For those of you unfamiliar with this concept, this is my opportunity to give voice to my inner optimist (ME), pessimist (MYSELF) and realist (I) all in one contribution granting you the reader ring side seats to my internal battle royale hashing out what I believe the Cowboys offense will or will not be in 2018. By default, I can say before having penned a single word on paper that this will be far too lengthy for the TL/DR crowd; be ye fairly warned. That said, as I am often wont to say, self-inflicted illiteracy doesn’t necessarily mean you are stupid; but it is a common denominator. Without further ado… ME When I say I’m optimistic about what is in store for Cowboys fans in 2018, I’m not saying they are going to win a lot of games…I’m not saying they will be in the playoffs…and, therefore, I’m certainly not saying I expect to see them in the Super Bowl. But I do expect, regardless of the results, that we will be entertained. For some of you, I’d guess, even that seems a stretch. No more Dez and Witten, who collectively accounted for more than half of Dak’s targets last year. How do we replace their production? To be honest, I’m not rightly sure (not because I believe it is impossible, but because both the receiver and tight end positions are very much open competitions for the moment), but I do know that it likely won’t be one receiver and one tight end that steps in and fills those voids. Unlike many fans who seem to fret at that question, this is one of the many that has me excited about the upcoming season. If you have become frustrated by the predictability of this offense, those particular personnel subtractions adds a lot to the mystery of 2018 and the Cowboys offensive gameplan. And in many ways, that is a very good thing because if we don’t know, neither does their opposition. Usually going into the season a team and its perspective fans know at the very least who the #1 options will be, but for the Cowboys, regarding the Tight End and Receiver position, no one, including the coaches themselves, really knows for certain one way or another. During past seasons I’d imagine as a receiver or tight end on this team playing behind Dez and Witten, when Garrett would say “we want competition” most would likely roll their eyes; it’s not really a “competition” if certain spots are certain, after all. But now, it absolutely is a competition and I believe we will see effort like we have not seen in these parts for a while as every Tight End and Receiver looks to solidify their spot on the final 53 and the gameday roster 46 in the upcoming season. For both the Tight Ends and the Receivers, at an educated guess, the top players will be measured and chosen based upon the following 3 factors: 1. Do they consistently catch the ball with their hands? 2. Will they be where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be at the top of their routes? 3. Can they provide effective down-the-field and inline blocking when called upon for what will be the most important attribute of the Cowboys’ offense: the ground & pound game? Granted, there are other factors such as attitude, technique, effort, and never-give-up, but if they are answering the above 3 questions in the affirmative, there’s a good chance those additional factors are taking care of themselves. The air-game may not provide the flash-in-the-pan moments that Dez occasionally brought, but my guess is, despite the lack of fan-fare, it will be methodical and fundamentally sound. I am not expecting a complete departure from a pro-style offense (particularly in the run-game), but more RPO and spread concepts will be added to capitalize on the strengths of their weapons. I do not think Austin will touch the ball over 15 times a game, as Stephen recently was quoted, but alternating between him and Zeke often could keep the defensive opposition consistently on their toes and guessing and the former players fresh throughout the game. I would not be surprised in the least to see a significant departure from the use of Tight Ends in the pass game. Not to say they no longer have the tools to do it with Witten’s retirement; Witten wasn’t just a security blanket for the quarterbacks…he likely was that for the guy calling the plays, as well. Think about it: On 3rd and certainly-not-running-the-ball, who do you put out there and which play do you call to get who open? Based on Dak’s target distribution from a year ago, at a guess, I’d say Witten heard his favorite play called often…and it’s hard to blame them. Not to say the Y Option will be buried with Witten’s Jersey number, but I think we can expect a withdrawal from that and look for an increase in the use of Beasley and potentially Austin manning the opposite slot on 3rd and Zeke’s-not-an-option. The ground game will likely look much the same. With the offensive line and the talent that is Zeke, you don’t need much of a schematic advantage to make that work. It’s about getting hats on hats, and having good to willing blockers across the 9 not handing off or running with the ball. The Cowboys, I believe, have that in spades across the board, regardless of the personnel grouping they opt to utilize; which is clearly by Will McClay and company’s design. Dak has questions he needs to answer following that end of the year debacle that saw him reduced to a Check-down Charlie, but based on analytics that broke down play by play where Dak excels and where he struggles, so long as he has Zeke on the field with him and a healthy Tyron Smith manning the Left Tackle position, this offense has greatness potential. Much clearly hinges on overall team health and the ground game; evenso, the front office clearly left no stones unturned in an attempt to ensure the ground game keeps rolling with or without Zeke and Tyron Smith. In Free Agency they were able to snag the Super Bowl starting RT Cameron Fleming from the AFC champion Patriots and Marcus Martin