The Cowboys offense has undergone several transformations throughout the club's history. Each coach has a different view on what should be successful against the defenses of their days. As is the case in the NFL, as defenses adjust to what you do well, an offensive coordinator is tasked with evolving his system to try and stay one step ahead, or else be replaced. Recognized invention often times includes returning to roots, and you'll see coordinators reaching back to days past to add new wrinkles to their plans.
Dallas has employed several men in the position of scheming the team towards lighting up the scoreboard. From current working backwards, here's a list of Cowboys offensive coordinators/play callers since the clubs inception.
Scott Linehan: 2014
Bill Callahan: 2013
Jason Garrett: 2007 - 2012
Tony Sparano: 2006
Sean Payton: 2005
Maurice Carthon: 2003 - 2004
Bruce Coslett: 2002
Jack Reilly: 2000 - 2001
Chan Gailey: 1998 - 1999
Ernie Zampese: 1994 - 1997
Norv Turner: 1991 - 1993
David Shula: 1989 - 1990
Paul Hackett: 1986 - 1988
Tom Landry: 1960 - 1986
Here’s an in-depth look at the best offensive systems of the franchise’s storied history.
The patriarch of the Cowboys coaching fraternity, Landry and his inventiveness deserves much more appreciation than I can pay homage to in a compilation post. As the head coach of the team for its first 28 years and offensive playcaller for 26, Landry could probably have multiple systems available for this exercise's fantasy rosters. He has groomed numerous quarterbacks through his tenure, from Eddie LeBaron to Don Meredith, from Craig Morton to Roger Staubach to Danny White. His quarterbacks made the Pro Bowl 11 times under his watch. The number of skill position and offensive line stars during his career are numerous as you'll see in the coming posts. All of these Ring of Honor and Hall of Famers must have had a darn good system to play in, though. You know the type that would allow it's innovator to enjoy the longest tenure in the history of the league.
It has been said that, after inventing the Flex Defense, he then invented an offense to score on it, reviving the man-in-motion and starting in the mid-1970s, the shotgun formation. But Landry's biggest contribution in this area was the use of "pre-shifting" where the offense would shift from one formation to the other before the snap of the ball. This tactic was not new. It was developed by Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg around the turn of the 20th century; Landry was the first coach to use the approach on a regular basis. The idea was to break the keys within the defense used to determine what the offense might do.
An unusual feature of this offense was Landry having his offensive linemen get in their squatted pre-stance, stand up while the running backs shifted, and then go back down into their complete "hand down" stance. The purpose of the "up and down" movement was to make it more difficult for the defense to see where the backs were shifting (over the tall offensive linemen) and thus cut down on recognition time. While other NFL teams later employed shifting, few employed this "up and down" technique as much as Landry.
Landry of course led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories with three additional appearances. He also led two consecutive playoff appearance streaks of 8 and 9 years each. Credited for the motion offense, shifting of linemen and the shotgun snap, Landry also employed the dual-quarterback system for a part of his coaching career; alternating QBs so the defense could not key on on either style. Can you imagine if this was implanted in today’s times?
The man who steered Jimmy Johnson's offense around the corner, through the parking lot, and into the champions lounge, Turner was a protege of Ernie Zampese, who in turn was a protege of Don Coryell (Coryell passed on in the Summer 2010). The Coryell offense is predicated on two main principles; power running and fast receivers threatening the defense in the mid and long range passing game. The quarterback generally remains in the pocket to throw the pigskin, which requires a strong arm. With that as his base discipline, can you imagine how ecstatic Turner must have been getting the call to teach it to Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith and Alvin Harper?
It is a very sound, QB friendly scheme that favors taking controlled chances, like quicker midrange post passes to WRs off play action rather than slower developing passes that leave QBs exposed. It is almost exclusively run out of the pro set. Turner favors a more limited palette of plays than Coryell and most other Coryell disciples, instead insisting on precise execution. His offenses are usually towards the top of the league standings, but are often labeled predictable.
His offenses tend to include a strong running game, a #1 WR who can stretch the field and catch jump balls in the end-zone, a good receiving TE to attack the space the WRs create in the middle of the field and a FB who fills the role of a lead blocker and a final option as an outlet receiver. In Dallas, Turner made RB Emmitt Smith & WR Michael Irvin Hall of Famers, and TE Jay Novacek a five time pro bowler.
Some may scoff at Garrett's inclusion in this exercise, but they only need to glance at the Cowboys' record books to see that he must be doing something right. The top four years for passing yardage? Under Garrett's watch. The top three slots for passing TDs in a year as well. Longevity? No system has been in place longer than Garrett’s outside of Tom Landry’s.
Three times under Garrett the Cowboys have ranked in the Top 7 in the league in scoring, including 2013’s rank of 5th. Three times under Garrett the team has been in the Top 7 of offensive yards.
The unit has also continued to make their fair share of mistakes and errors that have prevented capitalizing on the talent they've collected, however. If it wasn't injuries, than it was untimely drops. If it wasn't stupid drive killing penalties, it was brain freezes or costly turnovers. The hope was that with Garrett in charge of the whole show, his greater latitude to affect change from the throne would help. This has been a bit slow in taking hold.
