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The Cowboys’ first game is finally here! I’ve listed 19 (yeah, 19, wanna fight about it?) things for you to watch this Sunday night when the Cowboys take on the Bengals.
………..To Read More, click here
1. How much will the starters play?

Coach Wade Phillips has said most of the starters will be out of the game quickly. Tony Romo & Co. will probably receive one series on offense, whether they score a touchdown or go three-and-out. The lone exceptions on offense could be left tackle Doug Free, who the coaches surely want to monitor closely, and fullback Deon Anderson due to the nature of his position.

On defense, free safety Alan Ball may stay in the ballgame a bit longer than the other starters, although he has at least racked up significant game film at his position (as opposed to Free, whose left tackle game tape is minimal).

2. Will the first-string offense score on their first drive?

I recently recapped the Cowboys’ 2009 woes on initial drives. It will be interesting to see how the offense starts (particularly if they are aggressive) against a much improved Bengals defense.

3. How will new Bengal Terrell Owens be treated by his former Dallas teammates?

T.O. left Dallas on somewhat bitter terms, but don’t think for a second that he doesn’t still have a lot of friends in this locker room. Owens figures to be greeted warmly by most of the roster, particularly because it is just a preseason game. Let’s see how Owens and Romo interact if they cross paths after the game.

4. How will Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins perform against “Batman” (T.O.) and “Robin” (Chad Ochocinco)?

I guess Ochocinco isn’t a good enough nickname, so Chad needed a new moniker. In any event, this will be a good test (albeit a short one) for a cornerback duo I rated as the third-best in the NFL.

5. Who will step up in the tight race for the fourth cornerback job?

The battle for the fourth cornerback spot is one of my favorite of the preseason. It is particularly intriguing because, in my estimation, the versatility of safeties Ball and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah will allow Dallas to keep just four corners.

Each guy has advantages over the others. Cletis Gordon’s experience has him in the lead as of now. Bryan McCann is the most athletic of the group. Coach Phillips has even labeled him the best in coverage “when he is on,” but he is also quite frail and may not be physical enough in live action. Rookie Jamar Wall has struggled a bit, particularly in coverage, but the ‘Boys invested a sixth-round draft pick in him.

Right now, I’d give a slight advantage to Gordon with McCann’s upside putting him right in the mix. Wall will need to show he can make some plays to stick around.

6. How will Alan Ball tackle?

Ball missed 22.2 percent of tackles last season, forcing me to provide him with a “D” in run support. His athleticism and speed should allow him to make some plays in the passing game, but he really needs to show he can hold up against the run. He could get a few series worth of work on Sunday night to prove he can do so.

7. Will Anthony Spencer, who has a bruised Achilles tendon, receive any reps?…………… read more, click here

Last week, I published a comparison of Dallas Cowboys offensive player efficiency rankings. This comparison listed our own grades and those of a few well-regarded football statistics companies.

The point of this was to make an attempt to “normalize” playing conditions (teammates, situations, and so on) to determine a particular player’s true value.

In that article, I wrote:

There have been some attempts to “normalize” outside factors and assign an objective value to players. In fact, we are in the process of making such an attempt right now. Until then, we wanted to take a look at the values of Cowboys players gathered by some other leading football statistics gurus (and compare them to our own 2009 Player Rankings).

One source of efficiency-based value rankings is Advanced NFL Stats–a site we refer you to a lot. Advanced NFL Stats implements a statistic called Expected Points Added. We’ve spoken about ‘expected points’ in the past, and ANS talks about it here.

In short, EP (expected points) is the value of a certain situation in football. EPA (expected points added) is the difference between one situation and another. If the Cowboys have a 1st and 10 at their own 30-yard line, for example, the EP of that situation is +1.0 point, i.e. on average, they can expect one point from that drive. If Miles Austin catches a pass for 50 yards, the Cowboys’ EP shoots up to +4.0 (the expected points of a 1st and 10 at the opponent’s 20-yard line). Thus, the EPA for that play is +3.0.

We are concerned with EPA/play–the amount of expected points a player adds to his team’s point total per play.

Another source for efficiency-based values is Pro Football Focus. PFF is different from ANS in that they do not necessary use the outcomes of plays to formulate rankings. Instead, they break down each play and assign values based on their interpretation of how well each player performed his job on that play. You can read more about their methodology here.

Today, I will be comparing the Cowboys defensive player values from…………to read more click here.

Last week, a reader suggested we perform a value-based statistical analysis (similar to our 2009 Player Grades) which could be used to determine the worth of one player over another. For example, how much better would the Cowboys be if Felix Jones played every snap at running back (disregarding fatigue)? How costly would an injury to Jason Witten be? Essentially, how much does each player contribute to a win?

