On Worrying

Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble
Trouble been doggin’ my soul since the day I was born
Worry, worry, worry, worry
Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone

— Trouble, Ray LaMontagne

It seems that many Cowboys fans can’t help but worry about their team, though training camp is only nine days old and no player has yet suffered a significant (season threatening) injury.  The most frequent question I have received this year asks some variant of the following, “should I worry/be concerned about player or position x?”

If you want to worry, sure.  If you would rather preserve your nervous system for the regular season’s churn, here are some reminders.

1.  This is a process.  You’re simply not going to know if a young player is definitely good or definitely bad, with certainty, today.  You just won’t.  I’ll repeat, learning curves do not progress linearly.  Some go up and go down.  Some go up, flat-line, then go up again.  Some jump up early, then drift towards the ground with each successive day.

The encouraging news is that youngsters are progressing.  Bill Callahan has his kid linemen on the upswing.  Jermey Parnell was an undersized project when the Cowboys claimed him from New Orleans’ practice squad two seasons ago.  He was overwhelmed when he had to play a regular season series last year.  Today, he looks like an NFL tackle.  He’s still a backup, but he’s a bigger, stronger, more feisty player this year.  His technique is better.  The same is true for David Arkin.   Phil Costa’s hand work off the snap has improved, and he’s better at anchoring in power moves in the practices. Which leads to point two.

Callahan drills the offensive tackles

2.  The new assistant coaches are upgrading their units.  I see a lot more teaching and attention to detail in the offensive line and secondary unit work.  Callahan will put his linemen in their stances, kneel between the offensive and defensive linemen, touch his charge’s nose and draw a line to the exact spot he wants his lineman to hit on his opponent.  When his guys work on stretch plays or coil up to hit targets, he’s stopping them mid-stride and making minute adjustments to shoulder placements, foot placement and to height.  He sometimes looks like a window dresser handling massive human mannequins.

The point of his and assistant Wes Phillips’ lessons (watch this guy in the future) is creating “lines of power.”  One observer I spoke to this week said Callahan must have some background in kinesiology, because all this fine adjustments work to maximize power transfer between the blocker’s core and the point of impact, be it the blocker’s shoulder or his hand(s).

Similar work goes on with Jerome Henderson’s secondary bunch.  He’s fussy about hand placement and effective jams off the line of scrimmage.  The receivers and d-backs go one-on-one off the line every other day and these have become highly entertaining drills.  They offer a quick view of which receivers can beat the jam, but also on which defenders can pop.

Not surprisingly, Brandon Carr is the secondary champ.  He loves the contact and he brings his punch-outs from all angles, and at all times.  He has a boxer’s feel for his blows; sometimes he delivers the jolt just after the snap.  Sometimes he’ll delay it until the receiver is almost even with him.  Carr gives the kids a bruising and is making the starting receivers better off-the-line.  They have to be, or they won’t get past him.

Brandon Carr tracks Kevin Ogletree

Here too, you see progress group wide.  Before his knee sprain, Morris Claiborne was rapidly improving with his jams and overall physical play.  Mario Butler has made strides in this area.  Orlando Scandrick looks quicker and more certain out of his breaks.

Learning occurs.

Some units remain thin.  The tight end unit needs John Phillips.  James Hanna is learning the F-back role (look out Shaun Chapas) but he’s still a backup.  Fortunately, Lawrence Vickers has that spot locked down.  The guard spots will look much more solid when Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernardeau return, which should be next week.  Claiborne should come back at that time, and Mike Jenkims may follow a couple of weeks later, which will strengthen the cornerback depth.

If you want to be concerned (I don’t recommend worry.  It upsets your stomach and turns off your friends) look at the receiving corps and also send some positive energy Matt Johnson’s way.  Johnson is running out of learning time.  Once we reach game three of the pre-season, the emphasis shifts from teaching to week-to-week game prep.  Coaches simply don’t have time to bring a kid up from nothing then, and Johnson needs to start his on-the-field lessons, stat.

