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Six observations from Cowboys camp: Why the empty set may be a big part of the 2018 playbook; more.

How the Cowboys lined up in training camp provides clues to what the 2018 offense could look like.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

One of the frustrations of Cowboys training camp for someone who is not in attendance in Oxnard is that while we get tons quotes by players, coaches, and ownership, endless picture galleries and hours of eight-second video clips, along with a lot of grandstanding by folks who want to see their name in the news, we don’t really get a lot of analysis.

Perhaps the former is more appealing for a mass audience, perhaps the latter is more appealing for a small group of hardcore fans who think Bob Sturm and Shawn Kairschner provide by far the best coverage of camp.

Be that as it may, I think it’s fair to say that the coverage available from camp covers four of The Five Ws (Who, What, Where, When) very well, but is a bit short on the fifth W (Why). Which is why I immediately perked up when I saw this tweet from our good friend Landon McCool pop up on my Twitter timeline after Tuesday’s practice:

McCool followed up his original tweet with another one after Wednesday’s practice:

And the reason these tweets piqued my interest is that they show how the Cowboys offense lined up on 35 first-team, 11-on-11 plays over two days of practice. McCool’s notes don’t show the QB (Dak Prescott) or the five offensive linemen (Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, La’el Collins) that lined up on every snap the first-team offense took.

But it does show who the remaining five players were. For easier legibility, I’ve translated McCool’s scribbles into the chart below and replaced the player numbers with player names:

Personnel RBs FB TEs WRs
Tuesday 11-on-11 practice
11 Elliott Swaim Austin Beasley Thompson
01 Swaim Austin Beasley Williams Thompson
01 Swaim Austin Beasley Williams Thompson
02 Swaim Jarwin Gallup Lenoir Hurns
12 Elliott Swaim Jarwin Austin Beasley
02 Swaim Jarwin Austin Beasley Hurns
12 Elliott Swaim Jarwin Austin Hurns
11 Elliott Swaim Beasley Gallup Lenoir
Wednesday morning 11-on-11 walk-through
22 Elliott Olawale Swaim Jarwin Thompson
11 Elliott Jarwin Austin Beasley Hurns
11 Elliott Swaim Austin Thompson Hurns
11 Elliott Swaim Austin Thompson Hurns
22 Elliott Olawale Swaim Jarwin Thompson
11 Elliott Swaim Beasley Gallup Williams
22 Elliott Olawale Jarwin Schultz Thompson
21 Elliott Smith Swaim Gallup Williams
12 Elliott Swaim Jarwin Austin Thompson
21 Smith Olawale Jarwin Austin Beasley
11 Elliott Swaim Austin Beasley Thompson
12 Elliott Swaim Jarwin Gallup Williams
11 Elliott Swaim Beasley Williams Thompson
12 Elliott Jarwin Schultz Williams Lenoir
01 Swaim Austin Beasley Gallup Williams
21 Elliott Olawale Swaim Gallup Lenoir
01 Swaim Austin Beasley Williams Lenoir
Wednesday afternoon 11-on-11 redzone practice
11 Elliott Jarwin Austin Williams Murdock
11 Elliott Swaim Austin Beasley Gallup
21 Elliott Swaim Austin Beasley Gallup
22 Elliott Olawale Swaim Jarwin Gallup
11 Elliott Swaim Austin Beasley Gallup
12 Elliott Swaim Jarwin Austin Gallup
12 Elliott Swaim Jarwin Austin Gallup
12 Elliott Swaim Jarwin Austin Gallup
12 Elliott Swaim Jarwin Williams Lenoir
11 Elliott Swaim Beasley Williams Lenoir
Total 28 2 6 30 18 2 21 17 14 12 11 7 6 1

This is some very interesting information for a lot of different reasons, even if we probably shouldn’t attach too much weight to how the Cowboys lined up for 35 plays over two days of practice. Still, it’s better than anything we have until the first preseason game is played.

So here are some key takeaways from the data from my point of view:

1. The empty set is part of the playbook

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, tight ends, and wide receivers) 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 shows how many tight ends are on the field.

Here’s a look at the personnel groupings the Cowboys have used over the last three years, and how that compares to the 35 plays detailed above.

Cowboys personnel groupings by snaps played by year
Personnel 2015 2016 2017 31 Jul. & 1. Aug, 2018
00 (0 RB, 0 TE) - - - - 0% - -
10 (1 RB, 0 TE) - - - - - - - -
20 (2 RB, 0 TE) - - - - - - - -
01 (0 RB, 1 TE) 2% 3% 3% 11%
11 (1 RB, 1 TE) 51% 61% 61% 34%
21 (2 RB, 1 TE) 8% 8% 4% 11%
02 (0 RB, 2 TE) 3% 0% 1% 6%
12 (1 RB, 2 TE) 24% 20% 15% 26%
22 (2 RB, 2 TE) 5% 6% 8% 11%
13 (1 RB, 3 TE) 8% 2% 9% - -
23 (2 RB, 3 TE) 0% - - - - - -
Total 969 1,011 1,007 35

The most stunning thing here for me is that six plays, or 17% of all plays featured an empty backfield without a running back (01 or 02 personnel). That’s about every sixth play with an empty backfield formation.

