joining teams like the Rams, Eagles, and Patriots at the top of the play action rate leaderboards. Especially when the data suggests there are no diminishing returns with increased play action usage.
So, this would suggest the Cowboys have to pay Ezekiel Elliott, right?
Well, not exactly.
As discussed by Ben Baldwin in this Football Outsiders article, no relationship between rushing frequency or success and play action passing success has been found. Running the football does not set up more successful play action passes, despite what traditional football knowledge would suggest.
You can run and succeed at play action pass plays without running the football well, or much at all.
Ah, another favorite term of NFL nerd Twitter, pre-snap motion. As a former college offensive lineman (yeah, division three, whatever) the infatuation with pre-snap motion at the NFL level is sort of funny to me.
At the high school and college levels, pre-snap motion is used all the time. I can't even count how many pre-snap flops or shifts, jet motions, sprint motions, fly motions/sweeps, etc. get used on a daily basis at practice. So how come the NFL is so far behind these lower levels of football?
Well, to be honest, they tend to be behind more often than not. But that's besides the point.
In 2018 the Cowboys used pre-snap motion 31% of the time, ranking 24th in the NFL according to Sports Info Solutions. New quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna, however, spoke to The Ringer about changing that in 2019.
“We want to spread it out and make the defense have to cover the full field,” Kitna says. “We’re going to try to use formations and shifts and movements to our advantage. I think a lot of people have that idea coming in, but we’re going to emphasize that.” - Jon Kitna
Incorporating more motions would be huge for the Cowboys offense. These motions can create that space Kitna is speaking to, especially considering how often opposing defenses will use man coverage against the Cowboys.
Everything you do as an offense should be done to put the defense in a bind. Make the defense choose between two bad options on every snap. Not only do motions indicate opposing coverages pre-snap, but when combined with stack and bunch formations and a variety of splits they also often force defenses to choose between two bad options.
Putting It Together
What would an offense like this look like? Let's take a look at Kellen Moore's college days for a couple examples.
Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.
On this play above, the Broncos bring their tight end in motion across the formation. Kellen Moore snaps the ball as the tight end reaches the outside shoulder of the tackle. Then, they use both the play action fake and the motioned tight end to draw the defenders' eyes into the backfield/flats.
The hesitation from the linebackers and safeties gives Kellen the chance to take a deep shot down the field for a huge completion and a touchdown.
Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.
Here's another example of Kellen Moore executing a touchdown pass off play action. This time, it's a wide receiver who goes in motion across the formation until he gets outside the far hash. The defense is forced to indicate their coverage because of the motion, so Kellen Moore knows exactly what look they are giving pre-snap.
The play action fake draws the linebackers up further towards the line of scrimmage, and Moore drops it over there heads to the previously motioned receiver for a touchdown.
Honestly, the plays themselves shouldn't be all that different. It's about dressing the packaging up in unique ways while still running the same base type plays they've always run. Every team runs inside and outside zone. Some do it better than others, though, and a lot of that has to do with the packaging.
The Cowboys can still, if they must, "establish the run." They can just do so in ways that keep the defense guessing, rather than pounding their heads against the wall against unfavorable box counts.
It's not about trick plays or gadgets, it's about creativity and variety.
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