Friday, May 20, 2016

DMN Cowboys Mailbag - 5/20 - Romo Was Hurt And Not Very Good in 2015

Another week is somehow in the books -- time flies when you are having fun -- and we are down to 16 weeks until the regular season starts! What better way to spend a little of your Friday than with some Cowboys mailbagging!
Q: Where would a completely healthy Tony Romo rank among your top NFL QBs currently?
I think this is a pretty solid place to start and I guess it all depends on your level of optimism. So much of any Cowboys prediction rides heavily on what you believe about Tony Romo. He says all the right things and we all hope that he is telling the truth and everything turns out fine. We just talked about this on the radio yesterday because I am working on a project that asked me to look at all of the interceptions the Cowboys threw in 2015. My memory has already started to fade out the details of this very forgettable year a bit, but actually looking at each game brought a lot of things back to my attention. In my head, it was clear that the horrid play of all of the backup QBs was the biggest culprit (after we blame the collarbone sufficiently). But, as I looked at the 16 games, it was pretty shocking how poorly Romo played QB in those four games he did play. The throws were not good overall. He gave us a few moments of fun against the Giants and at Miami, but overall, Romo looked like he was playing hurt when he was out there. Even some of his good throws against the Dolphins, for instance, looked like looping throws, rather than the Romo fastball.
This puts you in a spot where that voice in your head is hoping that this was mostly a case of him rushing back when he wasn't quite right. He was bailing out of passes in November because deep down inside, he knew that his shoulder could go the first time he took a real hit (he was correct, by the way).
So, I say all that to say this: Watching his snaps in 2015 were a bit disconcerting overall. Statistically -- with a small sample -- he had his lowest QB rating and highest interception percentage of his career. This after the 2014 Romo had the highest stats of his career. He also turned 36, where we start to wonder when Father Time will start taking some of these extraordinary athletic gifts away from our athletes. So, does 2014 Romo still live here? Everyone is hoping.
So, where does a healthy Romo rank in the NFL? Well, the 2014 Romo had a gripe about the MVP award. That puts him in the top five easily and maybe higher. If that guy is still in that body -- and his body can take the hits that every QB (even with a great offense and a great line) must take -- then we can say that when he is right, he is still among the best. And clearly, every Cowboys decision seems to drip with the premise of "Tony Romo is still a great QB."
I guess we ignore our eyes and hope they are right. Not sure what other choice a Cowboys fan has right now.
Q: What's a realistic expectation for the Cowboys, record wise, in their first four games with their top two pass-rushers suspended?
The first four games of the Cowboys schedule are: Sept. 11 vs. Giants, Sept. 18 at Redskins, Sept. 25 vs. Bears, Oct. 2 at 49ers. There are no world beaters in this group and there are no projected playoff teams (at least in my head). So, with a defensive line of Tyrone Crawford, Cedric Thornton, Benson Mayowa and Jack Crawford starting with David Irving, Ryan Russell, Maliek Collins, Charles Tapper and Terrell McClain behind them, I think they should be in decent enough shape against those opponents. I would say you hope for 3-1 and you settle for 2-2. So much has been invested in this offense, so you would sure hope that everyone is healthy and ready to go crazy in the first four games. In the next four games you do have a couple playoff teams and that means a pass rush should be more vital. I think the Cowboys' goal is to get to 9-10 wins and to do that, they will need to get through September in a strong fashion without the two suspended players.
Q: So which is the best team in Texas in 2016: the Cowboys or Texans?
