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Dallas Cowboys Draft Strategies (Pt 3): Scheme And Philosophy

Jason Garrett is looking for players who fit his scheme.
Jason Garrett is looking for players who fit his scheme.

Depending on how free agency is ultimately affected by the current CBA mess, we could be in a singular situation where free agency happens after the draft.

This could make the draft highly interesting, as it could provide a unique insight into team strategies: because teams can fill holes in free agency after the draft, they are now at liberty to focus exclusively on drafting players that fit their offensive and defensive schemes, philosophies and strategies.

Which throws up a very interesting question. We know that the Cowboys run a 3-4 defensive scheme, but what is Garrett's offensive philosophy? After the break we try to identify the Cowboys' offensive scheme and see how the Cowboys could further bolster their offensive and defensive scheme through the draft.

[Minor note: I've been getting some comments along the lines of "I would run down the street screaming if that draft happened", and have had my football intelligence questioned repeatedly because of some of the mock drafts in this series of posts. So let me reiterate: the mocks in these posts are all hypothetical mocks. They are all the result of following a specific draft strategy. If you don’t like a particular mock, don’t blame me, blame whatever draft strategy produced the input for that mock in the first place. As always the old adage holds true: Garbage In, Garbage Out.]

What is the Cowboys' offensive philosophy?

A quick Google search shows that there is no consensus about what Garrett's offensive philosophy is (except that most people don't think it's working particularly well). There have been suggestions that the Cowboys are a clock-eating, balanced offense, that they run an offense built around balance and diversity. The Cowboys have been described as a big play offense, a pass-first offense and a ball control offense.

While it is no doubt true that the Cowboys at one point or another had a game plan that reflected each of the above descriptions, the question remains, what are the core offensive beliefs of the Dallas Cowboys? For the answer, we go to The Man himself, Jason Garrett.

The problem with asking Garrett a question is that he tends to be coy about offering any specifics about anything. He'd probably answer that success in the NFL is about execution, about stacking one good day on top of another, that teams in today's NFL have gotten awfully good at running a hybrid of offensive systems and that you have to aggressively take what the defense gives you; when they give you opportunities to throw it, you've got to execute and throw it. When they give you opportunities to run it ...

The Coryell Offense

Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden wrote an excellent article for SI last year on the passing of Don Coryell. In it, he quotes Jason Garrett, whom he interviewed in October 2007.

Asked to describe the foundation of his offense, Garrett leaned back and said: "It's what you would have to call the Coryell offense."

"If you brought Don Coryell to Dallas and handed him our playbook," said Garrett, "he would recognize an awful lot of stuff."

Garrett came to the Cowboys from Miami before the '07 season and immediately began teaching Tony Romo in the same way that Zampese and Turner had taught Aikman. "Romo was pretty good from the start," said Garrett. "But we absolutely had to coach him to get away from the center. And we've had to coach receivers to get off the ball. Like Ernie always said: 'Speed, speed, speed.' None of that changes."

Don Coryell and Ernie Zampese worked together in San Diego when Coryell assumed the Chargers head coaching position. Zampese then went on to the Rams where he tutored a young WR coach in the philosophy, Norv Turner. Turner moved on to become the Cowboys offensive coordinator from 1991-1993 and was succeeded by Zampese from 1994-1997. And sitting there as the backup quarterback, soaking up all their knowledge, was none other than Jason Garrett.

Tim Layden also describes how Turner found the perfect players to implement the Coryell system in Dallas. Quarterback Troy Aikman, WR Michael Irvin and TE Jay Novacek all contributed to making the system nearly unbeatable.

Turner found an ideal set of players for the system. The third-year starting quarterback, Aikman, who had thrown 36 interceptions and suffered 58 sacks in two seasons, was a Coryell quarterback waiting to happen.

"The entire passing game is predicated on having a quarterback who will turn the ball loose," says Turner. "Get on his fifth step, or his seventh step, and when that back foot hits the ground, the ball is out. And he has to have great anticipation, because you're throwing into holes. So in Dallas we inherit a guy, Troy, who is as good as anyone who has played in the system because he's such a good athlete. He would separate from the center quicker than anyone I've ever been around and still get set and get the ball out of his hand and make the throws. People teaching the offense still show the first touchdown pass in our first Super Bowl, when Troy throws the slant to Michael Irvin and the ball goes inches—I mean inches—above the linebacker's fingertips. That's a throw that Troy was willing to make, and you have to be willing to make it."

If the F Post defined the early years of the Coryell offense, it was the Bang 8 that defined these Cowboys. (The Bang 8 was so named because it was a Coryell "8" route thrown very quickly—bang.

Here's a video of the Bang 8 play described above and posted to youtube by Bob Sturm. Listen closely to the announcers as they explain how the Coryell system works on this specific play: "1,2,3 throw - and that was a textbook example."

Bob Sturm has an excellent interview with Troy Aikman on his blog where they discuss the Bang 8 play. Highly recommended.

Player requirements in a Coryell offense

A Coryell offense emphasizes two concepts, the vertical passing game and the power running game, and makes a defense choose to defend one or the other. Defenses that stack the line to stop the run will get exposed with deep pass plays and vice versa. With the right personnel, Coryell offenses will be among the highest scoring offenses in the league.

The offense uses three key weapons, a strong inside running game, a passing game with a deep strike ability and a mid-range passing game to a TE, WR, or back. The Coryell offense can be a ball control and big play offense at the same time.

The offense requires precision timing to work properly. The Cowboys passing game is tightly choreographed and built on precise route running and inside plays on the move. This makes it a perfect fit for Austin and Witten, two highly disciplined route runners, but makes it a bad fit for sloppy route runners like Roy Williams and Martellus Bennett, who have struggled as receivers during their entire stay in Dallas.

