In short, the game shouldn't have been as close as the 20-8 score. The reason the Giants stayed in the game was because of the extremely poor play-calling by Cowboys' offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
Last week, I wrote an article about "Red Headed Jesus," and pointed out what his game plan is every week. Here is an excerpt from the article:
The main reason for this is the predictable, pass-first game plan that Garrett puts together every week. Here are the main points of Garrett's master plan:
- Pass early to get up big and then grind it out with Marion Barber III in the fourth quarter.
- If Garrett actually decides to run the ball on first down, yet gets no yards, there will be a pass on second and 10.
- Hardly ever run the ball more than twice in a row early in the game.
- Hardly ever throw quick slants.
- Completely abandon the run if Dallas is down by any amount of points.
- Get conservative when you should be stepping on the opponent's throat.
If a regular fan can pick up on these tendencies (and call every play), imagine what a defensive coordinator and his staff can do with tape to review!
Now let's go over what Garrett did against the Giants.
Did he pass early to get up and then grind it out with Barber?
Yes he did, and fortunately it worked out this time. The Cowboys were very fortunate that they were playing a team that was missing their best running back (Brandon Jacobs) and star receiver (Plaxico Burress). The lack of offense by the Giants allowed Dallas to stay on top.
Did Garrett ever run the ball on second down after a run that failed to gain yardage?
He didn't until there was 3:27 left in the game when they were winding down the clock.
Did he run the ball twice in a row early in the game?
No, the first time he called a running play twice in a row was with 4:20 left in the game.
Were there any quick slants or hitches?
Did Garrett abandon the run when Dallas got down?
Dallas was never down.
Did Garrett get conservative when he shouldn't have?
No, he actually did the opposite.
I realize hindsight is 20/20. There are calls that every coordinator wants back in each game.
That said, the Cowboys started the drive in a similar position as they found themselves last week.
Up 14-3 with 8:28 to go in the fourth, Dallas had the ball on their own eight. Jeff Feagles—who had a brilliant night that made me miss McBriar—had just pinned the Cowboys inside the 20, again.
Garrett starts off with a Barber run and gains three yards. That is followed by a false start by Leonard Davis.
It is 2nd-and-12 with 7:20 to go.
Garrett decides to try to pass, and Romo misses on a deep pass to Terrell Owens.
It is 3rd and 12 with 7:13 to go.
Despite being pinned in the end zone, Garrett calls another pass. The left side of the offensive line doesn't react to the snap and the Giants sack Romo for a safety.
The score is 14-5 with 7:05 to go.
It's hard to explain this, but there are times in games when you "feel" the game, and that tells you when to be conservative and when not to be. This seems to elude Garrett.
There are couple of things I look for.
One, how much time is on the clock? When the drive started, there was 8:28 left on the clock. Each play that stays in bounds, that isn't an incomplete pass, runs a minimum of 40 seconds off per play.
Two, where are you at on the field? Dallas was at the eight-yard line. Any type of turnover is killer at this point of the field.
Three, how is your defense doing? Dallas' defense was lights out all night.
Four, who has momentum? I believe the Giants defense had the momentum.
With these four things in mind, I would have run the ball on first, just as Garrett did. Between that play and the false start, 1:08 ran of the clock.
I didn't mind the pass call on second, because a first down extends the game even longer. Romo tried to make a play to Owens and it didn't work out.
At this point in the game, Dallas hadn't run the ball twice in a row, so I am sure the Giants were expecting pass - and Garrett didn't disappoint.
However, knowing where Dallas is at on the field, the third-down call was horrible.
Dallas' defense was playing so well, it would have been best to be conservative at this point in the game. A run here bleeds another 40-50 seconds off the clock and allows the Cowboys to punt the ball away—and Dallas could lean on their defense up 11.
Instead, Romo gets sacked and it suddenly becomes a 14-5 game, with only 15 seconds coming off the clock from second to fourth down.
The Cowboys made a strong defensive stand—as they did all night—after the Giants got the ball from the free kick on the 40-yard line. The Giants came away with three points and made it a 14-8 game.
Maybe Garrett read the papers and he decided not to be conservative like he was in Pittsburgh, but the third-down situation was different.
Against the Steelers, Dallas wasn't under the shadow of their own goal posts, and the conservative draw to Tashard Choice was on 3rd-and-6. In that game, the Dallas offense had the momentum, and a first down there would have went a long way to putting the game away.
Compare that to a 3rd-and-12 from the six-yard line, where the momentum was definitely with the Giants' defense.
Beside that sad sequence of events, Garrett also made some interesting calls during other parts of the game.
With 1st-and-goal from the one, Garrett had Romo in the shotgun. He gave the ball to Choice on a draw and the rookie was stopped short. Even John Madden questioned the formation for the situation.
On 3rd-and-1 at midfield, everyone and their brother knew Barber was going to get the ball. It looked like the Giants had their entire team on the line-of-scrimmage. Barber was stuffed. (I actually texted my cousin foreshadowing this.)
The predictability of Garrett's calls is so easy that I believe that Garrett has a software program that comes up with the best play—given the situation. I also believe defensive coordinators have figured out the algorithm.
Even with the success of the screens, Garrett still didn't establish a short passing game to his receivers. It'd been nice if he would have called a quick slant or hitch to one of those big physical receivers on that 3rd-and-1 where Barber was stuffed.
Roy E. Williams caught one pass for five yards. Pretty bad numbers for someone that Jerry Jones traded a first-round draft pick for.
Why isn't Garrett involving him in the game plan? I know Romo throws it to the "open" guy, but is Williams never open? I doubt that.
Garrett did make a few great calls.
I thought the screens to Choice and Witten were all excellent calls.
To slow a great defensive pass-rush like the Giants have, you must keep them off balance with screens. As the Giants defenders got upfield, Romo was patient enough to suck them in and get the pass out to his receiver.
The screens worked every time and took the role of the running game.
In the end, Dallas was fortunate to play a slumping New York Giants team. When they play Baltimore next week, Garrett better establish the run early and run quicker routes, or the Raven's defense is going to have a field day.