Friday, August 26, 2016

The Morning After: All About The QB's In Seattle - Again





The amount of time, stress, credit, and blame that is normally issued to Quarterbacks always seems overdone until your QB is lying motionless on the turf with a grimace on his face and pain in his body.
From there, you have the normal routine where he is helped off, while the world watches each expression and conversation that follows and reads meaning into all of it.  Next, you get word that the player wants back into the game (which we knows is the default instinctive setting for every football player who has ever waled the earth: "I am ok, coach") and the medical staff shake their head behind his back.  
The other QB gets put in the game and now the media and the fans go to work.  "He is done!"  and "He is Fine!" compete at louder and louder voices.   Team officials and even the player assure us that everything is fine in that "Baghdad Bob" sort of way.  
But, if everything was fine, please explain the grimaces that were caught on camera 30 minutes later and the fact that Tony Romo was not even on the sideline after halftime.  Everything is not fine.  That is the same thing that has seemed abundantly clear now since Week 16 in 2013, frankly.  The Cowboys have a great QB who has done wonderful things - and wishes to do greater things in the future - that has a body that is never going to be able to take what it once did.
And that was on display again last night in Seattle.  We can debate whether he should have played at all and we can certainly debate whether he needs to be extending plays in August that risk his health, but what can't be debated is that this is the new normal.  Every time he takes a hit, there is now going to be the normal breath-holding and over-examination of his every reaction for the rest of his career.  
This is not a question of his toughness.  He has proven that to anyone who watches.  This is not a question of willingness or even hard work to make his body more sturdy.  We get it, he has done the rehab and the work and listened to the doctors.  But, I don't know how many more examples we need of seeing a guy demonstrate in front of millions that his body can't handle what the NFL asks of it at the normal level anymore.  
And, this isn't about last night.  Maybe this one was minor and he can play in the opener.  Maybe.  But, unfortunately, another part of the new normal is that opponents will show no mercy and if there is a chance to push Romo out of the game, you must believe that they will attempt to bring the pain.  And the target area to attack?  Well, pretty much anywhere from his waist up to his neck.  It is all battered and damaged from wear and tear over the years.  
Washington 2013, Home against Washington 2014, At Philadelphia 2015, Home on Thanksgiving against Carolina 2015, and now Seattle 2016.  They are happening more frequently, despite the public proclamations that he has never felt better and is in the best shape of his career.  I am skeptical, to say the least.  We all hope the guy is fine, so arguing against this belief makes people take sides.  It isn't about that.  Anyone who follows this team would happily sign up for another decade of 25-year old Romo, but that guy doesn't live here anymore.  
So, just 3 plays into this "dress rehearsal", the Cowboys got to see the very real possibility of needing "QB2" to play significantly in a big situation come true.  There is no way they thought that they were drafting Dak Prescott to be his opening day backup plan - which, yes, could mean that if the next flurry of health tests on #9 don't go well, the rookie is your opening day starter.  Holy cow.
Could you imagine how today might feel if Prescott was playing QB as just about every rookie plays in their first preseason?  Instead, this young man doesn't quit impressing.  He is as poised and calm as one could dream.  He literally looks in complete control as he diagnoses another blitz and delivers most balls on time and on location.  
It certainly doesn't take a genius to see that everything is being hurried now.  Kellen Moore drops and we wonder if Dak Prescott can be a backup in 2016.  He jumps that hurdle with 2 fantastic preseason performances and now it seems like the obvious challenge.  But, wait, we are going to raise the bar again?  Yes, Tony Romo looks vulnerable on his 3rd snap and now people are actually wondering if Prescott is capable of being the starter right now.  And why are they wondering?  Because there may not be much of a choice in the matter.  And if it isn't to start the Giants game, is it to finish it?  Is it Week 4 or Week 9?  Is it October or November when Tony can't play?  And if that is the case, who is Prescott's backup plan?  
Wow.  Life comes at you fast.  A month ago, this all seemed positively nutty.  Now, we sit here on August 26th and a player that was drafted #135 just a few months back now may be holding the steering wheel long before 2018.  
Again, let's all let this run its course.  But, to call this panic is just denial.  Denial from Cowboy fans, yes.  But, maybe also denial from the General Manager (who has to juggle talking about this crisis while peddling boxing tickets on his broadcasts.  Very few GMs are asked to do this.) and from the Quarterback himself.  Did you see that quote?
"I honestly think anyone who didn't have a back injury, you wouldn't want to be in that position when you're going into a slide and all of a sudden you're crunched like that,'' Romo said. 
"The fact we dodge a bullet is a good thing. I also think probably from the back being stronger allowed me to probably get through that.''
Prescott looks really solid.  He will need to decide when to roll the dice with risky throws, like his touchdown to Jason Witten, but that is normal for any QB - rookie or not.  Otherwise, he provides an element with his feet that seem to fit wonderfully with the skill-set of Ezekiel Elliott.  That zone read scheme that they wouldn't dream of running with Romo seems to be a perfect plan out of 11 personnel for the two rookies.  Mismatches all over the field with Dez, Beasley, Terrance Williams, and Witten if the teams load up to stop the run.  If they don't, Elliott will have a light box to battle with Dak keeping them honest.  Think the 2012 Redskins, but without a skinny QB and with a game-breaking receiving corps.  
But, that is the next era, and we were under the impression we should have 2 more years in the present tense before moving to the future.
Now, once again, nobody knows.  It feels like we are acclimating to our "new normal".  

