Just over two years ago, I published my first big fanpost about Jason Garrett's offensive system. Quite a bit of time has passed, the defense has changed and changed again, and yet Garrett's system still remains.
In discussing the team, the defensive discussions typically center around what the team will be doing. On the offensive side, however, the discussions jump straight to what we need to do better. There's an ongoing assumption that, after so many years with Garrett running the offense, we simply 'know' what kind of scheme he runs. But do we?
Quick, describe the Cowboys' offense. What type of system is it? What's the underlying philosophy?
If you were unable to answer those questions seriously ('one that can't score in the red zone' and 'rack up yards, not touchdowns' aren't serious answers), you've fallen victim to the trap of superficiality that plagues the national sports media.
Among former players and vetted 'experts,' and even the experienced fan, the notion is generally that having seen something with frequency leads to a natural understanding. I believe that this belief does nothing but hinder comprehension.
It also isn't a matter of being able to freeze-frame a play and circle a player making a mistake. What we're lacking is a big-picture understanding, even a generic one, of what Jason Garrett is trying to accomplish when his team has the football, and how he intends to do that. It really isn't something you can you can see at all.
I'm not planning to restate my entire two-year-old fanpost here; if you'd like to read it, please go ahead (I would also encourage you to read the comments, in order for you to see where I was mistaken!), as it contains a position-by-position breakdown of Garrett's offense.
I, and others, refer to Jason Garrett's offense as 'Air Garrett.' The reference isn't to Michael Jordan, but rather to the Don Coryell. The 'Air Coryell' offense, also known as the 'West Coast Offense' (before the Walsh system took over the moniker due to some faulty national sports-media reporting), was famous for powering an impressive deep-passing game in San Diego, and also helping Norv Turner engineer a Super Bowl capable team in Dallas. Yes, Norv Turner's system is one of the surviving direct descendants of the Coryell offense. Another, more common term for the system, is the Vertical offense.
Jason Garrett's system also hails from the Coryell tree, likely due to Garrett's fixation on the Cowboys teams he was a part of. But what exactly is the Coryell offense?
If you're looking through play diagrams, the first thing you'll notice about the Coryell system is that the receivers' routes are numbered. When you hear a reporter throwing around terms like '9 route' (which is a 'streak' or 'fly' route in the common vernacular), they're talking about the Coryell system's designation for the route.
What a play diagram won't show you, however, is why the routes are drawn up the way they are. Every offense in football is designed to put points on the board, but how they intend to achieve that is where the interesting differences lie.
The key components of a Coryell system are big outside receivers, an up-the-middle-capable running back, and a stout offensive line.
The receivers are always wanted to be taller than the corners covering them, which makes them bigger threats stretching the defense vertically. They're supposed to be the types that demand safety help over the top. Norv Turner's previous stable of monsters, headlined by Vincent Jackson, was exemplary of this. Of course, 6'5 receivers don't grow on trees (most of those who qualify are in the NBA), so what Dallas has in Miles Austin and Dez Bryant is really the prototype for the position.
The running back is always wanted to be the Emmitt Smith or LaDainian Tomlinson type who can pound the ball up the middle and take it to the house. When that fails, though (which is true for most teams in the league), Coryell offenses prefer the 4-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust-type backs more than the flashy speedster who needs the edge to get anything done.
The line is, of course, the key. And it's something we've really been needing to fix. In the past, Coryell systems have preferred maulers along the line. They need to hold up in pass protection for those deep threat receivers to get a chance, and they also need to make some space for the up-the-gut running style the team hopes to employ.
I didn't list the tight end as a necessity, but this system makes stars out of good tight ends, and that's where the philosophy really comes to light.
I already discussed the receivers we want; now we're talking about why we want them. The first step in designing a Coryell offense is sending the receivers deep to draw the safeties and corners backward. This, in turn, stretches out linebackers' zones. In man coverage situations, it creates great matchups for the receivers and tremendous opportunities to open things up for the running game. The point is to use two players on offense to force four defenders deep. The receivers become targets only when the defense refuses to overcommit to coverage and leaves them in mismatch situations. Yes, I know that Dez Bryant can probably make a play jumping over a safety and corner, but, no, I do not think that we should make that the staple of our offense.
With the safeties deep, the linebackers now have to play with an added depth to their game. Their 'sideline-to-sideline' mantra must be expanded to account for things happening behind them, and that's something that many linebackers have trouble dealing with. This is where the running game comes into play. The linebackers have been removed from their comfort zone and are potentially surrendering momentum by backpedalling at the snap. The powerful offensive line should be able to get into position on the second level quickly, and Emmitt, LT, or our own DeMarco Murray should have no problem running through a spaced out, tentative second level and secondary.
Of course, the defense realizes this, and will want to shut down the running game. Whether or not you agree, many coaches in the league believe that stopping the run is a very important task for the defense. No one wants to surrender chunks of yardage up the middle. So the linebackers are encouraged to get after the line of scrimmage, maintain forward momentum, and stop the ballcarrier in his tracks.
That's how this scheme makes stars out of tight ends. If you were to poll defensive coordinators and ask them what they hate most in football, I'm fairly certain you'd see 'deep pass plays' and 'big runs up the middle' right at the top. They commit their safeties to stopping the deep pass plays, and their linebackers to stopping the run, but no one worries about the tight end. You won't see a 7-yard pass to Witten on SportsCenter, will you? I won't argue chicken-or-egg here with Witten and the Coryell scheme, but I think it suffices to say that the scheme creates opportunities for Witten and Witten, in turn, capitalizes on those opportunities.
That's the essence of Coryell's system, and, in turn, Jason Garrett's. It's a fairly simple concept once you get the hang of it. You use the threat of the deep ball and the threat of the interior running game to force the concession of the intermediate passing game. For threats to work, they must be respected. Dez and Miles are not decoys; they will be thrown to when open. Dez' production last season speaks to that. The run, as well, will be utilized when the opportunities are presented (note Romo's frequent use of the 'kill' call, to switch to the play the defense appears to be most vulnerable to). The vertical attack stretches the defense vertically. Much like the spread offense chooses to spread the defense (horizontally).
And no, this doesn't mean we need to force shots downfield more frequently, in order to 'force' the defense to commit. You don't need to prove to anyone during the game that Dez Bryant is dangerous deep. Other teams have scouts, and are well aware of this. Even if all 60 minutes are spent throwing 5-yard outs to Witten, it isn't direct evidence of the system being abandoned. If that's what the defense chooses to allow down after down, then so be it. We'll take it. Witten isn't the first read (the deep receivers are), so he isn't technically the first option, but the nature of the defense allows him to be among the most productive.
Jason Garrett does have his own wrinkles in this system. He seems a bit more creative in his formations and passing routes (option routes) than the original Coryell scheme, but the basis remains the same. The next time you see the Cowboys play, watch for those details. Look at how the team shows the threat of the deep ball and how the defense reacts to it. Look at the linebacker play as the safeties are forced to back off. You might find a whole new appreciation for an offense that, in many eyes, has stagnated.