Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
» Is Marshawn Lynch the sledgehammer who’ll allow Oakland to break through?
» Who might be the next great play caller? Five names to remember.
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With his team having won the NFC East and earned the No. 1 playoff seed last season, owner Jerry Jones said just last month that he’s never been more excited about an upcoming season. But the six-game loss of the reining NFL rushing king not only changes the direction of the team’s offense — it could prevent the Cowboys from protecting a defense that lacks star power.
Now, I’m not ready to completely rain on the Cowboys‘ parade solely based on the loss of their spectacular RB1, but it is going to be hard to replace a runner who amassed 1,994 total yards and 16 touchdowns as a rookie starter. Sure, you can attribute some of his success to a dominant offensive line that featured three first-team All-Pros (LT Tyron Smith, RG Zack Martin and C Travis Frederick), but that would diminish what Elliott brought to the table as a downhill runner with exceptional balance, body control and vision.
After an inauspicious Week 1 NFL debut (20 carries for 51 yards and a touchdown), Elliott never again posted fewer than 80 yards rushing in a game last season. He recorded seven 100-yard outings in 15 regular-season starts and went over the century mark in the Cowboys‘ lone postseason contest. Considering Elliott logged 20-plus carries in 13 of Dallas’ 17 games as the engine of a run-first attack, the loss of the runner will significantly impact the offense for the first half of the season.
Looking at the numbers from a season ago, it’s apparent that the Cowboys are not as effective or explosive without Elliott on the field …
» With No. 21: Dallas averaged 6.2 yards per play and 5.1 rushing yards per attempt with a 56:44 run-to-pass ratio and 113.5 passer rating.
» Without No. 21: Dallas averaged 5.4 yards per play and 3.8 rushing yards per attempt with a 35.5:64.5 run-to-pass ratio and 88.1 passer rating.
This presents a big challenge to quarterback Dak Prescott entering his sophomore campaign. The 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year connected on nearly 68 percent of his throws last season, recording 100-plus passer ratings in 12 separate games (including the postseason contest). He also posted a 23:4 TD-to-INT ratio. Those numbers are outstanding on their own merit, but a closer look suggests his play declines significantly without Elliott on the field …
» With No. 21: Prescott posted a 72.6 percent completion rate, 15:2 TD-to-INT ratio and a 112.7 passer rating.
» Without No. 21: Prescott posted a 60.1 percent completion rate, 8:2 TD-to-INT ratio and a 92.6 passer rating.
Although Prescott’s production without his star runner is nothing to scoff at for young quarterback, there is no denying the drop-off when No. 21’s on the sideline. Keep in mind, the Cowboys kept their QB1 on a bit of a pitch count to limit his exposure to exotic blitzes and coverage tactics. When Prescott finished with 35 pass attempts or fewer, the Cowboys averaged 28.5 points and 6.3 yards per play, while converting almost 45 percent of their third-down attempts. When the young QB1 surpassed 35 attempts, the Cowboys averaged only 21.6 points and 5.4 yards per play, while converting just 38 percent of their third-down attempts.
Given those numbers, Dallas will need to lean on Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris to steady the ground game in Elliott’s absence. The veteran runners have both enjoyed success as RB1s in the past — in fact, McFadden posted a 1,000-yard season with the Cowboys in 2015. With the offensive line excelling at blowing defenders off the ball, Dallas can still field a credible running attack. However, the loss of No. 21 will allow opponents to pay more attention to the Cowboys‘ weapons in the passing game, which will make it tougher for Prescott to carve up coverage on the outside. Defensive coordinators will utilize more Cover 2-like coverages to neutralize Dez Bryant‘s impact as a WR1 and force Prescott to work the underneath areas of coverage.
With that in mind, I would expect the team’s offseason experimenting with various spread formations and personnel groupings to hit the main stage. Cole Beasley and Ryan Switzer could double down in the slot to turn the short passing game into a quasi-rushing attack. Considering how well Prescott fared in empty formations a season ago, the “spread and shred” approach could allow the Cowboys to continue to play keep-away, utilizing a ball-control passing game.
Here’s the problem, though: In the first four weeks of the season, Dallas faces four teams that boasted top-10 defenses last year (Giants, Broncos, Cardinals and Rams). And those units will make it tougher for Prescott to find open receivers at any range. Press-heavy coverage from the Giants, Broncos and Cardinals could make it challenging for the young QB1 to string together a number of completions on the perimeter. To that point, the pressure shifts to the defense with Elliott on the sideline. Last season, Dallas could take the air out of the ball on offense with a dominant ground game and limit the number of plays the defense needed to play in order to win. Without a game-changing runner on the field, the offense could sputter a bit, which puts a defense without a legitimate pass rusher or established cover corner in a tough spot.
