The Dallas Cowboys need to improve on many offensive fronts, that much is clear. But they are missing a critical component of successful offensive football, which must be the basis for all changes going forward.
In the coming paragraphs I will outline the specific changes that must take place, but first it is imperative to comprehend this central, missing component and how it organizes everything that follows.
Establishing dominance and asserting the team’s will upon the opposition is something all of us can agree permeates winning football, such as that displayed by the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers. There are many other teams I could highlight, but I want to use these examples because they are radically different offensive schemes. San Francisco will physically dominate you at the line of scrimmage. They will pound the rock in such a way that it inflicts pain and suffering upon the opposition. They do more than that, but their physicality is at the heart of their dominance.
Denver will run the opposition into the ground with a hurry-up/spread offense that derails a defense’s best intentions, allows few substitutions, and scores at an alarming rate.
These teams never, ever talk about just "taking what the defense gives them", nor do they make excuses about their failure to run their scheme because of double coverage or blitzes.
You cannot establish dominance over another team by letting them dictate what receivers you can throw to and what plays you can run. As soon as you do that, you have allowed them to establish dominance and the only win you can hope for is a lucky one that your QB engineers on a final drive against all odds. That isn’t championship ball.
Dominance is a primal thing. All animals fight for dominance at some point. Once it's established it is very difficult to reset. When Eli came in and beat Dallas in the first game at Cowboys Stadium and then signed the locker room wall, he established dominance. He was another animal marking his turf. New York won four times in a row in the Cowboys home before finally dropping a game. It took a monumentally terrible effort by his entire team to lose that dominance. And Eli still passed for 450 yards and four TDs.
The reason establishing dominance is so critical is that it effects the psyche of the entire opposing team and suppresses their belief and their will to fight.
Jason Garrett is a nice, intelligent, thoughtful guy, but he is not a dominant personality. His offensive scheme has never dominated when it really counted. Nor does he really understand how to get his team to establish dominance.
Tony Romo has similar qualities to Garret. Plenty of positives and very competitive by nature. But in this scheme, he is not dominant and doesn’t scare anyone.
Now that we have identified the central, critical component that is missing: dominance, let’s look at how this needs to be established and what specific adjustments are required.
Dominance comes from clarity about how you are going to impose your will. None of this amorphous, generic, shifting scheme that is one thing in one game and another in another game. Yes, game plans change, but there must be a strong, unifying set of goals and characteristics that are unwavering.
Dallas is ranked 28th in rushing, so it’s clear they are a passing team that will only go as far as Romo’s passes can take them. Right now they are ranked 13 in the league in passing yards and Romo is ranked third in passing touchdowns. Which sounds great, but he’s twelve TDs behind Manning and he has a dreadful defense that he can’t count on for anything.
So logic tells us that he will need to have Manning-like production the rest of the year for Dallas to win its division and possibly win a playoff game. Which means that Dallas must quickly establish a Manning-like dominance with their offense.
Keys to Becoming a Dominant Passing Offense
1) Motion the heck out of the defense. If you imagine a dial that controls the amount of legal motion that a team does pre-snap, Dallas might have it set on 3. They need to turn it up to 11. This is one way to establish dominance pre-snap. You force the defense to respond to you, rather than abandoning plays based on their alignment, which is allowing them to dominate you before the ball is snapped. This also allows you to get the ball to who you need to, rather than going a whole game with just two passes to your best player. Bryant should appear in the slot, out wide, in the backfield—everywhere and he should be motioned on every play. But not just Bryant. Dallas must move other players around more as well. This can’t be just one or two plays to appease the media and Jerry, who listens to the media. This must be a sincere commitment to confusing the opposing defenses. The playbook needs to look substantially different by the end of this week. No excuses.
2) Run from the spread. Dallas doesn’t have the personnel this year to pound the rock from traditional formations against most teams (except the Rams who helped out considerably with six man fronts). The Cowboys must look to the Broncos and the Patriots for inspiration. Both teams run effectively by spreading the defense out and letting their backs find cut-back lanes. Running is still critical to being an effective passing offense and there is no excuse for failing to make this an effective part of the mix.
3) Commit to going deep. The only aspect of the Giants offense I ever admired was their insistence upon throwing it deep, even when their offensive line was mediocre. This is about imposing their will. Without those deep balls to receivers who went up and fought for them, New York wouldn’t have two Lombardi trophies in six years. And the same goes for Joe Flacco and the Ravens last year. Deep balls that aren’t caught often result in pass interference penalties, which work just as well. Dallas has got to take far more deep shots. It’s idiotic that they haven’t fixed this yet, but it needs to change immediately. They don’t need to make it a purely vertical attack, but they need to go deep far more often. They are making things too easy for opposing defenses. To voluntarily limit your deep passes is tantamount to saying "no thanks" to quick-strike scoring drives. It is irresponsible and unforgivable coming from one of the greatest sports franchises on the planet.
4) Use more Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley. There is a reason Harris is such a dangerous kick returner. He is quick, fearless and has great open field moves and instincts. You find a way to get a guy like that the ball in space. Same with Beasley. Both of these players will benefit from more motion and more creativity in alignments. No excuses just get it done.
5) Create new plays. Self-scout during the bye, throw out the crap, but more importantly—understand why the stuff that works is effective. Is it because of the formation, is it because the line can block it better? Now create more plays that take advantage of whatever that element is that is so favorable. But create several new plays whatever you do. With three more games against NFC East opponents, it's critical that Dallas comes up with new plays that look like old plays, so that the defense will respond incorrectly. Garrett must use his past predictability against his division foes.
6) Be aggressive and unpredictable. There is a good chance Garrett will be let go at the end of this year because he didn’t innovate enough. Garrett’s scheme and his tendencies are very well studied in the NFL. The hope was that, with Callahan calling plays, the tendencies would change and make it harder to defend. But Callahan’s tendencies have been to dink and dunk more and forget about the deep ball. That doesn’t help the offense. Had they changed to a more aggressive and unpredictable play-caller, they might be second in the NFL in passing and points with an 8-2 record. It isn't too late, but they must be more aggressive and less predictable for the remainder of the season.
7) Understand and employ the right mix of plays. New Orleans just put on another clinic for Garrett and Callahan about how to mix short passes to backs with deep passes to receivers. Two years in a row Dallas coaches have been schooled, yet they aren’t learning the lessons. Garrett should make this sign and post it in his office: "My Boss Would Trade Me for Sean Payton in a Heartbeat If He Could –Maybe I Should Swallow My Pride and Copy What Payton Does". Yes, I admit, it’s a big sign, but no one pulls a defense in more directions and keeps his QB in rhythm better than Payton. If I were Garrett I would steal everything I could from that man. You can't argue with his results.
When Dallas plays New York on November 24, it will be clear if Garrett and Callahan have made the necessary changes to save their own jobs while saving the Dallas Cowboys’ season. If they can’t get that done with the talent on this roster, then they really don’t deserve another shot.