Cowboys Mailbag: There is hope for a winning season

As the season nears, Bob Sturm answers your questions about the Dallas Cowboys.

Every Friday/Saturday of Cowboys' season will be a mailbag of sorts that will allow us to address anything that is on your mind and anything that is on mine that didn't make the cut for the daily blogs portion of our week.  Email me anytime you wish at sturm1310@me.com or find me on Twitter at @sportssturm and I will try to get you in the mix.

 Let's begin with our Training Camp Week #1 edition:

Convince me why should any dedicated Cowboy fan have hope for a winning season this year. - @tommyracer27

Sure.  That actually isn't that difficult for me.  And I will do so by presenting a number to you.


That number is 5.7.



What does the number 5.7 represent?  Well, that is the average number since the playoffs expanded in 1991 of the number of new teams that qualify for the playoffs every year.  If only 12 teams make the playoffs each year and 5.7 (or pretty much half) are going to be teams that were NOT there last year, as history tells us, then who is going out of these 12 teams?


NFC: San Francisco, Atlanta, Green Bay, Seattle, Washington, Minnesota

AFC: Baltimore, New England, Denver, Houston, Cincinnati, Indianapolis


By the way, although we do believe this to be a truth that will stand the test of time, obviously if 5.7 is the average, there are years where we go to the high end and the low end of this.  In 2003, we actually had 8 new teams enter the playoffs in a year that seemed completely upside down and random.  Then, in 1995 and last year, only 4 new teams made the tournament - just 1 new team in the AFC - making some believe that this thing is determined before the season even begins.


Here is the chart for your examination of the year-by-year progression:



Year # New New Teams making Playoffs
1992 6 Min, SF, Phi, Mia, Pit, KC
1993 5 Det, GB, NYG, Oak, Den
1994 5 Chi, Mia, Clev, NE, SD
1995 4 Phi, Atl, Ind, Buf
1996 5 Min, Car, Jac, Den, NE
1997 5 NYG, Det, TB, KC, Mia
1998 5 Arz, Dal, Atl, NYJ, Buf
1999 7 Det, TB, StL, Was, Sea, Ten, Ind
2000 6 Phi, NYG, NO, Den, Bal, Oak
2001 6 SF, GB, Chi, Pit, NE, NYJ
2002 5 NYG, Atl, Ten, Cle, Ind
2003 8 Stl, Car, Dal, Sea, NE, KC, Bal, Den
2004 5 Min, Atl, SD, Pit, NYJ
2005 7 Was, Car, TB, NYG, Chi, Cin, Jac
2006 7 Phi. Dal, NO, SD, Bal, NYJ, KC
2007 6 Was, TB, GB, Pit, Ten, Jac
2008 7 Phi, Atl, Car, Min, Arz, Mia, Bal
2009 6 Dal, GB, NO, Cin, NE, NYJ
2010 5 Sea, Atl, Chi, Pitt, KC
2011 6 NYG, SF, Det, Cin, Hou, Den
2012 4 Was, Sea, Min, Indy

So, who are the new teams?  In the NFC, you can see how Chicago will make a case, New Orleans will be fighting to get back in, but then the familiar foes who meet on opening night - the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys seem the closest to getting in.  

You can see that I somewhat sidestepped your question from reasons the Cowboys, specifically, should fancy their chances at the postseason.  You know I have major concerns with their depth and their ability to handle this much strategic upheaval in year #1 of Bill Callahan calling plays and Monte Kiffin's return to a rapidly changing NFL.  But, the NFC is not in a spot where a Top 6 finish should seem unattainable.  

Is that your greatest case for getting in the playoffs?  The fact that every year the NFC seems to put 3 new teams in the tournament?  

Why not.  It is July, after-all.  

Question#1: What will rookie WR Terrance William's impact be this year?
Question#2: Give us your analysis of our depth on the O-line? 
Question#3: If you didn't have a press pass, how much would you pay to see a Cowboys pre-season game? 
Thanks, P1CoppellJeff
Now, this guy knows how to submit for a mailbag!  Ok, here we go, Jeff.


1) - I think his impact can be substantial.  Now, please understand that I am not a fantasy football player nor do I really care about one's fantasy football impact - it just isn't my thing.  So, if you are asking if he is a fantasy sleeper, I don't really know.  But, if you are asking if he is going to get every opportunity to get on the field and to use his very "ready for prime time" skill set, then I think so.  Clearly, with the introduction of more "12 personnel", that does not allow for 3 WRs on the field at the same time.  But, there are a few variables in play here, not the least of which is our cynicism on whether Jason Garrett and Tony Romo are going to turn their back on "11 personnel" which is something they did almost the entire season last year.  We may find that given the issues in the offensive line, that 11 is still their most dangerous personnel group and that, of course, requires 3 wide outs.  Honestly, with how well they ran it last year without a legitimate option as a #3 WR, it makes you wonder what a season of Miles Austin in the slot could be like.  But, tactically, base offense out of "12" should be more efficient.  And that also has Terrance Williams impact as he is a guy who will be the understudy for Austin and Bryant, 2 guys who are not exactly injury-free over the course of their runs here in Dallas.  I think he can be terrific and a real impact guy from Week 1 of his rookie year.


