The Cowboys Offense at the Quarter Mark: Trying to Run on Three Cylinders

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Is Jason Witten finally back?

The Dallas Cowboys bye week has come to an end. In fan land, the hope lingers that the team has found some offensive traction after three weak performances against Seattle, Tampa Bay and Chicago.

A look at the offensive numbers shows that a unit though to be the football equivalent of a turbocharged V-6, with three tall receivers, a Pro Bowl tight end, DeMarco Murray and Tony Romo, has at best seen three of them come through.  The Cowboys engine has backfired, smoked, sputtered and stalled out through September.  It’s had probably its worst stretch since the dark Bruce Coslett days.

Murray has provided the lion’s share of big plays in this young season, many as a receiver of swing passes. Given the offensive line’s inability to create a consistent push (more on that in a bit) it makes sense for the offense to keep throwing him the ball.

This may confound some people who hope for more rushing attempts, and I can’t argue with the need for more, but Murray is averaging over seven yards per catch and just under four yards per carry. Any way to get the ball up the field is welcome.

Passing Game Blues

The biggest goats through the first month, even bigger than the offensive line in my opinion, have been the receivers.  They did suffer some pre-season injuries.  Miles Austin sat out nearly all of August with a strained hamstring, and Jason Witten was shut down completely for two weeks after fracturing a spleen.  But these guys were not trying to incorporate several new players, as the O-line continues to attempt.  They were not trying to mesh with new position coaches, as the linemen are with Bill Callahan.

The receiving quartet of Witten, Austin, Bryant and Ogletree has been together for three years.  They’re in their second year with receiving coach Jimmy Robinson.  Witten is in his 5th year with John Garrett, after going through three other position coaches in his first four years as a pro.  These four were looked on to lead the offense while the line gelled and while the new secondary was shuffled.

Instead it’s been a disaster, as these numbers show:

Bryant — 33 attempts, 21 receptions, 269 yards, 8.2 YPA
Austin — 29 attempts, 18 receptions, 300 yards, 10.3 YPA
Ogletree — 24 attempts, 17 receptions, 221 yards, 9.2 YPA
Witten — 33 attempts, 21 receptions, 188 yards, 5.7 YPA

Of the four premier receiving targets, only Austin has provided consistent production; he has had 73, 63, 107 and 57 yards in his four games.  His 10.3 YPA is in line with a top receiver.  (Pro Bowlers usually have numbers around 10.0)  Austin probably needs more attempts and his hamstring should be good to go after the week off, allowing Tony Romo to feed him more passes.

Ogletree has been solid as the 3rd option.  A 9.2 line is very good for a third wideout.  Inconsistency has been his issue.  Look at his yardage lines — 114, 5, 57 and 24.  It’s all or nothing with Ogletree, and he cannot afford to commit miscues like his bobble at the Bears ten last Monday night, which was intercepted just as the Cowboys were ready to keep pace with a surging Bears team.

The biggest drop-off is on Witten’s line.  He’s averaged over 8.0 yards per reception every year.  A 5.7 is more in line with a blocking tight end’s, or a fullback’s.  It’s even worse if you look at his first three games, when Witten was obviously troubled by his spleen:

19 attempts, 8 catches, 76 yards, 4.0 YPA.

Let’s put it this way.  Lousaka Polite and Deon Anderson posted YPAs in the 4.0 range.

The one silver lining from the Bears blowout was Witten’s line:
14 attempts, 13 catches, 112 yards, 8.0 YPA.

This is in line with his average production.  The Bears line suggest that Witten is regaining the strength and mobility which abandoned him in the earlier contests.  Add this Witten to Austin and a more active Ogletree, and the offense can begin to complete the drives it has frequently aborted outside opponent’s red zones.

Which brings us to the enigma.  Dez Bryant has been the most targeted Cowboys receiver this year.  His attempts have risen in every game:  5 vs. the Giants, 7 against Seattle, 8 against Tampa and 13 versus the Bears.  His production has not risen in line with his throws. Instead his yardage totals have yo-yoed:  85, then 17, then 62 and finally 105 yards against the Bears.

