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Thread: Sturm: What adding Tavon Austin tells us about Scott Linehan’s redesign plans

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    Sturm: What adding Tavon Austin tells us about Scott Linehan’s redesign plans

    What adding Tavon Austin tells us about Scott Linehan’s redesign plans





    By Bob Sturm 6h ago

    In 2012, the St Louis Rams and new General Manager Les Snead pulled off two massive trades that gave them immense power and currency. If utilized properly, they were poised to become an NFL power in the very near future.

    The Rams traded the right to draft Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III #2 overall to the Washington Redskins for Washington’s first-round picks in 2012, 2013, and 2014, as well as a second in 2012. Then they took the Redskins’ pick at #6 overall (Morris Claiborne) in that same draft and traded it to the Dallas Cowboys for their first and second-round picks. Snead, within just a few months on the job, had traded down twice and found all sorts of additional premium picks to help turn the Rams around.

    Cut to 2018, and the Rams are a very nice team that has turned things around after finding their QB of the future in 2016 – in a very aggressive trade of its own. But between 2012 and 2016, the Rams saw their share of dark days and long faces. Snead and Jeff Fisher did not appear to fully know what they were doing.

    There may be no better example of this than the time Snead traded four picks to move up and draft Tavon Austin at #8 overall in the 2013 draft – the 16th overall pick, a second-rounder, a seventh-rounder and the right to swap picks in the third. Austin was a phenomenal college player at West Virginia whose highlight tape may be unmatched. He had legendary speed and was clearly the fastest guy on any field he would step on. Between his ability to get vertical in the offense while changing games as a return man, he had the look of a potentially special weapon.

    He would become the only “under-5’10 WR” in NFL history to be drafted in the Top 10. Austin was measured at 5’8 and 174 pounds, and there are only two players that small to ever be taken in the top 10 picks – Austin and legendary TCU QB Davey O’Brien – in the 1939 draft. There were many skeptics about whether Austin would be able to change games on Sundays in the same way, but it is rather clear that the Rams were not amongst them. Not only did they think he was worth a Top 10 pick, but they were willing to trade a huge haul to add him to their offense. In some ways, the Rams were willing to bet that he would change the NFL, and when they signed him to an additional 4-year/$42 million deal in training camp of 2016, it verified that Snead/Fisher did not consider it a bad draft decision in retrospect.

    After yet another poor season in 2016, Fisher was fired. New coach Sean McVay was hired, while Austin had wrist surgery in May of 2017 to address some ligament damages. McVay had plenty of ideas about how to turn the Rams’ offense into a juggernaut, but waiting on Austin to turn into that amazing combination of Desean Jackson and Desmond Howard was not one of them. Austin’s role diminished significantly in 2017, leaving him as essentially a gimmick backup RB for Todd Gurley (a job that doesn’t call for much work) and a jet sweep flashing decoy. With huge guaranteed money wasted and the Rams beginning to experience some cap issues of their own, the Rams re-did Austin’s deal, and he was traded to Dallas on Day 3 of this year’s draft for the measly sum of pick #192, buried in round six.

    Austin, now 28, arrives in Dallas with a base salary of about $3m and incentives could net him another $1m in 2018 before he becomes an unrestricted free agent next spring.

    So what are the Cowboys’ plans for Austin?


    You can find moments where Austin was a downfield threat, but plays like this – vs Tampa in 2016 – require an extensive search. Most of his passes are behind the line of scrimmage.

    The first place we should start to size up this marriage is a brief history of the Cowboys offense. Scott Linehan was the Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator from 2009 through 2013 under Jim Schwartz. When Schwartz was fired after the end of the 2013 season, so was Linehan. He was out of work roughly three weeks before the Cowboys hired him to offer “a fresh set of eyes” on the Jason Garrett/Bill Callahan offense (Callahan was calling plays in 2013). He was hired as the “passing game coordinator” to co-coordinate with Callahan, who would handle the running plays in 2014 and by 2015 Linehan was the full offensive coordinator for Dallas (Callahan was on to Washington).

