Thursday, January 04, 2018

Marinelli Report - Week 17 - Eagles

The Marinelli Report

When we put the finishing touches on analysis for the 2017 Cowboys season -- and try to sort out just how well the defense played -- I think we should consider a few of the following numbers:
-- The Cowboys were 9-0 when they held opponents under 21 points.
-- Therefore, they were 0-7 when the opponent scored 21 or more points.
-- They were eighth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed. In a league where games saw the average team gain 334 yards per game, the Cowboys allowed 318.
-- Dallas was eighth against the run (per game), 11th against the pass (per game) and 10th in yards allowed per play. Flirting with top-10 status in all of these departments is pretty solid.
-- The Cowboys also were second in negative plays! That is a huge development that we will explore a bit later. Sixth in conceding explosive plays, second in opposing field position (not really a defensive stat, but it does really matter), and second in the entire league at winning on first downs.
-- They were 13th in the NFL in points allowed. League average was 21.7 allowed per game, and the Cowboys conceded 20.8. Right about at the average. They also finished with 21 takeaways, which was slightly off the league average of 22.
-- Dallas was average in sacks per pass attempt (16th) and first downs allowed (16th). Rushing yards per play, it ranked 18th.
-- Finally, the Cowboys were at the bottom of the league in interception rate (27th); third-down defense (29th); successful plays allowed (30th); against third and short (32nd); and second-down rushes (32nd).
That all adds up to about what you would expect.
Decent defense. Promising developments at some spots. Still lacking a few premium playmakers, but there are some pieces in place that suggest there is some good stuff happening below the waterline.
The Cowboys missed starts of significance because of the following: David Irving missed eight games (four to suspension/four to injury), Orlando Scandrick missed five, Sean Lee missed five, Anthony Hitchens missed four and Chidobe Awuzie missed about 10 (if we consider him a starter, which I think we should). Add in one absence for Jeff Heath, and this cumulative total of 33 missed starts (out of a possible 176 for defensive starters) may not sound like anything extraordinary, but in a hard-capped league where depth is rare, 81 percent attendance is not considered excellent. For instance, the Minnesota Vikings have the best defense in the industry -- but also the healthiest. They had 98 percent attendance from their 11 starters this season, which certainly demonstrates some luck that their offense did not receive.
But for the Cowboys, it seems rather clear. When you don't have blue-chippers all over your defense, you need those you do have to stay on the field. A dependence on Lee was likely the difference between making and missing the playoffs this year, from a defensive standpoint. And, without question, losing a destroyer like Irving for all of September and all of December pretty much sunk their ship.


I really don't want to spend too much time on the defensive play from Sunday. The Eagles had no quarterback play at all and did not seem too concerned about anything other than getting the game over with. The Cowboys certainly padded their stats for the year and left feeling great with a shutout.
They ended the year with seven different performances in which the opposition did not even pierce the 300-yard mark, which is some very impressive work, to be fair.
Again, this shows you how no linebacker finished in the top seven in snaps. That is a real issue because the defensive line is not trying to get high snaps, but rather a deep rotation. We are used to defensive backs dominating snap counts, but not this much. And Irving played significantly fewer snaps than Taco Charlton and Benson Mayowa.


Just when you thought the Cowboys hardly blitzed, they took it down even further and further this season -- 17 percent is a new low, even for a team that already never blitzed. In a league where the average sits at about 30 percent, blitzing is just not something Rod Marinelli is interested in doing.


Not sure we have ever seen this, but the drop from DeMarcus Lawrence to the rest of the team was absurd in 2017. It didn't help that the next two players -- Irving and Lee -- each missed significant time. It also may demonstrate that the Cowboys have a lot of players on defense, but not a lot of playmakers. So when you are missing your two difference-makers, the defense becomes ordinary very, very quickly.
The story of the 2017 Cowboys defense is this: It had three playmakers and two missed significant time.
Therefore, you need to find more playmakers for this defense to have a chance to improve.
By the way, your only consistent playmaker who had consistent attendance in 2017 is now out of contract.


