Gar­rett’s post-Elliott plan fails Cow­boys

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Mike Jones Colum­nist

Head-scratcher of the week goes to Dal­las Cow­boys coach Ja­son Gar­rett.

Ev­ery­one knew the ab­sence of Ezekiel Elliott would cre­ate more pres­sure on Dak Prescott. But Gar­rett did a poor job of help­ing his sec­ond-year quar­ter­back.

The Cow­boys coach de­vi­ated from the phi­los­o­phy upon which his team is built and, as a re­sult, set the of­fense up to fail in his team’s 27-7 loss Sun­day at Atlanta. Yes, Prescott is a cru­cial fig­ure for the unit. But part of the rea­son he has thrived has to do with Dal­las’ bal­ance.

Atlanta’s de­fense had al­lowed an av­er­age of 114.5 rush­ing yards per con­test (and 201 the week be­fore). But the Cow­boys made only min­i­mal at­tempts to es­tab­lish a run game, their backs post­ing 65 yards on just 15 at­tempts.

Gar­rett put his trust in Prescott’s arm. But a Fal­cons de­fense that en­tered the game with 18 sacks all sea­son racked up eight (six by Adrian Clay­born) against Dal­las. A Cow­boys of­fense that had av­er­aged bet­ter than 25 points per game mus­tered one touch­down.

Re­plac­ing Elliott’s 98 rush­ing yards per game is not easy, nor is play­ing with­out all-pro left tackle Ty­ron Smith. But a coach has to find ways to mask those de­fi­cien­cies, and re­main­ing com­mit­ted to the run would have been his best bet.

Sure, there’s a drop-off from Elliott to Al­fred Mor­ris. A three-time thou­sand yard rusher and two-time Pro Bowl back, Mor­ris is more than ca­pa­ble. But suc­cess in the run game re­quires pa­tience.

In their first two pos­ses­sions, the Cow­boys ran the ball five times and threw it six times. Af­ter hav­ing to punt at the end of their first series, they got the ball back thanks to an in­ter­cep­tion and then scored on a Prescott scram­ble.

Mor­ris had just 9 yards on those five car­ries, but he has shown that he grows more ef­fec­tive with a heavy late-game work­load. This is where the pa­tience comes in. Two-time Su­per Bowl-win­ning coach Mike Shana­han, whose teams could al­ways run with the best of them, both in Den­ver and Wash­ing­ton, al­ways used to preach the im­por­tance of stick­ing with the run early. The ben­e­fits are twofold.

Pro­duc­tion might not ar­rive im­me­di­ately, but af­ter con­sis­tently pound­ing the ball, the de­fense wears down. Then, the small gains from the first and sec­ond quar­ter turn into long runs in the sec­ond half.

The other ben­e­fit of main­tain­ing a bal­ance: keep­ing an op­po­nent hon­est.

It’s much harder for de­fend­ers to go full bore af­ter the quar­ter­back when they have to worry about play­ing the run as well. That’s when an of­fense can cap­i­tal­ize on a big play-ac­tion pass.

But Dal­las didn’t cre­ate those op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The Cow­boys scrapped the run mid­way through the first quar­ter. Prescott handed off just once more and dropped back 16 times. Then af­ter gains of 14 and 20 yards early in the third quar­ter, Mor­ris scarcely had his num­ber called again. While Gar­rett re­peat­edly called pass play af­ter an­other, the Fal­cons feasted on Prescott.

Dal­las coaches also made the puz­zling de­ci­sion not to give strug­gling backup left tackle Chaz Green more help against Clay­born. An ex­tra tight end could have made a dif­fer­ence.

At 5-4, the Cow­boys re­main in the mix for a wild-card spot. The 6-3 Sea­hawks and Pan­thers are ahead of them, and Dal­las plays the NFC-lead­ing Ea­gles

on Sun­day night. For the Cow­boys to have a chance, Gar­rett has to get back to bal­ance and pa­tience.

