In recent seasons (i.e., 2011 and '12), fans have bemoaned the fact that Jason Garrett is not aggressive enough, claiming that he "coaches scared." As exhibit A in support of this claim, they turn to the famed "icing the kicker" game, at Arizona in early December of 2011. The Cowboys and Cardinals, you may recall, were tied at 13-13, and Dallas was driving towards a winning score. On third and eleven, Tony Romo, despite being under tremendous pressure, found Dez Bryant for a fifteen yard gain and a first down with 35 seconds left on the clock...and then proceeded to allow it to dribble town to eleven seconds before spiking the ball. How, fans asked incredulously, could they not try to get closer? To take a shot at the end zone?
In February, Johnathan Bales penned a piece in which he aligned himself with such fans, calling for Garrett to be more aggressive. Turning to the stats, Bales wrote:
According to the numbers, Garrett forfeited 0.74 wins in 2011 due to poor decision-making on fourth down–the seventh-worst mark in the league....On top of that, the Cowboys had only 36 fourth downs all year when they "should have" gone for it, making the win probability Garrett forfeited per opportunity (.021) the second-worst mark in the NFL.
Garrett's 2011 aggressiveness numbers don't look so hot - and he appeared even more timid in 2012. The fine gents at Football Outsiders have just released the 2012 version of a handy little stat that they call the Aggressiveness Index. Essentially, this measures how often a team goes for a first down in various fourth down situations, compared to the league average in those situations. The F.O. boys first introduced the stat in 2006, have tracked it in the intervening seasons, and have even gone back to 1991 to compile a list of the most aggressive coaches of the last 30 years (want a surprise? Number ten on that list is "Mr. 5-11" himself, Dave Campo).
In 2011, for example, Garrett had 46 opportunities to "go for it" and did so on only three occasions (for a paltry a 6.5% clip), giving him an "AI" of .816 (the NFL average is represented by 1.0. A coach over 1.0 is more aggressive, and a coach under 1.0 is less aggressive), good (or bad) enough to place him 25th among the 35 men who donned the head coach's headset during the 2011 campaign. In 2012, it was worse. Garrett went for it on 4 of 88 opportunities (a 4.5% rate), giving him an aggressiveness index of .69, which ranks him 29th among 34 candidates.
So, the takeaway here should be that the Cowboys have a fieldmouse for a head coach, yes?
Not so fast. In eight games as head coach in 2010, Garrett went for it on 7 of 25 total opportunities, for a much more impressive 1.13 AI, good enough to tie him for sixth (with the Saints' Sean Payton) league-wide. And that, you'll remember, was all with backup signal caller Jon Kitna. Why, was Garrett so much more aggressive in 2010? Did he feel like, since the team was 1-7 when he took over, he had more license to throw caution to the wind? Did he trust Kitna more than he does Romo?
More importantly, what changed between 2010 and '11? Simple: right before 2011 training camp began, the Cowboys parted ways with the bulk of their veteran offensive linemen. Stout but aged warriors Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode were shown the door, and were replaced by younger (and weaker) entities, who were much more likely to get pushed around by opposing D-linemen. We saw this most memorably against New England's Vince Wilfork, but they struggled all season, especially against the larger linemen that populate three man fronts.
One of those defenses belonged to the Cardinals. When Garrett allowed the clock to tick down in that fateful Arizona game, I thought it was the right call: the Dallas O-line had been getting manhandled for the better part of the afternoon, and it was only through some Romo sleight of hand (and a spectacular catch by Bryant) that they got into field goal range at all. As a result, I felt strongly that the likelihood of a loss of yardage due to a sack or a holding penalty were at at least equal (and probably greater) than any potential gain. Might Garrett have been more aggressive? Sure, if he had a better offensive line - one he could trust.
In 2010, I maintain, he trusted his cagey old vets (rightly or wrongly; one of the reasons the team cut them loose was their inability to secure the necessary space on short-yardage plays). In the past two seasons, he hasn't, but that doesn't mean he's constitutionally incapable of doing so; rather, it means that, once the offensive line plays well enough to regain his trust, he'll become as aggressive as he was in 2010. And perhaps moreso.
Since analytics show that aggressive decision-making during in-game situations strongly correlates to winning, this can only be a good thing...
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