For a team that’s so synonymous with glitz and glamour, the Cowboys aren’t shining very brightly this season. After Dallas’ loss at home to the Tennessee Titans, many are starting to question the direction of the Franchise.
After a blisteringly hot playoff run in 2016, where the Cowboys went undefeated for 11 straight games and closed off the regular season at 13–3, tied for the best record in franchise history, the Cowboys are somehow a smoldering shell of their former selves just two seasons later.
It’s a single problem with a compound answer.
Once upon a time, Scott Linehan’s coaching made sense. As the passing game coordinator in 2014 and current offensive coordinator (OC)[2015-Present], he had the luxury of working with a veteran Tony Romo and a burgeoning rookie quarterback in Dak Prescott — Things didn’t need to be complicated.
Before Romo’s unfortunate string of injuries, Linehan’s offensive simplicity flourished. Tony had enough experience to run the offense from the line of scrimmage while adjusting on the fly whenever he saw fit.
After a diminutive 2015 that left Dallas with an injured Romo, no solid backup solution at QB, and no RB1 to speak of, the Cowboys recovered in 2016 by drafting key defensive positions, a promising Dak Prescott, and a standout Ezekiel Elliot.
After a close loss to the New York Giants, Dallas once again exploded onto the scene with a 11 straight wins, 13–3 record, and yet another trip to the divisional round. Linehan’s scheme once again remained relevant by allowing Elliot and Prescott to integrate without difficulty.
More importantly, it allowed the Mississippi alum to focus and thrive under the tutelage of Tony Romo.
Prescott ended the year with 3667 yards, 23 TD, 4 INT, and a 104.9 passer rating. He averaged 7.99 yards an attempt and boasted a 67.76% completion rate. He also earned Rookie of the Year honors and even surpassed Tom Brady’s record — to my chagrin — of most passing attempts without an interception to start a career.
A resounding success, right? Not quite.
The following season, after Romo’s retirement, Ezekiel Elliot became engulfed in legal trouble, and in turn, was absent most of the season. Many football fans — including myself — felt this contributed to the rough season citing it as a “sophomore slump”.
“The issue for several players is a predictable playbook. Opposing teams know exactly where the ball is going.”—excerpt from piece by Jared Dublin.
Then rumors started to surface. It wasn’t drama or infighting, it was play calling, players felt it wasn’t very imaginative.
With the season square on Prescott’s shoulders, he fell to 3324 yards, 22 TD, 13 INT (over triple what he had his rookie season), and an 86.6 passer rating. His yards-per-attempt (YPA) and completion rate dropped as well, to 6.78 and 62.86%, respectively.
Fast forward to 2018 and the Cowboys are once again in the hot seat. With Elliot back into the fray and a solid defense behind it, Dallas is somehow still struggling to win. Sitting at 3–4 going into Monday’s game, they desperately needed a victory.
Led by a struggling Mariota — 1,030 yards, 3 TD, 5 INT, and a 78.5 passer rating — a first-year coach, and ranking 30th overall in points-per-game, total yards, passing yards, and 17th overall in rushing yards, the Titans left Dallas’ defense with its work cut out for them.
The Cowboys ranked within the top five defensively in almost all categories, including 1st overall in points allowed (17.6). It’s worst statistic, rushing yards per game, still stood within the top ten across the league at 9th. This left many fans hopeful. All Linehan and Dallas’ offense needed to do was minimize mistakes, play steadily, and keep the defense rested and off the field.
That’s exactly what Dallas did. Forcing and recovering fumbles on two consecutive drives, earning 96 total yards for Elliot, and two TDs thrown by Prescott, they went into halftime tied 14–14 with Tennessee. It was anybody’s ballgame.
“I asked 10 players, they said they are one of the worst-coached teams they’ve been on. Lack of attention to detail and the attention to detail is on the wrong thing.” — original excerpt from article by The Athletic.
The second half is where everything started to go downhill. After a powerful start, Elliot was limited to only 6 touches after the half, despite the fact that Tennessee was 19th in rushing yards allowed per game (112.3) vs. being 8th overall in passing yards allowed per game (226.4).
Dallas’ defense paid for it.
For the entire second half, Dallas punted twice, fumbled once, and only mustered a single red-zone appearance, towards the end of the game, in which they turned the football over on downs.
Halfway through the third quarter, it was obvious that Dallas’ vaunted defense was gassed, and Tennessee took advantage , utilizing quick passes, screens, hand-offs to the speedy Dion Lewis, the occasional deep throw, and allowing Mariota to run whenever possible. They were spreading Dallas thin.
