Almost one year ago today, on January 28, the Cowboys announced two changes in their coaching staff: the hiring of Scott Linehan as the team's passing game coordinator and de facto offensive play caller and the promotion of Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator, with former DC Monte Kiffin "kicked upstairs," where he would assume the title of assistant head coach/defense. Indeed, the moves were made with little fanfare; as our own Tom Ryle noted at the time, Linehan just showed up and came to work.
While the two moves might not have been hyped out at Valley Ranch, they arguably has more impact than any others made last offseason. When asked about these moves, Jason Garrett told reporters,
"Our responsibility is to bring quality people into our organization and find the best fit for them. That applies to players, and it applies to coaches," said head coach Jason Garrett. "Rod Marinelli’s production in terms of creating turnovers and changing field position as a defensive coordinator is well documented...[and the] opportunity to add someone of Scott Linehan's expertise and experience will benefit our offensive unit, and we believe the combination of him and Bill Callahan working closely together will give us a great chance to build upon the strides we made offensively last year."
Indeed, this proved eerily prophetic, as we'll see.
Let's start with Linehan. When he was brought in, the over-riding narrative was that the Cowboys, the team that passed the ball too often (roughly a 65% clip in 2013) were making a hug mistake in hiring a play caller who had been equally (if not even more) pass-happy during his tenure in Detroit. No less an authority than Jimmy Johnson - an ardent Garrett supporter - questioned the hire:
"The only thing that concerns me is Linehan is not known for being a guy that’s going to run the football. That’s kind of been a little bit of a problem with the Cowboys in the past that they’ve got a great running back in DeMarco Murray and, I mean, I don’t know. Are they going to run the ball more or less? Who can tell? We’ll only know a year from now. But it does concern you a little bit."
The fear was that Linehan, Garrett and Romo would collectively "abandon the run." But cooler heads, those capable of reading between the lines, pointed out that Linehan hadn't always captained a pass-first attack. Two days after the Linehan hire, our own Dawn Macelli noted Linehan's history: he happily utilizes his running backs when those he has at his disposal are capable. She wrote:
In DeMarco Murray, Linehan has a Pro Bowl caliber horse and if he can stay healthy in 2014, I would not be surprised to see DMM eclipse the 1,000 yard barrier again. In addition, with Linehan's fondness for using RB's in the passing game, it bodes well for both Murray and change of pace back Lance Dunbar to see a lot of opportunities to get involved in the passing game.
Nice call, D-Mac. Nice call, indeed.
In a sense, Linehan was merely continuing what had already be established at the end of the 2013 season. Indeed, when he announced the hire, Garrett noted that he expected Linehan to "build upon the strides we made offensively last year." What were those, exactly? Well, several shrewd observers, chief among them the great Bob Sturm, have noted that, during the Cowboys' bye week last season, which came hard upon the New Orleans debacle, two key developments happened: 1) Garrett assumed the play-calling reins, or at least imposed a greater degree of oversight; Brian Waters went on IR and was replaced at right guard by Mackenzie Bernadeau.
For these and other reasons, the offense changed pretty radically. From that point on, the Cowboys were the NFL's best rushing team. Over that span, they amassed 137 carries for 734 yards, a healthy 5.36 yards per carry (they averaged 3.87 per in weeks one through ten). And, more importantly, Dallas averaged from 5.28 to 7.64 yards per carry on "under center" runs - the kind of runs from non-passing formations that produce gains not by deception or spacing but because of superior power and execution.
Linehan's arrival continued and crystallized that trend; after running the ball on 36.4% of their plays in 2013 (30th in the league), they ran on 51.63 percent of their plays in 2014 (good for third in the NFL). More importantly, however, they ran on 70.8% of first downs, a mark that not only topped the NFL in 2014, but represents a four-year high, with the next highest percentage of first down runs at just below 64%. This is particularly impressive when we look at Dallas' first down run rates in recent seasons: in 2013, they ran on 46% of first downs (25th); in 2012, it was 41.7% (32nd). In two years, in other words, the Cowboys went from last to first in first down run percentage.
What does that really mean? I'll refer you to the "Decoding Linehan" piece Sturm penned after the Colts game:
In weeks 1-13, the Cowboys ran on first down 69 percent of the time. Now, in weeks 14-15, when the defenses were determined to take Murray away, they have cranked it up to 80 percent runs on first down. Now, several first-down plays when they were up big on the Colts may have skewed that percentage, but the 45/11 run/pass the last few weeks on first down is telling the league "do whatever you want, we are still running the ball on first down and thereby controlling the clock and the game".
Again, sustainable, repeatable, championship power is present on this offense.
The key here is in quotes: "do whatever you want, we are still running the ball on first down." As I noted above, Linehan perpetuated and made concrete a two-year building program wherein the Cowboys went from a team who knew they couldn't run the ball on anybody to one that felt confident they could run it on anybody.
And, as the above quote suggests, that kind of running game sets the table for the defense to succeed. What really gave it a boost was promoting Marinelli to defensive coordinator. After a historically bad defensive performance in 2013 (much of it due to a horrific run of injuries), and the loss of arguably the team's three best defensive players, Marinelli appeared to be faced with an impossible task in 2014 - and delivered a shockingly good season.
We all know the story, but its worth repeating here. The Cowboys defense was by no means dominant: they were 27th in yards per play as well as both third down and red zone defense, and 28th in the league in sacks after notching only 28. On the other hand, they made tremendous strides in several critical categories:
|Opponent QBR||88.5 (13th)||94.7 (29th)|
|20+ yard passes allowed||45 (7th)||71 (32nd)|
|Rush yards per game||103.1 (8th)||128.5 (27th)|
|10+ yard runs allowed||43 (9th)||65 (32st)|
|Offensive points allowed||329 (15th)||425 (30th)|
In addition, Marinelli's crew logged 31 takeaways, good for second in the NFL. When was the last time the Cowboys finished in the top five in the NFL in takeaways? 1995 - and they have finished in the top ten a mere three times since that illustrious season.
Here's the fascinating part: notice what Garrett said about the Marinelli promotion: "Rod Marinelli’s production in terms of creating turnovers and changing field position as a defensive coordinator is well documented..." In a sense, Marinelli was promoted with the hope that he could accomplish exactly what his defense proved to be best at: getting the ball back into the hands of Linehan and a bullying running game. And his charges did this best when it counted most; as I noted in a previous installment of this series, sacks and turnovers rose steadily, both within games and across the season. The Cowboys registered 46.4% of their sacks and 45.2% of their turnovers in the fourth quarters of games, and 32% of sacks and 38.7% of turnovers in December.
While a legitimate argument can be made that either of these two hires was the more impactful, no logical argument can be made against January 28 being one of the most important days in the 2014 season - as important a day, I'd assert, as the Sundays that saw critical wins over the Seahawks, Eagles and Lions.
January 28. It certainly contributed to their 13-5 final record more than any other single day this season...