The Cowboys Make The Playoffs If: The Two-Tight-End Set Works

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In reviewing things that might propel the Cowboys to the playoffs, I found myself focusing on the biggest change on the offensive side of the ball - a commitment to the two-tight-end set.

It's no secret that the Cowboys' success in their 2012 campaign, as limited as it was, largely came as a result of their offensive performance.

Relying extensively on their 11, 21, and S11 (11 = 1 back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers; 21 = 2 backs; S11 = 11 from the shotgun) personnel packages, the Cowboys were able to put up points quickly in the second halves of games, allowing an inordinately high success rate in 4th-quarter comeback attempts, but ultimately came up short in their search for a playoff berth.

A real problem for the Cowboys was their inability to produce points early in games: 1st half, 1st quarter, 1st drive. Another key weakness was their inability to utilize the run (trouble with the 21 personnel; an ineffective fullback), particularly in short-yardage situations. Their final hurdle was production in the red zone, which has been dismal, at best.

There's a compelling case to be made that all of these problems are interconnected. The early-game tempo is largely decided by the team that makes the first long touchdown drive. Those long drives, when the team is still feeling out its opponent, usually involve one or two tough third-and-short runs to keep them alive. The Cowboys never had much success in that type of situation, and wound up punting far more often than we would like, or even expect, after plays of that nature.

Once down in the red zone, if they managed to get there, the Cowboys would then often find themselves facing 3rd-and-goal from ugly distances, often settling for the automatic three courtesy of Dan Bailey. There was nothing else that Cowboys' fans could rely on inside their opponents' 20. As capable as Tony Romo is of evading the rush for several seconds and then heaving the ball 60 yards to an open receiver, those plays aren't even a possibility when the defense only has 30 yards (the 20yd red zone plus the 10yd end zone) to defend.

These problems are nothing new here. We know all about them. What we don't know, or at least we can't all agree on, is the proper way to fix those issues. There's something to be said about the offensive line. To some extent, I agree. I don't, however, feel that it will be the cure-all that it's sometimes advertised to be. For the sake of discussion, however, let's just assume that we give Romo an offensive line that makes him impervious to sacks. Remove them from the realm of possibility entirely.

This new, hypothetical, offensive line unit will surely increase the Cowboys' efficiency in short-yardage situations running the football. Those first downs will translate into more red zone opportunities which will, if the averages remain constant, result in more points scored. That's basically what we want, right?

I agree. Anything to make the Cowboys better. But is there another road to improvement?

Believe it or not, despite the struggles with extending drives, the Cowboys high ranking year-in, year-out in yardage gained indicates that extending drives isn't the true ailment for the Cowboys. Rather, scoring points is where the team falters, at least from a strictly offensive viewpoint. In a way, the hypothetical best-line-ever would help the Cowboys to score points, but just how effective, how efficient, is that type of change compared to another? Let's take, for our counterpoint, the 12 personnel group.

As I mentioned earlier, the Cowboys' go-to personnel grouping of late has been the 11 and S11 (with the 21 as their running set). The 11 personnel group allows the Cowboys to spread the field and amass yards quickly. The spread out defense has limited blitz opportunities. An always-evasive Romo is able to avoid the 4- or 5-man rush for 4-5 seconds, allowing the receivers time to break free of their coverage and present him a target. An impossibly epic offensive line might reduce the sack rate in these situations, but Romo's already doing a fine job of avoiding the rush with the low-quality line play in place. Would 6, 8, 10 seconds in the pocket really be so much better than 4 or 5? There are diminishing returns, in this case. After 5 seconds, essentially every route in the playbook would be fully developed. Romo's anticipation of the option route would be neutralized, and instead his chemistry with his receivers and intuition (which are also pretty good) would be called into action.

But why bother? We're already moving the ball fine from 20- to 20-. The big gains in efficiency are found in the red zone.

The 12 personnel is being employed in Dallas seemingly as a replacement for not only the 11 group, but also the 21 as far as can be predicted. I'm not sad to see the 21 go - clearly, it wasn't working for us, and the tighter formation allowed a more concentrated assault on Romo. Trading a fullback for a tight end? I'll take that any day. The second tight end is far more versatile than Lawrence Vickers or Tony Fiammetta proved to be as fullbacks the past two years. As for the immediate impact of dumping the 21 for the 12, I'll summarize by saying that you still have a potential backfield blocker, he's just bigger, capable of in-line blocking, and likely a better receiving option. That's not what we care about, though. We want to know how the 12 will work in place of the old bread-and-butter 11 personnel.

The skill position players on opening night in 2012, when we went to the 11 package, were Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Kevin Ogletree, Jason Witten and Felix Jones. The weakest link, no matter what you think of Felix Jones, was the third receiver. It has been for most of the time that we've used that particular set.

Today, if we were to field a basic 12 package (not the 'big 12,' of which Escobar is said to be a component), we would see Dez, Miles, Witten, Hanna, and Murray. What's the difference between Hanna and Ogletree? They both run in the 4.4 range, but Hanna is about 4" and 40 pounds larger. With his large frame, he can certainly sell a run formation better than the slight Ogletree in a three-wide look, and, when they actually do run the ball, he can help seal a defensive end and potentially run with the play to escort Murray into the endzone.

If we really need that 3WR explosiveness that the 11 and, particularly, the S11 gave this offense, remember that Hanna had a better 40 time than Dez Bryant. He can take the top off of a defense as well as any other tight end in today's league.

Most importantly, we'll be adding another 4" of height to our red zone passing options. That helps us to keep the fade route on the menu, while the position flex of tight ends allows us to bring in viable receiving options without showing the defense our intentions. The 11 group is a passing set; the 12 group is a running set. The 12: who knows?

Adding efficiency to the red zone offense is done by building up rather than out when the space on the field is limited. Offensive linemen, as popular as they are, extend the potential length of plays. A long time in the pocket lets routes develop deeper, or more spread out; how beneficial is that when there's nowhere left to run? More time in the pocket, incidentally, will not allow the receivers time to grow taller (at least until the NFL opens its doors to high school prospects). The better way to work the red zone is with vertically endowed targets. They're generally open throughout the play, with no extended pocket time required.

The offensive line is certainly important, especially in regards to improving our running efficiency, but pales in comparison to the potential of the 12 formation for our passing game.

But did I mention there's a catch? Well, there's a catch.

In order for the 12 personnel to reach its potential and impact games the way another highly drafted offensive lineman might have, the second tight end, and indeed the position as a group, needs to be effective in both the running and passing games.

Jason Witten's more-or-less an automatic 'yes' for this, so it comes down to Hanna, Escobar, and Rosario proving to be capable blockers (at least as good as Lawrence Vickers) and productive receivers.

I set their benchmarks for success at 10 TDs for the group (Witten's touchdowns have been down lately, so he won't make this automatic), and 30+ receptions for any tight end not named Jason Witten. With 10 TDs, it's likely that the formation establishes itself as a legitimate passing option in the red zone, thus easing things up for those 3rd-and-Goal runs. With 30 or more receptions from the second tight end, it becomes known that the second tight end is someone that needs to be recognized in coverage and, therefore, running lanes will open up when that tight end releases.

If the Cowboys' tight end unit and the 12 personnel grouping can hit these targets, I believe the Cowboys will make the playoffs on the strength of an improved running game and increased red zone touchdown efficiency.

How about you, BTB? What are your targets for the tight ends and, if they make them, are the Cowboys playoff-bound?

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