Most byes are rather slow for us NFL blogger types. No game, so coaches and players get a bit of needed rest and down time, and usually not much news at all.
That was certainly not the case this year for the Dallas Cowboys, as a combination of the trade deadline falling just days after the bye date plus a rather dismal start to the season combined to create the surprising trade for Amari Cooper. That was followed a week later by the sudden replacement of offensive line coach Paul Anderson with his former assistant Marc Colombo, plus a reunion of sorts for Colombo with his old coach Hudson Houck, who will serve in an advisory role to help with the transition.
The moves have brought a sense of new hope for the team and its fans, despite the huge challenge still ahead to try and make the playoffs. Some see the moves as unusually daring for a team that has eschewed trading away the number one pick for a decade and that hasn’t made a significant midseason coaching change since the Wade Phillips firing. The more negative observers see things as evidence of a real sense of desperation as the season was unraveling. Another viewpoint is that this was mainly just accepting that the best laid schemes had gang way, way agley.
In truth, there was a combination of all three. While the analysis mostly focuses on what the changes mean for the team going forward, the roots go deep into the unique character of the Cowboys organization.
Once upon a time, Jerry Jones carried the sobriquet of “Trader Jerry”. He loved to make big, splashy trades, throwing draft picks and cap dollars out to try and acquire talent. That dried up in recent years after too many failed moves, and for a while now, the focus has been on drafting well and developing those players. It appeared to be working well, particularly just two seasons ago when Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott seemed poised to lead the way into a bright future, building on the dominant offensive line that had received so much draft investment. Meanwhile, Jones has often been overly loyal to his coaches. The Phillips firing came only after he was convinced that the head coach had lost the locker room and there was no reason to wait for the end of the season to make a move.
But the last season-and-a-half has seen things go sour. In particular, that vaunted offensive line suddenly had feet (and hands) of clay, as Elliott was repeatedly bottled up and Prescott quailed under relentless pressure. Add in some critical and very poorly timed penalties, and the offense was just falling apart at times.
While things were not nearly as dire as back in 2010, they were bad enough that Jerry and his son Stephen decided that enough was enough. After buying into the now discredited “wide receiver by committee” idea (although probably reluctantly, at least on Jerry’s part) and being faced with an obvious failure by Alexander to correct the issues from last year, it was time to, well, go cowboy on things and make some moves. The Joneses called on that old boldness and made not one, but two big splashes while the bye gave the team some time to adjust.
The desperation enters in because, for the first time in years, the Dallas defense was showing that it, at least, was good enough to really help the team win. They are second in the league in points allowed per game at 17.6, and have not allowed any team to score more than 24 points in a contest. The four losses happened because the offense was just not able to score much at all, and even in the three wins, they only broke out once, in the Jacksonville Jaguars beat-down. Failing to do something to address that now was a near-certain path to failure, with 8-8 looking like an optimistic hope for the season. Standing pat offered no hope for improvement, as there had been little to date.
There is also the fact that just tanking it and regrouping for next season is absolutely not in the Cowboys’ DNA. Jerry Jones always thinks the team is close to breaking through (even when it clearly is not), and head coach Jason Garrett is totally committed to playing every game to win (even if his decisions at times seem too cautious).
One other factor that is more subtle is that unique role Jerry and Stephen Jones have as both owners and a collective general manager. They can make these kinds of radical decisions without anyone looking over their shoulder (outside the fans and media, who really don’t matter in this case). That flexibility and ability to move quickly on such things is not something most other NFL teams have. A few teams, such as the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick, have put that kind of authority in one or two members of the staff, but in most cases, these kind of moves have to be sold to the owners. In Dallas, that step simply does not exist.
That accepting things as inevitable enters in when the nature of the failures on offense are examined closely. While many blame offensive coordinator Scott Linehan for his play calling, we have seen at times in the three wins that he can move the ball and score. Others, sometimes in combination with Linehan’s scheme, consider Prescott to be the real limitation. But again, Prescott led the team to those 40 points. He does have some limitations and a ton of room for growth and development, but he is also the player that led the team so effectively in 2016 (and it should be said that was also Linehan’s offense). And Prescott’s performances, barring a rash of fumbles the past two games, have been improving.
But replacing either of those two in midseason may not only fail to address the real issues, they are almost impossible. Any new offensive coordinator would basically have to work with the system already in place, and would have difficulty doing so any better than Linehan, given his understanding of what is, after all, his system. Changing the OC is something that would have to be put off until after the season. And there is no viable alternative to Prescott, either on the roster or available via trade or signing an off-the-street QB.
Finding a real WR1 and replacing the offensvie line coach, however, were obviously very doable. The logic in spending next year’s number one pick on a 24-year-old receiver with two 1,000 yard seasons already under his belt has been discussed at length here and elsewhere, so there is no need to rehash all that. And the Cowboys had a ready replacement for Alexander in Colombo, who was reportedly the preferred choice for the job among the veteran linemen when Frank Pollack left. His relative lack of experience may be effectively offset by the recruitment of Houck to come in and assist, which in the opinion of some (like me) seems kind of brilliant.
Before the big moves were made, hope for the Cowboys was becoming very scarce. All season it was a case of wash, rinse, and repeat. Lose a road game (usually closely), win at home, over and over. Now, however, there is at least a plausible path to at least challenge for the division, despite the lead now held by Washington and the Philadelphia Eagles. Both the Cooper trade and the coaching change, hopefully to return to the techniques and philosophy of recent seasons, offer a chance for some real synergy. Better blocking should provide more running lanes for Zeke, and take some pressure off the passing game. Better pass protection should allow Dak to be less skittish and make better reads and throws. Having a new receiver that seems tailor-made for Prescott’s skill set will not just give him one improved target, but should open opportunities in the secondary for other options like Cole Beasley and Michael Gallup. There is not just one path to more offensive efficiency, there are several, and each should help the others.
The question of just whether this will all work still remains. But we will start to get some idea of the answer on Monday night against the Tennessee Titans, and that looks like a very winnable game, at least based on the odds makers.
Still, there are new reasons for hope. At the least, a surprisingly eventful and even exciting bye has made for what should be a very interesting last nine games of the season.