Dallas Cowboys: 2012 Big Decision

DeMarcus Ware has been playing with essentially one arm for a while.

His right arm is a mess. He has been battling through a hyper-extended elbow and shoulder strain.

He missed 36 snaps last week -- more than he missed the last three games combined -- because he aggravated one of the injuries and spent much of the second half on the sideline. With a playoff berth a stake, perhaps it's time for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to make a bold move.

This is the week to make Ware a situational player and maximize his effectiveness. That means no wasted snaps where he's dropping into coverage.

Use him in passing situations only -- and it doesn't matter whether it's second or third down. The idea is to maximize his efficiency. In this game, it's better to get 35-40 dynamic snaps instead of 60 ordinary plays because Ware is hobbled.

It's not ideal and Ware won't like it. But the idea is to give him an opportunity to be a game-changer with a playoff berth at stake.

Rarely with a phenomenal player such as Ware does less equate to more, but this is one of those times.

Victor Butler struggles against the run and has a groin strain, but he's a guy with a propensity for making big plays.

The Cowboys will need some to slow down Washington's offense.

So this is a good day to get Butler on the field, especially if it helps an injured Ware maximize his ability Sunday night.
ARLINGTON - New Orleans has one of the NFL’s best offenses. And it has one of the league’s worst defenses.

That’ s why this is the week - above any other - to let the offense flow through DeMarco Murray.

There’s a reason why he’s averaged 24.7 touches in the 10 games the Cowboys have won that he’s started over the past two season and 13.5 touches in the losses.

When the offense goes through Murray, regardless of whether the running game is being productive, then it gives the Cowboys a balance they lack any other time. When Murray is the epicenter of the offense, it makes it easier for Jason Witten to make big plays down the middle because linebackers are wary of him.

It makes Jason Garrett a better head coach because he’s not always looking for plays to convert third-and-10, and Tony Romo a better quarterback because he doesn’t have to throw the ball 40 times a game.

Just so you know, Romo is 3-14 since 2008, when he throws more than 40 passes in a game.

Understand, this is not just about running the ball with Murray. He’s an excellent receiver and getting him the ball 4-5 times on passes is equally effective.

The key is to keep Drew Brees’ offense off the field.

The more possessions the Cowboys give the Saints, the odds increase that Brees will pick apart a secondary that has numerous players who have been signed off the streets in the past month.

ARLINGTON -- Dez Bryant has scored seven touchdowns in the last five games, while becoming one of the key players on the Dallas Cowboys’ offense.

Bryant, ridiculed and criticized early in the season for running poor routes and making mental mistakes, is so important that he’s put off having his broken left index finger surgically repaired so he won’t miss the rest of the season.

Coach Jason Garrett’s task is to make sure Bryant isn’t wasted in the offense Sunday against Pittsburgh.

If Bryant plays, as expected, then Garrett should make it a point to get him involved early to let the Steelers know Bryant isn’t a decoy and to take advantage of his big-play ability.

Bryant has scored touchdowns on receptions of 28, 85, 23 and 27 during the past few weeks.

That said, the worst thing you can do as a coach is build a game plan around an injured player and have him leave the game early because he aggravated the injury. Obviously, a finger is important to a receiver, so it’ll be interesting to see of Bryant has to adjust the way he catches the ball and if that affects the way routes he runs.

For example, if he’s running under deep balls those will be easier to catch than if he he‘s trying to catch a ball across the middle with his hands.

Garrett must figure out the right balance of incorporating Bryant into the offense today. If he can, the Cowboys will have their first three-game win streak of the season.
Jason Garrett's biggest decision this week has zero to do with football.

It's all about how he handles the tragedy of practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown's death and the arrest of nose tackle Josh Brent for intoxication manslaughter.

The Cowboys know they need to win their last four games to have a realistic shot at the playoffs, so this is a huge game.

But Garrett also knows he must give his players an opportunity to grieve for the loss of two teammates - one who is gone forever and another who is gone indefinitely.

Will he focus on the two players in a pre-game speech? Or he will he mention them in passing and discuss in detail what the Cowboys must do on the field to win the game?

Will he encourage them to hang the jerseys of both players in their lockers? Or just Brown's jersey.

