There are a lot of opportunities for revenge in 2019.
It’s revenge week across SB Nation and when you’re a team like the Dallas Cowboys, there are a lot of opportunities for it in both directions.
There are many franchises that obsess over the Cowboys (shout out to the Philadelphia Eagles) and also squads that have gotten the better of America’s Team at times that have left us sad. Teams with deep history have highs worth remembering and lows that should be forgotten.
When considering opportunities for revenge, we first have to define what it’s worth getting revenge over. Nobody gets “revenge” because of a September loss one year, no you get revenge against the team that knocked you out of the playoffs. You get revenge against the team that beat you because of a bad call. You get revenge because a wrong happened that you’re trying to right.
Most of these situations obviously occur in the postseason which is what brings us here today. Of the 13 teams that the Cowboys will play in 2019, do you know how many they’ve played playoff games against (assuming you didn’t look at or forgot the title)? 10. Ten!
There’s a lot of history worth getting revenge for, and a lot of history worth looking to fight off revenge against this season. Here’s a recap of the playoff history associated with the 2019 Cowboys season.
New York Giants
Cowboys Playoff Record: 0-1
Last Playoff Matchup: 2007 Divisional Round, Loss
Everybody knows about the lone time that the Cowboys played against the Giants in the playoffs. It’s actually kind of amazing that over their storied history that there’s only been one postseason game between the two.
There isn’t a lot to say about one of the worst losses that most people around here have experienced. The 2007 Cowboys were one of the greatest teams in franchise history to not win the Super Bowl or even appear in the NFC Championship Game. The fact that those Giants would go on to win Super Bowl XLII makes things sting all the more (unless you preferred that to an undefeated Patriots season).
The current day version of the G-Men are often still made fun of for their trip before their last playoff game. Nothing will ever be a bigger stain than the Cancun trip. Ever.
Cowboys Playoff Record: 3-1
Last Playoff Matchup: 2009 Wildcard Round, Win
The Giants playoff game was the first one at Texas Stadium for the Tony Romo version of the franchise, but the last postseason matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles was the first one at Cowboys Stadium (now AT&T Stadium).
That was one of the greatest two week runs ever for a Cowboys fan. Beating the Eagles twice within a seven-day stretch, both of which were at home, with one of those wins being in the playoffs is among the sweetest nectar that a lot of us have ever tasted. It was an incredible validation for not only Romo but the likes of Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, and even Wade Phillips.
Cowboys Playoff Record: 0-2
Last Playoff Matchup: 1982 NFC Championship Game, Loss
Unfortunately, the Cowboys have never beaten their little brother in our nation’s capital in games beyond the regular season, what’s worse is that the last one they played in was with a ticket to the Super Bowl on the line (a Super Bowl that Washington went on to win).
Truth be told, there haven’t been a whole lot of ridiculously intense games against Washington as of late, making rare opportunities to get revenge. The 2012 season was an unfortunate one as Robert Griffin III had his rookie year and swept the Cowboys, including a win in what was effectively a playoff game, but that was short-lived.
Green Bay Packers
Cowboys Playoff Record: 4-4
Last Playoff Matchup: 2016 Divisional Round, Loss
Younger fans of the Cowboys have a deep hatred for the Green Bay Packers in large part thanks to two of the team’s most recent three playoff losses.
Aaron Rodgers and Co. were on the right end of the ridiculous call in the 2014 Divisional Round when Dez Bryant definitely caught it, and unfortunately Jared Cook also caught it two years later in the same round and converted a much-needed third down. Blah blah blah.
It would be quite nice to see the Cowboys have postseason success against Green Bay, but they’ll have to take care of matters in the regular season first. Last time they tried to do even that they were bested once again by Aaron Rodgers. Ugh.
Cowboys Playoff Record: 2-0
Last Playoff Matchup: 1991 Wildcard Round, Win
Many people have looked to the Cowboys’ last playoff game against the Chicago Bears when they try to gauge future success for the current version of the team. After all, it was that win against Chicago back in 1991 that gave the dynasty to-be their first taste of playoff success.
The Bears look to be back (potentially at least) and playing them late in the season in Chicago will be quite the chore for the Cowboys (it didn’t go so well six years ago). They’re not a team that “revenge” is often associated with for Dallas, but perhaps that’s because the Cowboys are undefeated in the playoffs against them. Oh well.
Cowboys Playoff Record: 2-1
Last Playoff Matchup: 2014 Wildcard Round, Win
If 2009 was validation for the Romo-led Cowboys then 2014 was vindication. After the team had lost all three of the “effective” playoff games in Weeks 17 of the seasons prior, getting the monkey off of their collective backs was quite the relief.
Dallas fell down early against the Lions but battled their way back for an epic victory. The game featured perhaps Jason Witten’s most-famed “Y Option” route and the first true highlight for the now-highest paid player in franchise history, DeMarcus Lawrence.
Don’t worry about whatever penalty that Lions fans say should have stood. It doesn’t matter!
Cowboys Playoff Record: 4-3
Last Playoff Matchup: 2009 Divisional Round, Loss
It’s been a decade, but it’s still strange to think that the last time Dallas played the Minnesota Vikings of all teams in the playoffs that Brett Favre was their quarterback. Crazy.
Favre himself had quite the revenge game earlier that season against the Green Bay Packers (must be nice), and on that fateful day his Vikings squad was just too much for a Cowboys team that was only learning how to win in the postseason.
One of the NFL’s most historic moments happened between the Cowboys and Vikings thanks to the Hail Mary. It’s unlikely that we see one of those from Minnesota’s current quarterback in Kirk Cousins, so they’ll just have to find a different way to try and get revenge.