We have known this for weeks, but here are your annual splash play champions since 2011, when I started tracking this number. We wondered if we would see our first 40-splash season, but Lawrence fell just short, tying DeMarcus Ware's 2011 season. But, look, he did it in 209 fewer snaps! That is clearly our tiebreaker, so, in the history of the splash play index, we have a new top season ever.
I don't believe there is any chance Lawrence goes anywhere this offseason. He will either get a long extension or get franchised. We should not rule out either because the Cowboys certainly could talk themselves into a short-term solution, but I would just get that four-year, $60 million offer out there and get it over with.
Lawrence is very good and Irving is right there with him. It is up to them to put their suspensions behind them and give this team a full 16 games next year and beyond, because those two, along with some nice pieces -- Charlton for one -- should have the defensive line in a spot where it just needs a run-stopper in the middle to bring it all together.
The D-line was one of the league leaders in negative plays. Lots of sacks and tackles for loss all season long. Really great stuff up front, but it was surrounded by too many situations when the opponent was able to recover and move the chains by kicking the Cowboys' rear on third downs.
The wild card remains Randy Gregory, but I will not discuss that at this time because there is so much unknown.
At linebacker, you have Hitchens without a deal and Lee in a familiar spot for him: one of the best in the sport for 10 games a year. It is a weird proposition and his is an odd career to evaluate. But, wow, does he make a difference when he is on the field.
And then you have the wild card of the linebacking corps, Jaylon Smith. He improved as the season went on and played a lot of snaps. It is reasonable to think his 2018 will be that much better, but if ever there was a wild projection, it would be that.
Then, in the defensive backfield, you have optimism stirred by Awuzie's final month and Jourdan Lewis' season. I have always rated Awuzie higher, but both are quite capable. Byron Jones is still a piece, albeit with a lower ceiling than we hoped for, it appears. Scandrick's future is in question, as his body has been through plenty and he is getting up there in age. They can still use a playmaker back there if the draft smiles down on them. Perhaps getting an "ace" back there (your own Earl Thomas-type) could make the whole rotation make sense.
You have pieces on defense. You need more. It is a league of extraordinary talent beating ordinary talent every week. The Cowboys simply need a little more extraordinary to bring this side of the ball together.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Marinelli Report - Week 16 - Seattle

The Marinelli Report

If you are wondering, the answer is Nov. 11, 1966.
Fifty-one years ago and some change is how long it had been since the Dallas Cowboys managed to lose a game to an opponent that produced as little offense as the Seahawks did Sunday, when they took a vital game with high stakes after generating just 136 yards of total offense.
I was wrong in assuming it had never happened before in Cowboys history. Just not in my lifetime. But evidently, it happened twice in the 1960s. And the most recent time -- that day 51 years ago -- was a day in which the Eagles beat the Cowboys 24-23 and generated all of their points off three special teams plays. Two Timmy Brown kickoff returns and Aaron Martin's punt return accounted for all three of the Eagles' touchdowns and overcame the fact that the Eagles had 80 total yards of offense as they took down Don Meredith and the Cowboys.
The other occasion was even longer ago, in 1965, as Craig Morton took the loss in Milwaukee against those Green Bay Packers, who generated all of 63 total yards to beat the Cowboys 13-3 in one of the more forgettable meetings between the two rivals.
But if you are asking if it had ever happened in a Dallas Cowboys home game, the answer is no. Before Sunday, the Cowboys had never lost a game in which their defense had allowed so few as 136 yards. For that previous record, you had to go all the way back to 1961, when the St. Louis Cardinals took the win in the Cotton Bowl against your Cowboys with 193 yards of offense, two Bill Stacy interception returns for touchdowns and the aid of five Cowboys turnovers from Eddie LeBaron and friends.
That is how rare Sunday's result was.
The Cowboys defense allowed very little. Here is a look at what should be a victorious defensive drive chart:
As you can see, the Seahawks did put together two successful drives -- both started by Cowboys turnovers -- that were taken into the end zone. Add to that a third touchdown on the Dak Prescott pick-six, and you see how the Seahawks won something rather uncommon: a game in which their offense did not move the ball all day long. But in games where they are minus-3 in the turnover battle, the Cowboys lose almost every time (as would everyone else). The Cowboys are now 11-113 in games all-time when they take a minus-3 in the turnover battle. Can't do that and survive.
... Which leads us to the actual issues of Sunday for the defense. If you are going to choose between giving up yardage or taking the ball away, we certainly know the correlation stats. Takeaways are how a team wins football games. Yardage is generally just yardage. And while we properly place most of the blame on the offense for the way the season has deteriorated, we should take careful note of this defense not generating any takeaways for the fifth time this season. That doesn't lead the league -- Miami has actually had seven games with no takeaways -- but it has led to losses. As a league, regardless of any other factor (quality of the opponent, site of the game, etc.), teams win just 26 percent of the games in which they generate zero takeaways. The Cowboys, now 1-4 in those games (they beat Arizona), are at 20 percent.


