Cowboys offense evolves from idealistic to realistic

If you can read anything from the preseason (and we all know it is dangerous to think you can), then you attempt to carefully read the one time in the exhibition season where both teams admit they are running out the starters for an elongated amount of time. And when that “dress rehearsal” week is against a team that has been in the playoffs in 2011 and 2012 and is attempting to accomplish plenty as well, then you like to see the results go your way.

And on Saturday, against the Cincinnati Bengals side that is a strong candidate to represent the AFC again in the postseason, the Cowboys held up pretty well all night, and clearly got the better of the battle of the 1’s as Tony Romo and his crew produced and went to halftime with a 14-7 lead.  The #1 offense hit its stride in the 2nd Quarter and while it certainly is not without negatives, they looked very strong as Dez Bryant dominated the Bengals secondary with the ease that confirms the prediction of the entire offseason that has projected Bryant to have his way with just about anyone who dares to line up across from him.

Bryant, entering his 4th season as a pro, has looked the part since about October of 2012 as the unstoppable force that Jerry Jones thought was going to be worth the trouble when he went out of his way to secure him in the 2010 draft.  Amidst the nonsense and warning signs of headaches that waited ahead, was a player that looked to have as much talent as anyone.  However, those stories are everywhere in professional sports.  The rarity is to see someone become what optimistic projections hope for.  But here is Bryant, almost without warning, becoming a top player in all of the NFL and showing signs that if things go right, he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.

His physical handling of another 1st Round pick, Dre Kirkpatrick on Saturday Night demonstrated another chapter in that developing story.

And that story, puts the Cowboys offensive strategy in an interesting spot.  One in which the mantle of “go-to” guy for Tony Romo will not be Jason Witten anymore.  Witten will certainly catch his share and work near the chains over and over again with his sit-downs in the zones, but the offense should be designed with the idea that nobody will be able to handle Bryant 1-on-1.  If they try, they should be punished, and if they roll coverage over to assist (which will be the norm), then Witten, Miles Austin, and whoever the 4th receiver will be – a 3rd WR or a 2nd TE – will all have advantageous coverage opportunities.

This continues the discussion about personnel groupings and what we have seen in the first month of camp and preseason as it pertains to the initiative from draft day to utilize multiple tight ends as the base offense.  First, I would like to point out that the training camp media talk has nothing to do with the actual play-calling on the 16 Sundays that matter in the fall.  Just because beat writers work “12 personnel is the Cowboys offense” in their stories doesn’t mean it is true and it doesn’t mean that many of those same writers have any idea what that means.

How much does an offense utilize its base grouping?  If “12” is the base grouping, should we expect it 30% of the time or 80% of the time?  Does anyone know?

Well, here is what we know from what we wrote on the topic back in June.

 It simply sets a baseline for this idea that “12” is going to be the base offense in 2013.  At its high water mark to this point, with a rather large amount of conviction, the most they ever ran “12” personnel was 31% of snaps back in 2011. 

In the end, as long as Jason Garrett is this team’s offensive architect – and regardless of who is actually calling the plays, we are led to believe that it still will follow the blueprints that have been installed back in 2007 by Garrett, we should assume that they will always be rotating personnel groupings every snap.    Therefore, how much does the “base offense” play?  33%?  50%?  It is very difficult to conceive it being higher than that.  If it did, why would you spend a premium pick on a 3rd WR if he is not going to play? 

The Cowboys have not run an offense that has had a “base” personnel group since Troy Aikman ran the huddle.  There was a time, when the Cowboys were winning Super Bowls, that they had 2 basic personnel groups – “21” was the base, and then on 3rd Downs, they might roll out “11”.  But, the idea was that the team was so good and frankly the game had not evolved too much with specialization, that the team may not substitute from Emmitt Smith, Daryl Johnston, Jay Novacek, Michael Irvin, and Alvin Harper the entire drive.

But, with Garrett, aside from the 2-minute drill, there are times where he will go an entire game without running the same personnel grouping for 2 plays in a row.  Seriously.  I have seen it a number of times.

So, let’s get back to the question at hand:  Have the Cowboys demonstrated any proficiency in “12” in the preseason to make us believe that they are really going down this road as its default offense.  And the more important topic, which is never covered in the media it seems, is whether the Cowboys have made enough progress to actually try to run the traditional, balanced offense that Jason Garrett has said he desires – you know, the one that Norv Turner ran back in the glory days (where Aikman was never in shotgun, the pass set up an easy run, and the run set up an easy pass).  Can they run an offense from “under center”?  Because, if they are in shotgun, most defenses will not alter their personnel or strategy too much from “11” to “12”.

