Despite their 9-7 finish and barely missing out on the playoffs, the Dallas Cowboys were highly disappointing in 2017. After going 13-3 last year, expectations were very high for this season. The Cowboys didn't come close to meeting them, and now many are naturally expecting heads to roll.
While the news right now is about position coaches, such as WR coach Derek Dooley not re-signing or TE coach Steve Loney retiring, most are focused on coordinators Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli. With head coach Jason Garrett getting a clear vote of confidence from Jerry Jones, fans are clamoring for change at the next level down.
This article isn't about whether or not Scott Linehan or Rod Marinelli will be fired.
Right now, the last we've heard is Jerry Jones recently commenting that he'd like both to be back next year. However, we also know that the season is still under review and the future of both coordinators is hardly written in stone. So, what we'll look at today is whether Scott Linehan or Rod Marinelli should be back in 2018.
Did the performance of their offense and defense, respectively, make or break the case for them to keep their jobs?
Scott Linehan, Offensive Coordinator
The raw data on Linehan's offense is pretty damning.
The total offense (yardage) dropped from 5th in 2016 to 14th in 2017. The same drop, from 5th to 14th, occurred with scoring. Dallas had one of the top offenses a year ago and was middle of the road this season. Of course, the six-game suspension of Ezekiel Elliott was a major factor in this decline.
Elliott still led the NFL in rushing yards on a per-game average. If he'd played all season, the total offense would have gone up a fair bit. It may not have been top-five, but close enough that we might not call what happened a regression.
But this is where stats can be deceiving. Even when Elliott was playing, the Cowboys offense did not have its same function or flow from 2016.
Dak Prescott's historic efficiency from his rookie season cratered. He threw 13 interceptions compared to just four in 2016, his completion percentage dropped from 67.8% to 62.9%, and his passer rating went from an elite 104.9 to a pedestrian 86.6.
This was never more evident than in the Cowboys' Week 16 debacle against the Seattle Seahawks. Even with Elliott back and rushing for over 100 yards, Prescott looked lost, throwing two picks and barely functioning against a Seattle defense that has struggled all year.
Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor didn't need to be out there; Dak wasn't getting it done against anybody that day.
Part of Dak's issues this year has been the missed time by left tackle Tyron Smith. Most notorious was the Week 10 game in Atlanta, where Prescott was sacked eight times, but Dak has been under duress for much of the season. Which is thanks to health issues from Tyron and also right tackle La'el Collins, as well as the decreasing ability of his receiving options to beat their coverage and get open.
That's a lot of factors, but in the end it goes up to the man in charge. Scott Linehan has proven, both in 2015 and this year, that he is not good at overcoming adversity as a coordinator.
He can run a great offense when all the pieces are in place and running smoothly, but even minor issues can unravel his guys. He doesn't adjust well, which was never more evident than the Atlanta game, when there was no answer for the Falcons pass rush.
Prescott's regression in 2017 is a major blemish on Linehan's resume.
Sophomore slumps happen, but Dak went from one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the game to a major liability. Some of that is assuredly on Prescott, but he's not Tony Romo out there calling audibles left and right.
Prescott relies far more on the coordinator than Tony did, as most second-year players would, and Linehan let him down with a predictable offensive strategy that even average defenses were able to contain.
Having Ezekiel Elliott all year -- and none of the distractions that came from his ongoing legal fight -- would've helped. There's no denying that. But the Cowboys needed more than a front-runner at offensive coordinator this year.
They needed someone with the ingenuity to devise new strategies based on missing personnel. They needed a guy who could see that his young QB was struggling and find ways to settle him down.
Instead they got what Scott Linehan had to offer; plays that even fans on their sofa could predict.
They got the 2016 playbook with seemingly no adjustment for 2017 realities. And they got one of the ugliest losses in Cowboys history when Dallas could barely run a play against a broken Seahawks defense.
The Cowboys can do better than Scott Linehan. I only hope they try.