    Now, when he was hired by Dallas, you have to remember that the Cowboys were unable to run the ball – at all. Dallas ran the ball less often than all but one team in 2012, then did the same in 2013. This graphic shows the year by year total run percentage of plays for Dallas relative to the rest of the NFL:



    The Cowboys were a mediocre football team with a mediocre offensive line, despite having invested first-round draft picks in Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick. For all of the good memories of the Tony Romo era that rest comfortably in the minds of most fans, the 2012-2013 time period was filled with some very disheartening results caused (in part) by a very poor offense that could not do much in base personnel in early downs. If called upon in the 2-minute/3rd down offense, you could watch them soar. But running the ball wasn’t happening and it sure wasn’t a priority.

    In 2014, thanks to the offensive redesign with the hiring of Linehan and the drafting of Zack Martin, which acted as the true tipping point of the Cowboys’ offensive line going from substandard to dominant, the blue line shot up the charts to where the Cowboys ran the ball an incredible 172 more times than the year before. They went from 31st in the league to 3rd in the blink of an eye. Presto, the Cowboys were a running team.

    Nobody saw this transformation coming, because Linehan seemed about as interested in running the ball in Detroit as Garrett was in Dallas. In other words, with Matt Stafford or Tony Romo, the brains in the offensive room knew that their chances of being competitive did not rest in unsuccessful runs that put them behind the chains. For the sake of survival, both offenses threw the ball out of the Shotgun as a matter of pragmatism. Look who actually ran the ball less than Jason Garrett in nearly every single season from 2009-2013:

    Year Linehan – Det Garrett – Dal NFL Playoff Avg
    2009 39.4% Run 42.7% Run 44.3% Run
    2010 38.0% Run 41.4% Run 43.9% Run
    2011 33.6% Run 40.1% Run 43.5% Run
    2012 33.7% Run 33.8% Run 45.2% Run
    2013 40.4% Run 35.1% Run 44.3% Run


    2013 was the season Reggie Bush went to Detroit and had the very best season of his career. That season, the Lions used Bush and their other personnel (Joique Bell and rookie Theo Riddick) in less-defined roles than traditional running backs. Are you more of a WR or a RB? For Linehan, it became clear that he wanted to confuse defenses with multiple formations, movement, and matchups. The Lions were still a bad football team in 2013 – demonstrated most clearly by the team’s entire staff being fired – but using creative tactics to look for a more balanced and opportunistic offense showed some real signs of life.

    The Cowboys turned things around in a stretch from 2014-2017, where they have become the league’s gold standard for running the ball. They have rolled up 8,810 yards, several hundred more than any other team – a few thousand more than many teams. They have also gone 38-26 during that stretch with a defense that has always lagged behind, suggesting the offense has done much of the heavy lifting despite Romo’s cavalcade of injuries and the transition to a much younger and less-refined passer. Dak Prescott may have a bright future, but he has never been compared favorably to gunslingers like Romo and Stafford.

    Which brings us to the spring of 2018. The Cowboys endured a regression-filled 2017 on offense – caused largely by their star RB being suspended for a crucial part of the season – and there was a case to be made that Scott Linehan and or Jason Garrett might not survive to see next season. But they were both retained and the message to both was to sort out the offense immediately. With Linehan, there are strong suggestions that he was given the directive and the permission to make some significant changes from an offense that has always been Garrett’s. In many respects, the route concepts and blueprint for the offense (especially the passing game) can be traced all the way back to when Garrett was the young offensive coordinator under Wade Phillips. He hasn’t called the plays in years, but the feeling has generally been that Bill Callahan or Scott Linehan were calling plays from a playbook that was largely designed by their boss, Garrett.

    Until now.

    This may be a one-year experiment because jobs seem to be on the line with this coaching staff at the top positions (almost nobody else is left from the lower spots). But for now, Linehan has been given the task of fitting this offense better to Dak Prescott. Yes, the RPO offense has already been here for two years and Garrett/Linehan have done a fine job with that, despite the annoyances that the red zone decision-making has often presented. But the idea is to utilize a more expansive selection of weapons and space, allowing the passing offense to transition from “nobody can get open and our QB can’t throw them open” to a well-designed playbook that complements this group properly.

