The Dallas Cowboys are Misusing Their Tight Ends


Sep 22, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (82) runs after a catch in the first quarter against St. Louis Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree (52) and safety Rodney McLeod (23) at AT

It remains to be seen how committed the Dallas Cowboys are to their 2 Tight End Offense. Earlier in the offseason they announced their intentions to run predominantly 12 offensive personnel packages and even work in some 13 packages.

Note: The 12 and 13 refer to the number of RBs and TEs. The first number is the number of RBs (which is one in both the 12 and 13) and the second number refers to the number of TEs (which is 2 TEs in the 12 and 3 TEs in the 13). The number of WRs is implied based on players remaining. In a 12 package there are 2 WRs and in a 13 there is only 1 WR (like on Dez Bryant’s long TD play).

A few weeks ago we discussed the Dallas Cowboys and their long-time obsession with the 2-TE Offense. The desire began years ago with Bill Parcells and continues to this day. We discussed the investments made in Tight Ends of the past (Martellus Bennett and Anthony Fasano) and how they were misused and wasted in Dallas. They were eventually thrown out with the trash only to find success elsewhere.

Catch up here, Can the Cowboys Make the 2 TE Offense Work?

Today, let’s look at the current crop of Dallas Cowboy TEs. Let’s see how they are being used and if it’s an effective use of their skill sets. Are the Cowboys on the same path as before or have they learned their lesson?

Sep 29, 2013; San Diego, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (82) is tackled by San Diego Chargers linebacker Donald Butler (56) after a reception during the first half at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Witten

The Cowboys have always found a way to get Witten in the game. In fact, they probably get him a little too involved in the game. In the San Diego game the Chargers were begging the Cowboys to throw to Witten. The Cowboys complied.

Most teams specifically gameplan to encourage the Cowboys to throw to Witten.

They make no secret of it and are generally very forthcoming of their intentions. This controversial fact probably warrants an article all by itself. I like Witten as much as the rest of us but I am smart enough to know half of his catches are “gimmies”

To stay on topic though, the Dallas Cowboys have never had a problem using Witten as the primary TE in this offense. By now they know his strengths and weaknesses and they use him in his most effective way. He’s never been the problem. It’s involving and using the second TE correctly that’s always been the problem.

Dec 16, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end James Hanna (84) runs after a catch against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

James Hanna

Hanna is one of the fastest TEs in the NFL. That much we know for a fact. He’s an average route runner and a slightly below average pass blocker.

He seems to be improving as a run blocker (as are all of the TEs and Receivers) in Bill Callahan’s Zone Blocking Scheme.

So how are the Cowboy’s misusing him?

Often times Hanna is asked to be interchangeable with Jason Witten or Gavin Escobar. That’s a huge problem considering how completely different he is from both of them. James Hanna’s biggest asset is his speed and using that speed in the open field.

Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar both run like they’re perpetually stuck in the mud. Ok, if they have a full head of stream and don’t have to make any actual “moves” they can get going at a marginally acceptable pace. But for most of the time – they aren’t much of a threat to rack up the YAC (yards after catch).

All too often Hanna runs out and sits in a soft spot in the zone defense. This same strategy has made Witten a Hall of Famer so why not use Hanna in the same way?

Because Witten is extraordinary at finding the perfect spot and using his body to shield the defender as he pulls in the catch. This is Witten’s strength not Hanna’s. As unexciting as this is for Witten, it’s a true skill and doesn’t translate to every TE in the game.

Hanna can run with speed and break on routes more similar to a WR than a TE. If he actually received the ball in stride imagine what he could do? He could be burning LBs on seam routes. He could be turning a short drag route into a game-breaking play. He could be doing so much more than what he’s being asked to do now.

Hanna is being tragically misused.

Sep 22, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Gavin Escobar (89) scores a third quarter touchdown against the St. Louis Ram at AT

Gavin Escobar

Escobar seems to possess the same game-breaking lightning speed that Witten boasts . If Escobar wants to make a name for himself he will need to improve his run blocking and he will need to work at what Witten has perfected – finding soft spots in zone coverage.

Escobar was a very curious pick from the start.

The Cowboys must have seen something in him to make him their 2nd round pick in this year’s draft. I’m just not sure what it is. He has great hands and impressive size. That’s nice. I still don’t get it.

He is slow and a below average blocker. With his size he could someday develop into a blocker. Maybe even one day he’ll block as well as Martellus Bennett did…Remind me again why we ran Marty B out of town?

Oct 28, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end James Hanna (84) and John Phillips (89) on the sidelines during the game against the New York Giants at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports


At the end of the day the big change needs to be in the way Dallas plays James Hanna. He holds a type of dynamic potential rarely seen at the TE position. The reason the 2-TE offense works so well is because of the mismatches it provides. Hanna is a mismatch on top of a mismatch. He is largely unproven but that’s a matter of opportunity more than anything.

Hanna’s increased role in the passing game will have to come at the expense of Jason Witten. He shouldn’t be used to replace Witten’s exact routes because he is a completely different type of player. He should just steal some of his opportunities.

As for Escobar he should probably be used primarily as an in-line blocker in the same way Marty B was first used.

If and when he establishes himself as a reliable blocker then he should be involved more in the passing game. He has reliable hands and a big body so he will always be useful in short yardage situations. If he can learn to be well-rounded and versatile – he could be a weapon.

History tells us the Cowboys have not learned from their mistakes (and misuse) of Anthony Fasano and Martellus Bennett. They seem hell-bent on wasting Hanna and Escobar in much of the same way. It’s a simple matter of playing to their players strengths rather than forcing players to fit a system.

Will things turn out differently this time? Only time will tell but it doesn’t look good so far.

Do you have questions or comments regarding Dallas area sports? Email Reid at You may be included in the next weekly mailbag. Follow Reid on twitter @ReidDHanson