Rod Marinelli, Defensive Coordinator
Again, let's start with the stats. The Cowboys improved from 14th in total defense (5,503 yards) in 2016 to 8th (5,089 yards) in 2017. They allowed 19.1 points-per-game in 2016 and that number was about the same this year at 20.8 points.
Surprisingly, total sacks were about the same. Despite DeMarcus Lawrence breaking out with 14.5 sacks this year, the team total only improved from 36 last year to 38 in 2017. This may help explain why opponent passer ratings stayed almost exactly the same, averaging about a 94 rating both seasons.
Unlike the offense which returned most of its personnel, Marinelli's defense had a lot of changes.
They said goodbye to four major defensive backs in Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox, and replaced them with rookies. They tried to integrate redshirt rookie Jaylon Smith at linebacker with mixed results.
Along with that, stud defensive lineman David Irving missed half the season with an early suspension and then a concussion later on. Maliek Collins, one of last year's stalwarts, battled a foot injury all season and was clearly not the same. Worst of all, Sean Lee missed five games and the defense was clearly lost without him.
However, unlike the Cowboys offense, the defense got better as the season went along.
Those rookie cornerbacks and first-round DE Taco Charlton were playing well in December. Jaylon Smith showed improvement almost every week. Backup safeties Xavier Woods and Kavon Frazier were making strong cases for bigger roles.
You could say Maliek Collins regressed some, but how much of that was due to injury is hard to say. The defense's biggest disappointment was safety Byron Jones, who did not show the kind of growth in his third year that you'd have wanted.
Overall, though, Rod Marinelli's boys overcame turnover and adversity and mostly showed individual development throughout the year.
Despite the failings of the Cowboys offense from last season, Marinelli's defense was able to improve on some of last year's stats and at least maintain performance in other areas.
It may seem underwhelming, statistically, but the way the defense responded to carrying a heavier burden this year deserves praise. Last year's efficient offense that dominated the clock and kept the defense out of tough spots was gone. But we saw numerous occasions where the defense responded to bad field position or ongoing punts and did their job.
The defense kept the Cowboys in games that the offense didn't deserve to win.
Again, we go back to Week 16 against the Seahawks. Dallas forced Russell Wilson into one of the worse games of his Pro Bowl career, and it was solely the offense and special teams that let the Cowboys down. The defense did its part this year to get the Cowboys into the playoffs.
I don't know how much more Rod Marinelli could've done with the hand he was dealt. He had to integrate a lot of new and inexperienced players, plus adjust to meltdowns on the other side of the ball, and still came out with a stronger-looking group than he had in 2016. If that doesn't do it for you, your expectations aren't realistic.
Scott Linehan showed an inability to adjust to changing circumstances and a lack of growth among his personnel. The offense, even with Ezekiel Elliott, was worse than a year ago. Rod Marinelli showed the opposite; players improved and obstacles were overcome as the defense grew from last year despite significant turnover.
While some new players would also help, a new voice is needed on offense.
Even if Linehan can do the job when everyone's healthy, Dallas needs to find a guy who can still get it done when it's not easy. They need a coordinator who can identify and adjust to changing circumstances, both in a single game and over the course of a year.
Even if all of that isn't enough, Dallas needs to find a guy who doesn't try to get too cute. When it's 1st-and-Goal from the 3-yard-line, they need a guy who won't outsmart himself by not giving the ball to Ezekiel Elliott.
That one series alone -- you all know which one I'm talking about -- was unforgivable.
On the other side of the ball, there is ample reason to keep Rod Marinelli.
His players are responding and improving. His scheme may be frustrating at times because of the soft coverage, but it works. It keeps points off the board. And as these young corners get better and more aggressive, it will lead to a lot more turnovers than you've seen.
Linehan should go. Marinelli should stay. We'll see if the Cowboys agree.