Great question. Because I really think the Texans have a chance to be pretty solid this season. Everyone will talk QB, but how about getting Lamar Miller from Miami? I think that would have been the move I would have earmarked for the Cowboys back in March. (I did!) The Texans also play in a division that doesn't scare anyone, so I will likely have both teams win totals in the same relative area. I would also love to put a super team together that allows the Cowboys' offense to join the Texans' defense to win the Super Bowl for Texas. And, while in fantasy land, I would also like to make it mandatory that the Cowboys and Texans play every year. But, I am king of nothing and don't get to declare things from the throne with any effectiveness. So, I will hope it is the Cowboys, but I will say that without much conviction until this defense shows me some things.
Q: Do you think Rico Gathers has a chance to make the roster out of camp or is he looking at a practice squad year?
I am relatively sure that the only way Gathers makes the 53 is if they are sure he will be snapped up by someone if they try to sneak him through to the practice squad. To do so, they must expose him to the league and if he does anything special in preseason, that could be an issue. But, if you keep him on the 53, then there is a chance you are playing with 52 this year -- unless he can figure out special teams in one summer (which seems unlikely -- or impossible -- if you haven't played football since 8th grade). The most likely scenario? If he is really good in camp, I would watch for the season-long IR for some imaginary or small injury to basically keep him team property for the season without having to do any of the above. Teams do this all the time, and if that happens in late August, remember who predicted this for the biggest project the Cowboys have signed up for in years.
Q: How much of a pass-rushing threat do you think Tyrone Crawford can be playing defensive end?
I assume that he will be decent. And it isn't like Randy Gregory is DeMarcus Ware. I think those suspensions hurt more in body count than in actual quality in the short term. Sure, DeMarcus Lawrence is this team's best pass rusher, but that doesn't mean he is great. That means he is good and could develop into very good. Gregory hasn't shown much of anything at the NFL level that we should cry about his absence. He has a long way to go. I think with two free-agent additions and two draft additions, this team should be able to survive September in decent shape.
Q:  Which training camp battles would you be most excited to see come late July?
Well, to be honest, this roster doesn't seem to have a whole lot of competition to start. I will write the 22 starters out on May 20th and I bet (injuries pending) that I can go 20 for 22 for opening night: Romo, Smith, Collins, Frederick, Martin, Free, Witten, Bryant, Williams, Elliott, Beasley on offense (11 personnel). Then, on defense: Crawford, Crawford, Thornton, Collins (this one is the questionable one), Lee, McClain, Hitchens, Carr, Scandrick, Jones, Church.
The closest thing to battles will be free safety -- Byron Jones or JJ Wilcox -- and right tackle -- Free vs. Chaz Green. I don't really see either of those likely. Jones is the future at free safety no matter what and while Green may have some upside, I don't think they want him starting right away. Beyond that, this is your team, I believe.
So then the competitions become for depth, like who is the fourth and fifth WR, who is the fourth and fifth LB, who are your third-down rushers, and so on. But, this is a veteran team that has been built to win now. They have most of their starters squared away. Now, the question is about depth and quality.  
Q: Saw ESPN projections story that had Cowboys winning East by four games over rest of teams. Sounds a little crazy to me, even in the best-case scenario. Your thoughts?
My thoughts are that almost nobody ever wins a division by four games. And the Cowboys have to deal with the defending division champs in Washington, a talented team in New York, and I doubt Philadelphia is a concern. I think 9-10 wins will win this division and I think the Cowboys can be that team, but I would never project a runaway laugher. I also think I am having a hard time predicting anything in May with that degree of specificity, so I will defer to projections for those who want them.
As for me, I will wait on everything else for next week. Have a fine weekend. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Cowboys Player Profile - Terrance Williams

