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The Coaches Tape: A Closer Look At Cowboys vs. 49ers

A review of some of the key coaching decisions and gameplans that affected the game.

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Ronald Martinez

I am a firm believer that, in the grand scheme of NFL football, a head coach's game day management is one of the most overrated skills in history, ranking just ahead of being able to balance a broom on your fingertip, and just behind being able to whistle. Yes, in a vacuum, being able to manage a game is important for a coach. But that's kind of my point, at the NFL level, some skill as a game manager is a given. All 32 coaches are better game managers than the majority of the population. There really isn't much separation between Jason Garrett, the Harbaugh brothers, or Tom Coughlin, in the aggregate.

Now in any given game one decision may make or break the game, but in the long run, most coaches are pretty similar in game management ability. There are very few coaches who are such good game managers that they consistently give their team an edge (Sean Payton), or a handicap (Jim Caldwell). It is the decisions that happen before a game, the teaching, the game-plans, and the systems installed where a coach really makes their mark.

Still with me? Good! Now that that's out of the way let's look at some of the coaching decisions (both in game and pre-game), that made an impact on yesterday's loss against San Fransisco.

(Oh one more thing before we get data point is not a trend! Repeat after me, "one data point is not a trend!" Got it? Ready break!).

There Ain't No Rest for the Wicked: The big question on everyone's mind is, did Tony Romo look so bad because he's morphed into last year's Matt Shaub, or as has been suggested, he looked bad because he's rusty? If it's the former, go ahead and stick a fork in Romo and the season, because that goose is cooked. If it's the latter, the question then becomes, "Why didn't the coaches give him more rassa-fricken  reps?"

And here's the dangerous intersection where hindsight will morph into past certainty. It happens to me every time I go to Vegas (of course I should have picked red, it was so obvious!). It is very easy to say, after the decision has been made, that of course Romo should have gotten more reps! But let's examine this a bit more closely.

It is pretty apparent that our coaches viewed preseason through a lens of "no injuries", especially in regards to players returning from a previous injury. We practically wrapped Romo in bubble-wrap and hung a "don't open till week 1" tag on him. But that was a calculated risk (much like my roulette addiction!). Tony has recently said that one reason he rested so much was to stay ahead of the inflammation cycle. He took four days off of practice because he admitted to coaches he was feeling too sore. So the team attempted to strike a balance between getting Romo ready for the season, and keeping him healthy enough to play in the season.

That was the coaches dilemma and, in theory at least, they made the correct choice. Most veteran players rarely play in the preseason anyway. Steve McNair won an MVP award in a year in which he barely practiced the entire season due to injuries. According to PFF, Adrian Peterson has played two preseason snaps. In his career. So, it's fair to say that missing time in the preseason isn't a deal breaker for established vets.

Put another way, the coaches (with Jason Garrett probably being the main voice) had to choose between the risk that Tony Romo wouldn't be ready for game 1 due to lack of practice, or the risk that Tony Romo could have been hurt and maybe miss multiple games due to injury. The coaches chose go with the risk that Romo wouldn't be ready, and, it seems that this was a decision they missed on.

For the coaches it was a lose-lose situation with risk on either side. By the way, this whole conversation doesn't just apply to Tony Romo. Our top two corners in game one, Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr went through a similar situation.

And speaking of our corners and lose-lose:

I'm the Man In the Box: Over the past two years a common coaching complaint has been spending huge resources on man coverage corners and then playing them in zone. And every year, the defensive coaches always say we'll play more man. And in Week 1 there we were, playing zone.

But there was an actual coaching reason for playing zone this week, outside of "Marinelli's an idiot". When playing against running quarterbacks, it's fairly common to play more zone coverage. The reason is that if your corners and linebackers are turning their backs and running with the receivers, they won't see if the quarterback breaks contain and takes off running. Against a QB like Kaepernick, who set the single game record for quarterback rushing in a playoff game versus Green Bay when he ran for 181 yards, that could lead to disaster.

So again, our coaches (in this case Marinelli), must choose between the lesser of two evils. Namely, play a scheme that minimizes the opponent's strength and his own, or play a scheme that plays to both? Marinelli chose to go with the former, and it appears to be a fairly good choice. While Kaepernick did throw for two touchdowns, one came after a turnover on the Dallas one-yard line and no receiver had a 100 yard day (Boldin came very close!). Meanwhile, Dallas completely contained Kaepernick's running; he ran 5 times for 11 yards.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old One: One of the biggest fears about the defense this year was that Marinelli would play the same scheme as his mentor Monte Kiffin, with the same horrible results. It was almost a foregone conclusion, the defense was referred to as the Kiffinelli defense as far back as last year. The only vague hope many of us had was that Marinelli would play more man coverage (and that really hasn't panned out so far has it?).

At least for one game though, Marinelli showed us a vastly different defense than that of his predecessor. Marinelli showed a much more aggressive play-calling style. Last year Dallas ranked 29th in blitz percentage, blitzing on just 21% of the defensive snaps. Marinelli was much more aggressive against the 49ers, and we saw a variety of stunts and blitzes. Dallas's only sack came on a linebacker blitz from Bruce Carter, but we also saw pressure from Sterling Moore in the slot, and I believe McClain from the Mike.

Changes were apparent on the offensive side of the ball as well, although I'm hesitant to draw any kind of conclusions because of how quickly the game got out of hand. Dallas had run only 17 offensive plays before they found themselves behind 21-3. Seventeen! And while it's foolish to draw any kind of conclusion from such a small sample size, let's try anyway! For those who want a more balanced offense, look at how those 17 plays were divided:

Run: 7

Pass: 10

And for those of a certain bent, this is sure to bring joy to your hearts; the first pass of the game came off of play action.

We also got to see a little bit of how Scott Linehan wants to use our running backs out of the backfield as the combination of Lance Dunbar and DeMarco Murray caught six passes for 46 yards.

Shake It Up Baby: Perhaps no coaching decision so far will have more long term impact than the decision to shake up the line-backing corps, moving Justin Durant to WILL, Rolando McClain to MIKE and Bruce Carter to SAM. The biggest beneficiary so far has probably been Carter who is relieved somewhat from coverage duties and will be tasked with more blitzing. He responded Sunday recording the team's first (and only) sack.

Even more exciting, at least to me, is the fact that our linebackers led the team in tackles. Durant and McClain were tied with eight apiece and Carter followed that up with six. Now that may not seem like such a big deal, but can you guess how many times last season our three linebackers led the team in tackles?  Well if you guessed zero, come on down, you just received a season's worth of sadness! In fact, only six times were two linebackers in the top three in tackles. On four occasions we had no linebackers in the top three for tackles. That ladies and gentlemen, is exactly not what this scheme calls for, and is a recipe for defensive ineptitude.

What's It All Mean Basil? At this point? Not much. Tony Romo could never recover from his lost practice time in preseason, or he could be in actual decline, or he could come back next week and play lights out (my money is on the latter). But at this point we don't know. Same with all the rest, Marinelli could become much more passive in his play-calling, by all accounts the decision to play primarily zone doesn't reflect a broader scheme design, just the one time game-plan, we don't really know how Linehan wants to call plays yet. At this point there are still many more questions than answers. I do think that the lineup change in the linebacking corps will allow each player to play more to his individual strengths and strengthen both the unit and the defense overall as a result. But again, after one game it's just too early to tell.

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