This is a fascinating question and one that many Cowboys fans probably feel like the answer to is no. As Sturm notes, Jason Garrett isn’t necessarily the most conservative coach in the NFL, he’s just not Doug Pederson.
Something Sturm said made me think, though. When discussing how the Cowboys don’t tend to go for it on fourth down across the 50-yard line as much as the Eagles, a lightbulb went off.
The Dallas Cowboys do have spectacular specialists, by the way. When healthy, Dan Bailey is one of the best kickers of any era and Chris Jones appears to be a wonderful punter. The Cowboys find sending on a specialist to do his job a safe idea and one they therefore rely on. The following findings suggest that at times, they might be a crutch.
This is an idea that a friend of mine in San Antonio, Ari Temkin, has thrown out to me before. He once said that Dan Bailey might be the worst thing to ever happen to Jason Garrett. That might be an exaggeration, but the idea is interesting.
Dan Bailey has struggled (for his standards) down the stretch in recent seasons, 2017 especially. He missed an extra point for the first time at the tail end of last season in New York, and he did it again three weeks later in Philadelphia.
Other than that though (like how I swept that under the rug), Bailey is magnificent. He’s the second-most accurate kicker in NFL History. If ever there were a crutch, that’s a great one to have.
Similarly, Chris Jones’ punting is a work of art. It’s not just a measure of accuracy for him, it’s a measure of distance covered. Chris Jones can typically bail the Cowboys out of trouble and pin opponents back where we want them. I detailed this a few weeks ago.
Chris Jones ranks eighth of the 33 punters measured when it comes to Long Field Average, coming in at 48.36. Think about that for a second. When doing what he could to kick the stuffing out of it, Jones covered almost half of a football field.
I wrote about this very same statistic in June of 2016 for Inside The Star (with PurplePTSD’s data for the 2015 season). And just like he did then, Chris Jones impressed more specifically in Short Field Average in 2017. He covered 77.74% of the field when working with 60 or less yards, and that’s good for fourth of the measured punters.
This means that, using the example from earlier, if Jones was punting from midfield he’d land it 39 yards down field at the opponent’s 11-yard line. That’s an insane weapon to have at your disposal.
Midfield is a point Bob Sturm discusses a lot in his piece. If you’re the head coach and have a punter who can nail it at the opponents’ 11-yard line, you’re doing that, right?
This isn’t a knock against Jason Garrett by any means. Statistically, he’s making the correct decision. He’s using the elite weapons he has when situations call for him to. That’s good coaching.
It does however lean towards a more conservative approach, though. This brings us back to our original question, are Dan Bailey and Chris Jones actually too good?
Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin was one of the first coaches to start going for two with some regularity back in 2015. He did so because his kicker wasn’t as reliable as someone like say Dan Bailey. This is a survival-of-the-fittest-type result, forcing the aggressiveness out of him whereas his Pennsylvania counterpart Doug Pederson simply does it out of gut feel.
Jason Garrett doesn’t have a poor kicker or lackluster punter that force him into aggressive decisions. When put in those situations that demand some aggressiveness, we’ve seen him execute it. Think back to 4th and 6 against Detroit in the 2014 Wildcard Round or against Philadelphia at home in 2016 when he called the fake punt with Chris Jones.
Dan Bailey and Chris Jones really are crutches. They’re two that Jason Garrett leans on because he should. They’re safety nets and emergency breaks that will catch and stop the Cowboys because they’re designed to, they’re simply exemplary at doing so.
The solution to this “problem” isn’t asking Bailey or Jones to regress at their crafts, it lies within Jason Garrett, and it’s insanely difficult. If Garrett is to get “more aggressive” he has to not just go against every instinct he may or may not have, he has to go against objective data that supports his decision-making.
Ultimately asking Jason Garrett to be more aggressive is asking him to deny logic, and that’s a pretty impossible thing to do, not to mention an extremely unfair one. It may be the difference between him and say Doug Pederson, but it’s not exactly apples to apples.
Basically Jason Garrett has to be perfect in this specific realm. That’s all. No big deal.