Terrance Williams

Position: Wide receiver
Size: 6-foot-2, 208 pounds
Age: 26 (9/8/89)
College: Baylor
Drafted: Dallas -- Round 3, Pick 74 in 2013
Experience: 3 seasons
Salary history and contract status: Williams is in the final year of his 4-year, $2.9 million dollar rookie contract that guaranteed $619,000. In 2016, he counts $1.6M base salary in 2016 and a $1.8M cap hit.  He will become an unrestricted free agent after the 2016 season.
2013 draft profile from 6'2/208/4.51 ...  Three-year starter who is a fifth year senior.  Has played in 51 games in his career.  Played in a spread zone based offense that distributes the ball to a variety of receivers and backs.  Concentration and courage to catch over the middle.  Soft hands.  Holds the ball on contact.  Good sized receiver who will compete for the ball in the air.  Two of his biggest catches in 2011 were vertical '9' routes catching the ball for touchdowns versus Texas and Oklahoma.  He can beat press man coverage off the line with his quick feet.  Good contact balance to keep his feet after hit and get yards after catch. Uses a stiff arm to ward off low tacklers.  Good cutting ability in space.  He has also made the layout diving catches.  An NFL caliber productive athlete who built on his strong junior year averaging over 18 yards per catch.  A three level receiver who can go vertical and make the tough over the shoulder catch.  Can separate with strength and a quick burst.  An outside pass catcher who is athletic after catch.  Ability to break tackles and split defenders.  Eventual starter with developmental time.  Caught 202 passes in his career.  2012 stats: 97-1832, 18.9 ypr, 12 TD.  Second/Third Round.
Pre-2015:  Williams began his career in Dallas as the "bonus pick" the Cowboys received for trading back in the draft with San Francisco.  They received the 31st and 74th picks to trade their 18th selection in 2013 with the 49ers and walked away with Travis Frederick and Williams.  Most draft historians give that a pretty excellent value grade, but also note that Keenan Allen was taken 2 picks later (#76) by the Chargers.  Williams jumped right into the action in 2013 when Miles Austin was playing his last season across from Dez Bryant.  His first massive impact was the shootout against the Broncos in early October when he caught all 4 passes thrown to him for 151 yards and a touchdown.  He has definitely helped cement the "Baylor WR" stereotypes of having a very limited route tree, but electric results when the team connects on one of those bread and butter routes.  In 2014, with a healthy Dez Bryant on the field demanding safety support, Williams ran more "go" routes than anyone in the football.  In fact, over 40% of his pass plays are some variation of the simple 9 route.  Most of the rest have been slants and digs, and on several occasions -- including the 2014 Wildcard game against Detroit -- Williams has shown that if you allow a slant, he can take it 70-80 yards in a blink of an eye.  As a 2nd WR, he would at least be considered league average.  He has limited productivity, but with Bryant and Jason Witten on the field and the team running the ball over half the time, it all seems by design.  He plays the "Alvin Harper" role well.  
2015: Last season, the conversation changed.  The events on the field required Williams to try to fill the role left by Bryant when Dez missed a number of games in September and October.  In fairness to Williams, the QB play was substandard for most of the year and there were several verifiable moments where he was open and Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel either missed seeing him completely or missed the throw. During the Weeden stretch of starts (Games 3-5) where the backup QB seemed determined to never throw the ball down the field and risk a turnover, the team attempted 18 passes to Williams of assorted lengths and Weeden connected on 5 for 79 yards.  That 4.4 yards per attempt is enough to make an offense cry and shows why revisionist history cannot save the Weeden run in Dallas.  It was about RB completions on repeated check downs and punt.  The production returned with Cassel (although so did a number of interceptions in New York) and then upon Dez Bryant's return, some of the production returned, too.  Williams did not drop many passes, but the team could not get him the ball often enough.  He definitely had some highlight moments to show his improvement on physical plays that required aerial wins.  But in total, he was disappointing as a #1 WR. In fairness, he really never got to play much in that role with competent QB play to show whether it was him, defenses keying on his strengths with extra coverage since Dez was gone, the QB, or the ultra conservative game plans that the team tried to win with.  He ended the year with a career-high day against the Redskins as he caught 8 passes in 9 attempts for 173 yards -- which certainly helped his season stat line improve cosmetically.  But, to be fair, if anyone deserved a final week of numbers to prop up a disappointing season, given what Williams had to work with in 2015, perhaps it was him.
2016 analysis: It is vital that Williams has a big year, if for no other reason to ensure he has a 2nd contract offer from the Cowboys.  He has a lot in his favor, including some very high-end moments where he demonstrates his value, the fact he does look like an effective book-end (albeit with limitations) for an offense centered around running the ball and Dez Bryant, and he has played in 48 of the 48 games in his career.  That said, almost without fail, there seems to be some uncertainty about whether the Cowboys should lock up the soon-to-be-27-year-old or to draft his replacement.  Given that the best WR behind Williams for that spot is either Devin Street or Brice Butler, the team certainly doesn't have anybody that looks like an 80- snap guy ready to replace him. 
Looking at comparable players from the 2011 and 2012 draft classes, the results are all over the board for 2nd contract offers.  Mohamed Sanu, who was significantly less productive than Williams, pocketed a 5yr/$32.5M deal ($14M Guaranteed) from Atlanta this spring.  The same is true for Travis Benjamin, who signed a 4yr/$24M ($13M Guaranteed) with San Diego.  Less production, great money.  On the other hand, the Giants received very similar numbers from Rueben Randle -- despite a lesser role for most of his time there -- and then did not offer him anything at the end of his contract and the player who just turned 25 signed in Philadelphia for next to nothing 1yr/$1.5M (no guarantee).  There is more to a player than just stats, but as you can see, those offers are all over the board.
He is a complicated study.  He is always on the field, yet is a guy who averages about 45 yards a game in his career and has never been close to 1,000 yards.  At the same time, he has made some huge catches at huge moments and gets in the end zone which is a rather important attribute.  Bottom line, the Cowboys get Williams for 2016 at a very cheap price.  But, that will change in 2017.  Either they decide to pay him between $6-$7M per season to keep him or they draft his replacement in 2017's draft and start all over again.  Since I don't anticipate any sort of summer/training camp extension, I assume Williams' job in 2016 will determine their decision.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Cowboys Draft Player Profile - Rd 3, Maliek Collins, DT, Nebraska

