I thought it was the wave of the future for the Dallas Cowboys. And I wasn't alone. As the team progressed through free agency, the draft, and the roster cuts to shape the 2013 version of the team, it seemed apparent that the coaching staff was trying to build a team centered around the 12 package, or one running back/two tight end personnel group. This is the grouping used to such good effect by the New England Patriots and others. When the Cowboys drafted tight end Gavin Escobar in the second round and then decided to cut Lawrence Vickers, eliminating the fullback completely from the roster while carrying four tight ends, it was apparent this was part of the plan. Jason Garrett confirmed that the team hoped to incorporate more of the package back in July. The unofficial depth chart at DallasCowboys.com started using a two tight end grouping as the base offense this season, and you would think the employees of the website owned by Jerry Jones and operated by Jerry Jones, Jr. would at least have a clue about the shape of the offense plan.
The approach has ways it can be used to good advantage, as was explained by Coty Saxman in this post. The idea was that the Cowboys would be able to stick with the same grouping of players and run or pass out of it, using the tight ends as receivers or blockers as needed. This disguised the play tendencies, facilitated the hurry up offense, and made getting the right personnel on the field harder for the opposing defense. And given the way the team went into the season, with four tight ends, four running backs, and no fullback, it certainly appears to have been the plan. Coty later opined that the success or failure of this idea would have a great deal to do with whether the team was successful or not this season.
Things did not go quite according to plan. Escobar and James Hanna have been largely non-factors in the offense, neither catching the ball or blocking particularly well. The Cowboys cut the fourth tight end, Andre Smith, to make way for the fifty-seventh or so defensive lineman to be used on the roster. And as Bob Sturm has documented with his charts of the package used on every single down by the team in his weekly decoding whoever he thinks is actually calling the offensive plays this week post, the Cowboys only used two tight ends on 15 of 63 plays against the Oakland Raiders. They averaged 3.3 yards gained per play in those. By contrast, with one or no tight ends on the field (44 plays total), the team averaged 6.6 yards a play.
I can do that math, and I don't even need to take my shoes off. The Cowboys have been more effective with fewer tight ends. As has been observed in several places, the offense works best when it spreads the opposing defense out, by using three or four wide receiver sets. You would expect that to be the most effective way to throw the ball, but for the Cowboys, it is also the most productive way to run, as well. 104 of the Cowboys' 144 yards rushing against the Raiders came with less than two tight ends on the field. As I said, the tight ends have not been terrible effective as blockers, but more importantly, those three and four wide receiver sets (especially when the one tight end you do use a lot is one Jason Witten, who still is a favorite target for Tony Romo) force the other guys to go nickel. That is one less of your big, run-stopping players off the field to bring on an extra defensive back. This gives the five offensive linemen a better chance of opening up those big holes like DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar were getting through against Oakland.
Now, with Dunbar going on injured reserve following surgery (he tweeted it was done today) the Cowboys have brought in a true fullback in Tyler Clutts. (Am I the only one who thinks Clutts is an unfortunate name for anyone who might ever have to carry a football?) Is this an indication that the team has backed away from using 12 personnel as much as they seemed to indicate they wanted to during the summer?
The move comes as a contrast to the 12-personnel system the Cowboys were so keen on in the offseason, but Garrett said Clutts' addition doesn't necessarily mark a shift in what they're trying to do. Garrett wants to use a multitude of looks, including two tight ends in certain situations.
"We've used some more than others, but we've never been an exclusive this team or that team," Garrett said. "We've always felt like using personnel is an asset to us and something that helps us. If we do have a true fullback, then they will be part of the mix."
Well, chalk that up to Garrettspeak. It has happened. The team is clearly backing away from the 12. Signing Clutts is just the final concession. The Cowboys have relegated the 12 personnel package to a minor role, and will be running primarily out of a 11 grouping. Now they will be able to throw in a few 21 and perhaps 20 packages as well.
I am waiting to see if there are going to be a bunch of posts or commentary that this is a failure on Dallas' part. The use of a second-round pick on Escobar already elicits loathing and disgust from many, and this will be seen as evidence of more incompetence and confusion in Dallas.
I tend to see this as an attempt to implement something that just didn't work out. The initial plan certainly had merit, and is largely the way the league is going, with the fullback a dying position in the NFL. Now, the Cowboys have decided to go back to a more familiar concept to try and keep things moving ahead.
That is one way in which there are positive aspects to this decision. Adding a fullback to the roster was not done after a string of losses. Undoubtedly, that would have been seen as having a hint of desperation. The season is three-quarters over, and the Cowboys are making a significant change in how they are approaching the offensive game.
However, coming as it does after two wins, with things moving in a positive direction, this looks a little different. This looks more like an ongoing adjustment. The staff seems to have made some effective changes during the bye, and now with the mini-bye resulting from the Thanksgiving schedule, they have a chance to continue it. Putting a fullback on the roster, and getting away from the 12 to some extent, is just a continuation.
Plus, if the Cowboys start using a fullback on even a few plays a game, it is going to create a bit of a challenge for the opponent. After all, nobody has video of Dallas using a fullback from this year. It is a pretty significant wrinkle to throw at teams this late in the season.
I certainly don't think the team made any advance plans to do this, but rather see this as taking a negative (Dunbar's injury) and finding a way to gain something from it (adding some unexpected things to the play calling repertoire). The most positive thing is that it shows that the current Cowboys coaching staff is not afraid to admit something is not working out and move on, even if it is in the heat of a playoff race and forces changes to be made on the fly. If this allows the team to play to its strengths while forcing some uncertainty on the other guys, then it may work out quite well for the Cowboys. The second-round pick for Escobar will just have to be chalked up to the fact that sometimes, things just don't work out the way you hoped. And he still has a chance to redeem the choice in the future, because Witten can't play forever. But even if he doesn't, it is just a pick that went wrong in a draft that has several players (Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, J.J. Wilcox) that look to have good futures with the team.
Nobody gets them all right. Succeeding in the NFL often means being the team that figures out the best way to move on from an error. This looks like the Cowboys may be doing just that, and possibly pulling it off.
The next four weeks will tell if that is correct or not.
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