Category Archives: Dan Graziano

AGING KIFFIN ON CAGING GRIFFIN: At 72, this ‘new’ defensive coordinator could bring the ‘Grampa 2 Defense’ to the Dallas Cowboys

Monte Kiffin vs Robert Griffin - Dallas Cowboys' Defense - The Boys Are Back blog

Monte Kiffin is rumored to be the Dallas Cowboys ‘new’ defensive coordinator. Even his old players didn’t see this one coming.

Former Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said he figured the 72-year-old Kiffin would get another shot in the NFL. He just didn’t expect it to be with Dallas.

"I would never have guessed Dallas two weeks ago," said Brooks, who still keeps in touch with Kiffin.

Kiffin would convert the Cowboys back to a 4-3 scheme. The Cowboys played the 4-3 from their first season in 1960 until Bill Parcells’ third season in Dallas in 2005 when he switched to the 3-4. The Cowboys have played the 3-4 since.

Does a 72-year-old Monte Kiffin and his Tampa 2 defense make sense for the Dallas Cowboys - The Boys Are Back blog

"I don’t know if he has the players there yet. I hope he does," Brooks said. "I just know what we did to make our defense great. Some would say it’s so simple, but at the same time, it’s so complex. You always hear about Dallas, ‘They’ve got talent. They’ve got talent.’ Well, now it’s time to roost. They can answer the question: Do they really have talent?"

Brooks compared DeMarcus Ware to Simeon Rice. Rice had 69 of his 122 sacks in his four years in Kiffin’s Cover 2 defense.

"For the most part, all he’s doing is going after the quarterback," Brooks said. "We know [Ware] can do that."

The Bucs had John Lynch at safety, Warren Sapp at defensive tackle, Brooks at linebacker, Ronde Barber at corner to go along with Rice. Sapp and Lynch are Hall of Fame candidates this year.

That is a big reason in 13 years in Tampa, Kiffin’s defenses ranked in the top 10 in total defense all but two years — 11th in 1997 and 17th in 2006 — and top 10 in fewest points allowed for all but 2006 (21st). Six times they ranked in the top 10 in takeaways.

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COMMENTARY: Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee is not replaceable; Dan Conner expected to start

Dallas Cowboys ILB Sean Lee - The Boys Are Back blog

The Dallas Cowboys are bracing for rotten news on inside linebacker Sean Lee, who could need season-ending surgery on his right big toe. Lee injured the toe in the third quarter of Sunday’s victory over the Panthers in Carolina and said after the game that he expected to be fine. But he had an MRI on Monday, and it sounds as though the results were quite discouraging.

There are plenty of people on the Cowboys’ roster who can play linebacker:

Dan Connor would replace Lee in the starting lineup, and he earned praise from coach Jason Garrett for his work against the Panthers, which included a third-down stop of Cam Newton and a pass deflection, after taking over for Lee. Second-year linebacker Bruce Carter would become the defensive signal caller. The Cowboys have Orie Lemon and Alex Albright as backup inside linebackers on the 53-man roster but could look to add another inside linebacker.

However, in spite of the depth the Cowboys have at the position, Lee is not a replaceable player for them. Not only is he their defensive captain and one of their most important leaders, he has played consistently better this year than has any other player on their defense, including superstar outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and either of their two new and very talented cornerbacks. Lee’s instincts and playmaking ability cannot be replicated by players like Carter or Connor, no matter how capable they are.

When you’ve watched the Cowboys’ defense this year, you’ve generally been impressed. And I believe they’ll continue to cover receivers well with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, continue to rush the passer well with Ware and Jason Hatcher and continue to defend the run capably with the help of Anthony Spencer. They have more good players on defense at this point than they do on offense, and I think they will still play fairly good defense the rest of the way.

But Lee has been playing at a transcendent, superstar-type level — one of the absolute best defensive playmakers at any position on any team in the league this year. The closest comparison of which I keep thinking is the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu in his prime — the way he was always able to be around the ball, whether it was due to speed, instincts, pre-snap positioning or a combination of everything. That’s what Lee was delivering this year — a player who at times made it look as though the Cowboys were playing with an extra man on defense. They simply don’t have anyone else on the roster who can play football the way Lee has been playing it. Few teams, if any, do.

