How Jason Garrett Murdered the Dallas Cowboys

Mike CarleyCorrespondent IFebruary 21, 2009

"You don't win games on paper." Anybody who has been associated with any sort of athletic endeavor has had maxims such as this bellowed, preached or commented to them at some point or another.

However, it is this particular aphorism that applies most directly to the travesty that was the 2007-08 Dallas Cowboys.

There is a particular reason "you can't win games on paper" applies to the Dallas Cowboys, and it should be apparent to anybody with eyeballs and a semi-functional frontal cortex. 

The level of underachievement, Romo injury aside, of this Cowboys team was historic.

It was unfathomable. 

Last year's Cowboys team has to be arguably the most stacked team ever not to make the playoffs. However, they were only the most stacked team on paper.

The elephant in the room now becomes apparent: if the Cowboys looked so good on paper, how did a fully stocked Cowboys offense get blown out of the playoffs 44-6 by a Philadelphia Eagles offense on which every single offensive skill player outside of Brian Westbrook and Donovan McNabb would be a back-up in Dallas?

The "obvious" reasons have been beaten into the ground. 

Romo is too reckless with the ball. 

Terell Owens is a cancer. 

Jerry Jones loves emasculating Wade Phillips in front of the team and the media any chance he gets. 

Wade Phillips is the biggest figurehead since Queen Elizabeth II, or that King from Lord of the Rings who looked like he was made out of concrete and had the creepy dude make all the decisions for him.

Sorry, its easy to get carried away on the Wade Phillips subject.

However, while those might be the most obvious explanatory variables, they are also the easiest.  Any lazy sports analyst can sit in their recliner and place the blame for an underachieving team on the quarterback (KNEE JERK: "A quarterback gets too much credit for wins, and too much blame for losses.  Told you there were a lot of them.) 

Any unobservant critic can point to the "cancerous" player with a checkered history and bust out six columns in an hour and a half without the slightest shred of research.

Any somnolent pundit can bluster about the head coach of an underachieving team and march out the same cookie-cutter objections that have been attributed to failing head coaches for decades. 

However, Wade Phillips really was only responsible for the defense (Jerry Jones is the head coach; everybody knows that). 

The Cowboys' defense ended up ranked eighth overall, was home of the NFL sack-leader in DeMarcus Ware, and after about week four, played solidly for the rest of the year.

Unquestionably, the underachievement of the 2008 Dallas Cowboys was due to an absolutely stacked offense that was run into the ground by a stubborn and hubris-infused offensive coordinator whose unwillingness to change or adapt any of his schemes to the adjustments of the defense wasted possibly one of the most talented offenses ever assembled.

I believe there are three components to any team's (or in this case, offense's) success:

The Roster (aka how the team looked "on paper")—And on paper, the Cowboys offense was absolutely stacked (more on that later).

The Chalkboard (aka the schemes, plays, and adjustments the coaching staff devises to utilize the talents and strengths of their roster)

The Field (aka the synergy of the chalkboard and the roster)— It is also here that relationships between players and coaches also comes into play (aka chemistry), as team chemistry can't be seen in either the media guide or the playbook.

An obvious counter-point to my upcoming argument would be that the Cowboys couldn't figure it out on the offensive end due to a complete lack of team chemistry. 

Whether it was TO dividing the locker room, too many egos, lack of leadership from Romo or the head coach, I am not discounting any of it. 

However, anybody who has ever been in a locker room knows that the only way to truly understand team chemistry (or lack thereof) is to be part of that team on a day-to-day basis. 

Contrary to popular belief, there isn't a comically huge "team chemistry" meter posted in the back of the press room to keep media members constantly updated on the All My Cowboys saga.

Consequently, any discussion regarding matters of disruptive players and team chemistry on my part, while not necessarily irrelevant, would be pure conjecture, as I have regrettably never been employed by the Dallas Cowboys or been within 50 miles of Valley Ranch.

I will therefore not address the topic, and anybody who has a problem with that knows exactly where to stick their objections—in the "comments" section at the end of the article. It's a pretty self-evident tool to use, so I don't think further elaboration is necessary.

So, if the Roster is awesome, and the play on the offensive side of the field is still lacking, the finger needs to point directly at the X's and O's, and in Dallas' case, that buck would stop straight on the top of Jason Garrett's crimson dome.

Allow me to explain.

