CHARLOTTE, N.C. — By 6 p.m. Saturday, the Dallas Cowboys had zipped from their chartered airplane and checked into their North Carolina hotel. Ninety minutes later, coach Jason Garrett oversaw a team meeting in which he used that flight, this place and “the noise of criticism” to illustrate to his Cowboys a philosophy that was important in Sunday’s 19-14 win over the Panthers.
Jason Garrett told his Cowboys about the Wright Brothers.
“It’s 1902, bicycles are the popular form of transportation, automobiles are just coming into vogue, and two bicycle-selling brothers in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina want to jump from bicycles to airplanes? Really?” Garrett said in his speech. “Had they not done it, we wouldn’t have gotten here by that plane. And they wouldn’t have done it had they listened to the noise. Imagine the negative noise they heard, two bicycle-selling brothers with the idiotic dream of trying to invent a way for man to fly.
“So,” Garrett concluded, “ignore the noise.”
Garrett isn’t above “constructive criticism.” But he is trying to guide his 3-3 Cowboys toward contention. And his point to his team is that “the noise” does nothing to help that.
“The noise” includes derision directed at Dallas, even after this victory, because of a so-called “conservative” play call that set up the road win. Critics are saying the Cowboys “purposely settled for field goals” and “didn’t play aggressively” and “failed to go for the jugular.”
I’ve told you what happened in the pregame meeting room. Are you interested to know what happened on the play-calling sideline and then at the line of scrimmage?
A little over three minutes remained and the Cowboys trailed 14-13. Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo faced a third-and-9 from the Carolina 15-yard line. On second down, the Cowboys were given an inviting Panthers defensive alignment featuring single coverage on Dez Bryant, but he dropped a potential TD catch in the right corner of the end zone.
Should Dallas be “aggressive” and throw it again?
The Cowboys went to the line of scrimmage with two plays called, as is conventional. The first play? Aggressive! Designed and detailed all week for use against a specific Panthers defensive alignment, it featured a right-to-left crossing route by Miles Austin. Indeed, it was used early in this game in the red zone … an attempt to cap a textbook-gorgeous 18-play, 91-yard, 10:10-minute possession … except Romo overthrew a wide-open Austin. So Dallas “settled” for a 3-0 lead to begin the game.
So Romo approached the line with that same play called. Within seconds came the “kill” sign – the quarterback slicing his hand at his neck. “Kill! Kill!” That “killed” the pass play, and why?
“Tony saw Carolina was dropping eight guys, soft coverage with the safeties over the top, and probably a double-team of Dez,” Garrett tells me. “So he checked out of the play. Absolutely the right thing to do.”
After the game, Romo himself made a public case for “aggression.”
“You always want to throw the ball as a quarterback,” Romo said. “Was I surprised? No. We knew what they were going to give us. It’s the kind (of coverage) they hang their hat on, so it’s the kind of running play that has a chance to get eight or nine yards, versus that look. At the same time, like I said, as a quarterback, you always want to have a chance. I was pleading for it there on the sideline.”
So Dallas shifted to the designated play against this coverage, in this situation. A trap-draw to Phillip Tanner, who squeezed the ball, gained a few yards, and set up Dan Bailey for the chip-shot kick.
“I wanted to preserve the opportunity there to kick that field goal,” Garrett told the media-at-large. “If they had done something else (defensively), we would have been in something else.”
I’m not sure why this is so difficult for otherwise smart football followers to understand. But given that this decision is being labeled as “conservative” and “controversial,” is apparently is difficult.
“It’s not about being ‘aggressive,’ Garrett tells me. “It’s about making the right call that helps you win. You’re not going to throw the ball just so you can say, ‘Look at us! Look at how aggressive we are!”
There were other factors at play here, including faith in a Dallas defense that would follow the Bailey kick with a quick stop (helped by a favorable interference non-call involving Mo Claiborne). I might note that it’s amusing for critics to say “Garrett should have more trust in his offense” because they are therefore ignoring the fact that handling this pivotal decision in another way would’ve demonstrated a “lack of trust in his defense.”
Also fascinating to me: The short memories we have of a Cowboys play-caller who habitually used the trap-draw to “conservatively” accept what the defense was giving. Do you not remember how many times Norv Turner and then Ernie Zampese faced apparent “passing downs” and instead ran the trap-draw to Emmitt Smith?
And now – knowing that the quarterback goes to the line with two calls, and knowing that Garrett and Romo are following the same exact blueprint drawn by Norv, Ernie, Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman —
Do you understand it?
Criticizing play-calling and game-management is fun. Dallas deserved the abuse given it for mismanaging the final 26 seconds of last week’s loss in Baltimore. And maybe some of that criticism was “constructive.” (Worth noting: Another Saturday night speaker was ex-Redskins genius Joe Gibbs, who told Cowboys players stories of his own occasional game-management gaffes in Washington.)
But criticism after a win in which the Cowboys followed a time-proven blueprint to seal the deal?
I’ve told you what happened in the pregame meeting room. I’ve told you what happened with the play-calling on the sideline and then at the line of scrimmage. Are you interested to know what happened when the coaches convened for a private post-game moment?
The criticism from some circles goes hand-in-hand with the response I received on Twitter on Sunday night when I reported from the Cowboys team bus that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan – who’d just limited Cam “Superman” Newton’s offense to 13 points – was camping out in the stadium parking lot and leading his staff in a celebratory round of victory cigars.
You don’t like that because you don’t think this is a win worth celebrating? That’s what I’m hearing from some Cowboys fans who are forgetting to admit that they themselves celebrate after a good round of golf, after a slow-pitch softball win, or after having a successful day at the widget factory.
But pro football coaches – who work all week, all year, all their lives for moments like this – can’t exchange hugs and cigars?
Tell that to the barely house-trained Rob Ryan and he would likely use your face as his ashtray.
Tell that to the dignified Jason Garrett and he would likely tell you stories about the Wright brothers. … and then if you stubbornly refuse to learn, he will push forward and “ignore the noise.”