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Cowboys Offense: Evaluating Options at WR and RB

Sean Martin

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Cowboys Headlines - Cowboys Offense: Evaluating Options at WR and RB

For a NFL offense to reach its full potential, the offensive line needs to be consistently playing their best football. For the Dallas Cowboys, who have had the best offensive line in the league since 2014, this part of the offense has begun to feel like an afterthought.

The imposing wall up front offensively that Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Doug Free combine to form gives the Cowboys their offensive identity as a physical football team that will command the game with a steady ground attack.

Ezekiel Elliott is here to provide the majority of Dallas' work in that running game, but the rookie out of Ohio State is not the only intriguing option in the backfield for Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to employ.

Of course, the running game as a whole will also benefit from strong play out of QB Tony Romo and his weapons out wide. Stretching the field vertically and keeping this offense balanced will be left primarily to Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Brice Butler, and Cole Beasley. However, similar to the situation at running back, the Cowboys have a few different directions that they could go to fill out the rest of the depth chart at wide receiver.

With the team entering a game week - opening up the preseason in Los Angeles against the Rams on Saturday - let's explore further some decisions the Dallas Cowboys will have to make at running back and wide receiver.

Running Backs - Who will take carries away from Zeke?

Cowboys Headlines - Cowboys Offense: Evaluating Options at WR and RB 1

Ezekiel Elliott is going to be hard to take off the field on Sundays for the Cowboys.

If you draft a running back in the top 5 of the NFL Draft like the Cowboys did, you expect him to be able to play as a workhorse that can immediately be the focal point of an offense.

Elliott can do all of these things as a runner, pass catcher, and blocker. The sky is truly the limit for one of the most complete running back prospects to enter the NFL in years, as his standard will be set by DeMarco Murray's 2014 performance behind this offensive line.

Perhaps being forgotten at this point from the Cowboys 12-4 division winning season of two years ago is the effort that Joseph Randle put in behind Murray. As a slashing change-of-pace back that served as a home run hitting threat, Randle carried the ball 51 times for 343 yards.

With Elliott being a Swiss army knife type of back - combining the physical abilities of Murray and finesse abilities of Randle into one player - it is going to be that much harder for any back behind him currently on the roster to take carries away from him.

Vying for that RB2 spot is last year's leading rusher Darren McFadden, newly signed zone-runner Alfred Morris, rookie Darius Jackson, and Lance Dunbar. If Dallas truly wants to replicate 2014 and use a back that varies in style from Elliott, they should be hoping for Darius Jackson to continue to impress and for Lance Dunbar to retain his usual form as he works back from injury.

While there may only be one game day roster spot for Jackson and Dunbar to occupy, both backs can carry the ball with blazing speed in the open field. Jackson is already becoming a fan favorite for Cowboys Nation, as he has looked good through training camp thus far, and expects to get a heavy workload to prove himself further this preseason.

Personally, while I am all for Darius Jackson playing his way onto this football team, I am hoping the Cowboys get away from the differing styles in the backfield and add more physicality to the offense by making veteran Alfred Morris the primary runner behind Ezekiel Elliott.

With Romo under center with Elliott and Morris primarily lining up in the backfield, the Cowboys offense would truly be feared by defenses on every single snap as one that can blow you off the ball and run it at you while providing the threat of a dynamic passing game at the same time. With the offensive line excelling at getting to the second level, a full speed Ezekiel Elliott followed by a bruising Alfred Morris coming at linebackers and corners is a recipe for total offensive domination in 2016 from the Dallas Cowboys.

Wide Receivers - Finding Romo's Newest Toys

Cowboys Headlines - Cowboys Offense: Evaluating Options at WR and RB 2

 (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)

The WR position on the Cowboys roster is currently full of talent, potential, and future decisions to be made. With the team being so deep all over the roster both offensively and defensively, there is going to be a few "odd men out" when it comes to this current group of 11 pass catchers.

The roster locks, however, are pretty set in stone.

