Dallas Cowboys Scrap the Playbook, Hit the Drawing Board

Jason TurnerCorrespondent IMay 29, 2009

DENVER - AUGUST 16:  Head coach Wade Phillips of the Dallas Cowboys leads his team against the Denver Broncos during preseason NFL action at Invesco Field at Mile High on August 16, 2008 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Cowboys 23-13.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Every year there are some adjustments and adaptations that coaching staffs have to make in order to stay competitive. Coming into this season, the Dallas Cowboys will be looking to revise their playbook on both sides of the ball to account for changes in personnel.

As the old saying goes, if you are not getting better, you are getting worse.

The Offensive Playbook

After a disappointing finish to 2008, a lot of blame was directed towards Jason Garrett and the Cowboys’ offense. While the defense improved last season, the offense’s performance did not live up to expectations.

In 2007, which was Garrett’s first season, the Dallas offense ranked third overall in the NFL. They were number four in passing yards, and were the second best scoring team with 455 points. In 2008 the Cowboys offense fell to 13th overall with less passing and rushing yards. They also fell to 18th in the league with 362 points scored.

Offensively, the Cowboys must to adjust to the release of Terrell Owens. Hopefully letting go of Owens will not only improve team chemistry, but also make the Cowboys offense less predictable and harder to defend. Jason Garrett should look to spread the ball around more in 2008, after two seasons of making sure that T.O. was kept pacified by a certain number of targets each game.

Matters weren’t helped by the way Jason Garrett used the team’s top wideout either. No matter how much he tries to convince the world he is a speed demon, T.O. did not have the wheels to run past defensive backs and get separation. This resulted in too many passes forced to a big play receiver who was no longer making the big play.

I could never understand why the Garrett didn’t seem to pick up on the fact that Owens had lost a step, and kept using him on go routes and screens. T.O. should have been used as a possession receiver.

He should have been running slants and drags over the middle of the defense, where he could use his strength and run after catch skills to help the offense more.

This is part of the reason that I believe the Cowboys will be just fine moving forward without Terrell Owens at wide receiver.

Many think that this is a crippling loss, but I believe those people are thinking that the Cowboys just released the 2003 version of T.O. instead of the slow, pass dropping target that he has become. He still has a lot of talent, he’s just not what he used to be.

Look for Roy Williams to be used as more of a possession receiver than a deep threat. Roy is a big bodied, possession receiver with the skills to occasionally break the big play. If Garrett can use him correctly, Williams will be able to contribute and keep this passing game from falling off.  

There are some changes that need to be made to the Cowboys playbook in order to take full advantage of their current roster. Other than Williams, there are no new additions to the starting lineup. But after seeing some of the young talent perform last season, there is an opportunity to take advantage of a plethora of contributors.

First and foremost, Dallas needs to commit to the run more. Over the last two seasons, the Cowboys have ranked 17th and 21st in the NFL respectively in rushing.

Although they haven’t racked up a ton of yards in recent years, the Cowboys have a solid line and are effective on the ground. In both seasons under Jason Garrett, the Cowboys have been in the top 10 in the league in yards per carry.

Last season showed us that Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice all have what it takes to contribute on the ground. With three running backs that have the ability to make plays, Dallas could use more of a committee approach this season. This will be priceless if it means a healthier, fresher Marion Barber come playoff time.

The offensive playbook should also be tweaked a bit in regards to the passing game. With Martellus Bennett proving he could make plays as a rookie, don’t be surprised if the Cowboys run more two tight formations.

Jason Witten and Bennett are both able to make big plays in the air which gives Dallas more flexibility in its choices of packages and formations.

Felix Jones must get the ball more frequently in the passing game. It wouldn’t surprise me if Garrett occasionally lined him up in the slot and tried to get him the ball in the open field. Felix showed the ability to make big plays before he was injured last season, and should be even more effective in his second year.  

