The Dez Bryant Problem

The summer before I turned fifteen, my dad and I took a trip to Colorado to climb a few mountains. On our way home, we passed through a mountain pass called Engineer’s Pass. Basically a sharp incline and decline marked by switchbacks that overlook twenty to thirty foot drop offs. After driving his truck up the pass, we stopped at the top and my dad asked if I wanted to drive the truck down the pass. As a fourteen year old who had only driven in an abandoned Service Merchandise parking lot, it was essentially rhetorical question. I loved my dad’s truck–metallic orange, quad cab, four wheel drive–and was tired of either watching it do cool stuff or me only drive at parking lot speeds. It was a straightforward task: go slow, drive straight, turn right, drive straight, then turn left. Rinse, and repeat. Oh, and don’t drive off the cliff and die. I put it I. Drive and head down the pass toward the first switchback, nailed it. Made that 10mph turn like I was a pro. Nailed the next one. If I’d known who Ricky Bobby was, I’d have thought that I was his second coming. After one of the turns, I straighten out and realize that we’re going faster than I’m comfortable with. Even though my foot has the brake pedal down most of the way. I put the pedal down the whole way, no dice. Still going pretty fast, and picking up speed as we get closer to the switchback/cliff/death drop. My dad notices our high rate speed, looks over to ask what’s going on. I had my hands clenched on the wheel (at 10 and 2, obviously) and jaw clenched. “Brakes. Don’t. Work,” was my only reply. His brow furrows for a split second, then he reaches over and jams the gear selector down as far as it will go. Magically, we slow down and avoid certain death.

Turns out, riding the brakes causes the braking system to get really hot and evaporate the hydraulic fluid. Then the brakes stop working. You’re not supposed to do that. I’ve never forgotten that lesson, which is exactly what it ended up being. I was in over my head. I’d barely driven before, but wanted to play with the shiny toy. I was tired of the passenger seat and decided to figure out the details after I got the keys.

In his most honest moments, I think that Bill Callahan would admit that he knows how I felt. It’s how he feels every Sunday afternoon (or prime time, for the truly embarrassing games). He was hired as the “offensive coordinator”, but everyone knew that since Jason Garrett wasn’t giving up play-calling duties, it was largely a symbolic title. He spent some time “coaching” that offensive line, which would drive anyone crazy, and then is asked to take over playcalling duties. Can you blame him? I can either try to figure out what the hell is wrong with Doug Free or I can take Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and Dez Bryant out for a spin. Like asking me if I want to drive, that’s a rhetorical question. In the home stretch of the season, he’s still in over his head. He has made a lot of mistakes while calling plays for someone else’s offensive system, but none more egregious than how he has mishandled Dez Bryant.

Disclosure, Bryant has been on my fantasy team for almost a full season and was only recently traded. But he’s key to this offense, and is second in importance only to Romo. So I’ve paid a lot of attention to how he’s been used, and his lack of targets caused me heartache–and a three game losing streak. The explanation the media was consistently given (and accepted) was that he’s being double teamed so they can’t throw the ball at him. Me, Matthew Stafford, and Calvin Johnson disagree with the premise of that. But, I wanted to see for myself. I looked at only the New Orleans game (and really only the first half, because it was over at that point), but that’s the most recent game and one where it should have been obvious that passing the ball was the only hope we had. I used the NFL Game Rewind app that streams the games and game film.

I only saw four plays that you could argue that 88 was too double covered to throw to him, but only two times do I think he should have been avoided. The safeties aren’t lining up right over him 15 yards behind the cornerback, in all but one case they are a few steps off the hashmark to that side. If you trust your guy, throw it up and let him get it. Or use route concepts that keep him mostly removed from the double team. No one cares if the safety is off the hash if Dez runs a slant. Same for a dig or in route. But most of the routes the Cowboys have him running are fade and go routes, which run him RIGHT AT the safety. Playing right into the defense’s hands. And on the few occasions where Dez wasn’t going to be double covered, he wasn’t used well.

Worst case was in the first quarter, on the Dallas 28, 1 and 10. The offense comes out in 13 personnel and shows a run from a power run formation with Bryant the lone wide receiver aligned out to the right. Romo calls a shift, and the formation becomes a three wide receiver formation. Cleverness that we haven’t seen often this season. After the shift, James Hanna is lined up as the wide receiver to the right, with Dez now the inside receiver and Jason Witten inline just to the right of Doug Free.

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By the defensive alignment, Bryant will either be covered by a linebacker who would pass him to a safety on a deeper route, or a safety playing deep.

Either way, he’s not double covered and 88 wins a battle against either position almost every time. Especially if you run a slant or dig. Look at all that space over him.

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But he’s not even given an opportunity. At the snap, Dez runs a quick out and Hanna a quick in for a pick–and the ball goes to Hanna. No, really. Dez is blue, Hanna is red in my screenshot.

