With Witten In Doubt, A ‘Perfect Storm’ May Be Brewing For New York
By Brad Austin
After digesting reports that the Week One availability of Jason Witten is now shrouded in doubt, I can’t help but recall the movie ‘The Perfect Storm” featuring George Clooney and Mark Walberg. What made the actual ‘Perfect Storm’ of 1991 so vicious and unique was an unusually rare, three-pronged weather anomaly.
Sebastian Junger, the author of the best-selling book that became a movie, tabbed the storm’s impact on the New England coastline as “the worst in living memory”.
The three storms that collided in 1991 to form the ‘Perfect Storm’ were a large high-pressure system over Canada, a low-pressure system traveling along a slow-moving cold front, and the tropical moisture from Hurricane Grace. The outcome of this violent collision was the formation of an ”extra tropical cyclone” producing massive waves 100 feet high.
As the summer of 2012 begins to wind down, Week One against the arch-nemesis Giants is starting to resemble a second coming of the devastating 1991 weather anomaly. With Jason Witten suffering internal injuries last Monday night in Oakland, it’s quite possible the Cowboys offense may resemble the ‘Andrea Gail’ fishing vessel while heading into vicious New York waters.
With much uncertainty and inexperience looming at the third wide receiver position, there are three crucial components needed to minimize the possible receiving deficiency come Sept. 5. If any one of these three ingredients is absent when solving such a predicament, it will then form a storm of it’s own. Combine all three storms together on a rowdy September night in New York, and fans may witness a football version of the ‘Perfect Storm’ take place.
STORM ONE – INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE (High-Pressure System)
First and foremost, the interior offensive line must be healthy, settled, and capable of threatening one of the top defensive lines in the NFL. If Dallas is to compensate for potential deficiencies in the depth of their receiving corp, they certainly need to run the ball with more authority between the tackles…especially near the goal-line.
With a productive running assault, the dependency on the passing attack can be reduced, limiting the need to employ excessive targets when a pass play is dialed up. If Demarco Murray begins piling up yards, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten could easily handle the brunt of the pass targets and limit the role of the third wide receiver while he gets his feet wet.
Secondly, with potency and continuity within the interior line, Tony Romo will have the fortune of a set pocket and time to cycle through his progressions without excessive pressure. This will help create more time for the receivers to separate and also allow for improvised adjustments when the initial routes are covered. To produce success in the passing game, there is a monumental difference between a solid pocket providing reasonable time, and a quarterback running for his life to extend a play.
It’s no secret the interior line in Dallas has been decimated by injuries. Last Monday the Cowboys had to start David Arkin as their fifth option at center, while four more feasible options above him sat on the shelf.
Phil Costa should be back soon, yet his health is not the only questionable part of his game. Bill Nagy is likely done for the season before it ever started. Kevin Kowalski will be lucky to return before preseason concludes.
Mackenzy Bernadeau is back from injury now yet has never played center in a regular season NFL game. Each of these players is also an option at guard if they lose the center battle, which bleeds into the available depth of that position.
The good news at center is Costa is day-to-day and should be back manning the middle soon, and Bernadeau is already practicing and will jump in the center mix shortly. These guys are the top two candidates to start at center so the damage is not beyond repair at this early point.
However, if Bernadeau does take over the center spot, there will be a sizeable hole left at right guard with an inexperienced David Arkin and Ron Leary hopefully stepping up and filling the gap. That’s quite a load to carry for two green players lining up against the dreaded New York Giants defense.
Hopefully with Tyron Smith, Doug Free, Nate Livings, and Mackenzy Bernadeau healthy and starting on the line, there will only be one spot of concern left. This will be either at center or right guard depending on where Bernadeau lands. My preference as it stands is Mackenzy wrestles away the center spot, and then the best option out of Arkin and Leary takes over at guard. Another alternative may be sliding Dockery into the right guard spot if he provides the best chance of solidifying the line.
Storm One occurs if anymore key injuries take place at guard or center. Or worse, if Bernadeau doesn’t provide much improvement upon the center/guard spot, and Costa remains the same old Costa. That’s when things could get really dicey for both DeMarco Murray and Tony Romo, which basically dismantles both the rushing and passing threat.
STORM TWO – THIRD WIDE RECEIVER (Low-Pressure System Cold Front)
It’s at the forefront of many Cowboys fans’ minds, yet no one has achieved a clear-cut, proven answer. Who will take over the third wide receiver spot and play it effectively? It doesn’t take much thought to recall last year’s battles with the Giants and the multiple occasions Dallas relied upon three wide receiver sets.
