Jason Garrett is something of a mystery, even to diehard Cowboys fans. Which is strange, seeing how he has been part of the organization as a player or coach for 16 years. We know that he believes in RKG's and "The Process". We know that the biggest criticisms against him are game-planning and play-calling. What we don't know is, how are all those things linked? Outside of "win more games" what are Garrett's goals for the franchise? Apart from "stack one good day on top of another" what is his plan to get us there? What are the general precepts that guide his thinking?
Garrett's offense is a descendant of the famous Air Coryell offense. But what exactly does that mean? At it's heart the offense is a pass-first offense that emphasizes deep and intermediate routes. Receivers can line up all over the field, and motion is used to force the defense to declare whether they are in man or zone. Receivers generally have multiple route options depending on coverage. The passing game relies on timing and precision as the ball is generally thrown to a spot rather than a receiver.
Because the offense emphasizes the deep and intermediate passing game, it can be difficult to score points in the red zone. Most offenses of this sort thus rely on a power running game to pick up tough yards. Because many of the routes run are deep, pass protection is critical, meaning that running backs must also excel at pass blocking and blitz pickup.
For the offense to be run effectively, it generally requires certain types of players. The most important being a "big" wide receiver who can stretch the field and win jump balls (think Malcolm Floyd and Vincent Jackson under Norv Turner in San Diego). You also need a "big" running back to pick up tough yards, and a pass catching tight end to run the intermediate routes opened up by the WR's.
There are many variations of this original concept being run in the NFL today. Norv Turner and his coaching tree generally run a fairly "pure" version of the original Air Coryell system. He limits his playbook and shortens his routes to protect the quarterback. Although his offenses are generally highly ranked, many would label them predictable (sound familiar?).
Mike Martz learned the offense from Norv Turner when he was Turner's QB coach with the Redskins. While Martz keeps many of the route principles of the Air Coryell offense, he strays in some important points. He generally prefers more "finesse" backs who can catch out of the backfield, and will often eschew a FB for a third wide receiver. His offenses also tend to forget about the run in favor of the pass.
The last major modern variant of the Air Coryell is the Al Saunders version. Saunders' version could be seen as a mix of Turner's and Martz's offenses. His offenses are generally more complicated than Turner's versions (he is famous for his 900 play playbook), but more sound fundamentally than Martz's (less receivers out in routes, and more protection for the quarterback). His offenses don't require the big WR's that Turner's offenses do, but don't abandon the run the way Martz tends to.
Jason Garrett draws strongly from both Turner and Martz. In team construction and overall concept his offense is classic Norv Turner, a big WR (Dez Bryant), who can stretch the field and win jump balls, and a dominant TE who can exploit the middle of the field. Like Turner he emphasizes timing and execution. His offenses are generally simple; he doesn't attempt to trick the defense, he wants to out-perform the defense. However his running game construction and play-calling fall more along the Martz spectrum. Like Martz he prefers more finesse running backs who can operate in space. Also like Martz, he tends to forget about the running game or use it solely as a set up for the pass.
To summarize, Jason Garrett deploys a "big play" offense that relies on deep and intermediate passing routes to move the ball down field. While this tends to generate a lot of yardage, it can often get bogged down in the red zone. To counter this, Garrett has installed a few different packages. More passes to the RB or TE in the flats (like the game winning pass to DeMarco Murray last year vs. the Redskins), fades or back shoulder throws to the WR, or bringing in a smaller quicker WR who can separate quickly (Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley).
Because Garrett comes from an offensive background it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly his defensive philosophy is. However based on coaching hires and player acquisition, a few assumptions can be made.
KISS: Keep it simple stupid! More than anything, this was probably the biggest point of contention between Garrett and Rob Ryan. Ryan ran a defense predicated on confusion and fooling the offense. Garrett's central philosophy however is based on execution. That fundamental difference in philosophy led to Ryan's departure. Marinelli by contrast, runs a very simple defense, with (relatively) few stunts or gimmicks involved. Instead, like Garrett's offense, it is based on execution.
Speed: It's impossible to say how much of this is Garrett versus his defensive coaches, but one major change during his time is an emphasis on team speed. Wade Phillips played a faster defense than Bill Parcells, but still seemed to prefer bigger linebackers such as Bradie James and Keith Brooking. He also valued experience at safety more than athleticism. That's no longer the case under Garrett. Both DeVonte Holloman and Anthony Hitchens run 4.6 forties. Jeff Heath, J.J. Wicox, and Matt Johnson may never become anything more than JAGS, but they are all exceptional athletes. The same holds true on the defensive line. Players like Ceasar Rayford, Ben Bass, and Tyron Crawford are long, lean and athletic.
Ultimately though, being a head coach involves a lot more than just your offensive and defensive philosophy. You need a unifying philosophy for the entire team. So let's look at a few other concepts that Garrett seems to emphasize, and then try and put it all together into a unified whole.
Execution is a word I used a lot above and I think it is one of the hallmarks of Garrett's overall philosophy. Both offensively and defensively Dallas runs fairly simple schemes, and that's not going to change much even with Linehan in the fold. Garrett is not interested in "tricking" the other team. He wants to build a team of players who can line up and out-execute the other team, who can consistently do their job better than the other side can do theirs. Now let me add a caveat...every offense has some misdirection involved. But that's not the core of our offensive or defensive philosophy the way it is to say, Rob Ryan or Chip Kelly. What Garrett wants is a team that can perform at a high level even if the other side knows what's coming.