Dez Bryant is ready to get back to doing Dez Bryant things, Terrance Williams and Brice Butler will both make the team and fight for playing time across from Bryant, and Cole Beasley will man the slot once again.

This leaves even last year's fan favorite UDFA Lucky Whitehead on the bubble, competing for one - or at the most two - spots with this year's UDFA class of wide receivers consisting of Ed Eagan, Andy Jones, and Chris Brown.

Vince Mayle, Rodney Smith, and Devin Street are also on the roster, but appear to be on the outside looking in right now at these other young options that are turning heads. Particularly, Ed Eagan and Andy Jones have both put some of their best football onto the Oxnard practice fields through the first week of training camp.

Should the decision come down to these two wide outs for the Cowboys, the winner will tell us a lot about the direction this offense plans on heading.

//insidethestar.com/cowboys-headlines/can-ed-eagan-be-cowboys-next-undrafted-gem/

Should Eagan beat out Jones, we can expect to see plenty of short passes from the Cowboys offense to get the ball out of Romo's hands quickly and into the hands of his play makers. Eagan would likely serve as a slot WR opposite of Beasley, and is shifty with a faster "second-gear" than Beasley in the open field.

While this quick strike offense would certainly be exciting, with Eagan also helping his cause by giving the Cowboys another option at punt returner, the team will also be looking for more red zone threats after struggling in that area through 2015.

Of course, not having Romo and Bryant out there and in sync took away the Cowboys' best red zone connection, but the rest of the receivers called on to make plays for the backup quarterbacks were underwhelming.

Bryan Broaddus on Twitter

Jones has looked the best. Getting reps with the 1s now. https://t.co/jM1D6L1E4s

Enter Andy Jones, a physical stud out of Jacksonville who could make the Dallas red zone offense absolutely unstoppable. While Jones struggles to create separation at the line, his ability to make contested and adjusting catches has caught the eye of coaches enough to get him some reps with the first team offense.

As things stand now, the Cowboys may feel that they have enough speed at the position in Bryant, Williams, Butler, and Beasley, and decide to use their final WR spot on Andy Jones to give them some more versatility.

Cowboys Headlines - Dallas Cowboys Call Off Immediate Search For Veteran Quarterback

Should this be the case, and they also plan on running mostly Alfred Morris behind Zeke Elliott, the 2016 Dallas Cowboys offense could be one of the greatest displays of power and speed coming together to form something special that we have ever seen.

What do you make of the Cowboys situation at running back and wide receiver? Agree with my picks to make the cut? Disagree? Let's talk about it! Comment below with who YOU will be hoping makes the cut to start the conversation.

 

Tell us what you think about "Cowboys Offense: Evaluating Options at WR and RB" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and wmscradio.com every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

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2 Comments
  • http://88xfactor.wordpress.com 88xfactor

    Fear the STAR. Keep Romo upright, and the Boys are unstoppable.

    • http://wmscradio.com/show/upon-further-review/ Sean Martin

      You speak the truth. Thanks for reading!

Dallas Cowboys

Next Day Rant: Dak Prescott Shows Big Flaws in Big Win

Jess Haynie

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Dak Prescott

The Cowboys scored a major win last night in Philadelphia and we're all basking in the glory of a Victory Monday. But even in victory, Quarterback Dak Prescott showed some pretty concerning flaws. Dallas won a battle last night, but do they have a QB who's going to help them win the war?

If you didn't watch the game and only looked at Prescott's stats, you'd probably tell me I'm crazy for writing about this. Dak put up a 102.8 passer rating with 270 yards, one touchdown, zero turnovers, and 72% on his completions.

That rating doesn't even account for his rushing touchdown, either. Throw in the overall story of leading his team to a must-have win on the road against the defending Super Bowl Champions, and Dak Prescott certainly had a good night overall.

But if you watched, you saw him miss some really easy passes. Ezekiel Elliott was open in the flat with room to make a play, but an errant throw put it the ball out of reach. Cole Beasley was barely past the line of scrimmage, and again Prescott's inaccuracy killed the play.

