Coaching in any sport, especially football, is an absolute grind. Football coaches are in the facility during the season at 6 a.m. and often don’t leave until almost midnight. They’re game planning, scouting, planning practice, and going over the roster. Coaches work their tails off, and I respect the effort they put into their craft. That’s why you will almost never catch me advocating for the firing of a coach, even when it seems like it’s time.
However, it is time for America’s Team to get a new leader.
The Dallas Cowboys are in no man’s land once again. They aren’t good enough to win the Super Bowl, let alone the NFC East, and they aren’t bad enough to get a top-three pick in the draft. Something has to change in Dallas to get results with this team, and it starts with letting Jason Garrett go.
The Cowboys’ offense is broken
It’s bland, boring, and predictable. Garrett is an offensive-minded head coach, so when the offense struggles, that’s on his shoulders, even if he’s not calling plays. You can’t blame the sous chef for the poor quality of food if you’re the one helping to design and execute the meal. The Cowboys’ offense has scored 20 points or less in 12 of their last 16 games. The staff is wasting the rookie contract years of its best players like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.
The 2016 season was supposed to be when the Cowboys put it all together, and offensively, they did. They had the best offensive line in the game with Tyron Smith, Ron Leary, La’el Collins, Travis Frederick, Zach Martin, and Doug Free. These dudes were moving defenders off the ball and blocking their asses off. They couldn’t be stopped.
They had Jason Witten at tight end and Dez Bryant at wide receiver. Add to that the fourth overall pick, Elliott, and rookie fourth-round pick, Prescott, filling in for an injury Tony Romo. This Cowboys offense was high powered and explosive. Second in rushing yards and fifth in points per game. The offense, with a surprisingly good defense, lead the team to a 13-3 record and a NFC East crown.
When a team is playing well, playing efficient, and winning games, coaching is “easy”. Everything seems to be clicking and the future is bright. But the true measure of coaching success isn’t when things are going well, but rather when things aren’t going as planned. How do you adjust? How do you handle adversity? Does your team look ready to play? How hard do they play?
I think we have seen Garrett’s answers to these questions in Dallas over the last two seasons. And it’s not good.
Effort hasn’t been an issue, so lets throw that out. Defense hasn’t been an issue in Dallas over the last couple of seasons either. In fact, Rod Marinelli’s unit has far exceeded expectations on defense. They’ve been excellent against the run and don’t allow many points.
While it might be unrealistic to assume 2016 is the norm for the Cowboys’ offense, the issue at hand in Dallas is the stunning drop in offensive production without any real attempt at a course correction. And therein lies the problem with Jason Garrett’s job security.
In 2016 the offense ranked third in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. Last season it dropped to 10th. This season it’s 25th (that doesn’t include this week’s loss to the Titans). That’s not good.
Refusing to adjust to personnel changes
You might be able to excuse parts of last season because the Cowboys missed All-Pro Tyron Smith for a period of time and Zeke Elliott for six games. And I say “may” because while injuries are part of the game and can have a negative impact on the team, we didn’t see any adjustments from the Cowboys to help themselves. When Smith went out, the Cowboys did nothing to help Chaz Green at left tackle. At the time I argued, correctly, that adding help to one tackle in a game plan can be tough in the middle of the game when that’s never in the game plan. The Cowboys assumed Green wouldn’t struggle that poorly, but he did. That’s a failure on their staff to prepare properly and not make adjustments accordingly.
When I started my first game at tackle in 2009, my first career start, we were playing an outstanding Vikings defense on Sunday Night Football. Unlike this situation where there was an outside chance Smith would play, I knew I was starting the Monday before the game. The offensive staff put in an entire game plan with help in my direction. It often called for a tight end on my side. They rolled the quarterback out to my side which made my block easier. We slid the line to the right.
There were times where I had to win my one-on-one battles, but when you get help 50 percent of the time, it gives you confidence to win those matchups. The Panthers designed a game plan to help the offense and me succeed. We saw almost none of that last season when Smith was out.
Elliott missing six games wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t excuse the lack of offense during that time period. We’ve seen teams lose running backs, most notably with Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh, and the team still thrive on offense. It takes a more creative offensive game plan to weather the storm when missing an important offensive piece. The Cowboys did none of this. They ran the same offense despite missing their best offensive player.
A lack of creativity
Creative game planning and keeping up with the NFL trends isn’t what the Cowboys do best.
The NFL is changing. There are unique ways to design and implement a game plan. What makes Sean McVay, Andy Reid, and others so great is their willingness to learn. To add to their base offense. To be curious. To find new, unique and explosive ways to move the ball. Not everyone is going to be as good at it as those guys, but everyone has to try. I don’t see that effort in Dallas.
Take their use of the play-action pass with Prescott.
Play-action passes are excellent for many reasons, and NFL teams are using them more than ever. First, it takes advantage of aggressive players on the defense who smell run and then often get out of position to defend the pass. Second, it makes the reads for the quarterback much easier and more defined. It often allows for throws into bigger windows where defenders are not close to the receiver. Third, it slows down a pass rush. Rushers read run, brace for that play, then have to restart their rush to get themselves towards the quarterback.
The Cowboys made play-action passing a staple of the offense in 2016. Prescott was near the top of the NFL with 109 play-action pass attempts and had over 1,000 yards passing in those situations. Last season, Dak had 105 pass attempts on play-action passes. You’d think, “well, that’s close to 2016, they must be doing something right.” Nope. Those 105 play-action attempts was only good for 17th in the NFL. This season, Prescott has only attempted 49 play-action passes, good for 25th.
The Cowboys aren’t using their quarterback’s abilities to help their offense generate points.
Before you say “you have to run the ball well to complete play-action passes!” — that’s just not true. We’ve seen before that there’s no correction between successful run game and play-action pass success rate.
Worse, the Cowboys somehow find ways to limit Elliott’s touches when it matters most. Monday’s loss to the Titans was a great example. Elliott had 96 total yards in the first half, and then he only touched the ball six times in the second half. That’s 100 percent on the coaching staff.
Elliott is clearly the most explosive option on offense, whether he’s running the ball or in the screen game. When it matters most, he should be getting the ball.
What about the QB?
Hanging over any decision to fire Garrett and hire a new head coach is Prescott. What becomes of the quarterback? I’d argue that Dak needs a new offensive mind to truly evaluate if he’s still the team’s quarterback of the future.
He needs a fresh new scheme, a scheme that utilizes what he does best and features his ability to move in the pocket and get out on the edges. He needs a scheme that features play action passing, crossing routes and the kind of unique route designs that get players open for easy throws. If Nick Mullens can shred a defense, so can Dak Prescott.
If I were the Cowboys, I’d go after Lincoln Riley. Throw enough money in his direction that he can’t say no. Let him come in and find the right way to use all these weapons and do it quickly.
Unlike the Seahawks, Eagles, and Rams, the Cowboys have almost squandered the early years of Prescott and Elliot when they could be taking advantage of their rookie contracts to build up the team around them.
Turning around the Cowboys starts with the offense. Dallas needs to find someone as soon as possible who can make that happen, before it’s too late for the young core of talent they have now.