The strength of the Dallas Cowboys, above all else for the foreseeable future, is their offensive line. A punishing unit that dominates their match ups across the board each week, the Cowboys play through their highly paid line - particularly when it comes to running the football.
Making a splash with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 Draft, the Cowboys put together the league's best running game this season by grabbing Ezekiel Elliott. A well-rested Elliott will now look to carry this team through the playoffs, and he'll have a solid stable of backups behind him.
Let's preview the embarrassment of riches that the Cowboys have at running back going into the playoffs.
Ezekiel Elliott is better at carrying the football than you are at your job. You know it is true. The remarkable 21-year old rookie led the NFL in rushing this season despite not even being in uniform this past weekend against Philadelphia!
As expected, he has fit perfectly in Scott Linehan's running scheme, regularly bursting through gaping holes in the front - only to do most of his damage on the second level with an array of open-field moves.
Looking ahead to the playoffs, Elliott has faced all but two teams that the Cowboys may face. While the New York Giants were able to slow down Zeke in their two wins against the Cowboys this season, Elliott ran wild on the Lions and Packers.
In Green Bay, Elliott rushed for 157 yards on 28 carries - both close to season high outputs. In week 16 on Monday Night Football against the Lions, Ezekiel Elliott exploded for a 55-yard touchdown on his way to 80 yards on 12 carries with two touchdowns.
Just a year ago, Zeke Elliott was playing in the College Football Playoffs, and the 25 days off between Ohio State's conference championship win (where he rushed for 220 yards) and their semifinal game against the vaunted Alabama defense saw Elliott dominate Nick Saban's team in epic fashion - carrying the Buckeyes with 230 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.
Elliott even topped both of these performances in the National Championship against Oregon, cementing his status as a once-in-a-lifetime running back prospect with 246 more rushing yards - and a casual four touchdowns.
Now, Elliott will have 19 days since the last time he took just 12 carries to appear in the NFC Divisional Playoffs - looking to make even more history with his rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.
The best rushing defense he could possibly face would be the Giants, who you know the entire Cowboys' roster is fired up to potentially see again, and they'll have to first get through the Packers on the road.
It is time for Ezekiel Elliott to eat his way to Houston.
Has any back been through a stranger 2016 season than Darren McFadden? A forgotten man as soon as Elliott was drafted, McFadden then missed training camp along with the first 15 weeks of the regular season with his elbow injury.
Appearing in the final three games for the Cowboys, McFadden has been a welcome veteran option behind Elliott, not missing a beat from 2015 where he totaled 1,089 yards as the Cowboys' best offensive option.
It's no secret that Dallas is prepared to run Ezekiel Elliott into the ground throughout the playoffs - as they should - but McFadden will play a key role in being able to rest Elliott for short periods of time while still forcing defenses to respect him out of the backfield much more than a Lance Dunbar or Alfred Morris.
The entire premise of the Cowboys' running game is to keep the offense ahead of schedule on short passing downs, and McFadden will certainly help them do just that as he has shown throughout his time in Dallas.
Alfred Morris was supposed to be another reason that Darren McFadden was going to have a tough time finding a role in 2016's crowded backfield, but instead McFadden has recently proved to be the better option as Morris has become a healthy scratch two of the past three weeks.
While he may not have a huge role in the playoffs, Morris is still capable of wearing down defenses as a physical back. If he is called upon, after Elliott and McFadden, expect the professional in Morris - who has never played past the Wild Card Round in two postseason appearances - to execute in his role.
While it hasn't shown, Morris is actually the better scheme fit to play with the Cowboys' offensive line compared to McFadden, so one well-blocked zone play with The Butler carrying the ball could turn a postseason game for the Cowboys.
The X-Factor: Lance Dunbar
Don't roll your eyes at me. Back on a one-year deal for this season, Lance Dunbar has been a major disappointment. After seeing 19 snaps in that ugly loss to the Giants on the road, Dunbar was only on the field for nine snaps in the following two weeks.
Again, the world already knows that the Cowboys are great at running the football - but Lance Dunbar is not. More of a receiving threat at the running back position, Scott Linehan has realized that he can get the same production out of Elliott and McFadden, while keeping much more of a rushing threat on the field.
At the same time, Linehan has dialed up some creative calls to utilize all of his skill players this season, and it is obviously not far-fetched to see Dunbar hitting a few big plays throughout the playoffs - making him my x-factor at this position.
Playoff Primer is an ongoing series here at Inside The Star, preparing Cowboys Nation for the 2016 playoffs with a breakdown of every position on this team. To catch up with previous editions of this series, click here!
Tony Romo Won’t Be the Next Dallas Cowboys Offensive Coordinator
The pipe dream has been going on since former Dallas Cowboys Quarterback-turned CBS Analyst Tony Romo hung up his cleats for the black blazer. Fans from all corners of Cowboys Nation have clamored for a return to the field or at worst the sideline as the Cowboys offensive coordinator.
Let me stop you right there. It's not happening.