former 2014 3rd round pick of the 49ers. In the draft they snagged Connor Williams to address and solidify the Left Guard position and added both Tavon Austin (who will be used on the ground, through the air and on Special Teams returns) via trading away a 6th round pick and Bo Scarbrough in the seventh round. As insurance goes in the NFL for star players such as Zeke and Tyron, that’s about as good as the salary cap will allow. This offense may not be as flashy as the Cowboys offensive notoriously has been over the years, but I do believe it exercises Dak’s strengths as a passer. Dak is not Romo; he is not an innovator or creator under pressure. Simply put, he needs his receivers to be where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be, which is why the Cowboys targeted those specific attributes (such as route running) with each receiver addition this offseason and added route running guru Sanjay Lal to mentor this young group. Despite the lack of game breaking plays through the air, that does not mean they will also lack in entertainment value. In fact, in the long run we might find it to be all the more entertaining as Dak should be able to move the ball through the air on short to intermediate routes seemingly effortlessly with what will look to be a much quicker and fast-paced attack, with no-huddle occasionally sprinkled in. So long as their ground game yields them 3rd and short or better, Dak should be able to keep the chains moving and the defense off the field. With both winning the time of possession battle and a “+” sign in the turnover ratio, the Cowboys will win more often than not. And even when they don’t, as I intimated before, we will be entertained…for whatever that is worth to you. MYSELF Speaking for “myself” and “myself” alone, I wish I could go to sleep and wake up in 2019. The good news is, while that simply is not a possibility available to me, watching the games in the upcoming season should be all the sleep medication I need. “Me” is forgetting one very important attribute necessary for this offense to click the way he thinks it is going to click coming out of the gate: continuity. “Me” assumes Connor Williams is going to dominate from the word “Go.” He assumes these rookie receivers are going to take over the receiver room, when at the moment they should be viewed as somewhere between 5 through 7 on the depth chart, having earned nothing on the field yet. By my count, they are behind Hurns, Williams, Beasley, Thompson, Brown, and Lenoir…we, at least, have some idea what those receivers are. Meanwhile, Dallas fans discuss Gallup and Wilson as though they are the new #1 and #2 receivers respectively. The first thing you should do as a Cowboys fan, should you want to maintain a little sanity this season, is forget who the Cowboys drafted on offense for the time being…or, at least, everyone not named Connor Williams. Connor will start…or at least be given every opportunity to start in consideration of his “first round grade” and second round designation. Everyone else will be given what passes for an opportunity, but will ultimately fail in the early going due to all the other stuff this coaching staff demands (see last years all pro preseason tight end Rico, for example, for what we can expect). Your starting receivers are Hurns, Williams and Beasley…deal with it and see if you can’t exchange your popcorn for a neck pillow…you are going to need it. You can count chickens that haven’t hatched all you like, just be prepared to watch as the coaches stomp on the eggs because of certain buzz words they like to throw out like “trust” and “consistency.” The Cowboys coaches “trust” Terrence Williams the notorious body-catcher to “consistently” provide down-the-field blocking in the run and the screen game and therefore have issues taking him off of the field, despite his obvious weaknesses as a receiver. Allen Hurns has done a whole lot of nothing in his uninspiring career and more than anything has struggled to stay healthy…you know, the Cowboys front office favorite gamble. Sadly, if you were to combine his statistical returns of 2016 and 2017 he would still fall short of looking like a serviceable #1 (74 catches for 961 yards / 5 touchdowns). Sure, we can hope he turns out to be okay, but… Hope is not a strategy! ~ Unknown ~ I’m not saying Cole Beasley can’t both have a rap career and be a great receiver. All I’m saying is we have never seen it before. Sure, we have seen athletes try to have performing artist careers (just like Beasley is trying not to sound like Eminem and failing miserably), but we have never seen both work at the same time. After a huge drop off in production from 2016 to 2017 (75 receptions for 833 yards and 5 touchdowns down to 36 receptions for 314 yards and 4 touchdowns), you would like to see all of his dedication be focused on his craft going in to 2018 but, at the end of the day, perception and reality don’t always agree. If you follow Beasley’s tweets, you know that much of his lyrics were actually penned during his career year of 2016. So, maybe he’ll be fine, but… I have not failed; I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work! ~ Thomas Edison ~ You call it what you want, Tom; we will call it an epic fail should Beasley turn in yet another disappointing year along with that busted up wannabe rap album. From time to time, the running game will provide cheap thrills, but how often can we expect those exciting game breaking runs when the opposition knows exactly what the Cowboys are trying to do play in and play out. The Zeke/Austin tandem will at times be worth the price of admission, but with no one with the speed and length to take the top off of a defense and a quarterback that notoriously underthrows balls that must travel more than twenty yards in the air, you can expect a lot of single-high, 8 to 9 in the box defensive looks, rendering those game-breaking