Costly stub­born­ness in Hous­ton?

De­spite his 47.3% com­ple­tion per­cent­age, 62.2 passer rat­ing, five fum­bles lost, two in­ter­cep­tions and just two touch­down passes in four ap­pear­ances — oh, and a 0-3 record guid­ing the on­ce­promis­ing Hous­ton Tex­ans — Tom Sav­age will re­main the start­ing quar­ter­back.

Bill O’Brien an­nounced the news to re­porters Mon­day morn­ing, the day af­ter his team lost 33-7 to the Rams.

This is truly a mind-bend­ing de­ci­sion by O’Brien. He com­mit­ted to Sav­age to start the sea­son, and the fourth-year pro didn’t even last be­yond the first half of the opener. In came De­shaun Wat­son, and the Tex­ans sud­denly looked like a con­tender.

But Wat­son’s sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury has sent O’Brien back to his seem­ingly stub­born ways. As Wat­son showed, the Tex­ans have the com­po­nents for a thriv­ing pass­ing game. His suc­cess even cre­ated op­por­tu­ni­ties for run­ning backs. So why stick with the guy who mag­ni­fies every wart on the team? Sav­age re­peat­edly dis­plays poor pocket pres­ence. He holds on to the ball too long, which puts more pres­sure on his line. He takes un­nec­es­sary sacks (12 in to­tal this sea­son) and puts his team in worse field po­si­tion.

But O’Brien plans to stick with him. Per­haps O’Brien doesn’t have con­fi­dence in the guys be­hind Sav­age — jour­ney­men T.J. Yates and Josh John­son are the only other op­tions on the ros­ter. But the Tex­ans can’t con­tinue this way. It’s time to swal­low pride, call Colin Kaeper­nick, and have him run the same schemes that Wat­son put to use to ig­nite this of­fense. Kaeper­nick could strug­gle some pick­ing up ter­mi­nol­ogy and learn­ing the scheme in­side and out. But Sav­age sup­pos­edly knows the sys­tem, and it can’t get much worse than this.

Good prob­lem for Vik­ings

Teddy Bridge­wa­ter’s re­turn to the ac­tive ros­ter had Vik­ings fans ex­cited about the chances that the young quar­ter­back can again be­come the face of the fran­chise and de­liver the promis­ing body of work that he dis­played be­fore Au­gust 2016’s grue­some knee in­jury. And this time last week, Min­nesota faced the ques­tion of whether to stick with Case Keenum or whether to rein­sert Bridge­wa­ter as starter for the first time since 2015.

But Keenum qui­eted those “We want Teddy” chants, as he com­pleted 72% of his passes for 304 yards and four touch­downs while lead­ing his team to a 38-30 win over Wash­ing­ton. That’s the fifth con­sec­u­tive vic­tory for the Keenum-led Vik­ings, who stand at 7-2.

Now Min­nesota has a more im­por­tant de­ci­sion on its hands. With Keenum and the of­fense top­ping 33 points in back-to-back vic­to­ries, it seems un­wise to risk dis­rupt­ing this rhythm. Ride this horse un­til he fal­ters.

The le­git­i­mate ques­tion for Vik­ings brass isn’t whether or not they should make a change at quar­ter­back right now, but if they should sign Keenum to an ex­ten­sion. The team doesn’t have a quar­ter­back un­der con­tract for 2018. It’s hard to en­vi­sion Min­nesota be­ing able to bring back its cur­rent group, which also in­cludes Sam Brad­ford. Given the in­jury his­to­ries of the other two and the steady, al­beit gen­er­ally un­flashy, play of Keenum, rid­ing their cur­rent hot hand be­yond this sea­son could be the smart bet.

DALE ZANINE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Ja­son Gar­rett’s Cow­boys run­ning backs had 15 car­ries while Dak Prescott threw 30 times against the Fal­cons.

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