Anthony Spencer: Dallas Cowboys' Defensive Breakout Player of the Year

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Anthony Spencer: Dallas Cowboys' Defensive Breakout Player of the Year
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Author's note: This article, while NFL-related, does NOT contain any references to Brett Favre or Michael Vick.  No Michael Jackson whatsoever either.  I promise.)

Human beings could be classified as, quite paradoxically, a race of individuals.

At the end of the day, a human being is an incarnation with a singular, independent conscious (as opposed to the "hive-mind" behavior of creatures such as bees and mackerel).

At the end of the day, twins and artificially-inseminated-octuplets aside, we develop in and emerge from the womb largely bereft of company (as opposed to being born in litters or groups like dogs, pigs, and other mammals).

At the end of the day, the Darwinian instructions encoded in one's very genes compel us, as a species, to ensure the survival of you and you alone, and worry about others as a secondary consideration.

Despite the apparently lonely essence of our existence, human beings as a culture and as a society, are seemingly obsessed with the notion of duplicity.

Every word has another word that applies in the same context, but are diametrically opposed in definition.

Every human is born alone to find the one person they are meant to spend a vast majority of their life with, to die as a pair.

Every sports team, while enjoyable to watch by fans on their own, have an "arch rival" that gives each season a little extra meaning. 

I for one guarantee I wouldn't enjoy the NFL season as much without the epicness of two "Cowboys-Redskins" and "Cowboys-Eagles" matchups on the schedule every season.

Equal but Opposite.

Yin and Yang.

Heaven and Hell.

Jim Carrey's comedy career and Jim Carrey's drama career.

DeMarcus Ware...and Anthony Spencer.

Spencer, the Cowboys' first round pick in 2006 out of Purdue, has shown glimpses of brilliance in his first two years in the league. 

However, he spent an overwhelming majority of that time buried behind veteran and Pro Bowl linebacker Greg Ellis, better known to the Harry Potter crowd as "He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named-Because-The-Cowboys-Drafted-Him-Over-Randy-Moss."

He also spent extensive time, especially last year, on the injury report, an unfortunate turn of events that completely deflated all the momentum Spencer built up during a stellar 2008 training camp.

However, as the saying goes, there's always next year.

The good news for a healthy Spencer?  Next year is finally here.

With Ellis departed to the Black Hole in Oakland (a moniker now taking on a rather duplicitous meaning itself), Spencer is poised to have a breakout 2009 campaign and create one of the league's most fearsome defensive duos alongside 2008 NFL sack leader DeMarcus Ware.


Physical Attributes and Skills

A quick glance at the 2008 Scouts, Inc. Scouting Report on Spencer is all it takes to recognize the wonderful physical gifts this 6' 3", 255 lbs. linebacker is blessed with.

Classified before last season as a "good overall athlete," the report goes on to praise Spencer's speed and awareness.

From a purely physical standpoint, Spencer excels on getting off the ball quickly.  He augments this awesome first step with a great ability to change direction and the ability to "flatten quickly to chase" run and pass plays that travel to the opposite side of the field.

He has the "speed to turn the corner with good shoulder dip and body lean," and he combines that with a "good inside chop hand" to eliminate tackles trying to gain hand purchase on him as he comes around the corner on the speed rush.

After commending his uncanny feel for hand use and the pass rush sequence for a player so young, the Scout's, Inc. report puts the final period on its evaluation by stating that Spencer is "still developing into the responsibilities of a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he has the physical tools to succeed with experience."

Obviously, Spencer was gifted with all the physical tools and attributes that have made past NFL defensive ends into the dominating forces they were.  However, according to Scouts, Inc. last year, all Spencer needed was experience.

Enter Greg Ellis, and another important factor in the predicted emergence of Anthony Spencer in 2009.


Unparalleled Opportunity to Learn

Three years of tutelage under the aforementioned Pro Bowler Greg Ellis have provided the experience Spencer has needed to finally put together an All-Pro 2009 season.

A learning environment unique for most first rounders served to accelerate Spencer's adjustment from a traditional hand-down 4-3 defensive end at Purdue to a stand up outside linebacker in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme.

Greg Ellis, the Cowboys' first round selection in 1998, had a largely productive and successful career as a defensive end in Dallas.  He topped 8.0 sacks 5 times in his career, including a monstrous 12.5 sacks in 13 games outing in 2007 that earned him his first bid to the Pro Bowl.

Ellis had 12.5 and 8.0 sacks respectively in the two seasons since Spencer has been a rookie.

Ellis has also topped 50 tackles in four separate seasons.

By all accounts, Ellis has the numbers to back up any knowledge he decided to impart on young Anthony Spencer.

Spencer was also able to receive this knowledge in an environment largely absent from the pressures to immediately succeed that so often submarine promising first round draft picks.

When Spencer was drafted in 2007, the Cowboys already had defensive stalwart Greg Ellis and the up-and-coming DeMarcus Ware as the starting defensive ends.

Therefore, unlike other first rounders like Mario Williams, Chris Long, and Brian Orakpo, the pressure to come in, learn the playbook, and immediately play like a veteran was largely non-existent in Anthony Spencer's case.

