A Certain Tendency in the Cowboys Offense

He’s still got “it.”

The latest segment of Cowboys Nation’s chat with ESPN Insider K.C. Joyner starts with Jason Witten’s game, and moves to an important stylistic change in last year’s Cowboys offense.

Cowboys Nation:  I want to shift the Gronkowski/Graham breakdowns to talk about Jason Witten.  At the beginning of 2011, I was charting the receiver production week-to-week.  And Witten got a fast start.  About 5-6 weeks in, he was on pace to challenge Kellen Winslow’s single-season tight end yardage record.  Of course, Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham both surpassed Winslow’s mark.

Witten tapered off a bit.  He stopped getting as many balls in the middle of the season as he did the first third of the year.  I started to wonder if this was a slight change in the Cowboys approach?  Did opponents double-team Witten more because Dez Bryant and Miles Austin were hurt so much, or might we be seeing the early stages of decline?  He’s going to be 30 this year and has nine years of NFL wear and tear on his wheels.

It’s interesting that you bring up the stretch vertical, because Jason Garrett runs a very similar passing attack to the one he used as a quarterback, to the one Norv Turner, Ernie Zampese and Mike Martz run, and one of the key tight end routes is that option-8, a post route where the tight end reads coverage and makes either an inside or outside break, but takes it way upfield.  What were Witten’s verticals in 2011?

K.C. Joyner:  When Witten flexed out as a wide receiver, he had 31 passes thrown his way in 2011. He gained 335 yards on those plays.  That’s almost 11.0 yards per attempt.  He either had a reception or drew a defensive penalty on 22 of those plays.  He’s 22 of 31 for 335 yards, when he’s in the slot or lined up wide as a receiver.

That’s really good.  He ranked 3rd in vertical yards per attempt by a tight end.  But he only had 32 vertical passes.  That total ranked 12th among tight ends.  So you’ve got a guy who’s incredibly productive as a flex tight end.  You’ve got a guy who’s incredibly productive as a vertical threat.

But Tony Romo also threw just 157 vertical routes last year.  Let’s look at this by team rather than just by quarterback…

Dallas a a team last year ranked just 25th in the league in vertical pass attempts.

CN:  That’s not Garrett’s style.  In ’07 through ’10 he showed that he likes to get the ball down the field.

K.C.:  They threw fewer vertical attempts in 2011 than Tennessee, who had Jake Locker playing half the year and no Kenny Britt in that time, because he tore his ACL.

You want to blow your readers minds — the Cowboys threw fewer vertical passes last year than Denver, with Tim Tebow running their offense three quarters of the year.  Mind you, Tebow did throw the ball down field some, but.

CN:  That’s not the Jason Garrett offense.  If you want to see the effect of Romo’s injury early in the year, of Austin’s and Bryant’s injuries early in the year, of the banged up interior offensive line and no off-season, there it is in black and white.

I think that’s something we can expect to change this year.  If Dallas has Witten, Austin and Bryant healthy and feels good about where Bill Callahan has moved the line, I think we’ll see the Cowboys go back to bombing down field, because that’s the type of team they had been under Garrett, prior to 2011.

K.C.:  Granted, the Cowboys did some things very well.  They did things you would expect from a Jason Garrett offense.  They ranked 4th best in bad-decision percentage.  They got the most out of what they had, but within reason.  There could have been some upside to throwing more to Witten, but that would have just moved them to the middle of the pack.  Losing so many games to the receivers had a definite effect.

CN:  There’s a concern that Laurent Robinson’s departure will take a big chunk of the offense away, and that Dallas might struggle to replace it.  But if you look at the decline of Miles Austin from his 16-game campaigns, and look at Dez Bryant, who was good for 20 minutes per game until mid-season, I would think getting those guys for 60 minutes per week would overcome the loss of Laurent Robinson.

K.C.:  If you’ve got those three healthy, you can call over 200 vertical attempts.  Mind you that vertical and stretch-vertical character changes everything about your offense.  It helps the running game because it drops the safeties out of the box.  I do also think Dallas was trying the early experiment of seeing if Felix Jones could be a bell-cow runner.  That didn’t work out, but it’s hard to have a scary offense when you’re throwing 150-160 vertical passes per year.  It’s only 10 per game, about 2-3 per quarter.

Put it this way, if you’re getting two drives per quarter, you’re taking one pass down-field per drive.  It’s isn’t just bomb routes, it’s a seam route, it’s a deep in, a vertical is anything more than 11 yards past the line of scrimmage.  You’re getting downfield some, but if you’re only doing that once a drive, you’re not really threatening a defense.  You need to make the secondary feel you can go deep at any time.

Next:  Tony Romo, the reformed gunslinger.  A good or a bad thing?


Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com