Thursday, August 25, 2016

2016 NFC East Schedule Check

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/08/25/sturm-surveying-nfc-east-schedules

This is a game-day, so let's just offer you a short and quick blog entry, but one that can often be vitally important.  The NFL claims to have schedule fairness and it is much more so than it used to be.  Years ago, the schedule would vary plenty to try to keep parity, but now days it is far less.

Still, though, with today's schedule plans, all things are not equal.  14 of the 16 games are with the same opponents (although location varies) and only 2 games are determined by how good a team was the previous season.  Those 2 games might make a significant difference, but the whole of location for which AFC teams you play and where you play them as well as your division matchup often end up being a pretty big deal.

So, today, I wanted to look at the NFC East teams from a simple standpoint of how their schedules may differ.  We know that any team in the East will play the same division schedule, so now, what about those other 10 games?

We will start with the NFC East Champions, Washington:


Team NFC N Home NFC N Away AFC N Home AFC N Away NFC W #1 NFC S #1
WASH GB, Minn At Chi, At Det Pitt, Clev At Balt, At Cin At Arz CAR

As you can see, Washington has a regression filled schedule by playing 2 NFC powers that nobody in the division has to deal with - At Arizona and Carolina at home.  Meanwhile, they have Green Bay and Minnesota at their place, as well as Pittsburgh.  So, tough schedule with 6 playoff opponents, but four of them are in Washington.  

Now, the 2015 NFC East 2nd place Philadelphia Eagles:


Team NFC N Home NFC N Away AFC N Home AFC N Away NFC W #2 NFC S #2
PHIL GB, Minn At Chi, At Det Pitt, Clev At Balt, At Cin At Sea ATL

As you can see, the Eagles have the exact same schedule as Washington does, but with a trip to Seattle and a home game with the Falcons switched out.  But, otherwise, they still get the same divisional draw.  So, 5 playoff opponents, with three at home.

Next, the 3rd place finishers from last season, the New York Giants: 


Team NFC N Home NFC N Away AFC N Home AFC N Away NFC W #3 NFC S #3
NYG Chi, Det At GB, At Minn Balt, Cin At Cle, At Pitt At LA  NO

Now, you see a major switch.  New York has only four playoff opponents, but they must go to Green Bay, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh.  Cincinnati is at home, and the two swing games are the Rams and Saints.  So, some good news and some bad news there.  

