Tue, 05 Jul 2022

Spagnola: Two Tights An Offensive Obsession

Dallas Cowboys
28 May 2022, 20:24 GMT+10

FRISCO, Texas - We worry about the back of Tyron Smith.

We worry about the left guard position.

We worry about finding three quality, healthy wide receivers to restock that position.

We worry about replacing Randy Gregory at the right defensive end position.

We worry about if Zeke is still Zeke.

And for darn good reason, we worry about just who is going to be doing the kicking this year.

Now, for sure these concerns are top of mind for the Cowboys, too, heading toward Memorial Day. Even for now seventh-year quarterback Dak Prescott.

"We know what we have in this locker room, and we know what we can be," Dak said when addressing how much talent they lost since last season. "Talent is one thing, but if you don't fulfill it, it doesn't mean anything. Just from the names and stuff like that, young players just haven't had a chance to make a name for themselves. Excited for those guys, for them to do that and prove people wrong.

"But yeah, definitely did take a step back and we're going to continue to get better. That's what this offseason is all about."

But really what's been most concerning to the Cowboys has been the tight end position, the one they thought they were set at for years to come when they started the 2021 season. Why, they had starter Blake Jarwin returning from tearing his ACL in the 2020 season opener. They had fourth-year tight end Dalton Schultz returning from not only taking over for Jarwin at TE 1 in 2020, but flourishing, catching 63 passes for 615 yards and four touchdowns, matching veteran and future Hall of Famer Jason Witten's 2019 and 2017 output. In fact, no tight end not named Witten had caught 63 passes in a single season for the Cowboys since Jay Novacek had 68 in 1992.

But Jarwin would only play in eight games last season, a hip injury not only landing him on injured reserve, but after serious surgery to repair the hip socket, he's stepping away from the game for at least this season. Other than Schultz returning for 2022, that left the Cowboys with just veteran journeyman Jeremy Sprinkle, third-year former rookie free agent Sean McKeon and Ian Bunting, a three-year practice squad player with one game of NFL experience.

Tight end suddenly became a huge priority for the Cowboys.

So big that they felt obligated to put the $10.9 million franchise tag on Schultz to prevent him from entering free agency after his fine 2021 season of 78 catches, 808 yards and eight touchdowns. Schultz finished just one catch behind team leader CeeDee Lamb and tied wide receiver Amari Cooper for the most receiving touchdowns. And while continuing to pursue a long-term deal with Schultz, remember, the tag only reserves his rights for one year.

That also meant finding a tight end high in this draft, a testament to the importance head coach Mike McCarthy puts on the position. Maybe even finding the top-considered tight end, Trey McBride, in the second round, no reflection on Schultz's ability.

And was reason for this priority. McCarthy values the two-tight end formation, and while he obviously is high on Schultz, he knew he needed to pair him with another high-quality tight end. In fact, if you look at last season, the Cowboys lined up in 12-formation (one running back, two tight ends) nearly 25 percent of the time. Can't put just a guy back there. Need you some blockers, too, out there if you are going heavy.

Truthfully, the inability to block well out of this formation is one reason the Cowboys struggled against the league's better defenses running the ball, and is the reason the Cowboys began lining up guard Connor McGovern at fullback and at times as a second tight end.

"Definitely an area we feel like we can be better. Not just the tight ends, I'm talking about blocking the C-gap and D-gap area.," McCarthy said of dominating the edges. "The stress on the tight end position, whether it's a back or blocking that C-gap, that area is something we need to be better at."

And McCarthy needs no better example than last year's season opener against Tampa Bay. The Cowboys came out after halftime trailing the Buccaneers, 21-16, and promptly with the first possession of the third quarter drove 73 yards, facing a third-and-goal at the Tampa Bay two. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore came up with a winning play, Dak taking the shotgun snap with Schultz and Jarwin lined up tight on the line of scrimmage. He takes one false step, as if he was going to run the ball, causing the Bucs' right side of the defensive line to collapse inside.

Then he pitches out wide left to Ezekiel Elliott. Walk-in touchdown, right?

If Jarwin executes his block at the goal line on Bucs safety Andrew Adams, a guy they had called up for the game off the practice squad. Even if he just screened him, merely stayed in front of Adams.

Well, Jarwin didn't. He whiffed. Adams makes the tackle on Zeke for no gain, forcing the Cowboys into Greg Zuerlein's 21-yard field goal to narrow Tampa Bay's lead, 21-19.

Left four points on the field. My notes for that game say at that point that was ostensibly 15 points the Cowboys had already squandered. Ended up losing by two, 31-29.

Want another example? When those darns Bucs used the first pick in the fourth round to open the third day of the NFL Draft by taking Washington tight end Cade Otten, Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay pounded the table in disgust. The Cowboys had their eye on Otten, and maybe to the point with four fifth-round picks in their back pocket considered trading up a bit to grab the valued tight end.

So now you better know why the Cowboys ended up drafting Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson with the 24th pick in the fourth round. They badly needed another tight end.

And don't think this is a McCarthy thing. Former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett always was chasing another tight end to pair with Witten.

"Even before McCarthy, that was pretty assumed when I came here, that the tight end position in this offense is invaluable," Schultz says. "Again, you are asked to do a lot. Like, a lot a lot. There's a lot put on your plate. You have to understand everything about protections, to running back tracks, to blocking assignments, obviously passing concepts, yes. But then tight ends are very involved in special teams, too, so that's another part, especially if you are a young guy special teams is kind of like your thing. So, there is a lot.

"And a good tight end obviously is invaluable, especially in an offense like this one."

Especially one who can block, and let's assume Ferguson can block since Wisconsin traditionally is a run-heavy offense.

"Basically, at Wisconsin, we go by these three words - smart, tough, dependable - and that was my pitch to Coach McCarthy," Ferguson says, "Telling him, 'Hey, I'm smart, I'm going to be able to pick up the plays. I'm tough, throw me into any scenario and I'll be ready, and I'm dependable. You can depend on me.'"

He might as well have said, "I can block, too," because as Ferguson, 6-5, 245, the grandson of former Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez, says, "At Wisconsin, if it's first down we're probably running the ball, so that went into a lot of it."

Count on Ferguson being one of those young guys Dak is talking about, apparent talent needing to make a name for himself.

And this goes for Schultz, too, even though he emerged last year as a dependable starting tight end. The 25-year-old former Stanford product now knows, without a doubt, that he's the No. 1 tight end in this offense, a heavy responsibility.

"That doesn't affect my process," Schultz says. "I'm a toy soldier at some point. They ask me to go out and do stuff, and that's what I try to do to the best of my ability. Obviously, you try to become the best soldier you can be, as well-rounded as I can be.

"With that, sometimes you have to do more, so that's just kind of been my mindset. Nothing dramatically has changed from my process."

Just that he has more company in that tight end room now. And in practice, too, since Schultz was one of six tight ends on the field during this week's OTA workouts.

This all reminds me of this instructive story from back in like 2000 when the Cowboys were set to pair David LaFleur with Mike Lucky and veteran tight end Jackie Harris at tight end. Lucky, the heavy blocker, tore his ACL early in training camp. And then tight ends coach Les Miles - yes, that Les Miles - told me not having Lucky was going to ruin around 25 percent of the offense, meaning diminishing the effectiveness of 12 personnel. On talk radio the next day I was chastised for pointing out the significance of Lucky's injury, his importance being minimized by the uninitiated.

Probably needed me some McCarthy to have my back.

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