2) - depth on the offensive line is impossible to rate and debate until the bodies arrive, so I am not attempting to fully sidestep this question, but without Nate Livings, MacKenzy Bernadeau, and Ron Leary in the mix at guard, you are likely without guards #1, #2, and #3 on the chart.  Suffice to say, they should be better, but I assume it will not be substantially better because when most of us thought they needed 2-3 new starters, the Cowboys decided on only 1.  Keep in mind, the Cowboys credibility on this issue is low because they have always thought the OL would "fix itself" or "be alright" the last few years and were proven absurdly optimistic and foolish.


3) - Personally, I would not pay much at all for a Cowboys preseason ticket.  But, I have a son who is the age where he is really into football, but perhaps not ready to sit and watch a 3 hour game.  If you have young children who are just getting into Cowboys fandom, you might want to take them to a preseason game.  I found tickets on Stubhub for almost nothing.  I am serious.  Less than $10 for the 3rd preseason game in 2011, and took my 6 year old boy.  He got to see the stadium, NFL Football (sort of), and when he had enough in the 3rd Quarter, we left and I wasn't disappointed to miss the 4th Quarter of a preseason game.  It was a nearly perfect experience.  Had I paid $200 for his ticket and it was a critical regular season game, I would not have been receptive to him wanting to leave in the 3rd Quarter.  So, if you have little kiddos, preseason is a great run through until you are convinced they are ready for the big games.


A couple of camp reports have said that the Cowboys are moving to more zone blocking on offense.  At face value, it seems like a good idea to simplify blocking assignments and create directional holes for running backs, but this begs two questions for me. 
1) what are the advantages and disadvantages of zone blocking as opposed to man to man. 
2) why didn't they do this last year when the line was struggling with run blocking? was the line actually struggling with run blocking last year? 
-P1 Willis
Well, Willis, this is where sometimes the reporting of the team actually does more harm than good on helping the fan base better understand what they are looking at.  That might be, on the surface, partly because the media is never asked to show any knowledge of schemes or understanding of offenses and defenses when they get their jobs.  Who would test them?


So, you have stories and information passed along that misleads the public.  Not intentionally, but if anyone is unclear on whether the zone blocking scheme is new this year, then it seems highly likely they are not sure what they are looking at.  The Cowboys ran a huge amount of zone blocking last year.  In fact, without keeping the totals completely, I imagine the number of runs they had which were out of zone schemes and principles outnumbered the runs that were out of man schemes for most of the year.


That being said, allow me to answer the questions the best I can.


1) advantages and disadvantages of zone blocking?  Well, it depends on your line working in concert and as opposed to having a clear assignment on who it is you are supposed to be digging out, it stresses an area that you are to cover - very much like zone defense in basketball.  If it is a zone stretch to the left, for instance, the entire line takes one set step and then advances to the left in unison.  They are looking to do one of two things.  Force the man in that spot also to the left with them, which could open up that cut back lane that everyone discusses in zone principles for a RB (plant your foot the second you see a window and go!) or seal the player and thus set an edge to the outside.


The advantages are that this allows smaller, but quicker linemen to be used.  And even though you would never prefer smaller lineman in a vacuum, that clearly is the bin that has a greater supply.  There are very few Joe Thomas/Tyron Smith types.  But, Phil Costa and David Arkin?  There are many, many of those smaller types.  In fact, the more we go, the more tight ends are being beefed up to line.  This is a result of looking for quick feet from OL prospects for zone blocking where your OL is going to be on the move quite a bit.


Disadvantages?  This is a touchy topic because there are very few disadvantages if you run it well.  The Denver Broncos and Alex Gibbs ran it to perfection and changed the way we thought of traditional running schemes (pulling guards and smash-mouth football) and when you run something like he did, it is tough to look at disadvantages.  It is said that these teams aren't overly physical and can be bullied, but again, those Broncos won almost every game for 2 straight seasons, so what does that really mean?


2) as I said, they ran it more than man-blocking I believe.  And yes, they struggled with it quite a bit.   Here is a blog I did after the Bears game on all of their negative running plays and another from the Tampa Bay game and you can see that several of them are zone running plays.  Basically, as a fan, if you see all of the linemen going in the same direction, that probably is "zone".  If you see players vary their blocking direction at the snap, then it is likely a traditional "man" blocking scheme.  It is way more complex than that, but it seems like that is a good place for the average fan to start.


Now, if you want to know more about the entire scheme, here is 3 hours of Alex Gibbs breaking down the scheme in great detail.  It is awesome, but you better really, really care:




That stuff is all over the internet for those who wish to better understand schemes and principles of football.  I am certainly not recommending it for everyone, but if your profession is to follow the NFL for a living and tell your readers/listeners what is happening, you might want to get familiar with things like this, lest you give out error filled information.