There is an old saying that there are no problems, just opportunities. While it is hackneyed and overused, it is still around because there is certainly some truth in it. For the Dallas Cowboys, that may have just happened with the recent swap of fullbacks with the Oakland Raiders. As reported earlier, the Cowboys lost free agent fullback Keith Smith to the Raiders (and Rich Bisaccia, former ST coordinator in Dallas who left to take the same job in Oakland). Jason Garrett is one head coach who still loves him some fullback, so Smith’s departure left a roster hole. To fill it, the Cowboys put together a low-cost trade with the Raiders to acquire Jamize Olawale. With the Smith signing, Olawale’s time wearing the silver and black was probably coming to an end, and he now returns to the team where his career started. It is a very minor move and not likely to quell the discontent for the Dallas fanbase. It was not a planned development, since all indications were that the Cowboys had hoped to re-sign Smith, although for much less than Oakland offered. But it may just be a mostly accidental step towards the much discussed idea of making the offense more suited to Dak Prescott.
Smith and Olawale are somewhat different kinds of fullbacks. The former is a better blocker, while the latter seems more valuable with the ball in his hands. Take a look at a few plays for him.
(h/t to R.J. Ochoa for putting those two in my TL)
If you forget about Jamize Olawale he’ll go 75 yards on you pic.twitter.com/32bo1078GV— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) March 20, 2018
Not your typical fullback. So why was Oakland ready to pay over $4 million to bring in Smith? That is almost certainly due to the presence of Bissacia. NFL coaches have “their guys”, and Smith was admittedly a special teams monster. Olawale is a different type of player, and it might be possible that the Raiders didn’t really have a good plan to use him.
Gruden ultimately wanted a more physical blocker. Shame Olawale wasn't properly utilized in 2017. Could cause a lot of match up problems in the right scheme. https://t.co/INFMK2NjDh— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) March 20, 2018
Now the burning question is whether Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett can come up with a better approach. Because, based on the results from a fairly limited number of snaps in his last job, Olawale can be a dangerous weapon in both the running and passing game, and potentially much more help to Prescott than Smith was.
We can start just simply with that wheel route shown above. While Smith flashed occasionally as a pass catcher, he never showed that kind of explosiveness and speed. Even when used as the safety valve fullbacks usually are in the passing game, Olawale is a threat to turn a short pass into a big gain every time he touches the ball. In that, he is a great complement to Ezekiel Elliott, who also is known to sometimes do some big damage as a pass receiver. He has been very much underused in that capacity, however.
Now, putting a 21 package on the field does not have to automatically be a run formation. You can do play action with both backs going into the pattern, or you can motion one of them out wide. Predictability was another flaw of the Cowboys’ offense last season, and Olawale offers multiple ways to overcome that. And, as shown above, he is also a contributor in the ground game beyond being a lead blocker. Line up in 22 personnel in short yardage, and the defense can no longer key on Elliott, because Ozawale just might come barreling right up the gut at them. The possibilities in RPO are also multiplied. You have to account for Ozawale in that situation.
But the real value of his versatility is in getting favorable matchups on the field. Defensive packages are often dictated by the offensive personnel, but if the Cowboys establish him as a legitimate receiver in their offense, they can make the defense wrong no matter how they line up. Give Prescott both a running and passing play, and let him audible to whichever will be more advantageous against the personnel and alignment across the line.
One predicted aspect of the move towards Dak friendliness is that the offense will start to incorporate more college-style plays. Ozawale seems much more suited to that kind of football than Smith was. Smith got a nice payday from Oakland because he is a special teams ace, but Ozawale’s value to the Cowboys is going to be on offense. And as mentioned, he may be worth giving more snaps to since he can function as a receiver, or free Elliott up to take that role since Ozawale can still carry the ball very effectively himself.
This was not a move that seemed to have been planned on or possibly even thought of in advance. But with the signing of Smith in Oakland, which then made Ozawale a cost-effective trade target, Dallas may have stumbled onto something that has a lot more impact on the future of the offense than you would guess at first.
A couple of days ago, fullback was a problem, even if not the biggest for the team. Now it has really become an opportunity. It’s time for the coaches to make full use of it.