And that number might be even higher as we don’t know how often Ezekiel Elliott lined up as a receiver on the plays he was on the field for. Although not technically a 01 or 02 personnel set, if Elliott were to line up near the line of scrimmage, it would still be an empty backfield formation, as we saw in Wednesday’s afternoon practice:

A team red zone period that featured a nice pass to running back Ezekiel Elliott, who split out wide and caught a slant.

The empty set is a formation used almost exclusively as a passing formation and is designed to spread the field, often to open up short inside routes or screen routes - and could become a staple of the playbook in 2018, even if it was almost never used in the past.

2. Don’t waste your time hoping for the elusive 10 package

Notice how in the table above, the Cowboys personnel groupings without a tight end (10, 20, 30 personnel) are virtually empty? In fact, over the last three years, the Cowboys have played only one snap without a tight end on the field. And none in the last two days of practice.

There was and continues to be a lot of offseason talk about the ‘10 package’ (1 RB, no TE, 4 WRs). Perhaps because some fans felt Jason Witten was holding the offense back by being in on every play and thereby somehow limiting the playbook. Perhaps because some fans are enamored by the spread offenses they see in college. Perhaps because some fans simply don’t want to see the Cowboys lining up and doing what they have been doing for years - with or without Witten.

But here’s the deal: It ain’t happening.

3. Tavon Austin is sure getting a lot of looks.

Tavon Austin was in on 21 of the 35 first-team plays, more than any other receiver (Beasley 17, Gallup 14, Williams 12). Does that make Austin the No. 1 WR in Dallas?

Not by a long shot. John Williams of had an interesting take on this:

Sure, Austin has been used more as a horizontal weapon in the past, and not as a vertical threat. But we’ve seen quite a number of videos from camp where he’s been used on vertical routes, so that’s certainly something the Cowboys are experimenting with right now, even if that might change by the time the regular season rolls around.

Deonte Thompson currently looks like the guy they’ll use to go deep, but it can’t hurt to have another speedster going deep, and Austin is certainly such a speedster.

Note also that Allen Hurns took a veteran day off on Wednesday, which is why his snaps (6) are so low.

4. Should you slow your roll on Michael Gallup and Lance Lenoir?

Context matters. And for these two wide receivers, who’ve both received a lot of praise for their performance in camp so far, the context is which unit they are getting their snaps with. On Tuesday, they both got just two first-team snaps each. It’s probably a lot easier to shine against second- or third-team defenders.

At the same time, getting any first-team snaps must also be considered a success for two guys not many had penciled in as starters earlier in the offseason.

Of course, things can change quickly in training camp, and on Wednesday Gallup was featured on five of 13 first-team reps in the morning walk-through and seven of the 10 redzone plays. And by all accounts, he performed extremely well, “catching everything in sight” in Wednesday’s practice.

5. Geoff Swaim looks like the starting tight end

Swaim got an almost Witten-esque 30 of the 35 first-team snaps. For me, that’s a clear sign he’s currently slotted as the starting tight end. Blake Jarwin got some looks as well (18), but he seems to be Swaim’s understudy, even if he seems to be getting targeted more in the passing game than Swaim.

Is that the way the Cowboys are going to use the two guys, Swaim as the main blocking TE, Jarwin as the receiving TE with occasional blocking duties?

I was a little surprised to see rookie Dalton Schultz get just two first-team reps. From the camp reports I read, I had the impression he had received mostly favorable reviews so far, which might have warranted a few more first-team looks. His leave to attend the birth of his first child may have impacted that to some degree. It’ll be interesting to see whether Schultz gets worked into the first-team rotation a little more frequently in the future.

6. The Two-TE set is not dead yet

The two-TE set gained notoriety when the Cowboys drafted Gavin Escobar in 2013. The Cowboys had gone so far as to consult with Tony Romo on Gavin Escobar before they picked Escobar in the second round.

Jerry Jones revealed that the Cowboys spent time before the draft on Friday reviewing film of Gavin Escobar, Terrance Williams and a third receiver [Justin Hunter, per]. Escobar and Williams, according to the Cowboys, were both ranked in the “early 20s” on the Cowboys’ draft board, as was Travis Frederick who, according to reports, was ranked 22nd on the Cowboys’ board.

”We were very interested in seeing specifically spend our time with Tony on Escobar and Terrence Williams and one other receiver. We just wanted him to spend some time looking at it, and he does a good job of that. We wanted to visit about the very thing that Jason has addressed, and that is Escobar: ‘How confident will you be? What do you think of 12, 11, 13 as Jason said, that package, which is a lot of tight ends.’ He’s got a good perspective.”

According to Jones, Romo liked what he saw from both prospects, and the Cowboys got a little lucky when Terrance Williams was still available in the third round.

The two-TE set was going to be the next big thing in Dallas at that time, even if things worked out differently. But going by the formations over the last two days, the formation with two tight ends remains a staple of the Cowboys playbook, even if it may not currently be entirely clear who those two tight ends might be.

Over the last two days, 43% of the snaps were played with two tight ends on the field, much more than the average of the previous three years of around 30%. This seems to indicate not only that the Cowboys have a lot more confidence in their tight ends than almost all outside observers, but also that the two-TE set will play a big role in 2018.

Big enough for the Cowboys to keep four tight ends on the roster?

Again, I understand that 35 plays from two random days very early in camp aren’t even remotely enough to make any kind of reliable predictions from. Still, the 35 plays do provide an interesting glimpse of what the 2018 offense could look like.

What are your takeaways from these 35 plays?

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