    For this plan to work, the weapons needed a real boost. You may recall we ran this chart in our piece that introduced Allen Hurns back in March that showed not only stagnant routes, but personnell that had also not been touched in any way, shape, or form going back to when Garrett was in full control of his offense:

    Year WR1 WR2 Slot TE
    2013 Bryant Williams Beasley Witten
    2014 Bryant Williams Beasley Witten
    2015 Bryant Williams Beasley Witten
    2016 Bryant Williams Beasley Witten
    2017 Bryant Williams Beasley Witten



    Clearly, the exit of Dez Bryant, the retirement of Jason Witten, and even the trade of Ryan Switzer has changed things dramatically. Because of contracts, the futures of Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley are short-term, as well. The Cowboys now usher in an era of third-round rookie Michael Gallup, Hurns, a tight end group that could literally go anywhere, and yes, at least one season of Tavon Austin.

    Austin has some folks around here pretty excited, but most of the league is having a laugh at the idea that he will have a resurgence at this age and juncture in Dallas. Of course, the giggles were likely similar when Reggie Bush joined his third team at a similar age in Detroit. Unlike Bush, who could handle running back duties on a team that needed someone to do it, the clear vision of what role Austin fills here in Dallas remains a mystery. And that mystery exists because Linehan is trying to conceive an offense here that is different from the one that required replacement.

    Stephen Jones’ comments the day of that trade might have amounted to him engaging in hyperbole or repeating what Linehan said to coax the trade, but allow yourself to soak some of this in:

    “A web-back. Scott has always pushed for that. Jason likes the concept of it in terms of using a web-back. I think we’re going to do some things this year that may enhance that role. I think we’re going to get him the ball – I don’t want to speak for Jason – but I think we’re going to get him the ball a dozen to twenty times..two dozen times a game. And then you throw the return game on top of it and I think it is someone we can really utilize. You know I think it is really important for us in terms of having some juice in our offense that we keep the defenses honest in terms of them coming up and trying to stack on Zeke and try to suffocate us if you will. One of the things we wanted to come out of this draft was to get some vertical threats and some things they have to be honest with.”

    Given that Austin has played five seasons in the NFL and has fewer than 400 touches in 75 games, the Rams were able to get him about five offensive touches per game. So either Jones was riffing and had no idea what the plan was, or the Cowboys plan on increasing Austin’s workload significantly to a point where he might get more touches in 2018 than he did with the Rams from 2013-2017 combined.

    That said, let’s start with some questions about Tavon Austin in his present form.

    WHAT POSITION DOES HE PLAY?

    The Cowboys have Austin listed as a running back. I don’t think it fully matters what he is, because he will seldom play as true RB or a true WR. He is neither. He is both. He is stuck in the middle. But, he affects things in impressive ways with speed and elusiveness that make him a rare asset in space.

    Austin was deep as a running back plenty in 2017, but this was his one huge play where he was able to score while hardly being touched.

    As a RB, he can play some as a backup, but let’s be honest – he won’t scare anyone consistently in that role. He can run outside in some stretch plays and occasionally take it up inside, but at 175 or so, he serves as merely a change-up. Unfortunately, there is little disguise in the team’s plans when he is lined up as a RB. Austin is headed for the corner, and if the force man is not napping, he will be corraled.

    When Austin does run, he has the juice. Did you know that if you drop career carries to 150, he has a higher run-per-carry average than any player in the history of the league other than Michael Vick? I am quite certain that this is unsustainable with more touches (almost everyone else on the list is a QB), but still. 6.73 yards per carry!

    (Courtesy StatPass)

    What is Austin’s utility as a wide receiver? The Rams employed a variety of options but had a hard time falling in love with any of them under McVay and it may all go back to the cap situation. Austin was a gimmick receiver who offered very little verticality at all. Most of his receptions were behind the line of scrimmage, either as quick screens or the forward pass version of a jet sweep with the QB in shotgun.

    This is where Austin still scares teams, flashing back against the grain on a fake to Gurley.

