Daily Archives: August 24th, 2012

STABILIZING THE TRENCHES: Guard Nate Livings’ return helps Dallas Cowboys to build OL continuity

Dallas Cowboys guard Nate Livings (71) during organized team activities - The Boys Are Back blog

ARLINGTON — Little by little, the Dallas Cowboys vision of what to expect from their retooled offensive line has come into focus throughout training camp. The operative word is "little," because the projected starters have yet to line up shoulder-to-shoulder in a preseason game.

That is not expected to change Saturday in Cowboys Stadium against the St. Louis Rams (7 p.m., KTVT/Ch. 11), with center Phil Costa projected to miss his third consecutive game with a back ailment. But left guard Nate Livings, who has yet to take a preseason snap, plans to make his debut in a Dallas uniform after returning to practice this week from a hamstring injury.

That will give the Cowboys four projected starters in the trenches, plus reserve center David Arkin, to protect quarterback Tony Romo for the brunt of the team’s most extended dress rehearsal in preparation for a Sept. 5 regular-season opener at the New York Giants.

How is Romo’s comfort level with the guys protecting him?

"It’s comfortable," Romo said. "They’re fighting. They’re getting better and better, and they just keep working hard. We’re going to be all right."

Livings (6-foot-4, 320 pounds), a starter for Cincinnati the past two seasons, joined right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau as the team’s free-agent additions to shore up a suspect area from last season. For the first time, the two will play in tandem Saturday against the Rams.

Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said continuity among his three interior linemen "might be as important as at any position on your team" and that he is eager to gauge how the pieces are fitting together as the regular season approaches.

"They work together in combination blocks, identifying fronts … all of that stuff that centers and [guards] need to do," Garrett said. "It is really, really important to the success of the play, the success of your run game and your pass protection. The more experience you have spending time with these guys, taking snaps together, the better you’re going to be."

Livings cannot wait to turn it loose after being given a clean bill of health from Cowboys trainers.

"It’s all good, baby," Livings said of his physical condition. "In the game the other day [against San Diego], when we were coming out of the tunnel, I was getting chills myself. But I wasn’t playing. And that’s a feeling I don’t like. I’m here to play football. I’m looking forward to [Saturday]. I’m just getting my feet back under me and getting better one day at a time."

Bernadeau, who missed most of the off-season while recuperating from hip and knee surgeries, believes Livings — a former LSU player who started 41 of his last 46 games with the Bengals — can be a stabilizing force.

"It’s good to have ‘Big Nate’ back," Bernadeau said. "He’s a big force inside, a big influence. We’re excited to have him back and give him as many reps as we can."

Livings, Bernadeau and Arkin joined starting tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith for the majority of the first-team reps in Thursday’s Silver & Blue Debut at Cowboys Stadium. Garrett said he is eager to get his projected starters together for as much work as possible in the preseason and expressed disappointment that injuries to Costa, Livings and Bernadeau during various stages of training camp prevented that.

But he’ll at least see four of the five — including both newcomers at guard — operate together Saturday.

"You control what you can control in life," Garrett said. "We just had a rash of injuries … Ideally, you want that starting offensive line to be in place year after year. That’s not necessarily the nature of the NFL. We have some new guys. They have been banged up, and we’re going to try our best to get that continuity as well as we can, as fast as we can."

In terms of the Rams’ game, Livings will be under the microscope. The Cowboys’ offensive line struggled to protect Romo or create running lanes in its preseason opener, a 3-0 victory over Oakland, but fared much better in Saturday’s 28-20 loss to the Chargers.

Garrett envisions Livings’ return as another step toward stability in the trenches.

"He’s a pro. You can see that, the way he approaches it," Garrett said. "He needs to play in our offense more, [understand] the communication next to guys, the adjustments he needs to make. He’s got … a quiet intensity that we like."

Although he has yet to take the field in a Cowboys jersey, Livings went through the entire off-season with the team and pointed to training camp as a bonding experience for him and his line mates. He said the group is becoming cohesive despite minimal game snaps together in the preseason, and he is eager to showcase that.

