Last week, I wrote a post looking at the distinction between the three offensive systems that predominate in the NFL, and noted that the Cowboys were "moving to," or at were probably going to incorporate elements of, the Erhardt-Perkins system. The E-P system's plays look like those you'd expect to see in any other scheme. As far as the passing game (our primary object of study) is concerned, the key difference lies in nomenclature: rather than naming a play by including each individual assignment, the E-P organizes plays by "concepts," or sets of route combinations.
In the example we used, from a Patriots playbook, a single word (in this case "Tosser") indicates a double-slant. Another word ("Ghost") suggests a three-man route combo: a fly, an eight-yard out and a flat route. These two concepts are combined to create a "Ghost/ Tosser" series. The key, as the article notes, is that these combinations can be run by any number of personnel groupings. For example, in the four plays we used, the deep route in the "Ghost" concept was run by three different players: the flanker, H-back, and F-back (the latter two either line up or motion out wide). The Pats can line up in two-tight ends, for a power run and then, without changing personnel, run a play from this series, with Aaron Hernandez line up wide.
This has the dual purpose of simplifying things for the offense and sowing confusion among defenders. The best example of this is the section from an excellent analysis of the E-P system by Chris Brown of Smart Football that I included with last week's story. He takes a single drive in last season's big Patriots-Texans Monday Night faceoff. Allow me to share it again:
It's late in the first quarter. A play ends, and seconds later Tom Brady has his team back at the line. He gives a hand signal to his receiver, a tap to his offensive linemen. "Alabama! Alabama!" The ball is snapped. An outlet pass goes to Stevan Ridley, who rumbles to the Houston 40-yard line, another first down. Subs run in. Soon, the Patriots are back at the line. Except now, running back Shane Vereen is lined up out wide. The Texans are scrambling. Brady takes the snap and hits Vereen on a quick hitch. Vereen dips around linebacker Bradie James and then spins back inside, gaining 25 yards before he's done.
The next play is the same play, with the same personnel, with zero time for the defense to recover. The three receivers to Brady's left crisscross around defenders while Aaron Hernandez, who was lined up as a back to Brady's left, dashes to the flat. He makes the catch and takes it to Houston's 1-yard line. The same 11 Patriots sprint to the line, but Vereen is now in the backfield. The play is a run to the left, and he's into the end zone untouched. Touchdown, New England.
As you can see, the Patriots had the Texans defense on their heels for the entire series. They did this two ways: by quickly shuttling in new personnel groups (after the outlet pass to Stevan Ridley) and, after that set of substitutions, by running a gallimaufry of different plays with the same eleven men on the field. They can do this because of personnel diversity: not only do they have a lot of different body types who can line up opposite the same defenders. Imagine lining up on one play against Rob Gronkowski and then, fifteen second later, opposite Julian Edelman. More importantly, many, if not all, of these players can do multiple things: run, block, catch. As a result, they can conceivably line up almost anywhere and do almost anything out of that formation, while giving the defense precious little time to figure out what the heck is going on.
If the Cowboys are going to incorporate elements of this scheme (and I believe they are, especially in no-huddle situations), I think they will need to enjoy a similar degree of diversity to achieve maximal success. So, how well does the team's current personnel function on this level? Let's take a look:
Different Body Types: Under Garrett, the Cowboys have looked to acquire a specific type of receiver, in the Michael Irvin mold: the 6'2', 205 pound range, with the ability to use his body to screen defenders from the ball. And, indeed, the leading wideouts in the past six years - Terrell Owens, Roy Williams, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant - have all fit this mold. More recently, however, they have been diversifying, with players like the 5'10" Dwayne Harris and the diminutive Cole Beasley. Since releasing Danny Amendola in 2008, I wonder if the Cowboys front office has added a second wide receiver profile: the waterbug.
Imagine: a zone corner might see Harris, Joseph Randle and Gavin Escobar on consecutive snaps. Or, a safety might face the 6'5" Jason Witten, Beasley and then Miles Austin in three consecutive plays. Because each of these guys presents a distinct set of challenges, but will only be seen for a play before somebody else lines up there, a given defender will have a hard time adjusting to the way his opponent plays.
Diverse Players: The running backs the Cowboys looked at in recent drafts (including Stevan Ridley, who kicked off the above-described Patriots series by taking an outlet pass for a first down) have all had diverse games. All can run and catch - many well enough to be wider receivers. And they tend to have receivers bodies: both Randle and DeMarco Murray fit the Cowboys "big receiver" profile and have soft hands. In college, Murry lined up out wide with some frequency and - this is key - can run a receiver's route tree. I suspect Randle was drafted because he can do the same.
In Jason Witten and Miles Austin, the Cowboys have optimally diverse guys at their positions. Both can line up anywhere on the field, and are adept both at physicality and finesse. The question is: who will join them? Last season, Dwayne Harris began to show some diversity; he made plays downfield and was dazzling with the ball in his hands after short hitches and screens. Might Cole Beasley make a similar leap this year? Last year, James Hanna came on late, and showed good hands to complement his elite speed. Can he refine his game to the point where he poses as much of a threat on 3rd and short as he does running down the seam? And: as rookies, can either Terrence Williams or Gavin Escobar provide any threat?
In looking at things this way, it's evident that, for the Cowboys offense to achieve the diversity enjoyed by the Pats, some of their younger players need to grow and to diversify their games. But imagine this future: the Cowboys huddle with Tony Romo, five offensive linemen, Witten, a developed and diverse Escobar, Dez Bryant, a more diverse Beasley and Murray. The formational possibilities are seemingly limitless, and the ways in which they can use the players on the field would be staggering. What would a defensive coordinator do?
It's this future, I think, that Garrett and Callahan imagine, and one I think we'll see them continue to work toward before it begins to flower in late 2013 or 2014. If they receive above average line play, the sky's the limit.