When the Cowboys play the Raiders and the Chargers, track the 3rd role challengers.  Does any one of the Ogletree, Harris, Radway, Holmes, Coale or Beasley group seize the role?  Where do they play?  In the slot exclusively?  Outside exclusively?  Can they play both spots?

We’ll know by the final gun of the Chargers contest if the Cowboys can promote from within, or will be looking for another Laurent Robinson-type veteran when the final cut-downs occur.

3.  Revel in the back and forth  Before camp, I pointed out that exchanges between quality players produces a lot of back-and-forth.  If you have a good receiver and a good wideout squaring off, the results will resemble a good fight.  One participant will score his share of blows and the other will too.

Many of the worrying types point out that they’re reading a particular player struggles here and there.  Tyron Smith’s name pops up.  Well, folks, who does Tyron Smith face every day?  If Smith stopped DeMarcus Ware on every down, in drills or scrimmage, what do you think the reaction would be?  Would we be praising him, or would the worry meter be cranked up to 11 for Ware, since “he’s not getting any pressure against Smith!”

Back and forth, in moderation, signifies team health.  Adrian Hamilton and Kyle Wilber make plays here and there, against first and second teammers.  We want this to happen.  Dez Bryant beats Barry Church on posts here and there.  But he’s beating everybody.  If Church was shutting Dez down every down, would we be praising him, or worrying about the receivers, since our best and only healthy wideout can get open deep?

Everybody is getting beaten here or there.  I can’t say that I’ve seen a projected starter manhandled consistently.  The games may tell another story, but that’s what I see thus far.

4.  It’s time to play people in other uniforms.  We’re reaching the point of camp where familiarity factors into the assessments.  Is a player doing well against his opponent because player one is improving, or because he’s seen player two’s moves for ten days and has dialed the guy in?  Can player one do it if he’s facing a fresh face?

It’s a process, folks.  Work with it.  Put the worry on ice until September 5th.

Cowboys Draft in Review: Trying to Win 3rd Down

Pour another glass of whatever your having right now and have it handy.  We’re about to relive some painful 2011 4th quarters.

  1. Week 1 — The Cowboys blow a 24-10 4th quarter lead, letting geriatric Plaxico Burress dance through their beaten up secondary in a 27-24 Jets win.
  2. Week 4 — the Cowboys blow a 30-17 4th quarter lead over the Lions, allowing three late and long scoring drives.
  3. Week 6 — the defense bends and then breaks on the final drive, letting Tom Brady rally the Patriots for a 20-16 win at the gun.
  4. Week 11 — the defense can’t stop the irresistible Rex Grossman, who leads the Redskins on a late touchdown drive.  Dallas wins in overtime, but Rob Ryan’s pained expression told the story.
  5. Week 12 — the Cowboys can’t contain the Dolphins Matt Moore, who rips them in the middle quarters, forcing a Tony Romo comeback.
  6. Week 14 — The Cowboys squander a 12 point lead in the last five and a half minutes.  The defense can’t stop Eli Manning on 1st, 2nd or 3rd downs, and he leads two long, game-winning touchdown drives in a 34-32 shootout.
  7. Week 17 — Manning kills the Cowboys late again.  On the drive after Dallas has rallied to within seven points, Manning converts a key bomb to Victor Cruz over Orlando Scandrick, helping the Giants pull away late, 31-14.

Five losses and two near losses, all due to poor late quarters pass defense.

When Stephen Jones told the press earlier this spring that Dallas didn’t have the overall defensive talent to win, this is what he meant.  The 2011 Cowboys defense could not win 3rd downs.  It’s started games well enough, but could not sustain late pressure or maintain cover for 60 minutes.

The entire 2011 off-season has worked to upgrade these defensive weaknesses.  The just-concluded draft added some of the final pieces to Rob Ryan’s latest defensive incarnation, one he expects to carry the fight a full game, every week.  Five of the team’s seven draft picks were spent on defense — one defensive end, two linebackers, a corner and a safety.

Top pick Morris Claiborne is expected to provide top-level coverage skills early in his career.  The Cowboys’ next two picks, end Tyrone Crawford and outside linebacker Kyle Wilber, should challenge for roles in the nickel rush lines this year.  Both were productive pass rushers and both project as situational rushers early in their careers.