In a division that’s shaping up to be one of the most competitive in football, the Cowboys‘ loss is the rest of the NFC East’s gain.
MARSHAWN LYNCH’S RETURN: The missing piece in Oakland?
The Oakland Raiders were already legitimate contenders headlined by the 2014 draft duo of Derek Carr and Khalil Mack, but it still felt like the team needed a little more juice to potentially push it over the top in the AFC. While most observers suggested additions to a leaky defense as top priorities for this offseason, Raiders decision makers knew they needed more toughness and attitude on their roster to threaten the Patriots‘ throne.
That’s why the entire Bay Area rejoiced when the team signed Marshawn Lynch out of retirement to handle the team’s RB1 duties. Despite taking a one-year sabbatical to see the world as a tourist, the Oakland native has a reputation as this generation’s preeminent backfield sledgehammer, and his mere presence on the field changes the identity of your squad.
“One of the reasons we brought him here was the toughness,” Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie told The MMQB’s Peter King. “That weighed heavily. The mentality. The presence. That toughness. We didn’t want just him to be Beast Mode; we wanted this entire team to be Beast Mode.”
This is exactly what the five-time Pro Bowler brought to the Seattle Seahawks. During Lynch’s six-year stay in the Pacific Northwest, the team became the NFC’s biggest bully. Sure, the “Legion of Boom” deserves credit for creating an attitude and identity on the defensive side of the ball, but make no mistake about it: The Seahawks‘ dominance and mystique were fueled, first and foremost, by the efforts of Beast Mode.
Look no further than the impact “the Beast Quake” had on the emergence of Seattle as a force in the NFC. Lynch’s 67-yard touchdown run on “17 Power” in the 2010 Divisional Round upset of New Orleans showcased his unique combination of agility, strength, power and pure nastiness. From his ability to step out of tackles in the hole to his powerful stiff arm to separate from a defender in the open field, Lynch’s explosive effort changes the way opponents defend his offense.
“With Lynch in the backfield, you have to tell your defenders to bring the ‘big boy’ pads to the game,” a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. “He is a tone setter and you have to gang tackle to bring him down. From a strategic standpoint, you have to play more ‘plus-one’ defenses to keep extra defenders in the box, which leaves you vulnerable on the outside. You’ll take your chances with that because you can’t allow him to run it down your throat. You can live with a quarterback throwing the ball all over the place, but when they can pound with the running game, it takes your heart. It demoralizes your squad.”
As a rugged runner with a rock-solid frame and ruthless demeanor, Lynch is the quintessential power back that defenders fear meeting in the hole. He not only runs through tacklers in tight quarters, but he takes their souls with each violent run near the end of a game. With the Raiders‘ already boasting a big, physical offensive line that specializes in moving defenders off the ball, adding a violent runner into the equation will present a major problem for opponents.
“He’s a big man,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio told ESPN.com’s Paul Gutierrez back in May. “He plays with a violence that we like and appreciate, and I think he looks forward to running behind Gabe (Jackson) and KO (Kelechi Osemele) and Rodney (Hudson) and those guys up front.”
Naturally, there are some questions whether Lynch can regain his mojo at the age of 31, following a season-long hiatus and a host of nagging injuries at the end of his Seahawks‘ tenure. But the veteran runner could follow in Ricky Williams’ footsteps and turn back the clock for another run at glory. Remember, Williams posted a 1,000-yard season at age 32 after missing a bunch of time due to retirement, suspension and injury. As a bruising runner with nifty feet and explosive strength and power, Williams remade himself as a lighter, more nimble back and still found success running between the tackles. Although Lynch isn’t expected to change his running style, he could regain his effectiveness.
With Lynch looking slim and trim at training camp, the Raiders‘ new RB1 should allow the team to morph into a power-running squad when needed at the late stages of games or down the stretch on a playoff run. Considering the team’s MVP-caliber quarterback (Carr) and dynamic 1-2 punch at wide receiver (Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree), the addition of a tough runner with some pop could help Oakland climb to the top of the mountain this season.
