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How Jason Garrett has failed to rise to the challenge of a “prove it” year

Cowboys coach isn’t cashing in on a talented roster.

Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Jason Garrett entered the 2019 season in “prove it” mode. After only two playoff wins and zero conference championship appearances, the Jones family chose to let Garrett play out the final year of his current contract rather than extend him. While nothing was stated publicly, the decision sent a clear message to Garrett, the rest of the organization and Cowboys fans everywhere: win in 2019 or hit the road.

While we’re only nine contests into a 16-game season Garrett is currently failing to meet the challenge - badly.

A talented roster

The goal of pretty much any coach of any team at any level is to get the most from the players available. Well, the Cowboys have an undeniable wealth of talent throughout the roster. In fact, going into the season, the Cowboys were rated to have eight of the top 100 players in the league. Now, one could quibble about any one of those ratings but there’s simply no arguing the Cowboys have Pro Bowl-caliber talent at every virtually position: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive line, linebacker and secondary. Only the tight end doesn’t feature a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate.

So, start with the basic premise that the Cowboys have enough talent to compete for a Super Bowl.

Positive developments

Every team faces question marks going into every season. The 2019 team faced the following:

  • Could Dak Prescott continue to be a top-12 quarterback or even improve?
  • Could Travis Frederick successfully return from Guillaine-Barre syndrome? Could Tyron Smith stay healthy and play at a high level? Could Conner Williams improve over his rookie year?
  • Could Amari Cooper sustain his elite-level performance we saw during the second half of 2018? Could Michael Gallup develop into a legitimate second wide receiver? Could Randall Cobb replace Cole Beasley’s production from the slot?
  • Could Jason Witten upgrade a fairly anemic tight end group? Could Blake Jarwin become more than a random play-maker?

Looking at those questions on the offensive side of the ball it’s amazing how virtually every one has been answered in the affirmative. Specifically, Dak Prescott has exceeded any and all expectations. Whether you want to use standard statistics like yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and passer rating, more advanced stats like adjusted net yards per attempt (5) or QBR (1) or the really advanced stats like DVOA (2), average depth of target (1) or completion percentage over expected (1), Prescott ranks among the top five in virtually everyone of these measures. If you’re not a stats guy and just trust your eyes, well, he’s passed that test as well. There’s simply no debating the 2019 Cowboys have benefited from having a former fourth-round draft pick currently making $4M playing like an MVP.

All the other questions have generally been answered positively as well. In short, offensively, everything we could have hoped for as fans has come to fruition. This is evidenced by an offense that currently ranks fifth in points scored, first in yards gained, second in EPA (expected points added) and first in success rate.

All that should make it fairly easy for Garrett to meet the challenge.

The questions facing the defense:

  • Can Demarcus Lawrence and the rest of the defensive line provide a consistent pass rush?
  • Can the dynamic linebacker duo replicate their astounding 2018 season?
  • Can the secondary provide solid coverage?
  • Most importantly, can this unit finally make some plays and create turnovers?

Now, admittedly, most of these have not been answered in the affirmative. The linebackers, in particular have regressed dramatically. The secondary overall hasn’t been bad but Chidobie Awuzie has struggled immensely. Turnovers have been virtually non-existent or come in bunches.

The one positive is on the defensive line where Robert Quinn has been better than anyone could have hoped and the team also added Michael Bennett. This unit has looked dangerous.

Finally, we all know the great equalizer in the NFL is injuries. Well, the Cowboys have been extremely fortunate on this front. Starters have missed a grand total of eight games:

  • Michael Gallup: 3
  • Tyron Smith: 2
  • Amari Cooper: 1 (technically started but effectively missed the entire game)
  • Randall Cobb: 1
  • La’el Collins: 1
  • Leighton Vander Esch: 1
  • Xavier Woods: 1

That is incredibly good fortune on the injury front. Summing it up:

Offensively: everything has gone right.

Defensively: a push or maybe a bit negative, where every positive has been balanced by a negative.

Injuries: extremely fortunate.

So, we started with a high-powered roster, have seen outstanding developments on one side of the ball, average developments on the other side of the ball and extremely good fortune with injuries. Add that up and this team should have one of the best records in the league.

Yet they sit at 5-4 and face the very real prospect of missing the post-season. Only a watered-down NFC East have given the team a path to the playoffs.

What’s gone wrong?

The single biggest reason Dallas is in this state is an 0-3 record in one-score games. Dallas has three losses by a combined eight points. It’s not hard to squint your eyes, change a few plays and - voila - the Cowboys are 8-1.

But we don’t have the luxury. And looking at each of those three losses we see a head coach failing to meet the challenge to win now. Each of the three losses featured Jason Garrett making head-scratching decisions that ultimately doomed his team. Worse, they are (mostly) the same mistakes he’s been making since taking over as head coach way back in 2010.