An 8.2 YPA isn’t bad, but if Bryant had caught the ball better, he would have a YPA more in line with Austin’s, and Dallas might have an extra win on its ledger.

It’s a bit unfair to single out Bryant.  Witten had two of his worst ever games against the Seahawks and Buccaneers.  IF Witten is indeed on the mend, and if Bryant can raise his performance a bit, the passing game can put pressure back on defenses and let Jason Garrett work his pass-early, run-late tactics again.

We’re about to learn what type of mechanics Jason Garrett, Robinson and Bill Callahan can be. They’ve had two weeks to complete the overhaul.

Next:  the O-line has been a one-man band.

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
  • jarhead

    austin has made me a liar though the 1st 1/4 of the season.
    the problem with the oline run blocking is well known, but the elephant in the room through the two losses is turnovers.
    the defense is already playing well, and getting ratliff and coleman back will surely help.
    but if dallas cant get on the plus side in turnover margin, forget it.

  • DW94

    Raf, do you think Austin’s preseason hamstring injury limited him to any degree during the first four games? I can’t tell personally, but other people have said they thought so.

    “We’re about to learn what type of mechanics Jason Garrett, Robinson and
    Bill Callahan can be. They’ve had two weeks to complete the overhaul.”

    Absolutely. I’m so excited and anxious for the Baltimore game.

  • Michael

    It is no accident that Greg Roman is both the most unpredictable and the most unstoppable OC in the NFL. And while the 49ers have some great skill players and a solid OL, they aren’t as talented as their offensive production suggests. Roman is essentially doing on offense what Ryan does on defense; creating uncertainty and confusion by using a large number of substitution packages and multiple formations with shifting and motion. His scheme is also complex and hard to learn. This is how you win in the NFL today. We have it on defense, but our offense is absolutely predictable.

  • hardwater

    Coming into the season the hope was that the defense would be improved enough to not give up big plays, keep the points down, and not give away games late. The defense has improved beyond expectation.

    Also coming into the season it was expected that the offense line would be at least somewhat improved, Murray would lead an effective ground game, Miles would be healthy, Dez committed to being a professional, and a 3rd receiver found to replace Laurant Robinson. The offense has failed on all accounts and can’t score.

    Although it’s like trying to decide whether a heart attack or a stroke is worse I agree with Rafael that the receivers are the greatest disappointment. We all get tired of harping on Dez but the guy just doesn’t get it. IMO, he doesn’t have the commitment or the brains and will always be like he is now. Miles has been hurt so much in his career he’s hard to count on. Ogletree is a marginal player. Witten showed life against Chicago but he has many, many miles on him.

    The problem with the above is that now it can be argued that our receiving core is not nearly as good as we thought and is now a problem area that needs to be addressed through the draft or FA. That’s a bit depressing considering the O-Line STILL needs major attention and the defense would like more pass rushers and another safety or 2.

    What looked like one more good draft and FA is now stretching into 2 more drafts and FA. That’s another 2 years on Romo, Ware, and Witten. Ugh.

    • Lee1936

      Right on every point.

    • truecowboyfan

      I agree with your comments on Dez. But let me ask you this question: If you have a special physical talent who did not have the smarts to fully grasp the playbook, would you force him to conform and learn the playbook, or would you tweak your playbook in order to maximize this player’s talents (i.e. simplify it)? You have every right to blame Dez. However, a coach who cannot get the most out of his players is also a failure in my opinion.

      • hardwater

        You make a good point. Maybe we should just throw Dez jump balls. I’m not sure what else he does well consistently.

  • fivetwos

    FInally just last night I was able to bring myself to rewatch the Bears game.
    I watched every offensive play in slow motion.
    Wow is Bernadeau awful. He gets overpowered and beat very consistently, which is what the Panthers boards were saying in between laughs at the $11M Jerry gave him.
    This is a Cory Proctor all over again thing here that they apparently aren’t going to do anything about.
    If Costa is inserted next to him, and isn’t remarkably better than last year (and exactly why would he be?), this is going to get even worse.