Los Angeles Rams
Cowboys Playoff Record: 4-5
Last Playoff Matchup: 2018 Divisional Round
It’s not difficult for Cowboys fans to remember the last time the team played a playoff game against the Rams as it was literally the last game that we saw them play, period. Dallas saw their season end about half a year ago at the hands of the Rams that would eventually lose Super Bowl LIII.
There is definitely revenge to be had here as we’re talking about something very recent. The Cowboys will play the Rams at home in 2019, but another playoff matchup could be in the cards if things shake out a certain direction.
Hopefully the interior of the defensive line is ready this time.
Cowboys Playoff Record: 1-0
Last Playoff Matchup: Super Bowl VI
People love to talk about how the 1972 Miami Dolphins went undefated and won the Super Bowl. Do you know the last game that Miami lost before that run? Super Bowl VI to the Dallas Cowboys.
America’s Team won their first world championship thanks to their victory over the Dolphins, it’s one of the greatest wins in franchise history for obvious reasons. The teams have never met again in the ultimate game, but they’ve certainly had some interesting regular season rematches ever since.
Let’s get revenge for Leon Lett. That’s worth fighting for.
Cowboys Playoff Record: 2-0
Last Playoff Matchup: Super Bowl XXVIII
Tony Casillas is one half of The 75O in the Blogging The Boys podcast feed, and he was also one part of the Cowboys teams that defeated the Buffalo Bills in two straight Super Bowls. That’s always fun to talk about.
Buffalo lost four straight Super Bowls and half of them to the Dallas Cowboys. It will never not be fun to talk about as long as time continues on, bring it up every chance you get.
Speaking of chances though there is an opportunity for some revenge in 2019’s game against the Bills. Cole Beasley defected towards Buffalo in free agency and has taken every conceivable chance ever since to hate on his former team.
Revenge time. Let’s go.
The only teams that Dallas plays in 2019 who they haven’t met in the playoffs before are the New York Jets, New England Patriots, and New Orleans Saints. They would all be “new” revenge opportunities (sorry, I had to).
Amazingly the Saints are the only NFC team who the Cowboys have never met in the playoffs. If anyone has an opportunity for revenge it’s likely New Orleans as Dallas had one of the biggest wins of the 2018 season over them. That’s likely going to be on their minds.
Revenge is a dish best served cold. Let’s serve a lot in 2019.
There’s no question that one of the strengths of the Dallas Cowboys is their defensive line. A lot of that is due in part to the whisperer heading their defensive staff, Rod Marinelli.
So much of the hype around the defensive line though obviously centers around the talent involved. The Cowboys have players like DeMarcus Lawrence, the newly added Robert Quinn, and the freshly drafted Trysten Hill.
Of course there are some returning contributors like Tyrone Crawford worth counting on, and there’s already quite the line forming to get on the Kerry Hyder bandwagon. Amidst all of this, a good problem to have mind you, lies one of the Cowboys free agency acquisitions that people are seemingly forgetting about... Christian Covington.
With so many options to plant a flag behind there aren’t necessarily that many people advocating for Covington all too often. In fact. the only hype he’s gotten has been of the “under the radar” variety.
When we’ve looked at potential 53-man rosters for the Cowboys there have often been times where Covington didn’t make the cut. There’s a lot of competition at defensive tackle.
So much of Christian’s potential with the Cowboys is going to depend on how deep they go at other positions. They’re dealing with contract years for Collins and Woods so the future of the interior is definitely not set, but it’s the hope of everyone that it will be addressed by Hill’s rise at the position.
It’s a rare thing for someone to come in with a sort of splash like Covington and then for him to be so forgotten by many just a few months later. His size and athleticism seem to be traits that Rod Marinelli can work with, but with needing to develop the team’s first draft pick it could just be a logistical issue that could plague Covington during his days in Dallas.
Either way, one of the team’s starters at this point was a guy in Covington’s shoes just a year ago. Before last season, Antwaun Woods was a fan favorite that had shown a lot of promise and potential, a season under Rod Marinelli truly can do wonders for guys.
Arguments abound about just how valuable the star running back in Dallas is, but most of them are kinda about the wrong things.
Hey, you want to start a fight on social media, particularly that segment focused on a certain well-known football team? Just put up some version of this: “Ezekiel Elliott is/is not the best/most valuable/most important player for the Dallas Cowboys.” Then sit back and watch the fireworks. The responses will probably be fast and furious. It is the 2019 version of “Tony Romo is/is not elite” or “Jason Garrett is/is not just a puppet”. It has even largely supplanted “Dak Prescott is/is not a legitimate franchise quarterback”. Almost everyone has an opinion that will be forcefully stated. Almost all of them are kinda wrong. And kinda right.
After a few months of watching and participating in these debates, it occurs to me that very few look at all the factors involved, much less the real implications for the Cowboys. There are multiple components to this, but most of the participants in Twitter scrums and such are generally focused on one aspect. That isn’t the only problem. In some cases, different participants in this mess aren’t even defining their terms the same way.
I don’t know if I can explain all this satisfactorily, but it is also a subject that doesn’t do well with 280 character comments or the lack of manners and civility in social media. So here is my contribution that will hopefully at least make you stop and think.
Is Zeke the best player on the Cowboys?
Probably. From a standpoint of ability, athleticism, power, speed, durability, his influence in the locker room, or whatever else you want to throw into the mix, there is no other player on the roster who clearly exceeds what Elliott brings to the table, and few that can even pull up a chair to be in the conversation. The only possible knock on him is his frustrating habit of getting involved in off-the-field kerfuffles, and that really is a bit of a separate question from being the best football player on the team.
However, many confuse that with a very different question.
Is Zeke the most important player on the Cowboys?
