As part of the insidious plot to insert Pro Football Focus' scoring system into all things NFL, here is a look at the way the Dallas Cowboys graded out in their loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. There are some things that you see here that fall right in line with what you expect - and there are some surprising differences, as well.
Follow the link for PFF's detailed FAQ, which should answer the vast majority of questions about their grading system. The one good thing about their numbers is that is does offer a way to try and come up with objective comparisons for every player at every position. Here are some of the things I think were pertinent from the last game.
Some things never seem to change. There is still trouble in the middle of the line, as Travis Frederick had the first game where it was obvious he is a rookie, with a couple of noticeable errors in pass blocking.
This was the first appearance of Brian Waters, with him taking 18 snaps to Mackenzy Bernadeau's 49. And while he is expected to improve as he gets back into playing shape, this week was perhaps a case where you should be careful what you wish for. Bernie outplayed him overall, especially in run blocking, where Waters was just not as mobile as he needs to be. He is very solid in pass protection, though, so on balance he still looks like an upgrade once he is able to move into the starting job.
Meanwhile, the resurgence of Doug Free continues. After posting the best scores of any Dallas lineman the first week, he was even better against KC. And over the first two games, he grades out as the sixth best tackle, left or right, in the league. I am not sure what has happened here, or just how a pay cut of about 50% was so successful in motivating him, but I feel bad for some of the bad things I have said in the past. Now, with Free starting to dominate on his side and Tyron Smith also improving over the first two weeks, the tackles have become the clear strength of the line.
What is not a strength is the run blocking. For the first two weeks, the Cowboys are a cumulative -10.7, which also includes backs and ends in the score. That puts them at 26th in the league. This is some convincing evidence that the problem is not all, or even mainly, DeMarco Murray, and shows that Bill Callahan and Tony Romo may be shying away from running plays because they don't expect them to work.
The most controversial pick for the Cowboys during the 2013 draft was probably TE Gavin Escobar. Considering that the team has a future Hall of Fame member in Jason Witten, most people could not see the value here, given Escobar's reputation for not being a great blocker. And yet, the early season has shown some surprising numbers here. Namely, that right now Escobar may be doing the best job of all the tight ends with his assignments. It's not a great difference, but it shows that the rookie may be more valuable than many thought.
If there is one pre-season hope that has been fulfilled, it the Rise of the Rushmen. Even with Jay Ratliff out for at least four more weeks and Anthony Spencer still working his way back from injury, this has been the strongest part of the entire team, with one possible exception. Going into the season, there was great handwringing and trepidation about the fact that the Cowboys were having to rely on a bunch of cast-offs from other teams. The comments by Jerry Jones and Monte Kiffin that the D line was one of the strengths of the team were derided as injuries took their toll.
Nobody is laughing at those comments now. Led by DT Jason Hatcher (+3.6 against KC and +8.3 overall, for the second best grade among all DT/NT in the league) and the Cowboys' find of the offseason George Selvie (+1.7 and +5.0), they are the main reason Dallas has the fifth best defensive score overall in the league. (Top score, by the way, goes to the Chiefs.) DeMarcus Ware actually had a bit of an off game, despite the two sacks, but the defensive front is still having the biggest impact on that side of the ball.
Hatcher was asked about what has changed for him over the past few seasons, when he went from a mediocre player to the emerging star of the defense. He credits two men: Rob Ryan and Rod Marinelli.
Jason Hatcher, on what's got into him: ‘Coach Rob was the first one to actually come in and believe in me. He actually put it back into me.’— Carlos A. Mendez (@calexmendez) September 18, 2013
Hatch: ‘I haven’t talked to Rob, but I’m pretty sure Rob proud of me. But it’s Marinelli now. He’s an awesome coach. He got me rolling.’— Carlos A. Mendez (@calexmendez) September 18, 2013
Dallas, of course, has very stout linebackers and there is no problem there.
Except that Sean Lee and Bruce Carter both had fairly poor performances in Arrowhead. Primarily driven by issues they had in pass coverage, Lee posted a -2.0 overall, and Carter was a fairly dismal -3.6. This is something that bears watching, since the passes in the area where linebackers normally are responsible is also an area where Monte Kiffin's defenses have been vulnerable in the past. However, both were in green territory with their scores in the opening game, so this may be more of a problem with a particular team or scheme than a long term issue. It still is worth watching, however.
The concerns about the play of Morris Claiborne, with a dismal -4.6, and how much effect his shoulder injury is having, overshadows the fact that most of the rest of the secondary is off to a very good start this year. Barry Church is showing why his loss last season was a real blow to the team, with a cumulative PFF score of +3.9, which is the second best score for a safety in the NFL, and only one tenth of a point behind Ryan Mundy of the New York Giants. Meanwhile, Brandon Carr is at +2.6 and Orlando Scandrick is +1.9 - and most of Scandrick's total is from the Chiefs game where he took over the starting job while Claiborne was banged up. Only Will Allen is lagging, with a -1.4, and he did improve from the first week.
If you were to tell me that, even for one game, the linebacking corps for the Cowboys would be dragging down the excellent performances of the defensive line and the secondary, I would have suggested you stop smoking stuff that is only legal in certain states. But given the fact that the Chiefs largely beat the Cowboys with their legs (Alex Smith in the first drive and Jamaal Charles in the last), the numbers in this case square very nicely with what we saw.
In hindsight, the concerns during the pre-season about Rich Bisaccia and his unit are almost comical. At the time, of course, special teams was nothing but a hot mess, and the Cowboys did take steps to upgrade them as soon as the final cutdown was done. However it was done, there is not question that the special teams are the most consistent part of the Cowboys, without almost no slip-ups at all. Of course, when you have the best placekicker in the NFL in "Split 'em" Dan Bailey (+7.7), you have a leg up on the rest of the league.
I'm sorry for that. I'll try to not do it again.
Anyway, as I was saying before I succumbed to my addiction to execrable puns, the rest of the special teams performance has not been as spectacular as Bailey's, but it has been solid and basically error free. The team has not broken a big return yet, but Dwayne Harris has already flirted with a couple. And he is proving to be a superb cover man as well. Given that Chris Jones actually has pulled the numbers down slightly with a -0.2, it looks like this should continue to be a strength for the team.
The Cowboys certainly have some major issues to work on, but some of the questions from before the season are looking to have been answered at this early stage of the season. But it is early, so watch this space.