Later in the game, Dak failed to read that Michael Gallup was open with a chance at a long touchdown. Instead he went safe, and it went nowhere.

Chris Collinsworth pointed that play out. He also noted, accurately, several times that Prescott was staring down receivers. One time should've resulted in a pick-six for the Eagles, but the defender dropped the ball.

Jekyll or Hyde: Year 3 "Prove It" Season For Dak Prescott? 1

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott

I know what you're probably thinking; "This guy is just a bitter Romo fan who is rooting for Dak to fail." Nothing could be further from the truth.

I applauded the decision to stick with Prescott in 2016. I've been so excited for the prospect of this fouth-round steal becoming the foundation of the next Dallas dynasty. I like Dak immensely as a person and leader.

But in Year 3, I'm not seeing growth from that exciting rookie season. There's no indication that Dak Prescott has improved at all from 2016.

That would be okay if all other things remained status quo. The Cowboys were good enough to be 14-2 that year, giving away the Week 17 game to rest for the playoffs. The 2016 version of Prescott was more than adequate.

But then defensive coordinators had time to figure him out. And over the same span of time, Dallas' legendary tight end retired. Plus, it's stalwart offensive line started wearing down.

These things happen. Few things are constant in sports, and great players have to keep developing to overcome them.

But Prescott is still making poor throws, missing opportunities, and holding the ball too long. He's making rookie mistakes in his junior year.

This isn't a young QB who's been asked to deal with ongoing changes in the coaching staff on a bad team. Even to the chagrin of some, Jerry Jones has kept the staff in tact to give stability to Prescott and the rest of the roster.

Eventually, these weaknesses in Dak's game can no longer be attributed to age. At some point, they may just be who he is.

Dak In Time: Cowboys Need Prescott to Return to Rookie Form

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott

About two weeks after the Cowboys took Prescott in the 2016 NFL Draft, I wrote an article titled "Dak Prescott Probably Isn't the Future." I discussed the general career outcomes for quarterbacks taken in the fourth round, and how Dak would be a very rare specimen if he turned into a competitive starter.

In about one more year, the Cowboys will have to decide if they want to stay married to Prescott. His rookie contract expires after the 2019 season.

At this point, despite anything coming out of Jerry Jones' mouth, has Dak really shown enough to deserve a long-term commitment?

It's easy for the front office to say nice things now. It's the right thing to do; support your guy while he's your guy.

But this time next year, and especially in 2020, will Dak Prescott still be their guy?

It's hard to say right now. Everyone is riding high off that win, but those errant throws and missed big play opportunities will rear the head again this year. And as long as they keep happening, Dallas is going to lose more games than they win.

When everyone sobers up today, they will still see that this is a 4-5 team. They'll see Carson Wentz in Philly, and the likelihood that the Giants will be picking up a Top 5 talent at QB in the next draft.

Do we really have a quarterback that can keep the Cowboys competitive in the NFC East, let alone the NFL, for seasons to come?

I sure hope so. But unless Prescott starts cutting out the rookie mistakes, then the dark cloud of uncertainty isn't going away. Last night was fun, but it will be quickly forgotten if we're headed to another middling finish and missed playoffs.

Throw Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan, and Kellen Moore under the bus all you want. They probably deserve it.

But so far this this year, so does Dak Prescott.



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Game Notes

Sean’s Scout: Leaning on Elliott, Young Defense Earns Cowboys Win in Philly

Sean Martin

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Sean's Scout: Leaning on Elliott, Young Defense Earns Cowboys Win in Philly

On a short week after their Monday night loss, the Dallas Cowboys came into Philadelphia given little chance of escaping with their first road win here in week ten of 2018. The Eagles were rested off their bye week, and despite not playing up to their championship level of a year ago, had far fewer problems compared to the Cowboys coming in with speculation that a sixth loss could lead to significant coaching changes.

Such is why games are decided between the lines. Complete with some pregame scuffles, the Cowboys gave the Eagles all they could handle with Running Back Ezekiel Elliott eclipsing 100 rushing yards for the first time since week six.