Uh, no. That is Dak Prescott. Not because Prescott is a better player - he’s good, but he is not in the argument for being a generational talent like Elliott is - but because he is the quarterback. And in the NFL in the year of our Lord two thousand and nineteen, one of the unalterable rules of nature is: “The starting quarterback is the most important player on any roster for any team at any time.” That is true whether the QB is Tom Brady or Brandon Weeden. If he is good, the team will most likely win a lot of games. If he is not good, it is time to get a high draft pick to replace him.
I mentioned the year, because this was not always the case. Back in the medieval era (the 1950s), running backs might have been the most important players, at least on some teams. The best example of this is Jim Brown. You may find this difficult to believe, but with Brown as their running back, the Cleveland Browns were a power in the NFL, They won four league championships from 1950 through 1964, And that 1964 title was largely due to Brown, who had 280 carries for 1,446 yards and seven touchdowns (in a time where scoring was generally less). That averaged out to 103 yards per game, 20 carries, and 5.2 yards per attempt. He was basically half the offense by himself when you add in the 340 yards and two TDs he had as a receiver. This was for a team that had almost as many rushing yards as passing, and far more rushing attempt than passes (432 to 344). Of course, when your quarterback is only completing a little over half his attempts, wide receivers were still basically being mugged all over the field, and roughing the passer was generally not called unless blunt objects were used, you might want to lean to running the ball.
That was, of course, ancient history. The problem we have today is that there are still some who seem to carry some remnants of that kind of football thinking. And that includes head coaches, owners, and GMs, who wax eloquent (or at least loud) about “establishing the run”. (We will look deeper into that in a bit.)
But the game is almost entirely different. Quarterbacks, particularly that Brady fellow, are sometimes seen as inviolable beings. Pass defenders have to be very sly to make much contact past five yards down the field. And passing is king. Last season, teams averaged 238 yards and 1.7 touchdowns per game through the air, while only putting up 114 and 0.9 respectively on the ground. The rules and the talent involved have turned offenses on their head.
There is an argument to be made that Elliott is not even the second-most important player on the offense. Our own Connor Livesay brought this up about 2018 in one of those Twitter exchanges.
So... then what happened before Amari got here? They were on track to pick in the top 10 with a fully healthy/fresh Zeke. I can also say I do not think that your poll results would be accurate but I like the conviction.
There is little argument against the contention that the trade for Amari Cooper saved the season for Dallas. And as noted, the team was floundering without him, but with a healthy Elliott on the field.
So what is the real role of Zeke and the running game?
This is a rather complex topic, and first we have to look at the current analytics argument that passing on first down and second and more than three yards to go is more valuable than running the ball.
Without diving deep into the data, here is a summation: If you throw the ball on first down or second and three or more, you are more likely to convert and get a new set of downs AND score on that drive. No matter how you slice it, that is what the number say, over and over again.
A lot of people, both inside the game and out, bristle at that. But to say passing is more valuable to the team in those situations does not say that you can always just drop back, or show that a pass is coming through personnel and formation. If a team does that, the defenses will counter with all-out pass rushes and covering the pass while largely ignoring the run, therefore reducing the success rate for the offense. No, the run game still has to be a threat. After all, if you can catch the defense selling out to stop the pass and block it up well, you can spring the back for a nice gain, maybe even a 10+ yard chunk play.
There are other places where the run, especially with a good offensive line to block, can be very valuable. Any down with short yardage to go, including fourth-and-one, can be great times to call a run, especially if you use your personnel and formation to keep a passing option viable so the box isn’t loaded up. Any time you have a big lead, running the ball can keep possession and eat up clock, especially later in the game. The fourth quarter can also be when the defense gets worn down and those running lanes get a little wider.
So the running game is still important. The issue really is using it correctly.
Yep, it does. Part of the problem last season - arguably the biggest, once Cooper helped solve the issues at receiver - was the play-calling. Almost all of us became sick of seeing teams read the formation and personnel to load the box up and stop Elliott for little or no gain. Fixing that is perceived as the main job for new offensive coordinator Moore and his fresh ideas.
That is just as important for Elliott and the running game as it is for Prescott and passing. It is clear that Elliott was badly misused at times last year. The hope, even expectation, for Moore is that he will get more out of both phases of the offense. And there is evidence that is clearly part of the plan. There were some tweets in the first couple of weeks of OTAs about spreading the field and then running the ball. Don’t look for them now because they were taken down. It seems that Moore is up to something good, and the team doesn’t want attention drawn to it.
Elliott is a tremendous weapon. But he is a weapon that you can’t use in the wrong situation. And he has to be used fully. What that means is that he was not only misused in the running game, he was underused as part of the passing attack. He is a great protector for Prescott, but he can also be a potent weapon if you get him the ball with some space to work in the secondary. He needs to be used for more than screens, although he can also break a big one that way as well. But he can also be split out, and that is a prospect that might terrorize some defensive backs. He can also work his way out and become a receiver that way.
He is a great tool to have. Now Moore just needs to show he has the needed skill in employing him.
So does Zeke get paid?
Again, that is a rather complex question, but let’s keep it simple. The team can pay him, even while taking care of other priorities like Prescott and Cooper. They have shown that they can manipulate the accounting trick known as the salary cap to do whatever they need to. And they need to keep Zeke.
An NFL offense is not just a group of separate pieces, but an interconnected machine. And as with any machine, you have to have the right parts. The better the parts, the better the performance. A team should not discard a great part for a merely good one. If used properly by his offensive coordinator, he can still be a devastating force.
The identity of the Cowboys has been described by their senior leadership as being built around running the ball. That can still be true, even if they use the pass more effectively. Elliott is still a threat any time he is on the field that the defense has to try and account for, especially if he is incorporated more efficiently into the passing game.
