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Why Rod Smith should be Ezekiel Elliott’s backup, and other musings on the Cowboys

Taking a look at the state of the Cowboys two weeks into 2017.

Hall of Fame Game - Dallas Cowboys v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Todd Archer does his Five Wonders. Our own Dawn Macelli just posted her five thoughts. So one more list of thoughts won’t hurt! Let’s dive into the Cowboys two weeks into the 2017 season.

The Cowboys should make Rod Smith the primary backup to Ezekiel Elliott

This is not a job that’s going to get a lot of carries until Dallas gets it running game back together. But there will come a time when Zeke needs a breather. The question is, who should the Cowboys use in those situations?

Until garbage time in Denver, Dallas has been using Alfred Morris. Count me among those who think this is a mistake. Morris may have come to camp more energized this year, and he had some decent runs in preseason. But to my eye he’s the Cowboy’s worst running back at this point. Darren McFadden is taller (6’1” v. 5’10”) and faster than Morris, and seems like the better choice. He’s better if he gets an opening because he can make more yardage out of it, and he’s also more powerful in short yardage. He’s also a more accomplished receiver.

But Rod Smith is bigger than both of them (6’3” 230 lbs.), and runs with much more power. He may not have the experience, but he’s young and hungry and has some upside. The Cowboys should use him.

The other reason to go with Smith is he’s signed for this year and next, while Morris and McFadden are both free agents, and will likely move on. At some point, Zeke is likely to have to serve his suspension, and the Cowboys will need to know what kind of back they have in Smith at that point.

There is little harm in trying out Smith to see what he can do. Morris so far has done absolutely nothing.

Would Rico Gathers have made a difference last week?

It seems clear that Rico Gathers suffered a concussion in training camp right after he started opening eyes in the first two preseason games. But have we ever gotten a real update on his medical status? Just found one.

This changes my perspective. Now I’m just mad again at Kavon Frazier for knocking him out with friendly fire.

Gathers will eventually become a huge mismatch for opponents in the passing game. For example, against Denver, the Broncos are one of the few teams that can match up a Pro Bowl slot guy against Cole Beasley. Chris Harris did a great job in holding Beasley to four catches on eight targets. The Cowboys ran almost no two tight end sets as they fell behind early and their running game wasn’t working.

With Gathers, the Cowboys could finally make their two tight ends sets a true run-pass option. He’s too big for Harris to handle, or really any Denver cornerback. And his size would also give Dallas better running game looks. In the game, Jason Witten was the only productive receiver, but he’s still slow and doesn’t get much after the catch. Gathers has more speed and isn’t nearly as easy to bring down.

Obviously we’re going to have to wait to see Gathers. Let’s just hope he’s ready to go and used when he’s able to come off IR.

Is the pass-oriented play calling partly due to Dak’s improvement?

Last year, the Cowboys ran the ball on a league-leading 48.7% of snaps. This year, they are 25th, at 32.85%. Why the difference?

A big factor is that the team fell behind early to Denver, and wasn’t running the ball well. But the Cowboys also ran only 43.66% of the time against the Giants, which would have ranked them sixth in the NFL last year.

So why the difference? It seems to me that there are two variables in play calling - Scott Linehan and Dak Prescott. Linehan gives Dak the play, but this year, Dak probably has more freedom to change it, or to go with the pass in a run-pass option play. We debated last week if Dak should have handed the ball off to Zeke on second down from the Giants’ three-yard line instead of throwing an incomplete pass to Dez Bryant. That’s likely not the only play where Dak has selected pass instead of a run this year.

Last year, Linehan likely called more runs to protect his rookie quarterback. And Dak likely deferred more to those calls for the same reason. This year, it seems like Dak may be feeling more confident with his passing reads, and Linehan might be calling more passes as a result. The problem, however it is happening, is that it is sapping the identify of the Cowboys, who build everything off of a powerful running game.

In 2014, with Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys ran 49.64% of the time. Earlier in his career, Romo was often accused of selecting pass plays over runs, and the pass-run splits for Dallas were along the lines of these last two games. (Dallas was 31st in 2012, running the ball just 33.84% of the time.) By 2014, Romo came around and had no trouble handing the ball off because he probably realized how much it improved the efficiency of his passing game. Let’s hope Scott Linehan and Dak Prescott get back on that page quickly.

Who are the Cowboys’ five best secondary players?

Last Sunday was a bad defensive game all around. But it was especially bad for the secondary, which could not cover, and could not tackle. How can the Cowboys fix this? With so many young guys, some of whom are still not healthy, it’s likely to take some time.

My question is, who are the best five players in the Cowboys secondary, regardless of position? More importantly, who would be the best five players late in the season if everyone got enough snaps to grow this year?

The Cowboys obviously need Orlando Scandrick back. And we’ve seen enough of Anthony Brown to trust him. Byron Jones has first-round pedigree, and the athleticism you look for. So those three are obvious choices.

But who should be next? My hope is that the Cowboys give Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie as much work at they can handle as soon as they are healthy. To get them both on the field, consider using Awuzie as a safety. I’d also like to see more of Xavier Woods and Kavon Frazier. Frazier may have coverage limitations, but he’s probably the best tackler and the only guy who can lay the wood.

Where does Jeff Heath fit in? I think Heath could be okay as the deep safety, as he’s been the best at being able to track the ball in the air and pick off passes. Up near the line, he doesn’t have the quickness to cover well, and while he can tackle, he’s no Barry Church.

This is going to be a week-to-week challenge for Dallas until they figure it out. Who do you think the best five are?

Get more creative on offense.

I’m all for feeding Zeke as much as possible. But I’m not for forcing the ball to receivers who are not really open. So far, only Terrance Williams and Jason Witten have catch percentages above 70%. That’s where it should be. Cole Beasley was up there last year, and should be able to return. But Dez Bryant is well below 50%, as is Brice Butler. The Cowboys needs to fix this.

Perhaps part of the fix would be to change up the routes run. For example, focus on getting high-percentage catches for Dez and let him use his running ability more. He’s a load for any single defensive back to try to bring down.

Dak could also make sure he’s looking for open guys and not forcing the ball. He excelled at that last year.

Where are the deep shots? We saw one down the sidelines to Brice Butler in the Giants’ game, but there was nothing this last week. What about a deep crossing route now and then? Our next opponent has lived by the deep pass.

We haven’t used Ryan Switzer yet. That may be a factor of his health and lack of preseason work. Have to find a way to work him in.

We also haven’t seen the same number of Dak roll outs. Some of this may be because teams are sitting on it more. And against Denver, Dallas may have feared the speed of Von Miller. But this play has to get back on track. It’s about the only way we got the ball to our secondary tight ends last year.

Dak Prescott has scrambled, but has he had any designed runs yet? Has he kept the ball on any read-option plays?

These are just examples. The Cowboys have an almost unlimited number of options. They have to do a better job of finding and exploiting the mismatches.