For all the ego and swagger that powered Jimmy Johnson's Super Bowl Cowboys, the coach and his staff implemented a foundation philosophy that often runs contrary to the rigid mindset employed by so many coaches:
"Put players in position to succeed.''
This year's Cowboys staff seems to be relying on the same flexible approach ... and I've got four Cowboys players for whom this is paying subtle dividends.
First, a quick explanation of what used to be. Norv Turner's offense was installed very specifically with Troy Aikman's strengths in mind. Jay Novacek was a tight end who couldn't much block, so they didn't ask him to. Daryl Johnston had been a ballcarrier his entire life but he wasn't going to have a career trying to do that in the NFL. Jimmy historically liked to rotate D-linemen but once he acquired Charles Haley, Haley didn't often rotate out. Ray Horton used to call secondary signals from the free-safety spot; with the maturation of Darren Woodson, Dallas let the strong safety call signals.
Time and time again, with stars on down, those Cowboys coaches fit the system around the players instead of stuffing the players into the system. They put players in position to succeed.
1. David Buehler: Question: Hey, you drafted a placekicker in the fifth round! Why not let him placekick?
Answer: Because he's not ready to succeed in that role at Nick Folk's level. (Not yet, anyway.) Instead, let's unleash him into an area in which he cannot fail: Booming kickoffs.
Rafael's got some great details here, so let me round it off: Last year's Cowboys never had a touchback on a kickoff. This year's Cowboys do it twice a game. That's twice a game that the likes of Darren Sproles and Percy Harvin and Joshua Cribbs aren't even allowed an at-bat.
On top of that, the Cowboys have eased the athleticism of Buehler (on the track and in the weight room, his measurables are linebacker-like) onto their special teams, where he is a "regular'' (non-kicking) member. It's a great way to milk his roster spot, and you watch. ... there will be a time this year when he doesn't get a touchback, the other team does get a return, and the TD-saving tackle is made by "just a kicker'' who isn't just a kicker.
2. Bobby Carpenter: He's a whipping post for many of us who want more of the former first-rounder, who think he's a failed "Parcells Guy'' or who don't like his haircut. But in terms of results (as long as we lower expectations down from "Urlacher-like''), Carpenter has been a pretty functional piece of some of the Cowboys' special defensive packages.
It would've been a mistake to force him into this year's starting lineup - if only because that would've probably meant Dallas wouldn't have signed Keith Brooking. But Carpenter is on the team and he needed a role and with his ranking of eighth on the team in tackles, he's been sound enough that I don't really miss what Kevin Burnett once did in the same job.
3. Victor Butler: It wouldn't be fair to limit the rookie fourth-rounder by saying that because he's had three sacks in just 38 defensive snaps, that he's a "specialist.'' For one thing, the most "special'' thing about the sacks is that all three of them have come in fourth quarters. For another thing, his track record as Oregon State says that he doesn't just tackle quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage. ... he's an equal-opportunity tackler of opponents. (In his junior and senior seasons, he was among the NCAA leaders in that category). But it is interesting to note that when Butler was a junior, he got all his 10.5 sacks while coming off the bench in all but one of his team's games before as a senior recording 12 more sacks as a full-time starter.
The point is, the kid has a knack for this. Maybe the knack is best utilized right now late in games, when he's fresh and fat-boy blockers are dragging. Maybe there is an adjustment that is being made from being a college end to being a Phillips' 3-4 OLB. But given the way he put up numbers as a backup junior before putting up more numbers as a starting senior, I bet Butler is on a fast track to being a player who will be "put in situations to succeed'' in almost any situation.
4. Kevin Ogletree: It's pretty clear that the Cowboys have created packages that feature the street-free-agent from Virginia; that college-style screen pass isn't a play they're going to run for, say, Roy Williams. But the Cowboys took the kid out of bubble-wrap to play him against the Eagles (the blitz-crazy team against which a screen can really work) and they asked the kid to do one thing he can really do with ease (run a play I bet he's been a part of since high school).
It's not a challenging route, it's not a tough catch, it doesn't require "reads'' ... it's just Ogletree being allowed to rely on his instincts. Those instincts, by the way, are more than just about speed; like Miles Austin, he appears to have some lower-body strength that might just allow him to run through some tackles, too.
One more thing: After what he did with his two catches against the Eagles, it will cause ensuing opponents to have to spend valuable practice time working to combat yet another weapon that a week ago was non-existent in their minds.
Most impressively, it's all the Cowboys coaching staff digging deep, way down there on the depth chart, and putting those guys in a position to succeed.