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Double trouble

Cowboys' Parcells jumping on two-tight-end trend

Posted: Wednesday September 20, 2006 10:52AM; Updated: Wednesday September 20, 2006 8:12PM
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Bill Parcells' booming voice filled with excitement last week when I asked why he switched this season to two tight ends in his base offense. His first answer lasted more than three minutes -- long even for the moody yet loquacious coach -- and I got the sense it wasn't just because he was pleased to be talking about something other than Terrell Owens' hamstring or Drew Bledsoe's job as starting quarterback.

In case you didn't notice, Dallas' versatile tight ends Jason Witten and Anthony Fasano combined for seven catches and 84 yards in last week's 27-10 victory over the Redskins. The Cowboys could be without T.O. for several weeks because of his broken right finger, but the offense should be OK with those tight ends on the field at the same time with wideout Terry Glenn and tailback Julius Jones or Marion Barber.

Why is the future Hall of Fame coach so enthusiastic about the formation? It's mainly because he believes that multidimensional tight ends give an offense more favorable matchups against a base defense. For example, when Dallas lines up with two tight ends, a defense generally responds with its base package -- a 4-3 or 3-4 -- because of a potential run. Conversely, against a three-wideout set, a defense typically replaces a linebacker with its nickelback.

"The nickel player nowadays is a 500- or 600-play player," says Parcells. "He's playing about half the time, so he's considered a specialist. He's working on being a nickelback. My contention is the matchup that you get with an additional tight end against a normal safety or normal linebacker is really more advantageous than what you get by deploying your third wide receiver in the game and having defenses put their specialty player in."

About a third of the NFL teams now use two-tight-end sets. The formation was used heavily in the mid- to late-90s, and the trend has returned recently in a mutant form. And with Antonio Gates as the model, many of today's tight ends are as adept at receiving and running after the catch as they are at blocking, which brings unique challenges to defenses. "It's coming back around," says Seattle director of pro personnel Will Lewis of the formation, "but it's not easy to get the right personnel."

Dallas' shift began last year, when Parcells kept only one fullback on the roster, the 6-foot, 248-pound Lousaka Polite as the offense used two tight ends less than 50 percent of the time. But in the offseason Polite was forced to convert to tight end to make the team. He occasionally reverts to fullback in some short-yardage situations, but now the Cowboys use two-tight-end sets more than 80 percent of the time. "The fullbacks are kind of like the dinosaur," said Parcells, who has drafted three tight ends in the past four seasons. "They are a little bit extinct."

The two-tight-end set was barely in existence when Parcells first saw it. Parcells was New England's linebackers coach in 1980 -- his second season in the NFL -- when he first saw the Detroit Lions use the formation as part of their base offense. Parcells, like his former assistants Bill Belichick, Al Groh and Charlie Weis, call the two-tight end set "Detroit" or the "Detroit Package." "The formation was a very uncommon thing to see. It was rare," Parcells told me. "Detroit can also mean DT-double-TE."

Despite Witten being among the NFL's elite tight ends, the Cowboys switched to the Detroit Package by surprisingly plucking Fasano from Notre Dame in the second round of the 2006 draft. According to league insiders, the decision stunned the Bengals, who had targeted Fasano two spots later. But Dallas envisioned the 6-foot-4, 258-pound Fasano as an ideal fit after he had played in the Irish's two-tight-end formation under first-year coach Charlie Weis, Parcells' former assistant with the Patriots and Jets. Weis' two-tight-end set uses terminology and philosophy similar  to Dallas'.

"A lot of people, if they didn't know what our offense was trying to do, would wonder why the Cowboys would pick me," Fasano said. "But I think I'm a good fit."

To hear Parcells speak with such enthusiasm, he apparently does too.

Nunyo's notes

It's still early, but I'm surprised by Brad Childress' 2-0 Minnesota Vikings. I thought it was silly to trade Daunte Culpepper one year after Minnesota dealt Randy Moss. But the Vikings are undefeated and Culpepper's Dolphins and Moss's Raiders are 0-2.... Interesting factoid on the heels of Owens' injury: He hasn't played a full season since 2001.... So why did the Titans get rid of Steve McNair if they were going to end up starting a veteran like Kerry Collins? Speaking of McNair and the Ravens, Ray Lewis' demise has been greatly exaggerated.... It's been fashionable for NFL folks with short memories to diss Mike Martz's pass-crazy ways in St. Louis while praising Scott Linehan for bringing balance to the offense. But these days, the Rams' offense looks like it misses Martz, especially quarterback Marc Bulger, who was sacked six times last week. At least when Bulger was being sacked six times in a game under Martz, he was also throwing for 400 yards. Regardless, the Rams' success hinges on Jim Haslett's defense.... Who would have thought sixth-round pick Wali Lundy would be a starter in Houston while übertailback Reggie Bush would be coming off the bench?... Non-football note: I was sitting in New York's Central Park the other day when ex-Knicks coach Larry Brown walked by on a sunny afternoon. We spoke for a couple minutes. He looked as trim and as upbeat as any man making millions for not having to work.