Too often, his value has been falsely conflated with the arguments over when and how to throw the ball. It is not a zero sum game. A better, more creative passing game opens up opportunities to get bigger runs. A strong, at times dominant running game makes life easier for the quarterback. The concept of synergy is important.
Welcome to Part 3 of a four-part series where we look at arguably the biggest issue with the 2018 Dallas Cowboys — the incredible failure in sacks allowed by the offense — and discuss ways in which they might improve. In case you missed the first two parts of this series last week, I highly encourage you to go back and review those at your leisure. I think we are starting to find a number of repeated mistakes which offer insight into what Kellen Moore, Jon Kitna and the offense have probably spent a good portion of their offseason strategizing against.
Sacks are demoralizing, and they are drive killers. I have some specific information on how badly they kill drives that I will share soon, but know now that they are the second-worst offensive outcome behind a turnover. Of course, some of these sacks also end in turnovers, and almost every quarterback sack happens because he just got hit by one or two players who both are much bigger and stronger than him. This doesn’t always go without saying: If you have a QB who fumbles a lot, I am willing to guarantee you that he gets sacked a lot, too.
So far, what’s come out is something unexpected given those roots. During the two OTA practices open to the media, the Cowboys have run tight formations with 11 personnel. Dak Prescott is doing everything from throwing short, quick passes at slot receivers such as Randall Cobb to intermediate throws over the middle to running bootlegs. The key, though, is how it’s set up. The Cowboys are trying to use the same formation but run different things out of it, similar to the Los Angeles Rams. That is the opposite of what Moore did at Boise State and what the Cowboys displayed in 2018 with Scott Linehan as the offensive coordinator. It might be difficult to pinpoint what Moore is trying to accomplish from a philosophy standpoint because he’s not running an offense he was raised on. So Moore will try new things utilizing the speed of this team.
“It’s a nice little blend that’s been established here,” Moore said. “Certainly the (offensive) system has been in place for a while with Coach (Jason) Garrett. I understand the system, recognizing it and then being able to naturally in terms as a different play caller. There are different voices each year, there’s going to be different spins on it and different presentations that maybe you can experience elsewhere that you can incorporate into it.”
Some might be surprised to find out PFF graded “declining” Tyron Smith as the Cowboys’ best offensive player. The comments are....interesting.
In 2019, the step for Gathers should be able to get more involved in the offense. He played in most of the games, but was targeted only seven times – hauling in three passes for 45 yards.
The production isn’t that high, but the entire experience has helped Gathers gained much more confidence as he enters his fourth year.
“Just the picking up on everything is second nature now,” Gathers said. “Actually getting that year under my belt to get out there, make mistakes, play, get better and grow as a player. It really helped me get into this year. I can play fast and execute my assignments and do what I need to do.”
One thing Gathers said he’s not doing much is thinking. And that’s a good thing.
“The less you have to think about what you have to do, the better you are in the execution side of things,” he said. “This whole offseason I’ve tried to study game film of last year and just analyze the growth where I’ve come from. It’s all over the tape – just my progression.”
Four preseason games remain too much for Roger Goodell.
The NFL Commissioner on Monday reiterated his stance of wanting to reduce the preseason schedule at a time the league and players’ association have begun preliminary talks on a new collective bargaining agreement.
“I feel what we should be doing is always to the highest quality, and I’m not sure preseason games meet that level right now,” Goodell said, while participating in Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly’s 33rd charity golf tournament outside of Buffalo, New York.
“I’m not sure, talking with coaches, that four preseason games is necessary any more to get ready for a season to evaluate players, develop players,” he added. “There are other ways of doing that, and we’ve had a lot of discussions about that.”
As the 2019 season approaches there is hope within the Dallas Cowboys organization that new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore can turn the offense around. The optimism is not unfounded, aside from 2014 and 2016, seasons where the Cowboys were a legitimate passing threat, the Scott Linehan era has failed to deliver much in the vein of consistency. Perhaps one of the biggest oddities during Scott Linehan’s tenure in Dallas was the use or misuse of running backs in the passing game.
In 2018, the average pass to a running back traveled 1.21 yards through the air. For comparison, the average pass to a wide receiver garnered 11.3 air yards. This difference explains the variance between running backs and wide receivers from a usage standpoint. With this in mind, it is important to realize why Ezekiel Elliott’s usage in the passing attack has been problematic.
The 2018 season saw Elliott leading the Cowboys with 95 targets, but he only had an average depth of target (aDOT) of 0.23 yards. He might have gotten the bulk of the targets on offense, but the way he was utilized often meant that he was forced to pickup chunks of yards after the catch in order to be an efficient threat. This is not an ideal way to generate targets for a star player.
The Dallas Cowboys added Amari Cooper last season and Randall Cobb this offseason. They should have a more formidable passing attack than they had in years past. However, they're still going to field an offense that is based around Ezekiel Elliott.
There's good reason for this, as Elliott is a two-time rushing champion and one of the best all-around backs in the league. But Dallas doesn't have a sound backup plan in the event Elliott misses extended time—either because of injury or league discipline.
According to Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports, the NFL is "likely" to investigate Elliott's latest off-field incident—an altercation with a Las Vegas security guard.
The Cowboys do not have an established veteran running back behind Elliott and will rely instead on Darius Jackson and fourth-round selection Tony Pollard. If Elliott misses time, Dallas could be in trouble.
The Hall of Fame class will also include at least one player from outside the highest level of Division I football. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who played at Eastern Illinois, is among the first-time-eligible candidates in the so-called divisional category.
