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Welcome To The Matt Cassel Era: Bernie Kosar, Jason Garrett And The Cowboys' Ideal Backup QB Profile

As we sit on the cusp of the Matt Cassel era in Dallas, it might prove useful to examine the Cowboys' backup quarterback history. It might offer a clue about what they see in the veteran signal caller.

Young Jason Garrett was the 90s version of Brandon Weeden
Young Jason Garrett was the 90s version of Brandon Weeden
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

I want to start by taking you back to the middle of the 1993 season, wherein a team that proved to be the strongest in Cowboys history looked quite a ways from fulfilling its destiny. In early November, the 5-2 Cowboys, with two bye weeks already in the books, faced off against a similarly 5-2 Giants squad enjoying a resurgence under new head coach Dan Reeves (they continued to play well, and it took Emmitt Smith's legendary dislocated shoulder performance for Dallas to eke out the division title on the season's final Sunday). Dallas won the first meeting handily, but it came at a cost: Troy Aikman injured his left hamstring with 9:30 left in the third quarter.

Leading 17-6 when Aikman went down, the Cowboys called upon a little-used backup by the name of Jason Garrett to command the huddle. Garrett responded by completing five of six passes for 34 yards and directing two touchdown drives, both of which ended in short Emmitt Smith runs. With upcoming games against the 3-7 Cardinals and the 3-6 Falcons, the thought went, Garrett would likely suffice until Aikman could return to the lineup. By Thursday, however, this line of thinking changed; the Cowboys announced that they had signed Bernie Kosar, who had been cut unexpectedly by the Browns that Monday. The Cowboys publicly poo-poohed Kosar's chances of playing against Arizona four days hence

However, after Garrett started the Cardinals game 2-6 for 25 yards (and a field goal on the Cowboys' opening drive), Johnson inserted Kosar into the lineup, and the veteran led the Cowboys to scores on his first two possessions at the helm, which proved to be enough of a lead as Dallas eked out a 20-15 victory. Kosar started against the following week - a terrible 27-14 loss to the Falcons in which he was 22-39 for 186 yards (sound familiar?). The following week, the infamous Thanksgiving-in-the-snow game versus the Dolphins, Aikman was back, and Kosar returned to the bench.

I remind you of this history because I believe it established a precedent for the ideal back-up quarterback profile in the minds of the Cowboys' long-standing brass. By the time he came to Dallas, Kosar was no longer the dynamic quarterback who had won 53 games, and led the Browns to three AFC Championship games in his time in Cleveland. However, he was experienced; Kosar had played eight plus NFL seasons, throwing for almost 22,000 yards and 116 touchdowns (and boasted a low 2.6 interception percentage). His football IQ had always been the strength of Kosar's game, and his years in the league had done nothing to diminish that; if anything, his ability to process information had increased by having seen everything that defensive coordinators were going to throw at him.

Over the course of the Tony Romo era—in other words, from 2007 to the present—the Cowboys have employed several different quarterbacks to back up Romo. In 2007-08, former Super Bowl winner Brad Johnson held the clipboard; Johnson was replaced by Jon Kitna, who held the back-up role from 2009-11; in 2012, Kyle Orton became the primary QB reserve. After a nasty rift in the quarterback room led to Orton demanding his release during the 2014 offseason, the team tabbed the more collegial Brandon Weeden as Romo's number two.

Prior to enlisting Weeden, Dallas' back-up signal callers fit what we might call the Kosar profile: aging former starters who had enjoyed success but no longer had sufficient physical skills to prompt an NFL club to offer them a starting position. By the time he came to Dallas in 2007, Johnson had played for three teams in thirteen years, thrown for more than 28,000 yards, logged 120 starts, and had earned a Super Bowl ring, in 2002, while with Tampa Bay. Kitna had started 115 games before his arrival in Dallas, throwing for more than 27,000 yards and 150 touchdowns. In his seven years in the league, Orton played with three teams, tallying almost 15,000 passing yards and notching 80 aerial scores.

Moreover, all three men had experience winning games. Before signing with the Cowboys, Johnson had already carved 71 victory notches in his belt. Kitna came to Dallas with 46 career wins, and Orton has a respectable 35 victories in his 69 career starts. A back-up quarterback's primary responsibility is to keep the ship afloat when the starter goes down; this means he needs to win at roughly a .500 clip; indeed, this is precisely what Kosar managed in Aikman's absence back in '93. While none of these men were world-beaters during their careers as starters, each had demonstrated the ability at the very least to fulfill the backup's prerogative: win about as much as you lose.

