“Cowboys Nation” finally got that for which they have been begging for since 2017. Owner and GM Jerry placed the head of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan under the guillotine. While he (like so many other coaches in the NFL) is human and has a family to feed, there was increasingly no excuse for a game day system that – even on paper – does not often enough put players in position to succeed.
Today’s NFL game “strongly encourages” OC’s to pursue a flexible scheme theme, and “America’s Team” has been operating a system that forces all 11 players (regardless of their maximum capabilities) to win their one-on-one assignments without fail, rather than counting on wrinkles that can help them out when a play call or execution suddenly becomes stale.
While “the ultimate team sport” requires each participating player to “do your job (and then some to avoid appearing the replaceable slob),” the Dallas offense is further impacted at the most important position of quarterback, historically-critical skills for which the occupant should not lack. Dak Prescott has been an absolutely willing 3-year starter and (by all accounts) an admired leader. Though he has a 33-18 record and has done everything he could, he has intermittently required more from his teammates than any modern-day NFL quarterback consistently should. Without the innate ability to regularly (however unfairly) make those around him better, he (like the limiting system in which he plays) becomes a performance bleeder. Dak may still be a former fourth-round draft pick, but as the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys (or any NFL team), his offensive teammates require more from him to properly and reliably click.
Dallas fans (until a few days ago) considered the removal of Linehan to perhaps be one of the three greatest (and most current) challenges of all for the 5-time Super Bowl champion Cowboys (with the other two tests being how to get Jason Garrett to be a more successful part of the head coaching equation and how to get GM Jerry to defer even more to son Stephen while going on a long, radio-silenced vacation).
“I got that beat! I GOT THAT BEAT!” – Hooper in “Jaws.”
Replacing “The Man With The Age Old Plan” may prove to be the Cowboys’ biggest test in years as (for all involved) it could involve a significant change in gears. The same timing offense that worked so beautifully for Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, Jay Novacek, Alvin Harper, and their massive offensive line has been an often inconsistent, one-dimensional train wreck since the departure of “That Announcer Guy,” who could personally raise (or admittedly ruin) the productivity of those around him and – in doing so – hide the warts of a system that had become corroded and outmoded).
Rumor-turned-fact has it that Cowboys’ former backup QB Jon Kitna will be named the Cowboys’ new quarterbacks coach. The undesirable question then begs: “What becomes of outgoing QB coach, Kellen Moore? Will the dedicated Linehan pledge be pushed off the employment edge or do Jerry and Jason have something more sinister (for the fans) in store?” The equally undesirable answer (depending upon whom you ask) is becoming unimaginatively clear with cruel fate perhaps grinning from ear to ear.
“He (deserves) a lot of credit for my success in the league. Everything that I’ve done, teaching the game, breaking the game down. I’m not into all the speculation and things like that. I hope he’s here. I hope we figure it out. He means a lot to me.” – Dak Prescott on Scott Linehan following the 2017 season.
“I pushed for that, and I know he helped me so much throughout the (2017) season. He’s just so smart . . . I’m excited I get to play under him now, and I’m excited for him to take this role as a coach, and I know he’ll be really good at it.” – Dak Prescott on Kellen Moore following the 2017 season.
There may or may not be a(n ill-fated?) pattern developing for the Cowboys’ starting quarterback around whom the Dallas brain trust clearly wants the current offensive system to keep enveloping. The system needs to remain run-first (or at least reasonably balanced between run and pass) but play more towards Prescott’s (throw on the run) strengths while also displaying more downfield aggression (which would somewhat double as a necessary antidote for his risk-averse obsession).
“How might that look?” you say. Imagine the Cowboys’ final regular season game in 2018 against the (depleted) Giants. Dak and Co. (with a playoff berth firmly in hand) could have rolled over with plenty of injury-fearing fans more than willing to understand. Dak instead (and in the absence of Zeke or any quality rushing attack of which to speak) spent most of the contest (GASP) rolling out, throwing on the run, and displaying plenty of gameday defiance. Now, add Zeke back into that offensive stew, and there is plenty with which a reasonably-curious and competent offensive chef, err, coordinator can cook.
Kellen Moore and Jon Kitna (regardless of their difference in height or their wide disparity in college-versus-NFL playing experience) were similarly-aggressive quarterbacks who had enough naturally-aspirated pocket presence, sense of anticipation, and vision of the entire field to (comfortably) take many of the risks and make many of the passes (from merely moving the sticks to vectors so vertical) and rarely allowing their offenses to move like molasses. While Moore had blazing stats with Boise State – and he played in but three NFL games (YES, Yes, yes, with four touchdowns to six interceptions) – he had (and may still have?) that aggressive trait.
While Moore and Kitna are not (conceptually) “two wild and crazy guys,” they could be (to fan groans or glee?) the well-liked fellas who allow GM Jerry and coach Garrett to keep their prized system within a flexible disguise. They know and believe in the system (functionally duplicated without results replicated) from the Cowboys’ years with Norv Turner. They collectively may be able to coach Prescott into more of the reads, recognitions, and confident actions (whether from a static shotgun or more comfortably on the run) that could make Dallas’ offense “just a bit more” like a barn burner.
The other (perhaps overlooked) common denominator among Kellen Moore, Jon Kitna, and Dak Prescott is they have been viewed as positional underdogs their entire careers. That element (almost as much as any other) may be what helps improve the direction in which Prescott’s vehicle for success ultimately steers.
Will They Or Won’t They?
While there are a number of new offensive ways (for America’s Team) to go, Cowboys Nation – from discerning to morbidly myopic – must know, deep down, that Jerry and Jason have zero interest in the dreaded “tear down (and start over)” topic. If they were going to entertain a new voice from beyond the grave, err, outside of the organization (“Holy moly, Batman, err, Georgia’s James Coley!”), some of the best investigative reporters out there would have already unearthed and identified that potential new relation.
Anything is possible and Jerry LOVES him a big splash. Will Jerry (in “my way” defiance) and Jason (in doting compliance) really have the nerve to eliminate another offensive crash . . . or will create another “hiding place” where their (proven-yet-unmovin’) system they can still stash?
Will Jerry and Jason (against all odds) really follow through with keeping their old offensive system together, no matter how many (more) of the Cowboys’ future opponents generate higher-scoring weather?
Will they demonstrate an urgent understanding (even with the much-improved “Marinelli’s Men”) that their offensive unit must be able to reliably do-and-score more often than every now and then? The “Hot Boyz” could become quite long-term good, but they are not in the 2000 Ravens (“We Don’t Need No Stinking Offense”) neighborhood. More balance between units (yes, even “special” teams) is the best way to keep the defense fresh, and that is the only way the Cowboys as a whole can truly mesh.
Will whoever takes over as offensive coordinator demonstrate that (while adjustments to the existing or entirely new path must help Dak handle more competitive math) the way forward must be less “all for one” and more “one for all” to desperately prevent the offense from hitting another limiting wall? The ability to dive deeper on the Cowboys’ ggame-dayroster – through system flexibility – is a necessity for the long haul.
The Dallas Cowboys’ future could be and should be bright, but will they select a freshened or completely revamped offense to help them finally, decades later, “Finish The Fight?”
We shall see. We always do.
You can chat with or follow Eric on twitter @emscharf