In a book released a few summers ago called Blood Sweat and Chalk, Jason Garrett was asked about the Coryell offense and how he implemented his version in Dallas. Via espn.com:
In an excerpt, Garrett talked about how he taught Tony Romo the Coryell offense, nicknamed Air Coryell.
"Romo was pretty good from the start," Garrett says in the book. "But we absolutely had to coach him to get away from the center. And we've had to coach receivers to get off the ball. Like Ernie always said: 'Speed, speed, speed.' None of that changes."
Garrett's offense has constantly evolved since his return to the fold in 2007. While he takes a lot of flak (including from yours truly) for abandoning the run in recent years, it wasn’t always like this. Running back carries increased from 23 carries per game in the 13-3 2007 campaign up to approximately 27-28 a game when Felix Jones and Tashard Choice replaced Julius Jones.
In 2012, though, running back carries dropped to 20.1 per game, what was thought to be a pitiful low. Despite having their best O-line in years and DeMarco Murray running at a great clip, that number dropped in 2013 to a lowly 19.4 running back carries per game.
And now Garrett has turned over control of his offense to Scott Linehan. It will be interesting to see if some of the creativity that used to be sprinkled throughout the Cowboys offense returns with a Linehan flare. Linehan’s teams are known for running plays at a high rate, both passing and running, and also creativity in design. Dallas fans would love to take the best of his traits and mesh them with the best of Garrett’s.
Now, a quick look at some of the other “noteworthy” playcallers in Dallas history.
Bruce Coslett: 2002
Year 2 of the Quincy Carter Experiment saw the hiring of Bruce Coslet, an expert in the West Coast Offense. This offense was believed to play to Carter’s strength as a mobile quarterback. Midway through the season, though, the Cowboys benched Carter in favor of Chad Hutchinson, who had returned to football after several years in minor league baseball. Coslet’s offensive system simply did not work, and he was dismissed after the hiring of Bill Parcells.
Jack Reilly: 2000 – 2001
The success of the Rams’ timing-based system in 1999 led Jerry Jones to hire Jack Reilly to reinstall a timing-based offense in Dallas. This was true notwithstanding the fact that Dallas had fired Reilly as quarterbacks coach after the 1997 season. The Cowboys were supposed to have one of the fastest receiving corps in the NFL in 2000, with new receiver Joey Galloway and holdover Ismail. Neither of the receivers, nor Troy Aikman, finished the 2000 season.
Dallas drafted Quincy Carter in 2001 to be its next franchise quarterback, and retained Reilly to coach him. It didn’t work well, to say the least.
Chan Gailey: 1998 – 1999
Jerry Jones hired Chan Gailey from Pittsburgh to ignite the Dallas offense, and he was rather successful. Troy Aikman returned to the shotgun and was asked to do more by way of reading defenses. The offensive line learned a new zone blocking scheme that was foreign to the team during its heyday earlier that decade. Even when Aikman went down with a collarbone injury in 1998, backup Jason Garrett was able to step in a win three of five games, which kept Dallas in contention to win the NFC East. To help Gailey’s offense, Dallas signed Rocket Ismail to complement Irvin. A 3-0 start looked very promising, as the Dallas offense appeared to be clicking. But a career-ending injury to Irvin in week 4 set in motion a decline that led to Gailey’s dismissal at the end of the 1999 season. Many times during the 1999 season, critics questioned why Gailey did to attempt more timing-based pass plays, which had been so successful for Aikman earlier in his career. By the end of the season, it didn’t matter.
Ernie Zampese: 1994 – 1997
When Turner left, Dallas hired his mentor, Ernie Zampese. Zampese left the Dallas system in place, and it worked just fine for the first two years. In 1996, Irvin’s suspension for drugs, coupled with a general loss of talent due to free agency, hurt the Dallas offense, although eventually the stars stepped up. The 1997 season, though, was a disaster, as the timing-based system failed to work effectively as the team’s stars began to decline.
Zampese returned to Dallas as a consultant in 2000.
David Shula: 1989 – 1990
Jimmy Johnson’s first choice as offensive coordinator was David Shula, son of legendary Miami coach Don Shula. The younger Shula struggled as he played rookies Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh in 1989. The following was more promising, as Dallas had a chance to make the playoffs. But an injury to Aikman forced the Cowboys to play Babe Laufenberg, and losses to Philadelphia and Atlanta ended the Cowboys’ season. Shula was thereafter demoted and then left the team.
Paul Hackett: 1986 – 1988
By the mid-1980s, the offense that Landry had developed and used for so many years had begun to become stale. Owner Bum Bright, who feuded with Landry often, demanded the hiring of Paul Hackett as offensive coordinator. Hackett had more recently been on the staff with San Francisco, helping to coach Joe Montana to greatness. He was brought to Dallas to make the offense more exciting.
For eight games in 1986, the combination of Landry’s and Hackett’s systems worked. Then Danny White broke his wrist against the Giants, and nothing worked well after that point during 1986 or even during the two seasons that followed. Before being fired himself, Landry demoted Hackett, effectively ending his term in Dallas.