Just in time for Halloween...
In the first five games of the season, Jason Garrett and his offensive staff have played it close to the vest. His strategy has been run the ball when possible, throw lots of short- and medium-range passes requiring short drops, and avoid getting into unmanageable third and long situations. For various reasons, this strategy has been received with much consternation by Cowboys Nation: it has resulted in an imbalanced run-pass ratio; the dink-and-dunk philosophy fails to utilize the available talent meaning Dallas' array of playmakers have had their hands cuffed, with the result that there has been a noticeable dropoff in explosive plays; there's also been an unfortunate disconnect between yards gained and points scored.
And finally, against Minnesota, we saw the epitome of the 2010 Cowboys offense: somewhere between twelve and seventeen screen passes (opinions differ on whether some of these were merely checkdowns running backs). In the Vikings game, it was patently clear that Garrett didn't trust his offensive line to give Tony Romo the protection he needed to complete passes downfield. Many fans--rabble included--grumbled that he was still psyched out from last year's playoff game, in which the Minny D-line absolutely manhandled the Cowboys' big uglies.
Cheap psychoanalysis of Garrett aside, the Minnesota game proved once and for all something that I had suspected all season: Garrett simply doesn't believe the Cowboys' O-line can hold up enough for him to run his offense. At first, I had figured this as a temporary problem, a byproduct of the discontinuity brought to the position group by multiple training camp injuries. After seeing seventeen screen passes, however, I suspect that Garrett, offensive line coach Hudson Houck and the rest of the offensive staff realized in training camp that this o-line was more likely to be the group that was whipped against the Vikings than the one that ran roughshod over Philadelphia.
If you pop in the tape of last year's season-ender, you'll see a Tony Romo who is under duress almost the entire game. Look at the tape from the Chargers and Texans preseason games--the Houston game in particular--and you'll see a similarly overwhwelmed group--and a Romo who has no time to do anything other than duck and cover. Garrett had certainly looked at those tapes, probably more times than he cared to. My guess is that he thought that Romo's health was in danger. And that, without Romo, the season was lost. So, Garrett's gameplan each week was based on one central tenet: to keep Romo upright. Minimize the risk, thus giving his star QB the opportunity to win games at the end of the season.
Many of the offensive decisions that have made us scratch our heads recently can be explained by this goal. Wonder why Barber starts? He's the best pass protector of the running backs--by far. Why Witten hasn't done much in the red zone? He's been staying in to help protect his buddy in an area of the field when rival defensive coordinators like to bring heat. Better to settle for three than lose your Pro Bowl quarterback. Now, we'll all live inside Jason Garrett's head for a while. I'm betting the image that we all saw at the 12:07 mark of the second quarter is the image that has haunted Garrett since the middle of the preseason--if not longer.
And now we'll see just how "overrated" Romo is. In 2006, when Romo became a starter against these same Giants--on Monday Night Football, almost exactly 5 years ago to the day--the offensive line immediately got better. Number nine has superb feet and an uncanny ability to avoid pressure in the pocket. Now, with the comparatively statuesque Kitna and/ or the still green Stephen McGee, we are likely to see just how bad this line really is. Want a scary Halloween? You got one--and it's all trick, no treat.
Take your time coming back, Tony; there's no reason to rush the healing process. We'll see you (and a new coaching staff, and about three or four new linemen) next year.