    He made an insane amount of money for this role and, surprise – they regretted the extension about 5 minutes after they agreed to it. With second-year WR Pharoh Cooper at 22 years old (and $670k) replacing all of his return roles after fumble-itis struck and rookie Cooper Kupp ($700k) replacing any sort of slot WR needs, they quickly realized that Austin’s contract was an anchor. They literally replaced – and possibly upgraded – his contributions to the team for about the salary of a punter.

    But that was 2017. The Rams did use him quite a bit, but mostly as a diversion. This has plenty of value because Los Angeles used Todd Gurley in a similar way to what the Cowboys do with Elliott. They have a great runner and plan to regularly run him and throw to him, but they can’t beat 11 defenders. So they need Austin.

    Austin affects the defense with motion and with the horizontal stressing of defenders. He is that blur of color going across the formation in a way that McVay used to create the same advantages that the RPO offers. Defenses can’t merely key on Gurley/Zeke and his direction because that is when the offense springs an ambush. But, it is the threat of the ambush that actually helps the offense more.

    This is where fantasy football and real football head in different directions. Fantasy players want the production. They don’t care about how each play connects to the others and what you show tactically can make something available off of it later (or next week). They also don’t care how a player running across the formation can allow a RB or a WR an opportunity on the other side of this formation. But real football cares. A lot. If you run a player in motion who scares the opposition because of what he might do, yet he doesn’t actually gain a single yard on that day, did he do his job? You might argue that this answer is easy. Zack Martin gets credit for Zeke’s production without a quantifiable number. Why can’t Tavon?
    Let me show you a few examples of the presence of Tavon Austin making a difference – just in 2017.

    Above, this is what the Cowboys will want to do with Austin. In presnap, here he comes across the formation from the right. The linebackers and safeties all take one step in that direction to compensate for his movement, and now the pitch back in that same direction from whence he came. Blocking is all about getting to that positive leverage position. One false step can set a trap.


    How about on the goal line? The Eagles safeties are talking to each other about who has Austin if he heads back across. That fake jet-sweep action moves the middle safety out and we can debate if he might have had an effect on Gurley if he was still in that gap. But, we clearly know his effect if he is chasing Austin out to the sideline.


    I bet you remember this play. Watch Austin come across. Watch the path of several Cowboys defenders. And now watch how many open receivers Goff has to choose from because of linebackers taking false steps. I imagine that Ezekiel Elliott can play the role of Todd Gurley in all of these plays.

    The Cowboys will allow Linehan to reflect back on those Reggie Bush days (and Jahvid Best before him). I talked to former Lions QB and The Atheltic’sown Dan Orlovsky about this “web back” idea and he suggested, “it’s the thought that he’s a third-down back (really good in the pass game out of the backfield with screens, draws, and ball in space) so we’re going to use him on first down. Basically, that he will be used in first-down situations in a third-down mindset. Similar to Lance Dunbar, but with a greater home run level.”

    He continued, “The big thing is having multiple things off something that looks the same. You want the same jet action, but different stuff off it. LA was amazing with it last year. How you formation it and use it with timing. It makes all 11 guys on the defense have to look at multiple blurs at once. Hard to do.”

    The Cowboys want Austin to do lots of things with the ball. They want him to help others do lots of things, too. They want him to offer that jet action that catches eyes. Lucky Whitehead, Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris all tried it for the Cowboys, but none of those guys have ever put much on tape to keep a DC up late sweating into the night. The Cowboys want more proven juice on this offense, but like the Rams, they want it to come from six or seven guys filling medium-size roles around a RB who fills the biggest role.

    HOW MANY TOUCHES DO WE REALLY THINK ARE POSSIBLE?

    This is where the 12-24 snaps PLUS returns requires some discussion. Despite the Cowboys’ optimism, he isn’t going to get 300 touches and definitely won’t flirt with 400. Even if we count targets as touches (usually you only count catches). If you stretch it to targets, it is difficult to see any point of his Rams career where he could get to average 10 offensive attempts in a game (160 in a season).