FUTURE PLAY CALLERS: Five guys to watch
When Bruce Arians announced that Arizona quarterbacks coach Byron Leftwich would call offensive plays for the Cardinals in the team’s preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders, I admittedly was a bit surprised and intrigued by the move. While I’ve heard plenty of good things about Leftwich’s coaching ability, it’s generally uncommon for a head man — and in this case, one of the best play callers in the business — to hand off the call sheet to a novice.
Now, I know the preseason is the perfect time for experimentation when it comes to scheming and player deployment, but it’s unusual for a head coach to give one of his assistants additional responsibilities during an exhibition game to help him better prepare for the next step in his coaching journey. Head coaches are typically so focused on prepping their team for the regular season that the professional development of their assistants often takes a back seat in the preseason.
But Arians and a handful of veteran coaches have decided to use the exhibition season as an opportunity to help their assistants hone their craft during game action — just like with their young developmental players. Arians has previously allowed offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin to call plays in preseason games to prepare him for a bigger role down the road.
Last season, Packers coach Mike McCarthy allowed offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett to call plays in the Green Bay’s preseason finale against the Kansas City Chiefs. At the time, McCarthy said it was something that he’d done in the past with other offensive assistants, and he believed in giving those guys an opportunity to run the show as a means of helping them evolve within the profession.
“Looking back on it as an assistant coach, you wish you had that opportunity before you have to do it for real,” McCarthy said at the time. “I think it’s something that as a head coach you can give to your assistant coach.
At a time when NFL owners are increasingly seeking out “hot” offensive coordinators to fill head-coaching vacancies, the decision to give an assistant an opportunity to call his own plays is a great move for the head coach and aspiring play caller. For the head coach, it is an opportunity to prepare a young assistant for a more prominent role on the staff while also teaching him how to manage the offense. Whether it’s helping the assistant come up with “shot” plays (deep balls) in key situations or teaching him how to manage situations (clock, score and down-and-distance) and communication (talking to the quarterback via the headset and managing ongoing conversations with offensive staff), the trial run gives the head coach an opportunity to teach and evaluate one of his assistants during game action. Given the turnover that affects some coaching staffs, the opportunity to develop a young play caller gives the head coach a contingency plan for when assistants move on to other jobs.
For the assistant, the one-game trial is essentially an audition for future opportunities on the current staff or elsewhere. Prospective teams can consult the game tape to get a feel for how an assistant would script or call a game, while also seeing how he handles various situations that come up in games. This takes some of the guesswork out of the evaluation process, providing decision makers with more tangible information to use during the hiring process beyond just recommendations from a trusted peer.
To that point, I believe the decision to allow multiple assistants to showcase their skills as play callers could help coaches at other positions increase their chances of obtaining a promotion down the road. Typically, offensive coordinator jobs go to quarterback coaches, due to the importance of the field general in today’s game. But that leaves out a number of capable play callers. Guys with extensive experience coaching running backs, wide receivers and offensive linemen might have the knowledge needed to build an offensive game plan but get unfairly knocked for not being viewed as “quarterback whisperers.” It’s hard for some owners/head coaches to pull the trigger on a guy without a track record of working well with the most prized player on the team.
Now, I certainly understand the importance of quarterback play in today’s game, and the job of the offensive coordinator is to make the QB1’s gig as easy as possible while maximizing the talent around him. During my time as a scout with the Seattle Seahawks in the early 2000s, Gil Haskell (that team’s offensive coordinator and my former wide receiver coach with the Green Bay Packers) told me that a play caller must “build his plan around the quarterback’s strengths,” but he also needs to understand how to put his primary playmakers in a position to make plays. Whether it’s building the running game around your RB1’s favorite running plays or assigning your pass catchers specific roles based on their individual skills, the best play callers find a way to get their best players the ball on their favorite plays in their favorite spots.
For instance, the Seahawks used to give the ball to Shaun Alexander on a variety of outside zones and sweeps heading to the left behind Hall of Famer Walter Jones and five-time All-Pro Steve Hutchinson. The plays not only played to Alexander’s strengths as a one-cut runner, but it put the 2005 MVP winner behind the team’s best offensive linemen. Given Haskell’s experience coaching positions outside of quarterback, he had a terrific feel for getting his top players the ball and could suggest to Mike Holmgren (head coach/primary play caller) which plays to feature prominently in the game plan.
