Earlier today, I made my case that Jason Garrett botched the end of the game against the Cardinals. I also hinted that I thought it was much more than just those last few seconds of regulation that was the problem, his overall offensive strategy was curious, to put it mildly. And once again, when a few lapses in the running game occurred, Garrett reverts to the pass almost exclusively.
Before I continue, I'm a full-supporter of Jason Garrett, so this is just a critique of one game, not his overall abilities. But there are lessons to be learned from this game that he needs to take to heart. With that caveat out of the way, let's look at some areas where Garrett didn't take advantage.
The general feeling is that the Cowboys went to the pass often becasue the running game was ineffective. That's just not true.
Let's get one thing out of the way, obviously the score was never out of control so the Cowboys did not have to play hurry-up or catch-up at any time. Only the last drive of the game was time-sensitive. Abandoning the run for any of those issues didn't exist in this game.
The Cowboys ran the ball 20 times in the game for 75 yards, that's a 3.8 ypc average. Not awful, not great, middle of the road. Now I'll do something I don't like to do, but it helps to illuminate this situation. I'm going to remove two runs from the equation, a botched hand-off that lost three yards and a Romo QB sneak for 1 yard. Without those, the Cowboys ran the ball 18 times for 77 yards. That's a 4.3 ypc average, very respectable. That's the overall view. Let's look at more details.
On the Cowboys first drive, they ran the ball three times with DeMarco Murray and gained 7, 3, and 5 yards on those runs. After gaining 5 yards on a first down run, the Cowboys faced 2nd and 5 at the Cardinals 46-yard line. They already showed they could run the ball and those runs were against 8 and 9 men in the box. So what do the Cowboys do? Throw two passes along the sideline that are incomplete. Run the ball, Jason. And if you're determined to pass, why pick the least available space on the field to do it? The Cardinals were stacking the box, the only real help their corners were getting was from the sidelines. Yet that's right were the Cowboys threw it.
Just to briefly continue the theme, on the Cowboys second drive they ran the ball four straight times and gained 20 yards. So what happens on 3rd and 2? The Cowboys pass the ball and fail to get the first down. The first two drives of the game the Cowboys were successfully running the ball, yet the drives were terminated by passes.
The fourth drive of the game by the Cowboys might have been the turning point. On that drive, the Cowboys ran it twice, and both times suffered negative yardage. I think Garrett started turning away from the run at this point. Through that fourth drive, the Cowboys had run the ball 10 times, and that was very early in the second quarter. They only ran 10 more times the rest of the game and one of those was a Romo sneak. Garrett got spooked by the negative runs.
That's enough of beating that dead horse, let's move on to some other areas where Garrett failed to counter the Cardinals and adjust his plan. As mentioned before, the Cardinals were stacking the box at the line of scrimmage. They had no problem putting 8 or 9 guys up there. Even though the Cowboys had some success early running against that formation, they eventually went to the pass. That's makes sense in a general concept, you should be able to pass against teams that stack the box. Curiously, though, the Cowboys didn't take advantage of what the Cards were offering.
If the Cards defense is bunching in the middle of the field to stop the run, that means the outside edges should be vulnerable. Getting DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones out in the flats on short dump passes should leave them one-on-one, and with those two that's a good bet for Dallas. Curiously, that duo of running backs had only one reception all day. Instead, the Cowboys dumped it into the flats to their tight ends and fullbacks at least six times by my count. Even though some of those were successful, I would have much rather seen Murray or Jones getting the ball out there in space. Also, what about screens? We ran one to Laurent Robinson, but with the Cardinals defense being so aggressive, especially as the game wore on, the screen seems like it would have been a great weapon.
In conjunction with that, the Cards defense was very bold with the blitz, and were running linebackers into the middle of the line for most of the latter part of the game. Could the Cowboys not find some crossing patterns or digs to exploit that? Why did we keep forcing passes up the sideline where the corners could use the sidelines to help cover the receivers in one-on-one situations? And if Arizona was going to keep forcing the issue with middle pressure, roll Tony out more, get him away from the pressure right at the beginning of the play.
Across the board, I found Garrett's offensive gameplan to be curious. He turned from the run even though it was moderately effective and he failed to take advantage in the passing game of what the Cardinals were offering him. Just like Rob Ryan after the Eagles game, Garrett needs to re-examine his strategy in the face of a defense like the one the Cardinals presented on Sunday. I'm sure he will. He may not say anything in the press about it, but this was a learning tool.
Use it, move on and get these Cowboys into the playoffs.