This task is easier said than done (and since it isn’t even particularly easily said, it sure isn’t easy to do). As the reader points out, one would have to “normalize” the conditions outside of the player to determine his true worth. This is rather easy to do (relatively speaking) in a sport like baseball where the circumstances are basically always the same.

In football, though, no two plays are ever really identical. Statistical comparisons among players on different teams are rather pointless, as the nature of each player’s system plays an incredible role in his statistical capabilities.

Nonetheless, there have been some attempts to “normalize” outside factors and assign an objective value to players. In fact, we are in the process of making such an attempt right now. Until then, we wanted to take a look at the values of Cowboys players gathered by some other leading football statistics gurus (and compare them to our own 2009 Player Rankings).

One such source (and perhaps the most well-known) is Football Outsiders. The primary FO statistic with which we are concerned is DVOA, or………… read more, Click Here

In the first part of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the nickel linebacker position. Today, I will take a look at defensive end.

Coach Wade Phillips loves to rotate his defensive linemen. The chart to the left displays the percentage of snaps each of the defensive ends played in 2009 (it adds up to 200 percent since there were always two ends on the field).

Notice that Igor Olshansky led the group at 62.8 percent of snaps, but that wasn’t even twice as much as the player with the least snaps (Jason Hatcher at 38.2 percent). Marcus Spears, the starter opposite Olshanksy, played just slightly more (51.6 percent of all snaps) than his backup Stephen Bowen (47.4 percent).

With Spears’ and Bowen’s snaps so evenly distributed, you could effectively call them starters 1A and 1B. Spears is the run defense guy (53.2 percent of his snaps came against the run), while Bowen is the Cowboys’ pass-rush specialist at end (79.6 percent of his snaps came against the pass).

In case you are wondering, 50.5 percent of Olshansky’s snaps came against the run, while just 32.2 percent of Hatcher’s came in the same situation.

A lot of questions have arisen of late regarding this snap distribution. Is it time to provide Bowen and Hatcher (Hatcher in particular) with more snaps? Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher are all restricted free agents. There is practically zero chance of the Cowboys retaining all three players, particularly with seventh-rounder Sean Lissemore waiting in the wings.

Spears is by far the most likely candidate to leave Dallas, and there still exists an outside chance he is traded before the start of the season. If not, however, you can still expect a tremendous battle for playing time at defensive end during training camp. Spears’ probable departure only adds to the likelihood of Bowen and Hatcher receiving more snaps.

In my view, it is time to transition Bowen and Hatcher into the lineup a bit more. In our 2009 Defensive End Grades, Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher all received nearly identical grades (all around 80 percent). If the Cowboys coaches also view the players as interchangeable (which appears to be the case), then it is time to slowly scale back Spears’ snaps. Let the players who will be here in 2011 play now. To Read More……Click Here

It is no secret the Cowboys must improve their red zone performance in 2010. The offense was second in the NFL in yards gained, but just 14th in points scored, tallying the worst points-to-yards ratio of any playoff team.

There are a lot of the theories regarding how to succeed in the red zone. Some coaches run the ball more, knowing the “upside” of passing plays is limited. Others believe an accurate quarterback is the key to red zone prosperity, as the field becomes “squashed” and more ’spot-on’ throws are needed.

Personally, I believe the red zone is basically no different than any other part of the field. Sure, some teams perform much better in the red zone (compared to their play outside of it) and others worse, but that is to be expected with a sample size of 32 teams. Further, all of the stats show red zone performance is fluky due to small subsets of data. That is, there’s really no difference between the opponent’s 20-yard line to end zone as there is to, say, in between the 40s. Random data fluctuations are to be expected in such small sets of data.

Nonetheless, there are likely a few ways for the Cowboys to improve upon their red zone performance. The first? Get there more often! The Cowboys ran the second-most plays in the NFL inside their own 20-yard line last season, but were just 17th in red zone plays run. For an offense that has the potential to be explosive, that ranking must (and will) improve.

As the sample size of red zone plays increases, the team’s success will “regress to the norm,” i.e. they will get better. I feel fully confident in saying the Cowboys red zone performance will improve in 2010 even if they make zero changes to their offense. Statistics always win out.

One way to secure more red zone plays, of course, is to force more turnovers on defense. The success of the defense goes hand-in-hand with the offense, but that topic is probably best saved for a later post.
The second method by which the Cowboys can become more dominant in the red zone is to alter 1st down play-calling. I came across a very interesting study which analyzes the expected points of both runs and passes inside the red zone. The results? Running the ball on 1st down inside the opponent’s 10-yard line yields better returns than passing. From the 10 to 20, however, the field becomes elongated and the superiority of 1st down passing returns.