Courtesy: Dan Graziano | ESPN Dallas

RELATED: Free Agent signee Dan Connor will replace starting LB Sean Lee

IRVING — Now that we know the Cowboys could be without starting inside linebacker Sean Lee the rest of the season, the team’s free agent signing of Dan Connor this off-season looks more important than ever. Lee and Connor are both Penn State products.

First off, Lee isn’t replaceable. He’s perhaps the Cowboys’ best defensive player. He leads the team with 77 tackles. He’s a defensive captain, a team leader and he relays the play-calls on the field.

An MRI on Monday revealed ligament damage in his toe and he could be facing season-ending surgery. The Cowboys are still trying to decide whether they’ll go ahead and have Lee undergo the surgery that would end his season. Lee was on crutches Monday at Valley Ranch. When he left the locker room Sunday at Carolina, Lee was wearing tennis shoes with his suit instead of dress shoes and had a slight limp.

Connor replaced Lee in the third quarter Sunday against his former team, Carolina, and finished the game. Connor has struggled early in the season in his limited playing time, but he was solid Sunday against the Panthers.

Connor said Monday that he knows he has to be ready for more playing time. He’ll start Sunday against the Giants alongside Bruce Carter. Connor said “that’s how the NFL goes” when he was asked about getting more playing time because of another player’s injury.

“It’s a long season. It’s a grind and guys get nicked up,” Connor said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been on a team where everyone is able to stay healthy every play the whole year. So, it’s all about being ready and waiting on your opportunity pretty much and helping the team however you can, getting your role and taking advantage of your role but always being prepared to go in there and play.”

Connor said playing at inside linebacker isn’t old hat for him.

“I’ve mostly been the middle [linebacker[ wherever I’ve been, so it’s a little adjustment,” Connor said.

Remember this about Lee and the possibility of season-ending surgery before going to bed tonight.

Last year, Lee was facing season-ending surgery on his dislocated left wrist. Lee, however, ended up missing only one game and he played the remainder of the season with a cast. If there’s any chance Lee can play through the injury at some point, he’ll certainly want to give it a shot.

But the Cowboys also have to be smart and safe with Lee’s health. He’s still a young player and will be the centerpiece for the Cowboys’ defense for years to come.

DIALING BACK EXPECTATIONS: You’re looking at the Dallas Cowboys all wrong

The Cowboys' DeMarco Murray rushed for 91 yards in the first half before leaving with an injury - The Boys Are Back blog

BALTIMORE — No, of course there are no moral victories in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys understand how tough it is to beat the Ravens in Baltimore, and they justifiably felt much better about the way they played in Sunday’s 31-29 loss than they felt two weeks ago after the Bears thumped them. But they’re professional football players, and they believed they could and should have won the game. They rushed for 227 yards, possessed the ball for 40 minutes, recovered an onside kick at the end and set their kicker up with a 51-yard field goal attempt that would have won it. The feeling in their locker room was disappointment.

"I’m sick about losing this game," owner Jerry Jones said. "We made our share of mistakes, but I thought we had a shot to win at the end. With our time of possession, it’s hard to understand how we didn’t win. Everybody is as frustrated as I am."

But there’s a bigger picture here, and it’s one that keeps getting missed as Cowboys fans wail and gnash their teeth about every single loss (and even some of the wins). These Cowboys are a work in progress — a team and a staff and a roster that is piecing itself together and building something it hopes can be sustainable well into the future. You may not want to hear it, and you may not be able to believe it about the Cowboys, but they are in a rebuilding phase right now and much more likely to be a playoff contender in 2013 than this year. So as disappointed as Cowboys fans are about the loss, the penalties, the late-game clock management and everything and everybody else you want to blame, that bigger picture really needs to be the one on which the conversation about the 2012 Cowboys centers.

"We have to win the game, and we didn’t do that," coach Jason Garrett said. "But I loved how our team battled. I was proud of our football team today, and we believe that we can grow from this football game."

