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.
Geoff Swaim Needs Surgery, Should the Cowboys even use a Tight End?
Well, the injury woes continue to mount for the Dallas Cowboys with news coming down this evening that Tight End Geoff Swaim broke a bone in his wrist in the 22-19 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. The injury will need surgery which will mean Swaim will be out a while, if not for the rest of the season.
Geoff Swaim broke a bone in his wrist yesterday and is going to need surgery. Sounds like it might not be season-ending, but he won't be available Thursday #cowboyswire
In previous seasons this wouldn't be much of a blow to the offense, but Geoff Swaim has been the only tight end that the Cowboys have ben able to rely on this season. Dalton Schultz is a rookie, Blake Jarwin's been inconsistent, and Rico Gathers still isn't fully trusted. With the Dallas Cowboys and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan's insistence on using a tight end, it seems there's a huge hole at the position heading into Sunday's first place showdown with the Washington Redskins.
But in reality, is there?
For weeks, I've been screaming for this team to use more 10 personnel (one running back and zero tight ends) as its primary passing formation because it gets their best pass catching weapons on the field at the same time. Swaim has been solid and consistent in his first year as a starter, but the rest of the tight end group has disappointed. So why even run a tight end out on the field.
The Dallas Cowboys have options that could replace the tight end in the passing game without actually using a tight end.
First, they could use Noah Brown as the de facto tight end. He's been one of the best blockers on the team in his first two seasons with the team and this is the type of role he's made for. Split him out wide and motion him in tight when you want to run. He can be a threat down the seem and in the red zone with his athleticism. He'd be a mismatch for the linebackers that try to cover him and could open space underneath for Cole Beasley. Brown is also a really good run blocker, so having him on the field doesn't negate what you want to do in the run game.
The other player the Cowboys coaching staff could work into more of the tight end route responsibilities is Allen Hurns. Hurns is a really good route runner, especially in the middle of the field, where the Dallas Cowboys haven't received a lot of production. You can put Hurns in as the fourth wide receiver and split him a couple of yards off the tackle to give him a cleaner release than a TE might get and have him run "Y-option," shallow post routes, or drags. He can be a threat in the passing game if put in situations where he can excel. See below for something Allen Hurns does really well.
In fact, by going four wide receivers with Brown or Hurns on the field, it's possible the opposing defense is forced to run more of dime packages against the Dallas Cowboys 10 personnel.
Why would you want to get teams into dime packages?
Most NFL teams have two pretty good linebackers that they can deploy in nickel situations, but teams rarely have four corners that they can put on the field and feel really good about. So, if you can force teams to remove one of their 11 best players for a backup corner back or safety, you are already winning that matchup.
That matchup would also get you into much more favorable defensive fronts to run against. Even if the opposition put seven or eight in the box, it would be against smaller personnel like corners and safeties instead of a second linebacker.
Running 10 personnel as their base offense moving forward would be unconventional, but with an opportunity to take control of first place in the NFC East on Thanksgiving, now is not the time for conventionality.
Cowboys WR Michael Gallup on Personal Leave; Team Offers Support
Dallas Cowboys rookie receiver Michael Gallup suffered a personal tragedy on Sunday, being informed that his brother committed suicide. He is now on personal leave away from the team, and both Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett have given their full support to Gallup during this difficult time.
According to reports, Gallup was unaware of his brother's death until immediately after the Cowboys' win over the Atlanta Falcons. Michael did not return with the team to Dallas and remained in Atlanta to be with his family.
A formal statement was made by owner Jerry Jones yesterday regarding Gallup:
“Our team and our entire organization are deeply saddened by the news of Michael’s loss. His family is our family. We share in the grief and pain that comes with something so personal and tragic. We offer our support, care and comfort for Michael, and we ask that all of those who have sons and daughters and brothers and sisters join us in keeping Michael and his wonderful family in their thoughts and prayers.”
Throughout his time owning the Cowboys, Jerry has built a reputation for personal loyalty and compassion with his players. His head coach is no different.
