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Old Moose Wine in New Cowboys Bottles, Part II: Figuring Out the Ideal F-Back

In part one of this multi-part series, I offered an overview of the Cowboys current running packages and compared them to those of the championship '90s teams.  I focused primarily on the F-back position and how then-coordinator Ernie Zampese moved Daryl Johnston around the field, taking this top-notch lead blocker into a full-blown F-back. 

Because the running games packages then and now are so similar, today I want to consider which of the many tight ends on the roster would make the best candidate to fill a Moose-like F-back role.

The value of an all-around F-back lies in his flexibility.  Because Daryl Johnston could line up as a traditional fullback, an H-back or a flexed tight end, Dallas could run a number of sets from the same basic personnel package.   Dallas could spread the field laterally by flexing Johnston and even Emmitt Smith at times, which created better matchups for Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek in the slots and seams.  Opposing defenses had to keep their base defenses on the field, because the Cowboys could jump back into the standard 21 formation (two backs, one tight end) if they saw and nickel.  The Cowboys could overrun such a package with bread-and-butter isolation plays, off tackle plays or tosses.

Recent hype from Valley Ranch has the coaching staff, most notably TEs coach John Garrett and head coach Wade Phillips, praising third-year man Martellus Bennett's blocking skills.  One DMN writer recently claimed Aquaman was the team's best blocking tight end.

We can hope so, because this would increase the F-back opportunities, not for Bennett, but for his veteran buddy Jason Witten, my candidate to become the lead F-back.  Some evidence to support my reasoning can be found in Jason Garrett's '07 game plans.

That year, if you recall, the Cowboys entered the season with Witten and Anthony Fasano at positions one and two on the tight end depth chart.  Fasano has been drafted high in the '06 draft with the expectation that he could be molded into the full-time F-back, who could blow out inside linebackers on inside running plays.

The Fasano-as-F experiment was shelved after just a month.  A source I spoke to told me the team was very disappointed in his lead blocking technique;  he was whiffing on a surprising number of blocks.  On others, he would take the wrong shoulder, which meant he was often pushing the linebacker into the running back's path. 

Bill Parcells and his coaches needed a lead blocker stat and moved street free agent Oliver Hoyte to a blocker.  Hoyte could produce train wrecks, but he had no hands and posed no threat as a receiver.  The following season, the team started the season with him as the fullback, but Hoyte lost reps to rookie Deon Anderson, who was shelved by an injury part way through the year.  More and more, the team went to a two tight end set which put Fasano on the line of scrimmage, as the "true" tight end, and flexed Witten into the backfield. 

Dallas used this tactic a lot to great effect in the red zone.  Witten would either flex into the backfield and lead the runner, or he would set up on the wing as an F-back, float towards the center and trap block a defensive tackle on a "wham" block.  He did this in the Chicago game in week three and at Philly in week nine. In both cases, Witten stood up the DT and created a lane for the Cowboys back to score. 

The team relied more and more on Witten to block, meaning he had fewer opportunities to line up in space and get downfield.  He "flexed" into the slot or out wide just 33 times all season.  That's two plays per game, and just 6% of Dallas 547 passing attempts that year.  Other marquee tight ends were flexing out two and three times as much. 

It's a testament to Witten's skill that he posted a career best 1145 yards on 96 catches, all the while handling the heavy backfield blocking duty in the tight end corps.

The team clearly wanted to move Witten back to the line and regain the ability to flex him across the line.  It drafted Bennett and '08 and Phillips in '09.  Bennett thus far has shown to be better blocking off the line of scrimmage, in the pure role, while Phillips got a lot of work last season as the F;  he got a lot of reps in Dallas 13 package, where he would line up as a wingback and then motion into the traditional off-set I role just prior to the snap.  (More on this Wednesday.)

The added talent let Witten back to the line had he posted a 2nd best yardage season with 1030 yards after an injury-riddled '08.  However, the backup tight ends do not approach the production of Witten as the F-back or Johnston in his heyday.  Phillips and Bennett combined for just 22 receptions, less than a quarter of Witten's production. 

A review of the '90s F-back arrangement shows that Jay Novacek was a pure TE, who almost always lined up outside one of the tackles.  He was averaging 51 catches a season, while Johnston was snagging 42 in his F-back role. 

If the coaches feel Bennett's blocking merits full time play, he could step into the Novacek role, while Witten moves around.  Another hint from last season's passing down packages shows that Witten could thrive in the F-back role.  On many 3rd and long plays, when Dallas was in its shotgun-11 package, with one back, one tight end and three receivers, Witten would line up in the backfield, to one side of Tony Romo, while the back would line up on the opposite side. 

Witten was lining up as a pro-set fullback, and the deep setting gave him a free release off the line of scrimmage.  He caught a few seam routes from this package and was very tough for linebackers to handle, because they could not jam Witten coming off the line. 

Of course, Bennett's emergence as a receiver remains in doubt.  Romo trusts Witten, to convert third downs, to jump start the passing game when it starts slowly, and  in all other situations.  Bennett may be able to block, but he'll need to show much more than stellar blocking to get regular reps week to week.

Even if Bennett makes a Miles-Austin like breakout this season, other shortcomings on the offense, namely on the interior line, may defer any complete return to a '90s-type F-back system.

Wednesday:  How the '09 Cowboys offense ran a "heavier" running game than Emmitt's gang.

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