The Jason Garrett Process: Were The Cowboys Listening?

Would Jason Garrett be pleased with his performance in his first full season as head coach?

Jason Garrett has completed his first full season as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys and the team missed the playoffs with a record of 8-8. The outcome will certainly not earn him any bragging rights, but does it mean Jason Garrett failed in his efforts? While Cowboys fans suffered through too many painful defeats this season, was the sting greater than last year because the team so often teased us with first half leads that turned sour? The team clearly needs to improve in many facets of the game. Yet it would seem that there was certainly progress made by the Jason Garrett regime in 2011.

The great draft debate of 2011 yielded what appears to be a prized bull in tackle Tyron Smith. He was easily the best rookie offensive lineman from his draft class and the debate to switch him to left tackle will certainly rage this offseason. DeMarco Murray had a phenomenal rookie season cut short by injury, but the third round pick may turn out to be the best draft-day bargain the Cowboys have had in years...though Sean Lee will be fighting for that title as well. Offseason acquisitions like Laurent Robinson and Tony Fiammetta were also welcomed additions to the offense, while journeyman Frank Walker could help bolster a secondary in desperate need of more talent.

Clearly the Dallas Cowboys came up short this season, and I would imagine it is not only the fans that are disappointed with the results. For over a year now, Jason Garrett has often preached about the process, using each day to be great and to improve from one week to the next. While the team did not follow a clear trend of improvement as the season progressed, the process did lead the team to a fighting chance for the division title. While the ‘Boys let us all down in their final game of the season, having the chance to win that game and earn a playoff spot is surely progress from a year ago. In fact, many critics and plenty of fans never thought the Cowboys would even have a chance at the playoffs let alone the NFC East title. But in the end, it is clear much more work and some new talent is needed for the process to pay off with the ultimate prize during Garrett's reign.

More after the jump...

But again, there were clearly improvements made from last season. As fans, there is not much more we could have asked from this newly (re)assembled team and coaching staff, especially after a lock-out shortened offseason. The Cowboys fought all year and were one game away from becoming the NFC East champs. Plenty of tragic losses mired the Cowboys progress this season, but none stung more than those against division rivals. Any time both the Giants and Eagles sweep the two-game series fans will be furious. Sure, Tony Romo missed the second matchup versus the Eagles, but the first was the worst loss of the season and the Cowboys twice failed to beat New York and place a stranglehold on the division. But does everyone realize these two teams were also the only ones to defeat the Cowboys by a margin greater than a touchdown?

Of the Cowboys eight losses in 2011, five were one possession games that came down to the very end. If the Cowboys had managed to make that one extra first-down on offense, or the defense managed to stop one (of too many) big plays allowed through the air or managed to not let a turnover (like the three against the Giants) slip through their fingers, Dallas would currently be preparing for a playoff game. The same could be said if the special teams had not allowed a blocked punt and field goal at crucial moments in a couple of games. Yes, the season was not a success. But was the first step in Coach Garrett's greater vision realized?

After a shortened offseason to implement his strategy and instill the principles of a new culture at Valley Ranch, Head Coach Jason Garrett seems to have made progress and his process yielded some results, albeit not enough to please most fans. But how would Jason Garrett grade the team's improvement?

One the one hand, his own quote from 2010 when he took over as interim coach would seem to signify some failure. From the first day at the helm, both Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones discussed the need for a culture change within the organization.

"We haven't done things in a way that allows us to win football games," Garrett said. "We need to be more consistent. We need to do the things that contribute to winning."

Jason Garrett began to transform the team immediately, with things as small as installing digital clocks in Valley Ranch to reinforce the need for precision and professionalism, to quicker paced practices with more work in pads. However, the team still lacks consistency, even during the course of a single game much less an entire season, and too often made mental mistakes that did not contribute to winning.

In 2010, the team ranked 27th in penalties (109) and 19th in penalty yards (863). In 2011, the Cowboys ranked 28th in penalties (114) and 12th in penalty yards (816). Coach Garrett often highlighted the importance of poise and confidence and a great deal of work is still needed to ensure a tougher mental fortitude is instilled in the players. Things should improve once the team becomes more familiar with the new defensive schemes and the young offensive-line continues to improve their skills and communication, but most would agree Coach Garrett still has a lot of work to do in this arena.