A growth opportunity. A learning experience. These are valuable things for the Cowboys at this point in their history, and as Cowboys fans you may just have to accept that. Sure, this is the NFL, and the NFC East required only nine victories to win it last year, so nothing’s impossible. The Cowboys’ schedule gets easier, and if the run game and the offensive line can play the way they played Sunday, they could be much better in the second half of this season. But this season isn’t the central focus of the people running the Cowboys right now. What they’re looking for is growth and improvement, and they saw plenty of it Sunday.

"A lot of this game, you look at and you say, ‘Those are the Cowboys we’re talking about,’" tight end Jason Witten said. "Those are the kinds of players and leaders you want to grow with and build on."

He’s talking about guys like Sean Lee, who remains a terror on defense, and DeMarco Murray, who ran for 91 yards in the first half before a foot injury forced him out of the game. But lots of Cowboys played very well Sunday, including Dez Bryant, who caught 13 passes for 95 yards, and Felix Jones, who rushed for 92 yards in relief of Murray, and Phil Costa and the rest of an offensive line that’s been pulverized all year but on this day looked tough and mean and physical for the first time.

All of it comes with warts, though, and they’re mainly the result of the team and many of its players being unfinished products. Bryant’s big game is likely to be remembered for his drop of the two-point conversion attempt that would have tied it in the final minute. Murray got hurt again, which is a problem with Murray. And the line had its issues, contributing extensively to the fact that the Cowboys were penalized 13 times for 82 yards. The Cowboys made mistakes in this game, and at this point they are not a good enough team to make as many mistakes as they did and win in a place like this, even in a game they dominate physically. They had their shot, they came up short and they have a bunch of film to watch as they keep working to get better.

"I’m all right with anything as long as it’s moving forward," Jerry Jones said. "I’m not for taking any steps back. We knew this was going to be a challenge, but looking at the overall game, as a team, I felt we played well enough to win the ballgame. I’m a lot more encouraged than I was after Chicago."

So before you start asking whether Garrett’s job is in jeopardy (it’s not) or crying about poor late-game clock management or looking at the standings and worrying that the sky is falling, it’s important to step back and see Sunday for what it was — a critical and encouraging step in the development of a team that’s thinking well beyond the borders of just one season. Someday, the Cowboys believe, they’ll win games like this routinely. And if they do, part of the reason will be Sunday’s experience, which showed them how they could.

Courtesy: Dan Graziano | ESPN Dallas

NFC EAST: Division rivals searching for ways to solidify offensive lines

    allas Cowboys

    The NFC East leads the league in hype. The huge media markets in which the teams play, the history of success, the rivalries … all of it combines to create a perception that the NFC East is the best, most competitive and toughest division in the NFL. That the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants play in it — and are not the clear-cut favorites to win it again this season — only adds to the perception, as does the growing excitement over an NFL regular-season opener between the Giants and the Dallas Cowboys 16 nights from tonight.

    But while Giants-Cowboys is fun, and each of those teams has something pretty intense going with the division’s other two teams — the Giants’ recent struggles with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cowboys’ longstanding rivalry with the Washington Redskins — the stats don’t back up the NFC East as the league’s toughest division anymore. The division is, by many measures, coming off its worst season ever. Last season was the first regular season in NFC East history in which no team won at least 10 games. Only the Giants finished over .500, and they gave up more points than they scored. Their Super Bowl run might have saved the division’s honor, but it also disguised the troubling fact that the NFC East is no longer the Beast it used to be.

    A large part of the reason for this, I believe, is the state of the division’s offensive lines. We all know offensive line play is important, but in the NFC East these days, concern about the lines affects too many things. Teams that are strong on the line can control games. Teams that aren’t cannot. Eli Manning and the Giants have been talking for months about wanting to not have to come back in the fourth quarter as much as they did last season, and the best way to avoid that is to control games from the start. Given the issues with their offensive line, they could find that a challenge once again.

