Yesterday, I began a series in which I'll examine five key moments in the 2010 season. As I stated in my intro to the first of these moments--the Cowboys' decision to gut their special teams' core--the moments I’m interested in examining all either represented or forced a larger philosophical change that ended up having long-term repercussions during the 2010 season, and perhaps into the future. Today's installment looks at the very beginning of Jason Garrett's tenure as coach of the Cowboys, as important decisions were made then that, I think, will affect how they operate into the future.
Moment #4: Week 10: Kitna to Bryant against the New York Giants
The Cowboys had a tumultuous week ten of the 2010 season, to say the least. After a nationally-televised Sunday Night Football blowout at Green Bay, a game in which Dallas appeared neither interested nor competitive, Wade Phillips was fired and Jason Garrett was promoted to interim coach. The situation Garrett inherited was not enviable: the 1-7 Cowboys were reeling, having lost both their starting quarterback and their last three games, by a combined 121-59 score.
In those three games, the Cowboys had been quarterbacked by backup Jon Kitna, who was not as miserably bad as, say, Brad Johnson had been when Romo was injured in 2008. Nevertheless, his performance had people questioning whether he still had any juice, whether his arm strength was much better than Johnson's and whether he could lead the Dallas offense to much more than the anemic point total tallied against the Packers.
To make matters worse, the Cowboys' opponent, the New York Giants, were hitting their stride. They were riding a five-game winning streak and were coming off a 41-7 drubbing of the Seahawks, in Seattle, in which their defense had surrendered a 162 yards, a mere 49 on the ground. Three weeks earlier, in the first game against Dallas, at the Jones Mahal, New York had not only knocked Romo out of the game, but had piled up nearly 500 yards of offense, with an even 200 on the ground. As a result, Garrett's first challenge was looking formidable, indeed.
This sense of foreboding continued early in the game, as the Cowboys muddled about on their opening first-quarter drive. The next time they got the ball, now down 3-0 and facing a first and ten at their own 42, Garrett employed a brilliant scheme: he set up his offense in a one-back, two-tight end formation, with Martellus Bennett outside of RT Marc Columbo, WR Dez Bryant split wide left, and Jason Witten lined up at fullback, offset slightly left. Because Witten is so dangerous, however, the Giants couldn't treat him like a fullback; certainly, they didn't want to cover him with a linebacker. Consequently, they brought safety Antrel Rolle up to the line to guard Witten. What this meant was that Rolle couldn't offer deep help to the corner on his side of the field, Terrell Thomas, who drew the unfortunate assignment of covering the explosive Bryant.
At the snap, Rolle compounded the problem by taking a step forward, as if he saw run. Kitna took a five-step drop and flung the ball downfield to Bryant, who had beaten Thomas, with the desperate Rolle trailing. If the pass had been more accurate, Bryant would have walked in for an easy score; as it was, he had to extend to catch it, lost his balance after a couple steps, and fell to the turf after a 45-yard gain.
This big gainer was followed by others. Later in the quarter, Kitna hit Austin for a 44-yard gain; on the first play of the following drive, Kitna threw a pretty pass to Bennett down the seam for a 32-yard pickup. On one second-half drive, Kitna connected with Roy Williams on 3rd and 22 for a clutch 27 yard gain, then promptly hit Austin for a 24 yard TD. Late in the game, a beautiful 48-yard pass to Bryant was called back. Moreover, the Cowboys picked up significant yardage on two catch-and-run screen plays--a perfectly blocked 71-yard Felix Jones touchdown and a gorgeous WR screen to Bryant. These plays were accumulated against a Giants defense that had, in recent weeks, been the football equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge when it came to giving up big plays.
Why do I recount this ancient, albeit glorious, history now? Because I believe that first-quarter pass to Bryant set the tone for the final eight games of the 2010 season. By attacking the (at the time) mighty Giants, especially with a "weak-armed" second-string quarterback, Jason Garrett was sending a message, not only to his team, but to the entire league: "we may not win, but we're going to throw the entire playbook at you; you may be bigger than us, but we're going to hit you with everything we've got; we may not be as talented as you are, but we're going to play hard for four quarters; we may not have anything left to play for, but we're going to play to the whistle until the end of the season."
Indeed, this is precisely what the often overmatched Dallas Garretts did. By doing so, they hung in games against better teams until the fourth quarter--and managed to pull out a crucial road victory against Payton Manning and the Colts. Garrett has talked about re-establishing an attitude, about playing the "Cowboy Way." To my mind, a key tenet of the Cowboy Way--fight like hell, until the bell--was clearly articulated in meeting rooms and then brought to the field the week of the Giants game. I look forward to it being a building block for Garrett & Co., a crucial component of the Cowboys' success in the years to come.