Friday, January 8, 2010

Endgame 2010 - Dallas Cowboys

If the Cowboys Were a Song:

Discovery - "I Want You Back"

Who Are the Cowboys?:

Looking at the favorites of this year’s NFC playoff crop, the big names of the Vikings, the aerial fireworks of the Saints, I wonder if the Cowboys don’t grin just a little. After all, what have been stunning turnarounds for the head of the NFC class are really just old hat for the league’s most storied franchise. Celebrity? The Cowboys INVENTED celebrity football, and as recently as last year had two of the league’s most polarizing figures leading their offense. As for offensive firepower, well, the Cowboys never met a passing scheme they didn’t like, with Tony Romo behind only Matt Schaub and Peyton Manning in terms of yardage, and Miles Austin sneaking into the league’s elite as the third best receiver in terms of yardage in the league. So it’s refreshing to see this year’s Cowboys leave the popularity contest game plans to their rivals and embrace a graceless, chaotic, and ugly style of play that leaves opponents struggling to find their footing until it’s too late to do anything about it. After years of being Tom Cruise, the Cowboys are showing a little Mickey Rourke this year, and the change is paying dividends.

Perhaps this is most apparent in the defensive front, where the Cowboys have exchanged name recognition for a scowl that is at once unfriendly for the cameras and significantly more effective than anything they’ve done up to this point. This is due in no small part to a rush defense that has beaten back a slew of rush attacks (4th in the league in yardage allowed) thanks to a corps of linebackers that fills gaps and frequently disrupts plays in the backfield. Yet the real change defensively has to be the shift from athleticism that keeps up with plays to burst that may allow more plays through the air than it has in the past (20th against the pass in yardage), but demolishes offensive cohesion when it succeeds. The Cowboys put up 42 sacks (7th in the league) and had 36 tackles for a loss. Furthermore, Jay Ratliff has become the sort of elite defensive lineman that can swing a game on his own disruption, acting like a bull in the china shop of opposing offensive backfields. With the LB corps taking advantage of the freedom Ratliff gives them to attack from all angles, one is hard pressed to imagine any offense getting into a rhythm against these guys.

The offense carries a similar air of disruption. Where the run game was once another token of Jerry Jones’s excess, coordinator Jason Garrett seems to have finally given the hydra of Barber, Jones, and Choice the balance it once lacked. That is to say, while there is a clear hierarchy (Barber, then Jones, then Choice), each back seems to finally have a clear role that allows him to capitalize on his talents (Choice has been particularly effective spelling Barber in short yardage and goal line situations). The result is a run game good enough for 7th best in the league in yardage, even with a well documented and potent pass-heavy attack (note that the Jets, Panthers, Dolphins, and Titans, all teams that live and die by the run, are ahead of them), never letting defenses find comfort in schematic matchups.

Of course, the pass is still the weapon of choice for this team, regardless of how many top tier rushing talents the team stockpiles. Romo’s progression is no surprise; he’s gotten more confident as a passer, particularly in a division full of disruptive defensive fronts, with every year. Witten’s dominance in the middle of the field is equally unsurprising; he’s always been the Antonio Gates of the intermediate pass, and has a punishing form after the run that compliments his ascension to the top of the receiving options nicely. What has been truly surprising, and what has given the Cowboys pass attack the rough edges that have made it so difficult to predict this year, is the development of Miles Austin. As was mentioned above, the man is the third best receiver in the league, besting Moss, Wayne, and any number of old school darlings in yardage. If this were due to his remarkable athleticism, that would be one thing, but what makes him such an interesting weapon is his ability to shift from gear-to-gear quicker than any receiver in the league. His stutter steps and first moves are like land mines, ripping apart coverage schemes once defenders bite, allowing him to find holes even in bracket coverage and frequently placing him behind safety help. The result has allowed Romo to make better use of Patrick Crayton (who is still quick enough to take advantage of single coverage) and even Roy E. Williams (who will play a role in these playoffs if the Cowboys are going to beat one of their elite competitors). It’s not necessarily an entirely different song the Cowboys are playing on offense, but thanks to Austin, it’s got danger in place of beauty, which in the NFL is beauty in its own right.

So the offense swaggers with the confidence of a chopped and screwed remix and the defense has learned to floor the pedal of its high motor talent rather than pace it. The question, then, is whether or not the Cowboys will run into an opponent that will take advantage of boom or bust disruption scheme on defense that comes from a high power line and a questionable secondary. With the unfortunate exception of their opponent this weekend, there has to be a legitimate question as to whether or not that kind of opponent exists in the NFC (and the Eagles are like a bizzaro Cowboys, making this upcoming game difficult to predict and potentially fantastic). So as the elites of the league spend this weekend on a bye and watch the rabble play for the right to compete against them next week, I imagine that this will be the one team they genuinely hope fails, because unlike the rest of the field, when it comes to championship football the Cowboys are doing all the right things. The difference this time is that unlike the last few illusory years, they’re doing them the “wrong” way.

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