I opened my mouth, and ran it confidently. "The Cowboys will be the best red zone team in the NFL." It was an early August morning in 2009, and I had just witnessed a crisp and efficient red zone offense drill during two-a-days at the Alamodome in San Antonio. I scribbled a big note on my legal pad, and circled it, certain that I had just found the theme for my mid-day sports/talk show, which I opened with the above-quoted assertion. As I recall, it was a good show. As I now know, it was a terrible prediction.
Despite gaining the most yards from scrimmage of any team in franchise history, the 2009 'Boys frequently couldn't find the end zone with a compass, a bloodhound and a GPS system. And now one game deep in the 2010 season, Cowboy fans are getting that "deja vu all over again" feeling. For sure, we're probably not having this discussion right now if Alex Barron hadn't been flagged for holding, if Romo's last-play apparent TD pass to Williams had held up and if we were still basking in the afterglow of a one-point chumping of the 'Skins. But....
The fact is Dallas scored seven points Sunday night at Fed-Ex, following a five-game preseason in which the starting offense punched it in one time in 13 possessions. "The Cowboys will be the best red zone team in the NFL"? At least for now, for the second straight year, I remain the most red-faced sports/talk show host on the air.
But you know what? Call me stubborn, ignorant or defensive, but my prediction made sense. The Cowboys should be red zone wizards. If you started from scratch and custom-ordered cogs for a red zone machine, you probably couldn't do much better than the parts already in the Dallas warehouse. Start with the quarterback. Romo can whistle the slant and feather the fade. Number Nine can keep plays alive with his legs and has enough quickness and moxie to run it in himself, either scrambling or on a designed play like the quarterback draw. Three running backs, each possessing unique talents, extend Jason Garrett's red zone repertoire. Barber The Hammer, Felix The Quick and Choice The Chosen can put overwhelming pressure on defenses, both as runners and receivers. Tight ends, always a staple of a satisfying red zone recipe? Martellus Bennett is an athletic beast, and Jason Witten is merely the best overall TE in football, despite his anemic touchdown totals. Surely there are schematic ways to get Eighty Two in the end zone more often than his two 2009 visits.
Big, strong offensive line? Check, particularly when healthy. Miles Austin has the explosiveness and lower body strength to get off goal-line press coverage. Big bodied WRs are essential for red zone success. Roy Williams is a big body, and while there are routes Roy doesn't run very well, the fade is his forte, and is largely responsible for any NFL success he's had both in Detroit and Dallas. And we haven't yet mentioned Dez Bryant, who possesses the talent to average double-digit touchdowns for the next decade. The Cowboy offensive personnel is made to order for red zone dominance. So. What's the problem?
For one, you can't run the ball effectively if you don't run the ball. A deeper commitment to the running game would provide a foundation upon which all the other ornaments could be hung. Goal line play-action is only effective if the running game is not only respected but feared by the opposing D. It starts with Jason Garrett. Don't dazzle us with your genius. Impress us with your stubbornness and resolve.
The goal line is all about toughness. Scratch out some tough, nasty sixes, Jase, and the easy play-action "gimmes" will follow.
Seems to me Felix Jones is the "chalk breaker." D coordinators just have to snap their chalk in half in frustration when they start trying to defend all the things Felix can do on the goal line. By formation, by motion, by crossing the center behind the line of scrimmage after the snap, there are many creative ways to get Jones into space. I know, because I have seen Garrett do these very things in training camp.
The ingredients are all there. In abundance.
"The Cowboys will have the best red zone team in the NFL"? Still not a crazy prediction.