As stacked as the Cowboys' offense is, it is hard to argue their most explosive weapon is Owens, whose combination of size and speed make him Dallas' most effective game breaker.

Consequently, the "TO Defense" was employed by the Packers for the first time in week three, the sole purpose of which was to completely lock down TO and let the rest of the Cowboys team beat them.

Let me take a second to explain the basic blueprint of this defensive tactic.

The freakish combination of size (6'3", 218), agility, and breakaway speed is what makes TO such a unique talent, and it is why, despite his pugnacious personality, he is No. five all-time in yardage behind pushovers like Cris Carter, Jerry Rice, and Tim Brown.

That combination forces a difficult choice on most defensive backs (a vast majority of which are under 6' tall). 

Usually a large wide receiver isn't as agile or as quick as a smaller one, which allows the DB to play the WR off of the line of scrimmage. 

That way, if the taller wide receiver is running a go route or a post, the DB has plenty of time to see it coming and get into good position to neutralize the height advantage. 

Conversely, if the big wide receiver runs a shorter, underneath route, the smaller, quicker DB playing off will have both the quickness and the angle to undercut the route and break up the play.

With really small but really fast WR's (a la DeSean Jackson), DB's are usually the same size as them, if not bigger. 

If a DB plays off of a smaller, speedy WR, they will guard against the go route but will get torched on the quick underneath routes such as slants, ins, quick outs, and curls.  That is why it is smartest for a DB to play press coverage on speedy WR's and jam them at the line and throw them off of their route. 

Due to the speed of the NFL game, timing on offense is of monumental importance.  The quarterback needs to have the ball released in two or three seconds or he is toast. 

All it takes is for a DB to get into a WR's chest to throw off the WR for a half of a second, and in most cases that is enough to completely invalidate that WR as a read in plays where the quarterback doesn't break out of the pocket and scramble.

However, this is where TO's physical advantages come into play.  He is so big and so strong that DB's in single coverage can't press him or they risk getting tossed off the field of play like a dodge ball and leaving TO wide open in the gap before the safety.

If DB's play off of TO to prevent him from getting past them, TO is quick enough to break off a slant, in, or stop route before the DB has a chance to react. 

His ability to run after the catch is also a rarity for somebody his size, and that fact presents yet another dilemma for the DB when playing off of TO.

The way teams overcame this problem allyear was to "bracket" TO.  Bracketing entails taking a DB and putting him right on the line in press coverage to bump TO and to guard against any underneath routes.  The defense then takes one of its two safeties and plays him directly behind that DB, but 10-15 yards off of the ball.

Ordinarily, if TO breaks the press coverage Romo can hit him right away before the safety can rotate over. 

When the safety is in bracket coverage, he is already in position to take over coverage on deep routes (go routes, posts) while the DB who was in press coverage can now jump TO if he breaks off on any shorter or underneath routes.

I watched every minute of every Cowboys game last year.  After the Packers utilized it in week 3, (they lost, but TO had just 2 catches for 17 yards) it was the go-to defense for literally every single team they played for the rest of the year.  Every.  Single. Team.

While the Cowboys had an extremely successful offense game against the Packers (outside of TO), the offense never regained the swagger it had when it hung 41 points on the Eagles in week two.

Say what you want about Romo's decision-making ability, but I am telling you the Cowboys' offensive stagnation came much more from the fact that there was literally nobody open. 

It looked like every defense was one step ahead of Jason Garrett every week of the season, and the plays called (a beef mentioned by many Cowboys players) were completely ineffective, leaving Romo with nowhere to go with the ball.

In fact, Garrett's play calling became so predictable, I can tell you exactly what a typical Jason Garrett series would be like:

First down—Incomplete pass

Second down (aka most obvious running down ever)—force Marion Barber on a draw between the tackles for one or two yards

Third down (aka most obvious passing down ever)—Defense usually drops 60 people into coverage, Romo ends up hitting Barber on the check down for four-to-six yards. Time to punt

Every single drive followed that same formula.  Never once did I see any crazy trick plays, flea flickers, or anything that would spark the stagnant offense from the monotonous rut it had plummeted into.

The notion that, in the NFL in 2008, you could run the same basic defense against the same team for an entire season, and that defense would be just as effective in week three as it was in week 17, is patently absurd.

Strategically, football is much more a chess game than any other professional sport. 

