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.
Despite Changes, Cowboys Offense Still Runs Through Ezekiel Elliott
We've talked a lot this offseason about the changes at Offensive Coordinator and slot receiver, or how Jason Witten's return will impact the tight end position. But while all of these will impact the Dallas Cowboys' offense in 2019, the constant feature remains Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and the rushing attack.
From 2016 to 2018, since the Cowboys drafted Elliott, Dallas has ranked 1st, 3rd, and 10th among NFL teams in "run vs. pass" play calls. That's only logical; you don't spend a fourth-overall pick on a RB and then not make him the featured player in your offense.
Zeke has certainly rewarded Dallas' decision; Elliott has led the league in total rushing two out of three years, and he led in yards-per-game in 2017 while dealing with his suspension.
Leaning on Elliott has been smart business based on his effectiveness, plus the investment in the offensive line over the last several years.
Dallas has now sunk three first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin), one second (Connor Williams), and now two thirds (Chaz Green and Connor McGovern) on building up their front wall. They've spent a lot of money to keep their All-Pro guys around, plus La'el Collins.
Some would try to paint the run-heavy approach as how the team is trying to hide the weaknesses of Dak Prescott at quarterback. But in 2014, with DeMarco Murray at RB and Tony Romo at QB, the Cowboys were still 3rd in the league in rush vs. pass attempts.
This isn't about Zeke or Dak, or any other specific player. This about a team philosophy that starts at the top with Jason Garrett, and that isn't going to change even with Kellen Moore taking over as the new Offensive Coordinator.
We're all excited to see what new wrinkles comes from getting rid of Scott Linehan. We highly anticipate the development of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in the offense, coupled with the addition of Randall Cobb. We're salivating at what Blake Jarwin might become under the tutelage of the great Jason Witten.
Heck, maybe we'll see fullback Jamize Olawale's receiving skills put to more use. Perhaps gadget guys like Tavon Austin or rookie Tony Pollard will be deployed in more creative ways.
And yes, Dak Prescott's growth is another major factor in Dallas' 2019 success. It's especially interesting, and even concerning, as talks are ongoing about his long-term contract.
But make no mistake, this is still the Ezekiel Elliott show. Even if a few more of his carries become receptions in Moore's scheme, Zeke should still get the lion's share of the touches.
That's why this week's news about his incident in Las Vegas is so troubling. It probably won't lead to a suspension, but we saw what happened in 2017 when Elliott was missing for over a third of the season.
While Dallas should be better able to withstand losing Zeke now than it was two years ago, it may still be more than Prescott, Cooper, and the rest could handle. It definitely wouldn't put the Cowboys in good position to compete for a Super Bowl.
In the end, the 2019 will still come down to how well Dallas runs the ball. It's the engine; nothing else matters if the rushing game doesn't set everyone else up for success.
Don't ever take it for granted. This is still Ezekiel Elliott's offense.
What Would a Successful Season Mean for Kellen Moore’s Future?
Out of every chess piece moved by the Dallas Cowboys this offseason, the decision to name 30-year old Kellen Moore might be the most interesting one. Not only that, but it could be the one that makes the biggest impact on the team. After all, the Cowboys are ready to go talent wise.
With Kellen Moore taking up a new role, it's intriguing to imagine what a successful season would mean for his future with the Dallas Cowboys. Truth be told, Moore is in a pretty fortunate position to debut as an offensive coordinator. He'll be driving a unit full of talented players with almost no weak links. Last year, it wasn't the lack of quality players lined up that had the offense struggling throughout the season, but the guy in charge.
At first, the philosophy of not needing a #1 wide receiver clearly blew up on the Cowboys face. The passing game in Dallas needed a spark and they didn't find it until they traded a first rounder for Amari Cooper. Cooper's impact on the team was clear right away as he put on impressive performances on a weekly basis.
