Five Decisions That Shaped The Cowboys Season, Pt. I: Franchising Anthony Spencer

"Almost Anthony" no more: Sack-tacular Spencer makes another clutch play - Patrick McDermott

Our series on five decisions, moments or (over) reactions that had significant long-term repercussions over the course of the 2012 season kicks off with a look at the front office's decision to apply the franchise tag to outside linebacker Anthony Spencer

Now that the ink has dried on the Cowboys' 2012 campaign, its time for the annual "end of year" posts, in which eager scribes offer up the "top ten key plays" or "top five games." I like these posts, of course, but find them a bit short-sighted; they tend to focus on the trees and lose sight of the forest, so to speak. As any of you who have read my posts surely know, I'm interested in the ways different organizational philosophies engender different kinds of decisions; conversely, I'm interested in the long-term ramifications of specific decisions or moments.

Today I offer you the first installment in a series in which I'll look at five discrete decisions, moments, or reactions that had long-term affects, capable of profoundly impacting the Cowboys' season. Some of these impacts were positive; others not so much. All five repeatedly reared their heads, ugly or otherwise, throughout the year. Here, in our first installment, we'll look at one of the hot-button topics being bandied about this time last year: what to do with Anthony Spencer?

Last year, a lot of invectives were being throw out about Spencer. The anti-Spencer camp couldn't get rid of "Almost Anthony" fast enough. Number 93, they wrote, was an average - hence eminently replaceable - guy. He didn't get enough sacks, nor did he generate sufficient pressure in general. He was a decent run stuffer, sure, but to pay franchise tag money for a solid run stuffer bordered on the insane. On the other side were Spencer supporters, who believed that he was very good (excellent, even) at doing a lot of the little things that help a defense succeed. Last February, in a look at a potential offseason plan, I penned the following:

"Anthony Spencer won't be easy to replace. Sure, it's easy to bash Anthony Spencer for not being DeMarcus Ware, and I have done so on many occasions. Since the season's close, however, several writers whose work I admire greatly have made compelling arguments that Spencer has not been the problem. The first of these was by our own Kegbearer, in his "Anthony Spencer Challenge." He offered a healthy dose of perspective, noting that, in 2011, Spencer led all LOLB in tackles, forced fumbles, and tackles for a loss, and was in the top 5 in sacks and tied for second in QB hits. More recently, Bob Sturm penned an excellent piece in which he dished out many of the same statistical comparisons, concluding:

In fantasy football, you acquire "pass rush specialists" at every spot and think you will get 100 sacks. But, in real football, if you don't have a player setting the edge and shutting down strong side rushing plays, then you get beat. Spencer, of all outside linebackers in the 3-4 in the last two seasons has more tackles than anyone.

Indeed, Spencer has excelled at a lot of the unglamorous work required of his position: setting the edge, being stout against the run, etc. And when it comes to rushing the quarterback, the only strong side OLBs who can boast better numbers are Lamaar Woodley and Clay Matthews, neither of whom are available. So, before they just dump # 93 out of frustration, it's important to consider who would fill his spot--and to contemplate how steep the dropoff might be."

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It appears the Cowboys came to the same conclusion as, soon thereafter, they ponied up the funds to franchise Spencer--which proved to be a superb decision. In 2012, Spencer was a revelation, flashing an All-Pro level of dominance is several games. Take the week 11 home contest against the Browns, for instance. Spencer was outstanding against the run all afternoon, tallying six tackles (with one for loss) and, although he was asked to drop into coverage quite a bit, chipped in with one of the Cowboys' two sacks - but he made it the much-desired defensive trifecta: sack, strip, and fumble recovery.

As this suggests, Spencer (seemingly shedding his "Almost" moniker) made it a habit to collect clutch sacks when they counted most. In week seven, at Carolina, it was his late fourth quarter takedown of Cam Newton that sealed the Cowboys victory. In early December, at Cincinnati, Spencer nabbed Andy Dalton on a critical third-and-four to force a Bengals punt - and set up Dallas for their game-winning drive. The next week, against Pittsburgh, he made a great play on second down to sack Steelers signalcaller Ben Roethlisberger, setting up an impossibly long third down and effectively sending the game into overtime. In week seventeen, he again came up big, taking RGIII to the ground on a key third-and-eight, setting up what could should have been the Cowboys winning drive.

