Jason Garrett Still Looks Like Dallas Cowboys' One-Trick Pony

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Jason Garrett Still Looks Like Dallas Cowboys' One-Trick Pony
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

I never thought I would say this, but it would have been interesting to see the Cowboys lose on Monday night.

True, the devastating explosion of rage that would have emanated from my apartment with more force than the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki might have obstructed any sick sense of interest I might have had in watching Jerry Jones behead his coaching staff like a French Revolution-era executioner.  Literally.  While broadcasting it live on the jumbo-est of Jumbotrons.  While wearing cowboy boots.

But after THE most discouraging and uninspired half of football (out of the eight) ever played in Cowboys Stadium (take that corporate sponsorship), all it took was a reportedly legendary halftime diatribe by Wade Phillips to lead the Cowboys to 21 unanswered second half points and an apparently easy victory over the Panthers on Monday Night Football.

It was relieving to finally see the Cowboys' defense step up, start executing, and force some takeaways and (gasp) even sacks!

(Playing 2009 Jake Delhomme never hurts.)

Wade took a lot of heat off himself rallying the team and the defense to a win Monday night.

Conversely, I have yet to meet a single individual who was happy with the way Jason Garrett called that game.

True the offense did post its second consecutive 200-yard game, an accomplishment that is absolutely nothing to sneeze at since it hasn't been done by a Cowboys team since the days of Tony Dorsett. 

However, I would present the argument that this phenomenal occurrence happened despite Jason Garrett's best efforts.

Two instances stand out like scarlet letters on the lapel of an unholy and unnatural offensive game plan that seemed to fly in the face of the most logical ways to attack the Panthers' defense.

The first occurred on the first drive of the game, in which, if you recall, the Cowboys were ripping off first downs and seamlessly slicing through Carolina's defense after a long catch-and-run and long run by Felix Jones. 

After a short gain up the middle on first down, Romo dropped back to pass on 2nd-and-9, held the ball, looked like he was waiting for something, and then simply dropped to the ground and took a sack for a 10-yard loss, something you rarely see from the slippery and determined signal caller.

The sack in itself was disheartening, but became exceedingly so when Ron Jaworski calmly explained that this was a play action trick-play intended for Martellus Bennett, in which Bennett goes in motion, pretends to fall down so his defender leaves him, only to hop up real quick to scoot out the backside as the only receiver on the play. 

It is one of the most commonly used tight end trick plays in the game. You know, as an FYI for all those avid fans of tight end trick plays and all.

However, Martellus either failed to get up or was held up trying to get out of the amalgamation of offensive and defensive linemen furiously beating the living sense out of each other. 

The bottom line is Martellus Bennett, the only receiver running a route on the play, was unable to get out on said aforementioned route.

Since Bennett got knocked down/held up, Romo had nobody to throw to, and next thing you know its 3rd-and-19 and your kicker is missing a 40-yard field goal on a drive that three plays earlier seemed destined to end up in the end zone.

Trick plays are supposed to take the defense by surprise, and, to give Garrett's credit, this was certainly a surprising time to run this play.  The Cowboys were having no problem whatsoever moving the ball up the field using a conventional offense.

There is absolutely no need to run a trick play in which Romo has no option should the first one not be open, which, believe it or not, happens quite frequently in the National Football League.  A play like that, like most trick plays, results in either a big play or a big loss.

Why Garrett felt the need to run such a high-risk-high-reward play on a drive that had tons of momentum is absolutely mind boggling. 

That is a play that should be run on first down, on the first play of a drive.  At least if you have to take the sack because the tight end can't get out on the route you have two more downs to make up the vast distance that now separates you from the first down marker.

Instead, Romo had to take the sack, putting him in the, ahem, unfavorable position of 3rd-and-19, which he understandably didn't convert.  One Nick Folk shank later, and goodbye momentum, crowd enthusiasm, and first half energy.

The second instance needs nowhere near as much explanation.  It's 2nd-and-goal, on a yard line so close to the goal line you would have to use an electron microscope to discern where the field ends and the end zone begins.  Felix Jones and Tashard Choice have been thrashing the Panthers behind the Cowboys' massive offensive line.

The next two play calls?  Fade to Roy Williams that was dropped (wasn't an easy play but its one's you expect elite NFL wideouts to make), and a disastrous fade to Martellus Bennett (which spun him around like a ceiling fan and inspired no less than 700 "wtf" texts from friends and family) and fell incomplete 10 yards away.

I would like to introduce Mr. Garrett, a fellow Ivy Leaguer (albeit for the despicable Princeton Tigers), to the time-honored, philosophical principle of Occam's Razor, which, quite simply, states that the simplest explanation is always the correct one as long as it doesn't contradict the observed facts.

It is a principle we use unknowingly every day in the sports world when navigating through the vast labyrinth of misinformation and flat out B.S. extruded from struggling/meddling athletes as they try to justify some misstep or criminal offense.

Barry Bonds is a great example.

Did Barry Bonds expand in size and see his season home run totals triple unexpectedly in his early 30s because of some unnatural and previously undiscovered training routine of which he and only he was the sole proprietor/practitioner of?  Or was it because he was doing steroids like 90 percent of the rest of the league?

Which explanation is simpler?