This is part of my series to study film of each of the Cowboys' 2016 draft picks who were not covered before the draft. Today is the third-round pick, Maliek Collins. We will follow the template from the 50 profiles done before the draft in the early spring.
I have never been a scout or a NFL general manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football. By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better. It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can. To read more about the 2016 NFL Draft Project, click here.
Maliek Collins, DT, Nebraska - 6-foot-2, 311 pounds - junior - No. 7
The Cowboys entered the draft determined to get better on the defensive line and while they did not spend any of their currency in the 1st or 2nd rounds, they decided in the end to keep the 3rd and 4th round picks for this purpose. The historical record will show that in potential trades up for Paxton Lynch they flirted with trading a 3rd and then a 4thwhich might have cost them the QB of the future, but in the debates to not "overpay," they would discuss how the defense will suffer if they were to go RB and QB and then not pick again until Day 3.
Collins was always a target for the Cowboys at pick #67, according to my sources. They always viewed him as a player that should get to them and as one they really coveted at that spot in the draft. That is important for us to remember when so much of the rest of the draft seemed to be snagged right in front of their pick (Ogbah in the 2nd, Connor Cook in the 4th). This guy was on their radar and targeted by their defensive personnel as someone they wanted to secure.
Maliek is a team captain and a guy who was a real big part of the Nebraska defense over the last two seasons. In 2014, with Randy Gregory on the front attracting plenty of attention, Collins had a much more productive campaign, with 2015 offering plenty more occasions of double-teams and watching the inside tackles.
I spent the last few mornings watching a few hundred snaps from each of the two years to see what has the Cowboys so excited. It is reasonable to assume they were locked in on him from their original Gregory work 18 months ago.
What I liked: Collins is built quite thick, but possesses an explosive quickness that is both rare and appealing. When you study the draft game, it is easy to paint certainly body sizes with a similar brush, because it is extremely rare to find a defensive tackle that might be able to move like a linebacker in certain respects. But, Collins checks all of the boxes when you are looking for "Force Players" -- a metric that is calculated based on several combine measureables that seek players with quick explosiveness -- and he penetrates with purpose. He is clearly seen as a top 3-technique in this draft from a tools standpoint. He also possesses great strength in his lower body and when you combine that quickness with thighs that can squat nearly 800 pounds, you have the guy you want in the trenches. He has light feet, a fine motor, and keeps playing when the play is away from him. One thing he does that you never see from a man his size is he will occasionally stand up and rush as if he is a linebacker. It is beyond odd for a player over 310, yet he looks natural. The top video below is #7 Collins lined up as a middle LB on the rush.
What I did not like: For all his great athleticism, it would be disingenuous to not investigate why he wasn't a top 50 selection. It appears to be for 2 basic reasons. One, he looks a little stiff at times and while that is hard to say for a player who just turned 21, we often see that being the difference between exceptional players and ordinary. Ordinary players can be neutralized simply because of not being able to work out of stalemates with some ability to wiggle through small cracks in the line. He shows he can do it at times, but gets hung up a bit too much for my tastes. But, I imagine the biggest thing that holds him back at this point of his career is simple production. A player with his skill set should have been more productive in 13 games for Nebraska, than 2.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss. He is too quick and spends too much time in the defensive backfield for this curious lack of statistics to verify his dominance. What is interesting when watching him is that the player is constantly in the backfield with a chance to make a play.  So, the obvious question is: "Will that be the type of player he is -- constantly close to making plays, but not actually making them?" Or, do the Cowboys assume that they know how to develop him to close those deals? It is clear that most players aren't on the scene repeatedly like Collins. So, he is separated from that group, but he also should not be put in the group of guys who have 8 sacks and 16 TFLs, because he hasn't earned that right. He is in the 3rd and middle group of promising moments, but still a bit of a work in progress.
Summary and potential fit with the Cowboys: I think I just said it in the paragraph above -- he flashes. He definitely has those traits that you want, and he is a high character player who also possesses that thirst for making plays when the initial moment passes. High motor and high character with a full toolbox explains why the Cowboys moved Collins to the top of their list when Jaylon Smith went off the board and never had to deviate much from that name. They got their guy.
Now, Rod Marinelli, who is incredibly particular about who he wants and what he wants to do with him, sees Collins as a pure 3-technique play who has the traits to be that coveted 3-down inside player who can rush the passer, destroy run plays with penetration, and spend plenty of time in the offensive backfield rerouting running plays and moving QBs off their throwing spots. 
He also will get plenty of chances to play early as the talks continue about Tyrone Crawford sliding outside in September as the team deals with their DE suspension issues. But, when things all snap back into place, they now feel like they have injury cover for Tyrone, a guy who can play with Crawford on passing downs inside, another solid rotation guy, and perhaps a starting 3-technique. The Cowboys are betting on his future and are thinking if they get this right he can be a Top 50 value down at #67. I see what they like, but now wait to see if they can develop him as well as they believe they can. Bottom line -- they have a 310 pound force in the defensive front who should be fun to watch grow into a real pro.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Looking At The FC Dallas Drought

