Cowboys' offense has an identity crisis

Jason Garrett's offense has relied heavily on the pass in Dallas' first two games this season. AP Photo/James D Smith

IRVING, Texas -- It's hard to believe that Princeton's Jason Garrett was once the next big thing in terms of head coaching candidates in the NFL. Though he might not admit it in polite company, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had hoped Wade Phillips would bridge the gap until Garrett was ready to take over the team.

Jones paid Garrett $3 million not to leave following the 2007 season, and we all know what happened after that. Jones lost so much confidence in his young offensive coordinator that he attempted to bring Dan Reeves out of retirement as a consultant, per Phillips' request, before that deal fell apart in embarrassing fashion. Garrett is no longer on the short list of future head coaches in the league.

That's why I was amused by a national report Sunday night indicating that Jones might fire Phillips during the season and replace him with Garrett if the Cowboys continued to lose games. I could think of three coaches on the current staff whom Jones would turn to before Garrett, who has been stripped of the "genius" title despite his Ivy League pedigree and clinical approach on the sideline.

It has been well-documented that the Cowboys haven't established a running game during their 0-2 start. We spent the offseason talking about how Marion Barber was going to return from a torn quadriceps and Felix Jones had added bulk while maintaining his speed. This was supposed to remind us off the Giants' "Earth, Wind and Fire" rotation from 2008, but so far, they've only conjured memories of the Troy Hambrick era.

As I observed Sunday's game against the Bears, I kept noticing the Cowboys running in second-and-long situations. This normally resulted in Bears linebacker Lance Briggs knifing through the line and tackling Jones for a loss. Extensive research by ESPNDallas.com revealed the Cowboys have run the ball 31.3 percent of the time on first down, which ranks 31st in the league.

In Week 1 against the Redskins, the Cowboys rushed for 103 yards on 22 carries, which seemed reasonable. But for whatever reason, Garrett has Andy Reid Syndrome in that he seems to run the ball more out of a sense of obligation than actual belief that it might lead to something. The so-called three-headed monster that presumably includes Tashard Choice has been much ado about nothing.

If I learned anything from my four years of news conferences with Bill Parcells, it's that that the number of carries can sometimes be nearly as important as the number of yards produced. Parcells believed that you could control the game by committing to the running game and not abandoning it at the first sign of trouble. As long as you could avoid negative plays, Parcells could live with 1- and 2-yard gains.

I'm sure some of you are wondering how the Indianapolis Colts seem to annually put up huge offensive numbers without the help of a consistent running game. Well, it helps to have one of the best quarterbacks of all time and a group of receivers who know exactly how to attack a defense. At this point, the Cowboys are fortunate to get a play off without a false start.

Dallas showed signs of having a balanced offense last season and Garrett gave the running game more than just a casual glance. Jones was brilliant in those playoff games against the Eagles, and most of us thought he'd touch the ball at least 15-20 times per game this season. That hasn't worked out, in part because the offensive line lost its identity during the preseason and the first two real games.

Center Andre Gurode and right guard Leonard Davis earned reputations as maulers in this league. They would impose their will on opposing defensive linemen, clearing the way for big gains from Barber and Jones. But some of that started to fade when offensive line coach Tony Sparano left for Miami after the 2007 season. This is an offensive line that appears to be much more comfortable when pass blocking. Folks who watch a lot more film than I do have said that Davis is no longer able to move his feet, which is allowing defenders to get too much penetration. There has even been speculation that Montrae Holland could replace Davis in the starting lineup, but I have not heard that from anyone on the coaching staff.

Through it all, Garrett has promised not to give up on the run. During his weekly visit with reporters Wednesday, he tried to explain his approach to play calling.

"Regarding any play-calling sequence and Game 1 and Game 2, what you’re trying to do is put the team in the best position they can be in," Garrett said. "Sometimes it means calling passes and sometimes it means calling runs."

But through two games, it has been mostly about the pass. I think what has happened is the Cowboys still want to be a power running team, but they now have a finesse offensive line. We spent part of the offseason wondering whether Doug Free would be the answer at left tackle, but he has been the least of the Cowboys' offensive worries. Right now, this is a left-leaning offense in the running game, which obviously makes them easier to defend. Remember the last time they loaded up and found some yardage behind the right side?

Yeah, I don't either. This is an offense without an identity. And if they want to have any chance at the playoffs, they better find one in a hurry.