There really are only a handful of offensive systems in the NFL. Almost every team's offense is likely an offshoot of one of these handfuls. Each coach puts his own twist on a given system. One might favor running the ball more than another. One might make use of a new formation. Another might use a position to carry out a unique role. Ultimately, the main concepts behind an offense are descended from one or more of a handful of offenses in the past. It is somewhat similar to your favorite musician. You might hear him or her in an interview talk about his favorite musicians as a kid and how they influenced his or her work. This musician puts a unique twist on it, but you can frequently hear the influences of the past in a song.
For Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, his influence stems from Don Coryell, and the Cowboys can be considered an Air Coryell influenced offense. Coryell was the head coach of the Chargers from 1978 through 1986. Before that, he had a long career coaching at the college level. Hall of Fame coaches John Madden and Joe Gibbs were among the coaches who worked as assistants under Coryell at the college level. Ernie Zampese was another Coryell assistant. Zampese was himself a coaching mentor to Norv Turner. Turner and Zampese both took turns as offensive coordinator for the Cowboys during the 1990's when they had a backup quarterback by the name of Jason Garrett.
Coryell is credited with numerous innovations.
One was the route tree, which you can see here. The idea was the major routes a receiver runs are essentially offshoots of a straight line deep pattern. The other routes are like exits on the highway. You hear around Draft time about whether or not a receiver knows the route tree. That is essentially telling you whether his college offense had him run all of these patterns. These patterns are all given a number. The numbered system was a way to communicate the playcall.
Coryell is also credited with popularizing things like using the tight end in the receiving game and moving him around to create mismatches. Other things people credit him for bringing into the mainstream are the use of motion and using three receivers in a formation on the same side of the field to flood zones, running multiple receivers into zones with only one defender.
For our purposes discussing the Cowboys, there are two major philosophical elements I would like to discuss.
The first is the deep passing game or at least deep routes to stretch the defense. What is more difficult for the defense to defend? Is it the first 20 yards in front of the line of scrimmage or the entire field. Air Coryell influenced offenses love to send receivers deep down the field. Even if the ball is not going to the receiver, it takes defenders down the field and opens up space underneath.
A year ago, PFF looked at the receivers who ran the most go routes. Two of the top three were Cowboys.
With 215 routes run by Terrance Williams, and 200 by Dez Bryant, go routes were a staple of the Cowboys’ offense in 2014, they were two of only three players to run 200 or more of this particular route.
PFF added another Cowboys vertical route nugget in its analysis.
Another interesting note about the Cowboys use of go routes is how they used tight end Gavin Escobar. With 64 go routes run, that made up 44.4% of his total, the third highest percentage in the league, and most for a tight end.
This can create all kinds of spacing issues for defenses.
Because two guys are running deep, take a look at how much space three defenders have to cover on their own.
This is where Dez Bryant has such an impact on the game even when he doesn't see the ball. Dez is dangerous running deep. If you don't focus on him, the Cowboys will throw deep, and the results will be disastrous. Focus on him, and the spacing of the routes opens up wide chunks of field for guys like Jason Witten to exploit in the short and intermediate passing windows.
The second aspect of a Coryell offense is the use of the power run game to grind out yardage. At its essence, the passing attack is predicated on deep passes. Sure, there are short passes that the deep routes complement, but you are sending multiple receivers deep. There are not going to be as many short options. The run game is there to pick up that yardage, particularly in short yardage situations and the red zone.
This in turn explains Dallas' roster building philosophy. If you want to build an offense with deep routes that take long to develop and a physical run game, having a talented offensive line really helps. Sure, a great offensive line helps in any system, but other philosophies make it easier to work around a ragtag line.
Here you can take a look at what Dallas' offensive line looked like in the first full offeason before Garrett became the head coach.
The investment up front has been striking.
|LT||Tyron Smith||1st round pick|
|LG||La'el Collins||Undrafted free agent|
|C||Travis Frederick||1st round pick|
|RG||Zack Martin||1st round pick|
|RT||Doug Free||Moved from left tackle|
And you have to note there is a huge asterisk next to Collins' status as an undrafted free agent. He likely would have been a first round pick if not due to his temporary situation making teams avoid him. The Cowboys invested in first round talent to change four of their five starters. The only holdover was moved out of the premium left tackle spot to a new position.
Even before adding Collins, last season's offensive line was the centerpiece of the most complete offensive team in football. They had the offensive line. They had a gamebreaking receiver in Bryant who could do the job on the deep routes. They had a back in DeMarco Murray who could grind out yardage. They had a tight end in Witten who could work in the space created underneath.
Mainly, though, there were those pair of complementary core principles. The threat of deep routes keep defenders back and open up room for the run game. A successful run game makes defenders move up to stop it, opening deep space down the field to fit in long passes.
Yesterday we noted the Cowboys are almost completely balanced this season at the start of games whether they run or they pass. A year ago, they were almost completely balanced for the entire season.
Which do the Cowboys view as their true identity? Do they use the threat of deep ball to set up the run or the run to get defenders to cheat up and open up deep passing?
The way teams treat their players frequently speaks volumes. In this case, both Bryant and Murray were free agents seeking big deals. Given Dallas' cap situation, it seemed likely they could only afford one. They gave Bryant a big contract and let Murray go to Philadelphia.
I think if all things were equal and everybody was healthy, the Cowboys would be slightly on the side of a team that throws deep to keep defenders back and open things up for the run.
All things are not equal, however. Romo is injured, and Bryant has battled injuries this season. As Scott noted yesterday, this is not a fact lost on the Jets' coaching staff.
Rodgers: Cowboys making a great emphasis to get their run game started. Wholehearted effort to establish the running game.— Eric Allen (@eallenjets) December 16, 2015
The now Matt Cassel quarterbacked Cowboys are ninth in the league averaging 4.4 yards per rush and tied for twenty-third with only 6.9 yards per pass attempt.
The ability of Dallas to run effectively might be one of the deciding factors in the game. It is an interesting battle because the Jets are one of the few teams in the league with the talent on the defensive line to potentially fight the Dallas offensive line to a stalemate without needing to dedicate extra resources. It could be an important matchup that could have a large domino effect as far as whether the Jets can get the Cowboys into unfavorable downs and distances.