These are difficult decisions and the choices Garrett makes can determine whether his team functions with some sort of normalcy, if that's possible.

The game is important. Life, obviously, trumps any game.

Garrett must handle this situation deftly to maintain the respect of his players and get the best performance possible in the most difficult crisis he's ever faced as a head coach.
If DeMarco Murray is healthy enough to play Sunday against Philadelphia, there's no need to monitor his workload.

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett needs to give him the ball and get out of the way.

Murray has missed the past six games with a foot injury and is still just five yards off the team's rushing lead. The Cowboys rank last in the NFL in rushing yards and attempts. Besides Felix Jones has two sore knees and has struggled this season when he's played through injuries because they rob him of his explosion and acceleration.

The Cowboys need Murray to provide some balance because it's been pretty obvious that Jones, Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner aren't good enough to consistently get it done. Murray should spark the offensive line because they know if he gets a hole, he can take advantage of it.

Tony Romo is 1-4 this season and 1-14 in his career, when he throws 40 passes or more in a game. He's thrown more than 50 passes in each of the past two games.

That's a trend that simply must stop if the Cowboys are going to make a late-season playoff push.
ARLINGTON -- DeMarco Murray is out. Felix Jones will try to play on two sore knees.
Don't be surprised, at all, if Lance Dunbar starts.

Considering the Cowboys have the NFL's worst first-down rushing offense -- 3.37 yards per carry -- this would be a good week for Jason Garrett to use the pass to establish the run.

That's right, Garrett should start this game throwing the ball and asking Tony Romo to shoulder the responsibility of the offense.

Think about it, the Cowboys' best players today will be the guys in the passing game whether it's Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant or Miles Austin.

Running the ball will create too many second-and-long situations, as we've seen all season, which will benefit Washington's defense.

Attacking on first down will help the Cowboys avoid those situations. Although the offensive line has been ravaged by injuries, the Cowboys can use three- and five-step drops to keep Romo out of harm's way.

Besides, Romo is playing his best football of the season. His passer rating has been above 90.0 in five of the last six games. Witten and Dez Bryant are each playing their best football.

Passing is what Dallas does best.

And if the Cowboys can grab an early lead with their passing game, then perhaps Dunbar and Jones can get some work done in the second half.
IRVING - Jason Garrett’s toughest decision this week revolves around centers Mackenzie Bernadeau and Ryan Cook.

Cook has a sore knee and hasn’t practiced all week, while Bernadeau has never played a single snap as a center in the National Football League.

Even against a raggedy team such as the Cleveland Browns, the best way to get upset is to have turnovers as the result of shotgun snaps gone awry or botched exchanges between the center and quarterback.

So Garrett must decide whether it’s better to use Bernadeau, who has been practicing at center for the past few weeks and worked with the first team this week. Although he has improved considerably since the start of the season, Bernadeau has struggled at times this season at his natural position of right guard.

But is that better than using Cook, who’s missed practice all week?

If there’s any way for Cook to play, then Garrett should go with the center who’s been playing much of the season. At least then, he won’t have to worry about getting the ball to Romo.

Besides, if Bernadeau is at center then it means Derrick Dockery is starting at right guard. No coach wants to change 40 percent of his offensive line -- even against a bad team.

None of Garrett’s options are good, but at least Cook has experience at the position. Bernadeau does not.
This is not the week to be passive. This is not the week for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense to sit back in a zone.

After all, we saw how well that worked for the Cowboys last week, when the defense gave up seven completions of 20 yards or more to Atlanta receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White.

This is the week for Ryan to attack Philadelphia’s raggedy offensive line and quarterback Michel Vick, who said this week that he’s been hit more this season than any other in his career.

He’s been sacked 27 times this season, including at least three times in each of the last four games. New Orleans sacked him seven times last week.

Understand, the Cowboys have blitzed just 16 times in the past three games, perhaps an indication Ryan doesn’t want his safeties in too many man-to-man situations.

Well, he needs to go out of character this week.

The Eagles’ offense has been scrutinized all week. Coach Andy Reid has been lambasted, Vick has been ripped and it’s a unit in disarray. The Cowboys can’t allow them to find their confidence early.

To stop that from happening, Ryan must attack an offensive line that’s missing four starters and take advantage of Vick’s inability to consistently make good pre-snap reads.

