The Dallas Cowboys and the Air Coryell Offense

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The Dallas Cowboys 2013 season has left a lot of the fans scratching their heads. Some fans are wondering: did Jimmy Johnson curse this team when he left like Babe Ruth did the Boston Red Sox? Others are wondering if Jimmy JohnsonJason Garrett and the coaching staff are to blame for failure  and the Dallas Cowboys inability to rise above 8-8. Like most sports shows, some of the fans place the blame on Tony Romo. Many of us who bleed True Blue and Silver are at our wits end trying to come up with something Jerry Jones and the entire Dallas Cowboys staff has yet to figure out over the last 17 years.

Route tree for the air coryell offense under Norv Turner.
Route tree for the Air Coryell offense under Norv Turner.

How do we get the Dallas Cowboys back to the Superbowl and NFL dominance?

Tony Romo Head DownAs I looked back on the 2013 season and seasons past, I thought about the troubles of Tony Romo. I looked at some of his infamous interceptions in critical games. His fumbled snap against the Seattle Seahawks. I thought maybe some people are right. He has the “Choke Gene” and cannot win the big one for our team.

Then I thought to myself “Self, let’s look on the other side of the ball”. Everyone can agree the Dallas Cowboys defense this season was something every fan wants to forget. I mean just try to erase it from the NFL stats. However, looking back, the downfall on this side of the ball started way before Monte Kiffin walked into Valley Ranch. I will talk more about the defense in another article. This one is all about the offense. Let me first give you a little history about the current scheme used by the Dallas Cowboys, The Air Coryell Offense.

Coach Don CoryellThe Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett is using the Air Coryell offensive scheme. For those of you that do not know, it is an offensive scheme developed by former San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Cardinals head coach, Don Coryell. Coach Coryell is also the first head coach to have over 100 wins at both the collegiate and professional levels. He based the offense off of the “Pro Set”, which was the standard in the NFL at the time.

In the Pro Set, a lot of play action is used. In that sense, the quarterback usually took the ball from under center instead of using the Shotgun formation. The quarterback would have a fullback and a half back split behind him with two wide receivers and a tight end. The play action would draw the defenders in to set up the deep pass to which ever wide receiver was open. Sometimes the tight end would stay in to block or run underneath routes as a safety valve for the quarterback. Remember, before the NFL became a passing league, it was a smash mouth, stop us if you can, run the ball down their throat type of league.

It was always pound the ball and throw when you needed to. Coach Coryell changed all that. His offense was more pass first, with going deep as the first option. He would have wide receivers, tight ends, and even running backs in motion. All of these motions caused the defense to almost give up their defensive play.

This was a BIG advantage for quarterbacks to do a pre-snap read of the defense. The quarterback could tell if he was getting man coverage or a zone. This style of offense is based more on timing and a good rhythm because the quarterback throws the ball to a designated spot on the field. It is predicated on good anticipation by the quarterback. Most of the time the ball is in the air before the receivers even break their routes.

There are two keys to making this offense work. The first is a power running game to keep the defense on their toes and to set up the play action. The other, in my eyes, is the major part; great pass protection to allow the routes time to develop down the field. With the first option  always being the deep pass, giving the quarterback time is critical to success. There could be as many as five players running routes on any given play. Some saw the scheme as predictable. However, when used by the right staff and with the proper personnel, Coach Coryell’s offense is a thing of pure beauty.

Mike MartzMike Martz once said, “Don is the father of the modern passing game. People talk about the West Coast offense, but Don started the ‘West Coast’ decades ago and kept updating it. You look around the NFL now, and so many teams run different versions of the Coryell offense. Coaches have added their own touches, but it’s still Coryell’s offense. He has disciples all over the league. He changed the game”.

Two offensive coordinators and one head coach used versions of this offense to win Superbowls. The head coach was no other than Joe Gibbs, with the Washington Redskins. The two offensive coordinators were Mike Martz, with the St Louis Rams and the other of course was Norv Turner, with the Dallas Cowboys. Although the three coaches had tweaked the offense to favor their teams, they all had basically the same base.

