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Cowboys Defense: Weak Up The Middle?

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An old baseball adage runs something like this: a championship-caliber team must have defensive strength up the middle. Having strong glovemen at catcher, shortstop, second base and center field, the thinking goes, will help your pitching staff by getting to more balls in the outfield gaps, holding runners from taking extra bases, turning more double plays, etc. This makes sense; if we divide a baseball field into radiating quadrants extending out from home plate, we'd see that most balls are hit to the middle two quadrants, where these players do their work.

Even in this moneyball age, this old saw still holds water: a couple of years ago, the legendary sabermatrician, Bill James, conducted a study using a statistical formula, Win Shares, to demonstrate that championship teams do tend to be stronger at catcher, second base, shortstop or center field than at first base, third base, left field or right field. For each season of major league baseball from 1900 through 2003, James chose three teams from each league to represent a championship team, an average team and a bad team. He then compared the amount of value each team received at each position using Win Shares. The end result is that championship teams were 98 percent better than bad teams up the middle, and only 73 percent better than bad teams at the remainder of the positions.

Can this be applied to defensive success in other sports? More specifically, can it be applied to football? In response to the fact that the NFL, since 1978, has become increasingly a passing game, "edge players" are thought to be the most important (and, by extension, receive the largest contracts). In a 3-4 defense, these players are outside linebackers and cornerbacks.

Can we apply James' principle to the 2010 Dallas Cowboys? Let's look at the Cowboys' defense after the jump.

Indeed, it appears the Cowboys have built their defense with edge play in mind; they have invested first-round picks in the starters at those four positions--and spent others on potential OLB Bobby Carpenter and DE Marcus Spears, who Bill Parcells thought might be the Cowboys' version of Leonard Marshall, a 3-4 end who was stout against the run but could also generate a significant upfield pass rush. Clearly, the Cowboys have invested heavily in the defensive perimeter.

The middle of the defense is a different story. The Cowboys currently have two 7th rounders, a fourth rounder and two free-agent pickups (the D-line is rounded out by LDE Igor Olshansky, another FA pickup). Clearly, there is a drop-off here, if not in talent (Ratliff, the Cowboys' "catcher," plays like a first-rounder and then some), then certainly in terms of priority given to the various positions. To me, this value system has always seemed sensible, given the pass-happy nature of the league. But lately, I'm beginning to reconsider its efficacy, both on and off the field.

To wit: this season, NFL offensive coordinators who, like sharks and cheetahs, attack the weak and injured with a ruthless efficiency, have been preying on the middle of the Cowboys defense. The most obvious examples are big plays that hurt in close losses to Chicago and Tennessee. Chicago OC Mike Martz beat a Wade Phillips ILB double-barrell blitz by releasing TE Greg Olsen, thereby forcing one of the blitzing Dallas inside 'backers (theoretically it was Keith Brooking) to recover and then cover the speedy Olsen, who scored on a 39-yard TD after free safety Alan Ball whiffed on him inside the 10. Later, Bears QB David Cutler managed to hit unheralded jitterbug WR Johnny Knox on a 59-yarder when both Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh opted to follow Devin Hester on a crossing pattern, leaving Mike Jenkins without the deep help he was expecting. Against the Titans, Jenkins seemingly gave up another "explosive," a 52-yard pass to Kenny Britt; upon further review, it became apparent that he was again was expecting deep help (again from Ball, who bit on play-action) that never materialized.

Against the Giants, the entire defense was exposed. In particular, however, the New York offense made hay against the same group of interior defenders that have struggled all season. Keith Brooking looked over-matched against the run; Orlando Scandrick couldn't cover anything in the middle of the field; Sensabaugh was beat all night, and by the time the fourth quarter rolled around he had certainly lost his enthusiasm for tackling.

Are these middle-of-the-field foibles the price of doing business in the pass-happy NFL? Our own Fan in Thick and Thin doesn't think so. In the latest of his superb posts, upon which I bestowed the coveted honor of FanPost of the week, Thick looks at--among myriad other topics--the way the Patriots conduct business. More specifically, he notices the way they - like Billy Beane's Bill James-inspired Moneyball Oakland A's - go against the scouting grain to get greater bang for their salary cap buck. In particular, they do not pay big money for corners. Noting the franchise-tag salaries at various positions (Cornerback is 9.96 mill; Safety 6.34), Thick opines:

My hunch is the Belichick is playing money-ball … that Belichick concluded that if you have $20M to spend on your secondary it's better to spend $12M on two elite safeties and $8M on two average CBs than to spend $18M on two elite CBs and $2M on a free agent castoff and converted 6th round CB.

Taking a gander at the Patriots most recent drafts, Thick observes that they have spent a preponderance of high draft picks on middle defense. From this, he concludes:

My observation would be that the Patriots have made sure they can take care of the middle of the field with good ILBs and safeties. Dallas has almost the opposite strategy with elite CBs and OLBs and relatively weak ILB and safeties.

As several authors, Marlowe and Cervantes among them, have noted, "Comparisons are odious"; comparisons to the Pats are particularly so. Thick says so much in his post. At the same time, such evidence does make me wonder about the Cowboy braintrusts' ability to innovate within the protean NFL landscape. O.C.C. (and Lisssy's) recent, and excellent, post on which college players the Cowboys' scouts might have their eyes upon suggests that they are in the market for a premium-pick cornerback, which serves to substantiate Thick's thesis.

New England's ability to innovate and to think outside the box over the last decade plus prompts me to wonder: has the landscape shifted--and thus passed the Cowboys braintrust by? Its tough to argue that their current value system is doing anything much to limit the killing big play (a large part of this is the fact that the defensive philosophy to which they adhere depends on the two first-round edge rushers getting consistent heat on opposing QBs, which Ware has done, but Spencer has failed to do consistently); its also tough to argue that their interior defense thus far has been anything other than a recurring liability.

I think I know what Bill James would say about all of this. What do you think, BTB Nation?