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Tampa Bay Preview, Emails - Blocked Punts and Marty B

If Cowboys simply take advantage of home field, they will be in pretty good shape this season.

For the second year in a row, the NFL has asked the Cowboys to open with two straight on the road before playing their home opener on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.


Obviously, they are smarting pretty badly about the egg that was laid in Seattle, but now see 8 of 14 home games and recognize the opportunities that lie ahead. If they can simply make their new stadium an actual home field advantage, they will be in pretty good shape this season. Unfortunately, with a 13-11 home record since they left Texas Stadium behind, it doesn't appear that the home environment has much effect on the Cowboys. The stadium seldom gets loud, and while I used to blame that on the architecture and the cavernous design of the stadium, I must concede that college games and the Super Bowl were very loud and therefore perhaps more of a reflection of the audible impact of the Cowboys' fans themselves.


Is that because these fans do not necessarily buy what the team has been selling over the last few years or is it because the ticket prices have brought a quieter more subdued type of fan to the game? I am not totally full of theories. And, should crowd noise really be factored in when looking at a win/loss record? Perhaps the team assembled has only been good enough to win 13 of 24 home games in the last 3 regular seasons, and blaming a subdued fan-base is misguided. Whatever the reason, it appears the opponents are not scared of a trip to Arlington.


Tampa destroyed Carolina in Week 1 before letting the Giants off the hook in New Jersey last weekend by collapsing late and surrendering a ton of points and yards in the fourth quarter.


They are a new team that is getting used to a new coaching staff under new coach Greg Schiano who has brought in a new style and a new attitude of accountability and hard work. It will be interesting to see if his style has more staying power of his predecessor Raheem Morris, as we heard all about how Morris was bringing his style of relating to the players and not being some screamer back when the Bucs were having a big 2010.  So goes the cycle of coaching styles.  Nothing works when you lose, everything makes sense when you lose.


But, perhaps the thing to make most note of is that the cheapskate Bucs have started to spend some money again.  In comes free agent prizes WR Vincent Jackson and LG Carl Nicks.  Anyone who follows my essays know my regard for Nicks.   I thought he should have been the No. 1 target for the Cowboys in free agency back in January.  The Cowboys went in a different direction, but Nicks almost never allows anyone to get past him and will serve Tampa quite well despite his guard opposite Davin Joseph being injured and lost for the year.


With Jackson and top picks Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, the Bucs now are building a reasonable set of targets for Josh Freeman.  Dallas Clark is the tight end and even Jordan Shipley has now been signed to add some slot assistance.  Freeman actually appears to have a little bit of help besides a thumping running game.


Doug Martin is now their top running back option, from Boise State, and LeGarrette Blount provide the backup play in the ground attack.


On defense, they have plenty of high-energy players that will fly to the ball, but no real overwhelming front players that require a game-plan to be centered around slowing them down.  Michael Bennett and Adrian Clayborn will run all day but should be neutralized with proper efforts from the tackles.  Inside, Gerald McCoy has not been the game-changer they had hoped when they took him so high, but there is no question he is the most dynamic of the front.


The back 7 of the defense features plenty of players who have dazzled in pre-draft workouts in the last few years.  Mason Foster and Lavonte David are two excellent linebacker prospects, and everyone knows about Aqib Talib, Ronde Barber, and the apple of the Cowboys' eye, Mark Barron from Alabama.


Barron has not looked totally comfortable at safety yet, but once he gets his bearings, he appears to be one of those play-making safeties that will nail down his spot for quite a while. The Cowboys war-room gave every indication that if Morris Claiborne was gone early in the 2012 draft, that they would try to mobilize up the board to get Barron.  Did the Cowboys need a big-time corner more than a big-time safety?  Like Tyron Smith vs JJ Watt the year before, I am not sure there is a wrong answer to that question.


One thing that jumps out at you is that there will be opportunities down the field.  Eli Manning and Hakeem Nicks enjoyed their day, but the word is starting to get out that Dez Bryant is not a big fan of press coverage.  If Talib jumps on Dez, it could be a fun match-up to watch all day.


I will take the Cowboys to break out and win, 27-17. It should be noted that I had the Cowboys winning last week, too, for what it's worth - Which doesn't appear to be much.


