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2013 Season Preview: The Year Of The Dez

By Mike Marshall for CBSDFW.COM
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Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant. (credit: CBS 11 News)

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant. (credit: CBS 11 News)

THE MASSACRE WENT WELL

As the Cowboys walked off the field and into the tunnel at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland last December thirtieth it was clear that changes needed to be made (I choose to ignore the fact that the field looked like the sod your do-it-yourself neighbor laid last week that isn’t quite taking). Before the Cowboys hit the locker room, they were most likely somewhere between denial and anger on the a Kubler-Ross stages of grief as they tried to get the visions of Alfred Morris slicing through their secondary like the Tasmanian Devil (the cartoon not the real animal that would be ridiculous) out of their battered heads. The box score from the game tells the entire story of what was the Cowboys 2012 season of succumbing to excuses and falling just short despite being the most entertaining team in the league on a weekly basis.

The 276 rushing yards yielded tells the tale of a defense that could never get off the field and never looked like they were defending anything. The defense was in such a way that the collection of Eric Frampton(35), Brian Schaefering(16) and Brady Poppinga(24) was forced into action to the count of 75 snaps. All of the aforementioned defenders were tightening up their Doodle Jump games at the beginning of the season because they were not perceived as one of the top 1,696 football players on the planet and thus were not on a roster.

With 3:06 left in the fourth quarter the record scratched and Rob Jackson made the play of his life as he jumped a swing route and intercepted a ball intended for DeMarco Murray. All the sand in the hour glass had submitted to gravity and mercifully drew a conclusion to what was a season of exhaustively running uphill. The blame was to be served in Buca di Beppo-sized family portions.

OFF-SEASON. THERE IS NO OFF-SEASON

Nine days after the ragged Dallas defense fell victim to a physical running game in a must win situation, Jerry Jones decided to fire the defensive coordinator responsible for the effort. Rob Ryan was let go after only two seasons as the Cowboys defensive coordinator. In the fall of 2011the idea that Ryan would be leaving Dallas for anything other than a head coaching position at one of the fixer-upper outposts of the NFL seemed blasphemous. Yet, here we were 2 years later questioning whether the 3-4 defense was too complex for a mediocre collection of talent too succeed in and if it was the best fit for the few defensive lettermen we had. The fact that the middle of the defense was gutted several times over by injury during the season really held no water in the quest to make things uncomfortable. Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Barry Church, Kenyon Coleman, Josh Brent and Jay Ratliff all missed significant time in 2012 and all were key parts of the attacking 3-4 defense when it was working. But, perhaps that’s where the conflict enters the conversation. If you’re attempting to run the same defense with admittedly inferior talent — are you in fact the stubborn party and cheating your football team out of a real chance to win?

If you follow the game close enough you realize that offenses are evolving faster than the defensive minds can adjust and compensate for. With a team like the Cowboys I have a very realistic expectation of what their defense should be surrendering each week, and that’s somewhere around 20-23 points. They ended the season giving up 25 points a game. It wasn’t good enough and the coach got run. This is what happens when a coach is brought in and they’re expected to remedy a collection of mediocre players simply because of a scheme change or their unique philosophy. When a coach is hired based on a scheme they’re already writing their farewell press conference narrative when that scheme fails them due to sub-par parts. If the great Dick LeBeau was brought in would it matter with the Cowboys roster as it was currently constructed? Did Rob Ryan do as good as anybody could expect with the hand he was dealt? Did Jerry look around and realize that terminating any of the other names in his hierarchy would be admitting abject failure?

These are questions that can not be answered but the facts are still there. The Cowboys offense ran 631 plays when trailing and 174 plays when ahead last season. One half of that equation was let go and the other got his play calling duties stripped after a four month hesitation waltz.

JASON AND THE MECHANICS

The Garrett play calling saga that could have been the middle chapter of the Lord of the Rings trilogy finally came to a head in June when his owner let the cat out of the bag on the back lawn at Valley Ranch unbeknownst to Jason. Anybody that‘s been face to face with Jerry knows that if you ask him a question he may be able to dance around what the direct answer in his mind is for a minute or two while making zero sense and potentially leaking other information but if you repeatedly address him with a question — you’ll get an answer. There are only so many things you can learn from a general manager that doesn’t watch tape and drinks wine in a suite during preseason games. What you can learn is which decisions came straight from his lips. Stripping Garrett of his play calling duties was a Jerry-gut-decision. He knows nearly as much about the mechanics of play calling and the effect on the game as I do about how my Keurig makes these magical little delicious cups of coffee in like 15 seconds (I assume witchcraft but haven’t been able to prove it). This decision was simply phase two of Plan Uncomfortable.

