[Ed Note: A Hat Tip to BTB super-writer Tom Ryle, who has commented on the following idea in a few different posts this offseason, so credit goes to him for first surfacing the idea at BTB. -- Dave]
The NFL is a passing league. That's not only conventional wisdom, but statistics back up the idea. We have mid-level quarterbacks today putting up numbers that would have been unthinkable for elite quarterbacks of yesteryear. Rule changes and evolving offensive schemes have made the pass the easiest way to put points on the board. The growth of the passing game starting really taking off in the 1980s, but has reached its zenith in the past decade as teams threw the ball over 61% of the time on average last year. The 2015 season set records on aggregate in almost all passing measurements, and saw a record low in interceptions and a continuing decline in sacks. It used to be said three things can happen when you throw the ball and two of them are bad - incompletions and interceptions. But even those are happening less and less. Three yards and a cloud of dust has been relegated to the dustbin of history. Or has it?
The Cowboys are attempting a throw back offense, or, as Tom Ryle puts it, they are going to zig while everyone else is zagging. And as noted in this morning News post, they are being joined by a couple of other teams. The Titans and the Rams are trying to jump on the "turn back the clock" bandwagon and return to smash-mouth offense. The Rams with Todd Gurley are trying to beef up their offensive line, and the Titans now boast a backfield of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. These teams will rely on the physical nature of football, but they are also hoping to rely on mismatches.
As the passing game has exploded in the NFL, defenses have been altered. Teams now play their nickel and dime alignments more than they do their base defenses. The Cowboys are a good example, the SAM linebacker is now treated as basically a part-time position, and the third corner is now an essential piece. This has happened across the league. What also has happened is that defenses have not only changed their alignments, they've changed the type of players they want for those alignments.
If smaller, quicker defenses are built to stop the pass, why not turn back the clock to the power football of the 1970s and '80s?
"Teams are starting to build to play in sub-defense now a lot, so they are going to more defensive backs," Titans general manager Jon Robinson explained to The MMQB after last month's draft. "Well, to counteract that, we can play a bigger game, and maybe move some of those smaller guys off the ball, if you will."
Safeties are now being replaced with corner hybrids, and linebackers are being replace with safety hybrids. Even on the defensive line, speed is a premium with defensive ends moving inside to tackle, especially in passing situations. Bill Belichick recently discussed the changes on defenses.
Add it all up, and it's why more teams are valuing safeties who have corner-like skills, or linebackers with safety-type skills.
"You see less of the big run-stopping Ted Johnson, Brandon Spikes type players," Belichick said. "It’s just harder when the offense spreads you out and then they go fast and you can’t substitute and you’re stuck with whoever you have out there. That creates some problems.
"The colleges are seeing the same thing and they probably have to deal with it more than we do because there are so many fast-tempo offenses where they put a lot of fast guys on the field. So they are in the same boat playing a lot of what we call dime defense, or little nickel, or whatever it is. Ends are playing tackle, safeties are playing linebacker, and corners are playing safety. It’s just kind of getting a little bit smaller in a lot of areas."
So, could Dallas be on the edge of trend, of trying to exploit these smaller defense?
To make it work, you have to have a talented offensive line, which the Cowboys have. You also need a running back who can make teams pay, which the Cowboys now believe they have. But the big thing is you have to be able to run out of "spread" formations. You can't just line up with two blocking tight ends and a fullback and expect it to always work because the mismatches won't be there as teams will substitute. Being able to run from a three-wide set, or from the shotgun, are things you need to be able to do. It also helps if you have a running back that can be a danger in the passing game, that forces the defense to keep coverage linebackers or safeties in the game. Thankfully Elliott has that skill.
The other benefit of this type of offense, of course, is that it can help your defense. Dallas is nowhere as strong on that side of the ball as they are on offense. Forbes recently ran an article explicitly saying the Cowboys attempt at becoming a run-heavy team and returning to their 90s glory days won't work. They claim that without a running quarterback, and without a strong defense, it just won't work.
The Cowboys were able to make it work to some extent in 2014 when they had DeMarco Murray. Without Murray, and without the threat of a passing game in 2015 because of the injuries to Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, the offense wasn't as successful. This year, if all the key elements can stay injury-free, we should get a good look at a team that is trying to exploit the "new" defenses in the pass-happy NFL with some very definitive "old school" football.