Jason Garrett's Offense: Progress Without Paydirt

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.

Garrett's problems with turning yards into points have continued since he became head coach.

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.

 

Garrett, Romo, and the Cowboys offense have had their share of missteps in the red 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.

Maybe less time spent on Pictionary would help. I think that's supposed to be a duck.

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.

Garrett is a devotee of the offense developed by former San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell.

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.

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8 Responses to Jason Garrett's Offense: Progress Without Paydirt

  1. nsixx99 says:

    Very impressive breakdown. I do believe that Garrett’s play calling is to blame for the loss yesterday to the Patriots. It is a monumental mistake to be conservative at the end of a game verses Tom Brady. You simply cannot protect a lead against them. Brady did not earn the nickname Captain Cool by failing to win games in the final two minutes.

    • Andrew says:

      It’s true, and calling three runs in row when the defense absolutely has to know it’s coming and you have a young, injury-riddled offensive line is not the proper way to ice the game.

  2. Todd says:

    On top of that, the Patriots did very little to suggest they could have stopped a seven yard throw to Austin or Bryant. Nice job putting what we can see with the naked and casual eye to numbers. You win the game by scoring more points, not by gaining more yards. Garrett’s playcalling at the end of the game was a complete overreaction to the last week. I guess it’s easy to sit here in the cheap seats and say that, but what happens in even a worst-case scenario.

    The worst-case scenario is Romo throws a pick six, and then the Cowboys have to score in two-ish minutes. I actually feel pretty good about that. The Cowboys didn’t score much, but they did move the ball, and that Patriots secondary is not as good as the Cowboys receiving core.

    Maybe they intercept it but don’t score? Well then if the Patriots score, the Cowboys again are likely to have more time to respond, and if they hold them to a FG, then they could win the game.

    Maybe there’s an incompletion? The clock stops, and the Patriots have more time. Would anyone who watched the Patriots move the ball down the feel think the clock was even a factor? We’re not talking about 40 seconds left, they had two minutes. I am pretty sure I would rather have a chance at a first down.

    It’s easy to say in hindsight, but that Patriots defense was loaded up to stop the run. The Cowboys line was beat up. Felix was out of the game. The Patriots defense is horrible against the pass. You have a hall of fame tight end, and two WR’s who are monsters in one-on-one scenarios. The likelihood you run 3 times for ten yards is minimal (and after the first play, you sure as hell weren’t going to get 12 yards in two). And of course, on top of it all, Tom Brady gets the ball if you can’t get a first. As good as the Cowboys defense has played, you’re not hoping the defense holds against Rex Grossman.

    Other than the fear of being crucified by the media for letting Romo throw, I have a hard time seeing why you run three straight times– and you’ve already lost if you let that dictate your gameplan. Romo’s your leader; have some faith and let him lead. On top of it all, I’m not defending Romo’s abysmal performance against Detroit, but if someone could have just tackled Bobby Carpenter or Chris Houston… who knows what happens.

    No, it’s not a bad loss. It’s against an AFC opponent, one of the best teams in the league, and you lost at the wire. That said, you only get so many losses before you can’t recover, and the Cowboys have already racked up three.

  3. Josh Mitchell says:

    I have to disagree–as a Patriots fan, I think of these as extremely desirable qualities in a Dallas head coach. :)

  4. Todd says:

    Read this fact today:

    “The Cowboys have targeted Bryant 11 times in the red zone during his 16-game career. He has caught nine of those passes, scoring on seven of them.”

    Granted, teams now are probably doubling Bryant in most circumstances, but still… They’ve targeted him twice in the red zone this year as well, both for touchdowns…

    • Andrew says:

      Garrett must not trust him
      for some reason – not even throwing the fade.

      • Todd. says:

        I will say that unlike Austin, Bryant does seem to be in the wrong spot/run the wrong route quite a bit.

        • Andrew says:

          He’s young and hasn’t had a full healthy season yet, so I’m willing to let him off the hook a little bit. Still, we blew a first round pick on him even though we had much greater positions of need, so they may as well get as much juice out of him as they can.

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