"We’re around each other all day long in meetings and talking," Livings said. "We’re dealing with certain situations on the field [in practice]. That’s our job: to get better every day. To get closer every day. We know what it takes. We’ve just got to get ready to roll."

PRESEASON GAME THREE: The “Dress Rehearsal” an important indicator for a starting offense

Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray (29) spreads his arms as he runs town the field to score a touchdown during the first half of the Dallas Cowboys home game versus the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, October 23, 2011 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX. Murray earned the Cowboys all time rushing record in the game. (Patrick T. Fallon/The Dallas Morning News)

ARLINGTON, TexasThe last time the Cowboys played the St. Louis Rams, their offense exploded for 445 yards and 34 points, behind a record-setting 253-yard effort by DeMarco Murray.

Of course, the last time the two teams met, it was Week 7 of the 2011 regular season, and the 2-3 Cowboys desperately needed a win to try to create some momentum. This time, the Cowboys don’t need a win. But in the preseason “dress rehearsal,” as the third exhibition game is typically called, they at least need to show progress, particularly on offense.

While the first-team defense pitched a shutout during its work against the Raiders and Chargers, the starting offense has moved the ball inconsistently and put up only three points.

At least four starters will sit out the game for the Cowboys offense, receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, tight end Jason Witten and center Phil Costa, and the Cowboys haven’t spent much, if any time game-planning for St. Louis. But given the fact that the exhibition is being played only 11 days out from the regular-season opener in New York, it would seem there’s some pressure on the remaining offensive starters to get things going.

They’ll get plenty of work.

“We anticipate them playing the most that they’ve played in the preseason,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “That’s typically what we do. We build up from the first game to the second game and they get their most extended work in Week 3 before dialing back in Week 4. So, we anticipate them playing a lot, but the game situation will dictate that as well. We want quality work for them, we want to make sure the plays they do get are good plays, and then we’ll look at each other and we’ll make some decisions as the game unfolds.”

In Garrett’s first preseason as the Cowboys’ head coach, Tony Romo’s group played to halftime of the dress rehearsal game, at Minnesota, then gave way to the backups to start the third quarter. While the quarterback can expect to go that long again, along with four of the five starting offensive linemen and new fullback Lawrence Vickers, the team may insist on pulling Murray early.

If the second-year back is going to carry the load for this team, as appears to be the coaches’ intention, there’s no point in trying to let him best his performance against the Rams from last year. In fact, there may not be any reason to let him see the second quarter.

Murray has touched the ball only seven times through two preseason games this year.

“It will still be a limited number,” Garrett said. “We don’t want him banging away out there for too long in this game. At the same time, we want to make sure to give him enough chances to get in the rhythm he needs to. That is a challenge at every position, but particularly that position, a position that is so physical and takes so much of a pounding. You don’t want to put him in a situation where he is leaving it all out there on a preseason-game field. We need to get him ready for the start of the regular season. The same thing with Felix (Jones) and our other backs. We try to rotate those guys to get them the touches they need without wearing them down.”

As for the guy who made his name at the NFL level against the Rams, he promises he’s treating Saturday’s contest just like it was Week 7 and the Cowboys have their backs against the wall, or an even bigger contest.

“We’re going to approach it like any game,” Murray said. “I know it’s a preseason game, but I’m going to approach it like it’s a playoff game or a real game for me. You always want to go out there and play your heart out and definitely try to get the win.

“No matter if I’m playing five snaps or 40 snaps, I’m going to come out there and try to do my best.”

DALLAS COWBOY HALL OF FAMER: Roger Staubach sees the ‘Boys in playoffs

Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame QB Roger Staubach - The Boys Are Back blog

Roger Staubach admits he sometimes doesn’t always see straight when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys because of his loyalty to the team and the people he has gotten to know over the years.

When the Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback looks at the 2012 version of the squad, he sees a playoff team.

“I say it’s either going to be 10-6 or 11-5,” Staubach said after Thursday’s practice at Cowboys Stadium. “That’s not bad. That gets you in the playoffs … If you stay healthy and get people healthy at the end of the year, Dallas will be in the hunt.”

Staubach admits concern about the team’s overall depth, especially at wide receiver behind Miles Austin and Dez Bryant.

