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Learning to Crawl

My first job out of college was as a news photographer for a TV station. I covered a lot of football during the fall and actually learned a thing or two about the game. One of my better lessons came from a gentlemen named Richard Flores, who coached Edinburg High of south Texas in the late '70s and early '80s. Flores built a powerhouse that won several district titles in the old system, when only one team per district made the playoffs, and went to the state quarterfinals a couple of times.

The lesson came when I was covering an Edinburg-McAllen High game. McAllen was a struggling team that would finish under .500, but on this fine Saturday afternoon they were surprising the big boys from Edinburg with their option attack, and had a 21-14 halftime lead. I caught Flores outside the locker room and asked if he planned any major adjustments for McAllen's wrinkles. Flores had a reputation as a strategic master, so I expected a serious X's-and-O's dissertation. His answer surprised me in its simplicity. "No," he said, "we don't have to make any changes. We just have to run our plays better." They did in the second half and pulled out a close win.

Flores' words came back to me when I watched the tape of last week's Cowboys-Raiders game. The Cowboys offensive staff has taken a lot of criticism for their lack of imagination, downright stupidity or (cue gloomy music) failing to understand that Julius Jones' skills have magically evaporated and that his career is doomed.

None of those things applied. What I saw was a team whose running game is still learning to crawl. A team that could probably use a true battering ram of a fullback. But more importantly one that needs to simply get better at what it does.

Where Have You Gone, Daryl Johnston?

The biggest culprit, if one can really be singled out is probably the least likely to observers. It's tight end Jason Witten. Dallas runs a lot of two tight end packages and motions one of its tight ends into the backfield to act as lead blocker for Jones. The Cowboys alternate using Dan Campbell and Witten as the mobile H-back, with each getting about half the plays on the line and half in the backfield.

Their production thus far, is far from even. Jones had much better success against Oakland running behind Campbell. In fact, I counted about half a dozen plays that fizzled because Witten failed to engage his man or failed to move him. Two plays come to mind. In the first quarter, the Cowboys overloaded the left side, with Witten and fullback Lousaka Polite lined up up alongside Flozell Adams and Larry Allen. The call was a stretch play, with Jones assigned to run off tackle. Wittenwas supposed to seal DE Tommy Kelly inside, to give Jones the corner. A statemate would have sufficed, since Witten was flanked outside Kelly and had a natural blocking angle inside. Witten engaged Kelly, but was walked backwards by the Raider, who slid off Witten's tepid block and stopped Jones for a one yard gain.

Another example came in the fourth quarter. Drew Bledsoe had just completed a 58 yard pass to Terry Glenn, putting Dallas at the Raiders' 27. Dallas was trailing Oakland 19 to 13 but appeared ready to snatch another late victory. The Raiders clearly expected Dallas to pass on the next play, as they lined up in a 4-2-5 package with both defensive tackles spread wide, on the outside shoulders of guards Larry Allen and Marco Rivera. Oakland had two linebackers stacked above the tackles. Dallas had seen this formation on tape and planned to challenge it with draws to Jones, since the Raiders were giving the guards natural run-blocking angles and opening up the middle of the field.

At the snap, both Cowboys' tackles and both guards locked up their men and turned them outside. Center Al Johnson ran four yards upfield and engaged one of the Raiders linebackers. A huge bubble was opened up in the middle of the line. Witten was lined up ahead of Jones in an I formation and if he could get a solid block on rookie LB Kirk Morrison, Jones would have room for a huge run.

But Witten didn't get a solid block on Morrison. He was slow to the line, so a charging Morrison met him right at the line of scrimmage. Witten also failed to drive Morrison, who was able to stand the tight end up, slide off of him, and corral Jones. What could have been a a seven or eight yard gain went for a single yard.

The Cowboys did much better with Dan Campbell leading the way. On first and ten from the eleven just a few plays later, Dallas ran an isolation play to its left. Adams and Allen beat their men. Campbell met an Oakland safety at the line, but planted him back-first onto the turf. Jones got a crease and took the ball eight yards to the Oakland three.

I'm sure you're wondering, so why doesn't Dallas use Campbell exclusively as the fullback? Because defensive coordinators are smart. If Dallas showed a tendency that clear, DCs league wide would tell their strong safeties to walk into the box every time they saw Campbell in the backfield because Dallas was going to run. If Witten was there, or the backfield was empty, they could assume that Dallas was going to pass most of the time. The defenses would have a key pre-snap read and moving the ball would be that much harder.

