Impact Analysis: Dallas Cowboys' passing game

by Tim Heaney on October 15, 2008 @ 00:00:00 PDT

 


Most fantasy cheat sheets were chock full of Dallas Cowboys near the top of the offensive rankings this draft season. That wasn't a surprise as the Cowboys came in as one of the most highly touted offenses in the league.

However, a Week 6 defeat at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals proved more costly to the Cowboys than just another loss. The wheelman of this fantasy football Porsche, quarterback Tony Romo (finger), suffered a broken pinkie in overtime. It was originally believed Romo would miss a month recovering from the injury, but he has reportedly approached the coaching staff and expressed a desire to play through it. While there has been no official word from the Cowboys, Romo could start in Week 7. The news is not as good for their resident Speed Racer, rookie tailback Felix Jones (hamstring), who will be on the sidelines for at least two contests.

Even if Romo is forced to miss time and veteran signal caller Brad Johnson is pressed into the starting lineup, their main problem has arguably been a depleted secondary. However, Dallas didn't address this issue at the trade deadline, instead capping a tumultuous week by acquiring disgruntled wide receiver Roy Williams and a seventh-round draft selection from the Detroit Lions in exchange for three picks. The Cowboys then signed him to a five-year, $45 million extension.

Williams' arrival provides another weapon in the offense this year, but wideouts Patrick Crayton and Miles Austin now have to worry about earning a fair share of action.

Will Dallas lean even more on running back Marion Barber III with either a banged up Romo or immobile Johnson at the helm? How will the addition of Williams affect tight end Jason Witten, the Robin to Romo's Batman in this offense, and stud diva receiver Terrell Owens, who frowns on sharing looks?

Quarterback

Romo's mobility somewhat negates his penchant for turnovers because he is able to create plays outside of the pocket. It was one reason Dallas switched to him from veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe in early 2006, and it is the reason the Cowboys frequently use spread and shotgun formations.

Mr. Jessica Simpson is tied for the league lead with 14 touchdown tosses and ranks fourth with 1,689 passing yards. However, his aggressive side has reared its ugly head: Along with his five interceptions (tied for eighth most in the league), he already has six fumbles and lost three of them; he gave away just two of 10 fumbles last year.

Johnson, who guided the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a win in Super Bowl XXXVII, is by no means a nimble passer, and his main strength is experience. His only significant outing since joining Dallas came in Week 17 last season when the Cowboys removed their starters to rest them for the playoffs. In about one and a half quarters of football, Johnson completed seven of 11 passes for 79 yards and averaged 7.2 yards per attempt.

His last consistent action came with the Minnesota Vikings. He stepped back into the spotlight in 2005 after quarterback Daunte Culpepper tore up his knee, going 7-2 as a starter that year. After taking over the job in Week 8, Johnson completed 62.8 percent of his passes, including 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. In 15 games (14 starts) the next season, though, he was picked off 15 times while finding the end zone just nine times through the air before giving way to quarterback Tarvaris Jackson in Week 15.

If Johnson is indeed needed to fill in for Romo, he will have four Pro Bowlers at skill positions to work with and will also be protected by an offensive line considered one of the league's best. Despite their recent struggles to protect Romo and the absence of guard Kyle Kosier (foot), Dallas' line has allowed seven sacks this year, which ties them for fifth best in the league. They allowed three of those to the Cardinals last week. The statuesque Johnson can breathe easier knowing he has sturdy protection, but he won't be able to avoid some of the sacks that Romo did.

Romo's assertion that he'd like to play through the injury has definitely muddied this situation considerably. He has looked comfortable throwing the ball on the side during practice this week, but the question remains as to where or not Dallas feels they can do alright without him. By putting him on the field at less than 100 percent they could be risking further damage to Romo, which may be shortsighted given their designs on competing for a Super Bowl bid this season.

The best advice for now is to pick up Johnson, especially if you own Romo. Obviously you wouldn't want to sacrifice a valuable piece to add him, but that was the case even before the possibility of Romo playing was raised. Johnson has a talented supporting cast and ample experience in guiding an offense, which would make him a viable starter in the right matchup.

As for Romo, if the Cowboys start him in Week 7 don't hesitate to do the same. If they decide to take a more cautious approach, stash him and fill the gap in his absence while keeping tabs on his progress.

Running backs

Barber is a constant in this offense that should not be hindered by these changes. He's their franchise back and will see his utilizations regardless. If anything, Johnson or a banged up Romo might be more inclined to hand off or dump passes to him to slow the rush, and Barber has shown the ability to create in the passing game.

Tailback Tashard Choice will step in as the No. 2 back with Jones out of commission. Unfortunately for Choice, he can by no means fill in on the speed-oriented plays designed for Jones. He's more of a Barber clone that should act as a sub rather than a change of pace. This could somewhat limit the Cowboys ground game, but it won't be enough to devalue Barber.

