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Cowboys Draft: What It Reveals About Long-Term Offensive Strategy

Demarco Murray is the key to understanding the Cowboys' 2011 draft
Demarco Murray is the key to understanding the Cowboys' 2011 draft

Thursday night, in the wake of the first round, a large segment of Cowboys Nation was seemingly disgruntled--not so much by the selection of Tyron Smith (although a couple of outliers stated their preference for Wisconsin's J.J. Watt), but by Dallas' decision not to trade down and acquire more picks. Indeed, they had Jacksonville on the phone, with essentially the deal on the table that the Jags made with Washington at the next pick: a nice, fat second-rounder. But the Cowboys turned the deal down because of their love for Smith; apparently, he was the fifth-rated player on their board. I think they love the player and what he brings to the table, especially in terms of his competitiveness and "finish" (Garrett spoke glowingly of his play; go here to read O.C.C.s meticulous translation of RHG's post-draft comments).

More importantly is the fact that Smith is the best OT candidate for the style of offense that Garrett seemingly wants to run. By drafting Smith, and then two other terrific foot-athletes (who also show some nasty) in David Arkin and Bill Nagy, the Cowboys have introduced an OL profile that, in some ways, they have already stumbled into with the emergence of Doug Free. Gone are the dancing 350 lb. elephants who can be beat to the hole by quickness; the Garrett Cowboys offensive line will look a lot more like Green Bay circa 2010: smart, aware foot athletes, like Daryn Colledge, who can get to the second level and play on the edge, out in space.

Since Free took over for Marc Colombo during 2009's playoff run, the Cowboys O-line has been schizophrenic, made up of nimble edge guys (Kosier, Free) and lumberers (Flozell Adams, Leonard Davis). A look at the running plays Garrett called in '09 and '10 substantiates this: they ran tosses and sweeps to the right, where Kosier (and then Free) were positioned, and power runs to the right, where Davis and Colombo plied their trade. The problem with this division was that other teams soon caught on to the Cowboys limitations; they lined up wide on the left and tight on the right--especially so last season. And, as we saw, such predictability more often than not curtailed the Dallas running game.

More on the draft and the Cowboys' offense after the jump...

This predictability was exacerbated by their running backs: Felix Jones runs inside acceptably, but he can be electrifying in space, excelling on edge plays, tosses and screens (last year, these were almost always to the left). On the other hand, in 2010, Marion Barber--who has, in the past has been a superb inside runner who could also get to the edge well enough to keep teams from collapsing inside, lost the ability to outflank defenders. An "inside-outside" running tandem only works if each runner is capable of filling the other's role (in other words, the "outside" runner has to have the ability to run between the tackles, as Felix Jones does); in 2010, the Cowboys could no longer make that work.

If this was painful for us to watch, it must have been excruciating for Jason Garrett. In the last two seasons, he knew that, if he put Barber into the game, defenses would simply collapse inside because # 24 posed no legitimate outside threat. This doesn't mean that Garret didn't try to get him to the edge to keep defenses honest; the beat-up horse simply couldn't do it, even with scheming help (recall the failed pitch to Barber in the Minnesota playoff game, if you must).

For the Cowboys running game to regain any degree of effectiveness, each side of the line needed to be able to execute a variety of plays, and the same play had to pose a similar threat when run to either side. Moreover, whichever running back was in the game must both thunder and lightning in him. At first, when I looked at the list of running backs who were invited to Valley Ranch, it seemed apparent that Dallas wanted to replace Marion Barber. Many of them were effective between the tackles guys; others of them were also third-down types, which led me to think that Tashard Choice would take Barber's place as "Mr. Inside." In either case, it appeared that they wanted to keep the running back division of labor--and hence their offensive identity--essentially the same

Given the players Dallas drafted, I've had to rethink that supposition. Think about the overall offseason offensive haul: a cadre of fleet o-linemen who can get to the edge; a productive, physical receiver who can man the slot and catches everything within reach; a fullback who can block, but is also a strong ball-carrier and a very good receiver; a receivers coach, Jimmy Robinson, plucked from Green Bay, where he was instrumental in developing a deep wideout corps that provided significant matchup problems for opposing secondaries in spread formations. I am now envisioning a wide-open offense that puts tremendous pressure on defenses--especially on the perimeter, where nimble o-linemen pull or easily get downfield on screens.

Such an offense will certainly benefit a player like Jones--but, given his fragility, it absolutely needed another running back to spell or supplement his game--in fact, every back in the stable should, ideally pose such a multiple threat. I think DeMarco Murray was near the top of their running back board precisely because he can do this: he's a big back AND a third-down back: he can run effectively between the tackles but, more importantly, get to the edge, run in open space, and catch the ball like a wide receiver. After Murray was drafted, many of us in Cowboys Nation were wringing our hands, wondering: why so high? I think the answer lies in this: without him (or a player like him) Jason Garrett can't run the offense he wants to run in 2010.

This leads me to the next point: personnel diversity. I'd expect to see a lot of packages where Murray lines up in the slot, a la Jason Witten. But think of the other newly-acquired offensive guys who can pose multiple threats: Witten can play H-back, TE or wideout; John Phillips can play H-back or TE; Shaun Chapas poses enough of a receiving threat that Garrett can probably dust off some of the route combination that Moose Johnston and Jay Novacek used to run in the bang-bang nineties; Harris gives them four or (if Ogletree can rediscover his mojo) five legitimate receiving threats in spread formations (which means that a quality receiver is getting the other team's backup safety or fifth corner).

In short, I see an offense resembling Green Bay's, where Tony Romo can be more like Aaron Rodgers, quickly distributing the ball to a stable of guys capable of making plays in space. Last year, the Packers captured a Lombardi with a running game that was effective largely because their passing game posed such a threat. When they did run, it was usually after they had a lead or had tired the opposing defense. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see the Cowboys pursue a similar strategy; in 2007, Garrett's first year calling plays, this is precisely what they did: passed to set up the run. I think its his core philosophy--and one that, due to various personnel limitations, he has been forced to get away from in order to keep his quarterback alive.

From here, it looks as if he's spent the offseason finding ways to get back to 2007.

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