|James D. Smith/Associated Press|
|Mike Jenkins (above) feels like the odd man out with Dallas bringing in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne.|
IRVING, Texas -- The focus of the Mike Jenkins saga has exclusively been off the field.
The Dallas Cowboys' disgruntled cornerback is skipping organized team activities, asking for a trade and trying to find a new home. Though teams such as the Indianapolis Colts have expressed interest, Cowboys sources have privately echoed what coach Jason Garrett said publicly last week: "We're not gonna trade him."
The murky situation could linger until training camp and beyond. But let's turn our attention on the field. Let's, for a moment, take the Cowboys at their word. Let's assume there is no offer that makes their eyes pop, no deal where they could recoup significant value. If that's the case, Dallas has a contingency plan for the secondary that involves putting four cornerbacks on the field on a regular basis, including Jenkins.
While Jenkins is frustrated that the Cowboys effectively replaced him this offseason, members of Dallas' coaching staff view it differently. They believe they can put big-ticket free agent Brandon Carr, No. 6 overall pick Morris Claiborne, slot corner Orlando Scandrick and Jenkins on the field together. While a nickel look featuring four corners would be considered a departure from normalcy, it is an adjustment to a game already tilted toward the pass.
"This league has become a passing league," Cowboys defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson said. "Look at what the quarterbacks are doing and how the game is kind of evolving a little bit, how they protect the quarterbacks, and rightfully so. The more cover guys you have, the better off you'll be on defense. So any time we can put cover guys on the field in a pass situation and let those guys match up, I think it helps our defense. We'll look to do that some if the opportunity presents itself."
Owner Jerry Jones first mentioned the suggestion a few weeks ago, and it has merit. It also explains why Jones said Jenkins has "a very critical role in what we want to do defensively."
The Cowboys, who improved from the 31st-ranked scoring defense in 2010 to No. 16 in 2011 under new coordinator Rob Ryan, hope to take the next step in 2012. They envision a defense where stellar coverage leads to more sacks, more takeaways, fewer third-down conversions and more wins.
The Cowboys have tried to make clear their belief that pressure hasn't been the problem. They think they have enough to get after the quarterback, with DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and others. Thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, they simply haven't covered well enough. The emphasis on improving this area was evident in free agency, when they grabbed Carr from the Kansas City Chiefs, and during the draft, when they traded up for Claiborne's services. It sets up for a high-priced group of defensive backs that, according to Jones, "can go get the football when it's not thrown perfect."
This year, there will be times when it's four corners and safety Gerald Sensabaugh trying to make it happen.
"I don't know what they have planned," Scandrick said. "I feel like the best players are going to play, regardless of ... who you are."
That's the idea.
Though it's not a perfect solution.
Playing four corners and leaving out one physical safety (likely free-agent signing Brodney Pool) creates a void in run stuffing and puts more pressure on a wanting linebacker group. If opponents feature a burly tight end, more than one safety may be needed.
But with 24 quarterbacks averaging 30 or more attempts per game last season, passing is the norm. And it's not like they'd be the first team to use an unconventional look as their main defense.
Last year, before they played the Jets, the New England Patriots inserted cornerback Sterling Moore into the starting lineup as a "safety" and simply instructed him to cover. Later, it was former Pro Bowl corner Devin McCourty at safety.
According to data compiled by the analytical website ProFootballFocus.com, teams used four cornerbacks for 1,627 snaps last year, a small number that was mostly limited to dime packages. Of that number, the look was used in nickel packages -- as the Cowboys would -- 365 times, and almost all of that was the Arizona Cardinals and Patriots. For Arizona, it was cornerback Richard Marshall playing safety. The Chicago Bears also used the scheme against the Carolina Panthers eight times, with Charles Tillman, D.J. Moore, Tim Jennings and Zack Bowman joining safety Brandon Meriweather.
If the Cowboys used four cornerbacks in their base package, it would be unique. If they used it as a sub-package, it would still be rare, and one would wonder how they would specifically be aligned.
Ryan, who has used looks with no down linemen, has never been conventional. Think the quirky coordinator wouldn't embrace the opportunity to use a quirky base look? Think having four corners on the field wouldn't make life a little harder on a passing offense? The Cowboys may find out.
"All those players, we'd like to use them interchangeably and be versatile," Henderson said. "And the offense can't predict what they get. We'd like to create a certain level of uncertainty week to week as far as how are they're going to match us up this week, how are they going to attack us this week. So it's not always us waiting for them. We also get a little say in how we match up with them."
Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet