Did you see it? It was not something that happened in the Dallas Cowboys’ surprisingly entertaining 20-18 Hall of Fame win over the Arizona Cardinals. Rather, it was a couple of key elements that showed up. If the team chooses to combine them with other assets properly, the Cowboys may have a new personnel package that will give defenses absolute fits.
Wondering what I am writing about? Consider two stat lines from the game:
Rico Gathers: 4 targets, 3 receptions, 59 yards, 1 touchdown
Keith Smith: 5 targets, 3 receptions, 15 yards
There was a lot of excitement about Gathers’ performance, especially the 26-yard touchdown where he used his size and hands to simply overwhelm the defender. But the play where he secured the ball going to the ground, popped up, and just ran over the first defender was impressive as well. Dallas might finally have a second serious receiving threat at tight end.
Smith’s numbers were not nearly as flashy, but still significant. One of the passes targeted at him was batted down at the line, so he still was doing a very good job bringing in the ball. He still has a long way to go, but it does bring back memories of another fullback. Daryl Johnston was a very sure-handed receiver as well as a very capable lead blocker. He accumulated over 2,200 yards receiving in his career, including 14 touchdowns.
But what does that mean? Well, this is just one writer playing coach, but consider this personnel package:
RB Ezekiel Elliott
FB Keith Smith
TEs Jason Witten and Rico Gathers
WR Dez Bryant
This is a group that could be rolled out in a short-yardage situation, especially in the red zone. The defense would likely counter with a run-stuffing group, looking to crowd the box while putting their best coverage DB on Bryant just in case.
And then Dak Prescott drops back into shotgun and the rest of the personnel motion into a four-wide configuration. Gathers goes to the WR position opposite Bryant, while Elliott and Smith line up in the slots, or both go to one side to put three receivers there.
Get it now? Gathers and Smith are both starting to look like very capable receivers, and we know that the team is looking to get Elliott more involved in the passing game. Suddenly the defense has the wrong personnel to cover all five potential targets, any one of which could get the ball (because you know Witten will find a way to get open). The most likely outcomes of this are: 1. The opponent is forced to call a time out, or 2. The defensive coordinator throwing his headset on the ground in disgust as Dak burns his team.
Now, an obvious running package becomes instead the opening move in a chess match. Does the defense stick with defending the run, only to see the shift to a passing alignment? Or do they leave a pass defense group in there (probably nickel), in which case the Cowboys go ahead and keep it on the ground to exploit the smaller defenders? Because Prescott would have the ability to option from one to the other, Dallas can counter whatever the opponent elects to do. They can also go with three wides and keep Elliott in the backfield, opening up run/pass option opportunities, or just stick with the original alignment and still look to throw to Bryant, Witten, or Gathers off a play fake.
If that all seems like a whole lot of dot connecting, well, yeah. It is. But it is also something that now is hardly outside the realm of possibility. Smith is almost certain to make the 53, and Gathers’ performance is threatening to force the team to find a spot for him, because too many teams are hungry for big, pass-catching tight ends. If you have the weapons in the NFL, you want to find a way to use them.
This may never come to pass, but if it does . . . fun will ensue.