Every coach and team has a basic play book. However, unlike in Madden, you do not run the same 300 plays in the same 300 ways out of the same formations in every single game. 

You learn the basic playbook, and then customize a certain group of plays in the playbook to best attack the perceived vulnerabilities of the defensive unit you are facing that week.

Coordinators (should) spend hours upon hours analyzing defensive game film to try and discern the weakness, vulnerabilities, and seams in the defensive schemes. 

They then revisit the playbook and take the vast (but still downsized) group of plays that will exploit the weaknesses of the other teams the most.

They then add tons of wrinkles, motions, and new formations, ending up with a specific game plan on how their offense will attack that certain team.

That is why it is absurd that the same defense worked equally as well in week three as it did week 17. 

After the same defense is run on you for two-to-three straight weeks, you think you would be poring over game film either figuring out how to get TO out of the bracket, or figuring out how to utilize the multitude of other offensive weapons that now become exposed due to the defenses commitment to TO. 

It becomes even more apparent when you examine the effect bracketing one offensive player with two defensive ones does to the remainder of the defense.

There are 11 players on defense.  If you take two and put them on TO all game, that leaves you with nine to take on the rest of the offense.  Assume that (at least) four will rush the passer, which leaves five linebackers/defensive backs remaining.

Now let's march out the Cowboys in their standard three wide receiver, one running back, one tight end shotgun formation.

There are now five linebackers/DB's remaining to guard four skill players (everybody but TO). That leaves the defense man-to-man on Roy Williams, Patrick Crayton, and Marion Barber/Felix Jones/Tashard Choice, with one deep safety.

The other safety, in order to bracket TO, is already shaded to TO's side of the field.  That forces the remaining safety to either choose to shade to the middle of the field, or shade to the sideline at the snap of the ball.

If the safety shades to the sideline, then the middle of the field will be wide open for seams and deep posts, and, wouldn't you know, Dallas has arguably the best tight end in the game to do just that.

If the safety plays the middle of the field, then the entire sideline is open, and, wouldn't you know, Dallas acquired Roy Williams to out-jump and out-run any single coverage that would result from bracketing TO.

If the defense decides to drop a linebacker or two, then the draw up the middle is wide open because everybody is in pass coverage, and, wouldn't you know, the Cowboys have one of the hardest runners in the league to do just that in Marion Barber. 

They also have two other game-changing backs in Tashard Choice and Felix Jones.  It's a pity Garrett didn't start to utilize Choice until he ran Marion and Felix into injury.

I apologize if the above point was long-winded, but hopefully you will see its veracity.  By bracketing TO every play, the defense severely cripples itself to guard all the rest of the players on the field. 

Garrett doesn't even have to figure out how to spring TO because he has so many other weapons that the defense is leaving more exposed to go to.

(Aside: The point that Garrett neglected the plethora of other options on offense in order to get TO the ball to keep him happy is another explanatory variable that could be looked to instead of Garrett being too proud to change.  However, it would fall firmly in the "team chemistry" argument, and, as I said, I resist the urge to use points such as those because I have no clue what really goes on in the Cowboys locker room).

If the Cowboys didn't have talent at the other positions it would be one thing.  But Dallas is probably the most talented offensive team in the league. 

Think I'm exaggerating?  Let's do a quick run-down of the other offenses in the league that out-performed the Cowboys last year. 

I'd like to emphasize this is an on paper comparison, considering every offense I'm about to mention out-performed the Cowboys offense this year statistically in terms of yards-per-game.  I am comparing the Cowboys No. 1 WR with Team X's No. 1 WR, the Cowboys No. 1 TE with Team X's No. 1 TE, Patrick Crayton to Team X's No. 3 WR, and so on.

Patriots: Even with Matt Cassel, they out-performed the Cowboys. Bill Belichick is known to be a master of the half time adjustment (insert prerequisite Spygate joke here), which is why he was able to take the 2007 Patriots offense and rampage through the league for 14 weeks until teams finally started to come up with a blueprint before the playoffs. 

With Brady, their passing game is just as good, and probably better.  But they have no tight ends or running backs as productive as Jason Witten or Marion Barber. 

Advantage: Cowboys.

Saints: Tell me Drew Brees wouldn't consider Witten an upgrade over Jeremy Shockey.  Tell me Marques Colston and Devery Henderson are as talented a one-two punch as TO and Roy Williams. On paper, there is no comparison.  In reality, the Saints scored 101 total points more than the Cowboys—almost a touchdown more per game.

