There were questions and a bit of concern about how the Dallas Cowboys would play in the next-to-last game of the 2016 regular season. It had been rendered meaningless as far as playoff positioning for Dallas by the defeat of the New York Giants by the Philadelphia Eagles last Thursday, while the visiting Detroit Lions were looking for a win to get into the playoffs themselves. There was the risk of the Cowboys playing flat and conservative to try and protect themselves.
Not hardly. Instead of the lackluster effort many were concerned about, the Cowboys had one of the best games of the entire season. As we have all year, we learned some things about this team.
Honing the edge.
Jason Garrett talked about keeping the team focused and playing to win leading into the game, and the Cowboys delivered on that. Garrett also downplayed the idea of sitting starters to rest/protect them, which was carried through the game as well. There were some players, such as DeMarcus Lawrence, who sat the game out with injuries that might not have kept them out of a contest with something to gain, but other than that it was business as usual until the decision was made to sit Ezekiel Elliott and use Darren McFadden to run the ball and the clock after things had gotten beyond any real hope for the Lions to come back.
That did entail some risk, and the Cowboys may have dodged a bullet with the knee injury to Tyron Smith. He is reported to have a sprained MCL, but while he will sit out the season finale, he is expected to be available for the divisional round after Dallas has the bye to let him and others heal up some. There were other minor issues, such as Anthony Brown being evaluated for a concussion, but at this time, none of the players who were dinged up Monday are expected to miss that first playoff game. It remains to be seen how long the starters will go in the last game against the Eagles. One possibility is that the team may treat that much like a preseason game: Let the first string see some action before halftime to stay sharp, then go with as many backups as they can under the restrictions of the 46-man active roster. And it is looking like that is indeed the approach.
Cowboys' working plan is to have QB Mark Sanchez active Sunday in finale with the probability that Dak Prescott won't play entire game.— Brandon George (@DMN_George) December 27, 2016
There are two excellent reasons to limit Dak Prescott on Sunday. First, he took far too many hits against Detroit. Given what happened earlier to both Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr, that was nerve-wracking to watch, especially when he was taking on defenders to try and gain yardage. And after his scintillating performance against the Lions, it is hard to figure out just how he could possibly be more ready for the playoffs. He was absurdly productive, racked up an astronomical passer rating, made great adjustments and audibles at the line, and showed some real ability to stretch the field. There was no indication that he had any lack of confidence before the Monday night game, but it has to be at an absolute maximum afterwards.
And that should be true of the rest of the team as well. They did not just look good against the Lions. From the middle of the second quarter on, they looked absolutely dominant in just about all phases of the game. The only thing they did not do well from that point on was cover punts and kicks well, and even then, Chris Jones made a little statement about running his punts back.
Punter Chris Jones out there doing JJ Wilcox impressions ... stealing people's souls. pic.twitter.com/cbhDkabkyn— Cowboys Nation (@CowboysNation) December 27, 2016
This team is ready for the playoffs.
The Cowboys may have the best offensive and defensive coordinators in the league
There was a lot of talk early in the game from the ESPN crew about the job Jim Bob Cooter has done as the OC for Detroit. Well, that was pretty well muted after Scott Linehan pulled this little play out of his bag of tricks.
TRICK PLAY ALERT: Dez Bryant takes the reverse and THROWS a touchdown pass to Jason Witten! #DallasCowboys #DALvsDET #MNF pic.twitter.com/m5kOuUzaKe— Chat Sports (@ChatSports) December 27, 2016
But Linehan’s contributions go far beyond a little razzle dazzle to get a bit of revenge against his old team. He has been instrumental, along with Garrett, quarterback coach Wade Wilson, and even Tony Romo, in the simply phenomenal development of Prescott. Going from being a fourth-round draft pick who was supposed to struggle learning the NFL game to Pro Bowl quarterback on the best team in the NFC and possibly the entire league in one season is just not supposed to be something you can do. Linehan has not only helped teach and grow Prescott as a quarterback, he has revamped the offense to be a perfect fit for the rookie’s strengths, as well as making maximum use of Elliott’s own incredible skill set.
While Linehan has done remarkable things, he had some pretty impressive pieces to fit together. Prescott and Elliott are two of the best rookies in the league (arguably the best two to play for the same team in a season in NFL history), and they have the advantage of working with one of the best offensive lines and a top-notch receiving corps, including five other current and former Pro Bowl players. On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Rod Marinelli has simply worked miracles. One begins to wonder if he squeezed a term or two at Hogwarts in between the Marines and coaching football. Once the defense got itself settled in after allowing three scores by the Lions, they were close to impenetrable. Marinelli’s tool kit is far less well stocked than Linehan’s, with only Sean Lee a truly elite player (despite what the Pro Bowl might think). The Cowboys have placed an emphasis on building a powerhouse offense, with the comparatively limited resources they have put on the defensive side often misfiring, such as with Randy Gregory and the whole regrettable Greg Hardy experiment. Marinelli has always built his defense based on a strong pass rush, which is the one thing he has struggled so much to develop since coming to Dallas. And a bad situation just got worse against the Lions, as the already depleted rushmen saw their numbers drop even more with injuries to Terrell McClain and Ryan Davis. By halftime, Marinelli had only five defensive linemen who he could put on the field.
It should have been a real advantage for Matthew Stafford and the Detroit offense, but instead, those five linemen, with some absolutely brilliant scheming and adjustments by Marinelli, harassed and pounded Stafford into impotence. It was a display of coaching acumen that had Jon Gruden grasping for enough superlatives to describe.
Jason Garrett should be awarded coach of the year, but Linehan and Marinelli are just as deserving of recognition for their jobs, as others have noted. This Cowboys team has been incredibly immune to the problems and distractions of a most unusual season, and are about to see how far they can go in the playoffs. Garrett set the tone, but Linehan and Marinelli put it all in action. There may be individual coordinators that do as good a job, but as a set, they are without peer.