But even when Cooper was at his best, the offense still presented relevant struggles. Despite getting more first downs, the Cowboys still had trouble scoring touchdowns when in the red zone and kept leaving points on the field.
Although he's been a controversial conversation among members of Cowboys Nation, there are a few reasons to be excited about what Kellen Moore can bring to the table as a young offensive coordinator. Ever since he declared for the NFL Draft out of Boise State, where he ran a very complex offense on his way to become the QB with most wins in NCAA history, he was seen by many as an extremely smart prospect. Many expected him to have a mediocre career as a player, but saw him as a potential coach down the line.
Now it's his chance to prove the world just how smart he is and his potential as a coach. He will not only be proving it to the Cowboys organization, but all of the NFL and college football teams. Don't forget what NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah mentioned a few months ago.
I've mentioned this before- Kellen Moore is a rising star and he'll be in the mix for HC gigs (CFB or NFL) in the near future. https://t.co/hLjOb4HAUc
With a great group of talent at his disposal, it's fair to imagine Moore having a pretty successful "rookie" season at a major coaching position. If he indeed manages to turn heads with the Dallas Cowboys offense in 2019, what does that mean for his future?
In a league that's turning to the young offensive-minded coaches thanks to guys like Sean McVay, is it possible one team decides to pull the trigger and make him an offer for a head coaching gig? It certainly would seem premature, but it's still a possibility in the NFL, where teams have become increasingly impatient with their coaches.
I definitely wouldn't be surprised if next offseason, we're concerned about another team (college or NFL) trying to snatch Moore off the Cowboys. I insist in pointing out this would be a premature decision if it does happen, since Moore has very little experience, but looking at the trend in the NFL it certainly could happen.
This might be the most important year in Kellen Moore's young career. For now, let's hope he does a good job leading Dak Prescott in his fourth year as a professional player and an offense that has a solid OL and a pretty good set of skill players.
Connor Williams Working as Left Tackle in Cowboys Practice
Second-year guard Connor Williams has been working as the Cowboys' left tackle during practice this week. While this isn't the plan for him in 2019, it does provide a glimpse into potential uses for Williams down the road and how Dallas might handle future offensive line moves.
Using Connor at LT this week has been a matter of necessity. The top players on that depth chart, Tyron Smith and Cameron Fleming, were not participating for other reasons.
With Tyron Smith getting a vet day and Cam Fleming not practicing because of a bruised shin, Connor Williams worked at left tackle Wednesday. He said it was his first left tackle snaps since he was at Texas. He said it felt like riding a bike after a little bit.
Indeed, Williams spent three years at left tackle in college. It was the last position he'd played before being drafted in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft by Dallas, who immediately moved him to guard.
Connor started 10 of 13 games at guard last season. He played mostly on the left side, starting Weeks 1-9, before getting injured. Xavier Su'a-Filo played well enough in his absence that Williams didn't get the starting job back when he was healthy. However, when Zack Martin had to miss a few games at the end of the year, Connor started a right guard for those two weeks.
When Martin returned for the playoffs, Williams was back as the starting left guard in both postseason games.
Tyron Smith and Cam Fleming will be your starter and backup at left tackle next year. But for 2020 and beyond, Connor Williams' ability to play tackle creates some interesting possibilities.
La'el Collins will be an unrestricted free agent next year. Fleming will still have one year left on his deal and Dallas just spent a third-round pick on the versatile Connor McGovern. Throw in that Williams can play some tackle, and it seems as if they're covering bases for Collins eventual departure.
We could very well see a starting lineup in 2020 with McGovern at LG and Williams at RT. Another possibility is that Fleming starts at RT and Williams stays at guard, but can be moved to tackle if needed.
If nothing else, it's nice to know that Dallas has options. We may never see Connor Williams play a regular season snap at left tackle, but versatility is a great asset. It can greatly increase a player's value, and give his team some leverage and flexibility in roster management.
For the Cowboys, it does make you wonder what the future holds for the offensive line.
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