    But they’re not alone. As we look ahead to 2012 and start assessing everyone’s biggest questions, offensive line stands out as an issue for each of the NFC East’s four teams. To wit:

    • Giants left tackle Will Beatty is unproven and can’t get healthy, and they’re thin at tackle in general. Additionally, David Baas was a disappointment in his first season in New York, and they haven’t seen Kevin Boothe as a full-season starter yet. The Giants finished 32nd in the league last season in rushing offense because of a line that couldn’t get any push. Pro Football Focus graded them the 29th-best run-blocking team in the league, and the worst pass-blocking team in the league. Good for them for overcoming it all and winning the Super Bowl, but it remains an issue insufficiently addressed.

    • The Cowboys’ offensive line has been the dominant story of their training camp — specifically their struggles at center, where Phil Costa has been banged up and the potential backups and replacements for him have had trouble snapping the ball to the quarterback. The Cowboys also are trying to find guards who can protect Tony Romo against the interior pass rush better than they did last season. And starting tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free have had to switch sides because of Free’s struggles on the left last season. PFF had Dallas as the 15th-best pass-blocking team in 2011 and the 11th-best run blocking one, so it could be worse. But they need everyone healthy and playing together to see if they have a chance.

    • The Redskins likely were planning to use some of the $18 million in salary cap money the league took from them on the eve of free agency to upgrade the offensive line. But they couldn’t, obviously, so they’re still dealing with Jammal Brown’s hip injury, Kory Lichtensteiger’s knee injury and Will Montgomery’s limitations as a center in their zone-blocking run scheme. The Redskins ranked 26th in pass blocking and 30th in run blocking last season according to those PFF grades, and they also made no significant change or improvement.

    • After a rocky start, the Eagles had a good season on the line in 2011. They ranked second in the league in run-blocking and 14th in pass-blocking. But they also lost left tackle Jason Peters, their best lineman and one of the best in the league, to an Achilles injury in the offseason. As good as the other four starters on their line are, the Eagles could struggle to replace what Peters gave them last season, and so far they have not figured out whether Demetress Bell or King Dunlap replaces him as the starter.

      • The NFC has no shortage of star power. It has three great quarterbacks and one, Washington rookie Robert Griffin III, who’s getting as much hype as any of the other three these days. It has some of the great wide receivers in the league in veterans such as Hakeem Nicks, Miles Austin and DeSean Jackson as well as rising stars such as Victor Cruz, Dez Bryant and Jeremy Maclin. The Eagles’ LeSean McCoy ranks with the game’s great running backs. And on defense, of course, the division is known for its great pass-rushers. Each team can rattle off names that give opposing quarterbacks heartburn. DeMarcus Ware. Jason Pierre-Paul. Justin Tuck. Trent Cole. Jason Babin. Brian Orakpo.

        All of that makes the NFC East very exciting. But very often in the NFL, excitement and hype can conceal issues of quality. And if the NFC East really wants to be the best division in football again, it’s not the quarterbacks or the wide receivers or even the pass-rushers that will bring it there. The NFC East’s teams all need to start paying more attention to their offensive lines, because as those continue to erode, so will the division’s annual claim to Beastliness.

        Dan Graziano | ESPN Dallas

      DAN GRAZIANO VIEWPOINT: Dallas Cowboys – Oakland Raiders

      Of all the football games I’ve ever watched, the Dallas Cowboys’ 3-0 preseason victory over the Oakland Raiders on Monday night was definitely … well, it was one of them. It was a sluggish, poorly played game by two teams that obviously weren’t at full strength or interested in showing a national TV audience very much of their playbooks. At the time that it ended, nine Major League Baseball teams had outscored the two NFL teams’ combined total.

      But it was a game a defensive coordinator could love, and surely Dallas’ Rob Ryan will use it as a rallying point for his defense in the days and weeks to come. As we say all the time here, there is little or no predictive value in any of these games. Some teams game-plan for them, many don’t, and there’s no way to really know what you’re watching in terms of who’s trying and who’s not. But if you’re a defensive coordinator, you’d better believe you can hold up a 3-0 victory and shout at your guys about what they’re capable of if they play hard. Can’t hurt, could help, you know.

