McClain Trade Paying Off

When Dallas traded for Rolando McClain in the offseason, I didn’t know who he was. After ESPN jogged my memory, I remembered him wreaking havoc against Texas in the National Championship game and wondered why we had gotten him from the Ravens for (at most) a sixth round pick. As we’ve heard since, he’s fallen in and out of love with the game for various reasons, and has retired twice. He didn’t come back this time wearing Jordan’s 45, but he might be having a similar resurgence. The talent has always been there, but apparently the struggle has always been in keeping his mind engaged. Through two weeks, that seems to be working.

Using Pro Football Focus’ statistics, it’s plain to see the impact that 55 is making on the field for a team devoid of defensive playmakers. Overall, he’s the third ranked inside linebacker after Luke Kuechly and Patrick Willis—company I’m comfortable with him keeping, honestly. Offering more perspective, Kuechly has a rating more than 200% better than Willis’, so he’s destroying the curve. McClain is not too far behind Willis.

Delving deeper, and looking at his two games in detail is where I get excited. PFF grades players on every play, using their own system and standards. And while it can be hard to quantify their grades, their information offers a glimpse at the player’s production; the hard stats they provide give the details.

His stats in the opener:

QB Hit—1

Solo tackles—8

Defensive Assist—1

Stops (solo tackles, including sacks, that resulted in offensive failure)—6

His stats against Tennessee:

Sack—1

QB Hurry—2

Solo tackles (non-sacks)—5

Stops (solo tackles, including sacks, that resulted in offensive failure)—3

I love seeing the number of stops against the 49ers. Singlehandedly causing the offense to fail six times is a big deal, especially against Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore led teams. Taking either of those guys down is no small feat. There were less stops in the second game, but I like that they were still there—hopefully that trends towards them not being aberrations. A similar change happened with solo tackles: 8 in the first week, and 5 last week. Again, I’d prefer to have them stay more constant, but I like that the activity is continuing and he’s still active on the field. What didn’t change is that he’s affecting the quarterback. One hit in the opener, but two hurries and a sack last week. Rod Marinelli’s defense doesn’t typically blitz very often, so linebackers like McClain will get less opportunities to harass the quarterback than a Rex Ryan defensive scheme would allow, but it seems like he’s making hay with his chances.

Also, I think the drop off in his production from week 1 to week 2 correlates to how he was used against the Titans versus against the 49ers. PFF gives grades for both run defense and pass defense as well as the detailed statistics. Against San Francisco, the standout part of McClain’s game was run defense, while against Tennessee it was his pass defense that was more productive. Neither week have the grades been close—the better part of his game was multiple times better than the inferior part of his game that week.  It looks like he was in coverage more often (in line with what you’d expect from a Tampa-2 Middle Linebacker) against the Titans than he defended passes the week before. That would give him less opportunities to make statistical impact on the quarterback in the second week and could explain his production drop there. It will be interesting to see which part of his game gets the higher grade and if the quarterback-centric statistics continue to relate.

The Cowboys’ pro-scouting department is in the elite level of the league, and seem to have delivered yet again. It has only been two games, but already McClain has established himself as a productive leader on the field, and the shrewd move on Jerry Jones’s part to get him at a bargain basement price can add to the value Dallas gets from him in the future.

Win of Titanic Proportions

That’s how you win a game. The Cowboys weren’t dominant in every phase of the game, but they were the better team, and it wasn’t really close. There is a tangible difference between 1-1 and 0-2, it’s not just mental (ask my fantasy team), so getting that win was important after giving away any chance of winning the opener. The Giants are 0-2 and look terrible, the Redskins look much better without RG3, and the Eagles will likely beat the Colts; so we couldn’t afford to fall too far back in the division, our only hope at sniffing the playoffs. It was the Titans, yes; but the Cowboys have dropped games to inferior opponents before—we’re not in the business of style pointing wins.

 

BUT.

 

There were some things that I liked, and some things that I didn’t like. It’s probably still style pointing a win, but I’m using semantics as cover.

