Bill Callahan Is Now Calling The Plays – And Yes, It Matters

The delivery of the news is “uniquely Jerry” where communication skills seem forever stuck in reverse, and complete with comedy ensuing.  Think about the true joy of being a principle member (Say, Bill Callahan or Jason Garrett) of a rather significant news story and surrounded by the leering press and to be asked about questions where you are not sure whether or not your own boss has spilled the beans without warning moments ago.  You are tip-toeing through a mine field and are careful not to step on the toes of colleagues who have been demoted or promoted and wish to handle things with honesty (assuming that is how you naturally roll), but realize you have to amend your normal sensibilities to comply with the ol’ “Way Things Are At Valley Ranch as Long As Jerry Is Running The Show.”

It surely should also be understood to all involved that Jason Garrett, the mostly-nuetered head coach of this operation, knew what he was getting into many years ago when he elected to stay in this situation out of some loyalty to either Jerry Jones, the Cowboys brand, or both, rather than to start with a clean slate in either Baltimore or Atlanta.  He was made the highest-paid assistant coach in the league and the head coach-in-waiting to stay in Dallas and work his magic further.  But, with that would come this incredibly odd working situation that he must navigate through, despite looking rather helpless and powerless when it comes to many basic decisions that are often given to a head coach.  For all we know, it is possible that Garrett knew this needed to happen and blessed it, but the fact that he still argues for keeping the discussion in-house, when his boss has already decided to make sure the microphones knew the information, further reduces any perception of power that Garrett may hold.

But, let’s not bury the lead here.  Yes, the way information is made public is both frustrating and unconventional, but it is the information itself that truly matters.  If we weren’t sure before yesterday who was the de facto head coach, then we haven’t been paying attention.

The story itself is that after 6 years of interrupted control of the Cowboys offense, we are getting that fresh set of eyes that I petitioned for back in December and January:

Which now brings the conversation to the idea of play-calling and the coordination of the offense.  I think Jason Garrett is a bright offensive mind, but I also believe that he has had more than enough time to sort this offense better than he has.  You could make the case that he was sabotaged by a poor personnel offseason as it pertains to the offensive line, but 6 years is a long time. 

6 years for a play-caller and a QB to work together is a very rare luxury in the NFL, generally afforded to iconic offenses that are clearly not broken so there is no need to fix them.  This offense, on the other hand, is never confused for flawless, and looks more problematic every year, despite continuity at QB and near perfect health all season on the unit. 

This coordinator does not value the running game, and he never has.  In his 6 years running this offense, the team has never ranked higher than 15th in rushing attempts and has also become a team that almost never wins the battle at the line of scrimmage.  Physical play is not emphasized and therefore it is not received.  The Cowboys set a franchise low for rushing yards in a season in 2012 and instead put everything on the shoulders of their passing game and their QB.  When you consider the physical style of the offensive line in San Francisco, it in no way resembles what the Cowboys have built, but it demonstrates how you build a team that does not count on its Quarterback to accomplish everything.  The offensive lines in New Orleans or Green Bay do not scare anyone, but they seem to be happy to rely on their QB for everything.  If we have decided that Romo is not of the elite quality of Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, then perhaps you cannot build your team like they do.  Perhaps, occasionally, you want to win a game with a physical brand of football.  But, Jason Garrett is not thinking that way.

Again, for those who are new to my thoughts on how offense works, a team doesn’t run the ball because running is the only way to win (Emmitt getting 20 carries is usually the result of a Cowboys winning game-plan, not the root of it), it threatens to run the ball to make passing easier and blitzing harder.  A balanced offense is the most fundamentally efficient way for coaches to put the playmakers in advantageous positions on the field, rather than draped with coverage.  And if your playmakers are the beneficiaries of uncertainty in the defense of what is coming on this next play, then everyone wins.

If Garrett hasn’t been able to exploit that, and if “12 Personnel” is the base offense, then perhaps there isn’t a true fit with Garrett and the principles that are the whole point behind multiple tight ends to begin with.  12 Personnel, which we will elaborate on further very soon, is a grouping that is trying to make you pick your poison.  If you wish to keep base defense on the field, then 12 shreds you with mismatches of linebackers trying to run with tight ends.  If you switch to nickel or dime, then 12 destroys you with a running game that forces defensive backs to deal with much bigger run blockers.  You cannot “guess” correctly, because often 12 is based on how you decide to defend it with your personnel on defense.  There is almost no other grouping like this, as “11” is always going to draw nickel defense and “21” is always going to draw base (because teams don’t mind linebackers on a true fullback).  But, “12” is that perfect combo – provided you have the tight ends to do it – where there is no right answer for the defense.