Elliott's 151 yards with two touchdowns were enough for a tenacious Cowboys defense to come up with enough stops, forcing one turnover on rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch's first interception.

Losers of two straight coming into hostile territory, the Cowboys have a win to build on through the back half of a difficult schedule. Playing up to their potential for the first time since acquiring Wide Receiver Amari Cooper, the Cowboys will simply be relieved to touch down in Dallas as winners at the Eagles 27-20.

Here are my notes on exactly how they got there.

  • Of all the surprising things Leighton Vander Esch has done for the Cowboys defense this season, his first quarter interception of Carson Wentz was probably the most expected play.

Vander Esch's coverage skills coming out of Boise State were much more developed than anything he's shown against the run with the Cowboys. His ability to get depth and read the quarterback was one of the few strengths that were evident on his tape, with the rest of his outlook being a projection on how his athleticism would translate to NFL play.

Obviously, the rookie has made a bigger overall impact than even the Cowboys could have expected. Paying a steep price for LVE at 19th overall, the Cowboys have their replacement for Sean Lee (out once again in this game), something impossible to put a price on given what losing Lee has meant to past seasons.

Vander Esch's interception of Wentz set up the Cowboys first score in a game they would never trail. Leighton and Safety Jeff Heath assured this on back-to-back plays late in the fourth, as Vander Esch made a sensational play in space against Corey Clement for a loss of three.

Turning a third and two into fourth and seven, Heath drove on Zach Ertz and tackled him short of the line to gain to turn Philadelphia over and allow the Cowboys to run the clock down.

  • Already without rookie Left Guard Connor Williams, the Cowboys appeared to be in for a long night when Right Guard Zack Martin exited with an ankle injury.

Martin would work his way back onto the field as his usual self, but the Cowboys handled the brief absence of both starting guards very well. On the first play with Adam Redmond on the field for Martin, the Cowboys dialed up a quick slant to Amari Cooper.

Prescott trusted Cooper to win on a route he's dominated since coming into the league, and the Cowboys newest weapon at WR did just that to move the chains on third and seven. The Cowboys red zone play calling left a lot to be desired in this game still, but getting points immediately after the loss of Martin was an important moment early in this must-win game.

More importantly, it was great to see Prescott develop his confidence in Cooper as his go-to receiver, something that's helping the entire Dallas offense find its footing.

  • Jaylon Smith's fourth down stop will overshadow this play, but Xavier Woods' pass breakup on the third down before it might have been his best play of the season.

Right at the heart of the Cowboys and Eagles scuffle before kickoff was Cowboys Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard.

It's well-known that Richard's expertise is coaching the back seven of a defense, coming over from a Seahawks defense that featured one of the most talented secondaries in recent memory. One player that Richard and the Cowboys are still trying to find a true role for is Xavier Woods, who had his share of negative plays in coverage on Sunday night as well.

Playing closer to the line of scrimmage on a third and short for the Eagles, Woods got a fantastic read on a pass from Wentz into the flat and broke on it to arrive first and knock it away. These are the types of plays that Woods made consistently in college, and if Richard can find ways to put him in position to be around the ball more, the Cowboys may have another welcome addition to their defense.

Off the turnover on downs, the Cowboys once again drove for a field goal, though not without a fourth down conversion via fake punt and Elliott's highlight reel hurdle.

For the most part, both Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan coached this game with their backs to the wall, and without scoring a touchdown that was clear on this drive as they rewarded their defense with three more points.

  • This shouldn't be something we just now have to praise Linehan for, but he did a great job sticking with Elliott on the drive following Brett Maher's miss from 42 yards. 

The Eagles tied the game on a short field when Wentz found Ertz from 15 yards out, and looked poised to take back momentum. Elliott had just gained 50 yards on carries of 15 and 35 on a drive that came up empty for the Cowboys. Coming back onto the field in a tie game, I was worried Linehan would rely too much on Prescott's arm, but instead kept Philadelphia guessing while feeding the hot hand in Elliott.