Romo was a star at Eastern Illinois, but it wasn’t enough to get him drafted. Fortunately for Dallas, they were able to convince him to sign an UDFA contract and then held on to him for three years before giving him some real action. Here’s a rundown of his time at Eastern Illinois:
Before a 14-year career with the Dallas Cowboys launched him into celebrity status, Romo was EIU’s starting quarterback from 2000-02. He led the Panthers to FCS playoff appearances in each of his three years as a starter, won the Ohio Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year in his final two seasons and as a senior, became the school’s first Walter Payton Award winner, which goes to the top player in the FCS (then Division I-AA). He threw for 3,165 yards and 34 touchdowns as EIU went 8-4.
Romo left EIU as its career leader in touchdown passes (85) and passing yards (8,212). EIU retired his No. 17 jersey in 2009.
Of course, Romo is now a star in a different arena as one of the best TV analysts around for NFL games. After he retired from the Cowboys and the NFL, he immediately received praise for his ability to predict what was about to happen on plays of the games he was calling. Should he want it, he will have a very long career as a broadcaster and future generations will know him more for the broadcast booth instead of his time on the gridiron.
Kellen Moore has already made a major departure from his predecessor.
Yes, we’ve got at least one Moore article talking about this new offense. Excitement has been reaching a fever pitch for Kellen Moore after some of the reports about his offense in OTA’s. The biggest reason for that is the personnel groupings that Moore seems to be using, most notably his preference for a spread out 10 personnel in the red zone and a high use of 21 personnel to take advantage of dynamic fullback Jamize Olawale.
And for the Cowboys, a heavy dose of diverse personnel groupings would be a drastic departure from the way this unit operated under Scott Linehan. Under him, the Cowboys’ personnel groupings were unsurprisingly bland and uniform. Using sharpfootballstats.com, which tracks personnel group frequencies of every NFL team since the 2016 season, we can get an idea of just how one-note this offense has been in this aspect.
In the 2018 season, the Cowboys ran 66% of their plays out of 11 personnel, which isn’t shocking considering that’s more or less the base formation for offenses these days. The league average for 11 personnel was 65%, so Dallas was actually close to being in the middle here. Of course, there are a few outliers here: the Rams ran 89% of their plays in 11 personnel, but their offense and personnel, complete with tons of pre-snap motion, are diverse enough to where the grouping has little to no impact on the plays they run; as well, the 49ers operate primarily out of 21 personnel, so their 11 personnel frequency was at a league-low 39%.
But while Dallas was average in their use of 11 personnel, their heavy use of 12 personnel sets them apart. The decision to go heavy in this grouping seems odd given the uncertainty at the tight end position last year. Prior to the Amari Cooper trade, Dallas was top ten in the league in 12 personnel frequency at 17%. That shrunk to 14% after acquiring Cooper, which still tied them for sixth-highest among teams that ended up making the playoffs. Still, though, Dallas ran the ball on 65% of their 12 personnel plays. Between 11 and 12 personnel, the Cowboys offense saw a frequency of 81%. In other words, they ran roughly four-fifths of all their plays out of two different personnel groupings.
There were ten other personnel groupings the Cowboys used last year, across which they split a mere 219 plays. Of those ten groupings, only four of them saw more than 15 plays. The more obscure groupings, such as 20 or 0 personnel, saw a combined 2% usage between six groupings. The Cowboys used two tight-end-heavy groupings, 13 and 22 personnel, a combined 8% of plays; they ran it 73.5% of the time in these situations with only a 41% success rate.
With Moore’s newfound focus on 10 and 21 personnel, let’s turn our attention to those numbers in 2018. Linehan called 10 personnel on 3% of plays, and threw the ball 57% of the time in 10 personnel, posting a dismal 12% success rate. Seeing slightly more usage, 21 personnel was called 7% of the time, though Linehan drew up run plays 64% of the time with a mediocre 49% success rate.
Of course, this all works to confirm what many have said about Linehan’s offense for a while: everyone knew what was coming. When multiple tight ends or a fullback came on, it was likely a running play. When four wide receivers came out, it was more often a passing play. And defenses were able to disrupt those plays much easier because of it.
When Moore talks about having a multiple offense, I have to assume that means using more than two personnel groupings at a high frequency. For example, the Falcons, Bears, Chargers, and Saints all had fairly even splits between 12 and 21 personnel, with both groupings having at least 10% frequency. Coincidentally, all four of these teams were in the top ten in points per game.
While using a wide variance of personnel groupings isn’t the only way to field a successful offense, it certainly is one way. And it seems as if the refusal to become more multiple is part of what led to Linehan’s downfall. While the Cowboys might not be undergoing some massive philosophical change in their offense under Kellen Moore, just adjusting the frequency of personnel groupings will produce a unit that looks completely different.
Last week Pro Football Focus engaged in a little self-promotion to celebrate 100 years of the NFL. PFF hasn’t been around for 100 years, they’ve only been grading NFL players since 2006. So what they did was list the Top 100 grades they’ve given out to a player in a single game since they started grading.
Naturally, we had to check which Cowboys made the list. Three Cowboys were on it. The fact that Tony Romo shows up four times is no surprise, nor is Zack Martin making it twice. But somehow, out of all the Cowboys who have been around since 2006, Martellus Bennett sneaks in as the other Cowboys player to show up and his game is pretty high up on the list.
The ever-reliable guard produced a career game against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7 of the 2017 season. He kept a clean slate as a pass-blocker and earned a 92.8 run-blocking grade for his work against an impressive defensive front.
Romo’s 2010 season may have lasted all of 357 snaps, but it sure started with a bang. The former Cowboys signal-caller dismantled the Bears in Week 2, completing 34-of-51 attempts for 374 yards, one touchdown and four big-time throws on the day, with 220 of those yards coming from passes that were targeted at least 10 yards downfield.
