Thursday, January 1, 2015

Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys may not end up winning a Super Bowl, but they have the best team since the last time they won in 1996. They have a 12-4 record and a remarkable 8-0 record away from home - their style of play translates anywhere and gives them a chance against anyone. The big difference for this year's team is their offensive line, which allows them to control the clock and keep the other team's offense off the field. The Cowboys control tempo as well as any team in the NFL and they force you to play their style of football.

The Cowboys have always been able to put up a bunch of points with Tony Romo at QB, but they have mostly done that through the air, with Romo connecting to guys like Terrell Owens, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Under Romo and Jason Garrett, Dallas has traditionally thought pass first, pass second and pass third - the idea was to pass in order to set up the run. That philosophy has allowed Romo to break almost every passing record in Cowboys history, but it repeatedly came up short in the month of December and in the playoffs, where Romo has a career 1-3 record. 

The big change in their philosophy this season is they run to set up the pass. With DeMarco Murray running behind Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick, Dallas has been able to control the line of scrimmage for most of the season. It's real simple football. They force teams to commit extra men into the box to stop the run and then they kill them over the top with Dez Bryant, one of the most indefensible 1-on-1 players in the league. If they overload on Dez, Romo can kill them with guys like Witten, Terrence Williams and Cole Beasley. With the offense holding the ball for most of the game, the defense gets to play from ahead and the other offense has a hard time getting into any rhythm against them. 

That was the formula they used in one of the most impressive wins anyone has had all season - a 30-23 victory in Seattle in November. DeMarco ran the ball 28 times for 115 yards and they held the ball for 37 minutes. There's not much the Legion of Boom can do when the Cowboys are constantly picking up 4-5 yards on the ground on first down. Even if they have to go into Seattle in an NFC championship game, the Cowboys style of play gives them a chance. 

In that sense, they remind me a lot of the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis is one of the biggest and most physical teams in the NBA and they are one of the teams that no one wants to face in the playoffs precisely because of their style of play. Since the Grit 'N Grind train got rolling, take a look at what they have done in the post-season:


- Beat Spurs (61 wins) in 6
- Lose to Thunder (56 wins) in 7


- Lose to the Clippers in 7


- Beat Clippers (56 wins) in 7
- Beat Thunder (60 wins) in 5
- Lose to Spurs in 4


- Lose to the Thunder (59 wins) in 7

They have sent three 55+ win teams home in the last four season and it's just not a match-up issue with one particular group of players - they have W's over the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers. Even when you beat them, it takes a lot out of you, as three of their four L's came in seven game series. 

The secret is their ability to control tempo with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. When people say the games slow down in the playoffs what they mean is that eventually you will run into a team with a lot of big men who can dictate tempo and force you to win in the half-court. It doesn't matter how fast you want to play, when the Grizzlies can hold the ball for 20 seconds and throw the ball inside, the game is eventually going to be played at their pace. The only other alternative is to speed up the game by aggressively pressuring and trapping their guards, but they have an All-Star caliber PG in Mike Conley who can't really be sped up. For a look at what this dynamic looks when a big team with shaky guard play has to face a small team that wants to play in transition, take a look at Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals between Miami and Indiana. 

Going into a series against Memphis, you know that their big men are going to hold the ball, create offense for themselves and create offense for others. On defense, they are going to control the offensive glass, beat you up physically and not allow you to get many free looks at the basket. Over the course of a series, as the refs get more used to their style of play, they are able to get away with more and more. Z-Bo has choked guys out and punched guys in the face on national TV. Ask Kendrick Perkins about how real it can get against the Grizzlies. 


That's something you need to keep in mind when you hear some of these offensive gurus talk. All that scheming stuff is great until someone on the other team decides to physically assault you. You are going to have to take and deliver some blows if you play the Grizzlies. It's the same thing with the Cowboys - Chip Kelly's schemes are great, but they couldn't get his defense off the field when the Dallas offensive line imposed their will on the game.

When you compare them across sports, three big things stand out between Memphis and Dallas:

1) The Cowboys offensive line doesn't play defense. With Gasol and Randolph, the Grizzlies control the paint on both sides of the ball. Imagine how good an NFL team with one of the best OL's and best DL's in the league would be and you can see why Memphis is a perennial title contender.

2) The Cowboys secondary doesn't have anyone like Tony Allen. Allen is the Darrell Revis of the NBA - he's the best 1-on-1 perimeter defender in the league and no one has consistently made Kevin Durant's life more difficult. If you imagine a team like the Detroit Lions lining Calvin Johnson 1-on-1 against Revis and throwing the ball at him 15-20 times, you can see that Allen is still going to give up points to big-time scorers, but that he's always going to make you work for them. Dallas, on the other hand, has pretty average DB's. That could come back to kill them if they end up facing a QB like Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs.

3) There's no Dez Bryant on the Grizzlies. Conley is their Romo, but he doesn't have any big time playmakers on the perimeter he can give the ball to in order to close out games. When the game is on the line, Dallas can give the ball to Dez in any part of the field and hope he makes a play. Even if the defense can contain him, he will command so much attention that someone else will be open. The Grizzlies best 1-on-1 scorer on the wings is Vince Carter, who could end up being a huge addition for them.

Throw that X up!!

Neither one of these teams is perfect, but their weaknesses can only be exposed by other elite teams ... i.e in the playoffs. And if you are wagering on which sport is more likely to have a flawed champion, you have to go with the NFL. 

However, here's the good news for the Grizzlies and the Cowboys. As long as each team has those big guys upfront, they will be a threat to beat anyone. Big guys can play practically forever. Marc Gasol is 30 and he is playing the best basketball of his career. He is one of the best offensive linemen and best defensive linemen in the sport and he has Memphis playing high-level basketball on both sides of the ball. That's why he's my MVP of the first third of the season - he gives the Grizzlies a chance against anyone.

It's the same thing in basketball as it is in football. The MVP always goes to the perimeter playmaker, whether it's the QB, the RB, the WR, the PG or the SG. Those guys are important, but if you don't control the line of scrimmage and you can't dominate what Hubie Brown liked to call "the painted area", it doesn't matter. Eventually, you are going to run into a team that does and you have a real good chance of losing. Marc Gasol doesn't have the pure offensive numbers to beat guys like Steph Curry and James Harden for the MVP in the same way that the Cowboys offensive line doesn't have the statistics to put them above Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray. Romo and Murray are great. There's no question about it. But the Cowboys have had great RB's and QB's for awhile and have never been as good as they are now.

If they end up winning a Super Bowl, it's because they became the 1998 Denver Broncos. The pieces are there - Romo is John Elway, DeMarco is Terrell Davis and Jason Garrett is Mike Shanahan. None of that would matter without the guys upfront. There's only one thing Romo or Murray would need to say at a press conference for an MVP award:

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