As we count down the days to the opening of training camp, debates rage about whether the Dallas Cowboys can move forward from the surprising 13-3 2016 season, or if they are due for a step back. Most of the discussions focus on Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, and whether “sophomore slumps” are coming, and on just how well the front office did in stocking the defense. But at this point, it is up to two men. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli now have the biggest burdens in trying to get back to the playoffs and then break through.
That’s because the Cowboys have gotten to a tipping point. Since Jason Garrett became the head coach, the hard job was building a roster that was strong and deep, not just led by a handful of stars. Garrett’s promotion seems to have been part of a larger strategy on the part of Jerry and Stephen Jones to focus on the draft to put the team together rather than free agency. And they have done very well since making that call. As ESPN puts in in their future power rankings this year (which has Dallas sixth overall in the league):
The Cowboys have owned the draft of late. Notable selections include Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Byron Jones. Sometimes the best draft decisions are those you don't make, too. The team passed on Johnny Manziel in 2014 (taking Martin instead), and failing to trade up for Paxton Lynch in 2016 led to the fourth-round selection of Prescott. -- Field Yates
Using the draft requires a more patient approach to things, since most players take a few seasons to reach their peak. But with the sudden impact of Dak and Zeke, the offense seems largely a completed project, with just the left guard position to really solve in camp. And now the defense has the numbers at least, although the new talent has to prove itself.
These factors now put things squarely on the shoulders of Linehan and Marinelli. Unless Dallas really blew it in the 2017 draft, the roster building is largely at a point of maturity (it never really ends, of course). The coordinators each have a challenge ahead of them that is similar in some ways to the other, and very different in some aspects.
What is the same for both is that they are the men who most affect the performance of the team on game day. Garrett has become a walk-around head coach whose primary responsibilities are strategy, training, and culture-building. He has firm control over how practices and meetings are conducted from the opening day of camp until the last practice before the final game played. He sets the tone throughout the organization. But he does not handle the bulk of the play-by-play decisions on the field. Once the game starts, that tactical responsibility is mostly on the coordinators, with Garrett just stepping in for key decisions, such as going for it on fourth down and using time outs and challenges. Linehan and Marinelli set the formations and call the plays. They have by far the most impact on the outcome of the game once it starts.
Linehan now has the offense that Garrett has envisioned since he became head coach. It is founded on the offensive line, and uses a dominating run game to establish its identity. The passing game is of course important, but the idea is to control the ball and the clock on the ground. Throwing is both to keep the defense from shutting down the rush and to exploit the inevitable opportunities that arise when opposing defenses have to make choices about who to stop. In getting Prescott, the team found a nearly perfect Garrett quarterback, someone who can read the defense and make the right decision. By the end of the 2016 season, Prescott was demonstrating his capability to run the offense. One of the most telling things was his mastery of play action, where Pro Football Focus rated him the most effective quarterback in the NFL.
The greatest task for Linehan is to keep the offense running at the high level it demonstrated last year. It is his play-calling and use of personnel that will determine how well they can do this. He has to counter the moves defensive coordinators will make to try and stymie things with the accumulated data they have on Prescott and Elliott. Based on how well Linehan did with them last season, and if he is able to keep from getting predictable, they should do well with the talent at hand. After all, he will be able to line up seven Pro Bowl players on many, even most plays (Prescott, Elliott, Smith, Frederick, Martin, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten).
Marinelli is at a different place. He has a lot of talent to work with, but for various reasons, it is much less proven. His only Pro Bowl asset is Sean Lee. We hope that Jaylon Smith will prove to be of similar ability, but until he can prove that he is functional (with or without the brace), he is more a hope than anything else. Anthony Hitchens may have to carry the load as the starting Mike for much if not all of the season.
But the big challenges are the pass rush and the secondary, where Marinelli is going to have to work some of his magic. Up front, the talent is there on paper, but it has to prove itself. He has a few very promising pieces like Maliek Collins, Benson Mayowa, and David Irving (who will miss the first four games on suspension). The rest all have questions. Will DeMarcus Lawrence, Charles Tapper, and Tyrone Crawford stay healthy? Can Damontre Moore keep his head straight? How much does Stephen Paea still have in the tank? How much will first-round pick Taco Charlton be able to contribute? Can Joey Ivie or Jordan Carrell become a seventh-round gem? Will Cedric Thornton live up to his free agent contract?
That is a lot of uncertainty, and Marinelli and his staff have their work cut out for them to get a real pass rush out of them. They don’t just need sacks (where the Cowboys were actually a little above average last season). They need to disrupt the passer, make him uncomfortable, and force mistake for the secondary to exploit.
The secondary is even more of an unknown, with a wealth of young talent, but few proven veterans. Byron Jones, Orlando Scandrick, and Anthony Brown are now going to have to be the bulwarks of the secondary. Nolan Carroll was brought in to help, but he now faces his own likely suspension to start the season. Jeff Heath will need to step up to help as well. His performance last year was encouraging.
The real question is how quickly the new blood will mature and adjust to the NFL. Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis (also with an off field incident hanging over him), Xavier Woods, and Marquez White have tremendous opportunities ahead of them - and very steep learning curves. They certainly flashed some in OTAs, but now things are going to get real. The Cowboys took a calculated risk in parting with so many of last year’s defensive backs in free agency. Dallas did not intercept the ball much last year, and that needs to change. The answer may lie with the veterans or the rookies, or maybe both. But it needs to happen.
And that will depend a lot on what Marinelli can do. It is his job to put his players in a position to take the ball away or get off the field. The Cowboys can win shootouts with the offensive weapons they boast. Lopsided victories may not be as exciting - but they are a lot more effective.
This season, it is on the coordinators. The front office has given them the tools, although the product is much more finished on offense. Now Linehan and Marinelli have to use what they have to get wins. They have different challenges, but both have to find a way to meet them.