Attack mode from the start is the way for the Cowboys to win. If they play passively and stay in a zone, then Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin will have success similar to that of White and Jones.
There's one philosophical approach the Cowboys can use Sunday night against the Atlanta Falcons that gives them the best chance to win.

They must stop the run without using an eighth defender near the the line of scrimmage.
Michael Turner is a thick-thighed, punishing runner capable of punishing a defense. He's having an average season with 415 yards and a 3.8 average per carry, but his threat is what persuades teams to use a safety in run defense.

Do that, and it opens to Matt Ryan's passing game with tight end Tony Gonzalez and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.

Ryan has had a 100-yard receiver or tight end in five of seven games.

The Cowboys rank 13th in NFL, yielding 104.7 yards per game, but they've done a solid job against the run for the most part.

Last week, they contained the Giants' running game without using Gerald Sensabaugh that much. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan needs a repeat of that.

This is a week for defensive ends Kenyon Coleman and Jason Hatcher and nose guards Jay Ratliff and Josh Brent to control the line of scrimmage.

Do that, and the Cowboys have a shot to win. Fail to control Turner without using eight and the Falcons' receivers will have big days.

Big Decision: Jason Garrett must attack

October, 28, 2012
A conservative approach at the end of the game worked out for Jason Garrett in last week's win over Carolina.

It won't work this week. The New York Giants are too good.

This is the week for Garrett to be at his aggressive best as a play-caller because without inside linebacker Sean Lee, who's out for the year after having toe surgery, the Cowboys will struggle to consistently stop the Giants' big-play passing attack.

As simplistic as it sounds, the Cowboys must score touchdowns instead of kicking field goals this week. Before you laugh, Dan Bailey kicked four field goals last week against Carolina, and he had three against Baltimore the week before that.

Garrett has found more balance in the Cowboys' offense each of the past two games, running the ball more than 30 times.

Against the Giants, Garrett must add play-action passes to the mix. The Cowboys have tried only 25 in 234 attempts this season, according to Pro Football Focus, the lowest percentage in the league.

Play-action can lead to big plays. So can screen passes to Felix Jones when the Giants blitz.
The Cowboys try so few trick plays, this might be the week to pull one out. Again, it's about scoring touchdowns this week.

Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are capable of making big plays. Bryant's 38-yard catch helped Dallas take a 7-3 lead just before halftime, and Austin's leaping grab and subsequent 34-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter gave the Cowboys a 24-10 lead.

Romo remains a high-caliber quarterback, even though he hasn't played like it much of the season. This is not the week to take the Romo out of Romo.

This is the week to unleash the quarterback, and the Cowboys' offense.
In the offseason, Jason Garrett suggested Rob Ryan not gamble so much on defense.

So Ryan has dialed down the blitzes and exotic looks this season. This would be a good week to bring them back, if Garrett approves.

Cam Newton can be a devastating runner, but you win games in the NFL by throwing the ball. Newton has been awful against the blitz this season, completing 28 of 48 passes for 456 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Dallas has just 10 sacks and one interception this season, but those totals will swell if they successfully attack Newton.

Quarterbacks under duress make mistakes, especially young quarterbacks. Newton is prone to mental meltdowns when he gets frustrated and the Cowboys can use that to their advantage.

This is not the game to fear his running prowess. This is the game to force the issue and exploit his penchant for making mistakes.
The most important decision Jason Garrett makes Sunday against Baltimore concerns his ego.

Does he control it? Or does it control him?

Garrett must fight his tendency to eschew the running game on the road -- even if it's not producing much yardage -- because it will allow the Cowboys to limit the number of possessions, reduce the opportunities for Tony Romo to make a mistake and allow the offensive line to establish a rhythm.

Besides, the other approach doesn't work.

The Cowboys are 7-7 on the road under Garrett. In their seven wins, the pass-run differential has been greater than seven just twice. In their seven losses, the pass-run differential has been less than 10 just once.

Got it?

Maintain offensive balance and odds are the Cowboys will win. If the Cowboys become one-dimensional odds are Dallas will lose.

It won't be easy because the Cowboys have struggled to run the ball. DeMarco Murray has just 104 yards on his last 41 carries and has been dropped for a loss 11 times.

