Cowboys Offense 2010: Old Moose Wine in New Bottles

Daryl Johnston was the Cowboys' Original F-Back

The Cowboys make regular investments in the tight end position, both high in the draft and low.  Jason Witten was snagged at the top of the 3rd round in 2003 and got some serious consideration at the top of the 2nd round that year.  Martellus Bennett was a low 2nd round pick in 2008 and carried the highest of 2nd round grades on Dallas' draft board that year.  In between, the Cowboys picked Anthony Fasano with their 2006 2nd rounder.

The Cowboys also make a point of picking a tight end low each season to keep the position stocked.  Bob Slowikoski (6th round, 2002) Sean Ryan (5th, 2004) and John Phillips (6th, 2009) fit this category.  Dallas has picked a tight end in six of the last eight drafts.  By contrast, Dallas has picked just one fullback in that span, that being Deon Anderson in 2007. 

The emphasis on tight ends has led to a flurry of stories and speculation about the Cowboys "new" offense.  I've fallen prey to the argument myself.  Yet, a review of Dallas' running game shows that Jason Garrett runs basically the same attack which Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese put on the field in the '90s.  Garrett has to mix and match lead blockers for his halfbacks, but the schemes are still the same.

Heading into 2010, the two tight end discussion has again begun.  The team looks forward to better play from second-year man John Phillips, who got extensive time as the team's F-back as the 2009 campaign progressed.  The team uses the term F-back, where others call the position an H-back.  The player is a hybrid fullback/tight end, who can line up on the end of the line of scrimmage next to a tackle, on a wing outside an OT or a TE or in the backfield as a fullback.  Fans are also intrigued by priority UFA Scott Sicko, who has Phillips' measurables, and much more speed.

For the next couple of days, I want to look at the F-back position and will conclude on Monday by offering my pick for this year's F-back starter, a player who might surprise some of you.  Today, I want to step back roughly 15 years to show there is nothing new about the F-back position.  The Triplet Cowboys used the same schemes we see now, but had one guy doing the F-back work, instead of the four who share the job now.

F Stands for Fullback, Flexed Back and Flanker Back

Then, as now, the Dallas Cowboys run an I-based attack.  The team wants a power running game, and runs nearly all its plays with a tailback set seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, directly behind the quarterback.   Occasionally, when Dallas goes to a spread set, with three or four receivers, the tailback will be the lone player behind the QB. 

On most first and second down plays, and on most short yardage 3rd-down plays, the Cowboys will put a fullback in the backfield, either directly between the QB and the HB, in a straight-I set, or, more frequently, behind one of the guards to give the "off-set-I" look:

             SE                         LT    LG   C   RG   RT   TE

                                                         QB                                                FL

                                                  FB

                                                         TB

Here is perhaps the most common Dallas formation of the '90s, the 21 set, with two backs, one tight end and two receivers.  Here you see the offset-I, with the fullback set to the weak side, away from the tight end.  The Cowboys can also offset the fullback to the strong side, giving a more power-I look.

From '91 through '93, when Norv Turner was calling the plays, the fullback deployed behind a guard or center on almost every play when he was on the field.  The bread and butter plays of Dallas attack, the lead draw, the isolation runs, the off tackle runs, the "power" counter traps, all called for the fullback Daryl Johnson to attack linebackers deployed behind and between the defensive ends.

When Zampese replaced Turner in '94, he began to move Johnston around, and made him more the F-back Cowboys fans see today.  I've gone back to a key Cowboys game from their last title season to show that the Johnston most people see in their minds' eyes is not the Johnston Zampese was using.

Divisional Playoff vs. Philadelphia, January 7, 1996

(For clarity, I'm going to use Joe Gibbs' term H-back, when Johnston lines up on a wing, outside an OT or TE Jay Novacek.)

Series two, after a three and out:

  • Play one -- Johnston lines up as an H-back, on the wing outside LT Mark Tuinei and motions wide of Michael Irvin, making Johnston the flanker and Irvin the slot back when the ball is snapped.
  • Play two -- Johnston lines up as an H-back flanking TE Novacek who is on the left; then motions to be the wing outside RT Erik Williams at the snap.
  • Play three -- Johnston here begins the play as the flanker left, outside of Irvin, then motions into the left slot at the snap and runs a shallow cross.
  • Play four -- Johnston lines up as the traditional straight-I fullback and leads Smith on a draw.
  • Play five -- Johnston starts as a straight-I fullback and again motions to left flanker; Dallas runs a "naked" draw for Smith.
  • Play six -- Johnston lines up as the H-back on the left, with Novacek strong right.  The Moose runs a quick out into the left flat.

Notice, six different plays, with four different roles for Johnston.  He was a flanker, a flexed tight end in the slot, an H-back on the edge of the offensive line and, for one play, a true I-formation fullback.  This is precisely the way Garrett uses his F-backs today.  And note this was not a one series change-up role by Zampese.  Here's how Johnston lined up in the first half of that game:

Position  Number of Plays at Position
Fullback, in a Straight I or Offset I   8
H-back  7
Flexed Tight end, in the slot  2
Flexed Tight End, flanking the Split End  3

 

Daryl Johnston was the original F-back, what people call the second tight end in the current scheme. Only 40 percent of his snaps found him in the backfield.  25% of his snaps found him out among the receivers. 

Note his receiving production in relation to Novacek's in the last three years they played together, the overlap between the last Turner and first Zampese seasons:

  • Jay Novacek, '03 through '05 -- 51 catches per season;
  • Daryl Johnston '03 through '05 -- 42 catches per season.

About the ratio people would envision from a two-TE set if Martellus Bennett ever lived up to his draft position, no? 

The Moose was a battering ram, who could line up anywhere on the field, and produce in the passing game.  Nowadays, Jason Garrett is trying to take college tight ends who lined up everywhere and teach them to flex into the backfield and mash inside linebackers.  He hasn't found the guy who can do this play-after-play, at least not yet, so he keeps trying. What he hasn't changed is his playbook.  Turner and Zampese would feel comfortable calling many of these plays.  After all, they integrated them in the Cowboys attack.

Monday:  Who is the best candidate to become the current full-time F-back?

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