“They have a great quarterback,” Staubach said. “I think Jason (Garrett) is growing to be a heckuva coach. Last year we were hurting in the secondary and I think hopefully we’ve solved some problems there. Keep the run game healthy. Make sure the wide receivers, Miles, he’s got to stay healthy, and Dez, on paper if we keep people healthy, we’ll be in thick of it.”

Staubach has never hidden his affinity for Tony Romo.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo Troy Aikman Roger Staubach - The Boys Are Back blog

“How do you not? I don’t get it,” Staubach said. “To be honest, this guy is one heck of a quarterback. He doesn’t have all the ammunition around him. I’m a big (Troy) Aikman fan and I think Troy will say he had pretty good people around him. I know I did. But Romo, they’re fortunate to have one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL.”

REFLECTION: Visit with Navy SEALs before departing San Diego

US Navy Seal - The Boys Are Back blog

Football players often take the field and say they’re “going to war.”

The Cowboys got a taste of what that actually means when they visited the Navy SEALs at their base in Coronado, Calif., before departing home Wednesday from San Diego.

Jason Garrett said the work put into football is incomparable to the sacrifices made by the Navy SEALs, the Cowboys could still learn about discipline, preparation and the need for training.

While coach Jason Garrett said the work put into football is incomparable to the sacrifices made by the Navy SEALs, the Cowboys could still learn about discipline, preparation and the need for training.

“I’m very quick to point out for our football team that what they do is very different from what we do,” Garrett said. “They’re in life and death situations, we’re trying to win football games. But I’d be hard-pressed to think that we can’t learn something from them, about how they go about their job every day, how they build their teams and how they lead their teams, and the trust they have in each other.”

“I’m very quick to point out for our football team that what they do is very different from what we do,” Garrett said. “They’re in life and death situations, we’re trying to win football games. But I’d be hard-pressed to think that we can’t learn something from them, about how they go about their job every day, how they build their teams and how they lead their teams, and the trust they have in each other.”

As Garrett put it, the Navy SEALs are “the best of the best,” and he wanted his team to get a glimpse at “the kind of warriors those guys are.”

DeMarco Murray said of the trip. “I asked those guys a lot about mental toughness despite different types of distractions, how do they go through and differentiate between going home with their family and going to work. I learned so much stuff, it’s unbelievable. I have so much respect for those guys, and that was an opportunity that I’ll never be experience (again) in my life … It’s something I’ll never forget.

“Your eyes are wide open,” running back DeMarco Murray said of the field trip. “I asked those guys a lot about mental toughness despite different types of distractions, how do they go through and differentiate between going home with their family and going to work. I learned so much stuff, it’s unbelievable. I have so much respect for those guys, and that was an opportunity that I’ll never be experience (again) in my life. … It’s something I’ll never forget.

The majority of the Naval Special Warfare training is conducted at the United States Phil Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center, which is part of the base where the Cowboys visited in Coronado.

The majority of the Naval Special Warfare training is conducted at the United States Phil Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center, which is part of the base where the Cowboys visited in Coronado.

“It was a fantastic visit, Garrett said. “As impressed as I was going into it, I was more impressed coming out of it, getting a chance to get to know those guys a little bit more in what they do and what they believe in and how they go about really their everyday life, everyday existence to prepare themselves for the challenges that they have.”

Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett talks with team members - The Boys Are Back blog

RELATED: SEAN LEE – Navy SEALs visit ‘puts things in perspective’ for Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys closed training camp Wednesday by traveling to a Navy SEAL’s base in Coronado, Calif.

It was the second time in the last two weeks that the Cowboys spent time with military personnel. A week after U.S. Army Gen. David Rodriguez spoke to the Cowboys about preparation and toughness, the group got a lesson about teamwork and sacrifice from the Navy’s special operations force.

Garrett said it was a good learning experience for the team and linebacker Sean Lee agreed. Lee said he believes the visit is something that will make the Cowboys a better team.

“It just puts things in perspective for you,” Lee said. “You think you’re mentally tough, you think you work hard, but those guys take everything to another level. You think you’re sacrificing. Well, they’re sacrificing their lives to protect this country.”

