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What is the Cowboys’ coaching staff thinking?

Some head-scratching personnel decisions by the Cowboys leave us wondering.

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NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Minicamp Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
  • I am not now, nor have I ever been, a football coach. I don’t know an A gap from a B gap. I can’t distinguish cover-2 from man-over. I don’t know when a formation indicates a cornerback should use inside leverage. I understand these things when people with much more football knowledge than I explain them, but on my own I’m hopeless.

All of this is to say compared to real NFL coaches — I’m ignorant. Most of us are. And thus I freely admit when it comes to what I’m about to write it’s very possible I simply don’t know what I’m talking about.

And yet, I’m very befuddled by certain personnel decisions made by the Cowboys’ coaching staff. We’ll start with Jeff Heath; I simply don’t understand why the coaching staff continues to start Heath over other options at safety. I have nothing against Heath. His personal story is a terrific one. He showed up at the Cowboys’ 2013 training camp an undrafted free agent and made enough of an impression to earn a roster spot. There are less than 1,700 NFL roster spots available to the world’s population. Thus I have serious admiration for any individual who makes the commitment and dedication necessary to defy immense odds to procure one of those very limited spots. Jeff Heath has parlayed that opportunity into an extended NFL career. Good for him; I think that’s terrific.

Heath is 26-years-old and in his fifth full season with the Cowboys. He’s started a total of 15 games and has logged almost 1,500 defensive snaps. That’s enough time and enough snaps to to come to firm conclusions about his abilities as a player. By my (admittedly ignorant) evaluation Heath does not appear to be a legitimate NFL starting safety.

Heath has definitely failed fan’s “eye test” as a starter in 2017 leading to articles like this:

Jeff Heath certainly earned the chance to become the starting safety for the Dallas Cowboys. But poor tackling, inconsistent play and having no impact in causing takeaways will likely land him back in his special teams role soon. If so, sixth round rookie Xavier Woods seems primed to be his replacement.

And this

For all that Heath brings as a stable presence, he will never be great.

Isn't that what the Cowboys aspire to be? Doesn't the team want to develop the best possible players rather than accepting mediocre ones? Heath deserves a spot on the Cowboys' roster. He should see the field when the Cowboys need him to. But if he were ever going to be great, it would have happened right now.

My amateur evaluation of Heath as a defender is he has poor instincts in coverage, lacks makeup speed, takes poor angles and is not a sure tackler. My evaluation doesn’t seem to stray far from the general consensus of both fans, mainstream media guys and other bloggers.

The advanced data guys agree. The Pro Football Focus gang ranks Heath 61st among safeties with a grade of 48.9. John Owning from the Fanrags Sports Network agrees:

Jeff Heath, S

Despite many hoping that Heath would thrive when thrust into a starting role, he’s been the same guy he’s been for his entire career.

Heath is a fantastic special teamer, and he’s not afraid to stick his nose into the fray to make a play, but he’s severely limited as a pure safety.

He is wild and reckless in his pursuit of ball carriers, causing him to have poor balance and be easily eluded by running backs. He is 60th in tackling efficiency against the run among 62 safeties who have played more than 50 percent of their defense’s snaps, via Pro Football Focus.

In coverage, Heath hasn’t been much better as he has had too many mental errors.

Grade: D

If there were no better options, I could understand the Cowboys’ decision-making. Jaylon Smith, for instance, has been starting and playing way too many snaps because injuries to Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens left the team with no options.

But the Cowboys have options to replace Heath. Specifically rookie Xavier Woods is ready and available. The sixth-round draft pick was pressed into emergency duty as a cornerback (not his natural position) against Denver, logging 34 snaps. He then played another 43 snaps against Arizona. In both games he showed the instincts and physical style he had exhibited in college. His Pro Football Focus grade is 79.4.

Yet, with Heath struggling and Woods’ promising debut the Dallas coaching staff continued to give Heath virtually every defensive snap and scaled Woods back to only 32 total defensive snaps against the Rams and Packers. I’ll remind you those teams put up 65 points combined against Dallas.

So what gives? What does the Cowboys’ coaching staff see that seems to elude the rest of us? I had hoped the bye week would lead to an announcement that Woods would be given an opportunity as the starter to see if he can improve upon Heath’s performance (not an unreasonable expectation based upon the evidence).

Instead we’ve heard nothing. A lot of media speculation but no indication whatsoever that a change is coming. I’m now expecting the starters and snap counts to be allocated about they way they have been thus far, with Dallas continuing to give one of the worst-ranked safeties in the NFL the lion’s share of snaps while a promising, young player sits on the sidelines.

Other befuddling decisions

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the Dallas coaching staff come to different conclusions about playing time than the general consensus. Kellen Moore is judged by the entire NFL not to be worthy of a roster spot. This was proven when he was released after training camp and any of the other 31 teams could have had his services for nothing. Moore is 28-years-old and in his sixth NFL season. He is exactly what he is and has absolutely no upside or potential. Yet only the Dallas coaching staff values him enough to be on the roster.

Brice Butler has looked spectacular in very limited snaps in 2017. He’s averaging 17.3 yards per target. He’s the only receiver making big plays. The big play has historically been Terrance Williams’ specialty. But Williams is struggling in 2017, with his average yards per target down more than two yards from his pre-2017 numbers (9.5 to 7.2). Williams has also had debilitating drops against both Green Bay and Los Angeles.

It seems logical to at least consider an increased role for Butler to provide the deep threat Williams isn’t providing. But I haven’t heard a peep about a change. When asked about it this week Jason Garrett basically said the team thought Butler was more effective in a limited role.

I also recall last season when La’el Collins was given the starting left guard position over Ronald Leary. Leary, of course, was a proven commodity. He had started 35 games in three seasons and helped anchor the 2014 offensive line many regarded as the best position unit in the entire league.

The Dallas staff, however, believed Collins offered the better option and relegated Leary to the bench. When Collins was injured and Leary returned to the starting lineup it became evident the coaches had erred with Leary playing significantly better. Leary, by the way, currently ranks 10th among guards in the NFL by PFF while playing for the Denver Broncos.

All of which leaves me scratching my head. As I stated above, I know nothing compared to those who have lived and breathed football for years and years. Their ability to evaluate plays and players is infitely better than mine. So I’m left wondering, what are the Cowboys’ coaching staff seeing that I don’t see?

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