Thursday, January 03, 2013

On Play Calling, Norv, and Physicality

I realize that today is normally reserved for the defensive breakdowns, but I have decided to hold off until tomorrow (what is the rush, really, with the next game in about 9 months?) so that we may discuss the Cowboys "news of the day" and speak on something I am being asked quite a bit about.

Yesterday, on his radio show Jerry Jones offered the following quote: "I can assure our fans this, that it's going to be very uncomfortable from my standpoint, it's going to be very uncomfortable for the next few weeks and months at Valley Ranch," Jones told KRLD FM.

So, what could this mean?  What is he talking about?  Certainly, given that every team has to change every year in the NFL with free agency and the draft, we are left to assume that he is exercising his right to be a blowhard or that he has big changes in a "non-player" sort of way.

From there, we can assume he has no plans on relieving himself as general manager, and we will work our way down the organizational depth chart.

Is it time for new head coach at Valley Ranch?  40 games into his tenure for the Dallas Cowboys, Jason Garrett is 21-19 as head coach, which is a record that must be considered roughly break-even from a standpoint of rating that sort of record either under-performing or over-achieving.  He took over a team that appeared to possess 8-8 talent and has kept them at roughly that level while turning over quite a bit of the roster.

I would not argue hard against the firing of Jason Garrett provided it was to turn the team over to a certain type of coach that could be seen as more of an organizational architect.  That could be defined a number of ways, so let me clearly explain that to me that is the top tier of expensive, leverage-possessing coaches who could demand and receive a certain level of authority that is rarely afforded to a coach of the Cowboys.  Since Jimmy Johnson, this was only given to Bill Parcells - a man who did not take over every responsibility when he was here, but he had the guts to say whatever was on his mind and only deferred to his boss when he wanted to.

There is no tangible value on a coach who is clearly the leader of an organization, but the issues that persist when one does not reside here are bothersome.  I think Jason Garrett gets the most authority of anyone hand-picked by Jerry Jones, but that is way different than someone who arrives under the condition that he is in charge.

Did Jason Garrett have the right to take Felix Jones off of kick returns and Dez off of punt returns?  It didn't seem like it earlier in the season.  It looked like he had to wait until he could sell it to his boss.  And to me, that is really screwed up if a head coach has to campaign for things that basic to coaching a team.

But, enough about that.  Assuming that there are no plans to hire an organizational architect to replace Jason Garrett, I am fine with Garrett remaining here to continue his rebuild of this program.  I do think progress is being made, but at 8-8, the results haven't shown up yet.  There is a delicate balance with growing the program while understanding the urgency that the ages of Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and DeMarcus Ware demand.  I refuse to discuss a window and whether it is open or not, but if you have a group of exceptional players who are all beyond their 30th birthdays then time is short.

I also don't think I would campaign for a dismissal of Rob Ryan.  I believe in what he likes to do and although nobody wants to hear this, I still don't think we have much of an idea of what he would like to do with this crew.  In 2011, he had a very poor personnel situation at corner and in 2012, he enjoyed about a month of Sean Lee and Bruce Carter together with a legit pair of corners.  They need health and a better defensive line group, but this defense is not far away if you ask me.

Which now brings the conversation to the idea of play-calling and the coordination of the offense.  I think Jason Garrett is a bright offensive mind, but I also believe that he has had more than enough time to sort this offense better than he has.  You could make the case that he was sabotaged by a poor personnel offseason as it pertains to the offensive line, but 6 years is a long time.

6 years for a play-caller and a QB to work together is a very rare luxury in the NFL, generally afforded to iconic offenses that are clearly not broken so there is no need to fix them.  This offense, on the other hand, is never confused for flawless, and looks more problematic every year, despite continuity at QB and near perfect health all season on the unit.

