Cowboys to release DeMarcus Ware, but where (and what) should he play?
From 2005 through '12, DeMarcus Ware was one of the best and most consistent pass-rushers in the NFL. The first-round pick out of Troy more than lived up to his small-school hype, amassing 111 sacks in his first eight seasons at the left and right outside linebacker positions in the Dallas Cowboys' defenses. But when Jerry Jones fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan after the 2012 campaign and replaced him with Monte Kiffin, Ware and bookend Anthony Spencer suddenly became the lightest pair of defensive ends in the league. It most certainly didn't work out for Spencer, who lost all but one game of the 2013 season to microfracture surgery.
And it didn't work for Ware in more subtle ways. He missed the first games of his NFL career -- three in total -- as the Cowboys gasped to yet another 8-8 season and Ware tabbed just six sacks (his lowest total ever) while dealing with elbow, back and quadriceps issues. One could say that this was the inevitable effect of aging, and Ware did turn 31 in 2013. But there's also a possibility that the position switch from outside linebacker to defensive end exacerbated issues that might or might not have been there otherwise.
Now, the Cowboys have cut Ware, primarily because he refused to take a fairly massive pay cut. And for those teams looking to take a shot at him, a return to outside linebacker could well be the best way to extend his career. That's the opinion of Greg Ellis, who played alongside Ware in Dallas' lines from 2005 through '08.
"There is a concern for DeMarcus playing in a 4-3 defense as that defensive end [as opposed to] as an outside linebacker," Ellis told KESN-FM last Tuesday, via the Dallas Morning News. "I had the opportunity to do both and when you’re playing outside linebacker in training camp, I couldn’t believe how my body felt, meaning it felt really good. When I played defensive end, it was like, ‘Man, do I really got to go out there and do that again?’ He went from the other end of spectrum. Playing that defensive end in the 4-3, he’s dealing with a 350-pound tackle every single play. When you play outside linebacker and they run the ball away from you, you’re getting a pursuit angle. You’re not even going to get touched.”
It's a big deal for a man who plays at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds max -- though he's still got a peerless ability to "dip-and-rip" and his hand moves are estimable, there's an issue of mass that comes up when a pass-rusher moves inside. Some can handle it, but others can't -- and it's up to the men of the coaching staff and in the front office to figure that out.
“I liken it to a heavyweight boxing match," Ellis continued. "We all get excited about Mike Tyson uppercutting somebody and knocking him out and that kind of thing. But the key blows to a heavyweight boxing match and even a lightweight boxing match are those body blows … When you’re playing a 4-3 defensive end, those body blows, those little chips, those little nagging things, they don’t seem spectacular, they don’t seem like anything, but they total up and take a huge toll on your productivity as a pass rusher.”
Interestingly enough, Ware was convinced before the 2013 season that the opposite would be true. Either that or he was relying on the power of positive thinking.
"At outside linebacker, there is a lot more moving parts, so to me, I feel like it's easier to get hurt," Ware said last June. "But at defensive end, you're not moving as much, but the thing is you are using more of your technique, you're using more of your sort of savviness to make plays. For me -- being able to be more fundamentally sound -- I think for me should actually keep me more healthy during the season. Yes, I feel like [the move] could actually extend my career."
Well, not so much. Even dealing with shoulder issues in 2012, Ware still racked up 11.5 sacks and looked as he'd looked before -- for the most part. But the switch from Ryan to Kiffin, though it was most notably felt in Dallas' epic pass defense breakdowns, was also seen in Ware's inability to get free inside.
It's not an indictment of Ware's skills, or the skills of any other similarly tailored player. As the late, great sportswriter Ralph Wiley once wrote, "A man's got to know his own limitations. If he doesn't, his coach should."