Those mistakes can be summed up as:

  • A hyper-conservative game strategy that often neuters the most effective unit on the team
  • A stubborn commitment to an ineffective running game
  • Bone-headed in-game decision-making
  • Disorganized, dysfunctional actions that lead to missed opportunities
  • Failure to have team ready to play

Conservative strategies

Two of the teams losses (New Orleans and New York Jets) have seen Dallas play extremely conservative on offense. In both games, Jason Garrett seemed to feel his offense couldn’t be trusted to make plays. So we saw a lot of run plays and lots of short passes. A few stats to illustrate the point:

  • Against the Saints the Cowboys run game ran 20 times for only 45 yards. Repeatedly they handed the ball off despite achieving no success.
  • Against the Jets the Cowboys ran on 59% of first down. That’s not egregious if you’re ahead or in a close game. But the Cowboys never led this game and trailed 21-3 by late in the second quarter. Repeatedly running on first down while down multiple scores is perhaps the most Jason Garrett thing ever.

Stubborn commitment to run game

A third Cowboys loss is perhaps the most inexplicable play-calling we’ve seen. Dallas lost to the Minnesota Vikings despite Dak Prescott throwing for 397 yards, three touchdowns, only a Hail Mary interception and being sacked only once. That’s hard to do. Since the NFL-AFL merger teams with those passing numbers are 102-28-2.

But Garrett and the Cowboys brain-trust insisted on running the ball despite the run game being ineffective from opening gun to final whistle. Most egregiously, with the game on the line late they twice ran the ball for -3 yards when needing only two yards for a first down. This came after the passing game had moved the ball 83 yards on pass plays without having to face a third down.

We’ve seen this play out over and over with Garrett ever since 2013. That was when the Cowboys lost to the Packers after taking a 26-3 halftime lead against Matt Flynn. Dallas, despite averaging 7.5 yards per rushing attempt, ran only five second half running plays en route to an embarrassing 37-36 defeat. After mindlessly calling pass after pass that game, Garrett seems dead-set on never repeating that disaster. As a result he’s swung wildly in the opposite direction, unwilling to ever put trust in the quarterback to carry the load when the run game isn’t working. What’s missing is a willingness to adapt to the situation. Feels like once Garrett sets his mind on a strategy he’s wholly unwilling to adjust when it proves unsuccessful.

Bone-headed in-game decision-making

Three plays Sunday night captured everything that’s wrong with Garrett’s in-game decision-making. They occurred on each of the team’s first three drives and they each involved eschewing going for it on fourth down while in enemy territory:

Each one of these decisions ignored what analytics say, statistically, is the right decision. The New York Times has a “fourth down bot” that provides the most statistically sound decision in each situation. The following shows what is the statistically optimum decision in each situation:

Now realize, that’s a generic statistical number. If, for example, your team had a high-powered offense that ranked number one in the league in yards you’d probably want to be more aggressive.

But not Jason Garrett. He seems robotically incapable of being aggressive in such situations. Garrett has faced such situations (fourth down with ball between opponent’s 35 and midfield) 161 times in his career. Overall these are his choices:

  • Punt: 105
  • Field goal: 25
  • Go for it: 31

Now, on the surface, it seems like Garrett is at least somewhat aggressive. He goes for it 31 times out of 161 opportunities (19%). However, this doesn’t take into account the following situations:

  • Desperation: down late where the situation dictates you must go for it
  • Late game situations: Cowboys either leading or trailing by multiple scores with little time left
  • Meaningless games: think the 2016, 2017 or 2018 season finales where nothing was at stake

When we eliminate these situations we find Jason Garrett has gone for it on fourth down, between the opponent’s 35- and 49-yard line, exactly nine times in his 10-year head coaching career. That’s an average of once per season and less than five percent of the opportunities he’s faced. Three times against Minnesota he had an opportunity to go for it and chose the “safe” route each time.

Here’s every time Garrett has chosen to go for it in such situations:

Note the team was successful seven of the nine times they’ve gone for it. It’s really hard to understand how an intelligent, well-educated man who can clearly grasp statistics continuously ignores those numbers to choose the “safe” route when it repeatedly fails him and the team.

It’s important to understand the impact of Garrett’s thinking in these situations. We can use win probabilities to see how the Cowboys chances at victory would improve or decline by each decision. Here’s the numbers from the 4th-and 6 situation above:

The team was already facing dire odds, with only a 15% chance of winning prior to the fourth-down play. A successful conversion would increase those odds to 22%. But the important thing is to note the difference between a failed fourth down attempt (9%) and a punt downed at the 6-yard line (12%).

The difference between the two is only 3%. By punting, Garrett guaranteed the team’s chance to win would decline. That might be the right decision occasionally, but choosing this path over and over and over challenges rational thought.

