Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Live From Oxnard: Can a Scheme Result In Takeaways

Often the press briefings here at training camp over the years are the perfect companion to the Pacific breeze for taking an afternoon nap.  There is a lot of talking, but aside from the occasional confrontation (more likely with Bill Parcells) or the interesting anecdote about the good ol' days, there is very little that comes from these briefings that shocks or alarms the listener.  They happen, the media covers, and the public either tunes in or tunes out depending on their level of addiction to football in July.  

However, if you listen closely, you can always hear a coach say and then repeat many coaching initiatives that he will be taking to the practice field.  He will say something, elaborate, field follow-ups, elaborate more, and then repeat as the journalists scribble away on their pads for their upcoming stories.

This year, like so many other years, the game theory initiative is clearly the familiar theme of turnovers. Generally, turn the ball over less and win more.  Take the ball away more and win more.  Combine the two and you are almost invincible.  Ignore the two and you almost have no chance.  This is something we talk about every year and as much as this game evolves, this truth never changes.

Of course, that does make you wonder if takeaways are the cause or the effect, but the correlation is difficult to dispute.

In fact, last January, before the Divisional Rounds, here is what I wrote about the stat as it pertained to the 2012 NFL season:
In 2012, the regular season turnover margin W-L record for the NFL was 162-42-1 (79%) for +1 or better, and a +2 or better got teams to 98-12 (89%).  There is little room for discussion here it seems on the questions about this stats importance.  The 2012 Cowboys, a team that had very few takeaways, follows this trend quite closely - They are 4-0 when winning the turnover battle, 7-1 when even or better, and 1-7 when they are a -1 or worse (with their lone win against Tampa Bay in Week 3). 
....of the 8 teams still remaining in the league, here are the rankings for fewest giveaways of each of the offenses:  t2nd, t2nd, t2nd, t2nd, 6th, t7th, t7th, and 16th.  Basically, Denver is the only team at league average with giveaways.  Every other team is ranked in the top 8.  Put another way, if you are ranked in the top 8, you have a 87% chance of playing this weekend.  If you rank between 9th and 32nd in the NFL in giveaways this season, you have a 4% chance of still being alive in the playoffs.
Giveaways are something that is difficult to regulate, especially if you have pre-determined that your offense is going to emphasize the pass far more than the run.  The Cowboys have determined that their offense is based on the arm of Tony Romo, and to then ask him to amass 4,000-5,000 yards, 30 Touchdowns, and numerous rallies - but never throw a pick - is just unreasonable.  There will be interceptions, partly because he is behind a lot and partly because he is under duress a lot.  Also, partly because he may not have quite the arm talent of the very top QBs in the league, but is asked to mimic their abilities.  Even though his draft evaluation was flat-out wrong, there are reasons QBs go in the 1st round and reasons why QBs go undrafted.  Whether it be build, footwork, or arm strength, we must assume there are some physical differences between Peyton Manning and Romo, too.

I said all of that to say that Giveaways are going to happen.  Limit them, but expect a playoff team to have about 20 a season.  The Cowboys had 29 in 2012.  That number is going to have to shrink considerably.  Thus, taking Travis Frederick and a few more weapons on offense so that Romo doesn't have to do so much on his own.

But, let's focus on defense.  That seems to be where much of the rhetoric lies.  That seems to be the copy point that most explains why the Cowboys went directly to Monte Kiffin and his scheme in the offseason.  It surely wasn't because the Cowboys had the perfect talent to fit his scheme as there appear to be many questions about the viability of that fit.  But, Kiffin teams get 2 things - chaos and takeaways.

This was no better on display than Super Bowl 37, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers steamrolled through the Oakland Raiders in San Diego.  It was the defense of Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli, squaring off against the offense of Bill Callahan and Marc Trestman (now the head coach of the Chicago Bears after disappearing from the NFL for almost a decade).

This was the #1 offense taking on the #1 defense.  This was strength versus strength and I watched the game carefully again last night to review how it all works.  The 2002 Tampa Bay defense might go down as one of the very best of this era, and during that time, they terrorized QBs.  Here are the season stats taken off a graphic from the ABC broadcast of the Super Bowl:

 If those numbers don't rock your world, I don't know what will.  That defense was dominant and tossed teams around the lot with ease.  They were best in the NFL in all 5 of those categories above.

Yesterday, Jason Garrett talked about the effectiveness of the scheme, "I think there is a compelling argument to be made that teams that play more zone than more man," he said for creating turnovers.

"Often times when you are playing zone, your eyes are back towards the QB.  Many times when you are playing man to man, your eyes are on the guy you are covering.  So your opportunity to see the ball and have it in front of you and to make a play on the ball is probably better when you are seeing it all of the time."  He went on to say that of course there are compelling reasons to play man to man, as well, and we can of course surmise that guys running free in your secondary would be one of those.

So, there you go.  Chicago runs their version of the Kiffin defense with Lovie Smith and Marinelli, and they forced 44 turnovers last season.  The Cowboys played plenty of man coverage in their Rob Ryan defense and forced only 16 turnovers.  It must be the scheme, right?

Well, of course, not completely.  That Tampa Bay team in 2002 had guys by the name of Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Ronde Barber and a number of less highly rated players who had the ability to whip the guy in front of them and make a play.

They had a 3 technique who flushed the QB out of the pocket, and 2 defensive ends who beat the guy who was blocking them.  Rice on one side, Greg Spires on the other.  They had 3 athletic linebackers who dropped and attacked with a cohesion and union that was quite a pleasure to watch.  They also had Barber as a nickel back who played at times like a linebacker in his speed and his joy of tackling in the middle of the field.

Then, they had a pair of safeties, Lynch and that Super Bowl's MVP, Dexter Jackson, who clued on the ball, jumped routes, and created turnovers by being aggressive and opportunistic.

I have heard plenty of people talk about whether the scheme itself has been outgrown by the league and I don't believe that to be the case.  Heck, just watch what the Bears can do defensively in the last few years and for that matter, what Seattle is doing is not that far away with their style of physical corners and a 4-man rush while dropping 7.

But, the question of this camp will be whether that scheme can fit these players and then can that result in way more than just 16 takeaways.  Surely, any team that finishes -13 and still has a record of 8-8 can say that this is the easiest road to 11-5 or 10-6.  Just get back to even in the giveaway/takeaway competition and there will be football in January in Arlington.

Cowboys Takeaways By Season

Year Takeaways Playoff Average
2008 22 27
2009 21 30
2010 30 29
2011 25 27
2012 16 27
Average 22.8 28

As you can see, only once did the Cowboys hit that playoff team average in the last 5 seasons.  

Can the same players simply have takeaways emphasized and see a huge improvement?  It does make you wonder when we talk about playmakers remaining consistent throughout their defensive careers.  Those players who find the ball seem to do it even when their uniform changes.

But, again, the thing that really jumped out in reviewing Tampa Bay and Chicago is that those fronts had dominating players blowing through the protection to put the QB on the run.  We have to wonder if the Cowboys have the proper version of Sapp or Tommie Harris to do that from the interior in Dallas at this point.

If they do, this number could shoot back up.  And the Cowboys are resting quite a bit of their hopes for 2013 on this single statistic getting fixed.  

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