Cowboys, Colts Week 15 Injury Report
The Dallas Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win this week, while the Indianapolis Colts are fighting to stay alive in the AFC wild card race. Only one team can accomplish their goal, and both have some big names on the Week 15 injury report.
We'll begin with the visiting Cowboys, who could be getting at least one star player back while another is already confirmed to miss the game.
- TE Geoff Swaim (wrist) - OUT
- G Zack Martin (knee) - OUT
- DL David Irving (ankle) - OUT
- WR Tavon Austin (groin) - Questionable
- WR Lance Lenoir (illness) - Questionable
- OT Tyron Smith (neck) - Questionable
- DE Randy Gregory (personal) - Questionable
- LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - Questionable
Yes, sadly, Zack Martin will be out tomorrow. The good news is that Connor Williams got the entire week to practice with the starters at right guard. You can read much more about this situation and it's impact on the game here, courtesy of our own Sean Martin.
Also ruled out, as they have been for a while now, are TE Geoff Swaim and DL David Irving. Swaim is still recovering from wrist surgery but has not been placed on injured reserve, so the team must feel he could be back for the playoffs. Irving could return as soon as next week.
Speaking of returns, Sean Lee may be back on the field this Sunday. It's unknown yet how he'll rotate with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, but Dallas has the luxury of working him in slowly thanks to the play of their young duo.
Tavon Austin could also return this week, creating another new offensive wrinkle. Austin has been injured since the Jacksonville game and has yet to play since the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper. Not only could Tavon do some interesting things in the offense, but he should bring some additional sizzle to special teams.
While appearing on the injury report, Randy Gregory missed practice this week for "family reasons" according to Jason Garrett. He could still play tomorrow.
- G Mark Glowinski (ankle) - OUT
- LB Skai Moore (neck) - OUT
- S Mike Mitchell (calf) - OUT
- WR T.Y. Hilton (ankle) - Questionable
- TE Ryan Hewitt (ribs) - Questionable
- S Clayton Geathers (knee) - Questionable
The big name here is Hilton, the star receiver who missed all practice this week with an ankle injury. Indianapolis has not ruled him out, wanting to give Andrew Luck's favorite target every opportunity to play. But it's not looking good, and a bad ankle could limit Hilton's effectiveness even if he goes.
Also hurt among the passing options is starting TE Ryan Hewitt, but he did practice full on Friday and should go. Not playing, however, is starting right guard Mark Glowinski. That means third-year player Evan Boehm should start, who just joined the team in October.
Indy's hurting at safety this week. Not only did starter Clayton Geathers miss the whole week of practice, but veteran backup Mike Mitchell is already ruled out. The Colts would have to rely on undrafted rookie George Odum if neither plays.
Fun fact before we go; former Cowboy Jihad Ward was picked up by the Colts after Dallas included him in their roster cuts to start the season. However, he landed on injured reserve back in October so won't get a chance at revenge.
Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line depth will be tested as they play for a chance to clinch the NFC East on Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Suffering a knee injury last week against the Eagles, Right Guard Zack Martin will not be able to play. In missing his first career start, rookie Connor Williams rightfully returns to the starting lineup as Martin's replacement.
The 50th overall pick from this year's AT&T Stadium hosted Draft has started eight games this season at left guard. Williams' last start happens to be in the last game Dallas lost, a week nine defeat to the Tennessee Titans. This opened the door for Xavier Su'a-Filo to become something of a sensation for Cowboys Nation as the starting left guard throughout the team's current five game win streak.
Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a sprained knee. Rookie Connor Williams will start in his place.
Zack Martin being unavailable is hardly how Marc Colombo wants to prepare for the Cowboys first road game since week 11. Having both Su'a-Filo and Williams in the lineup will be valuable for the Cowboys moving forward though, as Williams could earn his job at left guard back from the right side.
While he won't nearly be expected to play at the level of Martin, Williams looked poised coming off the bench against the Eagles and helping the Cowboys offense score their final three touchdowns. Williams was on the field for all three of Amari Cooper's scores, as Dallas rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries with him in the game.