Gaining yards and scoring points in bunches is usually a necessary ingredient to keep pace with the dangerous New York offensive attack. The 2011 Cowboys relied on Laurent Robinson for 137 yards (led all receivers) and a touchdown in the first meeting, and 61 yards and two touchdowns (led all receivers) in the final meeting. Needless to say, the third wide receiver was huge in both games with the Giants.
At the very least Dallas must find one player out of the bunch who can stretch this Giants defense and expose where they have proven to be most vulnerable. Storm Two occurs if none of these youngsters steps up and proves he can be dangerous against top level NFL defenders.
New York will be the first NFL regular season game for all the young receivers minus Kevin Ogletree. There will likely be an adjustment period needed to match the speed and fierceness that the pro game is played at during the regular season. If the Giants can effectively handle Dallas’ third wide receiver, the Cowboys will surely become more predictable in the options they will use.
STORM THREE – JASON WITTEN (Hurricane Grace)
My thoughts all along have revolved around the idea that the future third wide receiver is truly more of a fourth receiver in this offense. Jason Witten produces like a star receiver, which places him in the same category with those guys.
As long as Dallas can distribute well between Dez, Miles, and Jason, along with hitting the back in the flat now and then, the opportunity to limit the importance of the #3 receiver arises. The Cowboys could then afford to let the young gun get his feet wet and begin to blossom once he finally comes into his own during the season
Conversely, if Jason Witten’s internal injury removes him from the opener, the Cowboys can all but scratch the tight end spot from taking pressure away from the third wide receiver in New York. That’s not a knock on John Phillips as I think he will do well for himself this season, but let’s be honest…John Phillips is simply not near the caliber of Jason Witten. With Witten on the bench, Storm Three has just hit its mark.
THE PERFECT STORM ARRIVES
Now let’s assume all three storms collide in New York, which is becoming less of a stretch of the imagination on a daily basis in Oxnard. The interior line remains mostly unsettled and faces off against a ferocious Giants defensive line without much confidence and continuity between the eventual starters.
It could be Bernadeau’s first NFL start at center and Leary or Arkin’s first NFL start at guard. There could be an eventual winner of the third wide receiver spot who has just not put it together enough yet to exploit a secondary of the Giant’s caliber in his first NFL start. And then out trots John Phillips to make his first start for an injured Witten.
What is the common theme here? Inferior options on all three offensive levels of concern, and most of these players involved would be making their first NFL start. Not only is it their first NFL start, they would be facing the top ranked defense in the 2011-12 playoffs and the Super Bowl Champions. Now that’s not your average first start by any means. Would such an unfortunate anomaly lead to devastating results in front of a raucous New York crowd? I can’t imagine any other likely outcome under those dire circumstances.
THE PERFECT STORM AVOIDED
What do I expect to happen? It’s still early in camp and Dallas is fortunate these more severe injuries happened right out of the gate. By September the offensive line will mostly be settled with Smith, Free, Livings, and Bernadeau cemented down. Dallas will then be working with the better player out of Leary and Arkin at right guard, with Dockery serving as decent insurance. It’s also not beyond the realm of possibility to add a veteran center or guard in the next few weeks and make things even less uncertain.
That would be my course of action once I got a better feel for Bernadeau. Agree to terms with either Montrae Holand at guard or Andre Gurode at center. The decision all depends on where Bernadeau hangs his hat best for the line’s most pressing needs. But in my opinion adding one of those two is the best way to maximize chances of early success. The Cowboys won’t be top-flight along the offensive line by Week One, yet they likely will be able to hold their own enough to provide a legitimate chance to win.
As for wide receiver, it seems Andre Holmes likely has what it takes to provide a quality target out of the third spot and pressure a defense well enough to fill the role. He certainly has a knack for attacking the football in the air and providing an even better chance of completing contested passes in tight coverage.
This is a skill that made Laurent Robinson the most dangerous target near the goal line. All of the younger receivers may have separation issues early on, which gives the one that best competes for the football a big advantage.
And finally, it comes down to the always professional Jason Witten. Coaches and trainers will do all they can to protect the longevity of Jason Witten from extra risk of returning too soon. How will Jason Witten positively respond? By giving every ounce to prove his readiness to face off against a team he has a burning passion to inflict payback upon. If anyone on this Dallas team will fight tooth and nail to get on the field and play through pain, it’s certainly Jason Witten.
Is there a good chance we could see a perfect storm come to a head in New York and wreak havoc on the Cowboys offense? Every day it seems new injury setbacks make it more and more likely. Will the Cowboys fight through all of this current adversity by regaining health, finding the right guys to lead the charge, or making new additions to do so? I have a strong feeling the more fortuitous outcome will win the day, and the Giants will have their hands full with an angry Cowboys squad seeking legitimacy and redemption in 2012.