Critiquing the Cowboys

Cowboys vs. Seahawks

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This blocked punt was a major symptom in the debilitating illness that seemed to affect the Cowboys Sunday. Mike Marshall goes into how the Cowboys' blocking broke down, and why it's part of a disturbing trend. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)



WFAA Sports Blogger

Posted on September 19, 2012 at 2:13 PM

Updated Wednesday, Sep 19 at 2:30 PM

The first thing that comes to mind, and this simply might be because I’m watching the game again in timeline order, is this -- How much longer does Joe DiCamillis keep his job? Watching the Felix Jones opening kickoff return fumble was enough for me but the blocked punt that was simply a matter of being outflanked brought me to the point where I need somebody’s head.
For an organization that routinely drafts players above slot because of their perceived value on special teams (Terence Newman, Skyler Green, Isaiah Stanback, Felix Jones, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, the entire 2009 class) you would think that their special teams units would be more of a weapon. That’s simply not the case. If you continually dump assets into a project and it never really runs up to standard, don’t you fire the project manager? 
Let’s dig into the Felix situation first.
Felix Jones is not the same player that he was coming into the league. I’m not quite sure what has happened to him but he has lost the one definable skill that made even worthy of consideration as a 1st round pick: his burst. Injuries would be an easy excuse, as would motivation. But that doesn’t address the problem. The problem is you keep plugging a back that has shown zero burst into situations where burst is required and in some situations complete mental engagement and attentiveness is required (kickoff return). You’re setting him and yourself up to fail. Coach DeCamillis has to be aware of this.
 I was at roughly half of the OTAs and practices and saw Felix fumble kickoffs and give you nothing but average effort and production in every situation. Joe DeCamillis was at all of the OTAs and practices. It’s his job. He has to know that there’s no way in hell that Felix Jones is your best option returning kicks and there’s a myriad of reasons. Which makes me think maybe this isn’t a DeCamillis decision at all. Maybe the decision to have the Arkansas running back’s hands forced onto this game comes from somewhere else. I know, it feels a little tabloid for my taste but there is literally no other respectable reason that Joe DeCamillis could look anyone on that team in the eyes and tell them this gives them the best chance to win. 
Do you remember a week two game in 2008 against the Philadelphia Eagles? That was the last time Felix Jones had a positive effect on special teams. He returned a kickoff 98 yards and that was the difference in the game. We all just nodded and agreed that’s why we drafted him so high. 
Now to the inexcusable.
Let me get the praise out of the way first. Joe DeCamillis is excellent at coaching punt returns. The Cowboys have run back five punts for touchdowns during his time here. The rest can be summed up with one question; why has special teams always been a sore thumb on this team? I’ve watched all 7 executed (and one blocked) punts this season at least twice. In week one there was never really an opportunity for the Giants to apply a punt block. There were only two punts from the Cowboys in that game and the Giants either felt their return game was a bigger threat or they were trying to prevent getting pinned. 
So you go into Seattle against a team that blocked 2 punts a year ago. You punt out from your own 20. That might make you think that Pete Carroll, a coach that has 3 blocked punts the last 2 years, might try to apply some pressure, would it not? If you go back and watch the blocked punt you’ll see that the left side of the Cowboy’s punt unit is simply outnumbered. They were fundamentally outflanked. Seattle lined up 5 defenders on the left side and the Cowboys had 4 immediate blockers. 
This is the Cowboys' punt formation when directionally punting. They load the left side with three on-the-line blockers and shade the up backs to that side. The real problem on this particular play is the Seahawks knew exactly where Chris Jones likes to get to when he directionally punts and they banked on the fact that Phillip Tanner (the middle up back) wouldn’t have the awareness to fan out. He didn’t. In fact he didn’t block anybody. He took two steps forward, counted to two and took off to cover the punt. Tanner was shaded to the left but his route took him to the middle of the formation leaving Phillips, Carter, and Connor to one-on-one fan out and block defenders that already had control of the edge on them. Connor was basically expected to make a block that I’m not sure Tyron Smith could make. The blocking scheme might have worked despite all of this if Chris Jones wasn’t directionally kicking into the edge the rush was coming from.
 In DeCamillis’ tenure, three of the Cowboys' punts have been blocked. On the other side, their own unit has not yet blocked a punt. Teams know they can attack their special teams units. They just have to watch the tape from the previous game and decide where. Punt protection is one of those things that might go neglected after a huge win against the defending Super Bowl champions and 10 days off. It’s one man’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen and once again it somehow put this team at a disadvantage. 
Other notes:
  • I’m not worried about the defense at all. That 27 was really 17. What was really concerning was the game plan. The Cowboys rarely chose to put pressure on a rookie quarterback making his second start in the league. Wilson didn’t look good last week when pressured, but the Cowboys were content to rush 4 and drop zone most of the day. They couldn’t get Seattle off the field and gave Russell Wilson time to get comfortable.  
  • What’s wrong with Witten? I’d like to assume he’s just adjusting to wearing a protective vest but not just the drops. There were several routes where he and Romo did not have the same play in mind. I believe this will be fixed by next week, but his 80-some yards' worth of drops would have been great for an offense that was playing from behind the entire game.  
  • Tony Romo is 12 passing touchdowns behind Troy Aikman for the most all time in Cowboys history. That’s pretty cool, especially considering he's only been a starting QB for 6 years. I know the game has changed and almost every starting quarterback throws for 3,000 yards in this NFL but I just don’t want everyone to miss out on how good of a player this guy is. In case you've forgotten, here are some words: Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson, Drew Henson.  There -- did that help? I’m not going to use the word “haters” because that’s something that never should come out of an adult male’s mouth but anyone who doesn’t properly appreciate Tony Romo is going to sorely miss him when he’s gone. 

    Mike Marshall is a producer and reporter for Sports Radio 1310, The Ticket. He's also a TV producer, video editor, amateur humorist and cuts his own hair. Don't bring up the last thing. It's a weird story. But if you ask him, do it through Twitter @machine1310.