Welcome to the fifth installment of Forward Thinking. Since last off-season, I have been thinking about the next evolution of the game. Football originally started as a kind of Flying-V formation lined up against a simplistic defensive line, played by men of average and slightly larger than average size. Rugby scrum, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust type stuff. Then came the forward pass, and very basic plays began to isolate athletes on different levels. Bob Hayes and Tony Dorsett are our own gold-and-SB winning examples that even in the modern game, players come around that bring change.
Our current and historical coaching staffs have direct influence and deep bloodlines to the last two major evolutions in the game. I wondered where we would see the next evolution, and I believe there was evidence last year to support this change is happening. Unfortunately, it did not all come from the Cowboys; and that is to be expected, given the lack of an off-season and the sheer amount of on-field communication required for what I'm thinkin' Rob is thinkin'.
All throughout nature, we see a pattern of expansion, then reversion to a sustainable norm - sometimes controlled reversion, sometimes not. After looking at history and a fair amount of modern archaeology and geology, I am convinced that this is actually a pattern within a pattern; we see expansion and reversion, until finally evolution inevitably wins and a new norm is realized. At the base of all things, it is two builds on one to become three.
So, I see the Packer Sweep as a wave, literally and metaphorically, and the Flex D as a shore that is degenerated until the unsupported structure gives way to a skeleton that is less substantial than previous (a common base defense,). Every year we are slowly watching this wave crash upon itself and spray droplets that inevitably erode iconic landmarks that compose our football reality. Such as the differentiation between a SS and FS, or the 3-4 from the 4-3.
The NFL is all about parity, so the chance of seeing an anomalous occurance is greater than in the real world. We see teams that have a lower overall potential overcome teams that are superior, due to intangibles like focus, health, home field, and luck. Sometimes a traditional gameplan like the Colts' wins. Sometimes it is the sandlot Saints' plan that will win the day. Sometimes it is the fundamentally sound team, sometimes it is the athletically gifted team. More often than not, it is the athletically gifted team that has spent enough time on preparation to be fundamentally sound - as expected.
That is where I see the next step coming, and why I have liked our talent recently. We probably owe this to Jerry in all reality. Just because he did not have the tangible assets to make it work, does not mean he was not thinking this the whole time... Create fields of battle that allow your team talent to exercise more influence than individual match-ups craved by most teams. If you get a team of elite athletes who can think and are dedicated, well, the sky is the limit, right?
Pursuit of this ideal led to mishaps like the "Special Teams' Draft" which is, I feel, a misguided attempt to bring in diverse athletes who fill multiple rolls. The Hybrid/Convert conversations, right? I fear a special teams' draft this year because we are coming off of two successful drafts, and were perceived as being competitive last year. Think about it - Ingram, Irvin, Kuechly; all names we would love to have although they do not fill positions of relative need. Simply because they have diverse skill sets and are likely to be BPA at their number taken.
In regards to all of the legitimate questions of coaching and evaluation we pose as fans, I ask this:
What if we have the talent scouts and position coaches in place to enact a real change?
That was what separated Jimmy's tenure from our other coaches, right? We had remarkable RKG coaches/scouts/players who filled low/mid-profile roles and went on to become parts of coaching trees (a tough argument given that all current coaches are part of a tree, and people like Wade and Tuna were influential in roles not exemplified by their roles with The 'Boys,). It was an idea, a concept. If it was earlier in his evolutionary band, Archie would have done a post about inception. The invigorating thought that the best player deserves to play, the best mind to coach.
Again, punch me in the face, but I am an eyeball test guy. If you don't trust your instincts after learning from a diverse group of people, you will forever search for outside affirmation to what you know already.
Well, I know it sure as Coach Garrett's Princeton brain knows it. They have assembled a bunch of progressive-thinking professionals who can capture the imagination, and therefore the focus, of athletes who are worthy of wearing the star. ADD is commonly a byproduct of a mind that is not being challenged enough. Most youngsters peak for their senior season and the combine, then are stuck in purgatory except for short gasps during preseason and spot action.