Speaking of Felix Jones, don’t be surprised if the Cowboys run a little “Wildcat” formation every now and then. If Isaiah Stanback is able to bounce back from season ending shoulder surgery, he just might find his niche. He’s a former college quarterback whose speed makes him the prototypical dual threat needed to run this formation.  

Jason Garrett will have to adjust his passing plays to gear towards a new primary target. His playbook will have to take advantage of the weapons he has a tight end, running back, and wide receiver to provide a more balanced approach. There were fans, critics, and even opponents who claimed that the play calling in Dallas had become predictable in 2008.

Spreading the ball around to open targets instead of forcing the ball to a select few and more emphasis on the run will keep defenses guessing in 2009. An offense becomes far less predictable when you aren’t forcing the ball to a certain wide receiver that has a fondness for popcorn.  

The Defensive Playbook

On the defensive side of the ball, Wade Phillips will be calling the plays as he did during the last half of 2008. With that in mind, I foresee the defense creating more sacks and turnovers than it did last year.

The Cowboys defense has improved each season since Wade Phillips was hired. In 2007 Dallas was ninth overall in total defense, and they finished eighth overall last year.

Although the Owens move gets all of the publicity, most of the roster turnover occurred on the defensive side of the ball. There will be five new starters on the defensive unit going into training camp.

Up front, Chris Canty has been replaced by Igor Olshansky after signing with the Giants. Greg Ellis is on the trading block which means Anthony Spencer will move into the starting outside linebacker position opposite DeMarcus Ware. Also, veteran linebacker Keith Brooking was brought in from Atlanta to replace the departed Zach Thomas.

With the acquisitions of Olshansky and Brooking, the Cowboys have stayed just as strong as they were last season at these positions. Both of these players are suitable replacements for the hole they were brought in to fill.

Olshansky had a statistically identical season to Canty in '08, and Brooking is probably an upgrade from an aging Thomas.

The major questions on the defensive side of the ball concern the secondary. There will be a new starting safety, corner, and nickel back in Dave Campo’s defensive backfield.

Gerald Sensabaugh was brought in from Jacksonville to replace Anthony Henry. Henry was traded to the Lions in the deal that brought Jon Kitna to Dallas. Mike Jenkins will replace Pacman Jones at corner, and Orlando Scandrick will become the nickel back to replace Jenkins.

Along with Terrance Newman and Ken Hamlin, these new defensive backs will form a secondary that will be tested early and often. There will probably be some growing pains as this unit comes together, but Cowboy fans and coaches were filled with promise by the rookie campaigns of Scandrick and Jenkins.

To give these guys a chance to succeed, Wade Phillips will bring as much pressure as possible. Blitzing the quarterback throws off the offenses timing, and prevents the opponent’s passer from sitting in the pocket and picking the secondary apart. That pressure also leads to bad throws and more frequent interceptions as it did last year.

When Wade took over the play calling duties from Brian Stewart last year, the defense started getting to the quarterback with a lot more frequency. Under Phillips, the defense averaged more than four sacks per game compared to only two and a half while Stewart had control. By the end of the year the Cowboys led the NFL with 56 sacks.

The personnel are still in place to supply the Cowboys’ defense with plenty of pass rushing talent. Although Ellis is no longer in the team’s plans, the Cowboys are still deep enough to get the job done. IF Anthony Spencer can live up to his first round expectations, the Cowboys shouldn’t miss a beat.

Like the offense, there were times that players such as Terrence Newman have spoken out about how predictability of the defensive calls. Opponents were calling out what the Cowboys defense was doing before the play started at times.

This seems to be the common thread between both Jason Garrett and Wade Phillips. In order for the Cowboys to live up to their potential, the coaching staff is going to have to put these players in a position to win.

If Phillips and Garrett can take advantage of the talent on this team, and have less transparency in their play calling, there is no reason to believe that the Cowboys can’t at least return to the playoffs.


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