Things I liked

The running game. There are multiple reasons why we haven’t committed to the run in the past, but I believe this season is the best shot to rectify that. Jason Garrett isn’t calling the plays, we have another first round pick on the offensive line, and DeMarco Murray is healthy. It wasn’t a complete surprise to see Scott Linehan attack the Titans primarily on the ground to start the game, but the commitment to it even after gaining a lead is what was impressive. It shouldn’t be, that’s what teams do—get the lead however you can, and then run the ball to keep it. We’ve seen passing plays turn into interceptions and losses while leading late in games, so it was very refreshing to see them keep the ball on the ground late in the game. Murray did his part by picking up the yardage on early downs to ensure that running on third down was viable, but it is worth noting that he’s done that in the past and then the running plays on the call sheet still get lost. He probably won’t have 150+ yard games every week, but this week showed that games can be won on the ground by the Cowboys. That confidence will be important in the coming weeks when the ground game isn’t as effective, and Linehan (or Garret, more likely) will be tempted to abandon it.

Winning. We won, and didn’t lose. I’m not sure how many times that’s going to happen this season, so I’m cherishing every single time it does.

Dan Bailey. Criticize his contract all you want (I’m not currently among those doing it), but he’s an offensive weapon. He shortens the field by more than 30%. If Dallas can’t get past the opposing 35 yard line, we take 3 points. With our defense, I’ll take that every day. He’s perfect on the year, 3-3 from 40-49 yards and 1-1 past 50 yards. Only one other kicker this season is that accurate that often from those distances. He’s paid a lot relative to his (or any) position, but pay attention when watching other teams play, and opportunities to add points lost—he’s worth the $.

Defense. Can’t believe I typed that, but they were better than they needed to be. Again, we can’t often say that. Barry Church got the team’s first interception, Rolando McClain got the second one (and should have had the first defensive touchdown) and was all over the field the entire afternoon. Jake Locker wasn’t playing great on his own, but the Defense didn’t make anything easy for him—and that’s all you can ask of this unit.

Things I didn’t like

Tony Romo. I’m praying that it’s rust because of a light workload in training camp, but he doesn’t look good. It isn’t even incomplete passes, a number of his completed passes aren’t well thrown balls. His decision making and field-vision leave a lot to be desired as well. I have no doubt that a 100% Romo will be enough to keep us in a game each week, I don’t know when/if he’s going to be healthy. Looking past 2014, I think you have to start thinking about the future at that position—especially if our record pushes us into the top 10 in the draft. Romo probably has more life in him than we’ve seen the past two weeks, but I’m much more worried about his health than I was three weeks ago.

Dez Bryant. He’s left the game both weeks this season, and because of a less than perfect Tony Romo and a defense that will begin getting torched by teams we need him out there all the time. Week 1 it was officially dehydration, and I won’t question that. The knocks on Bryant are not his physical makeup or conditioning, so if he for some reason needed fluids that doesn’t bother me. Landing like he did on his shoulder against Tennessee and missing plays is more concerning. When he came back, he looked as good as ever, but it’s disconcerting that he had to leave in the first place. He takes a lot of hits because of how he plays, and will get banged on more often this season because of inaccurate Romo passes. If anything happens to him, we can start draft prep early.

Offensive line. Usually they’re a strength for us, but Romo was under siege too often yesterday. His health keeps him from being as mobile as he used to be, so any deficiencies on that line are going to be more glaring because he’s now going to get sacked more often than not. The Titans are a better defense than many think, but seeing Doug Free turn into a turnstile again, and our rookie be less than dominant makes me terrified of the beating Romo could take against Aaron Donald and the Rams next week.

Overall, it was a win, and I’m happy. I’m not predicting division titles or the playoffs, but we have a win. There will be weeks when we let a win slip through our fingers (secondary?), but this week we didn’t. The long term stock of the team is in flux, but I think games like this warrant an upgrade from “Sell” to “Don’t Buy”.

Sam to Practice Squad

Michael Sam was signed to the practice squad on Wednesday. On a lot of levels, I’m a fan of the signing. Practice squad is an area of a team that is often overlooked, but can end up becoming pretty important to the team as a whole. Especially on the defensive side, the Cowboys are one of the most active teams in the league when it comes to promoting a player from practice squad to active roster. When you’re picking from guys that couldn’t make yours (or another team’s) 53-man roster, you are rarely dealing with Pro Bowl-caliber players—but with the defense at Valley Ranch, every available body and ounce of talent matters.