And, finally, your last place Dallas Cowboys:


Team NFC N Home NFC N Away AFC N Home AFC N Away NFC W #4 NFC S #4
DAL Chi, Det At GB, At Minn Balt, Cin At Cle, At Pitt At SF TB

Again, four playoff teams outside of divisional play.  Three of those are on the road.  But, that home schedule looks pretty doable.  And then, you get the last place teams in San Francisco and Tampa Bay instead of playing the Cardinals and Panthers like Washington must.  

You can see how the league tries to equalize the top teams having to play those two swing games with getting a break on the home/away games inside the rotated divisional schedule.  

This won't determine everything, but you can definitely see how things are different enough that getting three or four wins inside your division combined with the 10 games each team has above will pave the way to either playing football in January or not.  

Anyway, something to consider.   One detail to enter into your preseason thought process.  

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Cowboys Roster Projections - August 24th Edition

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/08/24/sturm-putting-together-rough-draft-the53-man-roster

Because it is enjoyable for those of us who study football (or our bosses ask us nicely), it is that time of year where everyone throws out their version of the final 53-man roster.  It is a bit silly - given that we don't have necessary information, such as the following:

A) we don't know the severity of several of the injuries of guys like James Hanna, Mark Nzeocha, Andrew Gachcar, Lance Dunbar, with regards to whether they are ready for Week 1 or need to be candidates for the various NFI, PUP, or IR lists.

B) we don't know what players the scouts and personnel department have identified on the other 31 rosters that they really hope get cut so they can snap them up - because that player is better than anyone the Cowboys have in camp.  The idea that we need to get 53 names from 90 is shown every year to be false, because the Cowboys are often very active on snapping up cuts from elsewhere via waivers and even trades.

C) we don't completely know what role special teams will play.  I harp about this every August, but we only get so many hints from preseason games.  But, know this - about 7 players every year (not including punter, kicker, and long snapper) make the team primarily for their ability to affect special teams coverage, returns, etc.  Their roster spot will be based completely on that.  So, when you are looking for the best 6-7 linebackers, just keep in mind that the first 4 will be there because they are great linebackers.  The other 2 will make the team because Rich Bisaccia trusts them on his special teams.  

With those things said, let's at least go with what we do know after we examine the NFL Calendar for the upcoming days:

August 30: Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must reduce their rosters to a maximum of 75 players on the Active List.

September 1: Final Preseason Games.

September 3: Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must reduce rosters to a maximum of 53 players on the Active/Inactive List.

September 3: Simultaneously with the cut-down to 53, clubs that have players in the categories of Active/Physically Unable to Perform or Active/Non-Football Injury or Illness must select one of the following options: place player on Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform or Reserve/Non-Football Injury or Illness, whichever is applicable; request waivers; terminate contract; trade contract; or continue to count the player on the Active List.

September 4: Claiming period for players placed on waivers at the final roster reduction will expire at 12:00 noon, New York time.

You can see above the cruelty of how things are in the NFL.  A guy makes the team on September 3rd and celebrates, calls the family, and dreams of what life will be like in the big leagues.  Then, on September 4th he finds out he didn't really make the team.  He was cut to make room for the guy they want from Chicago or Buffalo.  You can never relax in the NFL.

Ok, with all of that information now in your head, the next thing we should do is examine the roster from a numbers standpoint.  

Here are what the Cowboys have kept on their 53 for the last nine seasons (since I have been tracking this stuff).  It is important to look at their patterns and tendencies to see where the cut line will be.


Position200720082009201020112012201320142015
QB223333232
RB544544445
TE333243434
WR655556555
OL10111010109999
DL666777101110
LB789978676
DB1111999101089
ST334343333
Total535353535353535353


2007: 26 Offense/24 Defense/3 Specialist
2008: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist
2009: 25 Offense/24 Defense/4 Specialist
2010: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist
2011: 26 Offense/23 Defense/4 Specialist
2012: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist
2013: 24 Offense/26 Defense/3 Specialist
2014: 24 Offense/26 Defense/3 Specialist
2015: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist

Now, you have that information, allow me to show you my current worksheet.  I have put the entire 90-man roster on here and tried to divide things up into 3 categories (Spot Secured, Bubble guys, and Longshots).

