We have seen the new version of the Cowboys for a full four games now and it is pretty apparent that a lot of things have changed with the team. Some of the changes have been about attitude. Some have been scheme. There have been changes to practice habits. And some have involved playing time for young players. The common denominator in all of this has been Jason Garrett.
While I realize that there are still a lot of doubters out there, Jason Garrett is clearly on a path to become the permanent head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. You can't totally blame the people still questioning Garrett since he was the offensive coordinator that helped lead the Cowboys to a 1-7 start. But since he has taken over control of the team there have been a lot of obvious changes for the better.
Let's start with the overall attitude of the team. There has been a positive vibe coming from the team from the moment Garrett took over. He speaks with confidence and he demands results from his players. The message that he consistently preaches of "be great today" sets a tone and it really is what Garrett is all about. The lazy, half-hearted practices and meetings are no longer being tolerated. There is a constant reminder to be great throughout the week and, if the Cowboys can put together a good week of practice, you should see good results on game day. So far the message has proven to be true. The defensive players that didn't know what to make of Garrett at the beginning have bought in because they can see that the message proves true game after game.
From a scheme standpoint a lot of things have changed in all three phases of the game. On offense, there has been clear change to emphasize the running game since the debacle against the Packers. Some delusional people have suggested the changes in the offensive game plan came because Garrett was trying to get Wade Phillips fired. That is so ridiculous it really isn't worth addressing but my answer to that is the thing that got Wade fired was the embarrassing play of the defense and it had very little to do with the offense. Garrett surely saw as we all did that the passing game with Kitna had to be scaled back because he was struggling to make all of the reads and throws required with the game plan due to poor offensive line play and, frankly, inferior talent to Romo.
On defense it is obvious that Paul Pasqualoni has switched the scheme from a blitz heavy, man coverage scheme to a base 3-4, zone coverage scheme. The defense hasn't improved much statistically in terms of yards allowed and points allowed but there has been a huge shift in the defense's ability to force turnovers. With the defense now coming up with interceptions on a regular basis the offense hasn't been forced to go 80 yards to score every time they get the ball. And the defense is even putting points on the board to make a big impact in the outcome of the games. The defense still needs a lot of work, but again, when you lose 45-7 it is time to re-evaluate how you are playing and make some changes.
Special teams has been consistently inconsistent all year long. But it seems like Joe DeCamillis has finally decided to let David Buehler start booming kickoffs as far as he can like last year. And the result has been a vastly improved kickoff coverage team because they aren't forced to stop a returner nearly as often. Matt McBriar should be a pro bowler with his superior play and his 65 yard overtime punt against the Colts was a bigger play than most people noticed. The return game is still very inconsistent, but Bryan McCann and Dez Bryant have give both return units big plays. Buehler's field goal percentage is near the bottom of the entire NFL, but the sad part is that he actually has hit a better percentage than they guy he replaced, Nick Folk.
The change to full pad practice on Wednesdays seems to have sparked the running game on offense. The offensive line seems to be improving week by week and it is exciting to think how the Cowboys will be running the ball by the time we get to the last game of the season. Along with the offensive line I think the full pads practice has helped the defense improve their tackling and aggressiveness.
Getting some of the young players on the field has happened partially by choice and some have been forced on the field due to injuries. Bryan McCann, Sean Lee, and Tashard Choice have all made major impacts in the last four games. And the coaches should stick with these guys down the stretch since they have proven they deserve a shot. I am really excited by what Sean Lee is turning into now that he has a good grasp of the defense and the speed of the game at the NFL level. It will be hard to keep him off the field if he keeps making big plays. And I'll bet Marion Barber is very nervous about his playing time. If Choice keeps playing like he did against the Colts it would appear that Barber's days in Dallas are numbered.
If you think about the roster a big part of the problem this season has been work ethic. Players who were on the team when Parcells was around developed some great work habits that survived even through the laid back approach of Wade Phillips. I'm talking about guys like Jason Witten, Miles Austin, Terence Newman, Demarcus Ware, Tony Romo and Bradie James. I never had a doubt about whether they would be ready to play even with Phillips running the team. But players like Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick, Martellus Bennett, and Anthony Spencer have never had a head coach demand the best they have every day since they entered the NFL. I think they are all benefiting from the new approach that Garrett has brought to the team.