The interior offensive line has been suspect and Derrick Dockery has taken some first-team repetitions this week, an indication Garrett is losing patience with Mackenzie Bernadeau.

This game starts a difficult stretch for the Cowboys with four of their next five games on the road.

If Garrett commits to the running game today, it gives the Cowboys their best chance to beat Baltimore for the first time in franchise history.

IRVING - Mackenzy Bernadeau played poorly against Tampa Bay, prompting a to-the-point meeting with offensive line coach Bill Callahan.

Callahan said he's told the right guard, a key free-agent acquisition in the offseason, that the Cowboys need him to play better.

No time like the present, because Chicago has a quality front four and defensive tackle Henry Melton, a Grapevine and Texas product, who will be lining up against Bernadeau and has three sacks.

If he’s doing his job, Garrett spent a chunk of time this week pondering whether Derrick Dockery should replace Bernadeau, who signed a three-year $11 million deal but missed much of the offseason recovering from hip surgery.

Bernadeau was supposed to be a big body who solidified the middle of the offensive line. But he's been part of the problem - not the solution - having allowed a team-high three sacks and five pressures.

If Bernadeau struggles against the Bears, then expect Garrett to give Dockery a long look at right guard during the bye week to make sure he’s ready to play, if needed, against Baltimore.

Should Bernadeau struggle early against the Bears, we shouldn't be surprised if Garrett replaces him with Dockery.

Four of the Cowboys’ next five games are on the road. The Cowboys can’t blow a home game against a mediocre opponent because Bernadeau can’t get the job done.

Big Decision: Rob Ryan must bring heat

September, 23, 2012
The Dallas Cowboys didn’t blitz New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning that much in the opener, and he doesn’t move that well. And they didn’t blitz Seattle Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson often because they feared he would make plays outside the pocket.

So this is probably a good week for Jason Garrett to saunter down to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s office and tell him this is the week to bring the pressure.

Fact: quarterbacks under duress make mistakes. Fact: The Cowboys have forced one turnover this season.

Part of the struggles the Cowboys’ offense are having can be blamed on the team's defense and special teams failing to provide quality field position.

Garrett needs to strongly suggest Ryan use more than eight blitzes -- the number he’s called each of the first two weeks -- to put pressure on Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. He threw 22 interceptions last season and has a pair in the first two games of this season.

Freeman, who has been sacked twice in each of the first two games, will give the Cowboys an opportunity to get turnovers if he’s consistently under pressure.

This is not the week to let another quarterback sit in the pocket and calmly decide where to go with the ball. This is the week for Ryan to force the issue.

Garrett should prod him to do so.
IRVING - This is not a week for ego. This isn’t a game for Dan Bailey to send his kickoffs down the middle of the field because Jason Garrett and Bruce DeCamillis believe in their coverage unit.

Leon Washington is too dangerous.

Garrett and DeCamillis must do whatever they can to keep the ball out of Washington’s hands on kick and punt returns.

Leon Washington is as dangerous as they come on kick returns.

He has seven career kick returns for touchdowns, and he had an 83-yard return last week in the opener. Twice, he’s returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in one season.

He’s only 5-foot-8, but he’s 210 pounds, which means he’s strong enough to run through arm tackles.

Last season, only 33 of Dan Bailey’s 86 kickoffs (38.4 percent) were touchbacks, which ranked 22nd in the NFL. And only 61 of his kickoffs (70.9 percent) reached the end zone, which was 27th in the NFL.

“He’s a great returner and he’s been a great returner in this league since Day 1. He’s a difference-making player for them," Garrett said. "He’s a guy who can make big plays and he’s done that throughout his career.

“You certainly want to limit his opportunities any way you can. The kicker and punter play a big role in this game because they have to give us favorable cover opportunities. But we have to go cover. There’s no expectation we can just take him out of the game by kicking the ball through.”

Since it’s fairly obvious Bailey isn’t going to have too many touchbacks Sunday, Bailey must put his kickoffs as deep as he can and direct them toward one sideline. Punter Chris Jones did a terrific job of that last week against the Giants.

That will allow the Cowboys to hem Washington in, using the sideline as a boundary, and should help with the coverage units whether it's a punt or a kickoff.