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Dallas Cowboys Playcalling And The Meaning Of Life

The question of who is calling the offensive plays for the Dallas Cowboys continues to be of great concern to many, and there are calls and even demands for head coach Jason Garrett to make a decision right now. But at Blogging the Boys, we take a more philosophical approach than most.


So I was hanging out in the virtual BTB staff lounge, and got into a little discussion with Coty and Rabs about tautology, Basho logic, the Kyoto school of philosophy, the Unity of Opposites and the overall differences in the Western and Eastern view of life.

What, you think we just spend our time talking football and cheerleaders? Those are important subjects, I grant you, but we are persons of deep thought. Sometimes. I am currently reading a book about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and how, among other things, it is the first tool available to allow the eventual discovery of the Higgs Boson (which it did accomplish after the book was published).

Now, before I give you the wrong idea, I have also read a ton of murder mysteries, conspiracy thrillers, science fiction/fantasy, and the entire 50 Shades trilogy, so I am man of eclectic tastes.

Anyway, we were talking about how the West, particularly America, has a hard time dealing with issues that do not have simple black and white answers. I used an example of the way many of the reporters who cover the Dallas Cowboys look at things (since all questions of great meaning eventually come back to the Cowboys, which is the true philosophical center of all meaningful concepts). Instead of trying to grasp complex interactions and the fact that there might not be one simple answer to everything, they reduce everything down to a binary, either/or situation, and then often go on to harshly criticize the team/owner/staff/players for something that, in essence, does not really exist.

Seriously. That is what we were talking about.

And then after we got fairly far along in the discussion (which is still going on, as such e-mail based things are wont to), I came across a perfect illustration of just what we were talking about: Another article about who is calling the offensive plays for the Cowboys (this one proposing that Jason Garrett is going to keep the duty because, in another rather imprecise bit of logic, his job is on the line). Here is a bit of the reasoning involved:

The best way for Garrett to ensure he gets at least some credit for whatever success the Cowboys have this season is to call the plays. Otherwise he's going to find himself in a situation like Rangers manager Ron Washington where everyone gets credit for the victories and he absorbs the blame for the losses.

Anyway, we know Garrett put additional pressure on his unit to perform this season when the Cowboys spent the draft adding pieces to the offense, the team's best unit, while ignoring the obvious issues on the defensive line.

Here is one of the great frustrations I face in addressing this ongoing obsession the media has, which in my mind does not even ask the right question to begin with. The situation is approached as "Jason Garrett calls the plays or Bill Callahan calls the plays. Period." There is also some discussion of Tony Romo, as part of his "increased responsibility", calling the plays, but that is seen more as a subset of one of the two options, with either Garrett or Callahan still maintaining the play card and just giving Romo a chance to run the hurry-up more this year.

That is a very typical attempt to force reality, in all its chaotic messiness, into neatly labeled, clearly defined little boxes. This makes things much simpler to grasp, and it hardly is limited to coverage of the Cowboys. It truly permeates almost all reporting today about any topic, at least in the US. It allows things to be explained very simply ("This good, that bad.") but it is almost always wrong, because reality is not configured that way. It is messy and uncertain and always getting out of our carefully constructed mental containers.

I could go on forever about the current state of American journalism, but I am sure you would much rather keep this pertinent to the Cowboys. As I was saying, the whole premise of the argument made about Garrett vs. Callahan is quite likely irrelevant. It does not have to be just one or the other, especially when you consider it in light of being something that does not just take place on the sidelines during a game while the offense is on the field. It involves the overall structure of the offense, which is being worked on now while the staff begins to figure out who their players will be, it is reshaped every week when the game planning takes place for each opponent and the plays for that week are installed, and it happens between offensive series and at halftime as adjustments are made and the key actors, namely Garrett, Callahan, and Romo, figure out what is working and what is not, and what to do about it.

I would not be at all surprised to see a situational approach on game day, with Callahan calling the bulk of the plays except when they let Romo take the reins to put pressure on the opposing defense, and Garrett stepping in for key points of the game if he really wants to make sure that things are done a certain way. Or perhaps that could be reversed, or change from game to game or even quarter to quarter. There actually is a way to use this to maximize the unpredictability of the offense, where Callahan and Garrett switch out on whose headset is live in Romo's helmet, with the opposing team not able to tell who is making the calls. This could throw a curve to the other team while they are trying to figure out what is coming next.