We do know that Bill Callahan has traditionally valued power running in his previous stops.  Oakland, in particular was a team that would balance things up pretty well, and sometimes err on the side of running too much.  However, we do wonder how all of this info balances with the narrative that Jerry has voiced for months now, that Tony Romo might be designing much of this offense, anyway.  So, will Callahan have the power to bully the gameplan to his liking? or is it Romo? or is it Garrett? or….

Anyway, back to the thoughts in January:

I am a big believer in the idea that Jason Garrett could use some help and a fresh set of eyes.  I don’t think that he is great at always looking on top of every decision as he tries to handle play-calling and the multiple responsibilities of being a head coach and an offensive coordinator.  

So, if the changes at Valley Ranch mean that somebody new gets to try to make more sense of this offense, I am all for it.  I think it might be time for a new coach to have a chance to figure out how to blend Romo’s ability with a running game and a more physical offensive line.  I am for that, and I am now wondering if it is going to happen.  

Change is good sometimes in the NFL.  Ramming your head against the same walls after coordinator and QB have been together since 2007 is too frustrating to go on.  I want to see what might happen if the Cowboys started getting the play in to Romo with enough time to comfortably get the snap off.  And to do so at a time where the defense cannot sit on the snap because of its proximity to :00.  

I’m just sure I don’t want to see another year where the receiver looks confused on his hot route, Romo is yelling “kill, kill, kill!” with :02 left on the play-clock, and another record is set for lowest rushing yards. 

I am fine with trying something new. 

Many people are going to be citing statistics about 2012 that are just flat-out misleading.  Context means everything when you work with numbers, and since it is too complicated and time-consuming to apply context, most people will just google “total offense” for a year and assume all details cancel each-other out over a season.

But, in another study we did back in February that can be read here, we showed how numbers are empty when you are gaining them down 28-3:

I will concede that it is difficult to define “garbage time” sometimes.  Was it garbage time when the Cowboys were down 23-0 to the Giants at halftime?  Or, 28-3 to the Redskins at the half on Thanksgiving?  And if so, didn’t the Cowboys almost win the Giants game and at least make the Redskins sweat a bit? 

I would say that arguing this, though, is missing the point of trying to identify the Cowboys offensive ability in 2012.

My point, would be this:  In 2012, the Cowboys’ would spend all week designing a game plan that they thought would best work against their opponents.  Then, at game-time, they would find that their game plan was completely ineffective and scrap it.  This would happen at halftime sometimes, 3rd Quarter other times, and even sometimes well before halftime.  When they would scrap their game plan (a balanced attack with multiple personnel groupings and formations) and go exclusively to a 2-minute drill offense that was 100% shotgun and 100% 11 personnel, they would then find the ability to get yards and ultimately, points.  

The score in the game here is interesting, but not the trigger.  The trigger is that moment when Garrett and/or Romo says to the other, “this isn’t working.  Let’s do what we know works.” 

And that happened over and over and over in 2012.  Especially at home.  The following is a look at the amount of time the Cowboys had the ball with the lead in their 8 home games.  The information is accurate and impossible to believe.

Opponent Time with the lead
Tampa Bay 17:58
Chicago 0:00
New York  1:08
Cleveland 1:16
Washington 3:46
Philadelphia 1:52
Pittsburgh 10:36
New Orleans 0:00
Total 36:36

That is right.  36 minutes and 36 seconds the entire year.  This is a team that fell behind early almost every single home game.  Why?  Because their game-plan week after week was not working. 
Why?  I could offer 100 ideas.  But, the point is, they weren’t working.  And, from there, when Romo and Garrett would take it and throw it in the trash, that is when the Cowboys were able to turn these games into competitive contests by going back to Shotgun-11 personnel.  Then, and only then, was this offense able to get anything done.  
Under center?  Rushing the ball?  Declaring run and getting a tough yard?  Under center and run play action and hit one over the top?  In all of these scenarios, 2012 was about as bad a year as Garrett has on record.

All this is being said without referencing the number of times in the 40 games as head coach where the Cowboys seemed to butcher a head coach decision.  Those issues with clock management, or challenge calls, or other high-leverage moments that seemed to add to Garrett’s responsibilities in such a way where it all appeared to be too much for one guy to deal with.

Now, hypothetically, even though Jerry has told us all the reasons why Garrett should be calling plays in the past, this should allow further brain power and fresh perspective on what is usually 2 jobs that require every waking hour for 2 different smart football men.

Of course, the other, more cynical view is that now with 3 different former head coaches on the staff in Callahan, Rod Marinelli, and Derek Dooley (at the college level), along with Monte Kiffin, that the Cowboys are well equipped to replace Garrett in-season if they so choose, which is reminiscent of how he took over the duties at midseason in 2010 when Wade Phillips met a similar fate.

I was quite confused as to why this news item was so difficult to release, but in the end, I think it could be a great new way for the Cowboys offense to function.

Either way, I think 6 years is enough information to conclude that it would be difficult to argue that Garrett should have retained his authority in the offense.  A change has been long overdue.