"Blocking", as an old college head coach put it, "is simply a matter of will." Witten is 265 lbs. He is fast. He has the size and can generate the momentum to beat linebackers who are 20 to 40 lbs. lighter. The Cowboys don't need to radically alter their blocking schemes. They need Witten to do his job better.

His most frequent partner in crime last Sunday was rookie Rob Petitti. Another missing element of the running game has been cutback lanes on stretch plays, especially those to the left. In the second quarter, Dallas handed the ball to Jones from an empty backfield. The Cowboys were in a two tight end set with Campbell left and Witten flanking Petitti on the right. The play was designed to go to the left. The Raiders were slanting their defense to that side, however. Dallas was in zone blocking and the linemen, from Adams to right guard Marco Rivera did what they were coached to do -- if the man across from you is in a hurry to go left, help him by pushing him harder left. The left and center section of the Cowboys line pushed the Raiders front towards the intended hole. Jones, who has the option of running where the crease occured, cut back right, where a huge cutback lane should have been -- had the blockers on the right side contained their men.

Petitti had Warren Sapp, who was again lined up wide. Had Petitti been able to cut Sapp, or at least engage him and ride him down the line, as he linemates were doing to their men, he could have created the cutback lane all by himself. However, Petitti let Sapp get on Dallas' side of the line. Sapp pushed Petitti into the backfield and into the cutting Jones. Jones was able to sidestep Sapp and might have been able to get a respectable three or four yards with a lunge. But Petitti was not alone in his backside failure. Witten locked onto DE Derrick Burgess but didn't stay with his block. Figuring the play was going away from him, Witten released Burgess after two seconds and ran upfield to go after a safety.

When Jones cut back and beat Sapp, Burgess was also waiting, unblocked, to make the tackle. What looked at first glance like a nicely blocked cut-back play for six or seven yards again degenerated into an ugly one yard scrum.

It would be easy to scapegoat Witten and Petitti for the running games' problems. In fact, it might be an easier problem to fix. If everyone else is doing well, but one guy is not, you replace him. But while Witten and Petitti had problems, they were not chronic. Petitti was not blowing assignments on every play. He rarely blew them at all. He and Witten happened to blow them just enough to short circuit promising runs.

And they were not alone. Flozell Adams had a good game on the left side. He was solid in his run blocking. He made only two mistakes the entire game, from what I can see. But one of them came on a key third and one play in the third quarter, where his man stopped Julius Jones for no gain on the Raiders 14. Dallas had to settle for a field goal instead of marching on towards a needed touchdown.

Larry Allen was the same. Most of the time he got his man. But his mistakes, rare though they were, killed. Late in the second quarter, Dallas ran Jones on a draw play from its own 30. The Raiders ran a corner blitz, with both slot corners running at Bledsoe. When Bledsoe handed the ball to Jones, they flew right past him. Adams had a seal on his man and Witten and Keyshawn Johnson had run their cover men far down field. The left side was open for a huge gain. But Allen let Sapp get across him to the outside and the wily old tackle made a lunging stop on Jones. Jones again settled for one yard on a play that could have gone for fifteen to 20 yards.

This is the definition of a struggling running game. All the linemen are doing a good job maybe 80 to 85% of the time, but they need to improve those numbers to 90 to 95% to really make the runs click. Mix in a struggling tight end who you cannot afford to take off the field (how can you bench Jason Witten and give up his receiving threat?) and two rookie running backs who can't figure out who to block and you have the recipe for mediocrity.

But what can you do? You know Bill Parcells is committed to a power running game. Everybody here is committed to a power running game. Go back and read the predictions. Most folks, if not all of them, counted on Jones' legs to carry this team while the defense and passing game got their respective houses in order. And I'm sure everyone from the coaching staff on down to the readers of this blog feel a power running game is necessary going forward.

What you don't do is cut back on the number of running plays. Dallas needs a modest improvement in its execution and there's only one way to get it -- keep running. The offensive line is the hardest unit to build because it relies on the entire unit to work in unison all the time. The unit is only as good as its weakest member. If one guy breaks down and five guys succeed, the play will fail. And if everybody takes turns being the weakest member, there is reason to believe that increased repetition will solve the issue in time. The line does not appear to lack talent.

The unanswerable question is how much time? It may take six games. It may take three. The running game might make a quantum leap this week. But all of you calling for Parcells to get less conservative will have to pound sand, because he won't. This is not a terrible running game. Like all other parts of the team, it's a work in progress. What's more, all of you looking to cast Julius Jones aside are not seeing the bigger picture. When he gets the holes, he makes the yards. But he's not seeing the holes on a regular basis.

The running game does not need to be radically remade. The linemen, backs and tight ends just have to run their plays better.

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