This coordinator does not value the running game, and he never has.  In his 6 years running this offense, the team has never ranked higher than 15th in rushing attempts and has also become a team that almost never wins the battle at the line of scrimmage.  Physical play is not emphasized and therefore it is not received.  The Cowboys set a franchise low for rushing yards in a season in 2012 and instead put everything on the shoulders of their passing game and their QB.  When you consider the physical style of the offensive line in San Francisco, it in no way resembles what the Cowboys have built, but it demonstrates how you build a team that does not count on its Quarterback to accomplish everything.  The offensive lines in New Orleans or Green Bay do not scare anyone, but they seem to be happy to rely on their QB for everything.  If we have decided that Romo is not of the elite quality of Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, then perhaps you cannot build your team like they do.  Perhaps, occasionally, you want to win a game with a physical brand of football.  But, Jason Garrett is not thinking that way.

Which is why the Norv Turner idea does not appeal to me.  At least one of them.  But, since so many people have asked my views on Norv and why I don't seem as interested in him as many others, allow me to detail my thoughts.

1) - Norv Turner does not care to run the ball, either.  Well, he of course, coordinated a run-first offense in Dallas 20 years ago, but if you watch San Diego recently, they also appear to fancy themselves a team that passes quite a bit.  Now, of course, in the Ladanian Tomlinson years they ran more, but since then it has gone all-passing, all the time.  And I realize that passing is what makes this league go around, but Phil Rivers and Tony Romo are good, but not good enough at putting everything on them all week every week.  Instead, Romo flourishes when the offense is balanced up and unpredictable, but it seldom is. If I am going to make a change, I would prefer it would be to someone who believes that running the football is more than something you do to run the clock. You do it to send a physical message to both teams that this is going to require some muscle to win today.

2) - The offense would be very similar to what it is now.  Maybe I would have more use for the Jason Garrett offense if there was not always so much confusion on blitz-proof hot routes and a constant flirtation with delay of game calls that allows opponents to time their blitzes with 1 second left on the play clock.  And maybe that is worth pursuing.  I wish there was more use of shallow crossing routes and perimeter screens, but overall, I just wish it looked like the Cowboys were more fluent in their own language.

3) - It is the most "Jerry Jones" decision that Jerry Jones could make.  And maybe, I need to get past that and accept that just because it seems like a Jerry Jones move - to reassemble the Jimmy Johnson coaching staff or anything that reminds him of 1992-1995 - doesn't mean it is wrong.  I don't think that constantly returning to an era when the Cowboys were successful is a horrible idea, but the similarities of the NFL in 1992 and 2012 are very rare.  Back then, the Cowboys seldom turned over personnel groupings and specialized substitutions and frankly, admitted to a very limited playbook.  That doesn't mean the same system couldn't work now days, but football has tactically come a long, long ways.  Norv has obviously developed plenty since then, but unless he is bringing Troy, Emmitt, and that offensive line with him in a time machine that keeps them all at their ages in 1992, I don't think it gets me too excited.  Think about this:  Troy Aikman hardly ever used shotgun.  Now, the Cowboys used shotgun on 565 snaps in 2012.  The sport is seen differently than it used to be.

Now, having said all of that, I am a big believer in the idea that Jason Garrett could use some help and a fresh set of eyes.  I don't think that he is great at always looking on top of every decision as he tries to handle play-calling and the multiple responsibilities of being a head coach and an offensive coordinator.

So, if the changes at Valley Ranch mean that somebody new gets to try to make more sense of this offense, I am all for it.  I think it might be time for a new coach to have a chance to figure out how to blend Romo's ability with a running game and a more physical offensive line.  I am for that, and I am now wondering if it is going to happen.

In fact, I wonder if today or this week, Jerry is meeting with Garrett to discuss how this might work, why it should be tried, and who would be the guy to join them.  Perhaps, if Garrett is not open to changes, his own job security might be discussed.

Change is good sometimes in the NFL.  Ramming your head against the same walls after coordinator and QB have been together since 2007 is too frustrating to go on.  I want to see what might happen if the Cowboys started getting the play in to Romo with enough time to comfortably get the snap off.  And to do so at a time where the defense cannot sit on the snap because of its proximity to :00.

Do I have a list of names in mind?  No, but this should not be about hiring a recognizable name.  Too many brilliant minds in football are young and unproven.

I'm just sure I don't want to see another year where the receiver looks confused on his hot route, Romo is yelling "kill, kill, kill!" with :02 left on the play-clock, and another record is set for lowest rushing yards.

I am fine with trying something new.

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