NFL LEGACY: Steve Van Buren, Hall Of Fame running back dies at 91

Steve Van Buren - RB - Philadelphia Eagles - The Boys Are Back blog

PHILADELPHIA — Steve Van Buren, the square-jawed Hall of Fame running back who led the Philadelphia Eagles to NFL titles in 1948 and 1949, has died. He was 91.

The Eagles said Van Buren died Thursday in Lancaster, Pa.,of pneumonia.

The former LSU star, nicknamed “Wham-Bam” for his quick and punishing running style, joined the Eagles in 1944 as a first-round pick. He led the NFL in rushing four times and finished his eight-year career with 5,860 yards rushing and 77 TDs.

The five-time All-Pro player was selected to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team in 1994, and was the first Eagles player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Steve Van Buren 1948 Philadelphia Eagles - The Boys Are Back blog

“I’ve seen them all –Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski,” Greasy Neale, Van Buren’s coach with the Eagles, told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1957, “but he’s the greatest.”

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound back sustained a leg injury in training camp before the 1952 season and retired as the NFL’s career rushing leader. The Eagles later retired his No. 15.

“On the field and off, as a player, a leader and a man, Steve Van Buren embodied the finest characteristics of our city and our sport,” said Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles’ chairman and CEO. “He was a friend and an inspiration to generations of fans, and the model of what an Eagle should be.”

Van Buren set the Eagles’ single-game rushing record with 205 yards against Pittsburgh in 1949, and is second in team history with his 77 touchdowns. He also holds the club record for most consecutive games with a rushing touchdown with eight in 1947.

“Watch those old films and you know that Steve Van Buren was something special,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said. “He was special in person, too, humble about his own accomplishments and encouraging to others. His memory will be with Eagles fans for as long as this team takes the field.”

One of his most memorable plays came in the 1948 NFL championship game, played in a driving snowstorm at Shibe Park. He scored the only touchdown of the game on a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter and the Eagles beat the Chicago Cardinals 7-0 for the franchise’s first title.

Nearly a year to the day later,this time in mud and torrential rain in Los Angeles, Van Buren ran for 196 yards and the Eagles beat the Rams 14-0 to become the first –and only –team to shut out opponents in consecutive championships.

Van Buren was born in La Ceiba, Honduras. His parents died when he was 10, and he moved to New Orleans to live with his grandparents. He failed to make his high school football team as a sophomore,but played well enough as a senior to earn a scholarship at LSU.

With the Tigers, Van Buren was used primarily as a blocking back until his senior season, when he led the nation in scoring with 98 points and rushed for 847 yards.

Van Buren is survived by three daughters.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS: Why Tony Romo will throw it deep in 2012

One of the primary areas of concern for the Cowboys’ offense in 2012 is effectively replacing wide receiver Laurent Robinson. Robinson was sensational in Dallas last season; his ability to stretch the field vertically helped the Cowboys move the ball in Miles Austin’s absence. Actually, Robinson caught 58.8 percent of his targets that were thrown 20 yards or longer—good for the third-best mark in the NFL.

Of course, Robinson wasn’t the only receiver to whom Tony Romo succeeded throwing the ball deep. Over his career, Romo has been remarkably adept at throwing the ball downfield. A big reason for that is his ability to buy time in the pocket, allowing receivers to get open even if they were initially covered.

I detailed Romo’s superb deep passing ability in my projection of his 2012 season, arguing the ‘Boys need to throw downfield way more often than their 6.6 deep ball rate from 2011. Here is more evidence why. . .

Tony Romo passer rating by pass length

I’ve tracked all of Romo’s throws from the past three years by location and distance. Above, you can see the passer rating he has generated throughout nine areas of the field. The peak is on throws of 20-plus yards to the right side of the field. Although those throws represent just 4.0 percent of his passes, Romo has amazingly racked up 17.1 percent of his touchdowns in this area.

Overall, Romo’s passer rating on deep passes is 114.3 since 2009—superior than the 103.6 rating on intermediate throws and the 97.0 rating on short throws.