However, the team did seem to improve in two aspects of football Garrett considered paramount to winning and emphasized in his approach.

First presented by BTB's own OCC...

Excerpt from Garrett's press conference

Q: What are the two or three stats on offense you pay attention to most?

The stats that we emphasize for our football team more than anything else is the turnover differential. The correlation between turnover differential and winning in the NFL is significant. In 2010 it was significant, the last 10 years it's been significant, the last 20 and the last 30. And the players have heard this in meetings over and over and over again.

So turnover differential is significant, and then winning the fourth quarter is significant. There were a lot of games in the NFL that were within one score in the fourth quarter, and the teams that went to the playoffs won a lot of those games. Teams that did not go to the playoffs lost a lot of those games. It's really important to be good in the fourth quarter.

You do that a couple of ways. You have to be in great condition, and you have to be great in situational football. You have to have confidence as an individual player and in your offense, defense and kicking game units.

And then you have to have poise to handle those situations and execute come crunch time. So those are the biggest things we emphasize to our guys.

So how did the Cowboys fair in these emphasized lessons?

For only the third time since 2000, the Dallas Cowboys had a positive turnover differential. However, unlike the previous two instances, the team did not make the playoffs. Last season the Cowboys began with a dreadful turnover ratio but managed to break even by the end of the year. A zero turnover differential would have ranked the Cowboys 17th in the league this season. Instead they were ranked 10th best in the league with a +4 differential which could have easily been better if the Cowboys managed to recover one of the three fumbles that slipped through their hands versus the Giants Week 17.

While the defense actually produced fewer turnovers this season, having forced and recovered 30 in 2010 but only 25 in 2011, the offense greatly reduced their 30 turnovers from 2010 to only 21 in 2011. This is clearly a great improvement by the offense. Perhaps it all comes down to luck, but perhaps Garrett's emphasis was also a reason the offense reduced their turnovers by about 30%.

As for the emphasis of winning in the fourth quarter...the answer may surprise you.

For most of December, NFL analysts harped on the infamous franchise record set by the 2011 Cowboys. In over 50 years of franchise history the Cowboys had lost only 2 games they lead by 12 points in the fourth quarter. In 2011, the team lost three such games. Many would think the Cowboys clearly did not learn the lesson Garrett considered of such import, but in fact, the team improved their fourth-quarter victories in 2011.

Record 4th Qrt Record
2010 W. Phillips 1-7 3-4-1
2010 J. Garrett 5-3 2-3-3
2011 J. Garrett 8-8 8-6-2

In 2010, while led by Wade Phillips, the Cowboys actually lost three games in which they won (outscored their opponents) in the fourth quarter. Their only victory was actually when they tied their opponent in fourth-quarter points. It seems strange until you recall how the team was blown out early in many games and the fourth-quarter points were actually meaningless in what many would call "garbage time." On the other hand, the 2010 Cowboys under Garrett managed to win a few games with early leads though they "lost" the fourth-quarter. The 2010 season continues to boggle the mind, though I will officially lay it to rest after this post.

The 2011 outcomes seem much more rational. Only once did the Cowboys lose a game in which they won the fourth-quarter. Now, this is a strange stat and certainly not to be taken out of context. Obviously, a team that leads by a large margin prior to the fourth-quarter often takes the foot off the pedal when on offense, instead trying to run out the clock. The fact that the Cowboys were in so many close games in 2011 is likely the reason the fourth-quarter victories and actual season record are so similar. However, the lesson is an important one for a team. The game is not over until the final whistle, and the team that remains dominant in the fourth quarter will likely be the victor. While the Cowboys defense is in need of some more lessons in this facet of the game, they should also continue to improve as they become more comfortable with Rob Ryan's schemes and improve their communication when faced by hurry-up offenses. Certainly a full offseason to reap the rewards of the work with renowned strength & conditioning coach Mike Woicik will also be a great benefit. However, it is clear the team did improve in this aspect of the game from 2010 despite the infamous franchise record for those three losses with double-digit fourth-quarter leads.

There is obviously more to discuss when attempting to grade Jason Garrett's performance as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but it does seem that the team improved in the aspects of the game he emphasized this season. It is also clear the work is far from over...but that is all part of the process.

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