The PosseThey all had durable running backs they depended on to free up the passing game, wide receivers that could beat you deep, and an offensive line that could pave the road for the RB and/or make sure the quarter back stayed upright.. (The Cowboys have lacked the latter for years). Joe Gibbs ran this offense and won the Superbowl three times with three different running backs (John Riggins, George Rogers, and Earnest Byner) and quarterbacks (Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien).  The Washington Redskins wide receivers back then, known as “The Posse”, consisted of Art Monk, Gary Clark, and Ricky Sanders. They could burn you deep, but also had the ability to cut you up on the short routes. In Coach Gibbs version, the tight end was kept in most of the time to help block and used primarily in the red zone.

Greatest Show On TurfThe Mike Martz version was more complex. It was more dependent on the passing game and required a running back that could run routes and catch the ball out of the back field. In comes Marshall Faulk. With wide receivers Terry Holt and Issac Bruce and quarterback Kurt Warner, they would become known as the Greatest Show on Turf. This offense put up record numbers during the highlight of their Superbowl  year. The only thing about Coach Martz system, was he needed a smart quarterback to read the defense and know what the coach wanted to do. He also had to be very durable. Since the passing game was the focal point, defenses knew they would not see many running plays and could attack. Marshall Faulk made that very difficult once it was time to  run. Not only could he run hard, he would make you miss and break off a huge play.

Darryl JohnstonWe are all familiar with the Norv Turn version of the Air Coryell offense. This is the version I believe Jason Garrett tried to replicate. The two keys to running Norv Turner’s version may surprise most and may cause debate from others. My belief is Darryl “Moose” Johnston and Jay Novecek were the keys. Moose helped pave the road for Emmitt Smith and was an excellent blocker for Troy Aikman. When the Dallas Cowboys needed a few yards and everyone keyed on Emmitt, Moose could get those 2 or 3 yards for the first down and keep a drive alive.

Jay NovacekEveryone knew Jay Novacek was Troy Aikman’s security blanket. Every defense had to account for the whereabouts of Jay on every play. With the physical play of Michael Irvin, the speed of Alvin Harper, the durability, power of Emmitt Smith, and the quiet yet strong leadership and arm of Troy Aikman, the 90’s Dallas Cowboys were hell on wheels. Combine all of them with the greatest offensive line in NFL history (in my opinion), you have a team that could find many ways to beat you. Troy Aikman did not set a lot of passing records because he was handing the ball off to the NFL all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith. Most of them giving up personal glory to win, this team knew what team work was all about.

Dez Bryant And Jason WittenToday’s Dallas Cowboys offense has some of the key ingredients of the Norv Turner version. They have the physical wide receiver in Dez Bryant and a security blanket for Tony Romo in Jason Witten. The speed at the other wide receiver spot is a little shaky at times. Miles Austin, when healthy, could be that needed person. Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, and Dwayne Harris are all ready to take the next step.

The way Cole Beasley plays in the slot (WR3), with his speed, I believe Norv Turner would have him all over the field giving defensive coordinators headaches trying to stop this offense. The offensive line did better than expected this year. They paved the way for the Dallas Cowboys first 1000 yard running back since Julius Jones in 2006. Why did they repeatedly abandon the run?

DeMarco MurrayTony Romo had his moments again in 2013. However, he was having a great year statistics wise until his injury. Love him or hate him, Tony Romo is the reason we finish 8-8 instead of 2-14. I believe DeMarco Murray is the next great Dallas Cowboys running back. He is not given the ball enough. This is the way I see the big picture. I know some fans will see it in an entirely different way. Tony Romo IS the only quarterback  that can get the Dallas Cowboys to the Superbowl. Yes by all means start looking for his replacement since we know the window is closing. Give Tony what he needs to win. Give him a chance to hand the ball off more often. Let DeMarco Murray become what Emmitt Smith was to Troy Aikman. Let DeMarco be his rock. Let DeMarco be the horsepower of the Dallas Cowboys offense. This will in turn allow Dez Bryant to get more one on one situations in my opinion. When defenses have to respect and prepare for the running game, the passing offense usually opens up. After they adjust to the passing game, go back to pounding them into submission with the running game.

