What is more important in the NFL, talent or coaching? Former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson has used an old college quote, "It's not the X's and O's, it's the Jimmys and Joes" to make his position clear. Perhaps reflecting on his own earlier success as a head coach at the University of Miami, he thinks that the key to success on the football field is the quality of the players you have. Draft or acquire the best players, and you win.
Joe Bussell, who is known to many NFL fans as the Twitter commentator NFL Philosophy, takes the opposite view. He feels that proper coaching is the most important factor in an NFL team's success. However, he does not limit that to just drawing up plays, but how you utilize the players and how you develop them in practice and offseason work.
Jimmy Johnson makes millions of dollars as an expert, while Joe Bussell is a former NFL staffer with one year of experience who is out of the game for now. But there is a fairly clear example in the league this season that shows the guy on the outside has a better answer on this than the big-time insider. And ironically, it is Johnson's old team that shows how much difference coaching can make in a situation where the talent is essentially unchanged but the results are very different.
The Cowboys come into this season with only one real change on the offense, the addition of rookie Zack Martin at right guard. The other four linemen, the five skill players that are on the field for the bulk of the plays, most of the role players that rotate in and out of the eleventh position, and the backups are all players that were with the team last season. And yet with an almost unchanged cast, that offense has been remade. A pass-oriented one that sometimes could not control the ball enough to hang onto multi-possession leads is now the leading running attack in the NFL. And the only sacrifice that has been made to get to that smashmouth style is that some players have seen a decline in some individual statistics. The players who have "lost" anything as a result seem to have taken a page from head coach Jason Garrett's book and put their focus on the big picture. Jason Witten, the superb tight end, needed just 201 yards coming into the season to become only the third tight end in league history to reach 10,000 yards receiving.
"I really didn't think it would be Week 5 when I was reaching that," Witten joked, "but change in plans."
Witten's attitude is mirrored by wide receiver Dez Bryant.
"It's a commitment thing -- it's a mindset. If you want to block, all it is is a mindset. If you don't block, like I said, it's a mindset -- you don't want to block," Bryant said. "I'm a wideout first, I like to catch passes, but this year I think I came a long way, you know -- not using the right techniques to block, to now, feeling good about it, adding that to my game a little better. I'm not saying I couldn't block, I'm just a better blocker now."
The improved rushing game also looks to have some serious benefits for quarterback Tony Romo, who may be throwing fewer passes, but who is getting markedly more efficient as the games go on - and as his heavily scrutinized and analyzed back gets better. His performance in the recent win over the New Orleans Saints was positively Aikman-esque. In a totally good way.
In that game, Dallas looked very different than it did last year. For the entire season, the running game has been much more of a factor, and at the quarter mark, the team is within a very few plays of having a 50/50 balance between run and pass. Beyond any statistics, the team just looks different. The play action pass is suddenly a deadly weapon for the Cowboys. The run blocking is opening up some huge holes. For once, the team has made good on its promise to run the ball.
And the only real change was that the Cowboys hired Scott Linehan and made him the offensive play caller, which makes him the de facto offensive coordinator on game day.
Clearly, Linehan is doing a much better job of utilizing the offensive talent than Bill Callahan did last season. Most notably, he has shown an ability to stick to the running game, even when the team has fallen far behind. The comeback win against the St. Louis Rams was the perfect example. Despite being behind by three touchdowns, Linehan did not throw out his game plan and put it all on Romo's arm, the way it would likely have gone the previous season. Dallas wound up rushing on 29 plays and only throwing 23 passes. Murray alone had 24 carries. The result, of course, was a record comeback in regulation.
This is something beyond diagramming plays. It is primarily about figuring out what your players do best and then putting them in a position to do that. It is not only why you are seeing Murray having such a monster start to the year, but it is why you see them trying to move Bryant inside at times. It also relates to how the Cowboys were able to feed Terrance Williams against the Saints when Bryant was being doubled. Even the several excellent blocks Witten threw during the game can be seen as utilizing his talents. For several seasons there have been discussions about whether the Cowboys needed a blocking tight end, but the way the Senator was sealing off plays, it looks like they have one already.
There is also the aspect of developing your players, and that is where Linehan's hire had a bit of an unanticipated consequence. When Linehan was brought to Dallas, there was a general assumption that Callahan was on the way out. But not only was he not fired, it became clear that Jason Garrett and the Jones family expected him to work through the final year of his contract. As it turns out, bringing Linehan in may have made Callahan more valuable to the team. In an article at DallasCowboys.com, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin both discuss just how much it has helped the entire line to have Callahan focusing on the job he was originally hired to do.
"He's been an integral part in the success of the running game," Frederick said. "It's been over the course, from what I can tell, over the last two years, he and coach (Frank) Pollack both. I definitely want to throw Coach Pollack in there, because they work together to set up a lot of the run game and work with us as an offensive line very equally."
Frederick said Callahan and Pollack are both "really good technicians" who hold the offensive line to as high a standard as possible.
Coming up with a better scheme. Putting your players in a position to succeed. Developing the talent the players bring to the field. Those are the things, it is argued, that make coaching more important than trying to get superior talent at all the positions. In the salary cap era, there is no way to load up across the board. You have to compromise somewhere, usually at multiple spots.
If you listened to this week's podcast with Bob Sturm as the guest (and if you haven't, go take care of that), you might have heard Sturm address the fact that there is no salary cap on the coaching staff. Jerry Jones can spend as much money as he wants, and he may have done a little of that. Given the success this year, he might try to up the pay to Callahan to keep him around. Given the history, there might not be much demand outside of Dallas for him, other than in the same position he has with the Cowboys. And in that case, he may well find the pay higher if he stays where he is rather than leaving.
This could be a long-term winning formula for the Cowboys: Load up on coaches who can maximize what the team gets out of the roster. So far in 2014, it is working well. If it continues, we can only hope the owner/general manager is paying attention to how this all happened.