We could tell that this decision ate away at Garrett. His entire structure as a leader of men is based on “the process” and the idea that if you repeat the same steps again and again and your approach is sound that the results don’t matter because they will eventually come. Jerry couldn’t be more diametrically different. Jerry has tried to shortcut his was back into the winner’s circle more times than Magneto. It’s the desire to win that saves Jerry from the harshest of criticism about his method. Maybe a handful of people know if it was a “give up the play calling or you’re fired” situation and I doubt we’ll never know. The only reasoning that makes sense for Jason to forfeit the dimension of his coaching that he takes the most pride in is for him to genuinely realize it could make the Dallas Cowboys a better football team going forward.

The illusion of a balanced offense for a team that ranked 30th in the league in yards per rushing attempt seems insane. Well, that’s what the Dallas offense was in first quarters last season — insane. Jason Garrett called a ratio of 57/43 pass/run ratio in first quarters last year for an offense that average 79.1 rushing yards per game last season. Dallas averaged a mere 2.2 points per 1st quarter in 2012 ranking them thirtieth in the league and typically forfeiting the lead early and often. So, what about the other three quarters and their formula? In the final three quarters of games in 2012 the Cowboys averaged at least 5 points per quarter (compared to 2.2 in first quarters). In fact, they lead the league averaging 10.1 points per fourth quarter. The run/pass formula looked like this. The final three quarters when they were averaging 5 points a quarter the Cowboys used a 69/31 pass/run ratio. In the fourth quarter when they lead the league in points scored their formula was 73/37 pass/run. Why would Jason Garrett keep running the ball early when it is clearly putting them behind? Balance is the answer. The only excuse or reasoning I can surmise is that Jason Garrett values the illusion of balance greater than he values an early lead in a football game. To me, balance is not something achieved by calling the same number of runs as you do pass plays. Balance is the uncertainty a defense has about what you’re about to attack them with and in the end not nearly as important as “old school” football minds perceive it to be. The illusion of balance is not gained in the first quarter. It’s gained in the fourth when you’re leading by 10 and you’re attempting to drain the clock with a series of runs. No team that played the Cowboys in 2012 feared their rushing attack. The stubborn commitment to the run by the head coach and play caller got the Cowboys off to a sluggish start in almost every game last season. Did the effect of the Cowboys trailing early in most games cost Rob Ryan his job? Now that Jason Garrett is strictly the head coach I’m assuming he values an early lead more than offensive balance.

PICK A WINNER

Judging draft classes months after the players taken were sitting in a Zombies In Popular Media classroom is a task for a Bleacher Report “blogger” to tackle. I’m more interested in the draft strategy. Prior to the draft Jason Garrett was quoted as saying, “By nature, if you draft too much for need your team probably by definition gets worse,” in defense of drafting “pure” or best player available. Using the “best player available” drafting method does not mean best player available as long as you’re not offered a mediocre value trade for additional picks or best player available as long as we can definitively say whether he’s a 3-technique or a nose. Best player available means that when your fifth best rated player on your board (Shariff Floyd) falls to you at pick 18 you fire that gun. If you’re not prepared to pick your fifth rated player at pick 18 then why is he on your board at all? There’s no in-between when you’re preaching a strategy that only works with a disciplined consistent approach. You trust the talent evaluators to set up a pure draft board for you so you can pluck the highest rated player with confidence and keep rolling. Your plan does not waffle because you feel like a certain position group is a “strength”. It definitely shouldn’t waffle when a position coach (Rod Marinelli,not a talent evaluator), that has been on campus two months and was so behind on his responsibilities he hadn’t managed to give an opinion on the highest rated DT on your board, barges in and tells you he’s not sure your highest rated player fits in his scheme. Let’s not forget, Rod Marinelli is the most recent architect of a 0-16 season in the NFL. Marinelli wasn’t entirely sold on Sharrif Floyd and had questions about what position he would play and whether he would fit the new 4-3 scheme. The question of whether Sharrif Floyd is a 3-tech or a nose is of zero consequence to me. Sharrif Floyd is 20 years old. He can learn whatever defensive line position you put him at. The greater question is why is this being discussed in the war room? Why weren’t Rod Marinelli’s opinions of Sharrif Floyd known weeks before the Cowboys were being pressed for a decision? Better question, why does Rod Marinelli have a say AT ALL? If the coaches are now making the draft picks the coaches should be on the road scouting the players the way Cincinnati does. It’s purely reactionary at this point but it sure does smart every time another defensive tackle goes down and I envision Shariff Floyd in the middle just raising hell.

