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Radical Football And The Overton Window: Are The Cowboys Innovative Enough?

A big complaint of Jason Garrett's offense is that it is too predictable. Are the Cowboys lacking innovation?

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

In the 1950's television showed married couples sleeping in two separate beds. It was unthinkable to show a married couple sharing a bed. Today family-friendly television doesn't hesitate to show unmarried pregnancies, or joke about casual sex. What changed? The answer is the Overton Window. At a basic level the Overton Window is an idea of a "window" that contains a range of ideas acceptable to the public. Over time the window can move, shrink, or expand depending on public mood. Politicians use this concept to decide whether any particular policy will be publicly viable.

What does this political tool have to do with football coaching? Quite a lot actually. As much as we may deny it, a coaches job security, like a politician's, doesn't depend on results. It depends on public perception (yes I'm looking at you Jeff Fischer). This means that many coaches are extremely risk averse. Better to lose in an acceptable way than take a chance and maybe lose in a way the public doesn't like.

An example is in order. In 2005 high school coach Kevin Kelly unveiled a new strategy. He stopped punting. And he started winning. A lot. His team reached the state quarterfinals in 2005. The next year his teams never punted, and reached the state finals. He punted twice in 2009 and reached the state semi's. He never punted in 2010 and reached the finals. And in 2011 he punted once, and won the state championship.

Analysts and people who covered football for a living started paying attention and concluded the numbers are in Kelly's favor. A professor from the University of Berkeley wrote a paper that showed teams should not punt when faced with 4th and 4 or less. Football Outsiders ran an article asking why punts aren't considered turnovers. So the question then is this: Why don't more NFL teams go for it on fourth down?

The answer is, going for it on fourth down is outside the public's Overton Window, and coaches are scared of the public backlash. Remember the public scrutiny when the Falcons went for it on 4th and 3 in the playoffs? Or when New England went for it on 4th and short against Indy? How about Barry Switzer's infamous 4th down run? What coach wants to deal with that? Not Chip Kelly that's for sure.

Ron Rivera decided to deal with it. In reality he had nothing left to lose. Back-to-back losing seasons, and a 1-3 start in 2013 had Rivera on the hot seat. Reports were questioning whether he would make it through the bye week. Then in a game against Minnesota Rivera turned down a field goal attempt twice on a drive that ultimately led to a touchdown. This new aggressive trend continued, the Panthers made the playoffs, and the legend of Riverboat Ron was born.

In the NFL innovation and thinking outside the box are rare. Which is strange, because doing so generally leads to success. The Saints under Sean Payton and New England under Belichek have been the leaders in innovative offense, with their hybrid tight ends and two tight end sets. Seattle has many teams changing defensive philosophies with their large corners and hybrid defensive line. Innovation tends to lead to winning; but until some coach proves it, other coaches tend to shy away from going out on a limb.

There are generally two types of coaches that innovate. Coaches with nothing to lose like Riverboat Ron, or coaches who are completely secure in their position like Payton and Bellicheck. These two types of coaches have the luxury of playing to win, instead of playing not to lose.

What Does it Mean For the Cowboys?

Historically the 'Boys have been on the forefront of football innovation. Tom Landry helped develop the 4-3 defense, along with the "flex", and his front office was one of the first to embrace modern scouting concepts. But Landry knew that he had the support of his owner, and was thus free to gamble. While the Cowboys business side under Jerry Jones has continued the Cowboys history of innovation, the football side has been remarkably stagnant. One of the main questions regarding the 2014 Cowboys is the status of Jason Garrett. Does he have enough front office support (or pressure), to allow him to play to win as opposed as playing not to lose? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining the Cowboys 2014 season.

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