There is still a chance for longshot guys to make it onto the bubble, but history tells us long shots by the final week in August almost never secure a spot.

By each position, I put what I consider to be the number of players they will want from each category.

POSITION SECURED SPOT BUBBLE LONGSHOT
QB -2 Romo, Prescott
(Moore - Injured)
Showers
RB - 5 Elliott, Morris
(Dunbar, McFadden - Injured)
Jackson, K Smith, R Smith
TE - 4 Witten, Escobar, Swaim
(Hanna - Injured)
Gathers, Traylor
WR - 5 Bryant, Williams, Beasley, Butler, Whitehead Street, A Jones, Mayle R Smith, Mullaney, Brown
OT - 4 Smith, Free,  Green Mack, Witzmann, Bradfield, Baldwin
G-C - 5 Martin, Frederick, L Collins, Leary Looney McQueen, Brendel,
Buchholz,Stiverson
DT - 5 T Crawford, Thornton, M Collins T McClain, Jenkins Coe, Wood, Dixon
DE - 4 Mayowa, J Crawford, Tapper, Irving
(Lawrence, Gregory - suspended)
Russell Okoye, McAdoo
LB - 6 Lee, Hitchens, Wilber, Wilson
(J Smith - Injured)
Durant, Gachkar, Nzeocha, Akunne, Morris King, Muamba, McClain
CB - 5 Carr, Claiborne, Scandrick Olatoye, Thomas, McKinnon, Brown Swanson, Colquhoun
S - 5 Jones, Church, Heath Wilcox, Frazier Frey
ST - 3 Bailey, Jones, Ladouceur
Wile
TOTALS - 53 38 (+ 7 exemptions) 26 23


I will adjust this again next week with any movement and then one week from Saturday they will cut it all the way down and start adding waivers guys from elsewhere.  Most of the bubble guys are there because the team has tough decisions to make.  They have to figure out where they want to go light on, so they can go heavy elsewhere.  It is a tough decision process, but they pour over it every day.

As you can see, at tackle, I think they want to keep four, but can't even barely find a third that they like.  At RB, I think the final 2 spots will be Bisaccia guys.  Same with LB where you can see they are dangerously thin at players who they are comfortable playing defense with.  I do think they have good depth at CB and even Safety.  I like that group quite a bit, but the tie-breakers will be special teams again.

Several former draft picks are bubble guys - with Devin Street and Ryan Russell likely the first two names you will recognize.  It is time to demonstrate what you can do.  And you will notice that my guy, Shaneil Jenkins sits on the bubble, but I would be keeping him.  I just realize that you might have to decide between Terrell McClain and Jenkins, which makes me think the coaches may arrive at a different conclusion than I do.

I assume Rico Gathers is a guy for the practice squad and Justin Durant will make the squad if he can demonstrate he is fit.  And, obviously, Darren McFadden's best way to make the team might be to stay on the PUP list.

Anyway, it is August 24th, so as you watch these final 2 games, you will notice the team trying to break ties on the field and look for every detail from those bubble players.  It often gives clues on what they are looking at to decide their final verdicts.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

DMN Post-Game Call-In Transcript - Preseason Miami

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/08/20/cowboys-might-know-impressed-miami?f=r

Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket host Bob Sturm analyzes the Dallas Cowboys' win over the Miami Dolphins on Friday:
Do you believe in Dak Prescott?
There's no doubt his first training camp has resulted in fantastic results. I am sure he can be their No. 2 (quarterback) right out of the gate. I don't necessarily see anything I could say critically about him. He did flirt with a few near interceptions, including one that was nullified by a penalty. I don't know what else can be asked of a fourth-round rookie in his first two preseason appearances. He looks very poised, very knowledgeable and his throws absolutely where they need to be over and over again. I understand why everyone is so excited. Compared to most Cowboy quarterback rookies over the last 20 years or so, this is absolutely uncharted waters. Very impressive stuff.
What did you think of Tony Romo, and were you concerned he even played?
I wasn't necessarily worried he played. I would have been fine if he didn't. I think it's probably important for a guy to get used to game action, but a 10-year starter doesn't need more than one half of preseason. It goes back to the unnecessary nature that the NFL makes teams play so many preseason games.
How did Alfred Morris look? And could Ezekiel Elliott be even more impressive?
That's the big question. When the Cowboys got Morris back in March, I did not see Ezekiel Elliott as a need here. He seems like a real luxury. If they had gone with Morris and maybe Darren McFadden as backup, they would have been fine this year. Morris is a clean fit, his timing is good, his vision is solid. With this offensive line, there are any number of running backs who would have great success. I am certainly not mad Ezekiel Elliott is here, but with this much talent on the line and Dez Bryant occupying space and Tony Romo who can put the ball where he wants to, running back has an easy job description on this team. Which is probably why Elliott admitted as much this week.
What did you think of some other players not named Dak?
Once again Shaniel Jenkins pops up. I need to study why Denver lost interest in him so quickly, because in both appearances he has popped off the screen with sacks and tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
Josh Thomas was pretty good today, the corner. I still continue to see plenty out of Jeremiah McKinnon. It seems they have some depth in the secondary. Going back to other players, even on the offense, I certainly enjoyed seeing Darius Jackson running the ball. He's a rookie who will probably have to start on special teams. It's fun to see Brice Butler at receiver in his first training camp with the Cowboys. He is perhaps demonstrating he's the fourth wide receiver. If you're going to carry Cole Beasley and Lucky Whitehead, Butler brings a nice big, strong receiver who can win on the goal line and learn from Dez Bryant. Maybe he's a real keeper now.
Is there anything that concerns you entering the third preseason game?
I think there experimenting without giving their future opponents a whole lot. I see some things that are fresh to me. As they are trying to add some wrinkles. There's going to be some times when they don't look as smooth. It's hard to find things to complain about. I think we need to see more time from the regulars. For the most part, they mopped the field with Miami and that makes them pretty happy where they are. I think the Cowboys feel pretty decent where they're at.

Friday, August 19, 2016

DMN Cowboys Mailbag - Aug 19th

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/08/19/sturms-friday-mailbag-miami-comes-calling-cowboys-sort-depth-chart


We get Friday Night Football this week as the Cowboys return home to deal with Miami -- a team they seem to make sure is on the preseason schedule every year. Clearly, with last week's game now in the rear-view mirror, some players try to confirm what we saw last week, some players try to erase what we saw last week and others who we haven't seen will join the battle. The observations and reactions will have to wait until tonight, but there is plenty of work to be done, no doubt. Meanwhile, I have work to do as well, as I dig through your mailbag queries:
Q: What are 3 or 4 things you'll be focusing on in Friday's game vs. Miami?
Well, I am with everyone else in wanting to see the continued play of the QBs. I thought both Dak Prescott and Jameill Showers were impressive Saturday night with Prescott having some more help and less sabotage from his mates, but Showers looking the part as well. I expect Prescott will have less than a 154 passer rating this time, but we just want to see continued competence and poise. We fully understand the ball is going to hit the ground a time or two, but he needs to know where to go with the ball and deal with more complex coverages and so forth. I think he looks great, but this is a very long journey and I already think some people are forgetting that.

