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Cowboys CSI: The case of the missing passing game

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The offense was a crime the first seven weeks in Dallas, and we are looking for the guilty party.

Reigning Indianapolis 500 Champion Will Power To Visit With Dallas Cowboys
In this case, the red-head with the sunglasses is a suspect, not the investigator.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

It took seven games, and more importantly four road losses, for the Dallas Cowboys to address their biggest issue. The much ballyhooed “wide receiver by committee” was, with the exception of the win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, basically DOA. The Cowboys had no offense to speak of in games where the defense was putting the team in a position to win. It became clear that Dallas had no real passing game, and opponents just focused on stopping the run and forcing the Cowboys to beat them through the air. We saw to our dismay just how that worked out. Now Amari Cooper has been acquired, at the cost of next year’s first-round draft pick, which is as clear an admission of failure as you can get. Cooper brings hope that the season can still be salvaged, although just how much hope the team should have is clearly questionable given the hole they have dug themselves.

But just admitting a problem and addressing it is not enough. Well, it probably should be, but we are talking fans and sports media for the most scrutinized and polarizing team in the NFL. Fixing things during the season is one thing. Somebody has to pay. A guilty party needs to be identified and punishment meted out. That’s just how it’s done in ‘Murica. Indeed, the Cowboys have already made a move to address part of the problem, as offensive line coach Paul Alexander has reportedly been fired. Pass protection and run blocking were both issues for the team.

However, that is just part of the story. The anemic passing attack may be helped with some (hopefully) better pass protection and run blocking, but it still has been pretty horrible.

So welcome to an investigation of this football crime as we look at the suspects and point fingers of accusation.

The receivers themselves

Part of the constant wrangling about what happened to the passing game in Dallas was the question of coaching versus execution. In looking at the latter as a cause, we start with the guys who are supposed to catch the ball. It quickly became apparent that this group just wasn’t getting the job done. Free agent acquisitions Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson have run the gamut from disappointing to really, really disappointing. Rookie Michael Gallup got off to a slow start (although he is beginning to show signs of emergence). So far, only Cole Beasley has shown much in this group, and just as opposing defenses have been able to bottle up Ezekiel Elliott at times, they also have been able to blanket Beasley in games. Forcing Dak Prescott to go to his other options is usually not to Dallas’ benefit.

Tight end is a bit better, as Geoff Swaim has been steady but not spectacular. The rest of that group is still not doing much, and the team has not really figured out what they want to do with Rico Gathers. The running backs are still mostly used as safety valves, despite Elliott having been a very effective target in the win over the Detroit Lions.

But while the wide receiver group may be a cause of the problems, it really isn’t their fault. They got hired, and have simply turned out to be a bad fit for what the team needs. Cooper’s acquisition just reinforces that.

The quarterback

Prescott has certainly taken a lot of hits this season, both figuratively and literally. He has not looked decisive most of the time and has made a lot of questionable (at best) throws. It is also apparent he is just too nervous about his protection, pulling the ball down and leaving the pocket when he has receivers coming open and often is not as pressured as he seems to think.

It is hard to criticize him too much for that latter problem given the number of sacks and hits he has had to take. The Cowboys are tied for eighth in terms of most sacks given up - and several teams with worse numbers there have not had their bye week yet. Still, the Cowboys are tied for 22nd in the league in yards per attempt and 29th in yards per game, so Prescott needs to take at least some of the responsibility here.

However, he has been trending up a bit, with passer ratings of 95 or better in three of his last four games. And the firing of Alexander, with Marc Colombo promoted to fill that job for now and Colombo’s old O line coach Hudson Houck also brought back to the fold in an advisory capacity, may also help get the line playing better. It also cannot be denied that he has seen too many passes dropped when he is on target. So while he is part of the overall problem, he seems to be working hard to make things better, with some success.

And there is evidence that the decision makers don’t see him as the problem, anyway. The trade for Cooper and the shakeup at O line coach looks a lot like they are trying to help Dak, not blame him.

That means we turn our attention to the staff.

The Joneses

There is no other team in the league where the ownership has as much responsibility and direct authority over the roster. That means Jerry Jones as GM and Stephen Jones as maybe the real day-do-day GM must be scrutinized here. After all, they are the main parties involved in putting the group of receivers together to start the season. Since it has been shown to be so inadequate, that falls a lot on their shoulders.

And then there was the release of Dez Bryant. While it is certainly questionable whether he was really the answer to this bunch playing better, the idea that you could discard your WR1 without really replacing him has been shown to be erroneous, at least with the offensive system that Dallas runs.

Still, does that make them the real culprits here, or just accomplices who got led down a bad path? Besides, they are hardly going to fire themselves. The sudden move to part ways with Alexander and bring back Houck to help Colombo also shows that they are truly dedicated to getting things fixed.

Given all that, the question now becomes, just who came up with the failed committee approach at WR?

The head coach

Ah, Jason Garrett. The coach that so many betting sites had as the favorite to be the first fired this season (an “honor” that now goes to Cleveland Browns former HC Hue Jackson). His stamp is on this team, reflecting the large input he has on personnel decisions.

The buck often stops with the HC in the NFL, but once again, the Cowboys are a unique situation with the ownership also being the collective GM. Despite the myth, decision-making in Dallas has long been a collaborative effort, and there are times that Garrett does get overruled or outvoted on key things. And as has been reported by Bryan Broaddus, DallasCowboys.com staffer and team insider, that was what happened back when Dez was turned loose. Garrett and Jerry Jones both had to be really sold on that idea, and were the last ones to come around on it.

In a possibly related note, you may be aware of the heavy criticism Garrett took for being at a World Series game in Los Angeles on his off day. It has also been noted that Houck moved to California when he retired. Coincidence? Maybe not. It might just reflect that Garrett’s position with the team is stronger than some think, that he was partly behind bringing Houck back, and was given the responsibility to seal the deal.

So there must have been another voice who drove the things that led to the offensive malaise. And that is the suspect that stands out as the real villain of this crime.

The offensive coordinator

Scott Linehan’s fingerprints are all over this one. The Dez Bryant decision, and a lot more. His offensive staff was largely redone, including the replacement of O line coach Frank Pollack by Alexander.

At the time of the multiple changes in the offensive assistants, it was easy to argue that Linehan was putting the blame for the failures of 2017 on everyone but his own coaching. Now that the problems have continued into this season, that holds water no better than a sieve. The perception, especially in light of the hiring of his adopted son former backup Kellen Moore as the new QB coach, was that the new offensive staff firings and hirings were pretty much hand picked by Linehan.

Now that has all come apart, and there are no more fall guys. The verdict for Linehan should be a clear “guilty”, and he should pay the ultimate price in NFL terms of being fired himself. The only reason that particular ax has not fallen is that there is not clear replacement on the staff (save having Garrett take up the OC duties himself, which was something that was judged to not be a good idea when they were largely taken from him by the Joneses) and changing the OC in midseason is pretty hard to do. Were the Cowboys even deeper in a hole, that might have come about. But the team still has a chance to turn things around over the last nine games, however faint it might be. And as we saw in the Jaguars game, Linehan can still do some good things calling plays. With the addition of Cooper, it is up to him to make things work better. Now he has a lot of motivation to win more games, if for no other reason than to make himself more employable if he is indeed fired.

He should be. It will probably not be until after the season ends - unless things continue to go badly. This should be just a temporary reprieve, because he is the greatest cause of the struggles of the offense.

Case closed.