Add the big-ticket cornerback Brandon Carr and Ryan should expect much better production from his secondary.  Let’s compare the 2011 lineup to this year’s.

Left corner — ’11 Terence Newman;  ’12  Morris Claiborne
Right corner — ’11 Mike Jenkins;  ’12  Brandon Carr
Slot corner — ’11 Orlando Scandrick;  ’12  Orlando Scandrick
4th corner — ’11 Alan Ball;  ’12 — Mike Jenkins
Strong safety — ’11 Gerald Sensabaugh;  ’12 Gerald Sensabaugh
Free safety — ’11 Abe Elam;  ’12 Brodney Pool

Jenkins may recover from his shoulder surgery and make the rookie Claiborne earn his starting star.  Even in the worst case, he’s vastly superior to Ball.

Up front, Crawford will be eyed as a rush upgrade over greybeards Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman. The brass probably hopes he can nudge one of the veterans off the roster.  Outside, Wilber could start in the nickel rush rotation opposite Demarcus Ware.  He’ll be challenged to take reps away from Anthony Spencer and Victor Butler.

Rob Ryan has had enough of the 2011 harpooned walrus face.  So have we.

Rush and More Rush — Dallas Picks OLB Kyle Wilber

Kyle Wilber

3:25 — The Cowboys select Oklahoma TE James Hanna.

1:45 — The Cowboys finally throw the offense a bone, selecting Virginia Tech slot WR Danny Coale.

12:56 — The Cowboys select Eastern Washington safety Matt Johnson.

     *     *     *     *

The Cowboys added to their defensive haul by taking Wake Forest OLB Kyle Wilber with the first of two 4th round picks.  The Cowboys have now taken a corner, a defensive end and a pass rusher, making good on the debt they owed DC Rob Ryan, who watched the team pick offense in his first year with the team.

I just got a snap report from Wes Bunting on both Wilber and 3rd round pick Tyrone Crawford:

Cowboys Nation: The team is looking for pass rush with these two guys.

Wes Bunting:  Yeah.

CN:  I pulled up a report you gave on Crawford from February and he reads like a grinder, an under-the-radar guy.

WB: I like him a lot.  I thought he was more of a 4-3 base defensive end, a guy who plays on the strong side, but he can play 5-technique.  A lot of people I’ve talked to think he’s a 5-technique only.  He showed up at the East-West Shrine Game at 285.  He’s a big, strong kid.  He has a little get-off burst but he does a really good job of turning speed into power off the edge, where it looks like he’s taking you up the field then he plants his foot in the ground and overwhelms you.

He can stack and shed on the outside.  I think he can be a good run stopper in the NFL.  I think he’s a solid football player.

CN:  When I heard your first report, when you described how he was already able to flatten out and get his pads low and blast around the edge, he sounded like a well-developed player.  I was surprised when I asked you about his skills and you said he’s from Canada and has not played very much.

WB:  He’s a Canadian kid and he’s got a lot of upside to his game. He’s going to continue to get better.

CN:  He sounds like a high-floor kid.  Is that a fair assessment?

WB:  He’s a high-floor, high-ceiling guy.  You know what you’re getting but there’s a chance he can become a really good power player in the NFL.

CN:  Can he play quickly in your opinion?

WB:  Yeah, I think he can come right in and be a rotational player early on and if the cards fall into place…  That’s the thing with these bigger guys. He’s playing defensive end, but could he have played tackle?  If he goes to a 3-4 team and played the 5-technique maybe he’s just more comfortable there than he did playing defensive end.

CN:  But he seems to offer rush potential from the 5.  I think that’s the most intriguing aspect to his game.

WB:  Yeah, he does.  You can play him inside the tackle as a 4-technique.  You can line him up outside shoulder, as the 5, or as the 7 technique and let him fly off the edge in passing situations.  I thought he could have been a solid pass rushing option for a 4-3 team and I think he could be a solid option for a 3-4 team.

CN:  How did Boise State use him?

WB:  They played him as a base 4-3 end.  They had McClellin so they flip-flopped them a lot.