Let’s remember:  the whole point of changing personnel is to put the defense in a bind.  If you don’t make them rethink their strategy, then anything you do is simply spinning your wheels.  But, if you take Terrence Williams off and replace him with Gavin Escobar, you would like to think there is no defender in the league that can cover both well.  If he is quick enough to stick with Williams, then he is not strong enough to handle Escobar (or tall enough) and the other way around should also be true.  However, the real beauty of “12” personnel is making the defense understand that depending on how they defend, the offense will change their plays at the line to capitalize on your shortfall.

And this bind is only properly hit if you can run your offense from under-center.  Under center is where the linebackers and safeties must respect your running game (if you have one) and move up.  This creates more space in the secondary and makes a QB’s job easy.  This is why play-action passing is such a vital part of NFL offenses.  But, your Dallas Cowboys ranked 32nd in the NFL (dead last) in their use of play-action passing in 2012.  Why?  Because play-action doesn’t work if the running game is non-threatening.  The linebackers snicker and drop into the passing lanes because they know they won’t be needed to stop a run – the defensive line has it all by themselves.

So, let’s bring this all together.  Is Gavin Escobar proving he was worth all of the trouble?  Not yet.  We have yet to see him put on a show downfield that makes this all click into place.  If he had, we may not ask ourselves tough questions, but so far, he is slow to show his quality.  And unfortunately, he is not a great run blocker.  And that is where the shortfall might put the Cowboys right back in the same place they were trying to avoid.  They want to get their running game going.  But, the offensive line has not progressed much and the negative runs were still all around on Saturday. Geno Atkins was still destroying your guards and putting the Cowboys in spots where they were allowing negative plays to lead to punts.  And Escobar cannot help balance the offense out at this point as he is still be taught how to run block on the fly.  But, more importantly, they cannot get the same 2 guards around Travis Frederick for more than a few moments.

It was Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau.  Then, Ron Leary and Bernadeau.  Then, David Arkin and Bernadeau.  Then, Bernadeau and Doug Free.  And, of course, during this time, Brandon Moore and Brian Waters were being courted to replace all of the above.  Free, by the way, looked an awful lot like Arkin in his debut inside.  When he was uncovered, he could help and get to the 2nd level with strong efficiency.  But, when he was challenged at the snap, he was outmatched.  Honestly, how did anyone think that a guy who has strength issues against 260 lb defensive ends think that he would be an option against 300 lb defensive tackles?  I understand having a plan for emergencies, but Free makes almost no sense at guard for precisely the reasons that he struggles at tackle.  It isn’t the feet as much as it is the strength.  And guards have to play low and be strong.  Free is not very good at either.

The Cowboys know they have once again over-estimated their guard situation and now are trying to rally on the fly.  But, let’s be realistic.  This is not likely to fall perfectly into place.  Despite improving the center position, it still appears that running the ball is going to be difficult with the guard issues that appear to be multiple.

So, why did they want to go to 12 in the first place?  To balance the offense.  To run the ball.  And to create matchup issues down the field with players who are tough to cover.

But, if they can’t balance the offense and run the ball, what is the point?  And who creates better issues, the size of Escobar or the speed of Terrence Williams outside?

My conclusion after watching the 1st half on Saturday is that while things can still develop, it seems pretty clear that on August 26th, their best offense in 2013 is the same one that was their only offense in 2012.    That is putting Tony Romo in shotgun, line up 3 wide receivers and Witten and let Romo go to work.  In other words, not 12 personnel.

It is not ideal by any stretch as defenses will then make the nickel their base defense and challenge the Cowboys to run the ball, but at some point you have to make that choice that coaches discuss constantly and the media never discusses enough:  When a coach puts down his playbook and simply accepts what his offense is capable of and more importantly, not capable of, what plays and personnel groupings does he install to play the Giants in 13 days?

If the offense cannot physically compete in the interior of the offensive line, you have to make logical choices that give you the best chance to win.  Ideally, they want to do a number of things, but there is nothing ideal about demoralizing your team and stadium by running into your guards who are being pushed back into the running lanes because they are not strong enough to hold up.  So, you stop running – which defeats the entire scheme of “12 personnel”.  Not to say you won’t see it, but if you think that they are rolling this out 40-50% of their snaps, we will disagree strongly.

You have a major personnel advantage – but it is not in “12”.  Rather, “11” personnel, as we saw Saturday and in 2012, is still where you have a chance to put up yards, points, and wins.  It is not fundamentally ideal, but it is realistic.

In April-August, you can talk ideal views and hopeful projections.  But, as September approaches, the coaching staff is starting to see what most of us feared all along.  Unless Escobar blows people away as an un-coverable force, then spending a 2nd round pick on a 2nd tight end might seem like a superfluous use of resources when he isn’t even part of your best grouping.  And while it is early, Escobar having a chance might be tightly linked to your guards allowing you to run the ball.

It is time to get realistic – so expect this offense to use much more Terrence Williams than Escobar in September.  I know I am.