The Cowboys actually lost this game, 27-20. The Cowboys started the year 0-2, eventually Tony Romo got hurt and Wade Phillips got fired, leading to Jason Garrett’s promotion.
Romo completed 17-of-23 pass attempts against the Giants in this one, and he compiled 279 passing yards, three touchdowns and three big-time throws in the process. His work from a clean pocket was the key to this fantastic performance as 260 of his passing yards and all three of his touchdowns came from a clean pocket.
The Cowboys won this game 31-21. PFF grading doesn’t really add points for volume as Romo didn’t even top 300 yards in this game. In fact, some of his games on this list are not some of his big-time games that you might remember.
Another astonishing performance by the Dallas quarterback, this one came against the Colts in what would turn out to be Romo’s final full season with the team. He completed 16-of-18 clean-pocket attempts for 181 yards, four touchdowns and a clean-pocket passer rating of 181.1 — more impressively, he didn’t receive a single downgrade on any of his 57 offensive snaps.
The Cowboys crushed a good Colts team 42-7. This put them into the playoffs during their remarkable 2014 season. Romo only had 218 yards but was 18-for-20 and four touchdowns. That’s an efficient day.
The highest-graded game of Martin’s career to date, the ever-reliable guard put forth an all-around excellent performance in this Week 4 clash against the San Francisco 49ers. He kept a completely clean slate in pass protection, he earned a run-blocking grade of 93.5, and he received just one downgrade on his 76 offensive snaps.
Dallas pulled out a 24-17 win over the 49ers. Martin must love playing the 49ers because both of his top-rated games have come against them. Martin helped Zeke put up 138 yards and a score on the day.
Bennett’s career-best performance came in what was a truly all-around great game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He allowed zero pressures from his two snaps as a pass-blocker, he earned an elite 90.9 grade as a run-blocker and most importantly, he caught 3-of-3 targets for 23 yards and a first down.
Here it is, the Martellus Bennett game. It was all about his blocking though as his pass-catching stats were very modest, to say the least. Dallas won 31-15. You got to admire the way that PFF sticks to their guns, they really believe in their system if they somehow made this the 30th-best graded game in the last 13 years.
The best single-game performance of Romo’s career and the third-best single-game overall grade by a quarterback, Romo lit up the Buccaneers’ secondary, completing 22 of his 29 pass attempts for 306 yards, five touchdowns and three big-time throws. Romo was almost unstoppable when he looked deep downfield, as 134 of his yards and one of his touchdowns came from passes of 20-plus yards downfield.
As a part of his incredible 2015 season, Kuechly put forth a historically good display in his Week 12 game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Panthers linebacker was targeted four times during the game, but he came away with two interceptions and a coverage grade of 95.1 — still the second-best single-game mark by a linebacker in the PFF era.
Rodgers tallied a 90.9% adjusted completion percentage in his Week 9 clash with the Dallas Cowboys, and completed 27-of-34 attempts for 294 yards and three touchdowns. He ended the game with a 141.2 passer rating from a clean pocket, a 92.0 passer rating under pressure and a 109.7 passer rating from his throws of 20 or more yards downfield.
During the clash against a Tyron Smith-less Dallas Cowboys, Clayborn played almost exclusively as a pass-rusher, with 33 of his 40 snaps coming via the pass-rush, and it was in those situations where he produced a performance for the ages. On those 33 snaps, Clayborn proceeded to rack up 12 pressures, which included six sacks, five hurries and one hit.
At one point during the 2019 NFL Draft, Michael Irvin must have been smiling as the Cowboys selected not one, but two Miami Hurricanes in the fifth round. Both cornerback Michael Jackson Sr. and defensive end Joe Jackson are physical players with excellent athletic ability.
Michael Jackson Sr., 158th overall
Michael Jackson Sr. was the first to hear his name called (158th overall). Against North Carolina State in 2017 he lined up in press man coverage on the right side, Jackson is both patient and focused (see video). The receiver takes an outside release and Jackson physically gets his hands on him and forces his release wider. He shows excellent athleticism to get into phases and run stride for stride with the him. This allows Jackson to look back and make the interception.
Even when he is out of phase, he has the athletic ability to make a play on the ball. Against Virginia Tech in 2017 the receiver gained separation on him, but when the ball was thrown, Jackson was able to get into position to leap into the air and knock it out of the sky.
Jackson is not just skilled in coverage, he is a physical player who can have an impact as a pass rusher. Against Virginia Tech in 2018, He blitzed from the defense’s right. While fellow defensive back Amari Carter rushed the edge taking the left tackle out of the picture, Jackson blitzed inside of Carter, coming free for the sack; however, he was not alone when he got to the quarterback. After lining up at right end, Joe Jackson looped to the inside and was unimpeded on his way to the quarterback.
Joe Jackson, 165th overall
Joe Jackson is a 6-4, 275-pound defensive end who the Cowboys selected with the 165th overall pick. In the very same game against Virginia Tech, Jackson beat the left tackle off the edge with speed and burst. He came free with a dip and rip and finished with a quarterback sack.
Jackson can also rush with power. He showed this in the Hurricanes’ 2017 matchup against Duke. Jackson bull-rushed the left tackle, nearly driving him into the quarterback before coming off to make the sack.
Joe has the versatility to play multiple positions on the defensive front. Against Pitt in 2018 he lined up in a 3-technique outside of the guard. He beat the guard with speed and chased the scrambling quarterback down for another sack.
