Playing Second Fiddle

For those of you born in the 1980's or later, forgive me for leading with an idiom that you may not be familiar with. You see, the phrase was used quite a bit "in the old days" to refer to someone who took a back seat or lesser role to someone else. If you're in your 20's, think of it as the way Leonard allows Sheldon to dominate most conversations on the Big Bang Theory. Okay, I jest...a little. Actually, playing second fiddle is a way of describing how two people can work together for the betterment of the larger group with one taking the lead and one taking a secondary role. Think of it as Hillary Clinton agreeing to serve as Obama's Secretary of State after she, herself, vied for the office of the President.  

As a general context, the Dallas Cowboys offense has been a moribund group for some time now. I can say that because I look at one quantitative value to determine how an offense performs relative to its peers. No, it's not Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt or any sort of multi-variable statistic that require a paragraph to describe and the inevitable subsequent posts to explain why it isn't predictive of wins and losses.

I look at points scored. I then compare them to their peers, that is, other teams. After all, isn't that the raison d'être for an offense?

I'm a simple guy. I'm not Ivy League-educated and probably not as smart as Ryan Fitzpatrick and I don't fully understand Stephen Hawking's Black Hole Theory (Lisa Randall's ideas are much cooler anyway). The degree of utter simplicity that I choose as my measuring stick may set us back a few statistical epochs and create fervor over why it doesn't tell the complete story of how an offense truly performs. To that end, I must concede that it's entirely plausible that the New York Jets offense isn't geared to be as explosive as the one the New Orleans Saints send out on the field every Sunday. However, what cannot be argued is that every time the Jets get the ball, they want to accomplish the same thing the Saints (and Packers and Rams...and Cowboys) want. They want to score a touchdown. Each time. Every time. The WAY they get there may be different, but the desired outcomes are always the same. The more they score, the easier they make the game for their defense and special teams.  Points...scored. For me, that's all I need.

It's been since the 2007 season that Dallas has fielded a top 5 offense in terms of points scored. 2007!

  • In 2007, Dallas scored a whopping 28.4 points per game and was #2 in the league in that category. They scored over 30 points an astounding eight times!
  • In 2008, they fell off of the table and scored 22.6 per game and were 18th. They scored over 30 only four times.
  • In 2009, they fared no different, averaging 22.6 points per game (but made the playoffs largely on the strength of the defense being the 2nd stingiest in the league) and finished 14th. They scored over scored over 30 four times.
  • In 2010, Dallas actually improved their output to 24.6 per game and ranked a laudable 7th in the NFL. However, they broke 30 only five times.
  • Thus far in 2011, Dallas has returned to its TD-starved ways and is averaging 22.4 points per game. They've scored over 30 in just two of their eight games.

Average those rankings out over the past three and a half seasons and Dallas is a pedestrian 14th in the NFL in scoring rank over that span. Take a moment to take that all in. That is 14th in the NFL with a cast of characters that includes Felix Jones, Miles Austin, Jason Witten and Tony Romo. Not good.

Up until a few games into this season, the one word we could use to describe Dallas under Jason Garrett's play-calling leadership has been ‘aggressive'. Garrett has brought a pass-first, pass-often mentality to Dallas and the team's point-scoring fortunes have been largely linked to how Tony Romo has played.  At times, that has been both a blessing and a curse.

But now the tide may be turning. The emergence of DeMarco Murray at the running back spot as a true every-down, do-it-all kind of back may be the thing that changes Dallas' offensive fortunes. It stands to reason that, if Adrian Peterson played for the Dallas Cowboys, Tony Romo would be asked to do less. But what if that decrease in workload turned out to be what made Romo a winner? We saw what happened to John Elway without a running game and then what happened when he handed the keys to Terrell Davis. We saw how Brett Favre needed Ahman Green to carry the load and how that finally made Favre a winner. And, forgive me for invoking the name of legends, but we know the roles that Aikman and Emmitt played in their offenses.

What if we were to find out too late that the silver bullet for the Dallas Cowboys offense was simply to have Tony play second fiddle to the running game led by Murray, who's drawing comparisons to Peterson more and more every game? Surely that would open up the deep middle on play action. It's a given that, with safeties having to come down into the box, the over-the-top sideline routes to Bryant, Robinson and Austin would have less deep help to contend with. Another thing about running the football? It keeps your defense off of the field, and, more important, it keeps guys like Stafford, Sanchez and Brady off of the field. It's highly plausible that a running game like we've seen since Murray has become the starter could have dramatically altered the play calling (and thus, the outcome) of three of our four losses to date. 

It's not about Romo becoming a "bus driver" or a "game manager". I despise those terms because they seem to carry with them some connotation that the QB's who aren't throwing the ball 65% of the time are less worthy of their position or that they're not as good as those who are. It's like saying Troy Aikman was any less of a great passer than Steve Young just because the play calls were more balanced in Dallas than in San Francisco. I reject those notions out of hand. One of those football clichés is that a good running game is every quarterback's best friend. Why should it be different for Tony?

In addition, the idea of having a legitimate running game to complement a potentially dynamic passing attack makes the offense significantly better because it creates unpredictability, and THAT is an opposing Defensive Coordinator's worst nightmare. 

The one thing we don't want to talk about, the elephant in the room, is the egos involved with this sort of sea change in approach. I'm not worried about Romo. He appears to me as the kind of leader who will do whatever he needs to do to make the team better, even if that means sliding over from the driver's seat into the passenger seat. I think he might become the running game's biggest cheerleader if it could decrease his burden. No, I worry about the Dez Bryant's of the world. How will he and other skill players handle the idea of going from a 35 passes-per-game offense down to a 25 passes-per-game team? That's fewer opportunities for Austin, Witten and Bryant. What about Garrett himself? He of the complex route trees and timing patterns. Would he be willing to simply hand the ball off to Murray and Tanner and forsake the aerial attack if the ground game, as unimaginative as that may seem, becomes the most reliable and productive part of the offense? Last, but certainly not least, is Jerry. Jerry has a lot invested in those skill players and not slinging the ball around means their value goes down a bit and the need for good offensive line play (and talent) becomes more critical. Are we sure Jones would be willing to let the pendulum swing that way? Clearly, this shift in philosophy brings a number of questions with it and if it does start to take shape, it won't come easily.

Romo continues to say that his symphony and the symphony of this iteration of the Dallas Cowboys are still being written. For the most part, I believe that he's right. The question is, in these musical scores (no pun intended), does Romo play second fiddle?



Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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