It also sends a message to your team that you simply don’t trust them. You think Dak and a passing game that put up nearly 400 yards couldn’t haven converted at least one of those fourth-down attempts? Odds say he would have converted at least two.

Disorganized, dysfunctional actions

Overall, Jason Garrett is a highly organized coach. Anyone who’s watched the team practice sees a group of well-led people who have purpose and urgency in their actions. And Garrett’s teams have generally reflected this as well.

We haven’t often seen Garrett’s teams uncertain or confused about what to do. There has been the odd gaffe here and there but nothing egregious. Well, that’s changed in 2019, specifically in the team’s loss to the Vikings.

Consider the three following events:

  • Already leading 7-0 the Vikings had a 1st-and-10 from the Minnesota 42. A screen pass to Dalvin Cook went for 30 yards to take the ball to the Dallas 28; a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty moved the ball inside the 15. They would score six plays later to take a 14-0 lead. So where’s the dysfunction? The 30-yard gain happened largely because Dallas had only 10 men on the field. That’s simply inexcusable. It’s also a sign of a disorganized, confused coaching staff.
  • Much has been made of the two failed rushing attempts late in the game that derailed what had been an outstanding drive up to that point. Not getting as much attention is the absence of any coherent strategy about what the team was trying to accomplish. Both Dak Prescott and Stephen Jones commented that part of the reason they ran the ball was to burn clock in order to avoid giving the Viking time for a comeback. Garrett himself talked about the “need to establish the run” (as if that’s important when there’s barely a minute left int he game). However, both run plays were snapped when the play-clock had 20+ seconds remaining with the game-clock running. If they wanted to run the clock down they should have let the play-clock run down under five. So which is it? There’s simply no rational explanation and yet another sign of a confused team.
  • Finally, we have the maddening Tavon Austin fair catch. Austin says he did what he was told. Garrett says he had the option to run. Then Garrett said they didn’t communicate well enough. Now it appears special teams coach Keith O’Quinn wasn’t honest with Garrett about what was communicated. In the (modified) words of Vince Lombardi, what the heck is going on here? How does that happen? it happens because you have a confused, dysfunctional coaching staff.

Failure to have team ready to play

Despite all the issues outlined above the Cowboys played well enough to have victory in hand late against a quality opponent. And yet... another loss. That’s largely because the team simply wasn’t ready to play from the opening snap.

As noted above, the Cowboys’ first two drives ended in a lengthy missed field goal and a punt. The Vikings turned both of those change of possessions into touchdowns to take an early 14-0 lead.

This is nothing new. Dallas hasn’t come out ready to play in the vast majority of their games. The offense has scored exactly one touchdown on their opening drive, and had to go all of 40 yards for that score against Philadelphia. Both the offense and the defense seems like they need an entire quarter to figure out they’re playing an actual NFL contest against real NFL opponents. Consider the deficits the team has faced:

Arbitrary end points and all that but 101 to 12!

Let that sink in. That’s eight of the Cowboys nine games where they’ve simply gotten their butts kicked early: 101 to 12! What’s astounding is the Cowboys, despite those starts, won four of those games and somehow have a +81 point differential on the season.

So, let’s add this up:

If we account for the victories over the Dolphins and Eagles, in those same seven games where Dallas was outscored by nearly one hundred points they then turned around and outscored those same teams 202 to 49 (+153) the rest of the way.

That simply makes no sense. How can the same group of players repeatedly come out and play like the worst team in the league, then swiftly turn around and play like the best? It’s schizophrenic.

Some may say the players are responsible and it’s been lack of execution that led to those deficits. Fair enough; I’ll agree with that to some extent. However, I also believe that when a large group of professionals (in any profession) routinely fail to perform to expectations leadership is responsible.

That’s part of the role of leaders; determine why something negative keeps happening and do whatever necessary to stop it from happening. Jason Garrett obviously has no answers to this very big problem.

Summary

We started by talking about Jason Garrett needing to rise to the challenge in a “prove it” year. We also talked about a coach’s primary responsibility being to get the best from his group of players. We talked about this being a talented team that has had good fortune with development, additions and injuries.

And yet...111-12! There’s simply no way anyone could claim Jason Garrett is getting the most from this version of the Cowboys. It’s not even close.

In fact, I’d argue this is Garrett’s worst performance as Cowboys head coach. Heck, it wasn’t that long ago when he was given (supposedly) the worst the defense in the league and a third-string quarterback and he turned it into a 13-3 record and an NFC East division crown. Now, he’s been given a loaded roster and the team’s barely .500 despite facing a cupcake schedule.

We’ve seen Garrett turn things around before. But it feels too late already; the margin for error too small. In a prove it season Garrett will have to change his ways and find a way to overcome the flawed strategies, befuddling game-day decisions and inability to have his team ready to play or he’ll soon go down as the Cowboys’ version of Marvin Lewis.