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Doomed by success: How the 2016 season led the Cowboys to 2018’s failure

Fixing this mess requires some new thinking - but can Jerry Jones manage that?

Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys
They thought they were the wave of the future - but they weren’t.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

How could this happen? Just two years ago, the Dallas Cowboys were the hottest team in the NFL. With a pair of rookies leading the offense, they tore through the regular season and looked to be on their way to the Super Bowl until Cowboys nemesis Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers derailed things in the playoffs. But the future was so bright. Dak Prescott won Offensive Rookie of the Year, Ezekiel Elliott would have been the choice if Prescott had not won it, and a new award was invented to honor their offensive line for its dominance. The coaches that had worked this near-miracle after Tony Romo was lost in preseaon, Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan, were coming back for more, Garrett with a shiny Coach of the Year award.

But after disappointing 2017 season, the Cowboys find themselves on the brink of a full collapse this year. Nothing seems to be working. Monday’s loss to a Tennessee Titans team that was in much the same position as Dallas going into the game has effectively crushed any hopes of getting into the playoffs. The team is facing hard questions. Jerry Jones was visibly upset after that MNF loss, and while he is vocally denying that any more coaching changes are coming before the end of the season, he was noticeably ambivalent when asked about his support of Garrett and Linehan.

That certainly leaves the door open for dismissals on “Black Monday” after this season ends (it falls on New Years’s Eve, so mark your calendars). And while it may not be directly related, Jones also made this point.

The departure of Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan seems more probable than ever. And, assuming that some of the bad decisions that have been made the past couple of years were not forced on them by their owner/GM, that is what should happen. Because they totally misunderstood what had happened two years ago, and that is too big a failure to forgive.

Of course, it is arguable, even likely, that Jerry Jones does share some of the responsibility for what happened. But you must keep two things in mind. First, as far as how the offense was to be handled in terms of scheme and game plans, he was not originating things, but signing off on what his coaches were presenting him. Second, and far more importantly, Jerry is not going to fire Jerry. He may retire someday due to health concerns, but he will not step down from his GM title because the team is doing poorly. More likely, he is going to be the GM until he shuffles off this mortal coil.

That means that whatever action is taken - and Jones was certainly sounding like something will happen when he believes the time is right - will involve the head coach and offensive coordinator (and extend to other assistants). They are the ones who got this all wrong.

Specifically, they interpreted the success of 2016 as a result of the talent of their two rookies and the brilliance of their offensive scheme. A rookie quarterback leading the team to 13 wins alongside a rookie running back who led the league may seem like convincing evidence they knew exactly what they were doing.

Obviously, they didn’t. Not the way they thought.

First, they really underestimated the role of the offensive line in that success. Compounding that was a misunderstanding of how easily they could replace players in that unit. We had the Chaz Green experiment, and then the Paul Alexander issue. While the promotion of Marc Colombo may be a long-term answer, it was not enough on Monday night. It did look at first that things were going better, and then things sort of fell apart for the whole team after Prescott threw the interception in the end zone.

Secondly, they overestimated Prescott’s own ability to grow as a quarterback. He always had flaws in processing on the field and his mechanics. The assumption was that he would make steady progress, but that has not occurred. And there is a theory out there that he is sorely missing someone who was of great help to him as a rookie.

Now Prescott is holding this team back, and that has been glaringly evident the past two games, as he has yielded turnovers that led directly to touchdowns for the opponent. This is closely tied to his holding onto the ball far too long trying to find somewhere to throw it, or looking for space to run for positive yardage, which leads to a lot of his sacks. Just as crippling is his repeated failure to find open receivers and convert third downs.

Whether he can grow and perform better remains to be seen, but the evidence is that he cannot with the current staff. And given that Jones is signaling that Prescott is going to be around for a while, that is not good for the incumbents.

Although logic is not always a clear component of what Jones does, applying it here leads to the conclusion that the offensive coordinator, at a minimum, must be replaced. And the chance of the head coach joining him in the recycling bin of NFL coaches certainly seems to be growing.

There is a third component to the comedy of errors that created this dysfunctional offense. (It’s a comedy because you laugh when it hurts too much to cry.) That was a true failure to understand the dynamic nature of the NFL.

It now seems pretty clear that the success of Dak and Zeke in 2016 was because they were new and teams did not know what to expect, or (and this is more important) what Garrett and Linehan were going to do with them. Now, opposing defenses have two and a half seasons to study, and they have clearly figured out all the tendencies. Nothing surprises anyone, especially as Linehan seems totally oblivious to the idea that he can actually change things up, believing instead that his offense is good enough to impose its will on the other team. News flash, Scott: It ain’t.

Instead of trying to mix things up while figuring out what Dak can do the best, the offense still looks like they are trying to make him adjust to their scheme and plans, rather than adjusting things to maximize Prescott’s (and Elliott’s) skill set.

That was, at least in part, the genesis of the whole “wide receiver by committee” thing. For that to work, they had to have a quarterback that could make reads and rapid, efficient decisions. In other words, they came into the season with a plan predicated on what they thought Prescott would grow into - not what they had seen over the past season. And the belief he didn’t need a strong WR1 was just another way they misunderstood things. One of the few bright spots of the Titans debacle was that it looks like Amari Cooper can be just that, as he led all receivers in targets, catches, and yards in his first game with the team. For now, however, that looks like a long-term asset for the team to build on, not a way to salvage this shipwreck of a season.

While Garrett and Linehan were still banking on the running game as the basis for their offense, most of the rest of the league was doubling down on throwing the ball and being unpredictable. Defenses facing Dallas just ignore the pass on first down and load up the box to stuff Elliott. That works often enough - Elliott was tackled for negative yards on three different first down carries on Monday, continuing a season long trend - to put the Cowboys behind schedule and frequently lead to third and long situations, where Prescott has been markedly ineffective. Just one of those a drive will usually kill things.

The success of 2016 was largely the result of the Cowboys having new and therefore unpredictable components in the offense. By 2017, that was no longer true, and combined with other issues, led to a decline that is not only continuing, but may be accelerating this year. Garrett and Linehan failed to see this coming, even after what happened last year. The rest of the NFL adjusted, and they did not.

It is mostly on them. Time to count the days to Black Monday.

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