By the way, Haskell served as the Carolina Panthers‘ offensive coordinator in 1999, when the unit finished sixth in the NFL in total offense and featured three Pro Bowl players (QB Steve Beuerlein, WR Muhsin Muhammad and TE Wesley Walls). He spent time coaching running backs, wide receivers and special teams with the Rams and Packers before ascending to the role of offensive coordinator. Given his experience and exposure to other positions outside of quarterback, he might’ve been better prepared to direct an offense due to his complete understanding of the running game and passing attack.
The Chargers‘ new head coach, Anthony Lynn, quickly ascended to the head role after briefly showing the football world that he had the chops to direct an offense as a primary play caller in Buffalo. He helped the Bills finish with the NFL’s No. 1 ranked rushing attack, while also nurturing the development of quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
“Lynn did a really good job of tweaking the plan to fit the star players’ strengths when he took over,” a former Bills staffer told me. “He asked each of the quarterbacks which plays they preferred and did the same thing with ‘Shady’ McCoy and the running backs. He took all of that information and built game plans that put the players in a comfort zone. … That’s what a good coordinator does. I never would’ve known that he was capable of putting together an offense like that without seeing him call plays down the stretch.”
With that in mind, I believe there are plenty of assistants around the league who have the potential to direct an offense as the team’s primary play caller. Here are five names to remember:
Edgar Bennett, offensive coordinator, Green Bay Packers: The former NFL running back is well prepared to call regular-season games after coaching the Packers‘ running backs and wide receivers for 14 years before taking on offensive coordinator duties in 2015. Bennett’s extensive exposure to the West Coast offense as a player under Mike Holmgren and position coach under McCarthy gives him a unique perspective on how to build and direct an offense as the trigger man. With Bennett also comfortable working with established MVP-caliber quarterbacks and developmental signal callers, he is more than qualified to build an offense from the ground up.
Eric Studesville, assistant head coach/running backs coach, Denver Broncos: The 21-year NFL coaching veteran is one of the most respected running backs coaches in the league after directing the likes of Tiki Barber, Marshawn Lynch, Willis McGahee and C.J. Anderson to Pro Bowl honors. Coaching the position since ’97, there’s no doubt Studesville has a strong grasp of how to scheme the run; but it’s his exposure to the passing games of Jim Fassel, Mike McCoy and Gary Kubiak that could make him a clever tactician as a play caller/play designer. With Studesville also showing adaptability during his time as the Broncos‘ interim head coach in 2010 (started Tim Tebow during three of his four games), he has the right mix of experience, exposure and versatility to be a solid play caller.
Zac Taylor, assistant wide receivers coach, Los Angeles Rams: The Rams have quietly assembled a coaching staff full of quarterback gurus — Sean McVay’s teaming with Matt LaFleur, Greg Olsen and Taylor to oversee the development of Jared Goff. While Taylor is the least-heralded of the group, he might emerge as the fastest rising star if the Rams improve in 2017. He played a key role in helping Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill average 3,800-plus yards and compile an 87.7 passer rating from 2012 to ’15. Although Taylor briefly served as the Dolphins‘ primary play caller during the second half of the 2015 season, he has since refined his craft after a one-year job as the University of Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. With Taylor spending more time in the wide receivers’ room, while also working with quarterback Jared Goff from afar, the young assistant could be ready to run his own NFL offense in a season or so.
Eric Bieniemy, running backs coach, Kansas City Chiefs: The grizzled coaching veteran, known for using a tough-love approach to help running backs maximize their talent and potential, has played a major role in the Chiefs‘ creative scheming over the past few years. Whether it was featuring a dominant multi-purpose threat like Jamaal Charles in a balanced offensive set or showcasing an old-school runner like Adrian Peterson, the former NFL running back’s experience building game plans around RB1s could serve him well in a league with a limited number of star quarterbacks. With more teams forced to work around the deficiencies of the quarterback, the underrated coaching veteran could be the right guy to build a system that lightens the load on the field general.
Alex Van Pelt, quarterbacks coach, Green Bay Packers: The longtime assistant has coached quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers during his time with the Packers. The former NFL quarterback has terrific experience working with young passers from his previous stops in Tampa Bay (Josh Freeman) and Buffalo (Trent Edwards), but it’s his work with current Packers QB2 Brett Hundley that garners praise from evaluators around the league. With Van Pelt familiar with nurturing young pass catchers and runners, while also having a grasp of multiple systems from the K-Gun to the West Coast offense, he has enough tools to craft an offense around a diverse roster of playmakers.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.