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Film Study: Dallas Cowboys offense with Brad Johnson

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(Opening disclaimer: While this article breaks down the fallacies of Brad Johnson's game against the Buccaneers and questions his ability, in no way do I believe the Cowboys should start Brooks Bollinger. I would rather play with the quarterback I know than throw an untested guy out there where its unknown what will happen. We may not make more the five first downs, but I have more confidence in Brad Johnson making less mistakes than I do Bollinger and that is what is more important.)

The Dallas Cowboys had a huge win last week against the Bucs thanks to a defense that finally played up to its potential. Yet much of the focus this week has been on the inefficient play of the offense the past few games with Brad Johnson playing in Tony Romo's place. Heading into the game against the Rams, a lot of the consensus was that while Johnson certainly wouldn't stretch the field like Romo he wouldn't make any poor decisions and lose the game for them either. A few bad plays quickly turned the game upside down against the Cowboys and the offense found themselves 14 points behind after the first quarter. The issue with this was that with Brad Johnson the team just didn't have the firepower to overcome a deficit like that and Johnson started to force some throws he normally wouldn't attempt. Against the Buccaneers Johnson went the safe route and although he didn't commit a turnover, the offense was so ineffective and anemic that it caused flashbacks to the days of Chad Hutchinson and Ryan Leaf.

So the question here is why exactly is the offense so different with Brad Johnson? The obvious answer is that Romo is one of the top 5 quarterbacks in the league and anyone else playing would be a step down. Yet it has seemed everyone has been caught off guard by the pallid results by the offense. I set out to study just what has made such a drastic drop off with the offense between Romo and Johnson, doing my best to ignore the quarterback and see what the rest of the offense was doing. To do this I studied every single offensive snap from the game against the Eagles and compared it too all of the snaps against the Buccaneers. When I started to really study our offensive schemes between the two games I was surprised by what I saw.

The first thing that became apparent is that my original goal of ignoring the differences between the two quarterbacks would be impossible to accomplish. When watching Brad Johnson play in the same offense you really appreciate all of the subtle things Romo does so well that makes the offense successful. Not once did I ever see Brad Johnson step up into the pocket in order to give himself time and space to make a throw downfield. Too many time he would actually back himself even farther back from the rush which would cause his hurried pass to be grossly inaccurate. I also don't think that there is a big issue with the strength of Johnson's arm; what is questionable he his painfully slow release and impatience with the routes. These problems didn't just manifest themselves overnight though, most have known what his weaknesses are and you know the coaches do as well. So one would think that the offensive scheme and gameplan would be changed to play to Johnson's strengths, right? Unfortunately that wasn't the case.

Jason Garrett's offensive scheme is described as a "Vertical, aggressive passing attack", and that scheme didn't change one bit against the Buccaneers. What was changed was the complexity of the playcalling; you didn't see any end-arounds, fake reverses or those playaction-fake pass-run plays that Romo and Barber were running earlier in the season. You also didn't see a lot of traditional playaction either. While the Cowboys would put a receiver in motion, it wasn't often and that receiver was rarely utilized.

What you did see on passing plays was every single receiver running vertically down the field right off the snap of the ball. Garrett's passing scheme is based on stretching the defense vertically with the receiver breaking off their routes in different levels of the defense. What I did not see once was a quick slant, short crossing route wide receiver screen or anything else that would test the interior of a defense horizontally across the middle. Even with Brad Johnson at quarterback the Cowboys employed that same routes, with receivers high-tailing it down the field at least ten yards, with a back or tight end staying short for the check down. It's not a flawed offensive system, the problem is that you have to have the right quarterback to run it.

Tony Romo is tailormade for Jason Garrett's offense. To be successful in the vertical passing attack you need a quarterback who is able to scan the field and progress through his reads exceptionally fast. When you have receivers stretching vertically the quarterback needs to decipher immediately which receiver will be getting open behind the defense, whether it's the linebackers or the secondary. To do this the quarterback also has to be deadly accurate with a strong arm. Many times the window for these throws is open for just a split second and chances are the quarterback is throwing the ball in anticipation of that window opening. It's a timing based, aggressive scheme and it fits Romo perfectly when you also throw in his ability to avoid the pass rush whether it's an outright scramble or a subtle move up in the pocket to avoid an outside rusher.

So what happens when you insert a quarterback that isn't built for the offense? Well you simplify it, just as the Cowboys did. You give Johnson a quick read downfield and then an underneath checkdown sitting under the defense. It's not a bad plan; if the defense is taking away the vertical passes then there should be some room to pass it underneath. The inherent issue with this new plan was that Tampa Bay's defense is incredible fast to the ball and Brad Johnson's slow release telegraphs where he's about to go. This allowed the Bucs to swarm to receivers as they were catching passes short and once Johnson proved he couldn't exploit the defense deep they just started sitting on the short routes. The biggest issue is that when Brad Johnson did have short route open or a receiver crossing in front, he wasn't able to accurately pass him the ball.

The most frustrating part of all this is that the receivers, especially Terrell Owens, were getting open. Owens is a saint to be able to hold his tongue and not go off about the inability of Johnson to get him the ball. This was different than when he was being beat with press coverage and wasn't open for Romo; he was open at least 5 times behind defenders with plenty of room to run. Brad Johnson either flat out missed him or chose to dump it short. So now you have a quarterback that can't hit the vertical receivers and is missing his throws short. Watching the game against the Bucs it seemed as if Johnson just wasn't confident in his ability to throw deep and wanted to play it safe, which was fine: the Cowboys won the game and didn't commit a turnover. But the same philosophy will not work against the Giants; they are just too good a football team to not try and take shots downfield.

So what do the Cowboys do with a quarterback who can't successfully run an offense that has been implemented since training camp? You can't flat out change all the plays, it's too complicated. Yet you would think temporarily adjusting routes wouldn't be too hard for an NFL team to do. And I've seen those short crossing routes before under Jason Garrett so at least he knows they exist. The Cowboys will be facing a Giants team that will be coming hard, from all angles every single play. If Johnson isn't able to make them pay for that it will turn into a very long day for the offense. Common sense says a quick slant or short cross into the void of the blitz would work, but the Cowboys have yet to show they have that in the playbook with Brad Johnson at the helm. Perhaps Garrett oversimplified the offense and realizes he needs to throw some gimmicks back into the mix in order to keep the Giants defense on their toes. One thing if for sure though: an ineffective and vanilla offense with an immobile quarterback will not have any success against the New York.

Looking at the offense, it's easy to say the quick fix is this: tell Johnson he is allowed to move in the pocket a bit, send Owens or Williams across the middle every now and then don't become a predictable offense. Yet for that to work, you need the offensive line to play better, for Marion Barber to hit the hole faster and for Jason Garrett to not be too stubborn. The Cowboys are an aggressive offense, but are making conservative decisions with Johnson. Perhaps it's time to take some chances, because if the Cowboys want to have a chance on Sunday something is going to have to change.