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Cowboys Notes: Thinking Out Loud Tuesday

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Some assorted notes and conversation starters for this short week:

Got to be Good Coaching Cause He's So Hard to See

I'm surprised that in the inevitable December, Wade-on-a-hot-seat churn that nobody has recalled that the Colts Jim Caldwell, he of the 13-0 start, was one of Jerry's interviewees back in the spring of 2007.  Caldwell was the last of ten candidates that Jerry spoke to, and at the time, it seemed a formality (and part of satisfying the Rooney Rule). 

Not so fast.  I understand that organizations go "wide" in their searches for two reasons.  First, front offices want to build dossiers on as many up-and-coming assistants as possible.  Second, smart teams can use the opportunity to pick hot coordinators' brains, to add to their organization's strategic data-base.  These are the guys making the offensive and defensive innovations, and your team can glean lots of off-season information for the price of a few plane tickets and hotel reservations.

I'm not implying that Caldwell should have been Dallas' choice.  He was probably the least known of the ten, a list that included Mike Singletary and the Chargers DC Ron Rivera.  I do think that Caldwell's, and Rivera's inclusion on that search bodes well for the next one.  One of these days, sooner or later, Jerry and Stephen will be on the market again.  And while some of the Cowboys Nation will scream for another big name, a Shanahan, or Cowher, or Gruden, the smarter choice, in my opinion, will be a smart, hungry, lesser known.  Oh, sure, he will have to deal with the automatic he's-Jerry's-new-puppet meme, but so what?  Let the idiots have their say.

The two most impressive hires in recent years, in my opinion, have been Mike Tomlin and Caldwell.  Both had to follow entrenched winners; Bill Cowher in Tomlin's case, and Tony Dungy in Caldwell's.  Both have been able to match and surpass their predecessors, and at rapid speed. 

When the Cowboys do put out the "help wanted" sign, these are the types of coaches the team should pursue.  They already have a pretty good list of these guys, based on the last search. 

Good Coaches are Made, Not Anointed, or Simply Appointed

In the two minute offense you want to score points. Four minute offense, you want to use the clock and control the ball. This was brought home in 1972 when I was with the Cincinnati Bengals. With four minutes left in the game, we had an 11 point lead and had the ball. We lost the game.

-- Bill Walsh

Walsh told this anecdote in a speech on game management.  What's not included is that he was the offensive coordinator in that '72 game, and cost his Bengals a win by calling passes which stopped the clock, when running six times would have burned enough time to deny the opponent a chance for the comeback. 

I think we can safely say that Walsh learned from the experience. 

I bring this up because Jason Garrett will likely be a candidate in that next search, unless Wade finds a way to stick and Garrett leaves.  That fact no doubt leaves another sector of the fan base unimpressed, but I've seen this story before. 

Sean Payton was given the play calling sheet in New York when Jim Fassell went stale, then lost it the next year when the Giants offense struggled.  Fassell called them to a Super Bowl and Payton was allowed to join Bill Parcells in Dallas, to install the passing game.  Payton had his growing pains here, but nobody is questioning his offensive acumen today. 

I remember Oxnard in '06 when Parcells was breaking in Payton's successors.  One morning he turned to the sideline, where Todd Haley and Tony Sparano were puzzling over the play sheet and screamed, "come on, make a call!"   Haley took a beating that year from his top receiver, some fellow named T.O., but the lessons took hold.  Haley had an impressive '08 season in Arizona, capped when he simultaneously yelled down a petulant Anquan Boldin on the sidelines while calling the game-winning touchdown drive against the Eagles.  He's now running the Chiefs' show.

O.C's have learning curves, just like players.  Garrett has had a few questionable games, but I do think he has a good understanding of his players' strengths and weaknesses.  Will Dallas develop him for another team, as it did with Payton and Haley, or will it hang on to the latest young OC to cut his play-calling teeth on the Cowboys' sideline?  It won't be an easy choice. 

Finding Their Place

One matter which I believe Garrett has sorted out the last three weeks is his passing totem.  Since the back-to-back 7 point games against Green Bay and Washington, the roles Miles Austin, Roy Williams and Jason Witten play have become more sharply defined.

Austin has been clearly elevated to the top passing priority and has 21 catches for 282 yards in that stretch.  Witten has been even better, catching 26 balls for 350 yards.  Williams role has been downgraded, in terms of attempts, but he nonetheless has found an important niche.  He's averaging about 50-60 yards a game and is a primary red zone weapon for a Cowboys offense which has to rely on passing for its red zone touchdowns.

Teams have doubled Witten in the red zone for years, because he's been a prime target for Drew Bledsoe and Tony Romo.  Recently, we've seen a red-zone division of labor emerge from the wideouts: Austin is given quick screens and crosses underneath, where his speed and tackle-breaking strength are put to best use, while Williams works the back halves of end zones on posts and fades.  Together, they have five red zone TDs in those three games.

At this point, 13 games into the season, I think we can officially declare the Miles Austin experiment a success.  A big success.  He has nine starts and has this line for those games:

 53 catches, 5.8 recs./game, 918 yards, 102 yds./game, 9 TDs, 1 TD/game.

That's better production on a per-game basis than T.O.'s monster '07 season.  Williams, meanwhile, seems to be in that 4 catches for 60 yards mode.  That's fine with me.

Dallas last had a trio of receiving threats in '06, when Owens had just over 1100 yards, Glenn just over 1000 and Witten close to 800 receiving yards.

What we're seeing now is a prime target in Austin, who looks like a 1400-1500 yard receiver over a full 16 games, a complement in Williams who at recent pace would get 1000 yards and a tight end who is an automatic 70-90 catches for 800 to 1000 yards. 

And this production should continue.  Austin is 25.  Williams is 27.  Glenn and Owens, in that '06 campaign, were 32 and 33 respectively.  Glenn broke down the next season.  Owens goes on, but at 36 no longer is posting those '07 caliber numbers. 

The passing game has been rebuilt.  The backfield has received heavy investment in recent years.  It seems clear that the line needs upgrading to get this offense up to the elite level.