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But finally, in the second quarter they use some motion and get Bryant in a stacked formation–where another receiver is directly in front of him–but again it is wasted.

3 and 8 on own 9. Bryant motions from wide left to just behind Gavin Escobar. At the snap, 88 releases inside and has instant separation from his corner as he runs an in route at or just shy of the first down depth. Escobar releases outside and runs a sloppy corner or out route. Witten is inline again on the right, and runs an 11 yard out route. Terrence Williams is wide right and runs a go route (on the play, he breaks inside but it’s not until after he has seen Romo scrambling).

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On his break inside, Dez has good position to get the ball. He’s not wide open, but hardly anyone is in the NFL. The safety is back pedaling a few steps so would be too late to break on the pass, and the linebacker closest to Bryant has his back to the play while covering Witten downfield.

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Romo ends up having to scramble out of the pocket, but is still there when Dez is about to break. It’s an anticipation throw, but again–it’s the NFL, and Romo makes those every week. If he pulls the trigger, it’s very likely a first down.
Again, a failure to capitalize on one of the times Dez was unarguably single covered. You have to make teams pay for that, and give your best player the ball if you won’t trust him to win double teams.

Like my dad letting me drive knowing I wasn’t the most prepared, there is also blame on Jason Garrett. It’s his offense that Callahan calls plays for. He designed them, so their contents are on his head too. He also neglected to recognize that Monte Kiffin’s defense was never going to stop the Saints, so running the ball in the second half down 18 was a stupid idea. IF they had a chance, passing was it. His failure to communicate that to Callahan is a microcosm of the season as a whole.

The season is what it is, maybe a home playoff loss. Maybe no playoffs. But the Dez Bryant situation is one that will span into next season, and has to be fixed before the Cowboys have any serious chance of winning meaningful games.

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New Orleans

I thought this loss was easier to take than the Detroit one, because it’s the kind that I prefer–over from the start. From the outset it was obvious that the only doubt was if Dallas would keep it competitive, not if they would win or not. Two good things, it comes right before the bye week and it exposed deficiencies in all phases of the Cowboys’ game. No escaping or sugar coating from coaches or delusional GM/owner. This exposed all the big problems of the team, and brought them to a head. I’m hoping that this will end up like the 2010 Sunday Night Football beatdown by Green Bay. It forced Jerry to fire Wade Phillips, and make a few changes. I feel that it takes prime time embarrassments to force Jones to make any tough decisions. Hopefully I’ll look back and see this as a watershed moment. But we all know that I’m either drunk or in full homer mode.

Enough bright side. Too much behind that silver lining to gripe about.

This defense is horrible. They’ll either give up a touchdown or force a turnover, rarely is the opponent punting. Yes, there are a lot of injuries on the team. There were also a ton of injuries last season, and I don’t think the injuries this year are marginally worse than those from last year–at least not a bigger margin than the amount of regression in the defense this year. Monte Kiffin’s squad is in the bottom five spots in every defensive category except scoring and turnovers. Turnovers are huge and I was griping about not getting any last year, but they only matter if they translate to wins. That’s not happening, and at this rate they need to force turnovers on every possession to make sure they give the offense a chance.

I’m not a genius (I just play one on TV or stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night, your choice), but I don’t understand some things that defense is and isn’t doing that seems pretty basic. I rarely see defensive backs or linebackers rerouting receivers, giving them a free release most of the time. You can’t do that in the National Football League, especially if your cornerbacks are not Richard Sherman and two of his clones. It makes no sense to me that they wouldn’t constantly reroute the offense when they see defenses use this tactic against the Dallas offense every week with good results. If I saw a guy pushing a button and getting piles of money every time, I might try going in there and giving it a shot. Just to see what happens. Not since the game versus Detroit have I seen Dallas play (what looks like) such confusing coverage concepts. In the NFL, sometimes the only way to know if something is wrong is if it doesn’t work. Obviously these coverages aren’t doing anything to slow teams down.

Sunday night specifically it looked like the coverage was Cover 2, with two receivers to each side. Orlando Scandrick was the corner with Jeff Heath playing Strong Safety deep. At the snap, Scandrick retreats, and then as the inside receiver cuts to the flat, moves up to cover the short/flat area. Heath doesn’t make an immediate move to cover the outside receiver (I think it was Marques Colston) coming deep, and Drew Brees made it count. Cover 2 is pretty basic, and what Kiffin hangs his hat on, and one of the foundations of it is the corner has the flat and the safety has anything deeper. I know Heath is a fill-in guy and is only playing because of injuries, but if Kiffin can’t teach Cover 2 effectively how is he going to get more advanced with these guys?