Periodically - including the next 3 weeks - I get the chance to do some FC Dallas games on television, which I enjoy doing very much.

So, in the build-up to doing the games, I like to look at the issues affecting the team and then do my research accordingly.

If you follow the team at all, you know that everything has been great in 2016 until Mid April. In the winter, the team was predicted to do great things and in some cases even win the MLS Cup.  They were also predicted to have 2 MVP candidates between Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo.

Well, in Mid-April, they lost Matt Hedges their top center back for 6 weeks to an injury.  That also coincided with a lengthy road trip where they lost three matches by a combined score of 8-0.  3-0 in Vancouver, 4-0 in New York, and 1-0 in Toronto (in a game that could have been 4-0).

So, the defense and the goal-keeping have been very poor at times and very inconsistent in others, but the most bothersome about the entire thing has been that the strike force has been scoreless since Michael Barrios scored back on April 17.

That was a drought that was sort of fixed on Wednesday in their 2-1 home win with Portland, but even on that day the offensive attack looked off and a bit listless.

The results are down, which may argue they are spending too much time fretting about the leaky defense, or it might just be a normal difficult stretch of a season against contenders away from Frisco.

But, in my watching of the last month to prepare for tonight, I see a lot boils down to taking your chances.

And, if we feel the offense lacks an ideal fearsome striker, then so much goes to whether those two MVP candidates (that ship has sailed, of course, but you get the idea) Castillo and Diaz must be putting the ball in the net.

And most of that comes back to whether or not Fabian is scoring at his normal rate.  Which - spoiler alert - he is not:

Castillo in 2016

12 Matches, 11 Started
2 Goals – Opener Philadelphia, 4/13 At Portland
2 goals on 12 SOG – 17%
30 shots – 12 SOG – 40%
30 shots in 941 minutes – shot every 31.3 minutes

Castillo from 2014-2015

57 matches, 54 started
19 goals – 10 in 2014, 9 in 2015
19 Goals on 62 SOG – 31%
153 shots – 62 SOG – 41%

153 shots in 4841 minutes  - shot every 31.6 minutes

I think the above numbers demonstrate that most of what Castillo doing is the same as it ever was.  He is averaging about 3 shots per 90 minutes and about 40% of all of his shots are on frame.  The issue is quite clearly that his shots on goal are not being cashed in at the normal rate.  And if they were, the team might still be losing because of defensive issues, but everyone would feel better about the offensive attack.

And here are 3 examples where Castillo has what we would call "no-brainer" chances from this recent road trip that he did not cash in on.  I realize that these are not all shots on goal, but they are goals at just about any point of his career - which are not going in right now.

First at Vancouver, he is all alone and while a chip is chosen, he would likely just slide this inside the far post when he is locked in.  

Here, he elects to take the pass and cut back against the grain, bringing all the defenders back to him and into traffic.  Odd decision, but the ball slides right to Mauro who misses a no-brainer himself.

 Then, Diaz slides Castillo open perfectly and maybe the chip is the play here, but Fabian sends it right into the keeper.
 All three of these chances could very well have changed the match, but all three were wasted.  And on the road, you just don't get away with that very often.

Sometimes, we want to know why goals aren't being scored.  Lack of chances is far more bothersome.  When your best players are getting the same chances they always do (although not as many of them which is another more global issue that the team is dealing with), then I think we can reasonably say it is likely a matter of time before they start humming again.