The Cowboys had to have intended to walk away from the ’13 draft with a second tight end that they’d be comfortable running 12 personnel with (whether that’s a good idea or not is not the point). That’s the only way I can make sense of them committing a second round pick to Gavin Escobar. The real problem I see is if you’re going to head into a draft expecting to walk away with a tight end to combo with All-World Jason Witten then why not take the best one? When the Cowboys traded out of their eighteenth pick for mediocre value and dropped to the end of the first round they had Tyler Eifert, their fifteenth rated player, staring them in the face. They passed on their fifth rated player (Sharrif Floyd) because they see the defensive line as a strength. So, tight end isn’t a strength? If you have a plan, no matter how off the beaten path it is, I respect the discipline to stick to it.

The simple arithmetic of 12 personnel (2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers, 1 running back, 1 quarterback, 5 offensive linemen) tells you that the Cowboys’ 47th overall pick and 74th overall pick can not be on the field together at the same time. The “commitment” to 12 personnel will have to be proven to me before I believe it. Judging from the history of this offense since Jason Garrett has arrived there is no base offense. The idea that 12 personnel will be used 600+ snaps this year thus justifying drafting Gavin Escobar is a dream. Escobar was drafted to troubleshoot the Cowboys red zone inefficiency this season and anything else is misinformation (never mind the fact that their red zone inefficiency is often due to penalties and sacks).Now, I do see the merit in drafting Terrance Williams in the third round. He’s an incredibly explosive playmaker on the outside, Miles Austin consistently has something wrong with him and may not be back next year. All very important motivating factors when drafting Terrance Williams. The simple question of how much will Terrance Williams be used still lingers. I believe we have the most to learn about 12 personnel and the use of Terrance Williams from Martellus Bennett.

In Marty B’s first three years the Cowboys were “long distance relationship committed” to 12 personnel on offense. Here’s the straight data. Martellus Bennett was drafted 61st overall in the 2008 draft. In his rookie season the Cowboys ran some variation of two tight ends (pretty much impossible to know if it was strict 12 personnel or a “heavy” formation) 37 percent of the time. The years I’d like to focus on closer are his second and third years when the Cowboys further committed to running 12 and had a legitimate third wide receiver (Crayton ’09, Bryant ’10). In 2009 the Cowboys used Marty B 47 percent of plays on offense. That breaks down to 204 pass plays and 256 run plays. So, the desired effect of keeping the offense balanced and the defense on their toes when 12 personnel seems to have happened. What we’re looking for is how often Patrick Crayton was used. Crayton was used 51percent of the time on offense and was almost exclusively featured on passing downs (of all of Crayton’s plays 70.2 percent were passes). The part of this that can’t be accurately taken into account when it comes to comparing Escobar to Marty B is the Cowboys evaluation of Escobar as a blocker. Marty B was by all accounts an excellent run blocker. Is Gavin Escobar? Probably not, but we don’t know yet. It can be assumed he’ll be featured more when passing than Marty B was just by determining his skill set. The more apt comparison in my opinion is looking at the 2010 Cowboys offense. Mainly because at that time the Cowboys were comfortable with who and what Marty B was and Dez Bryant had come along. By 2010 the Cowboys had started to sour on Bennett and what his value to the offense could be. They in turn limited their own offense by assuming Bennett could not contribute consistently as a passing threat. Bennett participated in 45 percent of the teams offense snaps and only 37 percent were passes (a lot of that had to do with their terrible idea of using Sam Hurd 219 plays). What did that mean for Dez Bryant? Well, Dez only saw time in 12 games so his overall snaps don’t look great in his rookie season but he was on the field for 429 of 818 possible snaps in the 12 games he played equaling 52 percent. Dez was used almost exclusively on passing plays as 77 percent of his snaps were throwing plays. We now have a baseline for how often the Cowboys 3rd wide receiver is used when two tight end formations are at least a 45 percent staple in their offense, and it’s 51-52 percent. Would you take 45 catches 550 yards and 6 touchdowns from Williams this year? I bet you would. Escobar and Bennett are admittedly different animals but I don’t think Bryant and Williams are that different of players; at least in their rookie seasons. Currently there is only one player in the league that is comparable to Dez Bryant and his name is Megatron.

