The last two weeks have been insane for sports fans.
Major League Baseball had its Opening Day, the NCAA Tournament came to a dramatic close, The Masters happened, Kobe Bryant retired with an epic swan song, the Golden State Warriors accomplished the greatest regular season in NBA History, the NHL Playoffs are happening, and the NBA Playoffs are about to tip off.
In the middle of all of that... the NFL still managed to make itself relevant.
Never mind the fact that the Los Angeles Rams traded with the Tennessee Titans for the right to the First Overall Pick (the history of which I wrote about earlier this week here at Inside The Star), a trade which can benefit the Cowboys, I'm talking about the release of the 2016 NFL Schedule.
Think about that for a second. In the midst of all the greatness happening across the other major American sports, the significance of the release of the NFL schedule managed to be among them. The schedule! This is literally just dates on a piece of paper! The NFL is king.
All 256 games of the 2016 NFL season are now set and ready to get going. All we have to do is put up with the NFL Draft, OTAs, offseason waiting, Training Camp, and Preseason! Hooray!
When we finally get to the light at the end of that long tunnel our great big Inside The Star family will have arrived at the Dallas Cowboys 2016 Season, and specifically the 2016 Dallas Cowboys Schedule. Now that we know it we can start looking forward to it, right?
We'll have you covered with Game Previews here at Inside The Star sooner rather than later, but today we're here for a different reason. Before all of this schedule release excitement got underway, I predicted the 2016 Dallas Cowboys Schedule for you here at Inside The Star. I managed to get four games right, 25% for the math fans, and nailed the notion that the Cowboys would play on Thursday Night Football following their Thanksgiving date against the Redskins.
That's why we're here today - to analyze the aspects of the schedule, not the games themselves. Let's begin.
Cowboys-Giants Week 1... Again?
There were several trends in terms of the Dallas Cowboys schedules dating back as far as the NFL's realignment in 2002 that I factored into my prediction.
Dallas has opened up at home just five times since 2002, three of those contests coming against the Giants, but has kicked off in their own backyard each of the last three seasons. Considering that two of the last three openers have been at home to the Giants, Week 1 of the schedule is quite a chin-scratcher. This will mark the fourth out of fifth season that the Cowboys face the Giants in the season opener.
Cowboys-Giants is a big ratings draw for the NFL, and it's becoming quite the tradition for it to be Week 1. The NFL somewhat spared the country from the same Sunday Night Football game to start the season for the third time in four years when they put this at the three o'clock window. For what it's worth the last time the Cowboys didn't open on Primetime was in 2014 when they got blasted by the 49ers. That season worked out so I'd say this bodes well.
Two Division Games Out The Gate
Since the 2002 realignment the Dallas Cowboys have only started with two division games once, and that was in 2015.
The Cowboys went 2-0 in those 2015 games, but lost both Dez Bryant and Tony Romo so were unable to fully capitalize on the advantage that an early lead like that would provide a team; however, it's not hard to ponder on how big of a leg up that can be to a team.
New York and Washington are both very winnable games for the 2016 Cowboys (providing there is full health... and even then the unhealthy Cowboys almost beat the Giants and did beat Washington). The Cowboys have started off a season 2-0 three times in the Tony Romo era (2007, 2008, & 2015) so it's certainly doable. Doing it in 2016 would poetically put the Cowboys at the point where their 2015 season fell apart... a 2-0 overall/division record.
Week 5 AFC Opponent At Home (Cincinnati Bengals)
Seven out of the last nine seasons the Cowboys have faced an AFC Team in Week 5. Five of those have been at home, three of them coming in each of the last three seasons.
This one was very predictable and the NFL actually slotted the Bengals in the exact same week as when they last traveled to play the Cowboys per the rotation in 2008, only that game was at Texas Stadium. We saw this one coming a mile away.
5 Primetime Games
The NFL has a maximum number of times that a team can appear on primetime - that amount is five. For the twelfth consecutive year, the Dallas Cowboys appear on primetime the maximum allowable amount.
The Cowboys are the NFL's cash cow. People love them. People hate them. Regardless of how people feel about America's Team... they care about America's Team one way or another.