Sam was the Co-defensive player of the year for the 2013 season in the SEC. Even when the SEC has a down year, that is a noteworthy accomplishment. He played on a Missouri team that got less visibility than many of their conference foes, but had one of their best seasons in a while. Many scouts that I’ve read feel like he’s a “tweener”—not quite big or strong enough to play Defensive End in the 4-3, but not quite small and fast enough to make it as a 4-3 Outside Linebacker. I’m not a scout (I just play one on TV), but I do know that he was successful on the defensive line last year. The talent level was much different than he’d find in the NFL, but he still thrived playing as an end. Being successful against division I quality opponents isn’t something that everyone on the Cowboys’ defensive line can claim, and while not being a surefire predictor of success, it shows he has some amount of talent. Again, not something that every defensive lineman currently on the Cowboys’ roster can claim.

Michael Sam was cut from the Rams, probably the team with the best defensive line in the league. They were already loaded with guys like Chris Long, Robert Quinn, and Michael Brockers. Then they added first round draft choice Aaron Donald, an absolute beast.  Not making their defensive line group isn’t a reason to not take a look at him, and Sam still made plays in preseason games—not every defensive lineman playing for the Cowboys can say that. Some might point out that Dallas visits St Louis in Week 2, and that could be a fringe reason to the signing—gaining insight to the playbook—but I think those things are often blown out of proportion. There are probably some insights that he can offer, but not as many as watching game film would provide. More likely, his benefit from his time in that organization will be a familiarity with competition against very talented players and some possible techniques they use. He probably wasn’t doing anything in St Louis practices that Rod Marinelli isn’t already aware of or using, but you can’t substitute high levels of competition. Being a part of that defensive line for Organized Team Activities and Training Camp has in all likelihood made him better than he was coming out of Mizzou.

His time with the Rams and their stellar defensive line, and his past accolades and highlights from college aside, the biggest reason to sign Sam is because he is a body. The Cowboys are already starting Week 1 without two defensive linemen they hope will contribute at some point in the season—Demarcus Lawrence and Anthony Spencer. The starting 3-technique defensive tackle is Henry Melton, who is coming off of a knee injury. The past two seasons have seen Dallas suffer so many injuries on the defensive line that the Pro Scouting department was contacting guys on the street Tuesday afternoon to contribute that next Sunday. We know that there will be injuries to the line and replacements needed, so why not pick up a discarded defensive end who can be practicing in the wings of Valley Ranch instead of having to be found by our scouting departments during the season? Add to it that the player you’re picking up was really good in college and was only cut by the deepest defensive line team in the league, and it’s a no brainer.

I don’t want to make a big deal about it, because the point is for no one to treat him differently, but I can’t ignore that I like the first openly gay player in the NFL coming to Dallas. It’s the South, where acceptance isn’t always our strongest suit. Him being accepted by a club in Texas is better than a team in the northeast or northwest accepting him. They have accepting cultures. I think that if he gets a chance to contribute and can show fans that he’s another guy, it could actually change some minds. Not everyone’s, but even just one mind being opened is worth it.

As a practice squad member, Sam will make a little over $100,000 for the work he does during the season—practicing and contributing to the scout team—and can be activated to the 53 man roster at any point (after room is made on the 53 man roster by removing someone) where I believe he will make the rookie minimum weekly wage. Also, any team can sign a practice squad member to their team at any point in time. The only caveats are that the team has to sign him to their roster and not their practice squad, and the player can decide to stay with his current team’s practice squad to attempt to move up in that organization. I’m hoping he can start turning some heads in practice and contribute to the defensive line sooner rather than later.

Ranking the NFC East Quarterbacks

I’d been thinking about blogging again, and hearing the NFC East quarterbacks ranked on ESPN was a perfect catalyst. Tim Hasselbeck ranked them on one of the many shows where he is featured a month or so ago. I really like Hasselbeck, and find him to have a balanced and unbiased view of football. He’s one of the few analysts on ESPN who never said that hitting the quarterback will snuff out the zone read. I’ve always really enjoyed his insight. One ranking won’t change my mind about him, but I completely disagree with his rankings of the NFC East quarterbacks:

  1. Nick Foles
  2. Eli Manning
  3. Robert Griffin III
  4. Tony Romo

I haven’t been able to find any video, so I’m not sure what his qualifications were for the ranking besides “going into the 2014 season.” I’m not sure if team performance factors in, who will play the best in 2014, or who is the better quarterback.

Because of that, I’m laying out my mindset before I lay out my rankings.

I’m factoring in team performance a little bit, but not much. Otherwise, there’s no point in ranking a position; simply rank the teams. I tried to balance who will perform the best versus who plays the best. They seem like the same thing, but I think they’re different. As much as I loved watching every Eli Manning drop back last season, and the frequent interceptions that ensued, that isn’t who he is. We have years pointing in the opposite direction of that, and until he makes that type of season a trend (please, God!), I place that as an aberration.

