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Strictly Business: the Cowboys Move Beyond T.O.

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Tell T.O. it was just business.  We always liked him.

Jerry Jones appeared tired but placid today, when he discussed his team's decision to release Terrell Owens.  Jones spoke of his ability to confront players face-to-face and deliver tough news.  In this case, the decision was probably not that hard.  Owens' 2008 performances dropped precipitously from his '07 totals, and his fiv- year numbers strongly suggest that his days as a top receiver have passed.  The team's goals of running more and featuring young talents like Felix Jones, Martellus Bennett and Miles Austin more in 2009 no longer merged with Owens' need for heavy duty.

 

Three Runs Here, Three Passes There

Head coach Wade Phillips has stated on several occasions this year that Dallas will rush more in 2009.  The Cowboys run/pass ratios have skewed in recent years towards the pass:

Year Rushes Passes Run/Pass Ratio
2006 472 506 48:52
2007 419 531 44:56
2008 401 547 42:58

Phillips has not stated a baseline percentage for runs, but it's clear he would prefer one similar to the '06 Cowboys, who ran 48% of the time.  Phillips believes more runs emphasize his talented running backs trio -- Marion Barber, Felix Jones, Tashard Choice -- and takes pressure off quarterback Tony Romo.

From a game-planning perspective, the adjustment will not be as radical as it might seem.  Assuming the Cowboys average 950 plays, as they have the last two seasons, an average of roughly 60 per game, calling just three fewer passes and three more runs moves the ratio back to 48:52. 

From a touches per game perspective, this adjustment has serious consequences for the receivers.  Assuming again that total plays are a zero-sum game, switching the run/pass blend means approximately 50 more attempts for the backs and 50 fewer attempts for the receivers, over the course of a season.

Jones' 8.9 yards per attempt average and Choice's 5.1 YPA suggest they're due most of the extra rushes.  Marion Barber carried a heavy workload in mid-season, after Jones injured a big toe and the team wants him to resume the "closer" role he played so well in 2007, when Julius Jones would carry the early workload and turn the game over in the fourth quarter to Barber, who wore down tired defenses.

The anticipated reduction in passes means that many fewer balls to spread among a receiving corps that was already unhappy about pass distribution.  From '06 through '08, Dallas had a fairly set ratio -- the top two wide receivers and tight end Jason Witten received 70% of the pass attempts, with the remaining 30% spread among the backs, third and fourth receivers and backup tight ends.

Owens was the top target in Dallas' scheme, regardless of whether Todd Haley or Jason Garrett called the pass plays.  He received roughly 30% of all passing attempts in each of his three years, an average of nine attempts per game.  Variance within the 'top 70' occurred between Witten and the second wideout.

In 2006, when Terry Glenn played opposite Owens, he received 22% of all Dallas attempts, compared to 18% of the throws for Witten.  When Patrick Crayton replaced Glenn in '07, Garrett dramatically increased Witten's touches at Crayton's expense.  The tight end saw 27% of the balls, where Crayton saw 15%. 

Roy Williams' addition meant a potential headache for Garrett, were the personnel to stay the same.  He was Detroit's primary passing target, averaging 125 attempts in 2006 and 2007, just slightly more than Witten did in Dallas. 

That means Williams got eight balls a game, Witten got eight passes a game and Owens got nine in recent years.  That's 25 balls between the three of them.  A 52% pass ratio means roughly 31 to 32 attempts per game for Romo.  If Dallas wanted to keep all the big egos happy, it faced giving them 80% or so of the total attempts, or junking Phillips' edict and passing with Mike Martz-like frequency. 

If Dallas chose option one, what would become of Felix Jones' touches?  Of Bennett's and Austin's?  Of Sam Hurd's?

Williams fumed last year, when Garrett kept Owens and Witten's touches roughly constant.  He was thrown to just over two times per game.  The team wants him to feature in this year's offense.  What's more, did Owens deserve to keep his nine balls a game?  Look at his yards-per-attempt (YPA) for the last five seasons:

  • 2004 -- 9.3
  • 2005 -- 8.7
  • 2006 -- 8.0
  • 2007 -- 9.7
  • 2008 -- 7.8

Graph those seasons and you see a steady decline, offset by a phenomenal 2007.  What was more likely to occur in '09, another drop in overall YPA, say to 7.5, or another big bounce back?  Owens will be 36 this year.  Dallas didn't count on a second comeback year.

Let's put that 7.8 in further context.  K.C. Joyner wrote this of Owens' 08 in the New York Times today:

That YPA ranked 24th out of 33 receivers who saw at least 100 pass attempts last year, so he was not an elite pass catcher last year. Another angle to take is that Laveranues Coles had a 7.8 YPA on 118 passes in 2008, and many teams passed him over this off-season despite his not having anywhere near the amount of baggage Owens brings.

Let's put Owens' 7.8 in broader context:  Witten's 2008 YPA was 8.2, meaning Dallas gained more throwing to its tight end than it did to its number one.  There are several receivers already on the roster who could post a 7.8, at far less cost and maintenance.

Looking at Wade's plans, and the talent on hand, the only way to make Williams, Witten and Owens co-exist, with attempt figures matching their current skills, would require cutting Owens' attempts to four or five per game. 

We saw how T.O. reacted at mid-season this year, when he felt he was not getting enough throws.  Does anybody believe that he would sit quietly and watch his throws cut in half again? 

Jerry Jones didn't either.  Releasing Terrell was simply good business.