There appear to be two schools of thought regarding the relationship between a football teams' philosophical system (the style of defense a team decides to deploy and they way they decide to deploy it, for example) and its method of player acquisition (what kind of players that organization wants on its roster). The first school places emphasis on the system and seeks to acquire players that will fit that system - think the Broncos offensive line in the Mike Shanahan era or the Cowboys linebackers in the 90s. The latter tries to acquire interesting players (playmakers) and then adjust the system to take advantage of their strengths and hide their weaknesses - think of Norv Turner's 90s offenses or Bill Belichick's Patriots defenses.
While both methodologies work, I've always valued the latter, as it more readily adapts to the changing NFL landscape. If college teams are producing big receivers and my offensive philosophy is the run-n-shoot, for instance, I'm in a square-peg-round-hole situation if I draft a Dez Bryant, or, if I pass on him, I fail to take advantage of the potential mismatches his size and speed create.
The latter philosophy also rewards intellectual flexibility and creativity on the part of a coaching staff. The famed No-Name Miami defenses of the early 70s featured a bizarre collection of misfits, none of whom were exactly NFL prototypes. But the Dolphins defensive coordinator, Bill Arnsparger developed a system (the famed "53," named after Bob Matheson, a hybrid linebacker-end who would enter the game on passing downs) that utilized their strengths. Had they not been Dolphins, I'm pretty sure slow, undersized players such defensive tackle Manny Fernandez or MLB Nick Buoniconti would not have had Pro Bowl-caliber careers (heck, I'm not certain that they would have made too many other team's rosters).
Don Shula's Dolphins serve as an example of the way creative coaching can put players in the right positions to optimize their abilities. And this is what we are seeing from the Jason Garrett regime. Last week, I offered two posts outlining what the Cowboys had to do to win Sunday's tilt against the Colts. On offense, they had to establish a running threat, stay out of obvious passing situations, and play keep-away from Peyton Manning; on defense, it was necessary to keep passing plays in front of them, resist the urge to blitz and to be patient, allowing mistakes to come to them. The various "keys to victory" were fairly obvious; I was certainly not the only writer, here or otherwise, who was outlining these as markers of success.
If these "keys to victory" are obvious to the likes of me, they are certainly clear to an NFL coaching staff. Yet, for almost the entirety of the Wade Phillips' half of the 2010 season, they would fail to accomplish these various keys, the most obvious determinants of success: win the turnover battle; limit big plays; get the ball in the hands of the players most likely to make big plays. However, in the past four weeks, even in the loss to the Saints, the Cowboys have treated the pre-game "keys" as a checklist-and often, at game's end, all the boxes have a little "x" in them.
One of the reasons for the turnaround, to my mind, is the way in which the two regimes developed their respective checklists. Under Phillips, the coaching staff seemed to want to adhere to a philosophy, even when it wasn't working. His defense, for example, is predicated upon getting pressure on the quarterback, so Wade was going to accomplish this at all costs, even if it meant giving up on stopping the run, exposing his vulnerable secondary or forcing the venerable Keith Brooking into coverage mismatches. Ultimately, Phillips' insisted on sticking to his system even when his players clearly had demonstrated an inability to execute it. Game after game, a box went unchecked.
Garrett's staff, though composed of the same coaches - save one - seem to have a clearer sense of their players' strengths and limitations. As a result, they have implemented important philosophical adjustments designed to allow their players to succeed. The most obvious examples can be seen on the offensive and defensive lines. Paul Pasqualoni and his guys have primarily rushed three or four, opting to play coverage. So, even though the Dallas D has given up more yards per game over the past four weeks than they had in the first nine, their weak spots are protected (and, because they are keeping plays in front of them, turnovers have spiked). Because the offensive line cannot get a push in the running game, Garrett and his offensive coaches have deployed a lot of run-heavy formations that force the opposition to respect the run by bringing safeties up to the line of scrimmage. Check, check, check.
The best teams win due to a cornucopia of factors. Foremost among these is that the players buy in to what the head coach is selling. Early on, Jimmy Johnson's players realized that what we said before the game usually came true during it. By extension, they learned that, by trusting his take on the upcoming opponent and the way in which the coaching staff wanted to attack that opponent, they would be in the optimal position to succeed. In other words, he was putting them in positions whereby they could learn to win.
After watching numerous games during the Wade Phillips era in which multiple elements of the gameplan left me puzzled, its been a refreshing change to see simple, clear, coherent plans that give a fighting chance to a group of players that could have been overmatched in three of the Garrett era's four contests. Think about it: when the schedule came out, even when we thought this might be a Super Bowl team, the stretch of @ New York, Detroit, New Orleans, @ Indianapolis was considered a killer. To negotiate this gauntlet with a suspect offensive line, serious problems in the interior defense, and an aged backup quarterback? And win three of four? That's some good coachin' right there...
It remains to be seen what kind of changes Garrett can implement in terms of upgrading the roster (who gets drafted or signed in free agency; who makes the final 53; who starts; how much will the bottom of the roster be churned). But, like Johnson did when he took over the head coaching reins, Garrett's doing a terrific job putting the players he's got into the position where they can learn how to win.
And because of that, football is fun again, ain't it?