 EMAILS!!!!



Email from Debra:


Bob, 


I think you're confusing causation/correlation with regard to the +25 rushing attempts. The winning percentage is better because they're protecting a lead. They're running out the clock. Teams don't typically win games by allowing the RB pound his way X amount of times. 


By the way, Football Outsiders and other football writers sympathetic to advanced stats have written about this many times. I know you're familiar with Football Outsiders' work, so I was surprised that you came to this conclusion.   As to whether the Cowboys should have ran the ball more, I'm not sure. Murray had 12 carries for 44 yards (3.7 YPC). 


Seattle is well known for their stingy run defense. From watching the game live, as well as seeing a few all 22 clips from other sources, it seemed like Seattle played heavy toward the line of scrimmage with Earl Thomas back deep on many plays. That, I think, would encourage passing plays. Especially considering the talent Dallas has at WR/TE (and RB if you consider Murray a receiver in this context).        


Thanks, Debra for the email.  S he is referring to my "Decoding Garrett" story this week that discusses the Cowboys falling out of balance with regard to running the football which you can read here.  She is also referencing a rather famous essay that Football Outsiders about the myth of running the ball to win a game which can be read here.


I am a very big fan of the work of Football Outsiders and agree with their overall premise that running is not the key to winning, it is often a result of winning.  I know all of this and yet I write that the Cowboys balance is a very important element to their game-plan that Jason Garrett often ignores and it gets the Cowboys in trouble.


Let me explain the difference, in my opinion.  From the 68 games that I have tracked since I have begun my play by play Cowboys database, I have seen the Cowboys fall into the traps of scrapping their normal game plan - every play brings a new personnel grouping and a logical mix of formations and play ideas - for what amounts to a shotgun-heavy, exclusive-pass offense that is closer to Texas Tech circa 2008 than it is to a traditional NFL offense.


When the Cowboys do this, they get in big trouble and run into major inefficiency numbers. Shotgun, with 11 personnel, is something that many of the best offenses in football have done with ease for years.  The Colts, Patriots, Saints, Packers, and Chargers all employ large doses of Shotgun 11 and drive defenses crazy trying to slow them down.  But, not the Cowboys.  When the Cowboys go shotgun 11 - which is their 2-minute drill offense and their 3rd Down offense - they get into major protection problems, which lead to sacks, false starts, and holding penalties, which then lead to 3rd and 17. And nothing good happens on 3rd and 17.


My issue with balance may actually not be run/pass. It may be shotgun/under center.  It is harder to run those numbers, but that is the real issue.  Shotgun is the least physical style of football you can play, as your offensive lineman are always going backwards.  You never allow them to fire off the ball, so they will never get a physical edge in a game.  I think the Cowboys offense has always worked better with Romo under center and a run/pass balance threat for the linebackers and safeties to consider.


But, no, I am not someone who thinks that if Emmitt carries 20 times, the Cowboys automatically win.  If I did, you would give Emmitt the ball the first 20 plays and load up the bus.  That isn't real football.


Dave writes:


Should the Cowboys consider a special teams coaching change?  It seems that the big plays rarely happen and the catastrophes are becoming more common.  It didn't even appear that the Seahawks did anything special to block that punt.


And would it be illegal for the Cowboys to ever block a punt?


I am certainly glad you asked me that!


No, it doesn't appear the Seahawks were trying to block as they only rushed 6 guys.  With 8 blocking 6, it should not be this difficult.  But, Dan Conner and Bruce Carter both got beat to their outside shoulders and honestly, 2 different Seahawks could have blocked that punt.  Bruce Irvin got the credit on tv, but Malcolm Smith actually did the deed before Jerrod Johnson ran it in.


Here is the photographic evidence of who was on the scene.



One of these days, I would love to figure out why the Cowboys have the unbalanced formation on their punts, but I have never received a solid answer.  It is awful deflating to work all week on being prepared to play a game like this only to be sabotaged because 2 linebackers cannot occupy their man for enough time for Chris Jones to get the punt off.


I am sure you are wondering a few questions about this blocked punt, right?


 1) Do the Cowboys lose every game in which they get a punt blocked?