And Spencer's value might have been felt even more acutely in the games he missed due to injury. With number 93 on the sidelines for the Bears and Ravens games, the Cowboys' (at that juncture) stout defense flagged. Most galling was what happened to the Dallas defense on third downs. The Ravens converted 6 of their ten third downs (two third-and-long situations were the most galling: Ray Rice's 43-yard dump pass on third-and-7 Anquan Boldin's 20 yard gainer on third-and-9), which caused me to write:

I'm not sure that Spencer would have prevented either of these, but in a close game in which one stop could have made a difference, it would have been nice to see him in there. I don't know what the equivalent to Bill James' "wins above replacement" numbers are for a guy like Spencer, but I'd assume they are high.

Indeed, the Chicago contest offered some painful evidence in support of this claim. Whenever the Bears ran to backup Victor Butler's side, they met with considerable success. Indeed, Butler's inability to play the run forced Rob Ryan to bring Gerald Sensabaugh up to the line, which had down-the-road implications in the passing game. When Bears QB Jay Cutler faded back to pass, he did so without Sensabaugh in the deep half - and without pressure form the strong side, where Butler repeatedly spun his wheels against the Bear's makeshift offensive line. It was clear that Rob Ryan was handcuffed without Spencer in the lineup.

A strong argument can be made that Spencer was the Cowboys' best player in 2012. If that feels far-fetched, the proposition that he was the team's best defensive player is easily defended. On his blog this season, local sports geek extraordinaire Bob Sturm kept a running tally of "Splash plays" for the season (defining such plays as "a sack, a pressure that forces a bad throw, and big hit on the QB, and a batted ball that may lead to an interception opportunity...tackles for loss, a big hit for a short gain, or a stop which is an open field tackle where a player is pulled down on 3rd down short of the marker because of an exceptional effort from a defender"). The final totals are instructive; here are the top five:

Spencer 38
Ware 30
Hatcher 16.5
Claiborne 16
Carter 15

Two things jump out here: First, the drop-off after Spencer and Ware is significant. For a 3-4 defense to succeed at the most elemental level, the two outside linebackers must be athletic playmakers. Clearly, Dallas' dynamic duo fits that bill. By keeping Spencer in the fold, the Cowboys retained a key, under-the-radar player who was integral to the defense's basic functionality.

By retaining Spencer, Dallas made a smart move not only for the immediate future (i.e., 2012), but built a doorway to a rosier distant future. This leads me to my second observation derived from the "splash play" data: that Carter and Sean Lee (with 10) are both in the top seven after missing significant chunks of the season suggests that something special is happening with the Cowboys' linebacking unit. With the emergence of these gents in the past two seasons, Dallas has developed one of the league's best and most diverse linebacking units.

One series in the second quarter of the Carolina game (the last game in which all four starting LBs played this season) offers a salient demonstration of what I'm talking about: On first down, Spencer made a great play on a DeAngelo WIlliams run; on second and nine, Ware ran a twist with Jason Hatcher, sharing a sack and creating a third and very long. On that third down play, Sean Lee knocked a pass out of Panther wideout Lewis Curry's hands, preventing what would have been a first down. In successive snaps, in other words, the Dallas 'backers made plays against the run, in the pass rush and in pass defense. With so many playmakers come endless opportunities to dominate and/ or to confuse opponents.

Although they have long had a nice collection of "talent" on both sides of the ball, Dallas hasn't had a dominant unit on either - the kind of unit that can take over a game, or dominate even when playing a fairly "vanilla" scheme. As a result, opposing coordinators could take away, or avoid, the strongest element of a given unit without fear that the others, suddenly freed up or enjoying single coverage, would take advantage. With the arrival of Lee and Carter, combined with the continued (post-surgical) excellence of Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys have the makings of that which has propelled the otherwise ho-hum Giants to two Lombardis in the last four years: a dominant unit capable of taking over a game.

This is why I expect the Cowboys once again to retain Spencer's services. If they give his position to, say Kyle Wilber, or to a premium draft pick - either of whom should expect a fairly steep learning curve - they make it easier for opposing offensive coaches to take Ware out of games. And I think what the frequency and ease with which this happened in 2012 is one of the primary reasons Rob Ryan is currently unemployed.

Next installment: The ramifications of the trade-up for Mo Claiborne

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