As we know, Brandon Weeden presented a very different career profile before signing with the Cowboys. He was not a seasoned veteran, having played only two years and started but 20 games. In those games, he emerged victorious on only five occasions, throwing for a third of the yards that Orton had totaled in his pre-Dallas career (and a much smaller fraction of the yardage totals amassed by Johnson and Kitna). Whether the Cowboys signed Weeden because the Orton holdout caught them with their proverbial pants down, because they wanted to save money at the position, or because of a philosophical shift, the bald truth is that they decided the last two seasons to go with a much less seasoned backup. In essence, they were rolling with a slightly more experienced version of Jason Garrett, circa 1993.

Until they signed Matt Cassel. Cassel is not more physically talented than Weeden; indeed, in terms of arm strength and overall athleticism, he's less talented, perhaps much less so.  But this is his eleventh NFL season; in that time, he's logged 72 starts, passed for more than 15,000 yards, won 91 games and thrown 96 touchdown passes. In short, Cassel's career looks a lot more like Kosar's Johnson's, Kitna's and Orton's than it does Garrett's or Weeden's. More importantly, he's seen nearly everything that defensive coordinators can throw at a QB; he should be able to process information more rapidly that a younger quarterback who is still learning to understand what he's seeing.

And this is the key. For all the talk about the various offensive schemes, all NFL offenses rely on roughly the same principles. Whether its the "West Coast," Coryell/ Zampese, or Run-n-Shoot schemes, the pass pattern combinations that beat the Tampa-2 are the same: verticals up the deep middle, between the safeties, and "flag" routes, or 12-15 yarders to the sidelines. Regardless of the system, receivers will need to run these routes to have success against that defense. So, the nomenclature might be different from scheme to scheme, but what each one describes is the same. The quarterback's responsibility is to get the offense into the correct play to beat the particular defensive deployment he sees as he brings the offense to the line - and this goes for the running game as well.

And that's the big advantage the Kosars of the world have over the Garretts of the world. In an NFL where defenses are constantly trying to disguise their intentions, its crucial that quarterbacks don't mistake what they see. Essentially, quarterback play is about pattern recognition, and the more a given QB has seen, the easier it is for him to sift through the noise to discern useful information. From that, it is hoped, he can glean defensive intention. And the more quickly and accurately he can make this determination, the more time he has to get his guys in the right alignment to have success against it.

In our most recent podcast, Landon and I were discussing this very issue, and I said:

...you want a guy who can go in there and, you know, the defense tries to do stuff, and its not going to confuse him. He'll be like, "Dude, I saw that in 2007, whatever. I know what to do. Oh, oh, okay, yeah, go ahead, try sugaring your blitz. I know how to look at tape and figure out tendencies because I did that for so many years as a starter."

...They many not have the same arm, they may not have the same physical ability that they once had - certainly neither Kitna nor Johnson had that. But its in terms of recognition and preparation that they have significant advantages.

I don't think there's any question Weeden's probably a better athlete at this particular moment and has a better arm than Cassel, but it seem like his inability to process information...led to him making the most safe choices because he wasn't sure about what he saw sometimes, and I think that that's what we're not going to have with Cassel.

...Romo said in training camp, "this is the thing I've been gifted with: I can process information quickly." And that happens both through natural gifts but also through experience.

And I think that's why the Cowboys have always preferred that experienced quarterback. That guy may not have the arm but, ultimately, is quarterbacking about having a strong arm or is it about pattern recognition? In terms of the latter, about pattern recognition, Cassel gives them an advantage over Weeden.

Weeden's inexperience greatly reduced his viability as a long-term solution, because the limitations of his mental game are more likely to be exposed the longer he has to play. And indeed we saw this happen; each game, from the second half against the Eagles to the Bataan Death March that was the offensive performance against the Patriots, we saw what happens when a coaching staff wants to delimit the mistakes that happen when a young quarterback fails to recognize, process and get his teammates aligned. When we talk about what kind of boost Cassel might give the Cowboys, the talk has centered around his ability to push the ball downfield, thus keeping the safeties honest. The more important benefit is his capacity to get the other ten players in the optimal position to succeed.

That's what a physically bankrupt Bernie Kosar, with almost no practice time, was able to do in 1993 - and precisely what a young Jason Garrett still struggled with. So, while the younger Garrett was a faster, smoother athlete (my goodness did Kosar move awkwardly!) and threw a better ball, Kosar instantly recognized what the other team wanted to do, made adjustments and, by doing so, made everyone else around him better. I'd expect Matt Cassel to provide the same benefits.

Follow me @rabblerousr

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