Witten:  overworked
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.:

Its designed to clear out the middle of the field, enticing the safeties wide, so the F-back can get a one-on-one match-up against a linebacker.   The two receivers, the X and the Z, run deep comebacks (5 routes) with cuts at 15-17 yards.  The Y back runs a deep in or 4 route.  Ordinarily this route calls for the tight end to go up the field and make a 90 degree cut at a depth of 12-14 yards.  Since the Y is clearing out the side for the F-back’s release, he takes a more diagonal route to the same target point, 14 yards upfield on the opposite hash mark.
The F has different duties based on coverage.  If he sees zone coverage, he’s supposed to motor up the seam and turn and look for a quick pass.  If he’s covered man-to-man, he’s supposed to feint to the outside and then cut inside across the face of his defender. 
The play was used sparingly, but Zampese picked his spots well.  In the ’95 divisional playoff game against the Eagles, Zampese called 545 F-post just before halftime, when the Cowboys were just inside the Eagles 30.  Daryl Johnson took Troy Aikman’s throw to the 1 yard line.  Emmitt Smith scored on the next play to break the game open.  The following year, Zampese tweaked this play on a 1st-and-20 call against the 49ers.  He motioned Johnston from the backfield into the left slot pre-snap.  The Moose got inside Ken Norton and caught a 19 yard pass.  Smith got the first down on the next play, pushing Dallas towards a game-winning field goal. 

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 call was nonetheless 545 F-post.  Though Dallas started with a slot formation, with both receivers on the left side of the formation and both tight ends on the right, the final patterns were the same.  Split end Dez Bryant ran a deep comeback on the left side. Hanna took his pattern wide outside the numbers, then ran a comeback at the same depth as Bryant.  Slot man Williams ran a quick post, clearing the left seam for Witten:

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.

Rafael Vela
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com
Rafael Vela
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  • AustonianAggie

    It’s kind of funny to think Dallas spent 3 2nd round picks on TEs, when Moose Johnson himself was a 2nd round pick, but at RB.

    • I’ve been saying for years, those 2nd round picks were all spent with the idea of turning them into the next big F-back. But every one of those guys was different physically from Johnston. He was 6’2″ on his tallest day, with a long torso. Those guys were all 6’4″ to 6’6″ with long legs. You can’t do what DJ did as a lead blocker at their heights.

  • Michael

    Great article, Raf. I appreciate the historical angle to these posts and it is especially nice to see a classic play still alive and kicking. I grew up watching Coryell’s Chargers run 545 F post. Then, Gibb’s Redskins, Turner’s Cowboys and Martz’s Rams took it in new directions. Nice to see the play come full circle.

    BTW, I am sure Vikings blogs will be breaking the play down this offseason as well:)

    Up front, though, I think you mixed up Fasano and Escobar: “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
    Fasano and James Hanna to play better as Ys.”

  • Football Mensa

    The offense was better with an F back.

    • It was, and they’re trying to find one, but they really don’t seen to know what the’re looking for. And yet they keep spending 2nd rounders on square pegs. More coming on this.

      • Michael

        Why not Murray as the F back on occasion. It worked with Marshal Faulk.

        Murray is fast and can catch. Why not get him down field a bit more often.

      • AustonianAggie

        I was reminiscing about lesser lead blocking full backs who caught a lot of passes in the 90s…
        Larry Centers, Richie Anderson, those guys would be really nice right now. I really like Pott’s lead blocking though, at the end of the year

  • Layne Wallace

    I love these kinds of articles. Thank you!