Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Wulf Den: Could’ve, Would’ve, Should’ve

September 1, 2009

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve read or heard someone say, “The Cowboys should’ve done this" or “the Cowboys could’ve done that" or “I would’ve done something else" since the Cowboys 13-20 loss to San Francisco, I’d be a rich man. The fact is that everyone and their brother can second-guess until they’re blue in the face, but they are nothing more or less than armchair quarterbacks…myself included.

Now there are some who know football who give more informed opinions than others. I’d like to think I’m one of them. But the fact is that the majority of those “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” folks out there are fans who are uninformed about the nature of football in general or “experts” who know little to nothing about the Cowboys. In fact, there were so many gross errors from the San Francisco announcers about the Cowboys players, coaches, and tendencies that I had to mute the TV to keep from arguing with it.

So while you may think the Cowboys should’ve scored more than ten points in the first half, the fact is they didn’t. If you think the Cowboys would’ve scored more had their entire starting unit continued into the second half, the fact is they didn’t. And maybe they could’ve chosen to go for it on fourth down deep in the opponents’ end of the field in the latter stages of the game. But they didn’t.

Facts are facts, and the fact is that the Cowboys starters, while they look solid for the most part, still have room for improvement. They have moved the ball well, and have spread it around nicely. But they have to get it into the endzone with more frequency than they have done thus far. And they need to stop the silly pre-snap penalties and mental mistakes. Sure there’s going to be a holding call or an offsides penalty from time to time. But false starts and unsportsmanlike conduct for not getting back in bounds on a kickoff are killers. The depth looked better in this game, for all that the Cowboys are thin in several areas, and I think as long as we don’t have a mass of starters go down at the same time, we should be okay on that front.

But instead of focusing either on generalities or on the “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” items, I instead tried to focus my attention on a handful of bubble players. Based on what they have shown to this point in training camp and the preseason, and their performance against the 49ers, I believe some of them have played their way onto…or off of…the 53-man roster, barring further injuries. Here are a few that I was specifically watching.

Cory Procter – A lot of us have been clamoring for Procter’s release for quite some time now. After all, we’ve seen how poorly he played at G when he had to start last year, and we’ve seen the pressure come up the middle because he doesn’t have the size to stand up to bigger D-linemen. Can we even imagine how badly Albert Haynesworth would abuse this guy?!? But considering the Cowboys brought in veteran Duke Preston—a guy with experience at both G and C as a starter, and with better size—I figured this might be Procter’s last chance to save his job. And what does he do? He botches yet another exchange with back-up QB Jon Kitna, effectively killing a drive. This has happened throughout training camp, and should NEVER be an issue this late in preseason. And while it’s possible that Kitna plays some role in the problem, the fact is that we rarely hear of a fumbled exchange between Kitna and any other person at the position. Let’s face it…if Preston shows anything at all against the Vikings on Friday night, Procter is gone…finally.

Courtney Brown – With the number of rookies the Cowboys drafted in the defensive backfield, you just knew that Brown was going to have to show up in training camp to make the roster. To give him a greater opportunity to do that, the coaching staff moved him to cornerback, hoping he could show enough versatility to make himself a more valuable player. Unfortunately, Brown doesn’t appear to have the skills to play CB in the NFL. The pass interference call late in the game aside, he just doesn’t seem to make the right adjustments at cornerback, something that is easier when you’re at safety and looking at the whole field from the snap. Given the number of rookies, and knowing that the Cowboys want to keep and develop them, Brown basically had to show that he was the 4th best CB OR the 4th best safety OR the best special teams player at DB. Unfortunately for him, Alan Ball is better than he is at both CB and S, and Pat Watkins is a much better special teams player…and likely a better safety as well. Barring another significant injury at the position, or a surprise move by the coaching staff, Brown is likely out of here.

Isaiah Stanback – This was going to finally be the year that Stanback would be completely healthy and show that all of that athleticism can translate to the receiver position in a game situation, and maybe even give us some flashes in the “Razorback” offense. Umm….not so much. He started out by getting injured. When he finally came back to practice, an upstart undrafted rookie named Kevin Ogletree had at least pulled even with him on the depth chart. By the time the first two preseason games were finished, Ogletree had passed him. So now he finds himself in the unenviable position of forcing the Cowboys to keep a sixth receiver, and the way he’s going to best do that, in all likelihood, is on special teams. From that perspective, he did okay. He had three kick returns and averaged 20 yards per return. Unfortunately for him, he also fumbled away his only reception. And before you start saying he never had possession of the ball, realize that what you’re then saying is that he dropped the only pass that came to him. Either way, he didn’t show up very well. I still think the Cowboys have enough time invested in him, and enough curiosity about his athletic ability, to try to keep him around IF he can show up big against the Vikings without getting hurt. But any kind of injury, or a so-so outing, and the injuries at other positions will likely force him out.

Pat Watkins – A lot of people have been ready to release Watkins for some time now. I’ve not been one of them, although I definitely have seen enough to know I didn’t want him playing a starting position on our defense. But with the absence of Keith Davis, Watkins has emerged as one of the best special teams players, according to the coaching staff. And while I still don’t want him starting, he can be serviceable in a defensive formation where you have six or seven defensive backs on the field. Such events don’t happen often, and he wouldn’t even be on the field then most of the time since Alan Ball would likely be the sixth DB in the game. But as a special teams player, he’s a guy that I can take to the game on Sunday. The injury to rookie S Michael Hamlin made this a much easier decision for me on the roster, of course, since he’s going to be out until the bye week. If Hamlin is ready to return at that point…and if other rookies like DB DeAngelo Smith have stepped up during the first few games, you may see Watkins released then. But don’t count on it as long as he continues to contribute in a significant way on special teams.

