For the first time in the illustrious not-very-long history of the Watchtower, I have the rare privilege . . . and infuriating chore . . . of analyzing a team whose head coach has been fired midseason. The Dallas Cowboys finally put poor Wade Phillips out of his misery, and put me squarely into mine. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett takes over, which would be fine and all, except . . .
Jason Garett vs. Gunther Cunningham
Jason Garrett hasn't ever faced Gunther Cunningham, which isn’t surprising since Garrett’s only been a coordinator since 2007, and Gunther was out of work in 2007, and the Cowboys didn’t play the Lions last year. On first blush, Garrett doesn’t come from any specific coaching tree, either. However, Jason was NFL quarterback for over a decade—including a long stint in Dallas where he held the clipboard for Cowboy coordinators Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese. It’s then when Garrett learned the tenets of the Air Coryell offense.
It's the father of many offenses in the NFL—a major reason the Bears could transition coordinators from Ron Turner (Norv’s brother) to Mike Martz in one season without a wholesale change in terminology. Timing routes and a modular route-numbering system allow for the easy construction of devastating pass route combinations. Whether it’s paired with a power running game, a la Norv’s Cowboys and Chargers, or a crazy singleback-who-flexes-to-WR approach like Martz’s, Don Coryell's passing system is still potent.
The Cowboys don’t feature lots of four and five wide like Martz does—tight end Jason Witten is too potent to be shelved—but the running game has been a largely ineffective platoon of Felix Jones, Marion Barber, and Tashard Choice. Barber, especially, has been a shell of his former “Barberian” self, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. Without an effective running game, the Cowboys’ passing attack has been keyed on by opposing defenses—still, the talented targets the ‘Boys boast have been enough to muster 21.6 points per game (19th-best in the NFL). Despite the one-dimensionality of their offense, they’ve been averaging 7.45 YpA through the air, which is excellent.
The Lions have faced several offenses that branch off of the late Don Coryell’s coaching tree, including all of the above. They currently boast the 20th-ranked scoring defense in the NFL (the best they’ve been ranked since I started doing this), allowing 22.4 PpG. These two units are very, very equally matched, so any systemic advantage could be a huge one. There isn't any data for Jason Garrett, but let's go barking up his coaching tree for a substitute, shall we?
Arguably, the implementation closest to Garrett’s would be Norv Turner’s—and in a prior Watchtowering of Ron Turner, I examined Norv as a Ron equivalent:
IF we consider Ron and Norv Turner interchangable—and we don't—then given greater, equal, or lesser talent, Gunther Cunningham's hyperagressive 4-3 appears to match expectations versus a Turner Bros. Coryell-style downfield passing offense (albeit while generating very high sack and turnover numbers). That is to say there is no systemic advantage or disadvantage for either team.
The task now should be to do that thing I do with the averages. However, the Cowboys seemed to “wake up” in a big way after Garrett was handed the keys: the 1-6 Cowboys went into Your Company Name Here Stadium and whooped the Giants, 33-20. Has Garrett catalyzed the Cowboys’ considerable talent? Are the 2-7 ‘Boys are going to be a tough out the rest of the way? Well . . . maybe. It’s true that the offense looked more competent through the air—but seven of those 33 points were scored on an interception return, and the Cowboys were already averaging nearly 22 points a game—the big difference was in how the defense played, not the offense. Therefore, I’m not going to inflate the Cowboys’ offensive expectations beyond their season averages to this point.
Given no systemic advantage or disadvantage, Jason Garrett’s implementation of the Air Coryell offense should meet expectations against Gunther Cunningham’s aggressive 4-3, scoring 21-24 points, averaging 8.0-to-9.0 YpA, and 3.5 to 3.75 YpC. I have low confidence in this projection.
Well, first, I could be wrong about the whole “catalyst” thing. Maybe Garrett shoved Wade out of the drivers’ seat, mashed the pedal to the floor, and now the Cowboys are rocketing down a windblown Texas highway, Phillips choking on dust and burnt rubber. Then again, maybe last week was a one-off Perfect Storm of motivation and execution for their new coach, and they’ll settle right back into their averages from here on out. Then again, maybe Williams and Kitna have vengeance on their mind? In the other direction, the Cowboys’ pass protection could break down—the offensive line has youth and ability, but never both in the same body—and the Lions’ pass rush could tee off. I suspect, though, that if I’m wrong on this projection, I’ll miss low.