CN:  So he was the bookend to McClellin?

WB:  They moved McClellin all over.  He stood up.  He blitzed from the inside.  These guys were versatile.  They would play Billy Winn inside then kick him to defensive end.  [Crawford has] played all over.

CN:  Could he play inside in a nickel package?

WB:  Yeah.  Not right away, but I think he could develop in that area.

CN:  Let’s move to Kyle Wilber.  He reads like a guy who could develop into a situational pass rusher early.

WB:  Yeah.  He’s not that quick-twitch explosive guy who’s going to fly off the edge.  He has an okay first step, but he has long arms, he’s smoother so he has some body control when he redirects and changes directions.

Does he close explosively? No.  But he uses his length and his short-area quickness and smoothness to keep himself free and he’s always working to the quarterback.  I liked him a lot on tape when I saw him.  Some people initially gave him a free agent grade but I was thinking, man, this could be a pretty good pass rusher. He really helped himself at the East-West Shrine and he just been moving up, moving up.

As a 3-4 guy I think he needs to get a bit stronger against the run, but from day one they’re going to use him as a pass rusher.  He could mature into a solid 5-8 sack guy in the NFL.

CN:  When he fills out, and get some experience, where does he project?

WB:  Watching him right now, he’s a weak-side ‘backer, because I don’t know if you could trust him on the strong side at this point, but he does have a big frame and he certainly could develop in that area.  Right now I think he’s a strong-side pass rusher and you bring him in those nickel situations and he’s the 3rd outside rusher on that team.

CN:  These are both high-motor guys from the sounds of it.

WB:  They’re all good football players.  4th round?  I don’t know, it might be just a touch high, but I can’t pick on that.  Crawford in the 3rd round?  I don’t have any complaints about that.  He’s a tough dude.

Cowboys Draft 2012: Day 3

12:10 CT:  Just got off the phone with Wes Bunting.  Will have full reports on the last two Cowboys picks in about 10-15 minutes.  Keep it here.

11:50 CT:  The Dallas Cowboys select LB Kyle Wilber, from Wake Forest.  The defensive draft continues.  Stephen Jones offered Rob Ryan a fist-bump after the selection.  Wilber is a mid-round pass rushing prospect, who has some experience as a DE and OLB and who performed well standing up as an OLB.

Three picks, and Dallas has addressed every level of its defense.

11:48 CT — Cards snap up OT Bobby Massie.  Cowboys are on the clock.

11:46 CT — Bears take F-back Evan Rodriguez.  Mini run on TEs in the 4th, but none of them named Orson Charles.

11:41 CT — Steelers deal up for Washington NT Alameda Ta’amu.  The NT partisans will groan.  Still think Josh Chapman fits the Cowboys front better at that position.  Not seeing a DL here anyway.

11:38 CT — The Broncos take Baylor C Phil Blake.  I think we can safely assume Dallas won’t take a C with first 4th round pick.

11:36 CT — I like this pick.  Chiefs take slot bug Devon Wylie.  And they already have Dexter McCluster and Jamaal Charles.  They love speed bugs in Kansas City.

11:29 CT — Panthers pay a steep price, shipping a 6th and next year’s 3rd to jump into the early 4th and grab WR Joe Adams.

11:26 CT — CB Omar Bolden now only defender taken, 8 picks into the 4th.  Redskins raises some eyebrows adding QB Kirk Cousins to their opening pick of Robert Griffin.  I guess they don’t like Rex Grossman?

11:17 CT — Travis Benjamin (Browns) makes it 5 offensive players in 5 picks.

11:15 CT — The Texans take Georgia C Ben Jones, disappointing some of the take-a-center Cowboys partisans.

11:11 CT — We’re quickly into “huh” land, with the Ravens taking G Gino Gradkowski.

11:03 CT — The Rams start off the 4th with Wake Forest WR Chris Givens.

And we’re off.  Loaded up on chips and beer?  We’re going all day, until we’re done.

One last reminder, if you have not, consider chipping into the Camp Fund.  I’ll be your eyes and ears on the new Cowboys.