The 2012 NFL season left Cowboys fans with plenty of questions about the future of the franchise, and based on the actions of the front office, the team has identified the same issues. Unlike the fans; however, the Jones family and Jason Garrett are in a position to address those concerns, and they have attempted to do so on both sides of the ball. Today, I want to take a look at the changes that were made on the offensive side, and why the team is on the right track to resolve the issues that have plagued the offense recently. While only time will tell if they took the proper steps to return the Cowboys to dominance, each off season move is a logical choice to help make the team better.
For starters, for the first time since Jason Garrett took over the Dallas offense in 2007, someone else will be accountable for running the show. While the Cowboys will still be running the Air Garrett offense that Coty detailed for us recently, Bill Callahan will be responsible for the in-game management. This will allow for the scheme to be directed by a coach who is free of distractions from his play calling responsibilities due to his obligations to the rest of the squad. Jason Garrett will now be freed to focus on game management and overseeing the entire team, rather than being forced to neglect one task to deal with another. In addition to easing the burden on the play caller during each offensive possession, it will also help facilitate in game adjustments, which is another area where Dallas has struggled recently. A final advantage to Callahan taking control of the offense is that he will be working from the booth on game days. This insures that there will not be a breakdown due to what the coaches in the booth being miscommunication to the play caller down on the sidelines. All told, Bill Callahan becoming offensive coordinator in more than name only should be the single biggest improvement of the off season for the Dallas Cowboys.
Moving on from the change at the top of the offensive hierarchy, the Cowboys attempted to address three key on the field issues this off season. The offensive line, a dismal performance in the running game, and a failure to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns were all addressed by the front office. Changes were made to address each issue, and those moves involved making adjustments among both coaching and player personnel. Although the three key issues are interrelated, each was addresses separately and that is how we will take a look at them.
Improving the Offensive Line
On the sidelines the Cowboys brought in Frank Pollack to be the assistant offensive line coach. In addition to his work coaching offensive linemen in both Oakland and Houston, Coach Pollack also brings seven years of experience as a NFL lineman. During his playing career, Frank played both tackle and guard for the San Francisco 49ers. As the assistant offensive line coach in Houston, Pollack helped put together one of the best lines in the league, especially when it comes to run blocking. His linemen rarely suffered breakdowns in their fundamentals, and they excelled in getting to the second level. Although his official title is assistant offensive line coach, look for the majority of the the coaching duties to be handled by Pollack this season as Coach Callahan moves into his role as offensive coordinator.
To go along with the coaching change, the Cowboys spent their first round draft pick on Wisconsin center Travis Frederick. This is the second lineman the team has taken in the first round during the Garrett era. Although there will be struggles as Frederick adapts to the pro game, the result will be an immediate upgrade in the middle. In addition to the draft pick, off season work with 2012 UDFA guard Ron Leary seems to have produced another player who is expected to contend for, and likely win, a starting slot inside. If OTAs are any indication, 2011 fourth round draft pick David Arkin has also made significant improvements, and he appears to have at least moved himself into the second team role at right guard. One common trait all three of these players share is that they demonstrated a mean streak as college linemen, a tendency which has seemed lacking among Cowboys linemen in recent years.
Stepping Up the Running Game
Due to the lack of a ground attack in recent years, Gary Brown was brought in to replace Skip Peete as the Dallas running backs coach. Brown spent the past five seasons in the same role with the Cleveland Browns, where he developed Peyton Hillis into a Pro Bowler and coached rookie Trent Richardson to a 950 yard, 11 TD season. In addition to his coaching background, Gary also brings eight seasons of experience as a NFL running back with the Texans and Giants to the table.
On the field, Dallas added John Randle to its stable of running backs during the 2013 draft. They then turned around and signed Kendial Lawrence as an UDFA. Not to be out done, returning back up runners Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar have stepped up their games. Both men have transformed themselves physically and reports from this summer's OTAs have been highly positive for both backs. All three of these runners will be competing for playing time behind DeMarco Murray who will remain the Cowboys feature back. All in all, Coach Brown will have a strong stable of runners to work with when the team opens camp in Oxnard.
Punching the Ball Across the Goal Line
While improving the play of the offensive line and running backs will have an impact on how the Cowboys operate inside the red zone; Dallas will also be running the "Heavy 12" set in those situations. Second round draft pick Gavin Escobar will give Tony Romo a large lumbering target in short field situations. In addition to his skill as a pass catcher, Dallas has reassigned former assistant offensive line coach Wes Phillips to a position as tight ends coach. His primary responsibility will be to develop the blocking skills that will make Escobar a weapon in support of the running game in addition to the threat that he offers as a pass catcher. As his blocking improves throughout the season, the Dallas red zone offense should become more efficient, and we should see Dan Bailey kicking more PATs and less field goals.
The off season changes that were made in Dallas were intended to address the key issues facing the Cowboys. Far from being an attempt at the emasculation of the head coach, each move was a well thought out answer to a situation that the team, and its fans, found unacceptable. As each change takes its full effect, we can expect to see the Air Garrett offense to return to its place as one of the top units in the league. Although I do not expect miracles starting in game one, I look for the whole process to come together over the course of a 16 week season. By the time all is said and done, Tony Romo and the Dallas offense will be poised for a playoff run.
What are your expectations, BtB?