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Cowboys mystery: The strange case of the missing play-action

Here’s one more reason why there needs to be change in the coaching ranks.

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NFL: DEC 22 Cowboys at Eagles Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys still cling to a slim chance to make the playoffs after failing to beat the Philadelphia Eagles last week. But in any case, they will not complete the season with more than eight wins. Barring a surprising win by the New York Giants over the Eagles coupled with a Dallas win against Washington and an ensuing miracle run in the playoffs, there will be some new faces in the coaching ranks for the Cowboys.

Almost everyone expects that the head coaching job will be among those that changes. It won’t even take firing Jason Garrett, since his current contract ends when the Cowboys complete their final game of the season. While Garrett still has his supporters, including here on the BTB staff, there were just too many things that went wrong.

However, it is legitimate to question just how much can be laid at Garrett’s feet. He can’t make the throws for Dak Prescott. He can’t catch the ball. He can’t cover the opposing receivers. He isn’t even calling the plays. His job during the season is about setting the tone, preparing the team, and at least overseeing the work of his coordinators. Included in all that is making the necessary adjustments from week to week and having a good game plan.

This season has provided an overwhelming amount of evidence that those tasks have not gone well. Whatever the reason, Garrett just hasn’t gotten it done.

There are a laundry list of things that could be brought up, but instead, this article is focused on one thing in particular. As often happens, the kernel for this came from Twitter:

Incidentally, that one victory below 30% was the week seven game, which just missed it by a single percentage point.

There are a lot of statistical nuggets that are used incorrectly, of course. The most famous one is linking carries by running backs to wins. That is a clear case of confusing correlation and causation. But this one about play-action seems a bit different. The number of carries commonly goes up when a team is winning and gains an advantage by using clock with the ground game. Passing should be the opposite. Teams lean more on throwing the ball when they are behind. Now, that may lead to less play-action as the team just commits to the air, but that alone shouldn’t account for all of the low usages shown above. Some of those low numbers would seem to indicate games where play-action was just not used much at any point. And in weeks 13 and 14, the Cowboys jumped out to 7-0 leads in both games and still didn’t really use play-action to good effect.

This is just mystifying. If you have a type of play that is very effective and seemed to pay a major role in your wins, why would it be largely shelved in games that wind up as losses?

Here, one bit of testimony points right at Garrett, and it came from his mouth. He stated clearly that the Cowboys do not use analytics during games to influence their play calls. This is a screaming example of a place using that kind of analysis would have led to using more play-action. But it isn’t just there that more reliance on analytics could have corrected things. If the team truly looked at things like success rates in the weeks preparing for games, play-action should have gotten more emphasis throughout the season. Obviously, it didn’t.

Bob Sturm has been tracking play-action all season in his weekly looks at Kellen Moore at The Athletic. In his latest one, he had this simply damning observation.

Play-action certainly seems to come and go in this offense, and obviously the score will dictate some, but so will the stadium it is played in. The Cowboys love play-action passes at home and seem to forget about them on the road when the game starts getting away from them. It seems their solution is to simplify, and it seldom yields good results.

Is that all on the head coach? That is debatable, but it is hard to argue that he could not have fixed this if he had insisted on it. No, it is pretty clear that he did not push for more play-action. At the least, it is only reasonable to have tried to as the season progressed and the Cowboys continued to struggle. There is zero evidence he did.

That part about simplifying things on the road and when things go badly also fits the perception that Garrett is conservative by nature. There are certainly other clues, like how he elected to keep kicking field goals while trailing against the Eagles. But the disappearance of play-action when the team direly needed something to spark the offense is sufficient unto itself.

The fact that the Cowboys were so close to being able to wrap this division up just makes the case more clear. All they really needed was one more win. Even had they lost to the Eagles, finding another victory earlier in the season would have put them in a win-and-in situation in the final game, instead of having to hope for the Giants to give them a lot of help.

A new head coach will not guarantee anything, of course. To be honest, it is very likely that things will get worse should Jerry Jones go out and get another head coach.

It is also almost certain that it won’t get much better if he doesn’t. Something has to be tried. Replacing the head coach is actually a bit lazy in some ways. But, as Trent Dilfer observed in the article from our DannyPhantom I linked above, it is the way of the league.

Here’s what happens, and it’s an unfortunate part of the NFL. Once this narrative starts that it’s Jason’s fault, and we all know that for like six weeks now and it’s all I’ve talked about when I talk about the Cowboys, I’m sure it’s all you guys talk about. Every radio TV show has started that narrative that ‘well, if they’re not performing well, it’s Jason’s fault.’ Everybody’s who fault it is, now has a fall guy. So every Cowboy that’s dropping a ball, that’s missing a gap, that’s missing a block, that isn’t working hard during the week - now has a fall guy and says, “now this isn’t my fault, this is Jason’s fault” because everyone’s saying it’s Jason’s fault.’ And it becomes this ground swell within organization.

So now we wait to see how it all plays out. This is just part of the case, but the way the Cowboys get away from one of their most successful plays in losses is a strong element. Change is needed.

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