Scott Linehan vs. Wade Phillips
Again, I feel a little odd Watchtowering a coach who's not coaching. Newly-minted DC Paul Pasqualoni was the assistant with the most experience in the 3-4 alignment the Cowboys run—obviously, the scheme will not change drastically from what was in place. There is a solid bit of history here between Linehan and Phillips, though, so I’ll go over it briefly.
In 2003, the 6th-ranked Vikings took on Phillips’ 30th-ranked Falcons (after Phillips had ascended to interim head coach midseason); the Vikings scored 35% above their usual 26 points per game—right in line with expectations. In 2005, the Dolphins—with Jason Garrett as quarterbacks coach!—were the 16th-ranked offense, going up against Wade’s Chargers, ranked 13th. The Fins actually exceeded expectations a tiny bit, scoring three more points than their season average against a slightly-above-median defense—but nowhere near enough to suspect a systemic advantage.
In 2006, the Rams were ranked a solid 10th in the NFL in scoring, at 22.9 PpG. The Chargers were even better, ranked seventh and allowing just 18.9. Surprisingly, the Rams managed to score 24 points, five percent about their season average. They did it while rushing and passing at effectiveness levels above their year’s average, as well. Unfortunately, here is where the happy times stop.
In 2007 the Rams were 28th scoring offense, averaging 16.4 points per game. However, they were without Steven Jackson, and the Cowboys shut them out. Wade’s D held the Rams to just 2.95 YpC, and 4.77 YpA, while the offense scored exactly zero points (Dante Hall did notch a punt return TD). The next season, two weeks after Linehan had been fired, the Rams and their anemic 14.5 point-per-game offense hosted the 18th-ranked Cowboys and . . . scored 34 points?!
Yup, they sure did, and were sixty and thirty-four percent more effective through the air and ground, to in the process. What caused such an outburst? No clue. According to Pro Football Reference, it was 72 degrees, windless, on FieldTurf, and all the starters played . . . the Rams just had the Cowboys’ number that day.
It looks as though the Linehan offense has a decided advantage over Wade Phillips’ 3-4 when the passing game is working early—passing to set up the run, as it were. I’m therefore comfortable concluding that Scott Linehan balanced offenses have a mild systemic scoring advantage against Wade Phillips 3-4 defenses, especially when the passing game works well early.
Even given last Sunday’s wretched performance, the Lions still boast the NFL’s eleventh-best scoring offense, averaging 23.9 points per game. Dallas’ defense has been putried, though—even last week’s surprising limitation of the Giants’ offense to 20 only lowered their season average to 28 points per game. They’re allowing 7.57 yards on every pass attempt, and 4.34 yards on every carry. The defense simply hasn’t been the unit we’ve seen in the Big D over the past few seasons, and that’s been their downfall as much as anything.
Expectations would hold that the Lions score better than their season average against the Cowboys, and that the Cowboys allow slightly more than usual against the Lions. There, theoretically, is a mild scoring advantage for the Lions, but the defense did play markedly better in its first game under Pasqualoni—so I’ll call those two factors a wash. I project the Lions’ offense to match expectations against the Cowboys, scoring 25-to-30 points, averaging 6-to-7 YpA, and 3.75-to-4 YpC. I have medium-to-high confidence in this projection.
It's the Lions on the road.
I cannot believe I’m about to do this after the past two weeks. I projected the Lions to beat the Jets, and they blew a 10-point 4th-quarter lead and lost in overtime. I projected the Lions to handle the Bills, and they completely failed to show up. If the Lions are the Lions we saw all year up until last Sunday, they’re a better team than the Cowboys and should win. If the Lions are the Lions we saw all decade, forget about it. Interestingly, though, I think the shoes from last week are on the other foot: the Cowboys are fresh off a fantastic performance, feeling their oats, thinking they're way better than the lowly Lions they're about to face--even though both teams have putrid records. After mailing it in last week, the Lions ought to be revved up to prove they are who we thought they were. All that aside, though, the numbers show these two teams to be very evenly matched, but with a definite offensive edge for the Lions.
Hesitatingly, gulpingly, and with an extreme chance of heartbreak, I declare that the most likely outcome of the game is a 27-24 Lions win. Heaven help me.