While Romo has thrived on deep throws, you can see he has done the same when throwing to the right side of the field. His passer rating of 114.2 to the right trumps the 92.0 and 101.3 numbers he has posted on the left side of the field and between the hashes, respectively. Despite throwing fewer than one-third of his passes to the right side of the field, he has parlayed those throws into 45.7 percent of his touchdowns.

While the graph above is certainly interesting, I don’t think it tells the whole story. Passer rating is an imperfect measure, artificially inflated by an abundance of completions. It’s also affected heavily by a quarterback’s touchdown-to-interception ratio. In reality, passing efficiency in terms of yards-per-attempt is probably a superior measure of a quarterback’s success.

Below, I’ve broken down Romo’s attempts, charting how they compare to what we should expect from Romo on each throw. That is, taking into account Romo’s overall yards-per-attempt over the past three years, how does his efficiency in each area of the field compare to what we should expect?

Tony Romo effeciency

You can see that, when breaking down Romo’s throws like this, there’s really no comparison; he is far superior on deep passes than short ones. When throwing short, Romo is most effective over the middle (likely due to the presence of Jason Witten), but even in that area, his yards-per-attempt is 17.3 percent worse than what we’d expect.

In terms of pure efficiency, Romo has been at his best when throwing deep down the middle of the field. He’s had a few fluky interceptions in that range (which is what has thrown off his passer rating), but the quarterback has somehow managed to average an incredible 20.0 yards-per-attempt on his 34 deep passes between the hashes over the last three seasons. That’s 144.2 percent above expectations.

Overall, it seems pretty clear that Romo and the ‘Boys should air it out more in 2012. There could be a bit of a selection bias at work, meaning the deep passing numbers are inflated because Romo doesn’t generally force passes downfield unless something is open, but the stats are so skewed that a dramatic increase in deep passes seems likely.

Thus far in the preseason, Romo has already attempted a throw of 20-plus yards on 15.7 percent of his passes. It’s a small sample size, but with his career success throwing the deep ball, I expect that rate to remain pretty steady during the regular season.

Jonathan Bales is a special contributor. He’s the founder of The DC Times and writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He’s also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People.

DALLAS COWBOY ROSTER: Jamize Olawale wins over PA announcer, still trying to sway coaches

Dallas Cowboys running back Jamize Olawale - vs SD - The Boys Are Back blog

Dallas Cowboys running back Jamize Olawale, an undrafted free agent from North Texas, experienced an unexpected surprise during tonight’s Silver & Blue Debut at Cowboys Stadium. The public address announcer nailed the pronunciation of his name (juh-MAZE oh-lah-WALL-ee).

That is more than some of his coaches have been able to muster. Not that Olawale (6-foot-1, 238 pounds), who has been one of the team’s most pleasant surprises of training camp, is complaining.

“Over the PA, they announced my name correctly,” Olawale said. “Some of the coaches, they have trouble pronouncing my name. Some coaches got it right from the outset. Some are still having trouble.”

Who’s having trouble?

“I’m not going to name any names,” Olawale said, smiling.

That could change soon. Olawale, who has led the Cowboys in rushing in both of their pre-season games, is considered a serious contender to land a spot on the team’s 53-man roster because of the versatility he has shown in training camp.

He could wind up competing for the final running back spot against his former college teammate, Lance Dunbar, a Haltom High School grad who played running back at UNT while Olawale worked primarily at receiver.

Although his emergence as a runner has been a pleasant surprise to Cowboys’ coaches, who initially viewed him as a backup fullback, it has not surprised Olawale.

“That’s how I’ve played my whole life. I started off my career playing running back,” said Olawale, who scored the team’s lone rushing touchdown of the pre-season on a 2-yard blast in last week’s 28-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers. “I feel like I can help in (goal-line) situations. Whatever they ask me to do, I feel like I can step up and help.”

His strong performance in camp makes Saturday’s game against the St. Louis Rams a potentially pivotal one for Olawale and others on the bubble of making the Cowboys’ roster. Olawale doesn’t think much about that, either.

“I don’t know. I’m not in the coaches’ meetings,” Olawale said. “That’s not really my concern. My concern is to come out here and play every day and to do my best. I’ll let the coaches sort through all of that.”

Jimmy Burch

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