It certainly takes the analysis out of an analysis piece to surmise that you reached just about every objective you would like in a game like this, but people, let's be reasonable here. No team is supposed to lose a game in which the defense allowed 2.5 yards per play. That is just insane. The Seahawks are a very poor offensive team -- no doubt about it -- but this is the NFL, and they have Russell Wilson. You limited them to one drive of substance, one play of 20 yards and sacked Wilson three times. And you still lost.
Defensive reasons for losing? Well, the red-zone defense allowed two touchdowns in two opportunities and you never got a takeaway. Otherwise, there isn't too much to complain about.


You would be hard-pressed to play Wilson much better than this. He is a dangerous playmaker who has speedy weapons that can cause issues, for sure. And the Cowboys limited him almost totally. Almost. He will take shots down the field, but there was almost nothing in this game.




Again, it was the Cowboys defense in a bit of a nutshell. It played well. It played fine. But it didn't generate a play to win the game and, by anyone's measure, was the second-best defense on the field Sunday. It plays hard, it gets things accomplished, it could be worse ... But in the end, it is a defensive unit that is middle-of-the-road. That worked well when the offense was top five. But middle-of-the-road offense and middle-of-the-road defense means a season around 8-8.
And here we are.
Let's check a few videos:
I think Taco Charlton can feel good about the finish to his rookie season. More and more as the year has gone along, he has started to show up a bit more and there are signs that he has a future. I know opinions are all in ink and I definitely had views on draft weekend about the Cowboys taking him, but since he has been here, I have no real issues with his attitude or tools to develop. I think in Year 3, he has a chance to be pretty nice. This shows his size and his power. He closes Wilson down on a four-man pressure that brings a linebacker and drops Maliek Collins into a spy role. Charlton now has three sacks, and we can be optimistic that he can make a run at 6-8 next season.
Here is the "Deacon" package on third down -- three rushers and one linebacker spy who delays his rush. On this, Benson Mayowa gets left tackle Duane Brown nicely. That requires some real strength to grasp on and bring him down in that frenzy, and he made it look easy. Mayowa has just this one sack after six last season, but I still really like his flashes that have drawn multiple holding penalties and caused other plays despite not getting the sacks.
Here is the fantastic sack by DeMarcus Lawrence on Sunday that demonstrates he was not an early-season fluke. He now has 14.5 sacks on the season (admittedly, September and October were his best work), which likely says he has received much more attention as the season has gone along and that it would have been nice to have had David Irving play more this season. Regardless, he is just a half-sack behind the league lead and I bet a sack title would cap off his fine pre-free agency season.
I don't know what your first reaction was when Lawrence ran down Wilson, but this was mine:
Now, that is an obvious reference to some and a confusing tweet to others. So, let's let everyone in on the fun. Here is the Bob Griese sack by Bob Lilly in Super Bowl VI (the very rare Bob-on-Bob sack):
They still haven't posted the All-22 from Super Bowl VI, but it does show you that even with all of this time passing, quarterbacks running backward to try to keep a play alive often goes very poorly.
Now, those two red-zone touchdowns were a big story, so let's view them.
This is Jimmy Graham. He is 6-foot-7, 265 pounds. Jourdan Lewis will try to cover him. He is 5-10, 188. How did you think this was going to go? On the goal line, they are trying pre-snap motion to see if they can get this matchup or if Byron Jones will follow him (which causes its own issues and may not fare considerably better). This is their Dez Bryant fade, but it is even more of a sure thing. If you have a big target on a tiny defender, this is a pretty easy decision for your quarterback to make.
Look at the Cowboys trying to sort through this after the motion. Wilson is thinking, "Are they serious? They are leaving their 5-10 corner out there against him?"
Second and goal from the 6-yard line. This is where you really needed to force a field goal if possible. You can see the Cowboys are going to double Graham here and the Seahawks are going to isolate a rub route to where they find individual coverage. Red-zone defense is really difficult if they have a Graham, because either you double him or you don't. And either decision is going to be wrong because the Seahawks have seen it all. This time, they use Doug Baldwin to the corner and Chidobe Awuzie gets caught sitting on the slant (it appears). Touchdown.
Next week, we finish up 2017. For now, let's put this Seattle game to bed and turn the page.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Morning After: Seahawks 21, Cowboys 12 (8-7)

