Jason Witten achieved near-iconic status with the Dallas Cowboys. Heck, maybe that is understating it. Among his many achievements, one that stands out is the 197 consecutive games he played in, the record for tight ends. He was a real iron man, and to have missed only one game (in his rookie season) to injury is remarkable, especially for a player who saw plenty of contact.
And it wasn’t just that he didn’t miss games. He was on the field for nearly every offensive snap, especially in the latter years of his career. It was a testament to his drive and his firm belief that the team always had a better chance with him out there.
However, that may not have been the case as his production began a slow but steady decline in recent years. Having a tight end on the field means you have to leave another player, usually a wide receiver, on the bench. It also was one of the most predictable aspects of the Dallas offense, and predictability has been seen as a flaw for the Cowboys, especially last season.
But Witten is now gone. And while he certainly leaves a void behind, his move into broadcasting also opens up a new opportunity for the staff to use something they were basically unable to while Witten was with the team and apparently able to dictate his own use to the coaches.
That is the 10 personnel package.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the common terminology for personnel groupings, a quick refresher: Since a quarterback and five offensive linemen are going to be on the field for all plays, the other skill positions (running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends) make up the other five. The common way of labeling the mix of positions is two digits, where the first one designates the number of running backs (including fullbacks) and the second one is how many tight ends are on the field. The Cowboys have most frequently used 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs), with 12 the next most utilized (one RB, two TEs, two WRs), as the table below shows:
|Cowboys personnel groupings by snaps played, 2015-2017|
|00 (0 RB, 0 TE)||- -||- -||1|
|10 (1 RB, 0 TE)||- -||- -||- -|
|20 (2 RB, 0 TE)||- -||- -||- -|
|01 (0 RB, 1 TE)||15||31||26|
|11 (1 RB, 1 TE)||496||612||611|
|21 (2 RB, 1 TE)||75||84||43|
|02 (0 RB, 2 TE)||27||2||6|
|12 (1 RB, 2 TE)||229||206||148|
|22 (2 RB, 2 TE)||52||57||80|
|13 (1 RB, 3 TE)||73||19||92|
|23 (2 RB, 3 TE)||2||- -||- -|
But the 10 package is one that is used a lot by other teams, especially on obvious passing downs. Putting four wideouts in the game allows the team to attack downfield when they need chunk yardage. For all his positive contributions, Witten was not always the best option for that, especially on third and ten or longer. He was often a great safety valve for his quarterback, but he just didn’t offer much hope of breaking a play for a big gain anymore.
Now he is gone, and the staff can add this to their repertoire. While that still depends on Scott Linehan and the playbook, the way the team is being reshaped this year points to 10 personnel being a big factor.
One thing contributing to this is the addition of two wide receivers in free agency (Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson) and two more in the draft (Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson). More importantly, the new players all seem to have a couple of traits that would make having more on the field useful: They are good route runners (so they will be where the quarterback expects them to be), and an ability to get yards after the catch (something that was becoming nearly nonexistent for Witten). Those are also traits that Cole Beasley brings to the table.
That means that the Cowboys can put four of the wide receivers on the field. With that YAC ability, they become threats to break a big play with every reception. And the package can also be used on running downs. Four wide receivers will spread the defense out across the field, which gets defenders out of the box and opens holes up for the runner, even without a blocking tight end.
The changes in the running back group also seem suited to 10 personnel. Ezekiel Elliott has always been dangerous when he is a receiver, and Tavon Austin seems tailor made for when things are opened up by all those wideouts. He can also be motioned out as a receiver (as can Elliott) to go empty backfield. Dallas can also use a 20 package, either having both Elliott and Austin on the field together, or using Jamize Olawale at fullback (Olawale is also quite effective as a receiver, so he can also add a twist to the passing game).
Of course, the real driver for 10 or 20 groupings to be used is the loss of Witten - and the tight ends now on the roster. With only Geoff Swaim having ever caught an NFL pass, the team is likely to use a “by committee” approach with him, Blake Jarwin, and rookie Dalton Schultz. (No I didn’t forget Rico Gathers - I just have serious doubts about him even making the 53-man roster, or being active much if he does). The team is reportedly high on Jarwin, who is the real leader to be TE1 going into training camp, but Swaim and Schultz will also see snaps, especially when run blocking is the main role on a given play.
And none of the current tight ends offers a compelling reason to keep one on the field every play. Going with 10 or ever 20 personnel does not only fit well with “traditional” plays. It can also be used very effectively when the team elects to call run-pass option reads for Dak Prescott.
The truth is that Witten was restricting the way the Cowboys used their personnel. That restriction is now gone, and the team can open things up with wide receiver-heavy packages. The additions to the roster make that not only possible, but highly desirable.
This is going to be something to watch for during training camp. Since Dallas has basically kept 10 personnel stored with the hen’s teeth, they are going to have to practice this a lot.
And expect to see it often on game days this fall.