Beyond that, I really want to see a fourth and fifth receiver step up and grab the job. It was pretty thin last year and the year before despite the Cowboys spending draft picks to try to fix it. Luckily, it seems that decent depth WRs are out there to be found on cut-down day, but it would be nice if someone would step up. I would say Lucky Whitehead did his job on Saturday by showing game-breaking return ability, but we could use some size if Cole Beasley and Whitehead are both in the group. They are both useful, of course, but if someone 6-foot or bigger wants to join Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams with some remarkable results, I would enjoy that. The smart money says it is Brice Butler right now, but I would say that is far from in stone.
Defensively, let's keep watching that defensive line. No David Irving tonight and likely too soon for Benson Mayowa tells us to not get too carried away with expectations from DE. And it would be great to see more from Byron Jones at FS.
But, you know what I will really be watching tonight? Special teams participation in preseason Games 2 and 3 are very much worth tracking. These games are where we will see who they trust in covering kicks and punts. And that will tell us who is making this team, because if you are not a starter, then you better add some real value to special teams. So, if you are looking for who is going to win the fifth WR, third RB, fifth-seventh LB and so on, watch the punts and kicks early.
Q: Do you think Jameill Showers has already been knocked out of the QB battle?
Not at all. Of course, it was always going to be a long shot that he would be on this roster until Kellen Moore fell. But once that happened, he had to play well enough to chase them away from shopping for another veteran. Prescott certainly alters things because if they are feeling extra adventurous, they could roll with two QBs, but I can't imagine a team that hasn't seen Romo play 16 games since 2012 would risk that. So, if Showers does his job to continue to run the offense like he has in the 2015 preseason and now in 2016, I expect he makes the team.
Let's not forget: Many things change over the course of a preseason. Things happen. Unexpected things. So, you just keep putting in work and you never know what will occur around you.
Q: People are saying Claiborne has had a great camp. Do you think this could be the year he shows he was worthy of being a first-round pick?
I am going to need to see it for an extended period of time. The bar is now so low for Claiborne that there will be false alarms. Remember, around Week 4 last year, there were proclamations that Mo Claiborne had finally come around. Then, time passed and we had another disappointing year due to health and not staying on the field. He has to stay on the field. He has to play. Maybe the results are less important now than his attendance record. If a corner can't stay on the field, then he is just not going to ever be a massive contributor.

Since drafted No. 6 overall (at the cost of picks Nos. 14 and 45 in that 2012 draft), he has played 2,199 snaps in the regular season. To compare, Brandon Carr, also acquired in 2012, has played 4,182 snaps. They play the same position, so you know that Carr is dependable and consistent. Claiborne is yet another player this franchise depends upon who evidently cannot be depended upon at that same level or even close.
So, I appreciate his camp performance in the first few weeks in August. I want to know if he is going to be around in October and November this year. A guy cannot determine his own health, but that is a large part of our issues with Mo Claiborne in Year 5. He, of course, may be playing for his next deal elsewhere, because a great year this season would no doubt make it difficult to keep him, but given his track record, "great" years are rather rare at this level.
Let's see it week after week.
Q: This is the last year of Terrance Williams' rookie deal, right? If he doesn't improve much, is he worth re-signing?
I actually wrote about the next level of free agents for the Cowboys back on Tuesday, which I shall link for you right here. In there, we showed you the list of players who are in the "contract year": 
Expires after 2016: Lance Dunbar, Terrell McClain, Andrew Gachkar, David Irving, Darren McFadden, Brice Butler, Barry Church, Jack Crawford, Ron Leary, Kellen Moore, J.J. Wilcox, Terrance Williams, Morris Claiborne, Gavin Escobar, Rolando McClain
Williams is high on that list of names, of course, but it is a weird spot. If he disappoints this year, then you would expect the Cowboys would rather spend a pick on his replacement and not spend a ton to keep him. If he is awesome, then the price for his next deal might be high above the Cowboys' threshold and suddenly you want to draft his replacement. I am sure there is a sweet spot, but as we have talked about for quite a while, his next deal (based on his current resume and conservative projections moving forward) could be very similar to the deals that are currently out there in the 5-year/$40-million range. At worst, you figure Williams will get $6M a year and if he is huge this year, there is no question it could creep up near $10M. The questions, of course, are going to be whether you think he is a difference-maker on an offense that already has declared that designation for Romo, Zeke, Dez, Witten, Tyron, Zack and Frederick. You cannot keep paying everyone elite money on one side of the ball, so if I had to guess, Williams will be playing his final year in a Cowboys uniform.
Q:  Zeke figures to be the mainstay, but should the Cowboys have taken a look at Arian Foster over Alfred Morris perhaps? I know he's had a rough couple of years but the thought of him healthy behind that Cowboys OL.
I promised everyone I wouldn't bring up Ezekiel Elliott's pick every single time we talk roster construction, but my plan last spring did not include a RB at No. 4. I would have gone after 24-year old free agent Lamar Miller (now in Houston) and Alfred Morris and if I failed on either, I would have looked for a RB on Day 2 of the draft, with my belief that Derrick Henry (picked 45th by Tennessee) would have been an unstoppable beast on this offense in this scheme.
They didn't agree (nor have most Cowboys fans) and now the Cowboys have an amazing RB in Elliott, so the issue isn't really whether they have quality. They do. The issue is did they need it when they already have this group? I say they did not, but it is over.
As for Foster, who visits tonight with the Dolphins, the No. 1 thing I look for in a RB is durability. So, the fact that he has played in 25 of the past 48 NFL games he was scheduled to play in was not overly appealing to me. This sport demands so much from the bodies of its players, that when it goes, there is often no getting it back.
Q: How did you think the Cowboys' defense performed in the first preseason game? Is there reason for hope for a competitive unit?