I love Rod Marinelli. He’s taken a position that until Sunday night was the most injury ridden in the defensive line and turned it into the only strength of the 2013 defense. Using guys even I’ve barely heard of. DeMarcus Ware is being betrayed by his body, Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff are mercifully gone, and it’s George Selvie & co. that is picking up the slack.

The linebackers have been horrible, either a coaching or scheme change is needed. No injuries, but regression was still occurring. Lee is a stud, and only needs to be directed–he takes care of his business. But Bruce Carter has been horrendous, so bad that Ernie Sims has taken his starting spot on multiple occasions, and he was viewed as a strength coming into the season. Bruce Carter in the game? Send your running back on a wheel route or arrow, and it’s a guaranteed completion. Carter isn’t covering me coming out of the backfield. Also, more infuriating than his inability to cover is his penchant for giving up on plays. Multiple times against Minnesota and New Orleans he could be seen getting out of ball carriers’ way as often as attacking them. That’s inexcusable. Maybe he doesn’t like the scheme, but take a hint from Sean Lee and do your job. Just be less injury prone than Lee.

I don’t see what Kiffin brings to the table. I’m an avid Oregon football fan, so I’ve seen his defenses go against what I think is the future of the league multiple times. The results weren’t pretty. And the University of Southern California can recruit the best of the best. The Cowboys have to draft players. And they usually draft crappy ones. Or over pay old guys. If Kiffin couldn’t do it with prime athletes, why did anyone think he was going to do anything positive with the players he was given? We’ve seen everything we need from him. Send him back to the nursing home and give Marinelli a chance to run the D. Send a message that contrary to the last decade, mediocrity is not going to be accepted now. Without improvement on that side of the ball, the offense is going to have problems winning games–even running at peak efficiency.

Which they haven’t been for a month. I think I’m more mad about the horrible play on this side of the ball, but they both piss me off. With more talent on this side of the ball and less injuries than on the defense, one would think that it would be the strength of the team. Bill Callahan is an inept offensive coordinator. There’s no other way to say it, and I was a fan of both his hiring and promotion to play caller. He has no idea what to do with the pieces he has. Callahan is a West Coast offense guy calling Jason Garrett’s Coryell plays, which is less than optimal. But, it goes deeper than scheme differences.

How they’re (not) using Dez Bryant is a felony. Three targets in the Detroit game, and two against New Orleans is unfathomable. In the Detroit game, two of his catches were for touchdowns but he didn’t get more involved. The only excuse after getting destroyed in the Big Easy was that he was being double covered and they were taking him out of the game. Okay. The much referenced “two defenders on him at the line of scrimmage” only happened twice, in the red zone. The rest of the time, it involves the safety being shaded towards Dez on the outside. I don’t feel like a safety over the top is a true double team. You can manipulate the routes so that the corner has to come off of Dez and leave him alone with the safety. But Garrett/Callahan aren’t even trying concepts that do that. They’re not using a stack formation, where Dez could be behind Williams ¬†and get a free release, which isn’t rocket science, it’s done all the time on Sundays. Motion isn’t used either, Bryant lines up where he’s supposed to be coming out of the huddle and then stays there. Motion forces a defense to quickly adjust their coverages, especially if they’re set on blanketing 88. And, as any Cowboys fan who watched games in 2011 or 2012 knows, a Rob Ryan defense reacts and adjusts to every motion by an offense–why Dallas didn’t continually exploit this tactic, I have no idea. Half the guys at Valley Ranch knew the Ryan scheme and could have given a heads up.

Is there an internal cap on split out receivers for Dallas that I’m not aware of? After using a 5 receiver/empty formation multiple times with success against Denver, it’s barely been seen since. I think it’s vital for this offense because it immediately gives you more receivers than normal, and obviously throwing the ball is the team’s strength. By having more guys split out, that means less defenders are in the box which simplifies blitzes for the inferior offensive line trying to keep Tony Romo from getting killed. They had success with it in the past, and I don’t understand why you don’t go back to it. Even if it turns out that it’s not the answer, not using it sends the message that the coaching staff doesn’t think anything is wrong. And anyone who’s ever watched a football game knows that there is a lot wrong.

Jason Garrett should call plays. If he doesn’t take the team to the playoffs (and still even if he does), he’s fired at the end of the year. Why would you let another guy orchestrate that fate? Regardless of what it does to the run/pass balance, he needs to be deciding what’s going to happen. I’m a “win with whatever works” guy. Who cares about the run margin, this offensive line isn’t good enough to run consistently. The defense is going to give up points at an alarming rate. The only thing you can do is score, and score often.

I’ve left Tony Romo off here because I can’t decide how much is his fault. My opinions are all over the place on Tony, and I’d rather keep an opinion to myself than go with something stupid.

We’re without Cowboys football for two weeks, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Too many more of these losses, and I’m going to have to budget for an anger management counselor.