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Scheme Change Has Offense Disjointed, But Cowboys Defense Is Key to 2013


So much attention has been paid to the Cowboys scheme change on defense this year that changes to the ways in which the offense operates have been largely overlooked. Everyone knows the ‘Boys have shuffled the personnel base, jettisoned the fullback, and are running a base two tight end formation. And everyone just expects it to work like gangbusters out of the gate.

Sep 15, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) throws a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs in the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City won the game 17-16. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Though much of what they’ve been doing on offense the past two seasons translates to this new scheme, it’s still a change. It’s a change in base personnel, a change in standard formations, and a change in game planning. It’s what experts refer to as a scheme change. Is it any wonder the offense has at times looked lost and disjointed these first two games?

The fact that no one seems to have any patience for the implementation of this scheme change, which is further complicated by a new play caller in offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, is a tribute to the talent Dallas boasts on offense, particularly quarterback Tony Romo.

But even superstars struggle with scheme change, at least initially. Look for the play execution to tighten up as the players grow more comfortable in their new roles. The line is better, with center Travis Frederick and left guard Ron Leary obvious upgrades. The talent at the skill positions rivals any team in the league. Once they work out the kinks in this new scheme, scoring points shouldn’t be a problem.

This team, like the teams of the past two years, will go as far as the defense holds it back.

To give you an idea of how bad this defense has been, and how much the success of the team has depended on the play of Romo’s offense, Dallas is a meager 5-4 the past two seasons in games where the offense put up 30 or more points. Over the same period, Eli Manning and the Giants are 9-1 when they scored 30 or more points.

In the 32 games played so far in the NFL this year – the exact same sample size – teams scoring 30 or more points are a whopping 12-3. One of those losers was the Giants on opening day at AT&T Stadium. Welcome to Tony’s world, Eli.

Sep 15, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Jason Hatcher (97) puts pressure on Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) in the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs rode 17 points to victory on Sunday. That’s an anomaly for this Cowboys team. If the Dallas D had held every opponent to just 17 points the past two years, the Cowboys would have been fourth in the league in scoring defense and 24-8 instead of 16-16. The Cowboys would be two-time defending division champions, Elite-I and the G-Men would have just one ring, and Jason Garrett might never have been able to pawn off the playcalling duties to Bill Callahan. (Though it goes against conventional wisdom, Garrett never wanted to call plays as head coach.)

So have some patience with this offense. It’s going to score enough points to win the division this year. Will the defense do its part? Sunday in Kansas City was a step in the right direction. Of course, it was against a team that managed just 292 yards of offense and punted 10 times against the Jacksonville Jaguars, so the jury is still out.

What did we learn? Not enough, but it looks promising. These Cowboys are 1-1, same as the two Cowboy teams before them. But their personnel is better, their coaching structure is better, and best guess is their schemes are better, too. Just give them a little time to click.