Jones owners should hang on to him for the moment. He can create big plays whenever he touches the ball, but his inconsistent usage makes him nothing more than a No. 4 fantasy back most weeks.

Another "Roy Dubs"

After competing with receiver Calvin Johnson for the top spot in the Lions passing game, Williams was acquired to open up the Dallas offense and spring Owens loose. At 6-foot-3, 211 pounds, Williams is no slouch in the physical department. The University of Texas alum has 232 yards on just 17 catches with one touchdown this year. He has caught at least five touchdown passes in his first four seasons, but his scores have declined the last two years.

On the surface, the move to the Cowboys offense increases his stock. Williams should be thankful that he'll have either a Super Bowl winner or an elite gunslinger feeding him the rock instead debilitated quarterback Jon Kitna (back) or green signal caller Dan Orlovsky. The latter started in place of Kitna in Week 6 - he targeted Williams only three times and looked to Johnson eight times - and is set to be their starter the rest of the way after Kitna was placed on Injured Reserve.

Williams has not hit the end zone in his last four games. Still, Williams was looked to at least six times in four of Detroit's five contests, including a 19-target output in Week 5.

The Cowboys plan to baptize Williams by fire in Week 7 against the St. Louis Rams, and he told reporters their passing game uses a code that is similar to Detroit's system. This could aid the transition.

Williams heads to an offense with ample weapons - that makes for positive and negative fantasy developments for him. He was only truly competing with Johnson in Motown, with receivers Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey picking up scraps in a marginally effective passing game. Here, he'll compete for targets with three other Pro Bowlers, all of whom have an existing rapport with their quarterbacks.

Assessing the receiving options

The divvying up of targets among the Cowboys before Williams' arrival has been diverse, to say the least. Owens is the top dog in talent but has been somewhat contained in terms of receptions by the opposition. He's leading Big D with five touchdown catches and has been consistent in that department by catching scores in four of his six contests.

Witten is not far behind in terms of looks as Romo continues to favor his tight end. He was targeted at least than nine times in the first five games before being sought out on just five occasions in Week 6.

Table: Dallas Cowboys targets, Weeks 3 through 6, 2008

Player
Plays
Play %
RZ Plays
RZ %
Inside the 5
41
16.50
4
13.25
0
35
14.09
2
6.63
1
22
8.86
1
3.31
0
12
4.83
2
6.63
0

The Cowboys utilized Owens 20 times (including 18 targets) in Week 4 against the Washington Redskins when they abandoned the running game. That outlier certainly skews these numbers, meaning Witten would otherwise likely be leading the team in targets in the above time span.

Crayton hauled in 50 passes for 697 yards and seven touchdowns as the No. 3 option in the pecking order last year; that earned him a four-year extension, signaling that the Cowboys would be relying on him as the No. 2 wideout for the near future. However, the Williams acquisition seems to have kicked that theory to the side, at least until the end of Owens' career. Crayton hasn't helped his cause much, catching 19 passes for 291 yards and two scores this year but seemingly balancing every good performance with a poor one.

Austin's stock surged in part due to a preseason injury to wideout Sam Hurd (ankle), who was placed on Injured Reserve a few days after he aggravated a high ankle sprain in Week 6. The speedy Austin impressed the team in camp but also had a knee injury that kept him out of action for part of the year. He has tallied three touchdowns on just eight catches and 15 targets this year.

Receivers' fantasy football outlook

Expect Williams' fantasy value to remain about the same, though he could slip a little with the possibility of fewer receptions, which would make him more dependent on touchdowns. His keeper league value skyrockets because the team has locked him up to be Owens' successor. However, he will hurt his fantasy owners during his second bye week of the '08 season. He was already off in Week 3 and will now receive another week's rest in Week 10.

It looks as if the possession-oriented Crayton and speed-centered Austin will suffer the most. They are expected to become the No. 3 and No. 4 wideouts, respectively, but they could be interchangeable depending on the situation. The amount of four-wide sets might decrease if Johnson goes under center, but his familiarity with them in practice (especially Austin) might help. Don't count too much on that happening, though, especially since the Cowboys are hoping Owens will have more consistent opportunities to contribute.

With Crayton and Austin now fighting for the No. 4 spot in the pecking order, you shouldn't consider keeping either wideout outside of deep leagues. Crayton should be the better of the two, but even he is as a bench option in point-per-reception setups at best.

Witten should see a similarly stable workload as his presence in the Cowboys offense whether it's Johnson or Romo delivering passes the next few weeks. Fantasy owners should continue to start Witten with confidence.

Williams' arrival doesn't necessarily change Owens' fantasy value too much; he has already been dealing with Witten pilfering his targets - now he just adds having to deal with a receiver that Dallas considers to be his long-term successor to that equation. He's still their most dangerous receiver and the team's leading target in the passing game inside the red zone. Consider Owens a low-end No. 1 fantasy receiver most weeks moving forward.

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About Tim Heaney

Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.

He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.

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