    TAVON AUSTIN CAREER USAGE

    Total Snaps Rushes Targets Per Game Punt Ret Kick ret
    2013 434 9 69 6 33 18
    2014 551 36 44 5.3 35 2
    2015 760 52 87 8.7 34 3
    2016 732 28 106 8.9 44 1
    2017 230 59 22 5 12 1



    Now, before we dive too far about how the Cowboys might have greater plans for Austin than the Rams did, we should likely discuss why Los Angeles had diminished plans for him – beyond his contract.

    Austin fumbles a lot. His 22 fumbles in a five-year career are more than any non-QB in the NFL. In fact, nobody else is close (Adrian Peterson has 16 and Chris Ivory 15 during that stretch) when you take into account how few touches he has relative to full-time RBs. If you didn’t like DeMarco Murray’s hands, you will have real issues with Austin. If Ryan Switzer made you nervous returning punts, just know that the Rams pulled Austin right off the punt return job altogether because of ball security.

    He hasn’t been a full-time kick returner since a spell as a rookie in 2013. He was pulled off punts in 2017 due to his fumbling issues. I am sure that the Cowboys want him to return punts and maybe even kicks. He will get a shot for sure, but I am more than a little dubious. The Rams sure weren’t feeling it. In fact, let’s look at his punt log from last season. Red lines indicate disasters in his 5 weeks of service:


    (Courtesy ProFootballReference.com)

    After Austin’s fourth fumble in five games and just 12 official punts, he would not be given another chance in Los Angeles.

    All of that said, the Cowboys will have a role for him. It is not in place of Elliott, but in a complementary role to him. There were personnel groupings that had no place in the Cowboys offense in the past with Jason Witten and Dez Bryant playing in every situation. Now, should the Cowboys wish to try 10 personnel or 20 personnel or some groupings they have never even conceived of in the past, Austin allows that because he can shape-shift from WR to RB and back to WR without any issues. Partly because he is both and partly because he is neither.

    WHAT SORT OF PRODUCTION CAN HE REACH?

    There is no question that Austin’s 2017 was disappointing. Was he bad or did his wrist surgery, new coach, and oppressive contract combine during a spell of salary cap pain to quickly cause the “new Rams” to move on with some younger and cheaper models? It has happened before in this league. Heck, it happened in Dallas when a WR had a paycheck that far outpaced his production. Regardless of what he had done in the past, Dez Bryant was not going to make his $16m and Tavon Austin was not going to make his $15m again – or even $10m. You either produce at elite levels or you will be relieved of your elite non-guaranteed money.

    But, if his money is right – and it surely is in 2018 – can Dallas use him for 400-600 snaps in a way where they can recapture his production at its peak? And wasn’t his peak 2015 and 2016 when he combined for nearly 1,600 yards from scrimmage in two years?

    Can you put him in the slot and hunt for downfield matchups against safeties in space?

    If you take those two seasons of ’15 and ’16 and compare Tavon Austin’s production with that of every single Dallas Cowboy, only Ezekiel Elliott can claim to have done more:

    ’15-’16 Yards
    T Austin 1,575
    T Williams 1,434
    J Witten 1,386
    C Beasley 1,376
    D Bryant 1,197


    If Tavon Austin was not a difference-making football player as has been suggested, then the Cowboys had an awful lot of “weapons” that were below him in production. He outgained every Dallas receiver in that span. Further, similarly-cast utility backs across the league, including the great Darren Sproles, had comparable production (1,570). Theo Riddick wound up with 1,558, Jamison Crowder 1,451, and Tyler Lockett 1,395. In other words, Austin belonged in that group until Sean McVay took over as head coach. His contract was his undoing. And McVay still used him in 2017. Just not to the same degree for the above-stated reasons.

    But now that the contract is right and he is not on a team loaded with younger, cheaper options, but rather on one that wants to create some of the same speed-based issues that Los Angeles relied on in 2017, it seems possible that he could get back to a day where 50-60 runs and 50-60 catches for 700-900 yards from scrimmage might be possible.

    If nothing else, he should be able to recreate his role as the blur against the grain on the end around on a fake to Zeke up the gut.

    I realize that is a far cry from Stephen Jones’ prediction of 12-24, touches as I have him in the range of 6-8 touches per game, but if I am right this has a chance to be a fantastic piece to the puzzle.