Closing Thoughts

I’m hoping to get my article containing my final roster prediction posted before the Cowboys actually release their cuts to the public. But given the fact that the game is Friday night and the cuts have to be made the next day, I may not make it. As such, I wanted to post as close to my final roster prediction as I could, given that there are still going to be one or two spots at the bottom of the roster that will come down to performance against the Vikings.

To do this, I took a somewhat different approach. I went back a few years and borrowed an idea from Bill Parcells. When he was coming up with his roster, Parcells had a 20-20-10-3 breakdown. That meant 20 offensive players that you want to take to the game, 20 defensive players you want to take to the game, three special teams specialists that you want to take to the game, and then ten other guys who would be on the roster, and from whom you could select two to be active on gameday.

Of course, the Cowboys have to have a little different set-up, given that they’re looking to get four specialists active on gameday. But realize that they’ve said all along that there might be times when they could not keep both kickers active on gameday. So essentially, rookie K David Buehler would be one of the ten from which to choose active gameday players…but one that the Cowboys would want to be active, if at all possible.

Here are the 20 offensive players that I selected to be active on gameday, in no particular order:

QB: Tony Romo, Jon Kitna
RB: Marion Barber, Felix Jones, Tashard Choice
FB: Deon Anderson
WR: Roy Williams, Patrick Crayton, Sam Hurd, Miles Austin
TE: Jason Witten, Martellus Bennett, John Phillips
OL: Flozell Adams, Marc Colombo, Kyle Kosier, Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, Duke Preston, Doug Free

Here are the 20 defensive players that I selected to be active on gameday, in no particular order:

DL: Marcus Spears, Igor Olshansky, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, Stephen Bowen, Junior Siavii
LB: DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Keith Brooking, Bradie James, Bobby Carpenter, Victor Butler, Steve Octavien
CB: Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick, Alan Ball
S: Ken Hamlin, Gerald Sensabaugh, Pat Watkins

And of course, the three specialists would be:

ST: Nick Folk, Mat McBriar, J. P. Ladouceur

This, of course, would leave us two players that could be active on gameday. All things being equal—and setting aside for a moment the fact that Jason Williams is injured—I think those two spots would typically go to Buehler and Williams. This gives you enough players to do what needs to be done, cover all of the special teams units, and have a little depth across the board to cover for in-game injuries.

With those two at the top of the list of the remaining players who make the 53-man roster, who fills out the remaining eight spaces? Here are the choices I made, along with a brief reasoning for the selection.

LB: Jason Williams
ST: David Buehler
WR: Kevin Ogletree – If there’s one person who should be a no-doubter for this group, it’s this kid. I believe he has the potential to eventually be a solid #2 receiver.
OL: Pat McQuistan, Montrae Holland – I can’t imagine the Cowboys keeping less than nine offensive linemen, and these are the next best two on the roster.
S: Michael Hamlin – Head Coach Wade Phillips all but said that Hamlin was making the team when he discussed his injury. Evidently, the Cowboys like what they’ve seen thus far enough to hold a spot for him.
QB: Stephen McGee – I don’t know that I would keep McGee on the roster. I don’t say that because I don’t think he has potential, but rather because he’s not expected to do anything but learn this year. He could do some of that helping to run the scout team, but I believe he could do nearly as much in the team meetings even if he was on IR. It sounds like the Cowboys want to make room for him, though.
CB: DeAngelo Smith – The Cowboys have been emphasizing versatility so much in the preseason that I can’t believe this guy isn’t in their plans. While he primarily played cornerback in college, and has been forced into it with the Cowboys as well, they see him as a future safety. But being able to do both gives him a roster spot at this point.
LB: Tearrious George or Matt Stewart – I hesitate to do this, especially since Stephen Hodge isn’t on the roster yet, but at this point we have to take Jason Williams’ injury into consideration. The fact is that he’s going to miss at least the next 4-6 weeks, and someone else has to be able to go to the game and understand the system enough to be able to spell your starters at the inside linebacker position. The reason I give these two the nod here over Hodge is simply because he hasn’t been healthy enough to show what he has, and can’t know the system as well as the other two. Add in that either of these guys could fill in on the outside as well, and I think one of them makes the roster. Stewart has more experience, but George has more upside.

Assuming the roster shakes out this way, though, this leaves one spot available. They’ll have to decide whether to give it to a) WR Isaiah Stanback; b) CB Mike Mickens; or c) LB Stephen Hodge. This will likely come down to an argument between who can contribute the most on special teams if they were needed on gameday and who can the slip through waivers and onto the practice squad. Of course, Stanback is not eligible for the practice squad, and that may give him the nod for the final roster spot. But if the Cowboys are afraid one of those rookies might not make it through waivers—especially if they think they have a lot of potential—Stanback could be gone.

If the roster went this way, I think they’d like to get RB Keon Lattimore, WR Jesse Holley or WR Manuel Johnson, G Ryan Gibbons or G Travis Bright, DL Marcus Dixon, and FB Julius Crosslin onto the practice squad, in addition to LB Stephen Hodge and CB Mike Mickens (if they don’t get retained on the 53-man roster). There’s also an outside shot at keeping TE Scott Chandler, especially considering the number of two-TE sets they’ll be running. Also, realize that these guys are going to have to be better than the guys that get cut from around the league, and that they could get snatched onto active rosters for other teams around the league as well.