While football minds have labeled the area inside the 20-yard line as the ‘red zone,’ the “real” red zone–the one in which play-calling must change–is actually inside the 10-yard line. Until that point, an offense’s strategy shouldn’t really alter. The graph to the left exemplifies the expected points of running and passing on 1st down. Notice that running only becomes a superior 1st down strategy around the opponent’s 10-yard line.

So how did Jason Garrett and the Cowboys fair in their 2009 1st down red zone play-calling? To read more……Click Here

Recently, I’ve taken a look at the 2009 receiving statistics of some Cowboys pass-catchers (Roy Williams, Miles Austin, Patrick Crayton, and Jason Witten) broken down by location. Williams, Crayton, and Witten were all significantly better when catching the football over the middle of the field, while Austin’s play stood out when receiving the ball either over the middle or on the left side of the field.

You can see graphs displaying the numbers of each player above. While one might expect receiving statistics to be somewhat inflated in the middle of the field, the degree of inflation seen (particularly for Williams, Crayton, and Witten) is surprising.

Part of their efficiency was due to quarterback Tony Romo. The chart above displays his passer rating over different areas of the field. You can see Romo thrived on passes over the middle between 10 and 20 yards in length. The sample size of passes in that particular area is huge, as it is over the linebackers and in front of the safeties–a very popular place to throw.

Of course, all NFL quarterbacks generally pass with higher efficiency over the middle of the field. So instead of simply claiming that Romo is a better quarterback when passing over the middle, I am interested in uncovering if his success is greater than the expected statistical inflation. That is, it is understood he will have better statistics when throwing to the middle of the field, but should they be as good as what is observed?

To determine if Romo’s success is atypical, I looked up the 2009 statistics of each team’s top quarterback (the one who took the most snaps). It is worth mentioning that these statistics are by no means infallible. For example, Vince Young, David Garrard, and Mark Sanchez all recorded a higher yards-per-attempt over the middle of the field last season than Peyton Manning. Enough said.
Nonetheless, they numbers do provide a general baseline for success, as the “top” quarterbacks are (more or less) near the top of the list.

As you can see, Romo’s 8.83 yards-per-attempt checked in as sixth-best in the NFL. While this is very good, it doesn’t actually confirm my hypothesis. Romo did average less yards in general in 2009 (8.15 per attempt), but so did most other quarterbacks. On the season, Romo’s 8.15 overall yards-per-attempt ranked him at……… read more CLICK HERE

Jason Williams Sean Lee Dallas CowboysAs Cowboys training camp approaches, somewhat of a paradox surrounds the team. Excitement and confidence are plentiful, yet there are a multitude of question marks for the Cowboys on offense, defense, and special teams.

Who is going to be starting at left tackle? How about in the slot? Who will return punts and kicks? Will David Buehler win all kicking duties? Who will be the nickel linebacker? The free safety?

The Cowboys, as one of the league’s most talented squads (perhaps even the creme of the crop), sure do have a lot of question marks. But it is important to differentiate between a “question mark” and a “hole.” At this point, there are no obvious holes on the team–no blatant weak spots.

Instead, there are positions where dependable play has been replaced by potential. But why the switch? Why substitute an unknown commodity for dependability? Well, if you can only “depend” on a player for mediocre play, then plugging in the ‘potential,’ even if it is a risk, is probably the right move.

For example, who would you rather have starting at left tackle: a player who the Cowboys can count on for average play (Flozell Adams), or a player who has, say, a 75% chance of being a tremendous player, but could also flop (Doug Free)?

There is no right or wrong answer. Perhaps it is savvy to fill a team with both high risk/high reward players and more dependable ones with less upside. One thing I know, however, is that teams with mediocre players don’t win championships. Organizations that take chances win it all, and the Dallas Cowboys are taking a lot of calculated gambles heading into the 2010 season.

One such gamble is heading into camp with various positions “up for grabs.” In our new “Cowboys Training Camp Battles” Series, I will analyze these positional battles, detailing who I think will win each job and why.

In this first installment, I will take a look one of the Cowboys’ backup positions (albeit an important one)–the nickel linebacker spot.

Battle for the Nickel Linebacker Job…… read more click here

Some players in the NFL are so athletic and explosive that you have no choice but to marvel over their talent.  Other players are less naturally-gifted, but still do all of the little things right to succeed.  They work hard.  They study film.  They stay out of trouble.

No one would mistake Cowboys wide receiver Patrick Crayton as falling into anything other than the latter group–and that is okay.  For the last few years, Crayton has been one of quarterback Tony Romo’s most reliable targets in Big D.  Incredible athleticism is nice, but reliability and consistency are just as important.

After skipping the first two weeks of (voluntary) OTAs, Crayton has returned to Dallas.  He is happy to be back, saying……. To read more, please click here

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