6 "Big Stage" Games
If you follow me on Twitter, then you already know about this little nugget of information.
Yes, the Dallas Cowboys have five primetime games. That's awesome. And its indicative that they are indeed still, and will always be, America's Team. But there's more to this puzzle.
A standard NFL Sunday includes around ten games at noon. This is the boring slot for teams to be put in. Why is it boring? ...there are around ten games going on. The NFL puts its least marketable teams in this window because they can't carry a big stage on their own. Think of each window of games as a television show. The NFL puts all the bad actors together so that there's at least a lot going on. The good actors get their own shows (bigger stages).
The best slot that isn't primetime is the three o'clock window of Sunday games. Typically there are three or four games going on so there is less competition for viewers. This is where you see FOX's traditional America's Game of the Week with Troy and Buck and CBS's top crew with Nantz and Simms. This is the big show.
So Cowboys have 5 games where they'll be the only one on, 4 games where they'll share stage with 2, and 2 games where they'll share with 3.
The Cowboys are on primetime five times which leaves 11 other games on the schedule. They are in the three o'clock window six of those games. Four of those they are one of three games and two of those they are one of four games. That's as close to primetime as you can get. That means that the Cowboys will play in the "boring" slot only five times. The Eagles play in the "boring" slot ten times, that'll put a smile on your face!
Thursday Night Football Following Thanksgiving Against The Vikings
This was a big point in my schedule prediction.
Each team gets the "luxury" of playing on TNF. As the Cowboys already play on Thanksgiving Thursday and considering that the NFL has 18 "Thursday Night Football" games that can only happen in a time span of 14 weeks, they result to some weird stuff like playing some on Saturdays. That's a whole different beast.
The NFL won't make the Cowboys, or Lions for that matter, play a TNF game early in the season and then do it again on Thanksgiving. It's unfair to put them through that short week twice.
This is why I predicted that the Cowboys would play on TNF following Thanksgiving. This allows the Cowboys to still have a full week of rest after Thanksgiving and doesn't compromise their rest routine. This happened to the Cowboys in 2014 when they traveled to Chicago after a Turkey Day showdown against the Eagles.
December 11th On Sunday Night Football Against The Giants
In the rich history between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, they have only played each other on December 11th once.
That fateful day was on December 11th, 2011 and the game was on NBC's Sunday Night Football, and it was a rough one for Cowboys Nation. Jason Pierre-Paul blocked a Dan Bailey Field Goal and the Giant Win served as a springboard for New York's Super Bowl XLVI Championship run.
Hopefully that history doesn't repeat itself five years later as the Cowboys and Giants will tango on December 11th under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football once more. This game will be in New York and the last time the Cowboys played there on SNF Jason Pierre-Paul got blocked by Tyron Smith twice as Tony Romo threw the game-winning touchdown to Dez Bryant.
Monday Night Football Finale
No NFL season would be complete without the Dun-Dun-Dun-Dun of Monday Night Football accompanying America's Team.
This season Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden will be fresh off of Christmas when they call the Cowboys and Lions matchup on December 26th. The last time that the Cowboys and Lions squared off at AT&T Stadium was during a 2014 Wild Card Playoff Game, which the Cowboys won in epic fashion.
The NFL hasn't typically given the MNF gang that great of a game lineup, but this one has potential to be special. Of course, the Cowboys will hope to have clinched the NFC East by this point in the season so maybe that's the NFL's way of setting up the ultimate tease.
Thanksgiving Kicks Off Primetime Ride
You can see from the last few points that everything from Thanksgiving on is essentially primetime.
The Thanksgiving Game by definition isn't primetime as it happens at three o'clock, but it's closer than anything else. What's interesting is that 3/5 of the Cowboys' games after Thanksgiving are all in primetime.
This sets the Cowboys up to be in the spotlight during the December days that really matter. If the Cowboys, and subsequently the Eagles, make them matter enough then Dallas could actually find itself with an extra primetime game if their season finale gets flexed to Sunday Night Football.
Here lies more proof not only that the Cowboys are and will always be America's Team, but that the NFL expects them to be good in 2016. There's an awful lot of faith put into a team that has 60% of its final five games in primetime.
