The surprising 2016 season for the Dallas Cowboys is being largely credited to the emergence of the two super-rookies, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. There is also the highly regarded offensive line and some surprisingly good numbers posted by the defense. We’ve taken a look at how the Cowboys built their roster for success, and the one stroke of incredible luck they had in the draft. But it should not be overlooked that this was one incredible job by the coaching staff. Jason Garrett is getting deserved mention as a candidate for head coach of the year, and Rod Marinelli and Scott Linehan should both at least be considered for assistant coaching honors. And all the rest of the staff seems to have done a superb job, as the team got contributions all over the roster.
This goes deeper than X and O stuff on the field. Here is a list of some of the challenges the staff faced, in sort of chronological order, and how they addressed them.
Coming out of the debacle that was 2015, the clear stance taken was that the core of the team was strong and could be built on for a successful 2016. In hindsight, that was obviously a good call, but when the Cowboys were having to take consolation in having the fourth overall pick in the draft as they watched the playoffs start a year ago, that was not a universally accepted idea. Everything was set up when the Jones family decided to keep the coaching staff almost entirely intact from the previous season, valuing continuity and trusting in them to have a much better year. Job one for the coaches was to communicate their faith to the returning players that they were capable of much more than they were able to show in 2015. A failure of that magnitude has the potential of shaking the confidence of all involved, but the coaches told them that was not who they were. That became part of the message for the year. And consistent messages are a hallmark of a Garrett-coached team. That message never wavered, no matter what came along - and there was a lot that would show up down the road.
Next was the draft itself. Given that they had managed to turn Darren McFadden into the fourth leading rusher in the league, despite his only starting ten games, the idea of drafting a running back with that precious fourth overall spot was looked on with a tremendous amount of skepticism. The team had already invested a lot of first round picks in the offense over the past few years (with great success, of course), and many draft “experts” felt that Dallas had to go defense. But the plan under Garrett was to have a run-first offensive philosophy, and they needed a real weapon to run the ball. His influence in taking Elliott seems pretty obvious.
The next place the coaches probably had a role was in the taking of Prescott at the end of the fourth round, although that only came about after the team had missed out on two other options, Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook. But word is that Wade Wilson was especially high on Prescott, and had some influence on pulling the trigger at 135. If so, Wilson deserves a bonus.
Now that the preseason roster was in place, the job of building the confidence of the players continued. There are a lot of jokes made about the repetitive nature of Garrett’s comments, but that steady preaching through offseason work, OTAs, and minicamp never let up. If you listen to what the Cowboys’ players say, it is clear that they have actually internalized Garrett’s philosophy, in a way that few if any other NFL rosters have. Don’t underestimate how important that is in what we have seen unfold this year.
Training camp got underway, and the first crisis hit, although it was seen by many as a blessing in disguise. Kellen Moore, the incumbent backup to Tony Romo, was lost for the year to a freak injury in practice, and suddenly that rookie from Mississippi State was elevated to the number two position (although at the time he still was seen as having serious competition from second-year player Jameill Showers). This was where the offensive coaches really started to earn their pay in getting Prescott ready. One thing that should be remembered is how Garrett took a personal interest in his development. That would really become evident when the real emergency hit as Romo would be injured yet again in preseason. From that point on, Garrett would stay after practice with Prescott, tossing a football back and forth and talking with the rookie. It was a display of one-on-one coaching that may be unique, and certainly is very, very rare. It is of course impossible to measure just how much this aided Prescott’s growth, but it may have done more than we can imagine. Remember that the one trait that struck everyone about Prescott this season was his veteran-like poise. How much was that boosted by those sessions with Garrett? Possibly a great deal.
As the team worked its way into rolling into the season with the rookie as the starting QB, the load fell on Scott Linehan to make adjustments to the game plan. And this was another one of those process things, as you could watch the offensive game plan grow and evolve each week. It was remarkably fast, as Dallas was pretty much running the entire playbook by midseason, but early on, Linehan was definitely playing to Prescott’s strengths and protecting his weaknesses. That he was able to help bring the rookie along while also putting together an eleven game winning streak and a total of thirteen wins and the best record in the NFC is proof enough of just what a superb job he did. While the tremendous success of Elliott now seems nearly inevitable, Linehan and running back coach Gary Brown also deserve a lot of credit. Zeke needed a couple of games to hit his stride, and the NFL is full of examples of very good talent being wasted. The Cowboys made the most of Elliott, who is now only challenged by Prescott for offensive rookie of the year honors after winning the regular season rushing crown.
Meanwhile, Rod Marinelli and his defensive assistants were once again tasked with making the most of a much less talent-heavy group than the offense could field. The early season heavy lifting was done by secondary coach Joe Baker and safeties coach Greg Jackson, with leadership from Matt Eberflus in his new role as passing game coordinator. The secondary was the strength of the defense in the first half of the season as the pass rush got off to a very slow start. Of particular note was the play of a couple of defensive backs that had rough seasons earlier. Prior to his injury, Morris Claiborne was likely the best pass defender on the team. And J.J. Wilcox may be the most improved player on the whole roster. He seems to have finally mastered angles for closing on ball carriers, and when he does, the collisions are impressive. Frequently, he simply stops people dead in their tracks.
And then late in the year, Marinelli, Ben Bloom, and Leon Lett found a pass rush. With a strong rookie year from Maliek Collins and the emergence of Benson Mayowa and David Irving, the Cowboys climbed into the middle of the pack on sacks, and over the last quarter of the season, were actually one of the very best teams in the league in getting to the quarterback.
Meanwhile, running through all this was the quarterback question. As Prescott amazed, Romo was still working with every intent of returning to the starting job. This is the kind of issue that can create real divisions in a locker room, but it never did for Dallas. Romo deserves all the credit in the world for his incredible grace in accepting his demotion, but there had to be some long and difficult discussions involved, particularly with the head coach. That whole situation was a time bomb that was defused without even a pop.
And there were many other injuries that the team took in stride, including missed games by Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, and DeMarcus Lawrence. None of those really slowed things down for the Cowboys, and again, the way the coaches worked around them played a major part, while at the same time Garrett and company made sure everyone kept his head right through it all.
Winning cures just about everything in the NFL, but it took a lot to make that happen in Dallas. That hardly is just routine. Some teams, like the New York Jets this year, can descend into chaos in the locker room when adversity hits. For the Cowboys, a consistent message combined with skillful use of talent has led to an incredible regular season. Now we will see just how far that can take them in the playoffs.