My favorite aspect of this part of the preseason, when the Cowboys are playing meaningless games and camp news has dwindled to a trickle, is to spend time deep in contemplation about the roster; after all, as our own Tom Ryle once said, "I freely admit that my favorite thing to do in studying the Cowboys is to try and get inside the heads of the decision makers." So, when I watch preseason games, private conspiracy theories abound: what does each move portend? How do the offensive formations called correlate to roster battles? What subtle clues can we glean that offer insider information about how the coaches are thinking about the roster?
Its was in this frame of mind that I watched Saturday night's Cowboys home tilt. This preseason, given Jason Garrett's insistence on creating depth and competition throughout the roster (and the fact that the bulk of the starting 22 has emerged with vivid clarity), I have focused particularly on candidates for the second and third teams. Its not so much that there are still vicious battles being waged for, say, the fifth inside linebacker spot; rather, what's at stake is the fifth OLB versus the sixth WR.
As most of these will be decided by special teams play, I decided to focus my attention on who the coaching staff deployed on teams. Earlier in the week, Jason Garrett remarked that the coaching staff wanted to stop playing with different combinations of players and go with who they believe will be their starters on teams, in order to give them an opportunity to work together before the bullets start flying for real. In other words, "teams" can tell us far more in the third game dress rehearsal that they would in preseason game #1.
I tracked who played on which teams the best I could. Luckily, with NFL Preseason Pass, I was able to rewind each of the special teams plays, determine who was on each unit, and then fast forward through the commercial that inevitably followed, so I could keep up with the game in real time. Sometimes, I wasn't able to determine every guy; most of the time, however, I was able to sleuth out at least nine or ten of the guys who were on the field. So, let's take a look at who played where--and what it might mean.
Kickoff return: The Cowboys began the game by returning the opening kickoff, and had one other kickoff return of note (one of the Rams' long field goals was followed by a touchback). Both kickoffs had exactly the same personnel: the returner for the first was Felix Jones; the other "back guys" were Kevin Ogletree and Phillip Tanner; at the next level we had James Hanna, Lawrence Vickers and Tyrone Crawford; on the front line, they lined up, from left to right, Mana Silva, Alex Albright, Dan Connor, Shaun Chapas, and Danny McCray. I was surprised to see both Silva and Chapas with the first team; more on that later.
Kickoff cover: Dallas certainly had numerous first-half opportunities to cover kickoffs, with mixed results. On their first kick, they sent out a lot of the same guys from the kick team. Tanner, Hanna, Connor, Albright, Vickers, McCray and Silva. They were joined in coverage by Raymond Radway, Mario Butler, and (surprise!) Mo Claiborne. On the next kick, the only personnel change was Orie Lemon subbing in for Vickers. The next time up saw Chapas replace Claiborne.
Punt team: While the first teamers were in, the Cowboys had precious few opportunities to punt, so this is based on one shot. Besides punter Chris Jones and snapper L.P. Ladouceur, the coverage team was populated by a lot of the usual suspects - McCray, Vickers, Albright, Tanner, and Mario Butler. McCray and Butler were the first team gunners.
Punt return: As with the punt team, the PR roster was dotted with a lot of the same names: McCray, Silva, Albright, Connor, Tanner Butler, and Chapas. They were joined by Orlando Scandrick and, as the deep men, Tim Benford and Dwayne Harris, who returned punts before giving way to Cole Beasley. I'm surprised to see Benford there, frankly, as I though he had no shot at making the 53. Perhaps this is a temporary measure, and he's subbing for somebody who is injured (might Harris take that role when Dez Bryant returns?).
Thoughts about what all this might mean:
-When engaging in this exercise last year, it was evident that special teams coach Joe DeCamilis was still trying to figure out who should play on each unit. Each iteration of, say, the punt coverage team had three or four new faces. This year, each unit was surprisingly consistent, with only one or two sub-ins each time. To my mind, this shows two things: 1) the coaches are clearer at present about the state of the 53 than they were one year ago; 2) they want to avoid the early-season special teams personnel turmoil that has marred each of the last two campaigns, and go into week one with a seasoned unit that has a feel for working together.
-Your core special teamers are as follows: Albright, McCray, Tanner (all of whom carry over from last year), Connor, Silva, and Mario Butler. Others who were on multiple ST units were Hanna, Scandrick, Chapas, Lemon, and Crawford. This actually represents a pretty radical overhaul. Last season, you may recall, the core guys were John Phillips, Victor Butler, Barry Church and Jesse Holley. Due to promotions or releases, none of them took a single special teams snap.
-From the makeup of the various "teams," it appears that, if Chapas and Silva are not yet on the team, they are very close. A couple of other guys who show up on more than one team, and took more than one rotation, were Phillip Tanner and Orie Lemon. To my mind, this suggests that they have a very good shot at the 53.
-As has been reported elsewhere, rookie safety Matt Johnson tweaked a hammy on his first snap, played through it a bit, and then was excused. I had been touting him for the 53, at Silva's expense. The ubiquity of Silva's presence on the various teams units suggests that the coaches felt differently - or at least weren't counting on Johnson to be able to make up all the time he missed this offseason by September 5. I don't know what they will do with Johnson, but Silva goes onto my 53
-Typically, the backup linebackers serve as key special teamers. Two things can be gleaned from this: 1) Last year, Bruce Carter was a core ST guy once he returned from injury. Now, Connor is that guy, suggesting that Carter will be the primary ILB opposite Sean Lee; 2) players like Albright and Lemon popped up quite often; however, we saw very little of Adrian Hamilton. Is this because the coaches don't think he'll be on the team? Because he's not a good special teams player? Because he'll make the 53, but as a gameday scratch? I'm very curious to see how that situation resolves...
Later this week, I'll take another stab at the 53, in which I'll be taking some very obvious developments - thesituations, for example - into account. But I'll also be using what I've learned (or believe I've learned) herein as I continue to try to get into Jason Garrett's head. I suspect that, when I get there, Tom will be waiting for me.