Commentary

You have to wonder about Jason Garrett

Play calling in Cowboys' opening loss results in more head-scratching than scoring

Updated: September 14, 2010, 6:57 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- This isn't about whether Wade Phillips has command of his team or his coaches.

The Dallas Cowboys' coach says he does, and we believe him.

The problem is the offensive coordinator.

Does Phillips believe in him?

He says he does.

After watching Jason Garrett make 71 play calls in the Cowboys' 13-7 loss to the Washington Redskins on Sunday night, though, you start to wonder.

There were too many times when Garrett's play calling looked, well, questionable.

Garrett has shown growth in four seasons as the offensive playcaller, but he did some strange things Sunday night.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
Geoff Burke/US PresswireCowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett made some strange calls in the season-opening loss.

"I thought we did some things well," Garrett said after the game. "We moved the ball fairly well at times. Obviously, we need to score more points. I thought we bogged down."

Sometimes getting bogged down isn't the offensive coordinator's fault. The players on the field can make mistakes that hamper the play calling.

No offensive coordinator has a magical play to get his team a first down on third-and-long. The Cowboys faced eight third-and-long situations Sunday and didn't convert any of them.

But Garrett has to do better overall. The Cowboys produced 380 yards of total offense and went 1-for-3 in the red zone.

On three consecutive plays in the first quarter, Garrett called a smoke route, a quick throw to a wide receiver behind the line of scrimmage. The three plays netted just 1 yard combined.

The hard thing about a smoke route in this situation was that the Redskins were playing man coverage. Quarterback Tony Romo threw two of the passes to rookie Dez Bryant, who was asked to beat a defender one-on-one.

He couldn't.

The third time the Cowboys tried it, cornerback DeAngelo Hall came on a blitz from the slot and knocked away Romo's pass to Roy Williams.

It doesn't get better.

The Cowboys struggled in the red zone in the preseason and in practice sessions in training camp. Last season, the Cowboys didn't do well in that area.

When the Cowboys got inside the 20 on Sunday, the first play Garrett tried was a halfback pass from Marion Barber.

Barber wound up throwing the ball away when tight end Jason Witten was well covered in the back of the end zone.

Why go with a halfback pass with Barber? He's the physical back the Cowboys tell us he is. Let him run the ball.

On the next play, the Cowboys set up with three receivers wide to the right. Romo hit Miles Austin for a 1-yard gain, but Bryant was called for offensive pass interference for holding Carlos Rogers.

When it got to third-and-14 from the 16, Romo overthrew Witten in the end zone. Austin was in the same area as Witten, which normally means somebody messed up.

Austin talked to Romo and receivers coach Ray Sherman after the play.

"We had some negative plays and some penalties that put us in some bad down-and-distance situations," Garrett said. "It was a lot harder to overcome a few particular drives, but we had some things in the run game and pass game. But you have to put it all together, and we weren't able to do that."

We all know what happened at the end of the first half.

Phillips said that his team should have taken a knee and that it was his fault. Garrett said it was his fault. Somehow, communication was lacking here.

Phillips said he was talking to his defensive coaches before the play. But Garrett didn't have the presence to say the Cowboys needed to get out of the first half down 3-0. Instead, he called a pass play, with Romo scrambling to find Tashard Choice.

Choice fumbled, and Hall returned it 32 yards for a touchdown. Dallas trailed 10-0 at halftime.

Phillips should have overruled Garrett on the play, which came after a holding call that the Redskins originally indicated they were declining.

"That's what I should have done, yeah," Phillips said about taking a knee to end the half. "When they took the penalty, I was talking to the defensive guys and I said, 'I can't believe they didn't take this penalty.' I'm talking to the defense on the phone and I said, 'It's stupid they didn't take the penalty, and all of a sudden they came out and said, 'Whoa, they took the penalty now, you know.' And that's what happened."

Said Garrett: "Yeah, in hindsight you take the knee, and that's what we should have done in that situation; unfortunately, the ball came out on that play and they made a good defensive play to score."

It's an interesting dynamic between a defensive head coach and his offensive coordinator. It appears Phillips leaves the offense alone and takes care of the defense while Garrett runs the offense with little interruption from the head coach.

Phillips wouldn't say how much he tells Garrett what not to do, but did say, "Sometimes I say, 'Hey, we need to speed up the game. We need to run more 11-personnel and go with no huddle.' That's part of the strategy of the game, really. Not the play itself. I'm not calling the plays because he's studied that more than I have."

The relationship between the two is pretty good. It's not as good as Phillips' with special teams coach Joe DeCamillis, who is former NFL coach Dan Reeves' son-in-law. Phillips and DeCamillis were on the same staff together in Atlanta in 2002-03.

Phillips wanted Jerry Jones to hire Reeves as a consultant in 2008, but those talks faltered.

A coach needs people he can trust on his staff, and Garrett seems to have as many confidants as Phillips. Two Garrett brothers are on the staff, with John the tight ends coach and Judd in the scouting department. Also, Garrett is close with quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson.

In addition to DeCamillis, Phillips' confidants include his son Wes, who is the quality control/offensive assistant, and secondary/safeties coach Brett Maxie, who played for Phillips in New Orleans.

Everyone says Phillips and Garrett are good.

We believe them.

But when we hear the coach take the blame for the half-ending fumble and not tell reporters whether running back Barber should have helped right tackle Alex Barron on the game-ending play, you question some things.

Should Garrett have called a play in which Barber would have assisted Barron in blocking Brian Orakpo, perhaps avoiding the holding penalty that negated the potential game-winning touchdown pass?

Maybe Phillips should have told Garrett to do it?

Maybe they did and Barber just messed up.

It's all blurred sometimes, but whatever is going on with the Cowboys' offense, good and bad, Garrett and Phillips are responsible.

"I think you're always trying to establish your identity," Garrett said Sunday. "I thought we had some pretty decent success both running it and throwing it, but what we need is to be able to continue to execute throughout a drive to give us scoring opportunities, and we didn't do that enough tonight."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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