The summer before I turned fifteen, my dad and I took a trip to Colorado to climb a few mountains. On our way home, we passed through a mountain pass called Engineer’s Pass. Basically a sharp incline and decline marked by switchbacks that overlook twenty to thirty foot drop offs. After driving his truck up the pass, we stopped at the top and my dad asked if I wanted to drive the truck down the pass. As a fourteen year old who had only driven in an abandoned Service Merchandise parking lot, it was essentially rhetorical question. I loved my dad’s truck–metallic orange, quad cab, four wheel drive–and was tired of either watching it do cool stuff or me only drive at parking lot speeds. It was a straightforward task: go slow, drive straight, turn right, drive straight, then turn left. Rinse, and repeat. Oh, and don’t drive off the cliff and die. I put it I. Drive and head down the pass toward the first switchback, nailed it. Made that 10mph turn like I was a pro. Nailed the next one. If I’d known who Ricky Bobby was, I’d have thought that I was his second coming. After one of the turns, I straighten out and realize that we’re going faster than I’m comfortable with. Even though my foot has the brake pedal down most of the way. I put the pedal down the whole way, no dice. Still going pretty fast, and picking up speed as we get closer to the switchback/cliff/death drop. My dad notices our high rate speed, looks over to ask what’s going on. I had my hands clenched on the wheel (at 10 and 2, obviously) and jaw clenched. “Brakes. Don’t. Work,” was my only reply. His brow furrows for a split second, then he reaches over and jams the gear selector down as far as it will go. Magically, we slow down and avoid certain death.
Turns out, riding the brakes causes the braking system to get really hot and evaporate the hydraulic fluid. Then the brakes stop working. You’re not supposed to do that. I’ve never forgotten that lesson, which is exactly what it ended up being. I was in over my head. I’d barely driven before, but wanted to play with the shiny toy. I was tired of the passenger seat and decided to figure out the details after I got the keys.
In his most honest moments, I think that Bill Callahan would admit that he knows how I felt. It’s how he feels every Sunday afternoon (or prime time, for the truly embarrassing games). He was hired as the “offensive coordinator”, but everyone knew that since Jason Garrett wasn’t giving up play-calling duties, it was largely a symbolic title. He spent some time “coaching” that offensive line, which would drive anyone crazy, and then is asked to take over playcalling duties. Can you blame him? I can either try to figure out what the hell is wrong with Doug Free or I can take Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and Dez Bryant out for a spin. Like asking me if I want to drive, that’s a rhetorical question. In the home stretch of the season, he’s still in over his head. He has made a lot of mistakes while calling plays for someone else’s offensive system, but none more egregious than how he has mishandled Dez Bryant.
Disclosure, Bryant has been on my fantasy team for almost a full season and was only recently traded. But he’s key to this offense, and is second in importance only to Romo. So I’ve paid a lot of attention to how he’s been used, and his lack of targets caused me heartache–and a three game losing streak. The explanation the media was consistently given (and accepted) was that he’s being double teamed so they can’t throw the ball at him. Me, Matthew Stafford, and Calvin Johnson disagree with the premise of that. But, I wanted to see for myself. I looked at only the New Orleans game (and really only the first half, because it was over at that point), but that’s the most recent game and one where it should have been obvious that passing the ball was the only hope we had. I used the NFL Game Rewind app that streams the games and game film.
I only saw four plays that you could argue that 88 was too double covered to throw to him, but only two times do I think he should have been avoided. The safeties aren’t lining up right over him 15 yards behind the cornerback, in all but one case they are a few steps off the hashmark to that side. If you trust your guy, throw it up and let him get it. Or use route concepts that keep him mostly removed from the double team. No one cares if the safety is off the hash if Dez runs a slant. Same for a dig or in route. But most of the routes the Cowboys have him running are fade and go routes, which run him RIGHT AT the safety. Playing right into the defense’s hands. And on the few occasions where Dez wasn’t going to be double covered, he wasn’t used well.
Worst case was in the first quarter, on the Dallas 28, 1 and 10. The offense comes out in 13 personnel and shows a run from a power run formation with Bryant the lone wide receiver aligned out to the right. Romo calls a shift, and the formation becomes a three wide receiver formation. Cleverness that we haven’t seen often this season. After the shift, James Hanna is lined up as the wide receiver to the right, with Dez now the inside receiver and Jason Witten inline just to the right of Doug Free.
By the defensive alignment, Bryant will either be covered by a linebacker who would pass him to a safety on a deeper route, or a safety playing deep.
Either way, he’s not double covered and 88 wins a battle against either position almost every time. Especially if you run a slant or dig. Look at all that space over him.
But he’s not even given an opportunity. At the snap, Dez runs a quick out and Hanna a quick in for a pick–and the ball goes to Hanna. No, really. Dez is blue, Hanna is red in my screenshot.
3 and 8 on own 9. Bryant motions from wide left to just behind Gavin Escobar. At the snap, 88 releases inside and has instant separation from his corner as he runs an in route at or just shy of the first down depth. Escobar releases outside and runs a sloppy corner or out route. Witten is inline again on the right, and runs an 11 yard out route. Terrence Williams is wide right and runs a go route (on the play, he breaks inside but it’s not until after he has seen Romo scrambling).
On his break inside, Dez has good position to get the ball. He’s not wide open, but hardly anyone is in the NFL. The safety is back pedaling a few steps so would be too late to break on the pass, and the linebacker closest to Bryant has his back to the play while covering Witten downfield.
Romo ends up having to scramble out of the pocket, but is still there when Dez is about to break. It’s an anticipation throw, but again–it’s the NFL, and Romo makes those every week. If he pulls the trigger, it’s very likely a first down.
Again, a failure to capitalize on one of the times Dez was unarguably single covered. You have to make teams pay for that, and give your best player the ball if you won’t trust him to win double teams.
Like my dad letting me drive knowing I wasn’t the most prepared, there is also blame on Jason Garrett. It’s his offense that Callahan calls plays for. He designed them, so their contents are on his head too. He also neglected to recognize that Monte Kiffin’s defense was never going to stop the Saints, so running the ball in the second half down 18 was a stupid idea. IF they had a chance, passing was it. His failure to communicate that to Callahan is a microcosm of the season as a whole.
The season is what it is, maybe a home playoff loss. Maybe no playoffs. But the Dez Bryant situation is one that will span into next season, and has to be fixed before the Cowboys have any serious chance of winning meaningful games.