Williams flashed some of the traits that made him a top left tackle prospect out of college, flowing to the second level with ease and creating movement with quick feet at the point of attack. The Cowboys have forced him to remain game ready despite losing his starting position by finding a few emergency snaps for him in recent weeks, as well as special teams looks. The team has every reason to believe Williams is an ascending young player still.
The same cannot be said of Su'a-Filo, who simply has to focus on continuing to hold up at left guard again this week. With each passing win, Su'a-Filo's LG spot has become more of a liability in a Cowboys offense in need of a jump-start late in this 2018 season.
Consistent offensive line play is one of the few things that's clearly hurting the Cowboys as contenders in the NFC behind a stellar defense and game breaking wide receiver.
The Cowboys won't be at full strength against the eighth best rushing defense and 15th ranked passing defense in yards per game. With three separate chances to clinch the NFC East starting at the Colts and extending until the end of the regular season, the Cowboys stand to learn all they need to know about the offensive line that will start in the playoffs.
Martin, who's elevated his game to a new level this season despite this lingering knee injury, should be on track to return when the Cowboys come home to play the Buccaneers in week 16.
Final Thoughts and Prediction for Cowboys vs Indianapolis Colts
Over the last five weeks, the Dallas Cowboys have put themselves in a position in week 15 to clinch the NFC East with a win over the Indianapolis Colts or a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles vs the Los Angeles Rams.
My how things have changed.
Just six weeks ago, the Cowboys were coming off an embarrassing two touchdown loss on Monday Night Football at the hands of the Tennessee Titans and looked dead in the water sitting at 3-5. A month and a half later they are in position to win the division and potentially have little to play for the final two weeks of the season. That's an amazing turnaround. One that should have Jason Garrett in the Coach of the Year discussions.
As we get ready for the Colts on Sunday, let me give you my final thoughts on the week 15 matchup.
Will Key Injuries Tell the Tale?
By week 15 of the NFL season, pretty much everyone is dealing with injuries and most teams are dealing with injuries to key players. The Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts are no different.
All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin has already been ruled out of Sunday's contest, as he's been battling a knee injury for several weeks. It was worsened on Sunday vs the Eagles when he took a bull rush from Fletcher Cox and fell awkwardly. This will be the first start that Zack Martin has missed in his illustrious five-year career. He's been an iron man for the Cowboys at a position that makes it extremely difficult to stay healthy.
On the plus side, it looks like the Cowboys mat get All-Pro Linebacker Sean Lee and Wide Receiver Tavon Austin back for Sunday. Both Lee and Austin will likely be in reserve/rotational roles if they suit up this week, but if they're active, they'll make important impacts to their respective units.
Indianapolis is struggling with an injury to a very important player in their own right as Wide Receiver T.Y. Hilton has not practiced this week. He's dealing with an ankle injury and Colts Head Coach Frank Reich doesn't sound optimistic about his chances of playing.
The Colts will also be missing their Right Guard Mark Glowinski, who has started the last eight games for Indianapolis. Glowinski suffered an ankle injury during the Colts win over the Texans last Sunday. That's a key loss for an offensive line that has played as well as anyone in the NFL this season.
Can the Cowboys Limit Andrew Luck?
The Cowboys defense has been one of the best units in football in 2018 as they've put on a show against really good offensive teams like the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. They'll have another tough test this week against Andrew Luck and the Colts.
According to Pro Football Reference, Luck sits second in the NFL in touchdown passes, sixth in passing yards, third in completions, second in attempts, 12th in quarterback rating, and ninth in QBR. At 7.1 yards per attempt, he sits 22nd in the NFL in and 20th in the NFL in air yards per attempt at 7.3.
Luck has been one of the best passers in the NFL, but he's also thrown the second most interceptions this season. On the flip side, among quarterbacks who have started 13 games, Luck has been sacked the second fewest times. Only Drew Brees has taken less sacks. Luck has only been sacked 16 times in 13 games and has been sacked multiple times in only five games. Over the last three weeks, Luck has taken an average of two sacks a game.