The Cowboys added two versatile pieces to their defense in the fifth round. Both Michael Jackson Sr. and Joe Jackson have the traits to be contributors in the NFL and will be interesting moving pieces for Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard this season.
The Cowboys big left tackle still has plenty left and put together a quality 2018.
It’s a good debate to have - which Cowboys player on offense performed the best in 2019? There are plenty of different ways to define “performed the best” as you have to factor in many things. For instance, Amari Cooper would certainly be in the running but you have to take into account he only was with Dallas for nine games in 2019. If you pro-rate his stats, then you can look at a full year, but would he have performed that well if he had been here all 16 games? You also have Ezekiel Elliott, who only led the league in rushing. Even with that, you have to take into account the amount of rushes he had and how that plays out as just a volume stat.
Another way to look at it? With grades from Pro Football Focus. Sure, there are arguments to be made about how well these grades reflect reality, but they are one tool to use. In this case, the highest-graded offensive player for Dallas in 2018 was left tackle Tyron Smith.
Smith missed what is now his customary three games in 2018 (although a few of those were healthy scratches in Week 17), but when he was on the field he was looking much more like his old self. After a few years of struggling through back problems that sapped him of some of his customary strength and mobility, Smith was back to being the premier left tackle that he once was. For the year, he was graded as giving up only 15 pressures, 13 hurries and no sacks, although he did pick up seven holding penalties.
Over the course of the season, Smith graded out as the sixth-best left tackle with an overall grade of 80.1. As great players do, though, he raised his game in clutch time and finished those plays with a grade of 87.3. Smith’s run-blocking grade of 78.4 led all tackles, and he allowed zero quarterback hits or sacks on 156 pass-blocking snaps.
The good news is that the Cowboys have Smith signed through 2023 on a very team-friendly deal. If Smith’s health holds out, the Cowboys have one of the most important positions in the NFL locked up for a while, allowing them to better pursue deals with other stars who need new contracts. Smith feels his health is good and that he’s going to be better heading into 2019.
“Every year you always have little nicks here and there, but it feels good coming into this year with no injuries,” Smith said, via Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News. “I’m coming back faster and stronger.”
With the likely return of Travis Frederick, and the presence of the always great Zack Martin, the Cowboys should have their three offensive line studs back to form for 2019. That makes a huge difference.
He had a stretch of three games that were simply unreal back in Weeks 9 through 11, when the Cowboys played Tennessee, Philadelphia, and Atlanta and the team began to turn its entire season around. Smith was nearly perfect over those games, allowing zero sacks, zero QB hits, zero hurries, zero penalties and nearly zero false steps. It was clinical, and it was a demonstration of what he does.
Enjoy some Smith domination courtesy of John Owning.
Predicting the battles that will shape the Cowboys roster is always a fun exercise.
We are almost to the long quiet stretch between the end of the Dallas Cowboys minicamp and the opening of their training camp in Oxnard. For some diehard fans, camp is when football really starts. This year, we are all anxious to get a real look at the beginning of the Kellen Moore offense, but we may not get a really clear look at how it actually will go until the games start to count. The real function of camp is to get from 90 players down to the 53-man roster for the season. And this year, that looks to be a very exciting process for the Cowboys.
There are several factors that enter into it. The change at offensive coordinator is one, as is this being a contract year for head coach Jason Garrett. But the biggest and best thing is that, as far as just about anyone can tell after a couple of weeks of practices in helmets and shorts, this is one of the deepest 90-man groups for Dallas in a long time. There have been years in the past when the struggle was to find 53 legitimate NFL talents for the season. Now, the problem is going to be paring down the current group and hopefully not losing too many good players. Obviously, the latter is a much more preferable situation than the former.
This may even challenge some of the approaches the Cowboys usually take. In particular, it may force them to back off on their preference for retaining veterans and their own former draft picks over rookies, especially UDFAs. Even when you rule out those who will obviously have a roster spot if healthy, there seem to be a large number of spots where the team could turn to new, young candidates.
Although it is a bit arbitrary, this also will count the first three draft picks taken as locks on the roster. The staff basically is not going to give up on any player taken in the fourth round or earlier unless something extraordinarily bad happens, either on the field or off. But from the fifth round on, there is always a chance the team will just move on, and it increases the later the player was picked.
There is also going to be churn at some point, and that will likely include a handful before camp even starts. Some of the names here will therefore see their chances nipped in the bud. And injuries are always a threat and could take some off the table, or open up more holes to fill. We don’t know who those might affect, so we have to work with the roster as it now stands.
So with those ground rules in place, here are the coming camp battles where veteran players will have to stave off a challenging rookie - and in some cases, we are talking more than one on each side of that equation. (This also is not going to get into situations where the battles are strictly between players who were on the roster last year, like at backup quarterback.)
Running back: Darius Jackson vs Mike Weber
This may be the most even competition going into camp as the two strive to be the third RB on the roster. There is a chance the team could go deep and carry both, but given the need for roster spots at other positions, it is hard to see the Cowboys carrying four running backs plus a fullback. Jackson failed to impress in his limited chances last year, but a strong showing in camp and preseason could move him back into the coaches’ good graces. He is also aided by the fact that Weber could probably make it through waivers to the practice squad, which means in a dead heat, Jackson might get the nod. Weber still has a great opportunity to make a convincing case for his retention. And they both should get plenty of snaps in preseason, because Ezekiel Elliott is going to be sitting on the sidelines for almost all of those reps, swathed in bubble wrap. Tony Pollard is envisioned to have a more expansive role, so while he may get some reps in a traditional RB function, most of those will probably go to Jackson and Weber.