Dorance Armstrong, Kerry Hyder Stand Out in Cowboys Practices
With Left Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery, Defensive End Taco Charlton rehabbing a shoulder and foot injury, and Right Defensive End Randy Gregory currently suspended indefinitely, there have been plenty of snaps at defensive end for other players to make a name for themselves in the offseason training activities (OTAs) and this past week's minicamp. The two players that stood out above all others on the defense were defensive ends Dorance Armstrong and Kerry Hyder.
You might be asking yourself, "what does it matter? DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn are the starters. Why should we care about a couple of backups."
First, the backup defensive ends for the Dallas Cowboys will play. After DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford, the leaders in defensive end snaps in 2018, Randy Gregory got 44% of the snaps on defense and Taco Charlton saw 39%. Dorance Armstrong, who played sparingly as a rookie, saw 26% of the snaps. The defensive ends that make the 53-man roster are going to get playing time.
Secondly, there's no guarantee that DeMarcus Lawrence will be ready for week one. Tyrone Crawford, who was the starter at right defensive end in 2018, could miss week one if the NFL deems his offseason altercation is worthy of a suspension. That leaves a whole lot of potential snaps at the left defensive end spot if either of those two guys misses week one.
Dorance Armstrong, the Dallas Cowboys fourth-round pick from 2018, caught the eye of several observers from the media and finished his offseason with a strong minicamp.
"These coaches have to be happy with what they’ve seen from Dorance Armstrong during these practices. Armstrong has been mainly filling in for DeMarcus Lawrence on the left side, but on Wednesday he switched over to the right. There were several snaps where he was a handful for Cam Fleming to handle. Armstrong started off well last season before hitting the rookie wall. He physically looks bigger and is also now equipped with the knowledge of how he has to prepare to play at a high level the entire season. Keep an eye on Armstrong to make that jump from the first to second year."
Bryan Broaddus - DallasCowboys.com
Armstrong had a really nice training camp as a rookie and as Broaddus notes, tailed off during the regular season. Reports are that he's added size this offseason -- as most players do between their first and second year -- and if all the reports are correct, could be a breakout player in the making.
Kerry Hyder is another intriguing player and one of the more underrated offseason acquisitions by the Dallas Cowboys front office.
Coming from the Detroit Lions, where they used Hyder as a nose tackle in Matt Patricia's 3-4 alignment, he was played severely out of position. In 2016, playing primarily as a defensive end, Hyder recorded eight sacks for the Lions. In 2017, he suffered a torn achilles which kept him out all of that year.
Now with the Dallas Cowboys, he gets to return to his more natural defensive end position. And he's making some noise in these offseason practices.
D-Linemen never get any shine during OTAs, so today is for them. With Tyron Smith & La'el Collins sitting out today, Dorance Armstrong & Kerry Hyder absolutely wrecked practice. Murdered it. I legitimately don't think Dak would've gotten a single throw out if sacks were allowed.
Of course not playing against the starting tackles in Tyron Smith and La'el Collins will allow players to shine a bit more, but let's not forget that Cam Fleming started in the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots before signing with the Dallas Cowboys. Connor Williams, who has been getting snaps at tackle as well, is no slouch as a former All-American for the Texas Longhorns.
Here's what Bryan Broaddus had to say about Kerry Hyder in one of the previous OTAs his "Scout's Notebook" from May 22nd.
"I have to be careful with my love for veteran defensive linemen, but Kerry Hyder looks like a different man playing at end instead of head-up tackle. The coaching change in Detroit did him no favors last season. Having to play in a spot where he had to fight blocks all day to now working on the edge in space is a good thing for him. It appears that Hyder has his quickness back, but he also has some pass rush moves in his tool belt. I thought maybe they were going to use him as an under-tackle, but putting him back at end might be his best shot at making the roster."
Bryan Broaddus - Dallas Cowboys.com
The Cowboys found a really good player in Kerry Hyder. He's capable of playing some 3-technique defensive tackle if needed as well as on the edge. He has a good motor and is able to make plays in the running game.
With the emergence of Kerry Hyder and Dorance Armstrong this offseason, it puts Taco Charlton behind the eight ball as the team heads to Oxnard. If they continue to play well, it's a real possibility that Charlton could be a gameday inactive during the regular season, especially if Randy Gregory is reinstated.
