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Talent Or Scheme - What Will Be The Key To An Improved Cowboys Defense?

How rigidly the Cowboys adhere to their Tampa 2 defense may play a key role in how the defense performs in 2014.

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Last year, the season started off badly for the Carolina Panthers. Their record was 1-3 after four games, and coach Ron Rivera was regularly featured very near the top of the seemingly ubiquitous and mind-numbing "Top 5 coaches on the hot seat" articles. At the end of the season, the Panthers had won the NFC South with a 12-4 record and Coach Ron Rivera had won the NFL's Coach of the Year award.

There are many things that went right for the Panthers after their slow start, but the one thing that I found the most interesting was relayed by Rivera in December last year, per Pro Football Talk:

"We had a little bit of a slow start and during that slow start," Rivera said of first-year offensive coordinator [Mike Shula]. "One of the things that Mike and the offensive staff did was they went back and looked at — we have a library of all of Cam’s plays from college — they looked at what Cam did extremely well and said, ‘You know what, let’s adapt a couple of these ideas and incorporate them into what we do.’  [Shula] took three or four things that [Newton] did really well and we’ve incorporated that and put that into what we do as an offense.  Mike has made it work and that has really helped us."

Rivera explained that the study of Newton’s Auburn performances happened in September, after the Panthers fell to 0-2 with a loss at Buffalo.

"We went up to Buffalo, we were doing some things, took a step back and said, ‘What can we do to help the quarterback?’" Rivera said.  "Mike and his guys said they were going to go back and take a look at it and Mike told me they really wanted to do it so we did it.  He came to me and said, ‘Look, Coach, this is what I want to incorporate and this is why.’  Mike’s reasoning and his thought process is right on and I was really excited to hear, ‘Let’s take a look at some of these other concepts, somebody else’s ideas.  It’s going to help the team, let’s do it.’  I was really excited to hear that."

Why are we talking about the Panthers on a Cowboys blog? Because what Rivera is saying is that the Panthers seem to have adapted their scheme to fit their player talent, and that's something I feel the Cowboys have not been particularly good at recently.

One of the things that has bothered me about the Cowboys over the last few years, is that they don’t seem to be able to - or don’t want to - adapt their scheme to specific players. It always seems like it's the players who have to fit the scheme.

  • You’re a press corner? Well, tough luck. In Dallas you’re playing zone.
  • You have great hands? Nice to know, but we want you to stay in and block. So what that you never really blocked in college. Deal with it.
  • So you ran the fastest 40 for a tight end at the Combine in 2012? Big Deal. Show me how fast you can block.
  • Shifty speedster with breakaway capability? Learn to pick up the blitz first, you puny human.

The Seattle Seahawks have one of the deepest roster in the NFL, across the board. And yet, 21 of the 53 active roster members in the Super Bowl came into the NFL as undrafted free agents, per ESPN. The difference between great and mediocre teams isn't simply talent: it's how they develop that talent, writes Sander Philipse, fellow European and managing editor of of Bucs Nation, the SB Nation blog for Buccaneers fans.

Part of it is about asking a player what he can do, rather than focusing on what he can't do. The Seahawks personify this mentality. They have arguably the best secondary in the NFL, but it's a secondary that plays to the strengths of each of their players. Kam Chancellor is a terrific in-the-box safety, but he can struggle in deep coverage -- so they simply don't ask him to play deep much. All of their cornerbacks are tall and physical, but they can also be a bit stiff in changing directions -- so Seattle runs a Cover 3 base defense that hides those weaknesses.

The Seahawks do this everywhere. They collect edge rushers who are weak against the run, and cover them up by using huge defensive tackles like Red Bryant as defensive ends on the other side of the line. They draft a very talented but raw player like Bruce Irvin in the first round, and then find ways for him to make an impact. They convert defensive linemen to offensive guards, get Percy Harvin in space and rarely ask their players to do something they can't do.