I thought there were some nice things there. The blitzes that led to big plays are something that makes me wonder about how often we can expect to see pressure and extra rushers this season.  We know the Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli does not prefer to blitz, but we also saw last year more Cover 1 man coverage, so perhaps they are more willing to play with more aggressiveness and potentially risk things this season. For several years now, the Cowboys have played a very conservative brand of defense. Rush four, drop seven has been what we have seen since Rob Ryan left town. Maybe they are planning to change that with a better free safety on patrol and more capable coverage players with the return of Orlando Scandrick and veteran secondary men in Barry Church, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne.  
As they say, "it can't be any worse," in some respects.
If you have to roll the dice to cause the offense to make mistakes, that might be the best way to attack this year. Especially with an offense that might be able to cover up some mistakes with scoring more often.
We shall look for that tonight.
Enjoy the game.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Xs and Os: Romo's First Big Moment - August 21, 2004

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/08/18/sturm-xs-os-thursday-time-machine-trip-august-2004

One thing I love doing here at The Dallas Morning News is found on Thursdays.  We cut up the last Cowboys game and talk ball.  Sometimes it is tactics and strategies, other times it is marveling at what some great athletes can do in this great sport.  Either way, we are implementing video and discussing this game through the lens of 11 on 11 GIFs.  It is something that Grantland Rice did not have the technology to pull off.  Let's take advantage of what we have to work with.
However, for our very first episode of the year, I had a choice to make.  I could either break down a few Chaz Green busts, a Lucky Whitehead return, and a JJ Wilcox issue or I could ignore that opener this morning and take you on a trip to another preseason game you might be interested in.  Since I didn't really crowdsource your opinion, you will just have to trust me.
The day is August 21, 2004.  The Cowboys are playing preseason game No. 2 of the 2004 season, so keep in mind this was two weeks after Quincy Carter was told goodbye due to his pot issue.  The team had just drafted Julius Jones, Jacob Rogers, and Stephen Peterman.  They had just won 10 games and lost to Carolina in the 2003 playoffs, and they had a QB depth chart of Vinny Testeverde, Drew Henson, and some kid named Tony Romo.  
This is not the 2004 opener.  That was the week before when the team was pounded by Houston 18-0.  All three of this QBs played and that Romo kid was 3-for-11 for 37 yards and two interceptions and had a QB rating of 1.5, which is about the lowest I have ever seen.  
So let's be clear here.  This is not Tony Romo's first preseason game.  He even played in some games in 2003 that were not considered noteworthy.  (I have no video evidence of any of these earlier games.  Side note: I collect NFL games going all the way back to the 1960s.  I love this stuff.  But, I never keep preseason football games, usually.  But, now, I wish I had all of these early Romo appearances.  So, if you have anything from the 2003 or 2004 Dallas preseason, I am interested in hearing from you.)
But, this one would easily be considered as "the first time anyone suggested Tony Romo might have something."  So, recently I watched this game -- in Spanish, since that is the only broadcast that I think has survived -- and wanted to share some details with you.  
