in the 2013 attack
Part One: So Familiar You Don’t Recognize Them
Today begins a two-part examination of the Cowboys use of the tight end and F-back, a point of frustration for Cowboys fans who have seen the team spend three 2nd round picks on F-back candidates (Anthony Fasano in ’06, Martellus Bennett in ’09 and Gavin Escobar in ’13) with low returns. It will consider how new tight ends coach Mike Pope could help restore some muscle to the F-back role by getting Dallas’ kid tight ends Escobar and James Hanna to play better as Ys.
When Ernie Zampese took over game planning and play calling duties from Norv Turner in 1993 he opened camp by outlining a dozen pet passing plays. A constant was the emphasis they placed on down-the field pass patterns run by the F-back, the role played in those days by fullback Daryl Johnson. (F-back is a flexible position and can be played by different players. When Dallas goes to a three receiver set, the F-back is the slot receiver.)
The Cowboys were a running team in those days, and called a roughly 50/50 percentage ratio of runs to passes. Their most popular personnel package was the 21, a regular set with two running backs in the backfield and their dominant formation was queen, an off-set I with the F-back lined up opposite the tight end, or Y-back. Here’s queen left:
The Cowboys passing system is a down-the-field timing system and the reliance on the F among the backfield targets makes sense when you look at the formation. The halfback, or H-back is seven yards behind the center, a poor release point for any intermediate or deep route. The F-back in contrast, starts two yards behind one of the offensive tackles and can up clear of the line in two steps.
Zampese sent his F-back up the field on posts and corners. He was especially fond of one play, 545 F-post swing, writing “best play” about it in the margins of his diagram. It’s a vertical play designed specifically for the F-back. Here’s a diagram of the play in its original form, run from a split back formation.:
This play remains in the Dallas playbook but the coaches have had to use it in a new way, given the team’s lack of an F-back on par with Johnston. Last year, the Cowboys sprung it on the Packers, but in a way different from the ’90s Cowboys method. In the 2nd quarter, Dallas employed its 12 package, a two tight end set that put second year Y James Hanna on the line next to right tackle Doug Free. Jason Witten, the regular Y back, this time lined up as the F. He started the play in the backfield in the traditional F-back spot two yards behind Free, then motioned across the field to the left wing, between slot back Terrance Williams and LT Tyron Smith.
The Packers were in zone and the three vertical routes Bryant, Williams and Hanna ran occupied the Packers CBs and FS. This put Witten on a safety in the left flat. Witten sold him on a corner route, then cut inside and directly up-field inside the numbers. Tony Romo found him, and Witten beat his man and a late-closing free safety to the end zone:
Old Cowboys wine in a new bottle. It shows the staff putting their best interior receiving option in Johnston’s old spot, and reaping a six point dividend. At the same time, it shows a major shortcoming of the current two tight end system, one I’ll outline in part two.