You know that sports cliche about the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose, and how they aren’t the same thing? Yeah, well Jason Garrett’s running the Cowboys in what appears to be an effort to perform the latter.
Garrett’s play-calling last night in the Cowboys/Falcons game was conservative at best and chicken shit at worst. It appears as if he’s trying to manage embattled quarterback Tony Romo into a position where Romo can’t give the game away. The result of this management style is that it’s kept the Cowboys in games, but the last four games (Ravens, Panthers, Giants, Falcons) have followed the same script: get it close in the 4th quarter, have a shot – even if it’s nominal – to win the game with a few minutes left. Dallas has gone 1-3 in these last four games.
The biggest problem for the Cowboys offense hasn’t been Tony Romo, it’s been the lack of consistent protection offered by the offensive line. Maybe also the penalties racked up by the offensive line, but for the sake of elegance, let’s bunch them together. Adding to this quandary is the oft-injured DeMarco Murray, the starting running back. A few years ago, Bill Simmons compared erstwhile Colts defensive back Bob Sanders to Scott Weiland, lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots. The main point of similarity is that after a while, you just have to stop counting on them. It’s only been a few games into Murray’s career, but he’s beginning to have the smell of that type of player who simply cannot stay on the field. While Felix Jones and Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner have tried their best, none of them is Murray. Other than small flashes, the Cowboys running game is dead. Everyone seems to know this. Except Jason Garrett.
I understand. The Cowboys can’t simply give up on the running game. It would allow opposing defenses to bring the house against Romo since every down would become an obvious passing down. But still, Garrett’s conservative play-calling – especially when Dallas is backed up inside its own 30 – has the added side effect of short offensive drives. Over the course of the game, it’s begun to wear out the defense. The defense is much improved over a year ago, but as I watch them try to get key stops in the 4th quarter, I know they’re gassed. They spend too much time on the field after three-and-outs. Sure, last night if Scandrick makes that open field tackle on Rogers, maybe the Cowboys have a little more time left on the clock. Maybe all they have to do is kick a field goal to tie it. This is the approach Garrett appears to favor. It looks like the entire game plan is centered around “keeping it close.” You know which kinds of teams do that? Not the good ones.
NBC’s Cris Collinsworth made the salient point after the Cowboy marched down the field to score a touchdown in less than three minutes last night: Where was this the whole game? The Cowboys went into no-huddle and ditched the running plays in favor of intermediate passing routes – but only after Atlanta had taken the lead by ten and made it a two-possession game. The same thing happened last week when the Cowboys went down by 23. And they came back to take the lead. But then once Dallas made it 24-23, they went back into “don’t lose” mode again. I think we have evidence that the Cowboys offense is at its best when they run no-huddle and let Romo dictate the pace of the game. But if you’ve got a Facebook account, or have seen any NFL Memes, then you know why Garrett is hesitant to do that. There’s a downside to letting Romo have the keys to the car. He might drive the car off a cliff.
I understand the fear of Romo’s penchant for throwing passes to the other team, but the truth is that there’s no upside to Garrett’s current game plan. Maybe the conservative approach mitigates Romo’s chances of losing the game, but it also mitigates his chances of winning it, too. Right now, Dallas is a 3-5 team whose playoff chances are on life support. The only thing that matters right now is winning games. Garrett might as well unleash Romo at this point. If Garrett wanted a game manager, he might as well start Kyle Orton for the next game. Tony Romo is a gunslinger. I’m not such a blind loyalist that I don’t see that he throws into double coverage or makes bad reads. You can see Romo’s frustration on his face and in his body language every time he hands off the ball to the second or third or fourth string running back and watches them run into the backs of the o-linemen for a no gain. Sure, sometimes he throws more touchdown passes to the other team than his own. But so does every quarterback in the league. It’s like Jason Garrett has an iPad and he only uses it to check his email. The only way the Cowboys are going to get back into this season is if Garrett is willing to let Tony Romo be Tony Romo. For better and for worse. I’ll take it. Because this game management crap isn’t working.