For almost a decade now, the Cowboys have enjoyed consistency and continuity at the tight end position. This is exclusively due to the sustained excellence of one Christopher Jason Witten (yes, he goes by his middle name), who has been an elite player since his second season donning the star. Because of Witten's dominance, we don't always give due consideration to the other tight ends on the roster - and, looking at the list of his backups, its no small wonder: nobody from among the list of Dan Campbell, Brett Pierce, Sean Ryan, Tony Fasano, Tony Curtis, Martellus Bennett, Martin Rucker was ever a threat to take the Senator's job away from him.
At the same time, Jason Garrett uses a lot of two-tight end formations, so many that we might consider Dallas' second tight end in the same way we do the third corner. In 2011, the Cowboys' ran 582 plays in either two or three tight end sets; in comparison, in 2009, the last season in which both Cowboys starting corners enjoyed full health, third corner Orlando Scandrick logged 573 plays. Looking at it this way suggests that we should treat the second tight end as a quasi-starter. Since whoever plays the second TE will be in on a lot of plays, he can't be a specialist type that, by his presence, tells the opposition what the Cowboys are going to do on a given play. This increases the importance of finding a player who can replicate the kind of run-pass balance that is the hallmark of Witten's game.
And, for the bulk of The Senator's career, the Cowboys' search has continued in vain. They have had either terrific in-line blockers (Campbell, Bennett) or solid pass catchers (Pierce, Phillips, Rucker), but seldom both. Let's compare the most recent set of backups, Bennett and Phillips, using the seasonal cumulative grades doled out by the fine (albeit controversial) folks at Pro Football Focus. In 2009-11, Bennett totaled between +8.2 and +9.8 as a run blocker, but his pass receiving grades fell between +0.3 and -6.6. Phillips, on the other hand, had run blocking tallies between +0.5 and -4.8 but notched -1.8 to +5.5 grades for his work in the passing game. This set of backups runs true to the general form, wherein the Dallas offensive coordinator has tried to achieve balance by committee.
How has Jason Garrett utilized the tight end? Make the jump to find out...
In his time at the helm of the offense, Garrett has worked hard to build a balanced statistical datasheet so that having a given TE in the game doesn't telegraph the Cowboys' intent. In his four years in Dallas, Martellus Bennett, who was clearly a superior pass blocker and a liability in the passing game, was in the huddle for 937 running plays and 888 passing plays (182 of which he stayed in to block) - and the disparity in these numbers happened in the past two years, when the rest of the league probably recognized that he was no longer a passing threat, regardless of formation.
Another way Garrett has worked to create balance is in distribution. Take a look at the percentage of passing plays in which a Cowboys TE has been on the field and made a reception in the last three years. You'll find the numbers are surprising similar, even when comparing Witten to his backups.
2008: 14%; 2009: 17%; 2010: 17.2%; 2011: 16.1%
2008: 12.4%; 2009: 7.4%; 2010: 18.2%; 2011: 10.6%
2009: 14.9%; 2010: 13.9%
I think its pretty clear that, given his druthers, Garrett wants to craft TE balance in any and every conceivable fashion. Ideally, Witten's backup is an equal threat to block (both from the "F" and "Y" positions) and as a receiver. However, with Bennett's much-celebrated departure and the Cowboys' inability to secure another plus blocker, either via free agency or the draft, Garrett no longer has the ability to create balance by committee. Behind Witten sits a group of pass-catchers, with Phillips being the best of them. In fact, I'm highly skeptical whether any of the other candidates currently on the roster are ready to take NFL snaps, which essentially leaves Dallas with two tight ends and a special teams player.
So, here's a nagging set of questions that the Garrett brothers (John Garrett is the Dallas TE coach) have been and surely will continue to mull over, assuming the Cowboys don't go out and sign a veteran tight end before the season: what will the offense look like with Phillips taking over both his and Bennett's roles this season? what offensive formations and plays can they open up with Phillips in the lineup? What formations might we see less frequently? How much of a dropoff should we expect in the Cowboys running game, especially on perimeter runs, now that Bennett is no longer manning the "Y"?
In a post back in March, Archie reminded us of how spectacular Phillips was in the 2010 preseason. In particular, he noted the Hall of Fame game against the Bengals when Phillips caught 4 passes for 60 yards before an untimely knee injury wrecked his season. As Chia notes, that preseason, Phillips "was well on his way to being the #2 tight end" before the injury. With most knee injuries, the player isn't at full strength until the second year. This brings up more questions: given that 2012 is that year, are the Cowboys counting on Phillips resuming the career arc that had looking like the best player on the field against Cincinnati? With Mike Woicik aboard, I wouldn't bet against it.
If he can be the player we saw in the 2010 preseason, then I think Phillips, who is not a terrific blocker, but can be effective, especially as a position blocker, can offer both more run-pass balance than Bennett, who never managed to offer a consistent threat in the passing game. That said, there's no way DeMarco Murray and the other running backs will be as enamored of Phillips' work as they were of Bennett's, who became the de facto third tackle. But this is where the more traditional "F" back, in the person of free agent acquisition Lawrence Vickers, comes into the picture. Vickers, who is a devastating blocker at the point of attack, gives them a force from the "F" that they haven't had in years - and certainly one that Phillips was never able to manage.
One byproduct of this (and the fact that Bennett was a terrible move blocker) was that the Dallas offensive coaches were forced to use Witten as the "F" much more than they wanted to; as might be expected, he's a terrific lead blocker, but its nasty work and I think they'd rather it take its toll on less valuable bodies. So, one way to look at Bennett's departure is that it gives Dallas both more flexibility (either Phillips and Witten can play the "F" if needed) and a more prototypical attack (with Vickers at the "F," Phillips and/ or Witten man the the "Y," which once again becomes the constant passing threat that it never was with Bennett lining up there).
So, what might we expect to see? I'd guess that Garrett and Co., will have Phillips join Witten in route combinations that he didn't entrust to Bennett. I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of "22" (two backs and two TEs), which, with both Vickers and Phillips in the lineup, will present opposing defensive coordinators a more troublesome run-pass balance than Witten-Bennett did (in 2011, they ran 124 plays using 22 personnel, but only 13 were passes.). In the running game, I wouldn't be shocked to see Dallas run more between the tackles, where Vickers excels, and split Phillips outside of Witten, to he can take advantage of the fact that he's a better position than in-line blocker.
I'm sure Garrett and Co. have spent a lot of time in the lab addressing this very question and have some potent concoctions ready to test in Oxnard. When I'm there, I'll follow #89 closely, to see whether I can figure out just how much the offense is going to change in Bennett's absence. Should be fun to watch.