Welcome to the season-opening edition of Tale of the Tape. This week’s opponent is the Carolina Panthers. Right out of the gate, this game will carry the weight of playoff implications. While no team not named the Browns will be eliminated in week 1 (not really, but…), this is an all-important conference tilt against a team with the same playoff aspirations as the Cowboys. These games with the NFC South will definitely figure into late-season season tie-break scenarios. Thus, it is important for both teams to get off to a fast start
Let’s take a look at how these teams compare by position. Today we will take a look at the offensive units with a comparison of the defenses and special teams coming next.
Cam Newton is one of the most polarizing figures in recent NFL history. He is a former MVP that has taken his team to a Super Bowl. His play style is unconventional as he is far more dangerous using his feet than he is his arm even after several years in the league. While he is routinely pinned by NFL observers as a passer there are few players in the league that keep defensive coordinators up at night more than Newton.
That being said, Cam’s statistics tell a different story. He has performed as an average to below average level QB for the majority of his career. This season, the Panthers are hoping that the addition of Norv Turner’s brilliant offensive mind can design game plans to maximize Newton’s strength’s (athleticism and toughness) while mitigating his demonstrated weaknesses (accuracy and decision-making). Newton is an unquestioned star in the league but he has enough holes in his game that defenses are able to attack and sometimes exploit.
Dak Prescott is coming off a disappointing 2nd half of the 2018 season. After one of the best seasons for a rookie QB in league history, Prescott took a beating in the Atlanta game that lingered in his play for the rest of the season. Dak has some similar traits to Cam Newton in both his strengths and weaknesses. Newton is much bigger (6’5” compared to 6’2”) but Dak has demonstrated much better decision-making in his short career. One of the most important indicators of success for a quarterback in the NFL is ability to protect the football. Dak is above average in this while Cam has been below average. Dak won’t have the same number of splashy plays for his offense. He also won’t offer up as many splashy plays for the opponent through poor decisions.
Dak Prescott is a quality young quarterback that has room to develop into a true weapon at the position and a top performer for years to come. Cam Newton already is a weapon that strikes fear into defenses. This is an …
Ezekiel Elliott has spent the spring and summer of 2018 trying his best to have a quiet offseason. That is the exact opposite of his 2017. A ton has been written on this site and elsewhere about these differences and how Elliott has looked like a much different player body-wise coming into this season. It is amazing how many of the loudest national voices seem to forget that Zeke led the league in yards per game and barely missed a 1000-yard season in just 10 games.
Rod Smith was expected to be in a battle with 7th round pick Bo Scarborough to be Elliott’s primary back up. Smith is finishing the preseason as the unquestioned number two in the running back room with Scarborough in a battle with Cowboys 2016 draft pick, Darius Jackson just to make the 53-man roster. In the end, neither proved enough to the team to make the final roster and now Jackson is plying his trade up in Green Bay. Even with that, adding in the running ability of Tavon Austin and Jamize Olawale as added threats and this an extremely talented and diverse group of backs.
Like Dallas, the Carolina Panthers have a dynamic top ten draft pick leading their rushing attack. Christian McCaffery has shown improvement this preseason on his ability to be a bell-cow running back. In fact, the dominance of Cam Newton’s running from the quarterback position adds a dimension that will allow McCaffery’s explosive ability to shine through even more. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner is well known for building strong running games with great usage of running backs as outlets in the passing game. C.J. Anderson comes over after being a solid part of the Denver Broncos running back committee in recent seasons. He is a strong runner with one-cut suddenness that should complement the abilities of McCaffery very well.
That said, the Cowboys’ Elliott is one of the absolute best running backs in the league. With quality depth and the Panthers settling into a new offensive system, this is an …
Some of the drama in Carolina this summer has come from chirping by former Panthers wide out Kelvin Benjamin. His critical comments about Cam Newton’s ability as a passer led to a social media firestorm and eventually an awkward, contentious on-field interaction between the two former teammates. Carolina has revamped its wide receiver group over the past two seasons. In addition to jettisoning Benjamin, they brought in Torrey Smith as a deep threat. Big-bodied receiver Devin Funchess directly fills the Kelvin Benjamin role and seems to have a better on-field chemistry with Newton. The offense has been moving towards more towards quick route runners like Chris Samuel to help Newton increase his efficiency in the passing game. The biggest addition to this group is 2018 1st round draft pick, DJ Moore. Moore came through the draft process with the reputation as an outstanding route-runner and reports from Panthers camp seem to indicate that he will live up to his pre-draft billing.