One thing that Garrett has repeatedly said is that he wants to plug holes in free agency and then add talent through the draft. But what does this mean? Well first it means that there is an emphasis on getting younger. Free agency is a place to find stop-gaps and bridge players, the draft is where you build your team's core. This then has an effect on a multitude of other areas; getting younger and building through the draft gives you more salary flexibility. That tells you that Garrett is thinking long term; a coach who is only coaching for his job wants to win now and is more likely to insist on building through free agency and bringing in established veterans he knows he can win with. It also reinforces the emphasis on team speed pointed out earlier. Younger players are generally faster players. Building your team through the draft also allows you greater control of two other aspects of your team, namely culture and knowledge. Which leads us to perhaps the most "controversial" of Garrett's philosophies.
Garrett has repeatedly said that he is looking for RKG's or "Right Kind of Guys". What this means is something that has been debated ad nauseam here at BTB. A general consensus has emerged on what exactly a RKG is or is not.
A Right Kind of Guy is not a "choirboy" or "goody-two-shoes". Having character problems may indicate you aren't a RKG, but it doesn't mean you aren't an RKG. An RKG is a leader. Someone who puts football and team first, and plays with intensity and passion. Our very own Dr. P summed it up pretty well here but the takeaway is this:
"Is the game important to the player and will he do everything that is possible to make himself a better player?"
Having a team of RKG's has a number of benefits. First and foremost, it means the team won't quit on you. Jason Garrett saw first hand what a team that quits looks like in 2010. It's not a pretty sight. Since Garrett has taken over however, that has not been an issue. We've seen a team that could have given up and lost focus during the Josh Brent fiasco, but instead rally around each other and make a strong push towards the playoffs. We have seen his team getting blown out but continuing to play hard until the final whistle.
Another benefit of having a team filled with RKG's is it means you can now gamble on a player with talent but questionable habits. Why can Dallas take a chance on Josh Brent or Rolando McClain? Because if they do step out of line, or bring craziness into the locker room the coaching staff trusts that the team can handle it. One of the hallmarks of the RKG mantra is leadership; Garrett targets draft picks who had been team leaders and captains. By filling your locker room with leaders, you have less risk when you bring in potential locker room cancers. Remember those 90's Giants teams under Jim Fassell? Super Bowl caliber defense, horrible offenses, and eventually it tore the team apart with the two units effectively at war with each other. Despite having a similar problem today (great offense, horrible defense), there is little chance of that happening to the Cowboys.
Nothing speaks more to Garrett's overall coaching philosophy than this quote:
"You can’t be afraid to want to coach guys. You don’t necessarily want finished products, but you want guys who have traits as a player and as a person who you feel can develop and find a role on your team.’’
If you look at the coaching staff that Garrett has put together one thing stands out; it is filled with teachers. None of the coaches are particularly known for X's and O's. Scott Linehan may be linked to high scoring offenses, but conceptually he isn't doing anything new or innovative. We may see more passes out of the backfield, or more screens, but this will fundamentally be the same offense we've been running since 2007. Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 took the NFL by storm in the 90's, but at it's heart it is a simple defense. Rod Marinelli defense isn't scary because people haven't seen it; it's scary because everybody knows exactly what's going on but still can't beat it. At one time Bill Callahan had a reputation as a West Coast guru, but a few years at Nebraska showed that was mostly the lingering effects of John Gruden. But he is an offensive line guru and the reason for that is he's an excellent teacher. This is a coaching staff that is going to concentrate on fundamentals, on technique. That's how we're going to win. Because Leon Lett taught Ceasar Rayford proper hand placement. Because Derek Dooley taught Terrance Williams how to fight off press coverage.
Let's look at that quote again:
"You don't necessarily want finished products". Some of the biggest draft names in recent years have been raw prospects. Tyron Smith is the biggest example, he was a phenomenal athlete and prospect but was incredibly young. Now he's an All-Pro. And there are other examples. J.J. Wilcox has only played safety for one year before being drafted. Tyrone Crawford was considered a very raw prospect. Jeff Heath and Matt Johnson were both small school prospects.
"You want guys who have traits". This speaks directly to this year's second round pick, DeMarcus Lawrence. In Lawrence the 'Boys identified specific traits that they coveted (the ability to bend around the corner). They feel like they can take that specific trait and use it to make Lawrence a pass rusher. Other examples include B.W. Webb (short area quickness) as a slot cornerback and Cole Beasley as a slot receiver.
"As a player and as a person". Teaching is not only about football, it's also about teaching these kids to be men. See RKG above, and this.
What's it all mean?
Jason Garrett is building a team where the coaches matter Monday - Saturday and the players matter on Sunday. The coaches look for specific traits and qualities in players (certain prototypes on offense and defense, certain traits and qualities, certain personalities). The coaches teach those players simple schemes, with a focus on technique and craft. Then on Sunday the players execute. That's football at its simplest, and also its best. And that's Jason Garrett's coaching philosophy.