In one of his last speeches as President, John Kennedy cited the Irish author Frank O’Connor, who recalled a game he and his childhood friends played. When they encountered a stone wall they thought was too high to scale, one of them would throw his cap over it. The boys would then have no choice but to follow it.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett threw the offense’s cap over the wall this weekend and dared his young charges to chase it. Garrett and his fellow coaches sent a jolt through Cowboys nation, and perhaps their team, by releasing long-time kicker Dan Bailey. The 2018 season will begin with Brett Maher as the Cowboy’s field goal specialist. Coming in the same offseason where red zone security blankets Jason Witten and Dez Bryant have moved on, dealing the third reliable leg of the team’s recent scoring offensive triad seemed a move too far. To many fans, Garrett wasn’t helping his team climb the playoff wall by cutting Bailey, but greasing the stones instead.
There may be a method to the coach’s seeming madness. The Cowboys offense has become overly reliant on throwing the ball in the red zone. How many times in recent years has the team earned a first and goal inside the five, and then spread the field with three and four receivers? How often has it used the back corner fade to Bryant as a get-into-the-end zone card, while de-emphasizing a dominant offensive line and a blue-chip power back in Ezekiel Elliott?
Garrett concluded the answer has been, too much. With Bryant and Witten gone, and the certainty of a Bailey fallback now also departed, coordinator Scott Linehan, offensive line coach Paul Alexander and the rest of the staff now must get their big bodies to finally play like the Triplets-era offense they were drafted to emulate.
That ‘90s bunch eschewed any manner of subtlety. When they got near the goal line, Alvin Harper came out, a second tight end came in and nine times out of ten, Emmitt Smith followed fullback Daryl Johnston and his gilded line to paydirt. On that tenth occasion, sometimes out of boredom, Troy Aikman would roll out and give Michael Irvin a score.
With or without the ailing Travis Frederick, these Cowboys have a massive, bully-boy line. They have tight ends who can block adequately. They have the electric eel Tavon Austin to run reverses or pass patterns underneath the formations off the wing. The modern game has made Johnston-like fullbacks extinct, but this unit has a linebacker-sized quarterback in Dak Prescott, whose run skills would make Aikman jealous and gives Scott Linehan another goal-line weapon.
The 2018 Cowboys should be able to summon the will and the muscle and bludgeon their way to six points far more often than not.
There is a kicking change precedent from those go-go Cowboys. In the ‘92 preseason, Jimmy Johnson cut his incumbent kicker Ken Willis and trusted the role to rookie Lin Elliott. Elliott may be the worst kicker on a champion in the modern era. He had a mediocre 69% conversion rate on all field goals that year and converted only 58% of his attempts beyond 30 yards. Down the stretch, many fans worried that the Cowboys were headed for misery if a playoff game came down to an Elliott attempt.
Johnson never moved to upgrade his kicker. His offense knew they would win or lose with Elliott. Did the prospect of a last-second, season-defining attempt inspire the Cowboys, or terrify them? In any case, they responded with a steady flow of touchdowns.
Seven of Dallas’ last nine wins were by double digits. The closest victory margin was by four points. The offense kept their point totals high and their fans’ collective blood pressure low.
That’s the challenge Garrett has handed this year’s bunch. Can they finally grow into red-zone, running-game goliaths? Maybe they can or maybe they can’t, but we shouldn’t fault Garrett for throwing his cap over the playoff wall. Leaning on Bailey and the red zone passing game left the 2017 Cowboys a game short of the postseason.
This year, their coach is giving his guys only one path to reach them.