  • AustonianAggie

    I expected the offense to struggle running the ball when they lacked a lead, and I think with a lead they’ll run fine. Passing game has been a serious problem though, and is not delivering leads. I don’t get the focus on Bryant over Austin. At least I get the sense Austin knows the playbook thoroughly. Bryant was supposed this to explode this year. Instead it’s the fanbase that’s exploding.

  • Taylor

    ” Ogletree has been solid but inconsistent”. He can’t be both.

  • kindablue

    The offense under Garrett has gotten worse and worse each year. He inherited a great offense, and has gone from second in points scored in 2007 to almost dead last. Opposing defenses have scored more touchdowns this year against our offense (two) than the rushing game (one) and Dez (zero) combined. It seems like he needs All Pros at every position to succeed. That isn’t going to happen, so he needs to figure out how to put points on the board with the talent on hand, like everybody else.

    • truecowboyfan

      I totally agree with your comments. I think he has a very good understanding on how best to use Austin and Witten. But I feel pretty confident that he does not know how to best utilize Dez Bryant. I would love to see more slants, quick hitting vertical routes and drags attempted to Dez…I think these are the types of routes that he would excel at. I also think Garrett could do a better job at utilizing Murray in the passing game. Yes, he has been relatively effective as a check down option, but I would love to see Garrett use him as the primary receiver, at times, and get him running vertically down the field, against a linebacker.

  • DC_TURK

    Joe DiCamilis versus Bill Callahan

    It used to be Joe Dicamilis in Jason Garrett’s ear on the sidelines when the offense was productive

    Now it is Bill Callahan helping with the game plan and calling

    THE TURK HAS A QUESTION FOR COWBOY NATION – IS IT THE ABSENCE OF DICAMILIS OR PRESENCE OF CALLAHAN THAT IS CAUSING THE COWBOYS OFFENSE TO STRUGGLE???

    THERE WAS NO PROBLEM PUTTING UP POINTS SINCE GARRETT’S ARRIVAL SO THERE HAS TO BE MORE TO THE NO SCORING OF POINTS ISSUE

    • oskieoskie

      If Callahan is calling for Romo to throw picks and Dez to watch good passes bounce off his hands, then let’s get rid of the bum.

  • Lee1936

    Your say, “Dez Bryant has been the most targeted Cowboys receiver this year. His attempts have risen in every game…. His production has not risen in line with his throws.”
    I suspect GM Jerry has been pressuring Garrett to throw more to Dez, in the expectation that Dez would become a star, win games instead of losing them, and make Jerry look smart.

  • Jon B.

    The Cowboys Offense needs to stop handing over points to the oppostion. ROMO / Oggletree / Dez listen up…………..ball security must be of utmost importance. I believe we have a defense that can win many games if we can score 21 points…….Romo’s got to either turn into a bus driver or hand over the keys to Orton.

    Tony Romo > Sanchez, Smith, Quinn, Tebow

    Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Rothlesberger, E Manning, P Manning, > Tony Romo

    Romo < or = Vick (playoff wins), Rivers, Matty Ice, Matt Schuab, Fitzpatrick,

    Dez Bryant < ufa and former Dallas Cowboys Danny Amendola

    Romo misses Laurent Robinson how many TDs did he have last year……….we should have paid him and cut somewhere else. Not sure what else is wrong with the Offense other than Garret using Norvs playbook without Emmit, Aikman, Irvin and other than Tyron Smith not a single lineman that would even be a BACKUP on the 90s SB teams. Funny a team that everyone said steamrolled you and wore you out by their great o line play (some of it inherited Tui and Newton from Landry) but Erik Williams, Larry Allen, these guys were higher round O picks than GM Jerry has spent of late other than T Smith.

    Get Better O Line play and make Tony play like the good Tony and we might have sometihng.

    Also I know that Felix is in the doghouse due to his out of shape show up at camp………….but how about we don't Marion Barber our best back and wear down DeMarco Murray with all the carries and catches. Felix has started to come around………time to give him a few touches and Murray a few rests…………..Demarco Murray is not Emmit Smith. Nobody is.