This is the worst part of the football year. The initial rush of free agency is gone, replaced by an unending wave of mock drafts that threaten to drive any sane man towards the warm embrace of madness. Anything worth analyzing has been analyzed, and any speculation about the draft or the next season is so premature it belongs in an American Pie movie. It's a time for navel gazing, but instead of angels on a pinhead we debate the relative worth of sacks per million dollars, and the butterfly effect of Mo Claiborne. In other words ladies and gentlemen, it's the perfect time for a Random Thoughts Column!
1. What Is a Marinelli Defense?
Our very own Rabblerouser has a really interesting article about some experiments the Cowboys are going to be doing in training camp with linebacker formations. My first initial thought was, "I don't see it, that doesn't sound like a Rod Marinelli defense". But that eventually got me thinking, what exactly is a Rod Marinelli defense?
This will be Marinelli's 20th year as either a college or NFL coach, but only his fifth year as a defensive coordinator. For the majority of that time he was a defensive line coach, and we know what he wants to do there. But what about coverage? How does he use his linebackers? These are questions that I believe are unanswered. For his first three years as a defensive coordinator I would argue he was just managing the defense that Lovie Smith installed in Chicago,and the same argument could be made regarding his 2014 season in Dallas; he was basically still running Monte Kiffin's defense.
2015 will be the first year Rod Marinelli will truly own the defense. There is no Lovie Smith on staff, no shadow of Monte Kiffin hovering overhead. For perhaps the first time in Marinelli's distinguished career a defense is totally his. I'm really excited to see what he does with it.
Unleash the Secret Weapon!
"Gotta upgrade the defensive line" has become something of a mantra in Cowboys nation. The defensive line has become a totem; upgrading it will improve the rush, improve coverage, and quite possibly solve world hunger. And I'm all for that; the defensive line, especially the three-technique and weakside defensive end, are very important in a 4-3 under formation.
But the more I think about it, the more I think that the biggest impact to our defense would come from a true three-down linebacker, who can play the run and be a factor in the passing game. We saw that impact, somewhat, early in the season from Rolando McClain. And it makes sense. Because of our defensive philosophy of "playing the run on the way to the QB", there are going to be cutback lanes for runners to find. A true sideline-to-sideline linebacker is needed to clean up and close down those lanes.
The same holds true in coverage. Last year Dallas's DB's played a ton of over the top coverage. And that's fine, it helps limit big plays and YAC. But it limits the "splash plays" that a DB can make, there won't be many interceptions unless the QB floats a pass. It also means that quick underneath routes like slants, curls, and crosses are going to be open.
That's where the LB comes in. A playmaking linebacker, who can get into a quarterbacks throwing lanes, and undercut passes can be a nightmare for opposing offenses. There's a reason that Bruce Carter led the team interceptions.
And we have that dynamic, playmaking linebacker on the team, in the form of one Sean Lee. If he can stay healthy Sean Lee is the kind of playmaker who can singlehandedly take this defense from mediocre to marvelous. It's a big if, but tis the season of optimism.
Nobody Knows Nothing:
I can predict, with some certainty, that any given play is going to end with a tackle by the defense. I can even be fairly certain that at the end of the season, a linebacker or safety will lead our team in tackles. But it would be foolish to guess before a game what player will have the most tackles, or before a play who will make the tackle. The same goes on offense. I can say with some conviction that Green Bay and Dallas will have good offenses. But that certainty goes out the window when talking about any given game.
Now this is a point I want to expand on later in more detail, but for now I just want to say, football is a complex system, and like all complex systems, it's impossible to really nail down what's going on. And this is true at all levels; from an individual play to the entire system. The system will react and adapt to outside stimuli, and sometimes just mutate randomly. In other words talking about football is like talking about climate; we can model long-term trends and patterns, but that has little to do with the immediate weather.
So what's the upshot to all this? Well it's silly season, which means there are a ton of pundits trying to live up to the name. Talking heads will be making 100% guaranteed predictions, moralist writers will talk in absolutes and black and whites. It makes for good copy, but really distorts our ability to correctly analyze and understand the game of football.
The TE Game:
An excellent example of what I meant above can be found in the discussion of Dallas's two-tight-end set. When people talk about two tight ends they envision something similar to the former Patriots offense with Gronk and Hernandez, two dynamic pass catching tight ends putting up big numbers. And Dallas just hasn't done that. Jason Witten continues to do his normal Pro-Bowl worthy work, but the second tight end, whether it be James Hanna or Gavin Escobar, just doesn't seem to produce much. So people label the two tight end set a failure.
But I'm not sure that's accurate. First off, it's kind of silly to talk about a "two tight end set". Dallas actually used two tight ends in 74 different formations. 74!!! And from those 74 formations we used two tight ends in 435 plays. Since Dallas ran a total of 1,014 plays, we were in a two tight end offense about 43% of the time. And we were effective using it; in the four most common two tight end formations Dallas ran 205 plays for 1,171 yards, a tidy 5.7 yards per play.
So no, I don't believe it's fair to call our two-tight-end sets a failure. It is not the same as New England's two-tight-end offense, but it was a major part of the offensive success that we had last year.
Murray, Mortality, and Morality:
There was talk throughout the season that Dallas was purposefully running DeMarco Murray into the ground, that, because he was a free agent they didn't really care if they "used him up". I don't know if that's true or not. But if it is true, then that makes me kind of sad.
There are a lot of fans out there who don't care about "off field" issues. They don't care about tradition or loyalty, only that Dallas wins. In that mindset it's just good business that Dallas get everything they can out of Murray. It was good football practice that we got rid of Ware.
And there's nothing wrong with thinking that way. It's completely true, it does make sense to use up Murray, just like it made sense to cut Ware. Blind loyalty to your own players leads to bad contracts, which leads to a bad team. Football,ultimately, is a business. This is fact.
But still...it makes me a little uneasy. Because I want to root for the white hats. I want the Cowboys franchise to win on the field, and act with nothing but class off the field. I want my football players to be heroes and role models, and I want the front office to act with the utmost moral integrity in everything they do.
I know that's naive and more than a little hypocritical. Michael Irvin was sure no white hat, and he's a Cowboy legend. I cheered just as loud for every Terrell Owens touchdown as I do for Jason Witten's. I love the cap flexibility shedding aging or overpaid players gives us. In the grand scheme of things winning cures a lot of ills, and even if we did "use and abuse" Murray it's not that big of a deal.
It really isn't. But still, there's that little uneasy feeling. The white hat is just a touch grayer. It's not a big deal. But like the man said, "it ain't no tragedy, but it sure is a shame".
Well those are my thoughts for the week ladies and gentlemen. Let me know what you think in the comments!