First of all. He's never been a coach at any level of football, so to assume that he could leave the broadcast booth and step into coaching an NFL offense and doing so at a high level is a huge leap of faith in number 9. Sure, Jon Gruden left the Monday Night Football booth for his lucrative deal with the Oakland Raiders, but he had won a Super Bowl and had been an offensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL for years before joining the broadcasting ranks.
Tony Romo has an excellent understanding of football. He displays it on a regular basis during the CBS broadcasts. But doing from the broadcast view, seeing what the defense is trying to do, and calling the plays to counter what the defense is trying to do are very different things.
Secondly, the coaching job would be a major time commitment that at the moment he doesn't have. Even if he's working a 40 hour work week in preparation for his three-hour time slot, the demands on NFL coaches are easily twice that with many coaches putting in 100 hour work weeks in preparation for Sundays. Tony Romo has a family that even he's talked about as part of the reason that he went into broadcasting instead of looking to hop on with another NFL team.
Finally, the job would mean a significant pay cut from what Romo is already making. It's estimated that the former Cowboys quarterback is making anywhere from $5-10 million dollars a year with CBS. Jason Garrett is making $6 million per year as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, so even if the Jones family was willing to pay first-time NFL coach Tony Romo a ton of money to come out of the broadcast booth, there's zero chance they pay him what he's making as a broadcaster. To do so, would be to undercut the head coach. Jason Garrett is Jerry Jones' guy. The owner and general manager wants Garrett to be the guy that leads the Cowboys to Super Bowl success, so there's zero chance he'd pay a coordinator close to Garrett's money, which would lead to constant speculation about the head coach and his future with the organization.
I love Tony Romo. His jersey is one of only two Cowboys jerseys that I own -- along with Darren Woodson -- and I think he could make a good coach one day, but I'd be hard pressed to see him come out of the coaching booth to take a coordinator job and have immediate success. The guys that are offensive coordinators in the NFL have been grinding for years to earn their jobs. Most started as position coaches -- see Sean McVay as Redskins TE coach. The Dallas Cowboys will spend the next few days, and perhaps weeks, identifying their replacement for Scott Linehan, but let's put to bed the dream of Romo as offensive coordinator.
It's just not going to happen.
Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick
The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.
Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:
Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh
Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.
Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.
The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.
For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!
Breaking: Scott Linehan and Dallas Cowboys Part Ways
Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network is reporting that the Dallas Cowboys and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan have mutually agreed to part ways following a tumultuous season that saw the Dallas Cowboys offense finish outside the top 12 three out of his four seasons in Dallas.
Sources: The #Cowboys are firing OC Scott Linehan. Taking their offense in a new direction. An announcement is coming.
Scott Linehan was brought in prior to the 2015 season and saw his offenses finish 31st, fifth, 14th, and 22nd in his four years as the Cowboys play caller. The 2015 season can be excused as the Cowboys rolled out Kellen Moore, Matt Cassell, and Brandon Weeden for 13 starts after Tony Romo was injured twice during the season, but the team 2-11 in those 13 starts and the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs despite a strong performance on the defensive side of the football.
The Cowboys saw an offense that finished fifth in the NFL in points in 2016 decline each of the last two offseasons and Linehan has been continually criticized by analysts, fans, and players as well.
Many believe that the reason that Dez Bryant and Brice Butler weren't brought back in the offseason was because of the public criticism of the offense and the play caller instilling the offense and that criticism has carried over to this season when Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper acknowledged that the Philadelphia Eagles were sitting on the slant routes that they had run all game. Dak mentioned that he changed Amari's route to a go route, which led to a 75 yard touchdown that helped open up the offense.
Cole Beasley has been frustrated with his role for much of the season and deservedly so. He was often non-existent in the offensive game plan until the final five minutes of football games.
In the running game, the offense had become too predictable and reliant upon jumbo formations that led to Ezekiel Elliott having to run against eight in the box anywhere from 25-30% of the time. For perspective, Todd Gurley only ran against eight-man fronts around eight percent of the time. Scott Linehan never looked to attempt to take players out of the box, instead insisting on motioning more players into the box for the offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott to run against. It's amazing when you think about it, that Ezekiel Elliott was able to win the rushing title when facing loaded fronts as often as he did.
This was a move that needed to happen and the Dallas Cowboys didn't need to waste anymore time to make it happen. The offense had become stale and frustrating for the players as well as the fans. While Jason Garrett started the offseason saying he "didn't expect any changes," this was a move that absolutely had to happen for the offense to take a step forward. Below, you can read Jason Garrett's announcement on the move.
Cowboys have fired Scott Linehan
Even after the move for Amari Cooper, the offense looked better, but it still struggled at times to move the football.
The Cowboys have a young team with especially young players on the offensive side of the football. They have a quarterback who can throw from the pocket, but has excellent movement skills and capabilities of throwing the ball on the run. He's an excellent runner on designed runs. Despite us knowing all that, Scott Linehan looked reluctant to use him on designed quarterback runs that weren't read options or speed options. What you saw on designed runs in the Seattle game is what this team should be doing five times a game.
Now the question becomes, who should the Cowboys next offensive coordinator be? Our own, Staff Writer Brian Martin, laid out 5 Options to be the Next Offensive Coordinator earlier this week. I suggest you give it a read.
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