TARGETING WEAPON X

You’ve heard the predictions, best wide receiver in the game, NFL MVP, next great Cowboy. These are statements from people that are paid to make statements. What I’m going to tell you is the only way the Cowboys get to these ten wins I’m predicting is a strong early and often commitment to getting Dez Bryant the football. If the Cowboys have the same exact success running the football as they did last year but give Dez Bryant 5 more targets a game (preferably in the first half) I think they get that ninth win. Last season Dez Bryant was only targeted 21 times in the first quarter and only caught nine of them (43 percent). That’s behind Jason Witten and Miles Austin in targets and a terrible conversion rate. In the final three quarters Dez was targeted 117 times and caught 83 of them (71 percent). Only 15 percent of Dez Bryant’s targets came in the first quarter, which is odd because THEY ARE QUARTERS. What’s more is only 9.7 percent of Dez’s catches came in the first quarter. You commit and find a way to get Dez Bryant the ball on your first drive of the game and the rest opens up. Three times in the preseason the Cowboys came out and showed off a “Dez Bryant drive”. Once was in Oakland on the Cowboys second drive when Dez was targeted 3 times for 55 yards. The second was in Arizona on the Cowboys third drive when Romo targeted Dez three times for 49 yards. The third dive was at home against the Bengals where Dez was targeted 5 times for 53 yards and a touchdown. The most impressive moment of the preseason for Dez was against the Raiders on a play that looked to be a busted slant across the middle that was jumped by Tracy Porter and Romo hit him in the second window behind Porter for 26 yards (as Dez was being tackled by Mike Jenkins lowered the crown of his helmet and laid a half decent hit. His helmet popped off and he acted as if he wasn’t just months away from manning the door at City Tavern). If you go back and look at that play you realize it was a designed run-draw play. The offensive linemen fired off, DeMarco hesitated then stepped into his draw pattern but Romo and Bryant were on a different script. As Romo manned his battle station under center he nodded to Dez after liking what he saw from the corner and outside linebacker aligned on him. Romo and Dez were the only two people on the field that knew what was about to happen. The same instance happened on the touchdown lob against the Bengals. Romo saw one-on-one coverage against Dre Kirkpatrick, nodded to Dez and six points magically appeared on the Jumbotron moments later.

There is next to nothing you can do when a quarterback and wide receiver are on the same page. There is absolutely nothing you can do when a quarterback and wide receiver are on the same page and the quarterback is committed to getting him the football. A perfect offensive play will always beat a perfect defensive play. If you read anything into the second half of last season and what’s happened in preseason, it’s pretty easy to realize that Jason Garrett knows Dez Bryant is the quickest path to Cowboys points. Dez Bryant was 14th (138) in the NFL in targets last year but produced the 6th most receiving yards in the league (1,382). Only DeMaryius Thomas averaged more yards per target last season (Thomas 10.17, Bryant 10.01). What if he gets targeted like a top five receiver (160+ targets)? What if the Cowboys are committed to getting him the ball in the first quarter or even opening drives? What’s the ceiling? 1600 yards? 1700 yards? 1800 yards? If they forget the idea of trying to be balanced and feed the monster I have no idea what that means in terms of yardage and touchdowns for Bryant but I’m confident it means ten wins for the Cowboys.

PREDICTIONS BECAUSE YOU WANT THEM

Cowboys record: 10-6, NFC East division winners, 3rd seed, lose to Seattle in the Divisional round

Tony Romo: 4600 yards, 33 TDs, 13 INTs,

Dez Bryant: 165 targets, 105 catches, 1550 yards, 13 TDs

Gavin Escobar catches 5+ touchdowns

Bruce Carter finishes with more total tackles than Sean Lee.

Jason Hatcher finishes with 6+ sacks.

At the end of the 2013 season we have no doubt J.J. Wilcox is our safety of the future.

Brandon Moore makes a Pro-Bowl appearance.

Lance Dunbar finishes with more total yards than DeMarco Murray.

Philadelphia Eagles don’t finish last in the NFC East

(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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