The Morning After - Nothing Changes Because Nothing Changes
During the good times, you never appreciate how difficult it is for your heroes to make you happy. You don't know how taking down their rivals was next to impossible, because they made it look pretty simple. You had Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin and the other team didn't. Simple. You win. You had Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, and Drew Pearson. Easy. You win again.
They made football look easy, even when it wasn't. If they didn't win the whole thing each year, they sure came close, it seemed. You didn't have to slay the dragon all of those years. You were the dragon. The NFL was your kingdom and Dallas Cowboys Football would live forever.
Over two decades later, we still have the tall tales of their conquests. We still have the momentos and the memories of those banners and trophies that make the franchise what it is today - one of the biggest brands on the planet. The mere value of the organization is such that there is nothing for sale that the franchise cannot afford 10 times over. This is verified by frequent projects that are erected all over North Texas that show the rest of the NFL that a sporting franchise doesn't have to stop at mere football. It can showcase art, architecture, and grandiose wealth in such a way that would make small countries jealous of resources and surplus.
But, as your grandmother would tell you, there are some things that money cannot buy. Evidently, conquering the NFL again is one of them. Given that this organization will continue to wander the wilderness for at least a 22nd season without so much as a trip to a NFC Championship game - let alone another Super Bowl - we can surmise that buying another "Sky Mirror" will have to suffice, rather than a new chapter of NFL dominance. When locals who already have their own children have never actually seen you crack the NFL's version of the "Final Four", then we realize the truth - that the current state of affairs continue to reveal that while the trophies will always sparkle, the need to expand the trophy case may once again be put on hold.
And so it goes for the Dallas Cowboys. Just when you think they cracked the code to find their way back, they come back to earth in a thud that makes you want to think about something else.
Lucky for you, it is Christmas. You literally have the greatest distraction day of the year available to you. Unless you were hoping to unwrap a nice playoff berth this morning.
That is not going to be possible. Once again, with everything to play for, this team proved they cannot win a home game when needed. Sure, they did take down three home wins this season. In September, they defeated the New York Giants. In November, the Kansas City Chiefs were taken down. And again, on the final day of that same month, they beat the Washington Redskins.
Unfortunately, they also lost to the Rams, Packers, Eagles, Chargers, and now Seahawks on home turf, which meant they went 3-5 at home. Playoff teams almost never go 3-5 at home and the Cowboys insured that stat will be safe because they are not going to the playoffs. If you want to feel extra depressed, you should know that yesterday was the 75th time the Cowboys have played a home game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, and during that spell they are a mere 39-36 overall (including playoff games). Take away that 7-2 in the opening season of the stadium in 2009 (the final full season of Wade Phillips), and since the first year of the Jason Garrett era the Cowboys hold a home record of 32-34. That would seem to be awfully problematic.
If you are wondering just how problematic, here you go. Since 2010, the Cowboys rank 24th in the NFL in home win percentage. They are better than just the Raiders, Bears, Rams, Redskins, Titans, Jaguars, Buccaneers, and Browns. But, when 5 franchises - the Patriots, Seahawks, Packers, Ravens, and Steelers are winning 70% or more of their home games, and you are winning 48% of yours, you see where the biggest issue sits.
They have constructed the greatest stadium that money could buy and allow the opponents to win more often inside it than they do. If any truth best describes the modern era of Dallas Cowboys football, this might be it.
So, there they were. Yet again, in a spot where maybe they could pull their disappointing season from the fire. The Cowboys held a halftime lead, but as soon as the 3rd Quarter began, the Cowboys 2nd offensive snap turned into a Seattle go-ahead Touchdown with an ill-advised throw from Dak Prescott to Ezekiel Elliott was tossed well over his head and into the path of an oncoming defensive back. 30 yards later, Justin Coleman is jumping into the Salvation Army pot and the Seahawks are ahead for good.
The offense was not done giving the ball away, however. After the first turnover where Dez Bryant allowed the ball to be punched away and after the second turnover where Dak airmailed a pretty simple pass to Coleman, they killed the buzz of the stadium late in the third quarter with a third turnover. This time, on 2nd and 12 from the Seahawks 25 - in a spot where the Cowboys were poised to take a lead, Prescott's short pass to Bryant on a crosser made the receiver reach back to catch it, but both hands were on the ball. We can debate whether the throw or the catch was more to blame, or we can offer the common-sense approach to the tandem this year: They both share the blame like they do the entirety of 2017. Anyone who wishes to isolate one's role from the other is grasping at straws and missing the very essence of the sport.