Mind you, one of the key reasons that I rely so heavily on numbers and stats in most of my posts is that they provide a certain narrative logic that can be verified. Absent that structured narrative, we're basically talking gut feelings that are hard if not impossible to disprove. Yet every time we talk about "scheme fit" in Dallas, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. My gut, unreliable as it may be, and without any type of quantification, tells me that the Cowboys, and perhaps Garrett in particular, value scheme over individual talent.

At least that's been the impression I came away with over the last few years. You can look at some of the players they passed over in the draft because they weren't scheme fits, you can wonder about why players are only used a certain way and not another, and you can look at some of the players that left Dallas and came into their own elsewhere. Take the example of the much-maligned Alan Ball. Here's what Peter Damilatis of Pro Football Focus writes about Alan Ball and the circuitous route he had to take to become a quality starting corner in the NFL:

Ball came to Jacksonville as a free agent last year and quickly established himself as a frontrunner for a starting cornerback job, but he had a long and winding career path to get to that point. Originally a four-year starter at the University of Illinois, Ball was picked by the Cowboys in Round 7 of the 2007 Draft and split his first two seasons between the practice squad and special teams. He finally got some substantial playing time in 2009, including four games at free safety that led to an unfortunate decision by the Cowboys coaching staff.

After that season, the Cowboys front office re-addressed the big contract they’d given to free safety Ken Hamlin just two years earlier. Hamlin’s 2009 campaign was solid, but not spectacular enough to justify the nearly $6 million Dallas was scheduled to pay him in 2010. After seeing Ball do some decent work at the position, they pegged him as a cheap replacement and cut Hamlin. It was an ill-advised move.

Leading the Cowboys defense in snaps in 2010, Ball gradually became the weakest link in Dallas’ pass coverage. Historically more of a press-man outside cornerback, Ball looked lost playing deep in space. His -8.0 coverage grade that season was fourth-worst of any safety in the league. He notched just one pass defensed all year, and the seven touchdowns he allowed tied for the most at his position. He was demoted to backup cornerback in 2011, spent some time miscast in the slot, and again posted a negative coverage grade. The damage had been done, and Ball entered free agency in 2012 as a low-valued commodity.

Ball followed his former head coach Wade Phillips to the Texans, where he was once again relegated to special teams duty and had his lowest defensive snap total since 2008. He considered returning to Houston last season, but [Jacksonville Coach Gus] Bradley sold him on the chance to start, realizing that Ball’s 6-foot-2 frame fit the Seattle mold he so coveted. The decision turned out to be a great one for both parties.

All of these thoughts had been percolating in my mind ever since I had a conversation about this topic with fellow BTB-member MosesArt back in February, and I was feeling a little gloomy about another season in which the Cowboys would ask their press-man corners to play zone. Many observers, myself included, believe the Cowboys' trio of corners, Carr, Claiborne, and Scandrick, are better suited as man-to-man corners, and that the Cowboys played them in zone way too much last year.

But then my gloomy feeling disappeared when I saw the comments from Rod Marinelli that were posted in an article about the defense yesterday on BTB.

"These guys are really good man corners," Marinelli said. "They can go up and get you and press you. They really add something to the defensive package."

So far in the organized team activities, Claiborne said the Cowboys have played more man.

"We've got three good corners that can go up and play with anybody," Claiborne said. "When you have those types of weapons on your team, you have to use them. I don't know how much man or what we'll actually be in, but I know we'll be in a good majority of it."

"You can add maybe a few more guys to the rush or you can buy some time for the rush," Marinelli said. "Those are all good things."

I've always believed that great coaches find ways to maximize the impact of their players by adjusting schemes and finding ways to get guys making plays, rather than trying to force players to fit into the coach's system. And Marinelli's apparent willingness to play his players more to their strengths is something that gives me hope for this defense.

At the end of the day, football is a game of systems and schemes. But do you win by getting the right personnel to maximize your system, or do you win by adjusting your scheme to maximize the talent?

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