Now, he would never play in the early parts of the game when the good players are playing.  Just like Jameill Showers of modern times, he had poor offensive linemen, receivers who would drop passes, and had to sort of make things up as he was going.  But, he entered this game to mop up with 4:43 to go in the fourth quarter and the Raiders leading the game 20-15.  
What happened next was a 17-play drive to win the game.  It was Tony Romo's first big preseason moment.  Let's have a  look at the drive:
First significant throw down the sideline to Randal Williams that the WR could not come up with.  But, the location is there and the throw looks confident and on point.
This drive featured many fourth downs.  Here is one.
4th and 11 from the Oakland 49.  Romo steps up to escape former Cowboys great Peppi Zellner and is picked off by some guy named DeJuan Green for Oakland.  Game over?  Not so fast.  
Referee Ed Hochuli is there!  Holding on the Raiders away from the play.  First down and the rally lives.  
Remember all of the former Jets that Bill Parcells brought over?  Here is Dedric Ward in the slot making a catch on a slant for 8 yards.  He would catch one pass as a Dallas Cowboy for 5 yards in the regular season.  
So, now on second and 2, Romo wants to do the Tom Brady quick QB sneak.  They didn't quite get there, though, and it is now third down.  
So, below, third and 1.  
Play-action to the FB out of the backfield.  It is Lousaka Polite who would go on to play nine seasons in the NFL.  On this occasion, Polite juggled the ball and was ruled out of bounds after coming up with this pass.  Then, it was challenged by the Cowboys, but Hochuli was not having it.  Incomplete after review.
It moves to fourth and 1.
The Cowboys briefly considered trying to run for it, but as you can see, it is lucky they did not.  Another play-action bootleg where Romo is again having to escape an untouched Peppi Zellner and hits Landon Trusty at the marker to move the chains again.  He is certainly not getting too much protection to lead this drive.
And perhaps I was merely foreshadowing the sack.  You likely don't remember Javier Collins playing tackle for the Cowboys, but he has no answer for Zellner on this drive.  Romo is hearing footsteps from every direction and eventually hits the turf which will take us down to about 1:30 to play.  
A run cuts it to third and 3, and now we find another short underneath throw to Dedric Ward to move the chains and keep hope alive inside 1:00.  If you are curious (why would you be?), the Cowboys do have one timeout left.  
On first down, Rashard Lee got 1 yard.  On second down, Romo spiked the ball to stop the clock.  So here we are on third and 9.  Romo drops and finds TE Sean Ryan from Boston College (5th round pick, No. 144) open, but he drops the ball.   So now we face the third different fourth down of the drive!
Fourth and 9 from the Oakland 13.  0:23 to go!
It looks like the exact same play as Romo sees Ryan again.  This time waits to clear the first window and hits him past the sticks and at the goal-line for a first down to the 1.  But, the clock is ticking!  Will they use their last timeout?
No!?!?
Romo rushes them to the line.  He is telling everyone it is the kill play.  Spike the ball.  Get set!  Don't move before the snap!  We are going to spike it!
Just kidding, Raiders.  QB sneak touchdown for the win!
Romo really did the "fake spike/ run a real play" trick in one of his first ever NFL appearances.  That cracked me up quite a bit.  
And if you look carefully, I think you can see his coach cracking a smile, too.
So, there you go.  The Cowboys failed on the 2-point conversion, and left Oakland with a 21-20 win in week 2 of the 2004 preseason.  And Tony Romo made the last few minutes watchable.  
So much so, that I wanted to share them with you this morning -- 12 years later.  
Hope that was enjoyable for you.  It proves you never know who you are seeing in the 4th Quarter of a preseason game.