In the past few days, we have been treated to a slew of transactions: cutting the roster down to 75, and then to 53, compiling the practice squad, trading Sean Lissemore and Dante Rosario, and acquiring former Chief Edgar Jones and former Giant Kyle Bosworth. Whew, that's a lot of work by the front office! Lest we think all this work takes place in isolation, I think its important to view these various moves in light of the entire Cowboys offseason. Indeed, they can be understood as the final piece in the offseason puzzle, one designed to play (and to win) games in a very specific fashion.
As a way to understand what I'm talking about, allow me to take you back to November of last year, to a game in Philadelphia. The Cowboys stumbled to their second-lowest offensive output (and lowest passing total) for the season, and were outplayed by a woeful Eagles squad for much of the game. They trailed 17-10 late in the third quarter before turning it around and winning going away, 38-23. How did they do this when the offense was held in check the entire night? Simple: they got three cheap touchdowns: a 78-yard punt return from Dwayne Harris, a 47-yard Brandon Carr pick six, and a Jason Hatcher fumble recovery in the end zone following an Anthony Spencer sack.
This output was diametrically opposed to the way the team played over the vast majority of the 2011 and 2012 seasons, when Rob Ryan's defense struggled to generate turnovers and, as a consequence, Dallas was at the top (or bottom) of the league in statistics such as starting field position and average length of scoring drive. In short, the 2011-12 offense was capable of making big plays, but was not so sublime that it could drive the length of the field every time they had the ball.
In fact, I'd argue that one of the reasons the team had such poor yards-per-point figures in recent years is because they simply haven't been getting any easy scores, the TD returns and/ or short fields that generate points without requiring clean execution for eight, ten or 12 plays in a row. As has oft been reported on these pages, easy scores help to boost a moribund offense (see 2012 Chicago Bears) or rocket a good offense (see 2009 Saints) into the stratosphere. The Saints scored 55 offensive touchdowns en route to a Lombardi, but added nine others by various means; the Bears logged 32 offensive scores, and added ten other "easy scores."
By contrast, the 2012 Cowboys had 37 offensive TDs, yet added only four by other means, three of which came in the aforementioned Eagles game. Imagine what their season would have looked like had they matched the above-delineated Bears or Saints totals. When the Cowboys braintrust looked back as the season, I'd bet that's exactly the "what if" they imagined. This becomes clear when we look at their offseason moves. Let's review the front and back ends of the offseason, shall we?
Front end: Monte Kiffin's defense: a bend-but-don't break philosophy that is elegant in its simplicity, Kiffin's teams share one thing: good to great turnover totals. Indeed, as O.C.C. and I noted during training camp practices, they tend to repeat the same drills every day - and each unit always began with a turnover generation drill. It remains to be seen how this work will manifest during the season; certainly we saw some positive signs in the five preseason games. Simply put, more turnovers means more points - and more easy points.
Back end: The acquisitions of Edgar Jones and Kyle Bosworth, and Danny McCray's new contract: both Jones and Bosworth were their team's McCray: a down-roster special teams ace. All three may be liabilities when asked to play significant defensive snaps - but all three are difference-makers on "teams." As KD so ably reported recently, after losing a guy like Alex Albright, it cant be stated enough how important it was to find a way to keep McCray on the roster - and to give him some help. In the above mentioned names, plus Eric Frampton, Jeff Heath and J. J. Wilcox, the Cowboys have a good-sized group of teams-first players.
What this means philosophically: Its not that the Cowboys hope to win with defense and special teams in 2013. Rather, they see them as units capable of helping the offense - and, by extension, the team - to function at maximum capacity. Consider: the team's strengths pertain to the pass: on offense, the passing game should be impressive and Kiffin's squad is at its best not when stopping interior runs but when defending third down passes. In short, this team, as presently constituted, is built to play with a lead. And how better to build a lead than by generating short fields and cheap scores?
Last year, building a lead proved impossible; the Cowboys played from behind almost the entire season. This had negative effects on the running game: trailing quickly, Jason Garrett and Co. often abandoned the run. In 2013, if they are able to translate these philosophical changes into in-field production, we'll see an uptick in their run stats, and not because they'll run the ball for more yards per carry so much as because they'll be in more run-friendly game situations. Which leads us to...
...the middle: the two-tight end offense, which emerged as their base personnel grouping after the Cowboys drafted Gavin Escobar in the second round. As we've noted many times, the strength of this formation is that it doesn't tip the offense's hand; a team can run and pass equally well out of the same looks. If the Cowboys have success passing out of 12 personnel, opposing teams will back off when they see it on the field, giving the Cowboys a natural advantage in the running game. Easy scores will leverage this advantage.
What I hope to demonstrate here is that the many decisions made by the front office in the last eight months can all be gathered around a clear, coherent philosophy, a way in which the team wants to play (and, we hope, to win) games. Therefore, when you review the extensive slate of recent transactions, each of which comes down the news pipeline with staggering ferocity and singularity, remember that they cannot be viewed in isolation. Looking at them that way often makes the trade off of, for example, Brandon Magee for Kyle Bosworth puzzling: "why would we jettison a guy to whom they gave $70,000 in guaranteed money," a Cowboy fan asks, "for a player the LB-starved Giants discarded?"
However, if we look at them as past of a coherent, long-term plan, they begin to make more sense. Being reductive to make a point: when we plug both of them into the team's philosophical equation, Bosworth helps the offense more than Magee does.