Well here are the observed facts in this situation: The Dallas Cowboys had two chances to gain a literal inch to go up 17-7 and ignite a crowd which had seen the Cowboys settle for a field goal on a previous possession after a ridiculous "4th-and-goal-on-the-inch-line" false start penalty by a third-string tight end.

They have two extremely capable running backs who were rarely stopped for anything less than a gain of three or four yards all night behind the third largest offensive line in the entire league.

Should you:

A. Throw a pump-fake fade route to a covered Roy Williams in expectations that he will make an elite NFL wideout play when he has yet to make a single one of those in a Dallas Cowboys uniform?  Followed by motioning our second-year, second-string tight end (who has been little more than a decoy in the passing game this year) out wide against a decent NFL corner and throw a fade up to him?

or

B.  Run the ball behind your mammoth offensive line (twice if need be) with one of your two backs who have hardly had a negative run all night?

In Garrett's defense I do not know if a run play or option play was called, and Romo made the decision at the line to throw back-to-back fades, which is not entirely implausible.

Then again, why the explicit instructions from the sideline would be anything but "Tony, turn around and hand the (expletive) ball off or we are putting in Kitna" is equally as confounding as the mid-fade pinwheel Martellus Bennet executed so deftly.

My underlying point is this: Jason Garrett became the highest paid assistant in the league after a record setting 2007 in which he had a healthy Tony Romo for 16 games and T.O. in the last year of his prime (think it's getting pretty safe to say that).

He shattered passing and scoring records left and right, but not that dreaded playoff winless streak.  Still, he seemed like the hottest commodity in all of football and most Cowboys fans were by and large pleased with keeping him in-house.

However, Jason Garrett played quarterback at Princeton and backed up Troy Aikman for years.  Quarterbacks love Fun-and-Gun offenses where you get to chuck the ball down field and put up eye-popping stats.

So, too, do quarterbacks who become offensive coordinators.

In 2007, Garrett had the perfect set of both players and circumstances to run that down field Fun-and-Gun style of football, and it got him paid.

Then T.O. lost a step in 2008, Garrett seriously misjudged (no, excuse me, SERIOUSLY misjudged) Brad Johnson's viability as a starting NFL quarterback, (the need arose, and they paid for it with two embarrassing losses), and all of a sudden the Cowboys' offense was anemic and predictable.

On top of that, the Cowboys didn't find out they had three viable NFL starting running backs until the first two got hurt 12 games into the season, Romo was up-and-down coming off a pinky injury, and the Cowboys' season ended on what I like to call "The Bleakest Day in Cowboys History" coming in the form of a 44-6 drubbing at the hands of a hated division rival.

Now, in second game of 2009, an over-reliance on Tony Romo despite a largely dominant run game led to a crucial and awful interception that led to a last-second victory at home to a division rival.

This was followed by a victory over a winless Panthers team in which the offense posted a mere 13 points after kicking two field goals despite having the ball an inch away from the endzone—twice.

Now with Felix and potentially Barber out next Sunday Tony Romo should obviously get a higher number of throws.  But with all three backs healthy, Tony Romo should not throw the ball more than 20-25 times all game this year.

Not because Tony Romo can't be successful throwing that many passes a game, but because our offense needs consistency, a much easier thing to establish with a great ground game than a great passing attack (especially given Romo's occasional brain fart games).

A friend of mine, who's a Giants fan, made a great point to me: it doesn't matter how prolific your offense is if it isn't consistent.  If you want to win a Super Bowl, you need to string together three or four straight wins.  In a Super Bowl run, there is no room for a brain fart game, from Romo or anybody (see: 2007 playoffs, offensive line).

It seems like Garrett is gradually, but extremely reluctantly, adjusting the "I need to chuck the ball downfield 40 times a game" gene ingrained into him from his days as a  quarterback to a more reasonable "hey maybe we do have something going in this run game" strategy.

However, he has shown over the past two games that he lets his passing jones get the best of him in crucial situations, which have led to less-than-optimal offensive performances in two of the first three games of 2009.

Jason Garrett can put together one hell of a passing attack.

However, football is a game of adjustments.  From play to play, quarter to quarter, game to game, and season to season, the most successful coaches and coordinators constantly adjust their strategies to fit the fluid dynamic of ever changing rosters, and the fluctuating sets of strengths and weaknesses those changing rosters entail.

Great coordinators don't force players to fit into their scheme if they don't fit naturally.  They shape their scheme around their existing roster to maximize their players' strengths and minimize players' weaknesses.

I'm not saying Garrett can't or won't ever reach that level, but he needs to prove that he is willing to split 45-50 carries between his three healthy backs in one game until a team shows it can stop it.

He needs to prove he is willing to run the ball on three straight downs instead of freaking out and calling a triple reverse flea flicker fumbleroosky after every first down run that is stopped for no gain.

He needs to show he can adapt his schemes to fit his roster, and not the other way around.

Jason Garrett is still young as a coach, so I'm not saying he can't or won't ever reach that level.

However, empirical evidence over the last two games would seem to suggest that he still has a ways to go to get there.  Let's hope he covers that gap as quickly as possible.

You know, like, say, Felix Jones or Marion Barber sprinting through a cavernous opening in the offensive line....

(Hint. Hint.)

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