The preseason is over - it's time to move on and focus on the Washington Redskins. If it feels that we've been waiting almost all summer long for this moment to come it's because we have; the Dallas Cowboys just went through the longest training camp of any team in the NFL.Stretched across two states, an indoor stadium, an outdoor facility in perfect weather and five preseason games, this Cowboys team has been dissected and analyzed in every which way we could possibly imagine.
Yet we still have no idea just what this team is capable of.
The ineffectiveness of the offense -- the first teamers at least -- has been covered extensively over the past month and is the absolute number one concern headed into the regular season. Whether it's the health of an aging offensive line or the inability to score in the red zone, it appears that for the first time in about four years or so the offense is thought to be the weak link on the Dallas Cowboys.
We all know that the Cowboys went vanilla in the preseason. Was that the reason for the offense's struggles? Was the offensive line issues? Everyone seems to think that the answer will come on Sunday night, when the Cowboys open the season on national television; this game will give us the answer we need as to what to expect from the offense this season.
If recent history has taught us anything it's that week one is only the beginning, especially in Jason Garrett's offense.
Three years ago Jason Garrett was a highly-touted coaching prospect and one of the most sought after coordinators for a head coaching job after the 2007 season. Garrett, in his first season as a coordinator, ran one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL and Jerry Jones had to promote him and give him a pay raise to keep him with the Cowboys.
Now, opinions on Garrett have soured a bit as some believe it was the presence of Tony Sparano that was behind Garrett's initial success. His name isn't mentioned for open coaching jobs any longer although popular opinion remains that he'll eventually replace Wade Phillips as head coach. The fan opinion has soured as well as Garrett's playcalling in the preseason was torn apart (the preseason!) by not only the fans, but the media as well.
Now Garrett has the task of taking an offense that scored just one touchdown in four games and turning it into the high-flying, high-scoring unit we all expect it to be. The problem is that there's no way to know if this offense has that ability at this point because we have yet to witness it at it's most effective; this was also the issue during the opening month of last season.
The Cowboys started the season in 2009 with an easy win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers behind what was -- at the time -- Romo's best game of his career. Yet if you really take that game apart, like I have, you instantly start to see some of the issues that would plague the Cowboys not just during that first month but all season long. The Cowboys lived off the big play that game, with three 40+ yard touchdown passes going to three different receivers. Yet the rest of the game was a struggle for the offense as Garrett fought for some semblance of balance.
The next week against the Giants the Cowboys offense fell apart under a horrific performance by Romo. Conversely, the Cowboys were able to gain 251 yards on the ground and nearly won the game based on the running game alone. While Romo's inaccuracy was certainly the biggest contributing factor it was becoming clear that Garrett's playcalling to start the season wasn't exactly what we had come to expect.
Garrett found success against Tampa Bay, but in analyzing those big plays, it's obvious a horrible secondary was more of a reason than any high-powered offensive gameplan Garret had drawn up. Against the Giants, Panthers and then the Broncos, the passing offense was suddenly vanilla.
Romo's horrible game in week two notwithstanding, it certainly wasn't a matter of the quarterback not performing up to standards. Instead, the offense appeared limited as Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton failed to provide the big play potential that Garrett's offense so desperately needs. A potential, as we all know, that was finally found in Miles Austin against Kansas City.
It's obvious now, after three full seasons with Garrett's offense, that the Dallas Cowboys are not a "power running, possession offense". That was what the Cowboys attempted to be after the release of Terrell Owens, and we heard all training camp long how Romo and Roy Williams were building their chemistry together. Yet when the season started, aside from that one big play against Tampa Bay, the Romo-to-Roy connection was merely off the possession-variety; no big-play potential actually existed there.
It was until the emergence of Miles Austin that the Cowboys offense finally opened up. Garrett was able and more willing to use his entire playbook, although the red zone issues persisted all season long. Despite the struggles of that opening month the Cowboys went on to have the most prolific offense in the NFL, amassing over 6,000 yards in total offense.
This pattern was seen in 2007 and 2008 as well. Terrell Owens was magical in '07 and the Cowboys found a great balance on offense; in '08, Owens struggled getting open downfield and the offense struggled (on top of Romo's injury). Garrett's offense thrives on stretching the field and gaining chunks of yards at a time; when that ability is taken away the Cowboys struggle mightily.
So how will this play out in 2010? Despite the obvious vanilla aspect of the offense, one other thing was definitely missing during the preseason: the downfield passing attack. Without that attack in the gameplan, the Cowboys offense struggled with their effectiveness. After a half of frustration against the Texans, Garrett unleashed the offense a bit and suddenly the Cowboys were moving the ball.
Heading into Sunday's game against Washington, the Cowboys are facing a defense that is in transition yet should be expected to be very tough to play against. Last season, Garrett played it safe when he had limited weapons at his disposal against good defenses and the Cowboys suffered for it. This season the Cowboys have not one, but two more weapons to use they didn't to begin last season.
Who knows what effect Dez Bryant will have on the offense, especially in his first game in the NFL. One thing is certain, however, Garrett has the tools at his disposal to do what he loves best: get the ball downfield via a vertical passing attack that is bolstered by what is generally a somewhat-effective running game. Miles Austin remains the best downfield threat on the team while Bryant gives the Cowboys another legitimate option in the red zone to -- hopefully -- get the Cowboys scoring again.
One thing is absolutely certain. No matter what we witness on Sunday we can't expect that performance to be a clear indicator of what we'll see the rest of the season. Dez Bryant is the x-factor here and his development as the season progress could likely be the key to the success of the offense over the course of the season; teams know how the Cowboys use Miles Austin, Bryant is the unknown commodity that will allow the Cowboys to possess some form of element of surprise.
I highly doubt we see a "vanilla" offense on Sunday night. Obviously, as it always does, the success of whatever gameplan Garrett comes up with will depend on the play of the offensive line. Yet Garrett loves his toys and has more than one big play threat on the team now. Hopefully we'll see the offense resemble something more akin to 2007 rather than the frustrating example we've seen for the past month.