runs the former players (Zeke/Austin) are known for to be anywhere between unlikely and non-existent. Dak may eventually learn to be a great quarterback; the important consideration of that truth, however, is he is not one now. To be fair, I don’t believe he is a game manager either. He is somewhere between Alex Smith (in the early years) and Russell Wilson (now). You can win with that…provided you have a great defense. The Cowboys defense can be great, provided Sean Lee stays healthy. Sean Lee can stay healthy, provided the devil forgives whatever bet Sean lost to him. The devil never forgives anything, so…like I said, get that neck-pillow ready! I When I started this piece, I had a pretty good idea of how I would address my optimistic and pessimistic sides; those parts in a manner of speaking, wrote themselves. It wasn’t until I got here that I realized how difficult being realistic about something I haven’t seen in reality might actually be. But here goes anyway; let me see if I can sand the edges off some of the arguments falling under both Me and Myself, the sensationalist wielders of hyperbole: I’ve said it before, but I may as well point it out again, the question really isn’t, “How do we replace Dez/Witten’s production?” Both players production has been on a fairly steady decline for the last 3 years or so, so if anything the Cowboys may be better off without them on the field….for what my opinion is worth, which admittedly isn’t a whole lot…just ask my wife. The real question is “How do we replace their leadership in the locker room, on the practice field, and in the film room?” In the wake of the All or Nothing clips that seemingly expose Dez as a potential cancer, many believe his release to ultimately be addition by subtraction; and to an extent, I agree. That said, you can bet those young corners will miss Dez if for no other reason no one else on this team is going to push them like Dez….no one will challenge them like Dez and on Sunday when the bullets are live, those same corners may end up getting exposed due to the lack of facing a true #1 in practice. Or, his absence will make them better, as the overall improvement in route running techniques and fundamentals forces the corners to play our new receivers more honestly. Time will tell. As for Witten, you don’t replace him. You can’t. There is only one Witten and lifetimes will pass before anyone gets close to the same impact Witten has had on this franchise. He is this era’s Mr. Cowboy and I suspect the original Mr. Cowboy (Bob Lilly – the first player to ever be drafted by the Dallas Cowboys franchise) would agree to that comparison whole-heartedly and would gladly share those honors. But at the end of the day, you don’t need a Witten to win championships. Just ask the teams that have won one without him every year of Witten’s career. He is certainly a nice-to-have; but never was he a have-to-have. And at times towards the end of his career he might have been a parachute-to-have, as passes to him meant very little production after the catch. I agree with Me and Myself that the receiving and tight end situation is both exciting and scary. But so long as you keep things in proper perspective (as Me pointed out) you still can enjoy the journey. Rather than be focused on rather or not they make the playoffs, sit back and watch as this young team grows together. It won’t always be pretty; heck, at times it might even flirt with being unwatchable. But with no true #1, there is potential to find more than one number one. In many ways you could look at this as a necessary rebuilding year. Not to say that precludes them from playoff contention, but by front office design, the changes in offensive weapons will force the coaches to be creative in how they wield these weapons. They no longer have a #1 receiver who draws over the top coverage and they no longer have a tight end that will draw linebackers and safeties to the seam, giving one on one looks outside. By default, this will force the Cowboys offense to take a hard look at their current route combinations and revise to ensure they can manufacture separation where both the situation and the player fail to do so, which will likely be often. I suspect it is a given at this point we will see an increase in play action. Studies indicate Dak and company are at their best with plays that implement that diversion and rightfully so when Zeke is in the back field. But with the addition of Tavon Austin, they can take their play action and screen game to a much higher level. The opposition has to respect the speed of both players (each being adept at creating problems for the opposition when receiving the ball in space), meaning that should Austin and Zeke be on the field together, they will have linebackers and safeties alike keying on them. Much like Dez and Witten drawing coverage, the Cowboys may be able to duplicate that same type of attention in their backfield, leaving the outside receivers one on one on the outside. The onus will then be on the receivers to win that one-on-one matchup, which considering the focus they have placed on route-running, should present Dak more opportunities down the field. And if he can capitalize on those situation consistently, the Cowboys offense will be extremely difficult to stop. But that is a lot of “if’s.” One way or another, as fans our collective interest should be peaked if for no other reason because of how different this iteration of the Cowboys is going to look. If you are using 2017 as your guidepost, 2018 will see an increase of what worked, less of or a revision of what didn’t, as well as, a bevy a plays that exercise the strengths of the new additions, such as Tavon Austin. It might not pave a road to everyone’s desired destination, but it will be a scenic tour. The ultimate question is will you complain about what’s on the radio, or just sit back and enjoy the ride? Thoughts?