These athletes have been forced to evolve in the face of incredible competition. The evaluation process is what lags, read: Money Ball. If anything, the keeping of old traditions has limited our ability to see young players in action.
As I said, however, we will most likely have a very young, intelligent, physically gifted team next year. So, how about this: Our staff and players buy into the team concept and extra time is spent in unofficial groups this off-season. Last season's POTAs were only remarkable because of the surrounding circumstances. I occasionally hear of QBs and receivers, or coaches and players making a point of staying in sync throughout the off-season.
What if we invest enough time to grasp a new mindset in our schemes? Schemes that are designed to utilize the evolution that has happened in the modern athlete... An offense that sets the entire team's strength at one point of the defense and essentially removes defenders from the play. A recognition-based defense that can cover so much ground they flow like water.
For this exercise I have our major acquisitions/retentions as Fiametta, Meyers (C from HOU,) Carr, Kirkpatrick/Kuechly/Ingram (they could all be used in positions I will place them in; player will be referred to as 1RP,) and Janoris Jenkins/Mark Barron (2RP,). Those FA moves would almost necessitate putting Spencer on an extended agreement to lower cap impact this year, and as I will show, Cowboys Nation need not lament.
The Water D
The shore being degenerated reveals a new shore every time a shelf collapses. Much the same, the Flex D was domesticated to fit traditional formation packages. When the next face is revealed, it will be of a defense that provides no face for QBs to read and audible against. I recently read a comment here on BTB that said Rob did not care where the players lined up, as long as they fulfilled their assignments.
That means the squad is already prepped to grasp the end-game. We can stack/stagger Ware/Lee/Carter(/Kuechly,) three deep, and if they spread at the snap, it is bound to present confusion in th O-line.
Even if we remove our strength directly from the line of scrimmage, we create so many issues with spacing that I would feel confident in our ability to shoot gaps and contain runs. Given the weight and strength differential, it is almost advantageous to remove some defenders from a situation where they have to bull rush a larger man. We see this already when OLBs and DEs line up wide.
Modern defenses have not fully taken advantage of the "five yard" rule. If you stop a receiver's progress within the first five yards, you can block him as though he were a lineman. That is not a realistic goal on every play with opposition such as the Johnsons, but a combo of Carter and Scandrick could hold up even large receivers long enough for a pass rush to work.
Our starting D is Spencer, 1RP, Ware, Ratliff, Lissemore, Lee, Carter, Carr (39,), Jenkins, 2RP and Sensi. First subs would be Scandrick, Butler and Brent/Hatcher/Spears.
I position players where their teammates' spacing, and natural boundaries like sidelines, are advantageous. I play corners in press - there is no point playing ten yards deep when the offense only needs eight yards, and we can hit them in the mouth for the first five. I take into account that there is only one ball on the field. Also, if an o-lineman is not presented with someone to block, they are effectively removed from the play; at least they are not occupying one of your defenders.
I took some time last night and made some pics of what I am envisioning. I apologize that the formatting isn't perfect, this was my first attempt. Also, on Part II I will leave the major notations out of the images, and notate on the blog. Please feel free to be critical.
To Work In Reality
Our team is going to have to dedicate an unusual amount of time working on communication. Coach Ryan is going to have to be concise on what his expectations are regarding assignments. Looking at our projected roster, we are a much younger team than most fans realize. Our primary rotation is going to be one of the youngest in the league; more so if we draft well and 1RP and 2RP start. Will it be a hindrance due to inexperience and a true inability to grasp the scheme, or a passion fanned by youth that leads to a spirit of discovery?
Our Defense is going to have to want it. Johnny on the spot with substitutions and recognition.
Anthony Spencer is going to earn his paycheck. He carries more responsibility in these formations than any other "Front 7" player. He is going to have to set edges, occupy two O-linemen, shed blocks and cover, plus shoot gaps. Along the same lines, our unheralded players could put up some gaudy numbers.