Dolphins: Not sure I really need to say anything here, besides the fact that I think Dallas held on to the wrong assistant coach. The Miami offense seemed to overachieve every game by coming out with a new wrinkle in the Wildcat Offense that kept defensive coordinators on their toes.

Houston: I will admit right now that Andre Johnson is better than any wide receiver on the Cowboys.  But Dallas is more talented on paper at every other skill position (Steve Slaton looked great, but he needs to put together another year or two before he's on Barber's level).  However, Houston scored as many points as Dallas this year, and out-gained Dallas' offense by 40 yards-per-game.

I think my point here should be evident. So many teams in this league did so much more with so much less than Jason Garrett had it is mind boggling.

The Philadelphia Eagles this year scored more points than any team in Eagles history, even the TO Super Bowl team. You have Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook and his duct-taped together body, a promising but rookie wide receiver in DeSean Jackson, and then a corps of wide receivers who wouldn't see the field in Dallas. 

Anybody who knows the track record of rookie wide receivers not named Randy Moss can recognize what a superhuman achievement it was to have a record-setting offense in Philly with a rookie wide receiver as McNabb's No. 1 option.

Let's take a closer look at just how putrid Dallas' promising offensive turned out to be.

(All offensive stats I discuss will not include the games Brad Johnson started.  As much as I want to, I can't hold Garrett accountable for that. Nobody saw how bad Brad Johnson would be coming. He hadn't played for so long, I guess nobody had taken stock of his talent decline in awhile.

I would liken it to sitting in a weird position and having your foot fall asleep unknowingly, then you have to get up really quickly and unexpectedly and crumple into a pathetic heap because your foot is so asleep it's physically unable to support you. 

Brad Johnson was the sleepy foot of the Cowboys offense for three games. It's metaphors like that that have drawn my numerous comparisons to Faulkner.)

The Cowboys went into the year predicted by some to win the Super Bowl.  Well, to get to the Super Bowl, you have to beat playoff teams.  Against playoff teams this year, after the week three Packers game in which the TO Defense was enacted, the Cowboys scored exactly 15.75 points-per-game.

To put that into perspective, only Cleveland, St. Louis, and Cincinnati had lower points-per-game numbers for the season, and I'm pretty sure you could pump your eight-year-old cousin Jenny up on Red Bull and have her call your plays for you in Madden and still put up more than 15 points-per-game. 

That is a number that signifies an offense that is completely ineffective. And that is the production Garrett got out of this stacked Cowboys offense against the very teams he would have to beat to get to the Super Bowl.

Even when you add in the patty-cake games where Dallas ran up the score on teams like the Niners and the Seahawks, the Cowboys still only averaged 22.9 points-per-game with Romo at quarterback.

That is good for a smooth 18th overall ranking, behind such offensive juggernauts as the NY Jets, Flacco-led Baltimore, Minnesota, and (wait for it) Chicago.

I literally had to check the Bears website to see who their leading receiver was for the year—and it was Devin Hester. Captain Hook has better hands than Devin Hester. 

My head just exploded.

On paper, the Cowboys offense looked phenomenal.  In practice, the Cowboys offense, which could have been one of the greatest ever, ended up sandwiched between Miami and Tampa Bay in the yards-per-game standings.

The underachievement is obvious. Wade Phillips has taken his heat. Romo has been discredited at every turn. TO has been vilified in every form of print and electronic media imaginable. 

But for some strange reason, the real puppet master behind this colossal failure has gotten a veritable free pass out of the blame storm.

Jason Garrett took one of the most talented offenses in the league and ran it into the ground after being seemingly one step behind every defense he faced last year. 

His steadfast refusal or inability to change or spice up his offensive schemes led to the manifestation of a cookie-cutter defensive scheme that team after team rolled out and that Jason Garrett either couldn't (guilty of ignorance) or wouldn't (guilty of pride) figure out.

By no means am I saying Jason Garrett is the only reason for the Cowboys underachievement. 

However, I believe all the other reasons have been beaten into the ground, and that this is one of the main components of the Cowboys failure that for some reason has been given little to no coverage.

So many teams did so much more than Garrett with so much less.  Garrett deserved a free pass on this no longer.