Regarding the teams in the division, today, here is how I think the division finishes:

  1. Philadelphia
  2. New York
  3. Dallas
  4. Washington

On to the quarterbacks.

 

4. Robert Griffin III. Part of this ranking is the sample size. He’s played two seasons. One had a lot of great moments, and the other was horrible. 50% of the evidence on him is nothing for a Redskins fan to love, or a quarterbacks coach to point to as a good example. The scheme his team ran might have been a factor, although no one was nitpicking the Shanahans’ use of the scheme after the 2012 season. Griffin ran more often than he should have in his first two seasons, which I think became a crutch and poison for the team. But his durability has to factor into the ranking—Matt Johnson can’t realistically be viewed as a talented player for the Cowboys if he can’t stay healthy enough to be on the field. Also factoring in is what Washington gave up to get him—essentially mortgaging the chance to add talent around him until his fourth year in the league—which requires him to shoulder a heavier load for the team than he might be ready for. I think the quick reliance on him forced him to grow up too quickly, and not develop the habits that best correlate to long term success. Now, that’s not entirely his fault; you get drafted by who takes you, but it contributes to my ranking him last. I won’t try to go into mechanics, but we’ve all seen the GIFs and analysts pointing out where he goes wrong. I’m an RG3 hater, I even wrote a really old blog post advising Cowboys fans to not worry too much about RG3 until we saw him repeat 2012 again. We’re still waiting.

3. Nick Foles. I love Chip Kelly. I’ve loved him and his offense since 2008, and sports-cried when he signed with Philadelphia. I’m not an Xs and Os savant, but I was sure that his offense would work at the next level. I’d love to be wrong, or have him be successful with his next team that doesn’t play Dallas twice each year, but I don’t think I will be. His offense is centered around putting players in the best position possible, regardless of the situation or formation. All coaches say they do this, but few have proven it more often than Kelly. Foles is a product of that genius. Kelly’s offense isn’t simple, but because of his focus on executing plays well over the sheer number of plays in a playbook, it becomes second nature for his teams. Watch his Oregon teams and notice how few times they turn the ball over or make mental mistakes. Those are kids who ostensibly have to spend time in class while learning the playbook, while NFL players are able to devote much more time to knowing what needs to happen. Because of that, Foles is able to make quick but easy decisions to produce the best play result possible. He will not duplicate his legendary interception rate and other passing statistics, but he’ll produce at an above average rate. I’m convinced that Foles needs Chip more than the other way around. When watching the Eagles last year, Foles was making good plays but didn’t have to make many difficult decisions or throws. It seemed like when his protection broke down, or he tried to gamble, his production dropped. In two games against the horrible Dallas defense, he had one terrible performance and one performance good enough to barely beat the Cowboys with a back-up quarterback. His team will be the best, but I think they could still win the division without him.

2. Tony Romo. Only Lebron James is more polarizing in sports, and I’m no exception to the legions of people who waffle on him. He has a lot of talent, but makes bad decisions at the worst times. At some point, a pattern becomes fact. I think that Romo has shown he is number 1 or 1a in the division based on talent and ability, but the outcomes of games have to matter. The games Romo has given away, and the mistakes he has made make second best in the division the ceiling. And also, his floor. We’ve seen his best and seen his worst. His health is also a huge question—I’m not sure he can last 16 games, but I’m focusing more on what you can do instead of what you will do. He has a load of talent around him on offense, but he still makes everyone around him better. He is more elusive and mobile than you think, until you see him juke to make an unblocked rusher miss, and then deliver a throw downfield. His skills and previous production put him above quarterbacks for teams that could easily finish above his. Part of me feels weird ranking him at number 2, but I re-did the rankings four times and came to the same conclusion every time.

1. Eli Manning. Eli’s two Super Bowl rings are largely because of a talented defense helping him out. But, he has two Super Bowl rings. Hard to argue that. Even though I think Tony Romo is more talented, Romo could have given the Lombardi trophy away. Eli is better than just a “game manager” or “bus driver”, but there is something to be said for not making mistakes. Also, late in the game when Eli needs a clutch throw, he makes it. Combining his talent, productivity through his career, and two championships, it’s impossible for me to rank anyone higher than him.