Many scoffed when I questioned Jason Garrett’s offense in my prior article, Five Reasons Jason Garrett is the Wrong Kind of Guy to be the Dallas Cowboys’ Head Coach. Many of the problems I have with Garrett’s offense, like difficulty holding a lead, difficulty withstanding a comeback, or failure to use the team’s offensive weapons to their highest potential, are difficult to quantify. Some issues, however, can be illumunited through looking at the numbers the offense has put up under Jason Garrett. To that end, I put together a chart with some key statistics from JG’s five years as the Cowboys’ Offensive Coordinator that shows one of the biggest problems with Garrett’s tenure as OC – that his offense can gain yards, but has trouble scoring points.
Each cell in the column contains the relevant statistic. The number in parentheses to the right of the statistic shows where that year’s Cowboys team ranked in the NFL in that particular category. Obviously the data for 2011 is incomplete at this point, and with nine games left to play, those numbers could change dramatically. Nevertheless, they demonstrate the problems the team has been having this year and how those problems are consistent with what has come before.
So what can we tell from looking at this chart category-by-category? A number of things, some of which even casual fans probably already know:
First and foremost, that Jason Garrett’s is great for gaining a number of yards. In the years that JG has been in charge of the offense, the Cowboys have consistently been in roughly the top ⅓of the league in terms of Yards per Game. In the Cowboys two most successful seasons in the last half-decade, the team ranked 2nd and 3rd in this category. They’ve managed to maintain a strong showing even in leaner years.
Second, that the team under JG’s offensive leadership is not nearly as good, and not nearly as consistent, when it comes to scoring points, as it is at picking up yards. The most glaring example comes in 2009, when the Cowboys outstripped all but one other team in yardage, but ranked only 16th in points scored. We can see this trend continuing in the current season where the team is 7th in the NFL in yards gained but only 15th in points scored.
This disparity is made even more stark in the third category – Yards per Point. This statistic effectively measures how well a given team did at converting yardage gained into touchdowns and field goals. It’s simply a function of the number of yards the Cowboys gained in a given season divided by the number of points they scored in that season. This number does reflect defensive and special teams play to a certain extent, but since the offense is the main point-scoring engine on the team, it reflects on how well an offense can translate yardage gains into an advantage on the scoreboard.
Herein lies one of the most significant problems with Jason Garrett’s offense. In three of the five seasons (including this incomplete one) the Cowboys employing JG’s offense have ranked in the bottom third of the league in Yards per Point. They haven’t cracked the top third since the breakout year of 2007. For all the offensive bluster and yardage racked up by Garrett’s Cowboys, they consistently underperform when it comes to scoring versus their offense production in yards.
Since the league had a year to figure out Garrett’s M.O., the Cowboys have, at best, been mediocre, and at worst, been abysmal, at turning all that big yardage into points on the board. The team is currently ranked 23rd in this category, and as we’ve seen with all the work Dan Bailey’s been getting, it’s not hard to see that while the Cowboys can break a big play, they’ve had trouble closing the deal.
This is further reflected in the Red Zone statistics. When it comes to the number of Red Zone scores per game, the Cowboys have been pretty consistently in the middle of the pack. Over the four full seasons JG has been head coach, the Cowboys have averaged about 1.7 scores from the Red Zone per game. The team’s Red Zone Scoring Percentage has had more ups and downs, but averages out to a fairly middling 55% over four years. In other words, effectively about every other time the Cowboys make it past the 20, they come away having failed to make it in the end zone.
Though the sample size is smaller, these red zone issues have been particularly problematic this season. Jason Garrett’s offense has just a 33% Red Zone Scoring percentage and is averaging 1.2 scores per game despite averaging 3.6 trips to the Red Zone per game. These numbers point out what we’ve all seen this season – that this is a team that can get down the field, but cannot punch it in.
Lastly, and regrettably, the category the Cowboys have been most consistent in during Jason Garrett’s tenure is Penalties per Game. In each full season since JG arrived, Dallas has been in at least the bottom 15% of the league when it comes to penalties, averaging 7 a game over the four year span. While this season, the Cowboys have improved slightly relative to their competition, ranking 24th in the league in Penalties per Game, they are currently averaging 7.6 penalties a game. This average is higher right now than any individual year over the past four full seasons.
To put it simply, penalties have been a very large road block for this team to overcome during the past four seasons, and continue to be a problem this season. The defense deserves their fair share of the blame on this one, but just this year, how many drives have been stalled by a false start, or an illegal substitution, or a delay of game? During Garrett’s time as offensive coordinator, his offense has continually shot itself in the foot, and often at rather inopportune times to boot.
Putting this all together, what conclusions can we draw overall? One thing we already knew – Garrett’s best year was his first. Almost all of the offense’s stats from 2007 are head and shoulders above those achieved in subsequent years. Yet, since Garrett first burst onto the scene and put up a performance that made Jerry lock him down, he’s been unable to recapture the magic.
More importantly, we see a talented, but undisciplined offense over the past 4⅓ seasons. Despite the fact that the team consistently gains yards like gangbusters and makes it to the red zone, they’re not able to translate this statistical success into points. I would posit two main explanations for this.
The first is that Garrett and his Air Coryell offense both start to cramp when the field gets shorter. What made JG’s offense so exciting in his first hopeful year were those long bombs down the field that kept the defense scrambling. Garrett’s known for his pass-happy attack that stretches the field vertically, but when those secondary-stretching receiver routes run into a wall at the back of the end zone, it becomes easier to defend against.
The second is the one that the numbers on the chart point to directly – that too many penalties stop otherwise promising drives. Every Cowboys fan has seen it happen. Romo throws a pass for a big gain, or the defense recovers a fumble giving the team great field position, and the team looks good to go. Suddenly, those false starts and holds and illegal shifts start popping up and making it harder and harder to convert or capitalize. Garret is great at engineering the big play, but poor at instilling the discipline that allows teams to profit from them.
There are other contributing factors as well. As I mentioned earlier, they’re more difficult to capture in numbers, but as a devoted observer, I’ve seen repeated evidence that this team does not respond well to pressure, whether it’s in the form of holding off a comeback or shrugging off an early charge from the opponent. With the New England game fresh in my mind, it’s also easy to knock Garrett’s use of personnel like Dez not seeing a fade in the fourth quarter or Witten seeing few targets against one of the worst defenses in the league. It’s also easy to question play calls like the 3rd down shovel pass or vanilla runs at the end of the game when the opponent is counting on them. But these are all up for debate, and at the end of the day, all just a part of the whole.
That whole is what the numbers show and the casual observer could tell. This team has the unquestionable ability to rack up yards, but that when the end zone is in sight, it begins to falter. This is an offense that can produce yards but not points, penalties but not paydirt, stats but not wins. And it’s just not good enough.