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 2018 Breakout Candidates: LB Jaylon Smith
No single player on the Dallas Cowboys roster right now may be more primed for a breakout season than Linebacker Jaylon Smith. His ascension as a player isn't just a big gain for the Cowboys defense, but it may be vital to their success in 2018.
Smith joined the Cowboys as a high second-round pick (34th overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft. Potentially a top-five elite talent in that class, Jaylon's stock fell after a severe knee injury in his final college game. It was unknown if he could ever play football again, but Dallas took the risk based on Smith's incredible upside.
After Jaylon sat out his rookie year to fully rehab. In 2017, he was able to play all 16 games and started in six. That alone was a huge win for Smith and the Cowboys.
Jaylon's performance last year wasn't great, but understandably so after all the missed time. He also had to regain confidence in his knee, which is critical for a linebacker with all of the directional changes during plays.
Still, Smith got better as the season went. And even amidst the struggles, there were flashes of his instincts and potential.
This offseason, reports of Jaylon's improving health are fueling increased optimism. He is now playing without a knee brace and that means more confidence. If Smith fully trusts his body now, it will make him far more dangerous on the field.
With Anthony Hitchens leaving in free agency, Dallas needs Jaylon to be a bigger factor this year. If he doesn't take the next step, it could leave the Cowboys vulnerable at linebacker in 2018.
True, Dallas drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of last April's draft. But it's always dangerous to ask a rookie to do heavy lifting, and especially one who is seen as a raw talent like Vander Esch.
Ideally, anything Dallas gets from Leighton this year will be gravy. Their goal is to rely on veteran Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, with Damien Wilson also available as a solid fallback option.
But when you mention Sean Lee, you have to mention health concerns. After two encouragingly healthy seasons in 2015 and 2016, Lee was back to having some issues last year and missed five games.
That is all the more reason why Dallas needs Jaylon to be ready for more this year. If Lee misses time again, Smith is the best suited to take over the roles that Sean leaves behind.
Thankfully, all signs point to big things for Jaylon Smith in 2018. His body appears healed and there's no questioning his work ethic and desire. If the mental aspect of football has also developed, he could be everything the Cowboys hoped when they drafted them.
Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?
It feels like ages ago that the Dallas Cowboys spent the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton. Perhaps this is a result of the constant distancing fans have made from this unpopular pick, or the corresponding moves the Cowboys have made at DE since drafting Charlton.
These moves include using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence after seeing him explode for 14.5 sacks, spending a fourth round pick this year on Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, and seeing Randy Gregory reinstated in time for training camp.
Across the entirety of the Cowboys roster, there will be plenty of "odd men out" that miss the cut down to 53 players. Defensive end remains one of the most cluttered spots on the current 90 man roster however.
Prior to establishing the depth the Cowboys now have up front on defense, they did Taco no favors by starting his career at right defensive end. While Gregory may still be a long way from earning the starting role here, similarly styled players like Armstrong have the edge here over Charlton.
This relegates Charlton to the strong side, where he always projected best out of college. By the time the Cowboys realized this a season ago, they also knew a franchise pass rusher was playing his way into the team's long-term plans.
Lawrence's stellar consistency off the edge reduced Charlton's role in the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers. An ideal spot for the rookie to develop with less pressure on him, Charlton's opportunities to continue playing left end may only be reduced this season.
The first-round pick is capable of kicking inside at defensive tackle, a position the Cowboys could certainly use help at. However, asking Charlton to go through another position shift would only halt the progress that took quite a bit of patience from Dallas to see.
It's far from unheard of for the Cowboys to do this with their young players, but for now Charlton remains a defensive end looking to make his impact. The Cowboys are in much better position now than they were at this time a year ago when it comes to setting expectations for him to do so.
Given everything he showed on tape at Michigan as well as in his pre-draft interviews, Charlton is a player that needs to succeed at the task at hand. When this plan is altered, the 6'6" pass rusher is much less effective -- without even considering any athletic struggles that Charlton has compared to other prototypes at defensive end.
As a unit, the Cowboys defensive line has all the pieces to be very effective this season. Taco Charlton is a piece to this puzzle, a backup left end that must find a way to flourish in this role.
For most former 28th overall picks, doing so would be considered a fall from grace. For the Cowboys, it's simply an example of strong roster building that's forced life to come at Charlton quickly. How he responds with a full season under his belt will make or break the hype this deep Cowboys defensive line has garnered, lead of course by the starter at Charlton's position in DeMarcus Lawrence.
Cowboys OT La’el Collins Could Become Major Bargain
When you talk Cowboys offensive line, you always think of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin first. Right Tackle La'el Collins still has to prove he belongs in the same sentence with his elite teammates. If he does that in 2018, Collins could become one of the best bargains on the roster.
Making the move from left guard to right tackle last year, Collins improved with time and was playing his best football at the end of the year. This was despite ongoing back issues that had him on the injury report most weeks.
La'el started all 16 games at right tackle and did enough that the Cowboys committed to keeping him there in 2018, even despite a big hole back at left guard. They are hoping consistency and stability will allow Collins to really blossom this season, building on the strong progress shown last year.
For 2018, Collins has a $5.76 million cap hit. According to Spotrac, that makes him the 13th-most expensive right tackle in the NFL this year.
That middle-of-the-pack expense is consistent with where La'el currently rates among NFL right tackles. Bleacher Report ranked Collins as the 16th-best RT in football last year.
But that ranking was based on the season as a whole. If La'el plays all of 2018 the way he was playing towards the end of last year, he will have emerged as one of the better right tackles in the game.
If Collins develops as we hope, that salary suddenly becomes a major bargain. The most expensive right tackles in the NFL are making $7-$9 million this season.
But this can go a couple of ways. With his 2019 cap hit rising to $7.9 million, La'el needs to next step forward.
If Collins were to struggle this year, it could make him a potential cap casualty next offseason. Dallas can save $6.5 million in cap space if Collins is released or traded in 2019.
Dallas could elect to give Connor Williams, their second-round pick this year, a look at right tackle next season. It's the position he played in college.
They could also consider veteran backup Cameron Fleming, who will still be just 26-year-old. Fleming has two Super Bowl rings and several starts, including in the postseason, from his time with the Patriots.
While we think of La'el Collins as a first-round talent, it's important to remember that he was ultimately an undrafted free agent. Dallas did not have to invest anything to acquire him, and ultimately that makes it easier to let him go.
Naturally, we prefer the other side of this coin. If Collins builds on 2017, he will join the upper echelon of right tackles in the league. And if the Cowboys' offensive line isn't already the best in the NFL, that would only cement them as the best unit in football.
If La'el makes the leap, it could mean huge things for the Cowboys' offense and team success this year.
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