The system also needs an offensive line that allows the time for deep passes to unfold and beats down a defense in the running game. To help with the power running game, you want a battering-ram fullback who ideally can also catch the ball.

Player requirements in a 3-4 defense

I'll let Jason Garrett handle this one:

"You have to be an attacking style of defense to be successful in the NFL. I believe you have to be an attacking style of offense too. The way you choose to attack is up to you. If you feel you are out there on offense or defense and just trying to survive you are not going to survive for very long. You have to be sound fundamentally. That is one of the reasons Rob was so appealing. He has the time he spent in New England playing this 3-4 defense they play, coaching the Bruschis [ILB] and the Ted Johnsons [MLB] and the Willie McGinests [DE/OLB] and those guys and winning those Super Bowls.

"It was a great foundation and then he has the ability to do some different things. Be more creative. Different pressure packages. Different looks up front on third downs, those kinds of things. You see both of those things. You hear both of things when he teaches. Hopefully, we can carry those things into the season with our defensive football team."

A 3-4 defense is typically built from the inside out, starting with the NT and the ILBs. The Cowboys are set at NT but need to find youth at ILB. Similarly, the Cowboys are pretty well staffed at OLB, but a 3-4 defense can never have enough good pass rushing linebackers. In a 3-4, the DEs often get double-teamed, and have to be able to hold the point of attack so that the linebackers can come in and make the play. Now, if you have a guy playing DE who can do all that, and can additionally rush the passer: Jackpot!

Using the player requirements for both schemes as a guide, here's what the Cowboys could be looking for in the draft if their goal was to further bolster their offensive and defensive schemes (look here for an explanation of priority codes and Drafttek's Online Draft Simulator):

Position Priority Code Rationale
Tackle P3 The Cowboys need to fix their offensive line, starting with the tackle, if they want any chance at staying true to their offensive identity (and keep Romo healthy)
Guard P3 Jason Garrett knows exactly what role the offensive line had in the success the Cowboys enjoyed in the '90s, and he'll try to shore up the Guard position as well.
Inside Linebackers
P5 Bradie James will be 30 by the end of the season. Brooking may be kept on for limited action one more year. Hitting on a good ILB next to Sean Lee could solidify this position for years for the Cowboys.
Outside Linebackers P5 Always keep your eyes open. If a good OLB is available later during the draft, the Cowboys should pounce.
Defensive Ends
P5 In a draft deep at DE, the Cowboys could look to shore up a position that could get hit by free agency.
Fullback P6 To help with the power running game, you want a battering-ram fullback who can also carry the ball and be the final option as an outlet receiver. Such a multi-purpose blocker/rusher/receiver will force defenses to keep an eye on him, thereby opening up other opportunities for the offense.
WR P6 If there's an opportunity in the late rounds for a reliable slot receiver with Patrick Crayton-like skills but without the mouth, then the Cowboys could make a late grab.
RB P6 Any battering-ram type RBs in the late rounds would be an appealing option for the Cowboys.
TE P6 The Cowboys always have a need for more TE's. A late round prospect like John Phillips in 2009 might be too much to pass up.
Secondary P6 Despite a focus on scheme and philosophy in this draft, the Cowboys can't just ignore the entire secondary. Safeties and corners also go in with a P6 priority: if there's a good pick available in the later rounds, the Cowboys will take a defensive back.

I use the same strategy I used in the second post in this series, and trade picks with the Rams, which drops the Cowboys to 14th and gets them an extra 3rd round pick (78th).

Unfortunately, I've traded down too far. I was eyeing Anthony Castonzo as my top pick, but he goes to the Vikings at number 12. Lucky for the Cowboys though, the Lions decide to take Brandon Harris, and not a tackle. When it's the Cowboys' turn, they take OT Tyron Smith out of USC.

With their second pick, the Cowboys luck into Mike Pouncey, and with these two picks they may have solidified their O-line for years to come. The Cowboys now begin to worry that they might not get the quality they want at DE in the third round and decide to trade back into the second.

Jerry Jones calls the Eagles and offers the Cowboys' two third rounders and a sixth rounder (71, 78, 170 = 454 pts) for the Eagles' second and fourth rounder (54, 103 = 448 pts). The Eagles, notorious draft pick stockpilers, agree to the deal, and when it's the Cowboys' turn, Adrian Clayborn is right there waiting for them.

The third round passes and when the Cowboys are on the clock at the top of the fourth they grab Deunta Williams, the highest rated player on their board for the P6 positions. They then add two solid prospects at ILB and OLB and top if all off with a fullback.

Here’s the full overview of seven round mock draft the ODS delivered based on the priority codes above:


1st Round (14th pick) 2nd Round 2nd round (54th pick) 4th Round (103rd pick)
4th Round 5th Round 7th Round
Player Tyron Smith, OT, USC Mike Pouncey, OG, Florida Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa Deunta Williams, SS, North Carolina Chris White, ILB, Mississippi State
Ricky Elmore, OLB, Arizona Henry Hynoski, FB, Pittsburgh
Reach/ Value -2 -9 +7
-6 -6 -8 +99

Obviously, this mock doesn't address all areas of need (corner would be one) but the Cowboys now have ample time to fill any remaining holes via free agency.

What's interesting about this exercise is that despite ostensibly drafting to bolster the Cowboys' offensive and defensive scheme, we end up with a mock draft that addresses a significant part of the current team needs as well. In the end, that shouldn't be a great surprise, as a player that helps improve your scheme is often also a player of need.