On the Cowboys first series with the game tied at 13, Elliott touched the ball on the first three plays to move the chains with one reception and two rushes. He would rip off an 18 yard run two plays later, and walk into the end zone for his second receiving TD of the season to cap off the drive.

Of course, it took yet another touchdown for the Cowboys to take the lead for good, and this one was also provided by Elliott on a one yard plunge.

The Marc Colombo effect is a real thing for the Cowboys offensive line, paving the way for Elliott's heroic night. Their emphasis on getting to the second level and playing better in space was evident in not only the run game but on a few crucial WR screens as well.

  • Lance Lenoir played in his second regular season game for the Cowboys, both of which now being wins at the Eagles.

The practice squad receiver was called up to the active roster this week, and found a way to make an impact on special teams. Lenoir was given a chance to return punts as a UDFA last year, but his struggles on STs forced the Cowboys to keep him on the practice squad for his rookie season.

Lenoir did play in the Cowboys meaningless week 17 win last year.

With a deep group of receivers for Lenoir to work through this summer as well, the Western Illinois product had been working on the practice squad again before earning this opportunity. Covering the Cowboys final punt of the game, Lenoir closed the angle on Golden Tate as the only Cowboy downfield in that moment.

The Eagles came after the punt as they should have, forcing the Cowboys to commit numbers inside to protect. Lenoir's efforts in the open field limited the return on a clean punt by Jones. The Eagles final drive began on their own 32, as Wentz would earn one throw with a chance to reach the end zone and come up short on a completion to Ertz.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

The Cowboys schedule doesn't get easier from here, as they'll revisit the site of the "Burning of Atlanta" next Sunday. Last year's Cowboys loss in Atlanta was the beginning of the end of that season, and through nine weeks this year it felt like the turning point for perhaps Garrett's tenure and Prescott's time under center.

The Cowboys were able to deafen the outside noise surrounding the uncertain future of this team and play up to potential on the road for the first time at the Eagles. This starts with Prescott's efficient night, something that must inspire confidence for him to put any result from last year behind him and focus on the tall task at hand of climbing the NFC East standings at 4-5.

With a home win on Sunday, the Washington Redskins remained in the division lead at 6-3. They play in AT&T Stadium on Thanksgiving.

As if this Cowboys win didn't prove that the NFL is a week-to-week league, Cowboys Nation should be intrigued by this week's result for the Falcons - a loss at the Cleveland Browns 28-16.

Tell us what you think about "Sean’s Scout: Leaning on Elliott, Young Defense Earns Cowboys Win in Philly" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Game Notes

Despite Win over Eagles, Scott Linehan’s Job Not Secure

John Williams

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Is Dak Prescott's Relationship with Scott Linehan Broken?

Per reports from Ian Rapaport of NFL.com, the Dallas Cowboys considered firing Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan during the team’s bye week. Instead they fired Offensive Line Coach Paul Alexander and trades for Amari Cooper to attempt to ignite the offense. Despite a win over division rival Philadelphia Eagles, Scott Linehan's job should still be in jeopardy. Nothing that happened on Sunday Night Football should change that.

Seriously.

Here is what Rapoport had to say:

Ian Rapoport on Twitter

From @gmfb Weekend: The #Cowboys seriously weighed moving on from OC Scott Linehan during the bye week and have an affinity for #OU coach Lincoln Riley if they move on from Jason Garrett... who @MikeGarafolo says may take back play-calling. https://t.co/8HRHaSKAHw

The Dallas Cowboys were facing an Eagles secondary that was already down a starting outside cornerback in Jalen Mills and their starting slot corner Sydney Jones. Ronald Darby, the other Eagles starting outside corner went down with a knee injury in the game and missed the rest of the contest.

The Cowboys should have won that game from the outset and the offense should have had some success against a hurting Eagles secondary. We shouldn't be surprised at the success the Cowboys had passing against UDFAs and guys getting their first extended run on defense.

Linehan called an okay game for most of the night, finding ways to get his wide receivers open and Dak Prescott had his best game of the season in a hostile environment. He got the ball in Ezekiel Elliott's hands early and often and the offensive line responded with probably their best game of the season.