The key point of all this is that the reality of how the Cowboys (or, really, any team) operate is not as straightforward as most of the people reporting and "analyzing" the team want it to be. In reality, they are trying to impose a type of order and simplicity on what they observe that fits their mental model of the team, instead of seeking to perceive the reality of nuance and shading that is actually in front of them. This is the way most reporters work (and, to a certain degree, always have) since they seek to impart their viewpoint to a mass audience. I saw a comment on Twitter recently about how certain sports and/or news outlets have a policy of dumbing down things to reach a wider audience. That is not the approach we take here at BTB. It is not something that is directed for us by Dave, but merely a reflection of the fact that all the writers here have faith in the audience we deal with, that the readers want to learn about what is happening with the Cowboys and are willing to learn more about the game along the way. Among other things, it makes this a tremendously enjoyable experience for the writers Dave has brought here and nurtured. We all love the learning and broadening of our perception, and just expect to have the people who come here join us.

As a result, we find our viewpoints (which are by no means all identical, but respected by each of the other writers) often clashing with the popular memes running out there. We are more concerned with whether the team can find a more effective way to call the plays, not who is in charge or the winner of some contest involving a comparison of genital endowment. There are certainly serious questions to ask about the efficacy of play calling in the Garrett era, as was brought up in the article above.

In the last four years his offense has ranked second, seventh, eleventh and sixth in yards, while ranking 14th, 13th, 10th and 15th in points scored.

This is a real issue that must be corrected. But again, to properly address that requires accepting that some aspects of the offensive approach work well, while others don't, and the real goal must be to improve the deficient areas without disrupting the part that is excelling. That takes more than just putting one name on the headset that links to the quarterback's radio.

It is the same problem when writers get all exercised about the "hot seat" question. There is no simple answer to that. Job security among NFL head coaches is basically non-existent. Any time a team experiences an unforeseen meltdown, as happened with the Cowboys in 2010, the coach can be terminated, no matter how well he has done the previous seasons. And there is no hard and fast line that determines a successful season. Suppose the NFC had a very atypical season, with a clustering of teams at the ends of the won-lost spectrum, rather than in the middle (which seems to be the intent of the league in the era of parity). If you have the admittedly unlikely case of seven or eight teams with 10 wins or more (balanced by the rest only managing five or six victories at most), and the Cowboys getting edged out of the playoffs despite only losing 6 games, would that still mean Garrett would be fired? I don't think so, but that is because I see Jerry Jones as a bit more complex and thoughtful in his reasoning than the cartoonish image most writers portray. Add in the fact that I believe Jones truly likes what Garrett has done in building his staff and roster so far, and I think he will try to give Garrett one more year unless the team truly falls on its face absent some major extenuating circumstances.

Which is to say that we can't even begin to guess what will happen until the season plays out. And that is going to be influenced a great deal by how the playcalling is managed. Even that may be overridden by a very strong showing by the defense, which is certainly possible if early reports are accurate. Monte Kiffin may carry the team this year with his scheme and the players on his side of the ball. He certainly has done it before, unless you think that Brad Johnson was really an elite quarterback. This would mean that the Cowboys might win even if the playcalling is not really better, Garrett would keep his job, and if those wins keep going far enough after the regular season, we would all be very happy.

Maybe I put too much weight on the fact, but I keep remembering that Garrett is a Princeton product. I think he is very able to understand the complexity of how all the factors work together and has a very good chance of finding a way to make this all work. I suspect he gets an idea that rabblerousr expressed better than I can.

. . . understanding/ tolerating/ welcoming/ accepting ambiguity takes discipline, because essentializing, or forcing order or narrative clarity upon a chaotic and unclear universe, is lazy (and therefore undisciplined) thinking.

Lazy thinking is exactly what I am fighting against when I take on articles that present an overly simplified view of the way the Cowboys work. I will admit that I don't know if things will work out for Dallas, but when I try to understand the entire picture, with all the shadings of gray involved, I find I believe in the discipline and hard, sweating effort that Garrett, the coaches, and the players are bringing to the table. And I will cheer like mad for them to succeed.

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