Dez Bryant is gone. Every major NFL publication is screaming to anyone who will listen that the Dallas receivers are one of the worst groups in the league AT ANY POSITION. These grim assessments are shared by much of the local media as well. The team has been telling the fans that they don’t need a top 10 talent at wide receiver. The team’s hope is that their collection of receivers will be quality route runners that can get themselves open in a system with diverse options for Dak Prescott. The truth is most likely not at either extreme. Receivers coach Sanjay Lal is a technician who demands that his pupils become the same. His coaching has been a big hit with the players under his tutelage. Cole Beasley and Allen Hurns have both been high volume targets in the past and rookie Michael Gallup has looked like a 3rd round steal in training camp and his preseason game play. Terrence Williams has made more big plays than he will ever get credit for from most fans and Tavon Austin looks poised to remake his career from a draft bust into a quality offensive weapon.
Neither unit could be considered formidable. I am not as down on the Dallas receiver group as most, but I still need to see it. Because of that, this is a slight…
Jason Witten’s draft day decision to jump into the Monday Night Football booth has left the Cowboys with a gaping hole at tight end. Watching the preseason games and hearing reports from training camp have done little to alleviate concerns with the tight ends currently on the roster. None of the main four players in this group have distinguished themselves. This is problematic as the team seems to still want to utilize multiple tight end sets in a good portion of their offensive snaps. Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin seem to have developed some trust from the coaches, but neither are dynamic in either blocking or receiving ability. Fourth-round rookie Dalton Shultz has progressed slowly but is nowhere near being ready to carry the load from week one. Rico Gathers is the only one in the group that is dynamic. Unfortunately, the coaches appear to be convinced that he is not prepared enough to be trusted on the field.
On the other side of the field, the Carolina Panthers are blessed to have Greg Olsen leading them from the tight end position. He has been a top performer at the position for several seasons and has shown no signs of slowing down. Olsen has multiple pro bowl nods and is Cam Newton’s primary option on 3rd downs as well as in the red zone. His abilities as a reliable downfield receiver give the Panthers a mismatch nightmare for defenses. The rest of the players in the Carolina tight end room appear to be just “guys”.
Olsen has a chance to end of in the NFL Hall of Fame if he can put together a few more years of dominant play. Because of him alone, this isn’t close…
Carolina’s offensive line is a train wreck. The Panthers have already lost time from both starting tackles and one starting guard due to knee injuries. Matt Khalil will spend at least the first 8 weeks of the season on IR. They are also dealing with a hamstring injury to one of their backup tackles. It is doubtful that any of the three projected starters will be ready to play when the Panthers host the Cowboys on opening weekend. All these injuries have limited the team’s ability to prepare for what looks to be a very good defensive front seven from Dallas. There is a ton of concern in Carolina about keeping Newton upright and healthy while the majority of the offensive line is filling up the training room.
Dallas has had its own share of issues on the offensive line. They have lost their All-Pro center, Travis Frederick, indefinitely due to Guillain-Barre Syndrome. As documented above, the Panthers won’t have any sympathy for Dallas as the Cowboys can still trot out two All-Pros in Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, a top talent at right tackle in La’el Collins and a highly touted rookie right guard in Connor Williams. Frederick’s replacement, Joe Looney, has played his best football since coming to the team the luxury of three All-Pros in their starting five. But there’s the rub. They need to be at least solid, if not good, at those other two positions (LG and RT) if they hope to keep playing bully ball. La’el Collins has shown more good than bad at RT and that could be enough to replace Doug Free. Free was a good tackle but last year he was severely limited as his body broke down. We are 6 days from game time and the team STILL hasn’t chosen their replacement for Ron Leary at LG. That is disturbing as continuity can help an o-line perform better than the sum of its parts. Even with these lingering questions…
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