Jason Garrett2I believe Jerry Jones wants to win, but it may not seem like it with his dealings in free agency and poor decisions on draft day. I believe Jason Garrett is more frustrated than he leads on about his situation in Dallas. Over the last few years, they have tried to put the pieces together that are needed to run the Air Coryell offense. Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett went at it a lot differently by using undrafted free agents instead of the real draft. Most of the pieces are there, but I feel the short coming is not calling  the plays accurately, abandoning the run which is supposed to set up the play action, keep defenses honest, and is the key to success  in this offensive scheme.

The three teams that used this offense to get to the Superbowl all knew the running game opened the doors for everything else. I guess the play callers in Dallas have not figured that out yet. DeMarco Murray and many others have. We hear it constantly during pregame and post game shows. Even during the broadcast of the game, you hear the commentators like troy Aikman, (who ran this scheme with great success) ask why the Dallas Cowboys are abandoning the running game, thus frustrating DeMarco Murray and the fans alike. I digress.


The Dallas Cowboys will figure it all out one day.

By then, Tony Romo will be retired and DeMarco Murray will be with another team, but until then, Jerry Jones will still be standing in front of the media Cameras claiming “Moral Victories”.

Where does that leave we the fans? Well, it leaves us day dreaming about the glory days. Telling our great-grandchildren about the days of the Dallas Cowboys 20 year Dynasty that was so long ago. The one you can only read about on the ancient scrolls in the pyramids in Egypt. Anathema.

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  • Awesome job on the article Kevin. It was not only well written, but loaded with good content.

    • Kevin Sivells

      Thanks Cas!!! It feels good to be back in the saddle again! WOO WHOO

  • californy

    Nice article and great history to learn where the passing offensives develop from. It a copy cat league and most team use what works

    • Kevin Sivells

      Thanks Cali. I looked things up just to read about it. Then I thought maybe I could help a few others with a little insight of what the offensive scheme is SUPPOSE to do!

      • you are brilliant and a great writer Kevin. I am happy to have you!

  • californy

    It would be nice to have a OC who thinks outside of the box to create new plays that are seldom used

    • Especially plays that are drawn up to utilize the strengths of Cole Beasley

      • californy

        Beasley in the slot is more of a rB in the Air Coryell Offense. As a RB they job is to move the chains, similar to how TE have develop in the league

        • exactly. He is an extension of the running game.

    • That is exactly why Landry was known as the great innovator, week after week he came with new looks.

      • californy

        I would like to see some new twist come from the run game. I like Jefferies WR, One of the best thing I like from him is his ability to block in the run game down the field. Irvin was great at blocking down on the screen passes for Emmit

        • yes he was. Irvin was an excellent blocker all around

  • californy

    I have yet to see a team win at any level with a 5 man WR pattern, but that doesnt keep them from going there in the NFL.

    • Green Bay used it with a lot of success, so did the Rams under Martz.

      • californy

        I meant to say win consistently. Jones SMU uses a unusual offense and the net result has meant alot of good WR in the nFL, and that includes Cole Beasley

  • californy

    The Baylor HC use to run the 5 WR set in Houston, and he is doing the same at Baylor, but they have yet to win it all. I prefer a run base smash mouth type of football over the passing league the NFL is going to.

    • Me too, it wears out defenses and controlls the clock, while keeping opposing QB’s on the sidelines

      • californy

        I like to see us running the ball more even though the other team see it to and are powerless to stopped it.. That when you know the team is on the game plan and are executing it at will.

  • californy

    The 12 man formation failed because our OC didnt see what NE OL was doing on the play when their TE got open underneath. It good to study offenses in the NFL as a OC. We always added plays as the season went along when I use to play the game

  • californy

    I rather have more of attacking offense, too many time we seem to be more in gear to take what the Defensive is giving us, that OK. But I rather take what we are strong enough to take.. I wished we would play more out of the fast pace offenses ran by Eagles and team like Denver. I hate to take the snap when the clock ticks to 1 sec on the clock