No, it just seems that way.  In the last 15 years, they have lost in Seattle (2012), at the Jets (2011), at Arizona (2008), at Philadelphia (2001), at New York Giants (2001), and at Kansas City (1998).  However, they have had punts blocked at Indianapolis (2010), home versus Washington (2002), and home versus San Francisco (2001) and won.


So, of the last 9 punts that the Cowboys have had blocked, they are 3-6.  And wow, Filip Filipovic, the punter in 2001, had 3 punts blocked in one season.  That is amazing, given that Mat McBriar had 3 punts blocked in his entire career.


 2) How come the Cowboys never seem to block a punt of their own?   Let's take a look at this historical record on this front, shall we?


Last 15 years, the Cowboys have blocked just 3 punts.  If you can name them without looking, you are the biggest Cowboys fan of all time.


*10/31/1999 - Lemanski Hall blocked a Hunter Smith punt in a loss at Indianapolis.


*12/8/2002 - Marcus Steele blocked a Bill Lafluer punt in Texas Stadium in a game best remembered for Terrell Owens going to the star and George Teague knocking him off of it.


And the last punt blocked by a Dallas Cowboy?


*11/23/2008 - Carlos Polk blocks Andy Lee's punt at Texas Stadium that rolls out of the endzone.


I had no recollection of any of these - despite watching all 3 games closely - and went to go find the Polk block in my video library.  Here is what I found for you.  Enjoy:


 



Finally, everyone sent me a variation of this email or tweet:


Bob, 


WHY DID THE COWBOYS NOT GET ANYTHING OUT OF MARTELLUS BENNETT AND NOW HE LOOKS LIKE THE BEST SIGNING IN THE NFL WHILE PLAYING FOR THE HATED GIANTS?????!!!!!??????


This is likely the first thing many of you expected when you found out that Martellus Bennett, the latest version of Bobby Carpenter (draft pick that not only did not reach expectations, but never came close to even demonstrating a worthiness of being in the NFL while in Dallas) signed with a rival.


Looking back, he was a pick they didn't need to make, as they already had a fine No. 2 Tight End in Anthony Fasano if they wanted to make "12" personnel a part of their attack.  Let's not forget, before New England did this idea right, the Cowboys tried to make it work.  It just never came close to working.


But, why?  Why did he look so promising at times?  Why did he look like a weapon in training camp but never a threat on game day?  Who do we blame?  Are the Cowboys this bad at developing talent?


It makes you wonder.  He already has 3 touchdowns in New York - the only Giant to ever get 3 in his first 3 games - which is just 1 short of his 4 he scored in Dallas in 4 seasons.


Why did it not work here?


Coaching?  Yes.  There is no doubt that they tried to turn him into a highly compensated blocking tight end when they got tired of his act.


Quarterbacking?  Yes.  He was dead to Romo by about late 2009.  He wasn't dependable and he didn't make tough catches so he was a last resort.


Bennett being immature?  Yes.  He wasn't always in great condition, he lost his confidence, and his immaturity was legendary for thinking he had arrived when he did arrive in the NFL.


You would think that to deal with a guy like Bennett, you would need a veteran to show him how to act.  And the Cowboys had Jason Witten.  You would think that the Cowboys would be able to pull off the New England model of "12" personnel with tight ends that cannot be covered by linebackers killing the seams.  Then, you switch to dime to cover them, and they kill you on the ground.  There is no way to deal with it.


And the Cowboys never got out of their own barn.


Sooner or later, the wasting of perfectly good picks like Felix Jones and Martellus Bennett must stop.  And that is the mandate of this current staff.  Instead, it seems like a perpetual cycle of frustration that the Cowboys continue to ride when they try to develop players.


Meanwhile, Martellus might have needed the humbling of Dallas to show him what amount of work is required to be a player on Sundays.  For the first time in his life, he cannot dominate just by showing up.  These players are just as gifted and now it comes down to work.


Regardless, it makes everyone ill to see a giant talent like Bennett hooking up with Eli Manning now on a regular basis.  He will surely have a career year (he only needs 99 yards to eclipse his high) and revive his future chance to get paid.


Maddening.