Yet, on the most important drive of the game when the Cowboys were up seven and needed a first down to ice the game, Linehan reminded us all why he needs to be fired.

The final series was an illustration of what it means to get "too cute" as an offensive coordinator.

Elliott had been gashing the Philadelphia Eagles defensive line up the middle all night, Linehan calls a toss play. Elliott runs left and the Dallas Cowboys have a hard time blocking it up and Elliott is tackled for a loss. A toss play is not a bad play, but on a drive when you can't afford a loss of yardage and you've been effective up the middle, you keep going where you've been winning. Prior to the toss, Elliott was averaging 8.44 yards per carry and had more than 100 yards after contact. The Dallas interior was playing great, so why not keep the game in their hands?

Here's Ezekiel Elliott's run chart provided by NFL.com's Next Gen Stats.

Time is Running Out for Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan

As you can see from the chart, Elliott and the offensive line were killing them up the middle or with off tackle. Only once did they try to run wide. It worked, but most of his damage was done inside the hashmarks.

On second down in trying to get some cheap yards, he throws a bubble screen to Cole Beasley. Again, not a bad play call in general, but when you need yards, you took the ball out of your best player's hands.

On third down, Linehan went with another curious play call when he had Dak Prescott run a quarterback draw. It wasn't good execution by Dak as he ran into his own blocker and the play went for a loss.

On the most important drive of the game against a defense that was offering little resistance, Linehan went soft and didn't give his offensive line an opportunity to drive a nail in the coffin of the Eagles defense.

In addition to the final drive, the Cowboys struggled for another week in the red zone, only scoring on 60% of their possessions inside the Eagles 20 yard line. The Dallas Cowboys have been below average in the red zone all season long and Sunday night is just another example of the ineffectiveness of the offense, even against a very banged up defense.

Scott Linehan made a lot of changes to the coaching personnel in the offseason removing the offensive line coach, quarterbacks coach, and wide receivers coach. The offense has looked dysfunctional and has been criticized for being too predictable dating back to late last season by players and analysts alike. Wide receivers for two years, including former Cowboys Wide Receiver Dez Bryant, have been critical of the offense. With the offense still struggling heading into the bye week, Linehan survived another offensive assistant when Alexander was let go. At some point Linehan is going to run out of offensive assistants to scape goat and it's going to come down to him.

While they were able to score 27 points against the Eagles on Sunday night, don't count me as convinced that the offense is "fixed."

One game does not change what the offense has been, because for the most part, it's been average-to-bad in three out of the four years Linehan's been here. Since 2015, when Scott Linehan took over the play calling duties, the Dallas Cowboys offense has ranked 31st, 5th, 14th, and 26th in points and 22nd, 5th, 14th, and 27th in yards. Perhaps we can give him a pass for 2015 when he had to roll out Brandon Weedn, Matt Cassell, and Kellen Moore for much of the season, but if you look at the history of his offense's they've been rather average.

Since 2005, Linehan's offenses have ranked in the top 10 in scoring only three times. In seven of the last 13 seasons, Linehan's offenses have finished in the bottom half of the league in scoring and five times in the bottom third of the league in scoring. Not since he was the offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings with Dante Culpepper and Randy Moss in 2002-2004, has Scott Linehan had an offense finish in the top 10 in scoring two years in a row.

Scott Linehan is probably what his record states he is; an average offensive coordinator.

If the Dallas Cowboys have seriously considered moving on from him, then they probably need to go ahead and do so. It's not working out with Scott Linehan and this current group of players. If the Dallas Cowboys really believe that Dak Prescott is the future, then they need to get him with an offensive play caller who can utilize Dak's abilities better than Linehan can.

Linehan may have delayed the inevitable for another week, but he'll have to be better for the rest of the season to stay the Cowboys play caller moving forward. Scott Linehan has been on the hot seat for weeks.

The Cowboys picked up the victory, but the W hasn't turned the heat down on Linehan's job evaluation. He still has a lot to prove moving forward.



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