As he addressed the media Monday, Jason Garrett did not get into football matters when addressing Gallup's situation:
“This is a very challenging time for him. We’ll take it moment by moment, day by day, and give him all of our love and all of our support.”
While Michael is certainly dealing with something far more important than football, his availability for Thursday's Thanksgiving game against the Washington Redskins does come into question.
The Cowboys have a short week to prepare for Washington, and Gallup has started their last five games. If the rookie has to sit, which seems probable given the timeframe, we can expect more playing time for Allen Hurns and Noah Brown.
Whatever happens happens on that front. Our focus is on Michael Gallup during this sad time, with him and his family in our collective thoughts as Cowboys fans and fellow humans.
Wolf Hunter: Leighton Vander Esch’s Pass Coverage Skills Rising to Occasion
The Dallas Cowboys know what they're doing when it comes to the NFL Draft. Not to be outdone by Philadelphia, the Cowboys brought the 2018 Draft to AT&T Stadium, marking the first time the event's been held in an NFL stadium. This made Boise State Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch the first player to be drafted on the field he now calls home. Returning home this week after two straight interceptions against the Eagles and Falcons, Vander Esch is far from the controversial pick that drew jeers inside AT&T Stadium on draft night and every bit the star the Cowboys projected him to be.
The ascension of Leighton "Wolf Hunter" Vander Esch as one of the best young linebackers in the game has happened rapidly. LVE played eight man football in high school, tasked to do everything on both sides of the ball before settling into defense as a walk onto the blue turf.
For the first time in what seems like forever, the Cowboys have more than just a plan to play defense without Sean Lee. Thanks to their 19th overall pick they're thriving as one of the best units in the league, making Lee an afterthought.
Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith have changed the entire makeup of the Cowboys defense, two young and athletic linebackers that should be roaming the middle of the field for a long time in Dallas.
This is exactly what LVE was able to do on his interceptions of both Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan. Vander Esch defending well against the pass is probably the least surprising part of his development, as his coverage skills always overshadowed his strength against the run in college.
It just so happens that Vander Esch tallied 63 tackles in eight games before recording his first career interception, establishing himself as an all-around linebacker with no true weakness. Vander Esch has played with the power and block shedding ability that matches his sideline to sideline range and instincts, as opposing offenses have done little to slow the Cowboys new leader on defense.
Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.
This is Vander Esch's first interception, which set up a Cowboys field goal against the Eagles. Watch as Leighton reads the eyes of Wentz through the play, first angling towards his check down throw and then gaining depth to intercept the pass.
The subtle yet effective movements from Vander Esch to undercut Wentz's throw is a fine example of how quickly LVE has picked up on Kris Richard's defense, as well as the next level game speed.
Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.
Sunday's interception from Vander Esch was the type of game breaking play the Cowboys needed to separate from the Falcons in hostile territory. Although the Falcons would rally to tie the game after this point, the Cowboys defense became the first to hold Atlanta under 20 points at home this season, thanks in large part to LVE as always.
The smoothness from Vander Esch on this play is exceptional, stepping up into coverage against the running back before sprinting back in position for the turnover. Calvin Ridley, drafted seven picks after Vander Esch, helps Leighton by letting Ryan's pass go through his hands.
Give Vander Esch credit for being in the right place at the right time and finishing the play. Every week, the rookie finds a way to do something memorable, and in helping the Cowboys earn their first two road wins of 2018 he finally flashed in pass coverage.
The next challenge for the Cowboys defense comes on a short week, against the division leading Washington Redskins. Though they lost starting Quarterback Alex Smith for the season on Sunday, expected to start Colt McCoy on Thanksgiving, it was Running Back Adrian Peterson that gashed the Cowboys for 4.13 yards a carry and 99 total yards in the Redskins week six win over Dallas.
Given what not only Leighton Vander Esch but the rest of the Cowboys defense has shown against the run in recent weeks, all without David Irving and most recently without either Antwaun Woods or Daniel Ross, the Cowboys should certainly be prepared to play for first place in the NFC East on Thursday.
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