Mauro looks like he is still feeding the goal scorer.  Now, they need to put these away and they will start getting their results.

Anyway, just a rare, little soccer blog for you.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Stars Morning After Game 7 - St Louis 6, Dallas 1 - Blues Advance

One of the great truths in sports that is not discussed nearly enough is that only one team's season ever ends in smiles.  Everyone else who makes the postseason - no matter how great things seemed to be going - will wake up one morning and feel extremely disappointed with the crushing end of their campaign. 
The Dallas Stars are having that morning.
Last night, a hopeful sellout crowd that believed they were about to see something memorable from their boys witnessed a bloodletting that they will not soon forget as the St Louis Blues skated in and quickly crushed the young Stars, advancing to the Western Conference Finals with a Game 7 win, 6-1.
The story of the game and now the offseason was the ridiculously bad goaltending that the Stars received from Kari Lehtonen in the first Game 7 of his career.  The irony was that the longtime netminder played the best game of his career in Game 6 on Monday to preserve the series only to come back and play potentially the worst game of his career last night.  This simply demonstrates his tenure in Dallas in a clear and frustrating nutshell.  His ceiling is very high in that his best nights are fantastic (albeit too rare), but his wild flashes in inconsistency demonstrate that his floor is so low that he just does not fit the part of being a highly compensated ($6 million a year), playoff goaltender. 
The Stars have what we call a substantial issue in goal.  Which, ironically, is where this season started.  The progress has been impressive and the growth has been wonderful.  This team has transformed from a lottery team to a Western Conference regular season champion in an incredibly short time, and this team has youth and talent everywhere.  But, like the 1997 team that was built for greatness but needed a few more pieces, this team still needs to find its final few parts.  Like Eddie Belfour then, this team clearly needs a goalie that can handle his business on a more consistent basis.
As they say in our great sport, "Goaltending is 60 percent of hockey, unless it is bad.  Then it is 100 percent."
Last night, it was 100 percent.  The Stars were planning a long night of drama in which a single inch might decide advancing from golfing.  A single save or check could decide this series - and this series could decide the entire Stanley Cup. 
This plan became quickly undone when they couldn't get a save.  Not one.  All night.
Five minutes into the affair after Vladimir Tarasenko dropped like a sack of potatoes after contact with Alex Goligoski, the Blues went on the power play.   On the ensuing man advantage, the Blues did what they have done so well, crash the net with numbers and might, with fight until the puck gets past Lehtonen into the goal.  Robby Fabbri continued his fine postseason with the goal to cause the arena to gasp as the Blues strike first, 1-0.
But, the Stars certainly did not allow that scenario to knock them out after a season where they responded so well.  And they were digging hard to get back to level in that first period.  Mattias Janmark found Val Nichushkin on the far post for what appeared to be a no-brain chance, but Val hit the post.  Jason Spezza with a big chance from the slot that Brian Elliott saved.  Antoine Roussel had a redirect of a point shot that just missed the corner of the net.  Jamie Benn circled with the puck and intentions to get the goal back.  Radek Faksa was sprung and in all alone.  Elliott made the save there, too.  The Blues were getting Game 7 goaltending, but it still seemed a matter of time before the pressure the Stars were putting on the net would erase that early marker.
And then, the whole house of cards collapsed.  With 2:21 left, an innocent shot from the corner ate Lehtonen up and Tarasenko had an unexpected goal that deflated the evening.  But, as if fate had smiled on Dallas on just the right evening, a goal review from the Stars video room found that Tarasenko's skate was offside on the zone entry and the goal was disallowed.  It is the type of rule that should probably be changed by the league this summmer - the player was not offsides, his skate was over the blue-line, but not touching it (there is no competitive advantage unless the player is actually in the zone prematurely.  If he is hovering over the blue-line he is not receiving an advantage at all) - but full credit to the Stars for catching the play, getting a reprieve, and preserving the Stars chance to advance.
Sadly, what everyone assumed about that Tarasenko goal - that Lehtonen might have left on one of his mental trips where the puck seems slippery and shrinks and the only solution is to get him out of the game - was verified only 43 seconds later as this time. Paul Stastny scored from a similarly ridiculous angle and the meltdown was unstoppable.  2-0.  It felt worse, but if they could just get to the room, they could try to salvage the game in the final 40 minutes. 
Is this where Lindy Ruff made a mistake?  Of course.  Even he admits it.  You normally don't pull your goaltender after two goals, but this was Game 7 and this was actually the third goal he had allowed.  More than anything, Ruff knows that he does not have a mentally strong goaltender when adversity strikes.  Lehtonen has some positive traits to be sure, but shaking off bad goals is not one of them.  We have seen it over and over.  He can't right a ship when it goes off path.  He needed to go get him there.  Ruff likely was hoping that this evening - so close to that wonderful Game 6 - was going to be different. 