This is one of the fun ones to consider, because all of the rookies here are UDFAs. Some may consider Fleming one of the locks to make the roster, but while he would be very hard to beat out, the team is reportedly very high on Hyatt and Knight. Fleming is likely going to be allowed to go into free agency after this year, so the team might want to bet on the future by making sure they have Fleming’s replacement as swing tackle in place. They could try to get Hyatt or Knight, or both, to the PS, but that is where the quandary comes in. If they look good in preseason, an OT-hungry team may come poaching. The team also has some insurance in Connor Williams and Connor McGovern, with the drafting of the latter making the idea of using the former at tackle in an emergency more viable.
No offense, but Campos has little chance to make it out of camp. Puni is not talked about in the same way as the other two UDFAs, so his odds don’t look good, either.
To be honest, all four of these players may not make it onto the 53-man roster, since Joe Looney and McGovern are not going anywhere, and the team may just not have enough roster spots to carry three backup IOL. But if there is a spot, it is hard not to root for the son of a true Cowboys legend to show that genetics matter.
Shakir looks like the odd man out right off the bat, although you never can tell what will happen. That leaves an interesting battle, because all four of the players who are likely battling for two spots are draft picks. Charlton and Armstrong represent more draft capital (a lot in Charlton’s case, obviously), but the fact Jackson and Jelks were also worth a draft spot may make the idea of moving on from one of the vets a bit more palatable. Jelks in particular has gotten some good reviews in OTAs, for what that is worth. The team is seen by many as going heavy on DL this season, especially in light of how that unit looked worn down by the latter part of 2018, but it still seems all but impossible for all four of the main contenders to make the 53. And if Randy Gregory should get reinstated (an admittedly rather big if), someone likely gets bumped to open his slot up. We know DeMarcus Lawrence will probably sit out most or all of camp and preseason while he recuperates from surgery. Charlton is recovering from two procedures himself, and that means there is the opportunity to game the system take a cautious approach by putting him on PUP and possibly IR. That would certainly give Armstrong, Jackson, and Jelks a lot of opportunities to prove what they can do.
One interesting twist to all this is how free agent Kerry Hyder will be used. There is a school of thought that he might be better as an end than in the interior of the line, so that is something that could complicate things further.
In any case, look for some strong efforts by those playing in preseason to stake a claim.
First off, let me admit there is a bit of a disconnect somewhere, as all but Rossare listed on the DallasCowboys.com roster as defensive ends. But that gives a very unbalanced distribution on the 90-man roster of 11 DEs, four DTs, and Tyrone Crawford as a utility DL. Walker and Wise were both DTs in college, while Covington and Hyder were playing that position with their last teams. Hyder may belong with the DEs, as mentioned above, but there is reason to believe the rest are primarily competing for a spot in the interior of the line, with some flexibility to move outside at times.
In recent seasons, we have seen Dallas quite willing to cut ties with free agents, and Covington and Hyder were signed to contracts that have small dead money figures if they were released. This is another place where the competition should be fierce and meaningful throughout preseason.
Linebackers: Chris Covington vs Andrew Dowell, Luke Gifford, Nate Hall, and Justin Phillips
The Cowboys broke a bit with recent history by not drafting any linebackers - but they must see a need when they signed four as UDFAs. That need is on special teams. With only six who carried over from last season, they may want to add one for the 53 because linebackers are so heavily used on STs. That does not mean Covington is safe at all, but there is certainly going to be a lot of competition between the rookies. And since the team has no reason to risk the starters or proven backups, look for them to get many, many reps in both camp practices and preseason games.
Lewis is a bit of a hard call to be included, but he is the one CB that doesn’t exactly fit the Kris Richard model. However, he probably has a leg up on the rest. Jackson is also going to get every chance to prove himself. Westry is a bit of a freak at 6-4, but it will be interesting to see what Richard can do with him. The other returnees are on some very thin ice. Who makes the team will also be affected by how many CBs the Cowboys decide to carry. They could go four, five, or six depending on how many spots they need at the other defensive positions.
Again, it may be a bit pessimistic to include Iloka and Frazier in this group, but the team wants to upgrade here, despite only using a sixth-round pick on Wilson. They will be looking for the best options, no matter who it is. Numbers are important here, as the team could carry four or five into the season. Still Queiro, Showers, and Thompson all are at great risk of not making the team in any case, since the other three would be the expected names if the team carries five safeties.
If this seems a bit out of order, it is for a reason. I saved what I see the as best for last, and the fight to make the roster at WR is going to be a no-holds-barred cage match. Austin, Hurns, and Wilson are coming back from injuries last season, although Austin did get back on the field at the end of the year. However, Austin also faces a challenge from Pollard, who may be able to do everything Austin was signed to do and maybe better. If you want a key attribute likely to come into play, it is speed. And that is why the two UDFA rookies are already generating some (possibly overstated) excitement. They can absolutely fly, and could become a factor in the Moore-run offense. Smith also has a lot of speed, and if he can finally overcome the injury bug that has plagued his career, he might break through.
That puts Brown at some risk, and Lenoir has not shown much in his all-around game so far. But route-running and chemistry with Dak Prescott also come into play, so there are many ways this battle could go. The team has at least two and possibly three or even four spots for this group to contend for. There may be more than one way for these contenders to fight their way onto the roster.
This is one take on the most interesting camp battles to watch - and as you can see, it covers all but the QB, TE, and specialists positions. Kicker may be one that could become interesting between now and the start of the season, as punter Kasey Redfern has been given some opportunities to kick field goals - and we all remember what happened to one Dan Bailey last year. The team still has plenty of time to bring another leg into camp as well.
It looks to be a very fascinating camp coming, although there are more names listed here that won’t make the 53 than will. Still, we will almost certainly see some of these young players supplant some veterans on the team.
Camp is coming, and the final battles will follow.