A Pattern Emerges
It’s the halfway point of the season, and at 1,660 yards, 10 TD, 5 INT, 62.87%, 7.00 YPA, and a 88.9 passer rating, Prescott seems on course for a repeat of 2017.
It’s also worth noting that Prescott hasn’t hit the 275-yard mark for 11 straight regular season games (Dec. 10, 2017), and before that, he didn’t eclipse that mark at all in 2017 — compared to 5 games of 275+ yards in his rookie season. Run oriented or not, that’s not enough production for Dallas to succeed.
Yet, for all the turmoil among the Cowboys’ fan base about his position as a franchise quarterback, a closer look hints towards the fact that this isn’t entirely Prescott’s fault. For all intents and purposes, his 2016 season showed what kind of performer he can be.
It also showed his high-caliber performance wasn’t so much Linehan’s coaching as Romo’s veteran guile.
In all likelihood, it didn’t matter who designed the plays with Romo at the helm in 2014 or mentoring Prescott in 2016. He had enough experience to know what worked, what didn’t, and how to adjust. It didn’t hurt that the receiving corps was much more varied and had years of experience compared to today’s youthful group.
There’s no pretending that Dak doesn’t need to take a good look in the mirror, prioritize, and tackle the issues he’s facing, but he’s a third year QB who has regressed, and he needs help.
A Welcome Change
What needs to happen is a regime change in key management positions. Many have mentioned that quarterback coach Kellen Moore is much too young and potentially responsible for Prescott’s downfall, but much like Romo, Dak had nothing but praise for Moore’s coaching prowess when it came to his success.
It also doesn’t hurt that Moore is a four-time All-American, Boise State Hall of Fame inductee, and is the winningest QB in NCAA history with 50 wins and 3 losses, which only combine for a total of 5 points (16–17 TCU Poinsettia Bowl, 31–34 Nevada, 35–36 TCU).
“So to me, if you’re asking me, I’d say there has to be a complete overhaul of the entire organization. You can’t just can’t simply replace head coaches and say, ‘Now it’s going to be better.’ ”— Troy Aikman
Linehan, on the other hand, doesn’t have a record that inspires much confidence. Before his tenure with Dallas, Linehan had jumped around the league with four other teams, none of which, had him on staff for longer than four years.
Even more damning is his record as head coach with the then St. Louis Rams from 2006–2008. Not once did Linehan have a winning record, with his best year being his first, at an even 8–8. Going 3–13 and 0–4 over the next two seasons before being fired, Linehan closed out his tenure at a measly 11–25.
Following his time with the Rams, Linehan was then hired as the OC for the Detroit Lions, his longest tenure to date, and Detroit didn’t fare much better. During Linehan’s time with the Lions, they only had only one winning season from 2009–2013, going 29–80 overall.
Jason Garrett shouldn’t be overlooked either. With a young team on a losing streak, Dallas needs a head coach with vigor. Being enveloped in an energetic atmosphere where accountability is a priority can be especially important for impressionable players.
“And there’s been times where I’ve heard Jerry say, ‘OK, look, we’re going to do it differently. I’m going to do it differently.’ But it’s the same. Nothing changes.” — Troy Aikman
Garrett’s un-disruptive, laissez-faire style worked well with a veteran group that knew the ups-and-downs of the NFL, but with a recent changing of the guard, a strong coaching presence is as important as ever.
What’s to Come
With a two-game losing streak, and Hall of Fame QB Troy Aikman calling for a “complete overhaul” of the Cowboy’s organization, only to be supported by another Dallas Hall of Famer, Roger Staubach, Linehan and Garrett’s job security is in question.
“Troy knows what’s going on. Having Troy say something like that, you’ve got to listen. Listen to Troy, because he knows what he’s talking about.”— Roger Staubach
Yet, with the race in the NFC East still relatively close, Dallas fans seem to be willing to let things ride, for now.
A major focus for the fanbase will be Dallas’ acquisition of ex-Raider Amari Cooper.
Cooper performed well in his first game as a Cowboy with 8 targets, 5 receptions, 58 yards, (11.6 avg) and a TD.
Still, after giving up a 1st round pick, he will need to consistently perform at an exceptional level, or Dallas has potentially given up a major chance to use an early-round first if their rough season continues.
Hopefully, the culmination of fan frustrations, recent team performance, and all-time greats speaking up will inspire change, but all fans can do at the moment is sit back and observe.