In that four week stretch, the Colts have gone 3-1, and Luck has averaged 321 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception per game.
The Dallas defense has come on strong and is finding ways to get pressure with four rushers. Taking advantage of the injury at right guard and getting to Luck with their front four is a huge key to the game as it is against most quarterbacks. Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence are playing as well as any defensive end duo in the NFL this season and I expect that to continue this week.
Big Games from Explosive Duo?
The Dallas Cowboys have been getting huge games from their two most important skill position players; Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Wide Receiver Amari Cooper. Over the last five weeks, Elliott has averaged 116 rushing yards a game, 55 receiving yards, and at least one touchdown per game. During the same stretch, Cooper has averaged seven receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown per game.
Elliott and Cooper may find it difficult to reach their respective 100 yard milestones against the Colts. As Patrick Conn of WFAA.com illustrates below.
Colts haven't given up 100 yards to a single rusher. 2-100 yard receiving games vs Texans in first matchup (Hopkins/Coutee). Other than that, no other 100 yard performances
Now, it could be argued that the Colts have only played three games against teams with good to great offenses. The Houston Texans (twice), and the New England Patriots. They went a combined 1-2 in those three games and the defense allowed an average of 32 points per game. The Colts have played better defense over the last seven games than they did earlier in the season. Over the last seven, they went 6-1 and allowed an average of 17 points per game. Of course that stretch of games doesn't feature any offensive juggernauts. They played the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, and the Oakland Raiders. The best team they played in their last seven games was the Houston Texans and they allowed 21 points. The Cowboys only allowed 16 points in regulation to the Texans.
Only one team on the Colts schedule to this point is in the top 10 in rushing; the Houston Texans. And only one team on their schedule is in the top 10 in passing; the New England Patriots. Again, in three games against those teams, they went 1-2.
They haven't faced an offense this season that is playing as well, and as balanced, as the Cowboys have over the last five weeks.
Rookie Linebackers Dominating
We've all witnessed the standout play of rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, as the "Wolf Hunter" has taken the NFC by storm during Sean Lee's absence. Vander Esch is third in the league in solo tackles this season. The two players in front of Vander Esch are perennial All-Pro Luke Kuechly and the guy who will probably run away with Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Indianapolis Colts rookie Darius Leonard.
Leonard is leading the NFL in solo tackles and combined tackles per Pro Football Focus. He's tied for the lead league among linebackers with seven sacks and is second in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops" metric. Leighton Vander Esch is fourth.
Both linebackers have been huge contributors for their teams, at times taking over games and coming up with big plays to turn the tide. Throw in Fred Warner in San Francisco and 2018 has been the year of the rookie linebacker.
Since I've been writing this column, the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed a bit of a win streak. I haven't always picked them, as you can see in the New Orleans Saints edition of Final Thoughts, but when I have picked the Cowboys, they've made me look smart and I'm going to go with them again this week on the road.
Indianapolis isn't really known as a tough place to play and in the Jason Garrett era, the Cowboys have generally been a really good team away from AT&T Stadium. I believe this game will be a close one, as most have been this year, but I think that Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott continue their impressive string of performances and are able to do enough to keep Andrew Luck on the sideline and limiting his impact on the game. If T.Y. Hilton is limited in the game or unable to go, that gives the Cowboys a huge advantage as they then can focus on touchdown maker Tight End Eric Ebron and we know what Byron Jones does to tight ends.
This is going to be a tough game, but I like the Cowboys to come out on top. Randy Gregory continues his sack streak and they get to Luck multiple times in the game and are able to force at least one turnover. Dak Prescott is efficient and doesn't turn the ball over this week and finds ways to beat the blitz. So, I've got it...
Cowboys 24 - Colts 20
Be sure to leave us your prediction in the comment section.
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