It wasn't.
90 seconds later, it happened again.  This time off a harmless point shot in the final seconds of the period.  The Blues knew that Lehtonen wasn't stopping a beach ball, so they sent one more shot in through traffic from the blue-line and of course, it scored, too.  Patrick Bergland scored a goal that no doubt shocked him, too.  19:57 into Game 7, the game was gone.  3-0. 
The remainder of the evening included thousands of people staring off into the distance wondering how such a magical season ended with a humiliation of this magnitude.  There have been some amazingly memorable nights in 2015-16, but this one will color the perception of the entire campaign to many, and that is unfortunate.
This is a franchise that has made substantial progress in their transformation into a rising power and likely learned that getting to the contender level is still usually a step or two from getting to be a champion.  In fact, those final steps are often never actually made by so many who aspire to get to the top.  The Stars have now figured out much of the journey, but whether they can sustain and then improve upon their progress is going to depend on what they learned from this run and how they try to improve upon it further. 
Jim Nill is already spending the morning sorting through his final evaluations of this season and is certainly trying to put things in proper perspective.  He can't knee jerk and react to everything with emotion.  He has to attempt to estimate how different everything might have been had Tyler Seguin been available in the last two months.  This is certainly part of sports - losing a key player at a key time - but to argue that one of the top 10 players in hockey couldn't tip the scales in a 7-game series would be extremely foolish.  Seguin would have made a significant difference.  Enough to beat St Louis?  We will never know.
That said, the idea of winning 16 playoff games with the duo of Lehtonen and Antti Niemi always seemed farfetched to most of the hockey world.  And that isn't just on them, it is on the entire hockey philosophy the Stars have built with smallish puck handlers on the back who are not pushing anyone out of the crease.  Stephen Johns will help, but the fact remains that the entire top four on the blue-line remains at an average of about 180-185 pounds.  When St. Louis storms the net with David Backes and friends all around 220, the team still looks overrun.  This makes the goalie's job all the more difficult.  And that is important to remember when everyone acts like finding a perfect goaltender is the solution.  Defense is a shared job, and any goalie in the world would have to figure out how to win in the playoffs with a small blue-line.  At some point of every series, you have to protect the castle.  And the Stars are still not built to do that. 
The Stars are a fantastic story and quite possibly the franchise in D-FW closest to the city's next championship.  But, they have work to do and changes to make.  They ran into a matchup that did not suit them.  They seem like a team built to deal with Chicago and while that is a good plan, St. Louis presents completely different tactical challenges, and the team doesn't seem well rounded enough to beat all styles at the top of the league.
St. Louis outscored them 25-14.  That means the highest scoring offense in hockey averaged 2 goals per game over 2 weeks.  Ken Hitchcock played to his reputation.  He can take a great offense and bring it to its knees.  He did.  Full marks to that St. Louis organization that looks like it might be their time. 
St. Louis outscored them on the power play, 6-2.  St. Louis received goaltending that was superior by a wide margin - 93% to 87% save percentages.  You cannot lose across the board in all of these categories and have a chance.
And yet, until the final few minutes of the first period of Game 7 the Stars had every chance - even without one of their most important pieces. 
As you walk around with slumped shoulders today because a season and a dream spilled all over the floor last night, you should feel better knowing that this team looks like it is on its way and has a very bright future.  Things happen and things change in pro sports, but most who follow this sport know that the Stars are trending in the right direction.
But, the work remains.  It was a very impressive year that revived the hockey fan base from its dormant state of many years.  A division title and a playoff round were both accomplished, demonstrating great strides.  Many young players played their first season in the NHL and it appears they are all capable of staying around.  This current team will be broken up a bit and new pieces will be added.  There will most certainly be trades and buyouts and goodbyes as the Stars have free-agency decisions on several players (including many of those undersized defensemen).
Never has a more promising season ended in a more humiliating fashion.  Just one day back everything felt different and dreams of June hockey seemed reasonable.  Now, the team must go back to the bottom of the hill and start the climb all over again.  Their adversaries will certainly be looking to make that climb even more difficult next season.
That is all true.  But, this team should shake off the amazingly disappointing ending, realize the distance they have yet to travel, and prepare to get back to work in September.  They appear to have plenty to be excited about moving forward.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Cowboys Player Profile - Tyrone Crawford

