One of the most frustrating aspects of 2005 was watching the running game regress while other areas of the team improved. The defense took a giant step forward from 2004, especially in pass defense. The passing game showed far more balance than it did the year before, when injuries left Jason Witten as the only viable weapon at season's end.
Yet the running game, which carried the offense the last month of '04, never got untracked. Julius Jones took the brunt of the criticism, though the erratic line play was mostly responsible.
The hiring of Freddie Kitchens from the Mississippi State staff could provide a small but important tonic to getting that running game on track. Kitchens hiring creates better fits on the Cowboys staff between the coaches' experience and responsiblities, as his hiring moves '05 TE coach Paul Pasqualoni to defense, where he will oversee the linebackers.
Dallas used a one back, two TE set as it's primary formation last year, meaning Witten and Dan Campbell were responsible for lead blocking and perimeter and backside blocking. Campbell provided decent lead blocking when he motioned into the backfield, but he and expecially Witten were poor on the outside.
The loss to Denver immediately springs to mind. The Broncos smallish linebackers and ends had to constantly slant to prevent being engulfed by the larger Cowboys line. Several times the Cowboys linemen created large running lanes, only to see defenders run Jones and Marion Barber down from behind for little or no gain because of poor backside blocking. Poor backside tight end blocking. This problem was not limited to the Denver game. The Oakland loss, the Seattle loss and other early season games also showed this problem.
Tight end play overall was down last year. One reason was the concession the staff made to starting rookie RT Rob Petitti. Dallas helped Petitti on pass downs with a tight end and this compromised Witten's stats, since he ran fewer routes.
That does not explain the dropoff in run blocking from '04, when current OL coach Tony Sparano oversaw the unit. The likely reason was the poorer fit between players and coaches from '04 to '05. Pasqualoni ran the unit last year but had never coached an offensive unit at any point in his lenghty career. He had been a linebackers coach and then a defensive coordinator before becoming Syracuse's head coach.
The reshuffling allows Pasqualoni to do what he does best, coaching linebackers. Kitchens, meanwhile, gets to ply his tight end coaching skills at the pro level. His lack of pro experience does not concern me, since he's been well prepared by his previous bosses. Kitchens was an assistant for Dolphins HC Nick Saban at LSU, coaching the Tigers special teams in 2000. Saban learned under Patriots HC and longtime Parcells assistant Bill Belichick and had a reputation for running well-prepared, pro-level schemes at the college level.
In recent years Kitchens has assisted Bulldog's HC Sylvester Croom. Croom had a long and distinguished pro career before taking the Mississippi State job. He was Bobby Ross' running backs coach at San Diego, where he developed Natrone Means. He then served four years as Detroit's offensive coordinator, operating the Lions' dangerous one-back, three WR offense that featured Barry Sanders and Herman Moore. Croom's last pro stop was as running back's coach for Mike Sherman's Packers. He helped Ahman Green become one of the better RBs in the league.
Croom's experience meshes well with what Dallas likes to do offensively. Ross' Chargers were a two TE team that liked to smash Means at you and play ball control. Croom's base offense is Dallas' pass offense. And Sherman's packages are similar to those Sean Payton and Parcells installed here in '03.
Kitchens, by working with Croom, should be familiar with Dallas' schemes and goals. His learning curve will likely be shorter than Pasqauloni's was. We can hope this translates into better TE play across the board, but especially on running downs. After last year, any little thing that helps the running game will be greatly appreciated.