Absent was the media and fan scrutiny that so often surrounds first round draft picks (especially those picked by the Dallas Cowboys), scrutiny which can serve to sever the focus of young players trying to adjust to the NFL game.

Spencer was allowed to develop in a veritable media black hole, and has apparently thrived in the relative quietude Ellis and Ware provided him, as all reports out of Dallas' mini camps seem to confirm that no single player is working harder, or impressing more, than Anthony Spencer.

Additionally, the awfully large amount of time he spent on the injury report last year had the added (and opposite) effect of providing Spencer more time to mentally internalize all of Phillips' complex schemes and packages, taking what are known more commonly as the "mental reps" that are so essential to a young and developing player.

If all Spencer needed was the experience to take his immense talent to the next level, three years as an understudy to a tenured and accomplished veteran like Greg Ellis should be more than sufficient, especially when allowed to develop largely absent of pressure and media scrutiny.

All that being said, the final and most crucial element in Spencer's breakout 2009 campaign has yet to be mentioned:


DeMarcus Ware

This is where the synergy of individual and opposing pair becomes so beautifully apparent, as the very existence of DeMarcus Ware, 2008 NFL sack leader, on the opposite side will single-handedly be the most important factor of Spencer's success in 2009.

Unlike the aforementioned Williams, Long, and Orakpo, Anthony Spencer has the luxury of starting opposite a player who recorded 20 sacks and forced 6 fumbles in 2008.

While rather blatant on the surface why this excess of talent might be advantageous to the young Spencer, a deeper understanding of the O-Line vs. D-Line dynamic will demonstrate just how advantageous Ware's presence will be.

DeMarcus Ware takes a majority of his snaps on the right, which would be the offense's left side.

A vast majority of NFL quarterbacks are right-handed.  In order to throw a football as a right-hander, a quarterback needs to stand with his left shoulder pointed down field, closer to the line of scrimmage, to maximize leverage and throwing power.

Consequently, the quarterback has his back facing the entire left side of his line, and is completely blind to any incoming defensive pressure coming from that side.

As a result, a team's best pass blocker is usually put at the left tackle position to protect the quarterback from being blind-sided by a rusher coming of the left edge.

In fact, this responsibility has become so important that it is not uncommon to have the left tackle be the second highest paid player on the entire roster, behind only the quarterback.

To make a long story short, for a majority of the match ups in 2009, DeMarcus Ware will be occupying the opponent's best pass rusher on the left side of the line, leaving the freakishly talented Spencer to deal with the lesser of two evils at right tackle for a majority of the season.

The interior lineman in Phillips' 3-4 scheme are no slouches either.

Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff is complemented by the 6' 6", 309 lbs. Igor Olshansky and the 6' 4", 315 lbs. Marcus Spears, a triumvirate that should provide more than enough pressure to make doubling either end with an interior offensive linemen both risky and difficult.

This fact becomes especially interesting when you take into account the one major flaw in Spencer's game listed on the Scouts, Inc. report.

At 6'3", 255 lbs., Anthony Spencer isn't a status quo immovable object by any means.

Consequently, Spencer "will lose ground working against big offensive tackles."

Scout's, Inc. quickly counters to point out that despite his struggles against those tackles he "can handle blocking tight ends well."

DeMarcus Ware not only serves to take away the offense's biggest advantage by occupying their best pass blocker, he simultaneously mitigates Spencer's biggest weakness by leaving the opponents to use a great number of smaller tackles and tight ends to block Spencer than he would have faced had he come in as the #1 pass rusher a la Mario Williams.

Anthony Spencer has the physical attributes to be a dominant defensive end in the NFL.  Injuries aside, the most prohibitive factor in Spencer attaining said dominance ultimately lay in his lack of experience as both a stand-up defensive end and as an NFL player in general.

The experienced gleaned from Greg Ellis combined with the lack of pressure that surrounded Spencer during this time has left Spencer as one of the hardest working and most motivated players, if not on the whole team than certainly on defense.

At the end of the day, Anthony Spencer will police the left side of the Cowboy's defense by himself.

However, conforming to the duplicitous nature of humanity itself, on the opposite side of the defense Spencer will find the biggest element of his success in 2009, DeMarcus Ware, opening up countless opportunities for him all season and contributing to a monstrous 2009 season from Anthony Spencer.

As in the Newtonian Law of Physics, the axiom describing the duplicity that permeates every level of human interaction typically conforms to the phrasing "Equal, but Opposite."

In the case of Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware, I would pose a more accurate phrasing to be "Opposite, but Equal."

For while Spencer and Ware might now be sentries on Opposite ends of an intimidating Dallas front line, by the end of the season, they will be regarded as Equal threats to the safety and well being of all quarterbacks who look to drop back against the Dallas Cowboys in 2009.

Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware.

Opposite but Equal.

We can all only pray somebody comes up with a much cooler nickname for this tandem before the season starts in 2009.

 

 

(Check back in a few days for the Dallas Cowboys' Offensive Breakout Player of the Year...and FYI, it's not Felix Jones.)

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