Tyrone Crawford

Position: Defensive tackle
Size: 6-foot-4, 290 pounds
Age: 26, 11/22/89
College: Boise State
Drafted: Dallas 2012 -- Round 3, Pick 81
Experience: Four seasons
Salary History and Contract Status: Crawford is entering the 1st year of a 5-year extension that totaled 5 years/$45 million with a guarantee of $24.6m on September 12, 2015.  Then, on March 10, his contract was restructured to convert 5.5m of his 2016 base salary to a bonus spread over the length of the deal.  This lowered his 2016 cap hit from 8.7m to 4.3m.  The cap hits for the other four years of his deal are 2017: $10.3m, 2018: $9.1m, 2019: $10.1m, and 2020: $9.1m. 
2012 Draft Profile From 6'4, 275, 4.85 - One-Year starter. Canadian, Junior college transfer from Bakersfield Community College.  Flashes first step explosiveness.  Has the length and strength in his game.  Quick up-field and laterally.  Accelerates off a block to get to the ball carrier.  Doesn't stay blocked.  A good, but not fluid athlete. Needs to improve his hand-use as a pass rusher and when shedding blocks.  Plays with raw power and functional strength but needs technique work.  Can hold the point of attack.  Possesses the tools to be a left base defensive end in a four-man front or get work as a 5-technique in a three-man scheme. Has the strength to two-gap.  Will need pro physical development and position skill work.  Has an injury history. Fourth/fifth Round.
Pre-2015: Crawford was one of the very rare defensive linemen that the Cowboys drafted in 2012 to help with their 3-4 defense, only to change schemes one year into his career.  He played 296 snaps of largely forgettable football in his rookie season and then as the Cowboys switched coordinators and schemes in 2013, he fell to a torn Achilles early in camp and missed his entire sophomore year.  To his great credit, he returned in 2014 with a larger and stronger build, played 624 snaps (mostly all at the 3-technique as the under tackle in Rod Marinelli's front) and was bordering on dominant.  He finished 2nd in '14 in splash plays with 23.5 - averaging one disruptive play for every 26 snaps he was on the field.  His traditional statistics were pedestrian (3 sacks), but anyone watching the team saw that the 24-year old was breaking out while also entering the final year of his small rookie contract in 2015 (4 years/$2.7m). 
2015 Summary: The Cowboys pounced on making sure they locked up this bull in the middle of their defensive line to a market-value deal (5/$45m) right as the season was starting.  Subsequently, he opened the season with a very solid Week 1 against the Giants before getting hurt against the Eagles in Week 2 with a torn rotator cuff. Crawford continued to play each and every week totaling 706 snaps and grabbing a career-high 5 sacks and 44 tackles. His splash play total fell to 11.5 and just one splash every 61 snaps. His strength had dropped substantially and he was also getting the attention of game plans more often, causing the Cowboys a little bit of contract indigestion.  Despite the drop-off in disruption, he continued to labor through the pain and show up every week -- showing incredible toughness -- before going under the knife to repair his shoulder in early January. His recovery is progressing and the Cowboys expect no issues by July. Look at the sack below against the Jets and focus on how much pain Crawford appears to be in after the play.  
2016 Analysis:  Having Tyrone Crawford healthy is vital as he is one of the few who have demonstrated the ability to be difference makers on the defensive front. Because of the suspensions to Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, it appears the Cowboys are strongly considering opening the season with Crawford demonstrating his positional versatility by filling defensive end in the month those two pieces are missing. We can debate the merits of that thinking -- moving your most expensive investment on your front 7 to fill in for lesser pieces out of necessity -- but, adding Cedric Thornton to this line might actually allow this idea to work. The Cowboys do have enough players in the front with some level of positional flex (Crawford, Thornton, Jack Crawford) that they might be decent with that look.  Regardless, at this age and at this salary, Tyrone Crawford is a vital piece if they can get him back to his dominant 2014 form.  And at his current price tag, they are counting on that to happen in 2016.