However they end up being deployed, this group of defensive ends will cause fits for opposing offensive lines. They've been aiming for waves of pass rushers for Rod Marinelli's defense and for the first time since becoming defensive coordinator, he looks to have just that.
BREAKING: Cowboys TE Rico Gathers Receives One-Game Suspension
Tight End Rico Gathers already had an uphill climb to return to the Dallas Cowboys' 53-man roster in 2019. But that climb just got even steeper; the NFL handed down a one-game suspension to Gathers today for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
If he does make the team this year, with Dallas or anyone else, Rico will have to sit out Week One of the season without pay.
Cowboys TE Rico Gathers is suspended without pay for the first game of the 2019 regular season for violating the NFL's policy and program on substances of abuse. This is from his arrest in 2018 for marijuana possession.
Gathers' chances of returning in 2019 were already hurt by Jason Witten's reversed retirement. He dropped to fourth on the TE depth chart behind Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz, and Dallas only kept three tight ends last year.
The Cowboys also added Codey McElroy as a developmental player during the offseason.
While the suspension is news, the incident that led to it is not. Dallas already knew about the arrest, which occurred in early September of 2018, and have kept Gathers around up until now.
The NFL's substance abuse system is pretty formulaic, so the Cowboys likely anticipated this suspension all along. This may not change anything about how they value Rico Gathers for the 2019 season.
Nevertheless, a player who can't help you in Week One and is a liability for ever longer suspensions down the road is definitely a red flag against Gathers' job security.
Antwaun Woods: Cowboys DT is Just Getting Started
Antwaun Woods went undrafted in 2016 coming out of USC. After two years with the Tennessee Titans, he would only see one game of action. In May of 2018, the Cowboys signed Woods to a two-year contract worth 1.05 million. Probably seen as nothing more than a practice squad guy, Woods would quickly show he was much more than that.
The newly acquired Woods started his climb to stardom in Oxnard during training camp, and not for making plays. One day during practice he got into a friendly game of fisticuffs with All-Pro Center Travis Frederick. The team even posted the video on social media, which had fans buzzing and wanting to know who he was.
All-Pro Running Back Ezekiel Elliott echoed those thoughts when he saw Woods during camp. "Honestly, when we first got him, we were like, 'Who is this guy?'. He was giving Travis Frederick, one of our best players, hell all camp. Just trying to figure out where this guy came from," Elliott said.
Once the regular season started it was clear the Cowboys had found a hidden gem. Although the sack numbers won't dazzle you, seeing as he only registered 1.5, you could forget about running the ball anywhere near him. Woods has amazing quickness for a 300 pounder which allows him to extend his arms before offensive lineman can get a hand on him.
How significant is that? It becomes that much easier to bull rush and blow running plays up in the backfield.
When you can get your hands on an offensive lineman immediately when the ball is snapped, he's basically under your control. You can move him around like a puppet on a string. Essential for a 1-technique nose tackle. With that being said, there should be no surprise the Cowboys finished fifth against the run in 2018 with Woods manning the middle.
Woods draws a lot of double teams, and he handles them well. Having the ability to take on multiple linemen frees up your other playmakers. As the anchor in the middle, Woods made life a lot easier for not only his fellow defensive linemen but the team's two young star Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Allowing them to roam freely like Lions in the Serengeti makes running backs essentially Zebra's carrying the ball, cooked food. So much so that both tallied over 120 tackles and were the only teammates in the NFL to rank in the top 15 in that category.
There's nothing but upside with Antwaun Woods. He's only had 18 games of experience in three years. He's already a stud, but with limited snaps, it can only mean he'll be even more formidable going forward.
The Cowboys have a loaded defensive lineman group with around 15 bodies, plenty of competition. All signs point to him remaining the starter, but it's not guaranteed. Even with that being said I don't expect a complacency from Woods, especially with DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn looking like the only sure starters on the defensive line. Plus this is a contract year for him, so you know he'll be even more motivated as he tries to maximize his dollars. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg from this raw talent, setting up for a potential breakout year for him in 2019.
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