Commentary

Moving DeMarcus Ware is a risk

Cowboys insist position change is no big deal, but DE is a whole different animal

Updated: May 14, 2013, 8:25 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has said moving DeMarcus Ware from outside linebacker to defensive end is no big deal.

So has owner Jerry Jones. Ware, too.

We'll see.

Whether you agree with the decision or not, it takes courage to ask a guy who's currently fourth among active NFL players in sacks to play a new position. Especially after eight seasons in the NFL.

Sure, Ware played defensive end in college at Troy, but that was a long time ago. And yes, he has played with his hand on the ground throughout his NFL career. But there's a significant difference between a handful of plays each week at defensive end and spending an entire game waging battle with a 330-pound tackle for 60 plays a week.

"My job hasn't changed," Ware said recently. "My job is still to get to the quarterback. I'm still gonna get to the quarterback."

In the 3-4 defense, the Cowboys regularly moved Ware to either side of the formation, allowing him to exploit matchups. Sometimes they used Ware and outside linebacker Anthony Spencer on the same side to overload the formation and force the offensive linemen to make difficult choices under duress about which player to block.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/James D SmithDeMarcus Ware battled through nagging injuries last season and still managed 11.5 sacks.

That won't happen nearly as often in this scheme, which means Ware will be involved in a lot more hand-to-hand combat with the best pass-blockers the NFL has to offer. Remember, most teams stick their best pass-rusher at left tackle to protect the quarterback's blind side.

"You can actually get off faster in the three-point stance than you can in the two-point stance," Ware said. "And on third down I'm still going to be lining up wide, so they're still not going to be able to put their hands on me."

Ware has been preparing for the switch. He's added seven pounds of muscle to his frame since having offseason shoulder surgery soon after the season ended. These days, he weighs 262 pounds and insists he hasn't lost any acceleration.

We can only hope.

Ware has focused on strengthening the muscles around his shoulder in hopes he can stay injury free this season. He played much of the second half of last season with essentially one arm, rendering him fairly useless as a pass-rusher.

He even has changed his face mask to an eight-bar cage that resembles something a medieval knight might've worn on a 14th-century battlefield.

Just so you know, the game also looks different from a three-point stance than it does standing up. Standing up, Ware can see the entire field. He can see the formation and the motion, all of which allows him to anticipate what's coming. With his hand on the ground, he peers between arms and legs, searching for clues. And once the ball is snapped, it's a heck of a lot easier for a ball carrier to hide than it is when Ware's standing up.

Ware had 9.5 sacks in the first eight games last season and two in the last eight. For what it's worth, his only sack with his hand on the ground occurred in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys' December win over Cincinnati.

The 11.5 sacks represented the seventh consecutive year he has posted double-digit sacks. We're talking about a dude who's so good that critics scoffed at his sack total last season.

Whatever.

Some of y'all have forgotten the Cowboys didn't have a player reach double-digit sacks from 1996 until 2007, when Greg Ellis had 12.5.

Today's NFL is about quarterbacks throwing the ball and defenses trying to pressure them, because quarterbacks under duress make mistakes. So there's risk in the Cowboys' decision to move Ware. Could the change in the defensive scheme from the 3-4 to the 4-3, which uses four down linemen and three linebackers, make Ware a less effective pass-rusher? Hey, it's happened to players before.

In 1993, Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Derrick Thomas made the switch. His sack total dropped from 14.5 to 8, in part, because he had to spend more time engaging blockers in the run game. The physical grind took its toll. Thomas still had three more 10-sack seasons, but he had at least 10 in each of his first four seasons.

Ware will be making the move at age 31. It figures to be a more difficult transition.

That said, rushing the passer is such an innate skill that it normally doesn't disappear quickly the way a running back's skills disappear. One year a running back can slither through a crack for a 10-yard gain, the next year he can't.

Bruce Smith, the NFL's all-time leader with 200 sacks, had six seasons with 10 sacks or more after turning 30. So did outside linebacker Kevin Greene. Reggie White and Chris Doleman each had five seasons of at least 10 sacks after 30.

We've seen no evidence that Ware's skill set is diminishing. He can still turn the corner, dip his shoulder so low that it nearly touches the ground and speed past the tackle and then pop up as he prepares to obliterate the quarterback.

Let's hope this scheme change doesn't hasten his decline.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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