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2011 Cowboys Draft Likely Signals Fundamental Shift In How Cowboys Will Compete

There is one thing that stood out to me from the Cowboys 2011 draft that has very little to do with the actual players selected, but has much more to do with the overall direction this team is taking: the coaching change appears to have much more far-reaching consequences than many Cowboys fans, myself included, would have thought.

Psychologically, most of us are averse to change, particularly sudden, dramatic changes. We much prefer a gradual change relative to the previous state, as it gives us a measure of continuity which psychologically many people find comforting.

So naturally, our assumption was that there was going to be a measure of continuity with the promotion of Garrett to head coach. A few coaching changes, sure. Release a couple of players, no doubt. Get some help in free agency, yes, please. But not wholesale changes, no, sir. Of course Garrett would try to optimize the Cowboys, but not change them. After all, Garrett was part of the previous system for four years, right?

A large part of the rationale for this train of thought is the fact that Garrett was promoted internally - and in the middle of the season - so the expectation was that a few tweaks here and a few choice changes there would get the Cowboys back on track. You know, a couple of practices in full pads, a dress code for trips to away games, doing things "The Cowboy Way", things like that.

But think of the coaching change this way: if the Cowboys had brought in Sean Payton or Norv Turner or another offensive minded coach, there probably would have been significant changes in Dallas. Why should it be any different under Garrett? Just because we've grown comfortable with the notion of some measure of continuity under Garrett doesn't mean that that's what's going to happen.

Ask yourself this: are you still operating under the impression that the Cowboys are basically the same Phillips-designed team but Garrett-optimized? Then, like me, you probably expected the Cowboys to draft a top defensive lineman and never, ever even waste a thought on a running back in the first five rounds. Or have you already fully embraced the change to a new head coaching regime that is going to fundamentally change the way this team operates?  

The draft was the clearest indication so far that there may be a number of significant and fundamental changes afoot at Valley Ranch. On a team with significant holes at defensive end and in the secondary, six of eight picks were offensive players. Three were offensive linemen.

This tells me that Garrett and the Cowboys plan to win games not on the strength of their defense, but based on the play of their offense. The Cowboys will rely on a big play, attacking offense that has the strength, speed and the "Right Kind Of Guys" to look an opponent in the eye and say, "We Will Outscore You" - and to deliver on that promise, more often than not.

Of course, the Cowboys will be active in free agency once that resumes. Stephen & Jerry Jones as well as Garrett said as much in their recent press conference and the holes in the roster tell me the same thing. But if you're looking for some big-name signings on the defensive side of the ball, you might be in for another surprise.

That might have been Wade's way of addressing the issues on the team, but I don't think it's unrealistic to expect that under Garrett, the defensive philosophy will change. And the blueprint for the defense we can expect might just have been the one established by former DC Paul Pasqualoni: much less blitzing, a lot more coverage, surgically applied pressure instead of Wade's throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-them, all-or-nothing pass rush. The defense's role under Coach Garrett: get the ball back to the offense, because "We Will Outscore You".

Under Wade Phillips, the Cowboys' defensive philosophy had been all about getting pressure on the passer up front - and preventing the big play in the secondary. As a result, the Phillips defenses have traditionally been weak in generating interceptions. That changed dramatically when Paul Pasqualoni took over the defense last year. In the eight games under Coach P, the Cowboys suddenly led the league in interceptions, to the tune of almost two INTs per game!

2008 2009 2010
Games 1-8
Games 9-16
Interceptions 8 11  
5 15
NFL Rank 30th 26th  
T25th 1st

For what it’s worth, the last time the Cowboys led the league in interceptions (albeit for the full season, not just eight games) was in 1981. This is a profound and highly under-appreciated strategic departure from the Wade-era defense that the Cowboys put on the field.

The fact that an atrocious 2010 Cowboys defense was able to lead the league in interceptions over the span of eight games last year (and came in 7th for the total season) suggests that the fairly weak interception totals over the last couple of years may have been due more to scheme than to the quality of the players in the secondary.

Of course, these interceptions did not come without a price. Coach P significantly reduced the number of blitzes, opting for only three or four man fronts to bring the pressure in an effort to shore up the secondary. The strategy worked in that it generated a lot of interceptions, but less pressure up front also resulted in the Cowboys giving up almost as many points (204) in eight games under Pasqualoni as they did under Phillips (232). That is what Rob Ryan has been tasked to fix. But his primary task is to get the ball back into the hands of the offense. That’s where Garrett will most likely be planning on winning games, because "We Will Outscore You".

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