Dak Prescott has been very poor at times this season when so much was put on his shoulders. He did not quiet the critics who feared he was a product of the game situation for this team. If they keep him ahead of the score and ahead of the chains, he would be fine. But, put him in a spot where he had to do what QBs frequently must do - make lemonade out of lemons - they would reveal him to be rather limited at the highest level. He has taken a major step back this year and has to get guys like me who were very impressed with his football IQ a few weeks back to reevaluate our thoughts moving forward.
Dez Bryant has been poor for large swaths of the last three years. We have discussed why this is and the many logical reasons and excuses why he no longer measures close to the other elite receivers in the game. But, after a 3-year span of 3,935 yards and 41 touchdowns, he signed one of the richest contracts his position has ever seen. Since then, he is about to complete another 3-year span, which with 1 game to go, has 2,012 yards and 17 touchdowns. That no longer leads the industry - not even close. In fact, it is 15 yards more in that span than Terrance Williams and 58 yards less than Sammy Watkins. It ranks 42nd in the NFL which sounds about right, unfortunately. And nobody disputes his special play in the red zone leading to touchdowns galore, but he isn't even the top 20 in that stat over those three years and once again trails guys like Sammy Watkins, Kyle Rudolph, and Kenny Stills in touchdowns over that span (let alone DeAndre Hopkins who might tell you how important QBs are to his stats).
So, was that pass Dak's fault or Dez's fault? It doesn't matter. The organization counts on both of them and they both failed this season - despite their intentions.
To be fair, they aren't alone. Ezekiel Elliott is the golden boy who nobody who resides locally seems interested in holding accountable for his role in this season. He has been portrayed as a complete victim, despite his repeated behavior WHILE BEING INVESTIGATED. I'm sorry, but I won't be able to get past that fact for a long time that while the NFL is looking into your actions for discipline, you give them more actions to consider. It all seems incredibly dense, to be honest.
If that wasn't enough, when he returned to the field - with 200-yard projections dancing in his head - he forgot the part of his job that made some want to draft him so high. He is excellent at pass protection, we were told. He will always get that blitzing defender blocked. Well, unfortunately, with the season hanging from a thread, he busted on several blitzes yesterday. Apparently, the mental reps were not available in Cabo and he came back looking completely ill-equipped to know what the Seahawks had planned to rock Dak Prescott on 3rd downs. If Prescott looked a little rattled, it might have something to do with his RB not knowing who to block on no fewer than 3 different blitzes.
So, the moment that will forever be paired with this disappointing loss will go back to the 1st and goal at the 3-yard line in the 3th Quarter. Because of the three giveaways - all three put into the endzone as Seahawks touchdowns, by the way - the Seahawks were up 21-12. But, there was still time. Just get this 1st and goal into the end zone and perhaps everything will be fine. Surely, between the aforementioned touchdown makers - Dez Bryant and Ezekiel Elliott - the Cowboys would get this lead down to 21-19 with plenty of time to save the day.
Instead, neither would touch the ball. Dak kept the ball on the RPO keeper for a yard. Then, on 2nd down, they decide to pass the ball on the rollout, but Jason Witten is called for a massive holding penalty because pass protection has been an issue all day long. Now, it is 2nd down from the 12. You are now out of running territory. On 2nd and 12, Byron Bell gets rolled like Chaz Green by Frank Clark and Dak goes down again. 3rd and goal from the 23 means no chance, and the day was made awful by a Dan Bailey missed FG from short range.
Perhaps, Dan Bailey's year is actually the perfect metaphor for the season. I am losing track now.
But, with the season on the line, neither Ezekiel Elliott nor Dez Bryant factor in. How this happens is anyone's sad guess.  The Cowboys turned the ball over three times and come up short in a game that means everything.
Unfortunately, we have seen butchered offensive execution and self-inflicted wounds so often in the Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan era that we sometimes minimize their roles. But, as Troy Aikman said yesterday, if Dak Prescott is making decisions that you don't agree with as coach, then it is up to you to take those decisions back from him. This isn't that complicated unless you make it so.
And, repeatedly, under Jason Garrett, the Cowboys make the simple appear complex. You could do worse than him as your head coach, but I am under the belief that it seems time to consider doing better.
But, as always, the case when discussing Cowboys football, every time you try to follow the trail to the true culprit, the trail continues to a bigger culprit. Is it your QB? Or is it his boss? Is it your OC? Or is it his boss? Is it your head coach? Or is it his boss? Oh, yes. Here we are again looking at Jerry Jones again.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. We will not blame Tony Romo for this one or Wade Phillips or Dave Campo or Quincy Carter. Only one thing ties 22 years of Cowboys disappointment together and the stubbornness to try a different route.
Instead, we line up each July for another trip of speeding directly into the same concrete wall by January that this organization has so steadfastly defended all these years.
In fact, we just inducted that concrete wall into the Hall of Fame to verify that all the methods were correct.
It is so maddening and yet so familiar. Nothing changes, and therefore, nothing changes.
Go do something else today. It is Christmas.
And this Dallas Cowboys mess will be right where we left it tomorrow morning.
It always is.