Phillips: Why Cassel Is The Key To Cowboys' Bye-Week Offensive Reshuffle

IRVING, Texas – Jason Garrett doesn't strike me as a knee-jerk kind of guy.

Bet you've heard this phrase more than once when he refers to decisions the coaches and front office must make on football and business matters: "Take the emotion out of it."

His players must play with "passion, emotion and enthusiasm." The head coach himself is more pragmatic.

That's why swapping out two offensive starters at minimum over the bye week should be viewed as calculated, not desperate – even though the Cowboys desperately need a win Sunday at 3:25 p.m. at the Meadowlands.

"We have core beliefs," Garrett said a week ago. "We have convictions about how we want to do things, what we want to accomplish in all three phases of our football team, why we want to play guys, why we want to do certain things. If we make any changes to those things, there has to be a valid reason for it."

The reason is simple. The offense's six points against the Patriots on Oct. 11 was its lowest total in 11 seasons. The Cowboys are staring at possibly their first four-game losing streak since losing five straight in 2010 – a slide that ironically ended at the Meadowlands in Garrett's interim head coaching debut.

So, Matt Cassel's in for Brandon Weeden at quarterback. La'el Collins replaces Ronald Leary at left guard. Christine Michael, even if he's still a backup running back, is in line for more carries behind Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden.

Multiple tweaks. Why? Because this offense doesn't have just one flaw without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. The passing must be better. The blocking must be better. The running must be better.

Garrett and the coaching staff believe promoting these three guys gives the offense a better chance to function.

Cassel, though, is the biggest key – and unlike Michael and Collins, who have gotten limited work in games (very limited in Michael's case), Garrett is making a 100-percent projection that his new starting quarterback can elevate the offense.

Will it work? We'll see. But this much is certain: The Cowboys need something to back off defenses that have crowded the line of scrimmage against the run and shrunk the middle of the field, subsequently shrinking the impact of Jason Witten and Cole Beasley underneath.

The offense won't fully scare an opposing defensive coordinator until Romo and Bryant get back. But maybe Cassel can make them a bit more honest. His track record is longer and more comprehensive than Weeden's, with 48 more career starts from 2005-2014.

Weeden was understandably "pissed" about his demotion after three games, and it's flat wrong to place the three losses solely on his shoulders. The Cowboys were competitive against the Falcons and Saints before sputtering offensively against the world champs.

The one area where Cassel may help is his seven extra seasons reading NFL defenses and fitting passes into tight windows.

The general narrative is that Weeden played too conservatively. His yards per pass attempt in four games (three starts) is 7.54, which ranks 15th among qualified quarterbacks this year. Romo, in a game and a half of work in September, ranks only slightly ahead of him at 7.65. (For perspective, Ben Roethlisberger leads the league at 10.25 and Ryan Mallett ranks last at 5.24.)

But, by his fourth appearance of the season, Weeden appeared less comfortable than he did three weeks earlier replacing Romo against the Eagles. He had 188 passing yards on 39 attempts.

Personally, I think the way Weeden played overall – game managing, turnover-conscious – is pretty much what you ask your ­backup to do with a full supporting cast around him. Take away Bryant and Lance Dunbar, though, and you simply need more plays downfield from your quarterback.

That's why Garrett looked objectively at the offense's current circumstances and chose the guy with more experience to go get him a critical road win.

Make no mistake, Cassel requires the same support Weeden needed, meaning his receivers winning matchups on the outside. If no one's open, it doesn't really matter who's throwing it. But when there is separation, the hope, I'm assuming, is that Cassel can make that decisive pass and help unclog the line of scrimmage.

Collins might help the line play sturdier, and Michael might deliver a more physical running style with the chances he gets.

But the biggest factor is Cassel, and whether he can make the plays that loosen up the offense for everyone else.

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