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Moving the Cowboys new offense

Enough Bill Parcells. I’ll now stop being a hypocritical blogger and quit talking about Bill Parcells as I’ve admonished others to do. It’s called listening to your own advice. Besides, I was starting to cross over from reasoned argument into bitterness! Never a good place to be.

So let’s move on and talk about something else – like the offense. More specifically, let’s talk about rookie offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.

It’s hard to know exactly what kind of offense he’ll run, we haven’t even made it to his first training camp yet. But it’s a good bet it will be some variant of the timing offense that was once employed in Dallas under Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese. I call it the timing offense because that was the term used a lot when the Cowboys ran the offense in the 90’s. But it could just as well be called the real West Coast offense.

It all started with Sid Gillman and the San Diego Chargers in the old AFL. Well, I’m sure he borrowed from an earlier coach, but he’s generally credited as the father of this particular offensive philosophy. His disciples were Don Coryell and Ernie Zampese who worked together in San Diego when Coryell assumed the Chargers head coaching position. Zampese then went on to the Rams where he tutored a young WR’s coach in the philosophy, Norv Turner. While Turner was the offensive coordinator in Dallas, followed by Zampese, Jason Garrett was the backup QB and Troy Aikman’s sounding board.

The assumption was that Garrett would lean on the philosophy as the Cowboys offensive coordinator and that appears to be the case. But to make that connection, we need to understand the timing offense. The timing of the offense refers to the precision routes it requires from the receivers, and the timing of a QB’s drop back and the release of the ball. These elements are tightly choreographed and need precision timing to work properly. But the offense itself is more than that, it’s a philosophy that emphasizes two concepts, the vertical passing game and the power running game, and makes a defense choose to defend one or the other. If they bring players up, you carve them up with intermediate and deep patterns. If they fall back to protect deep, you pound the ball behind a big offensive line.

To run it, you need a QB and can drop back in the pocket with good footwork and the ability to throw the deep ball with accuracy and zip. You need receivers who can stretch the field and an offensive line that allows the time for deep passes to unfold and beats down a defense in the running game. To help with the power running game, you want a battering-ram fullback who can also catch the ball.

All of that certainly sounded like what we heard coming out of minicamp. Tony Romo has called the offense a return to the 90’s Cowboys, and has remarked on the need for receivers to run precise routes and for him to be able to count on them being in the right place on every play. Reporters also told us the Cowboys were challenging the secondary vertically a lot more often in the minicamp. They also noted the use of the backs in the passing game and the return to prominence of the fullback position. That certainly sounds like Garrett is running some version of the Norv Turner/Ernie Zampese offense.

But there are some other aspects of the offense, too. Norv Turner added elements of deception in the form of motion and shifting. Joe Gibbs, another disciple of the offense, was a great practitioner of the three wide receiver sets and he also used the two tight end sets for maximum protection. Mike Martz, who learned under Turner, took the offense to the pass-happy extreme with his Rams teams.

Here’s what Dr. Z reported about a conversation he had with a QB who had been in the Cowboys camp with Turner.

Once, in 1993, I talked to a backup Miami quarterback named Hugh Millen, who'd been in the Dallas camp earlier that season.

"I can't believe the things the receivers get away with here," he said, "the sloppy way they run their routes. They'd never get away with it under Norv. If he told them to run their break at seven yards, that was it, not a foot more or less, because that's where the ball was going to be. And if they wouldn't, he'd get somebody who would."

Mike Martz backed that up.

"It's such a timing-oriented system. You want to get the ball downfield, yes, but you want to get it out quickly, and the timing portion is critical. There are no shades of gray. You've got to run in and out of your breaks -- boom, like that -- and you've got to be exactly where you're supposed to be."

Martz also says this about the power running game.

"That's another thing that's critical to the system," Martz says. "Power running. You've got to be able to run the ball when you go to a three-wide receiver set, and you've got to run with power. By that I mean behind zone blocking, which is a big departure from the San Francisco system. Theirs was man-blocking, with a lot of cut-blocks and misdirection. Ours is straight power."

In the beginning of this article I said this offense could be considered the real West Coast offense. But it’s not the same offense that came to be known as the West Coast offense of Bill Walsh fame. Here’s what happened. Bill Walsh went to Cincinnati as an assistant after learning the Sid Gillman offense from another devotee, Al Davis in Oakland. Walsh brought the offense to Cincinnati and it worked wonderfully while they had a strong-armed QB named Greg Cook. But he got hurt, and Walsh had to adapt his offense to a QB who was more quick and agile with a so-so arm. So he developed the short-pass offense that is more horizontally oriented as opposed to the vertical offense it was originally intended to be, all to fit that QB. Otherwise, he would have stuck with the original vertical passing game of the real West Coast offense.

So how did that get to be the West Coast offense?

From Bernie Kosar, when he was a backup quarterback with Dallas in '93. I [Dr. Z.] was doing a piece on the Cowboys. I asked him what the offense was like.

"Oh, you know, the West Coast Offense," he said. "Turner and Zampese and Don Coryell and Sid Gillman. That thing." (Bernie obviously had a good knowledge of NFL history).

I used the quote. It was picked up by a West Coast wire reporter, except that he got it screwed up and he attached it to the San Francisco attack that Bill Walsh had used in San Francisco's Super Bowl run of the '80s. What the hell -- San Diego, L.A., San Francisco -- it's all West Coast, isn't it? And that's where it stuck.

I borrowed liberally from a Dr.Z article and a couple of other articles for this post and make no claims to much original content of my own. But I wanted to gather it together in  one place for you guys to read.

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