      The Cowboys’ offense … won’t have as much fun watching film of this one. Let’s get to what we saw from the Cowboys in Oakland on Monday night.

      COWBOYS RAIDERS

      1. The interior of the offensive line is not good right now, and it affects everything the offense tries to do. Tony Romo had no time to throw, DeMarco Murray had no room to run, and the No. 3 wide receiver candidates who were running with the first team had no opportunity to show what they could do. David Arkin started at center in place of the injured Phil Costa, and in the first half he got abused by Tommy Kelly for one sack and was also called for holding. The good news for Arkin is that he didn’t botch any snaps, and he did look better as he continued to play into the third quarter (and the Raiders kept taking out first-team and second-team defensive players). Mackenzy Bernadeau, who started at right guard, is likely to get snaps at center in upcoming preseason games, but since he’s coming off an injury the Cowboys are trying to work him in at guard to get him acclimated. Derrick Dockery started at left guard, and Ronald Leary struggled with the second and third teams. Now, the key things to remember are (a) this isn’t news and (b) preseason games are about figuring out what you need to improve. There’s no reason to think the Cowboys’ offensive line will look worse at any point this year than it does right now, and they’ve known for a while that they have issues there. If they can get Costa and Nate Livings and Bernadeau healthy, they’ll at least have the crew with which they planned to go into the season. I’m just not sure that’s good enough — or that they have anything behind the starters that can help in case of injury. And it’s worth mentioning that right tackle Doug Free didn’t look good either.

      2. Andre Holmes had a good night. Of those No. 3 wide receiver candidates, Holmes stood out the most, with 40 yards on three catches. Holmes’ asset is his size, and he looks like he’s doing a good job of using his big body to shield the ball from defenders and make catches in traffic. Long way to go and a lot to see, but Holmes helped his case. Kevin Ogletree likely remains the favorite and got the first crack at it, starting in place of the injured Miles Austin. Ogletree caught the only ball thrown his way, for 12 yards, and had a goofy moment when he fell on his face trying to make a block and slipping on the infield dirt at the Oakland Coliseum. Expect to see more from Dwayne Harris, Tim Benford, Cole Beasley and Danny Coale in upcoming games. Beasley was the slot receiver with the first-team offense but didn’t see any action. Interesting that Dez Bryant did start in spite of his hamstring injury and made one excellent 24-yard catch before taking a seat.

      COWBOYS RAIDERS

      3. The defense did look fired-up and kind of deep in spots. Defensive end Marcus Spears played like a man who knows he needs to win a roster spot. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh came up with an early interception on a play on which cornerback Orlando Scandrick had his man well covered. Kyle Wilber showed some ability to generate pressure on Matt Leinart on a third-down play, though he did leave the game with a broken thumb. Tyrone Crawford pushed the pocket a little bit during his time in there. And I think that inside linebacker spot is going to be a real strength, as Sean Lee and Bruce Carter both looked good. Yes, the Raiders ran the ball effectively against the first-team defense, but that first-team defense was without starting nose tackle Jay Ratliff as well as defensive end Jason Hatcher and outside linebacker Anthony Spencer. So I imagine they’ll be better once those guys are on the field.

      COWBOYS RAIDERS

      4. Not-so-special teams. The Cowboys were called for penalties on two punts and one field-goal attempt, each time allowing the Raiders to keep the ball. That needs to be tightened up, clearly, and it’s the kind of thing that just infuriates coaches in these preseason games.

      5. Miscellany: Adrian Hamilton, the undrafted linebacker who had 20.5 sacks at Prairie View last year, looked active and quick. Remains to be seen whether he has the size and speed to play against NFL offenses… Rookie tight end James Hanna showed good hands as a receiver and looked good on kick coverage… Dwayne Harris was called for holding, and yeah, that can work against a guy who’s trying to get a job as a No. 3 wide receiver… Yes, you like what you see from Victor Butler, as you always do in August. Still need to see whether and how the coaches find more ways to get him on the field once the real games begin… Seemed like punter Chris Jones was fine.

      Dan Graziano | ESPN Dallas

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