Is The Play Calling Really Making A Difference For The Cowboys?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It was one of the media obsessions during the offseason. Jason Garrett gave up the playcalling duties (or had them stripped from him). So what impact did that really have on the Cowboys in the 24-18 pre-season win over the Bengals?

It looks like the move to hand the play sheet over to Bill Callahan has really paid off for the Dallas Cowboys. In the pre-season "dress rehearsal" against the Cincinnati Bengals, one of the stats that really jumps out is the play distribution. The Cowboys ran the ball 43 times, and only passed it 28. Dallas fans have been desperately waiting for that kind of stat line. At long last, the team has an offensive coordinator who knows how to make things happen. Right?

Not so fast, Bubba.

I don't think that is what is going on at all. Oh, I am all in favor of the move to promote Jason Garrett, or kick him upstairs, or put something of his in a lockbox, or whatever ridiculous label people want to put on the move. But those numbers, as welcome as they are, have very little to do with Bill Callahan making the calls. That is not what caused this at all.

Look at the first two series the Cowboys had. Remember those? When the offense was pretty much falling all over itself?

The game started with the Cowboys in a hole, thanks to a holding penalty on the kickoff (the first of several lowlights for the special teams). The offense then opened up with a sack, and punted from the shadows of their own goalposts after a three and out. When the defense had its first chance, they let the Bengals offense march down the field, but pulled out their hole card with a forced fumble at their own four, stopping Cincinnati from getting an early score. Starting from even deeper in their own territory, Dallas almost faced disaster when DeMarco Murray fumbled the ball, but Jermey Parnell saved things by covering it. The Cowboys were able to manage one first down - on a pass interference penalty (although you have to give some credit for that to the respect the defense had to give Dez Bryant). Doug Free then got a false start, the team was unable to get another first down, and that led to the doinked punt and rekick, which was returned for a touchdown.

The playcalling was really working wonders so far, huh? Up to that point, Callahan had called 4 runs and 5 passes, so you can't say he was showing any trends.

Then on the next series, it all changed. Phillip Tanner replaced DeMarco Murray while he took a Jason Garrett time out on the sidelines for fumbling. Tanner came out running hard on three consecutive plays. Then Tony Romo started hooking up, first with Miles Austin, and then five receptions by Bryant, culminating in that lovely back shoulder throw for the touchdown.

And what was the "it" that changed?

Execution. Romo was dead on, the running game was getting some positive yards when it needed to, and the Cowboys marched down the field efficiently. Mike Zimmer's defense had no answer.

It's funny how good execution makes the play calling look so much better.

From there, it was really a strong performance by two of the three units for the Cowboys. (Special teams just never did get much going, and almost gave the Bengals a chance to win on a poorly covered kickoff late in the game.) The defense got two fumbles and two pass interceptions. Romo was crisp for the rest of the game, getting Austin into the touchdown act after the pretty pick by B.W. Webb. Kyle Orton inspired many to give a sigh of relief when he followed up his dismal performance against the Arizona Cardinals with a 4 for 4 drive for a touchdown and a 152.1 passer rating on the small sample size. Quite simply put, after the first few series, the Cowboys outplayed the Bengals on most of the downs. Callahan was able to start dialing up run after run, giving Murray, now out of the doghouse, and Joseph Randle chances to show what they could do. The running game only averaged 3.6 yards a carry, but thanks to having so many attempts, it still put up a very satisfying 154 yards. Largely as a result, Dallas held the ball nearly twice as long as Cincinnati.

Did the playcalling look different than it did last year. Yes, it did. But how many games in 2012 did Jason Garrett have a lead, including a 21-10 margin late in the third quarter, to work with? That was the story in this game. After a shaky start to things, the offense and the defense started making plays. When you are the coordinator, it makes a world of difference when whatever play you do call is correctly and successfully run.

This was all about execution. And to a large part, that is what this season is going to be about. If the Cowboys can make thing work the way they did for most of the Bengals game, this could be a very good year. And if they don't, then the best play selection in the world will not be enough. You have to make the play work on the field. That is the most important part of the job.

Here is the good news: It looks like they have the players to get it done, and depth to keep going as the inevitable attrition sets in. Yes, it was only pre-season. But it is hard to look at how that last game went, and not feel very good about their chances this year.


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