A ravenous injury bug has consumed the Cowboys defense ever since Tyrone Crawford ruptured his achilles on the first day of camp this year, but still the offensive playcalling was maddeningly conservative for the first 10 weeks. Many believe head coach Jason Garrett’s renewed influence in the playcalling process has made the team more aggressive in the fourth quarter these past two games.
In the fourth quarter of the Cowboys’ 31-24 win against Oakland on Thanksgiving, the offense took the ball with 8:39 on the clock protecting a one-score lead. They kept the ball for more than six minutes on a 15-play drive that resulted in a field goal and a 10-point lead. Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan called passes on 2nd-and-6, 2nd-and-15, 1st-and-10, and 2nd-and-goal. These Cowboys were playing to score, not to run out as much clock as they could before punting and putting the game on the defense.
In the fourth quarter of last week’s 24-21 win over the New York Giants, the offense had a 1st-and-10 at the Giants 28-yard-line with 1:43 to play in a tie game. The Giants had two timeouts. The Cowboys were three knees from a 46-yard field goal attempt. The old Cowboys would have run three times, used up the Giants’ timeouts, kicked a field goal, and given the ball back to Eli Manning with just under a minute to play and a 3-point lead. Instead, Dallas passed on both 2nd and 3rd downs, converted, and kicked the winner on the game’s final play.
The past two weeks, the Cowboys have called fourth quarter plays on offense seemingly with the purpose of keeping their defense on the sidelines. Garrett’s expanded role in the offense has less than nothing to do with this new, aggressive late-game posture. Garrett was never a particularly aggressive playcaller. More likely, this philosophical switch is the result of the devastating loss of linebacker Sean Lee.
The impact of Lee’s absence was glaringly apparent on Oakland running back Rashad Jennings’ early second-quarter touchdown Thursday. Jennings ran right on 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard-line. The defensive line pushed Jennings out to the edge, backup linebacker Ernie Sims took a bad angle, and Jennings turned the corner for an easy score.
With Sean Lee at the MIKE, Jennings is strung out of bounds at the 3 and Oakland settles for a field goal.
Lee’s hamstring injury coincided with the bye week and Garrett’s expanded role in relaying the play calls to quarterback Tony Romo. Garrett took that role from quarterback coach Wade Wilson, who was sent to the booth to get a birds-eye view of the action with Callahan and provide input for playcalling.
Many have speculated that Garrett’s influence has resulted in the team’s more aggressive late-game posture on offense the past two weeks. But everything we know about Garrett suggests that’s ridiculous. The king of “process” isn’t given to in-game improvisation.
What’s more likely? Garrett is receiving the play calls from Callahan and changing them before he makes the relay to Romo? Or the entire coaching staff understands that the loss of Sean Lee means this defense can’t be trusted with late-game leads?
Moving Wilson to the booth is more likely a result of the brass grooming Wilson for a future coordinating role. Wilson has been with the franchise since 2007 – the same year Garrett was hired as offensive coordinator. Maybe it’s time for him to take the next step in his career.
It’s all speculation. Two things are for certain. First, Sean Lee was leading the league in both tackles and interceptions when he went down, and his absence exposes an already battered defense in both the pass and the run. Second, these past two weeks, come the fourth quarter, the Cowboys are playing to win on offense.
And the offense is delivering.