In recent history, Cowboys fans have experienced a start like last Sunday's at least once before - the humiliating loss to the Eagles comes to mind. Many of us were likely resigned that the Giants' game would be a here-we-go-again affair. But, no, after a thrilling 24-point rally, the game transitioned from a nightmare to a potential dream scenario right before our eyes.
But what happened to the Cowboys' offense between the first four turnovers and the rest of the game? The offense made a very tangible shift. As many have called for - it simplified.
Now, let's take a step back for a moment and evaluate the Cowboys' offensive philosophy. We've witnessed a number of turnovers as a result of miscommunications between Tony Romo and his receivers. This is the first full offseason we've had with the current coaching staff, so why is it now that we seem so mentally unprepared?
The defense, as has been discussed repeatedly, suffered last year because they were attempting to implement a complex system without proper time to learn it. Knowing how each player on the field needs to adjust simultaneously to the offense's movements was critical for maintaining gap integrity and minimizing space between zones on defense. Rob Ryan recklessly implemented his entire defense without a proper offseason, and the result was an asynchronous mess - occasionally successful through blind luck, but all too often out of position on key plays.
Little attention has been paid to the implementation of Jason Garrett's offense, however. It's said that, since he's been the offensive coordinator for so long, he must have already schooled the team fully on the intricacies of his system. Forgotten, it seems, is the complete lack of mental focus, on a team-wide level, under Wade Phillips, couple with Phillips' veto power over Garrett's playcalls (he has claimed to have changed Garrett's more aggressive play calls to conservative running plays when he felt appropriate). Essentially, Garrett implementing his complete offense with Wade Phillips as head coach would be about as feasible as running the Harvard (Princeton?) Business curriculum in a junior high school.
The Cowboys' offense is among the most complex in the league. In its full form, every receiver is expected to read the defense and adjust the route accordingly - sight adjustments - as well as adjust based on the signals from the quarterback. The benefit of such a system is having the optimal play called for the defense's alignment. The shortcoming is that, when the adjustment is missed by one party or another, the results are disastrous. Think for a moment about, for example, your high school football team's offense. If the play called for you, as a receiver, to run an out route, you would run the out route, even if the corner had outside leverage and the chance for a completion was near 0%. These wasted routes are what Garrett tries to eliminate by asking every receiver to adjust pre-snap, and on the fly. A delayed blitz came? Someone has to break off his route. The safety shifted over? That fly becomes a post. The linebacker's in man- coverage? That inside hook becomes a cross down the width of the field. Apply this across 5 possible receivers, and consider the limitless permutations of 11 defenders, and you can start to understand the complexity of the Garrett system.
The clear benefit of such a system is that, when properly executed (including pass protection holding up), it is essentially unstoppable. At least one player will be open on every play as a result of pre- and post-snap adjustments. Why would we give up on this goal - efficient offensive nirvana? It simply wasn't working. And four turnovers into the first half, it was clear that something needed to change.
The first half target splits show a commitment to hitting the open receiver based on the coverage, including taking checkdowns when appropriate. The spread is fairly NFL-standard, with the TEs and HBs existing as last resorts, safety valves, and the primary focus being on the top two receivers. It simply wasn't working, though, and the interceptions and incompletions show that. If Dez Bryant could effectively run this offense, he might be the most effective receiver in the game. The problem is he can't. Even if he made progress in route-running, making sharper cuts and attacking the ball, it won't help him to make the proper adjustments. Chad Johnson was at one time the premiere route-runner in the league - however, once Ochocinco made it into the Patriots' complex sight-adjustment system he seemed lost and utterly ineffective. Sure, he can run all the routes, but he can't figure out which routes to run, and that's where Dez is also having problems. Not for nothing, Ogletree has similar struggles.
If you think back to last year, Patrick Peterson was quoted as saying Dez "only has three routes." This may have been reasonably true, and Dez' production was still very good. The reliance on him to do something much more complex may actually hinder his ability to simply perform as he's done the past two years. This isn't a third-year regression, it's an in-house Roy Williams trade. If you recall, Roy Williams was never a great receiver, but he went from productive in Detroit's simple system to ineffective in Dallas' more complex gameplan. And so, as Dez is asked to make more mental checks, it may seem like he's mentally regressed when, in truth, his mind wasn't a part of his game in the past.
In a simple system, Dez would never be as successful as a more physically gifted receiver like Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald. But in Garrett's offense, his ceiling explodes well beyond his physical limitations; that happens when you're always running an advantageous route.
Now, I told you that after the fourth turnover the Cowboys' offense changed. Here're the numbers:
The only interception thrown wasn't targeted to a receiver (that desperation heave up the sideline). What changed in the target distribution? Trust. We phased out portions of the game that were reliant on trusting receivers to make proper adjustments. We ran a simplified offense for everyone other than Witten and Austin. A look at Dez' targets show that he was targeted on flies, curls and a single out route. Ogletree was also targeted only on flies and curls. Austin and Witten, however, covered the entire route tree.
Given the success of the "simple" system with our personnel, it will be interesting to see whether or not we maintain that simplicity going into the Falcons' system. I have no doubt Garrett can run an offense in which Dez doesn't have any option routes - he's done it the past two years - but, at the same time, I'm incredibly excited to see Dez perform once he fully grasps the system.
What do you think, BTB? Should the Cowboys keep the simplified offense for the rest of the season? Should they slowly transition back to the complex system? Or should they immediately resume the plan they've been running, and only simplify when they're down 23 points in the second quarter?
Something changed with Garrett last Sunday. Something had to give, and it gave. The only remaining thing is to see what approach we take against the Falcons tomorrow night.