From 2003 to 2005, Sean Payton worked as a quarterback coach and assistant head coach in Dallas. He departed to coach the New Orleans Saints in 2006—Bill Parcells’ final year in Dallas. Had the Big Tuna left Big D a year earlier and Payton stayed to coach Dallas, it very well could have been the Cowboys, not the Saints, who got their hands on the Lombardi Trophy.
The ‘Boys brought in Wade Phillips to coach the team in 2007, and with him came another highly coveted young NFL mind in Jason Garrett. Garrett was immediately named the offensive coordinator, calling plays for Dallas until this season.
Both Payton and Garrett have had the good fortune of working with talented quarterbacks in Drew Brees and Tony Romo. Most would argue that Brees is a far more talented passer, but don’t forget that he had just one full season with a passer rating over 90.0 while in San Diego—a number he’s never failed to eclipse while with Payton.
And it’s not like the Cowboys have been without talent on the offensive side of the ball during Garrett’s tenure in Dallas, making statistical comparisons between Garrett and Payton at least worth examining.
Payton vs. Garrett: Final Ranks
Below, I charted the final ranks for Payton and Garrett during their time calling plays: 2006 to 2011 for Payton (since he was suspended last season) and 2007 to 2012 for Garrett.
Here’s how the two have stacked up in total yards.
A lower rank is obviously better here. You can see that Payton’s Saints have incredibly ranked first in the NFL in yards four of the six full seasons he’s called plays. His average rank, out of 32 teams, has been 2.3. That’s remarkable.
Meanwhile, Garrett’s offenses have been above-average in terms of total yards, ranking as high as second in 2009. His average rank from 2007 to 2012 was 9.2.
Garrett’s offense has been notoriously poor at getting the ball into the end zone, though—a problem that isn’t just a sample size fluke since we have six years of data on him. Check out how Garrett stacks up with Payton in terms of scoring.
Payton’s offenses have ranked first in the NFL in scoring twice and in the top two in three out of his six seasons calling plays. His average scoring rank has been 5.3. Meanwhile, Garret has ranked in the top six in scoring just once, and his average rank has been 11.8.
One of the reasons Payton has found more success than Garrett is that he embraces analytics to a stronger degree, which has led to more aggressive decision-making. That’s reflected in the coaches’ first down play-calling.
Looking at first down play-calling in the first half of games (when they’re still about point-maximization instead of running out the clock), both Garrett and Payton have been more aggressive than the average team.
That’s important because statisticians are unanimous in their view that NFL teams run the ball way, way too much on first down. While Garrett has shown a near-balance in early first down play-calling, Payton has passed the ball nearly 59 percent of the time.
We can also look at fourth down decisions to measure aggressiveness.
I removed fourth quarter plays because that skews the results to favor weak teams that are trailing in the fourth quarter. Through three quarters, Garrett has attempted fewer fourth down plays than the average NFL team, while Payton is far ahead.
We obviously can’t know for sure how the Cowboys’ fate would have been altered had Payton stayed in Dallas, but his embracement of analytics and the dominance of his offense in New Orleans suggests perhaps more than a single playoff win might have been in store.