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Division Links: Summer school, Hard Knocks and Jalen Hurts

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Blogging the Boys

Cowboys will suffer from Hard Knocks expectations says a former GM

Just how well will the Cowboys deal with the invasion of Hard Knocks?

The Dallas Cowboys’ inclusion in HBO’s Hard Knocks series will reap several benefits for the franchise. Certain unheralded players looking to break out into primetime spotlights will get their chance to do so, while the starlet names so many fans know and love will be able to solidify their deservedness for recognition as film crews dawn upon the Star. And then, of course, there’s the good ol’ Benjamins, dollars which Jerry Jones & Company will be netting with even more publicity for his franchise.

In a recent article posted to the Athletic, Michael Lombardi hypothesized that the show would do nothing for the Cowboys in the assistance department, except add unneeded pressures under the microscope of the lights. According to Lombardi, this spells trouble for both player and team development as they lose the secrecy of their inside operations.

“Opponents will now be able to watch the rehab of Prescott, evaluate the new defensive schemes and get a slight feel for how head coach Mike McCarthy is pulling it all together,” he wrote.

He placed a special emphasis on McCarthy’s endeavors as he continued:

“Hard Knocks” allows fans to examine the coaches, the organization, and the staff, which is fun for the viewer and can be hazardous for those involved. Just ask former NFL head coaches Hue Jackson, Dave Campo, Herm Edwards, Joe Philbin, or Jeff Fisher, who played prominent roles on “Hard Knocks” and left their fans feeling as though their head coach was not as good as they thought.

Well, coach McCarthy already proved that sentiment to be true with his turbulent performance last year, and he needs no further evidential material to reveal any illegitimacies in his ability.

But hey, that’s what the “hard knock” life is all about. Those whom are a part of it have no choice but to embrace the attention, no matter what that reveals about them.

Bleeding Green Nation

Can Jalen Hurts convince the Eagles he’s their franchise quarterback?

If one was to make a list of NFL players (not just Eagles players) under the most pressure in 2021, they would be remiss not to include Hurts. The 22-year-old has a massive opportunity in front of him. There’s a legitimate path for Hurts to establish himself as the Eagles’ franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future.

It won’t be so easy, though; Hurts has much to prove. The second-year signal-caller enters the 2021 season in the conversation as one of the very worst starters at his position. While you might think that to be harsh, there are a number of relevant metrics to back up that assertion. He was the NFL’s least accurate passer last season.

  • Hurts ranked 40th out of 42 quarterbacks graded by PFF.
  • Hurts ranked 31st out of 37 quarterbacks in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.
  • Among qualified quarterbacks, Drew Lock led the NFL in bad throws (22.9%) and ranked last in on target throws (68.9%) last year. Hurts was significantly worse in those categories (26.7% and 60.7%).
  • Hurts completed just 52% of his attempts. For perspective on how low that number is, Drew Lock ranked last out of 35 qualified quarterbacks with a 57.3% completion percentage.
  • Hurts completed just 48.8% of his attempts on non-play action plays. (Interestingly, he had the NFL’s biggest completion percentage difference between play action and not with a 66.7% completion on the former.)
  • Hurts’ 7.2 yards per attempt was only tied for the 20th best mark.
  • Hurts’ 77.6 passer rating ranked only above Lock, Dwayne Haskins, Carson Wentz, and Sam Darnold.
  • Only six players fumbled more than Hurts last year despite the fact he played just 334 snaps (29.6%).
  • Hurts took the longest average time to throw at 3.39 seconds. Lamar Jackson was the second-longest at 3.17 seconds. With Hurts failing to get the ball out quick, PFF charted him for the second-highest percentage of pressures generated by defense charged to quarterbacks. This is to say he invited too much pressure.

This isn’t to suggest Hurts is doomed. There are multiple reasons to believe he can improve. A new coaching staff could do him favors. A healthier offensive line should help out. Adding DeVonta Smith to the wide receiver corps is a big deal.

The question is: just how much can Hurts improve? Is he really going to bridge the gap from being one of the league’s worst starters to one of the top 10 quarterbacks? It’s not impossible, no, but it’s incredibly far from a foregone conclusion.

Big Blue View

Summer School 2021: Why spacing is critical on offense

How offenses can use spacing to manipulate defenses

Over the last month we’ve gone over offensive personnel sets with three receivers (11 personnel), two backs (21 personnel), two tight ends (12 personnel), and four receivers (10 personnel). Taken as a whole they make up the four most popular personnel sets in the NFL today — or at least through 2020. Each of these personnel groupings has a number of unique strengths and weaknesses, and different ways to attack the defense.

Each of these personnel groupings also has different ways in which they tend to present themselves to the defense. The way those personnel groupings tend to line up will force the defense to counter. Put simply, if an offense running 11 personnel lines two receivers up out wide and one in the slot, the defense has to send a cornerback to cover each of the wide receivers and a third defensive back (usually a slot corner) to account for the slot receiver. This is the sort of thing that seems patently obvious on the face of it, but the offense can use that simple footnote to manipulate and make life difficult for the defense.

While many offensive formations look similar, how broadly teams line up can vary wildly. At the long end of the spectrum, the Miami Dolphins had the widest average formation in 2020, averaging 28.9 yards across. At the opposite end, the Los Angeles Rams averaged the tightest formation, averaging 21.1 yards across. That’s a difference of 7.8 yards, or to put a point on it, the widest average formation was over 98 feet across while the most condensed was 66 feet across.

When we look at it that way, we can see just how profound an effect offensive alignment and spacing can have on a defense.

One of the truly remarkable things about football, particularly at the NFL level, is the sheer breadth of options available to coaches when it comes to gaining an advantage over the defense. Despite everything the NFL does to force parity onto the league, more creative coaches can find almost infinite wrinkles within the rules and exploit them. And while it might not be readily apparent to the casual fan, even something as simple as how close receivers are to offensive tackles — not to mention how many receivers, running backs, and tight ends the offense fields — can have a profound effect on the defense. It’s through exploiting nuances like these that coaches can set their players up for success even before the snap of the ball.

Let’s take a look at how offenses are able to use spacing to their advantage.