That was fun. It would’ve been more fun if the NFL Network would’ve sent cameras, but at least we had some practices and we are finally starting to get a real read on what our offense and defense will be like in 2007. After months of speculation, analyzing the free agents and the draft, and endless parsing of words and trying to detect clues with every quote, we finally got to see formations, and players lining up in formations. Almost nothing will tell you more than that until they put the pads on.
So what did we learn? I’ll give it a shot.
Let’s start at the top. Wade Phillips is a laid-back guy. We heard the term all weekend from the players and the press. And if you don’t believe what you read, all you had to do was watch his press conferences. He seems amused with dumb questions, but dismisses them with less sarcasm than we’ve seen in recent history. On the good questions, he doesn’t waste a lot of time answering and actually gives out a fair amount of detail. But this is the easy part of the year for him. We’ll see how laid-back he is the day after the Cowboys lose a game, and the press is looking for an angle.
On offense, I thought that since Jason Garrett cut his teeth on the Norv Turner offense, which Turner learned from Ernie Zampese, that the 2007 Cowboys would look more like the 90’s Cowboys. Apparently that’s the case, as Mickey Spags wrote in his latest article quoting Tony Romo.
"We're going to be a little bit more like the Cowboys in the 90's, a power running game and throw the ball down the field."
Or as Sparano says, "More vertical."
Ah yes, the power running game balanced with a timing pass offense that utilizes the fullback in the passing game. We guessed it was coming and now it’s here. That’s why a week ago I was discussing some of Romo’s comments about the timing of patterns and making sure receivers were hitting their marks. That’s a hallmark of the old Turner system. So even though we didn’t hire Norv Turner, we got his offense. By the way, Mickey’s article does a nice job of comparing and contrasting this year and last year’s offense.
I especially liked this part.
If what the Cowboys have been doing over the past five mini-camp practices is indicative of things to come, this also will mean throwing a lot of those swing passes to the running back and the fullback, reminiscent of those days gone by with Smith and Daryl Johnston.
You know me, I’ve been on about the fullback position this whole offseason.
The power running game on offense would seem to indicate more of a chance for MB3. But here’s an idea I’ve been running with. Phillips said that JJ is best at draws, screens, and outside running, and to me that sounds like the change of pace guy. Before anybody thinks I'm making JJ the third-dwon back, keep reading. We’ve been living in a world of strict construction, the Parcells era featured players stuffed tightly into roles with little variance. So in regards to JJ and MB3, we became accustomed to certain short-hand ways to describe the duo. JJ was the starter, the first and second-down back who was expected to be the home-run hitter. MB3 was the third-down back, the short yardage guy and the endzone specialist. JJ would handle most of the first half, and depending on how he was doing or how the team was doing, MB3 would either stay in his third-down role or start to take over the main back duties in the second half.
But I get the feeling that Phillips/Garrett might shake up that strict construction. Wade Phillips is all about getting guys on the field and utilizing their best skills to make plays. So MB3 might be used as the inside runner who does a lot of the meat-and-potatoes running, while JJ does a lot more of the deception or edge-speed running. This doesn’t mean that they will reverse their niches, but that Phillips and Garrett will utilize them more in the same series of downs, they will switch up their roles at any time and have them flowing more freely in and out of the game. This may really obliterate the line between starter and backup and create a true two-headed monster. And since MB3 is a powerful inside runner who can catch the ball and get outside occasionally, and since JJ can catch the ball in the flats and get to the edges while also occasionally gashing the middle, they could be a real headache for defenses to key on. Just a thought.
On defense, all anybody can talk about is being aggressive. Blitz-happy, letting loose the dogs, pressure defense; call it what you want, but it’s the Phillips 34. If you can’t get to the ball from the front seven, you probably won’t last long in this incarnation of the Cowboys defense. Wade Phillips has made it clear that he prefers an attacking defense that risks a lot on every play in order to get to the football in the backfield. A 3-4 that is predominately a one-gap defense is inherently counting on aggression and speed to disrupt the offense. Linebackers who all seem to be dropping weight is another indicator that Phillips is counting on fast players, not the bulk prevalent in the Parcells era.
And then the big news that Roy Williams might be lining up as a linebacker - call it what you will - in the third-down defenses is the surest sign that the Cowboys are headed in a new direction. Add to that the front-four they plan to use in that formation - DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer at end, with Chris Canty and Jay Ratliff inside, or Greg Ellis if he’s healthy. That’s all about the pass rush. That’s all about attacking the offense.
We might as well get used to new defensive coordinator Brian Stewart as a Phillips protégé. He coached under him in San Diego, and now he brings that same aggressive mentality to the Cowboys. Here’s what he said about Roy.
"One of Roy's better assets is him blitzing," defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said. "And the way to blitz him is not to blitz him from depth. This gives him a chance to blitz from inside as well as outside, and it keeps him out of deep coverage.
"I don't think he's a bad deep cover guy, but when you have a guy who can blitz as well as he blitzes, let's put him in the rush."
Stewart all but said it's guaranteed Williams will blitz whenever the offense uses a five-receiver set.
That sums it up.
There’s one thing that really is different this year, and that’s the whole atmosphere. I’ve spoken my piece about some of the players dumping on Parcells about the scheme and some of their failures, but there is the idea that after four years of near dictatorial rule, the Cowboys are at least going to have more fun. Whether that translates into wins is still up in the air. But as a sign of how different things are now, we actually have quotes from the assistant coaches. That’s a whole new thing and should be interesting as the season progresses.
But the thing that really told me we were going to have more fun this year, and pointed out the stark difference out at Valley Ranch was the incident at today’s press conference. I was so trained to not even think outside of the box, that when Terence Newman stepped into the press conference and asked if the coach if he was planning to give the players the afternoon off, I couldn’t figure out what was happening. Luckily, the papers picked up on it so now I got the whole story.
The fun atmosphere Jerry Jones promised to deliver when he hired Wade Phillips as coach was evident Monday when cornerback Terence Newman asked a question at Phillips' between-practices news conference.
Wearing a black fedora pulled low, Newman asked Phillips in his best reporter’s voice whether he had considered giving the team the afternoon off.
"I think they'll have just about the whole month off in July," Phillips cracked. "Now that Terence Newman, he works all the time."
Such a scene would never have taken place if Bill Parcells were still in charge.
Now if T.O. starts asking questions at press conferences, all bets are off.
For news about the individual performances, like Phillips singling out Chris Canty and Jason Hatcher for praise, or DeMarcus Ware making a nice INT at practice, or T.O. getting the better of Newman, I recommend the DMN blog. They did a nice job of covering that stuff over the weekend.