    CONCLUSIONS:

    This is a huge year for Scott Linehan (and the numerous positional coaches below him that have been brought in with fresh viewpoints and ideas). This is an even bigger campaign for Jason Garrett. And on both counts, it is crucial that they infuse some life into an offense that needs it. Everyone loves Dez and Witten, but this offense – even with both fully fit – could not get open for their QB in times of great need. The thoughts were that they could survive the absences of Elliott and Tyron Smith and everyone who thought that was possible was dead wrong. It was a disaster.

    Now, with Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup, and Tavon Austin, there is a new group of pieces that should allow more movement, invention, and concepts that are not part of the “Jason Garrett offense”. This could include bunch routes, tight splits, and more motion than the Cowboys have employed in ages. Tavon Austin will provide a movable piece that should allow for mismatch opportunities and diversions to allow the running game to defeat loaded boxes.

    Austin was available because he now has something to prove. It is certainly OK to be skeptical about some of the praise flowing from the Star about him right now. But, he will get every opportunity to prove it among legions of skeptics that think the Cowboys are wasting their time. If he didn’t have a major role with one of the brightest offensive minds in the sport last year, then they must assume he is done. He might be. And so might the Linehan/Garrett era in Dallas. But all parties in Dallas will be working together in 2018 to prove that they all still have plenty left in the tank.

    The proof will be in the production. Linehan and Austin are now locked together in their bounce-back quests.
    2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion

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  3. #2
    No longer a fan midswat's Avatar
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    Wordy f***

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    It's not a "redesign plan." It's a "replace Lance Dumbar so we can run those same stupid gadget plays" plan.

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    Senior Member Simpleton's Avatar
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    Using him like a juiced up Lucky Whitehead who gets a few rushes and a couple screens a game is one thing, this whole "dozen to two dozen" touches seems completely ridiculous, even if you're including punt/kicks returns.

    I'd be truly shocked if this guy got more than 12-15 offensive touches in any given game this year., which is exactly what he'd need to get anywhere near 24 when factoring in returns.

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    Senior Member pdom's Avatar
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    Week 1:
    1st Half - Tavon Austin with 4 non-return touches for 22 yards.
    2nd Half - Austin with 1 non-return touch for 3 yards.

    Week 2:
    Game - 2 non return touches for 12 yards

    Week 3-17:
    <8 touches total (return and non-return)

  10. #6
    Senior Member p1_'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Simpleton View Post
    Using him like a juiced up Lucky Whitehead who gets a few rushes and a couple screens a game is one thing, this whole "dozen to two dozen" touches seems completely ridiculous, even if you're including punt/kicks returns.

    I'd be truly shocked if this guy got more than 12-15 offensive touches in any given game this year., which is exactly what he'd need to get anywhere near 24 when factoring in returns.
    You know theres no way this shit Stephen said is near accurate. His math just doesnt work.
    Did you lack those 3 Super Bowls?

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    One-armed Knife Sharpener Iamtdg's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by pdom View Post
    Week 1:
    1st Half - Tavon Austin with 4 non-return touches for 22 yards.
    2nd Half - Austin with 1 non-return touch for 3 yards.

    Week 2:
    Game - 2 non return touches for 12 yards

    Week 3-17:
    <8 touches total (return and non-return)
    This very well could be exactly how it turns out given our history with these types of players.
    2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion

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    Super Duper Moderator mcnuttz's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Iamtdg View Post
    This very well could be exactly how it turns out given our history with these types of players.

    And I wouldn't give one shit, as long as Zeke is having a great year and Dak is spreading the ball around.

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    One-armed Knife Sharpener Iamtdg's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mcnuttz View Post
    And I wouldn't give one shit, as long as Zeke is having a great year and Dak is spreading the ball around.
    I had just as soon them not even try it, tbh.
    2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion

  14. #10
    Super Duper Moderator mcnuttz's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Iamtdg View Post
    I had just as soon them not even try it, tbh.

    It doesn't concern me that they want a gadget guy, but it would be moronic for Tavon to take more than just a handful of touces away from Zeke.

    if Zeke's coming off the field, I hope it's Bo who's spelling him...not this gadgetry.

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