It is simple and obvious. The Dallas Cowboys are absolutely terrible in the red zone this season. They are 31st in the league in scoring touchdowns once they get the ball inside the 20, with only the 4-10 San Francisco 49ers doing worse. If there is one flaw above all else that needs to be corrected as they close in on a likely playoff appearance, that is it.
What makes matters worse is that there are several things that should make them much better, like the top three offensive weapons. Ezekiel Elliott leads the league in rushing and is also a dangerous pass target. Dak Prescott is a very good runner himself, which should be a factor when the team is in close. And Amari Cooper is a superb route runner who should be able to get open even in the congested space when things get down close to the end zone.
The one thing that is most definitely working against them is the beaten-up offensive line. Still, things should not be this bad. It needs to be fixed.
And responsibility for that falls squarely on offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. He has obviously been a failure at this so far this year. It is up to him to do something. The problem is that so far, he has shown no ability or perhaps willingness to do so.
There are two issues that plague the Cowboys. One is poor execution, which is not really Linehan’s fault. But the big one is that his play calls are often both too predictable and have a low likelihood of success.
The dismal loss to the Indianapolis Colts provide a microcosm of all the struggles Dallas has had this season. On their second possession, trailing 7-0, the Cowboys had a chance to tie the game with a third-and-one on the Indianapolis three-yard line. So they not only were within distance for a touchdown, they could make a first down by moving the ball a single yard and get four more shots.
Here, to Linehan’s credit, he tried to mix it up a bit - and it almost worked. Instead of the expected run by Elliott, he went with a pass and utilized some interesting motion. First, Elliott lined up wide to the left, then motioned back across the formation. It looked like they were going to run a jet sweep, but that was deception. Elliott’s motion got the defense flowing to the right, and Prescott kept the ball as Jamize Olawale moved out of the backfield to his left. He was open, Prescott threw the ball, and Olawale dropped what should have been a touchdown. The ball was a bit underthrown, but it was quite catchable.
It was an interesting and effective play design, something that does indeed exist in Linehan’s playbook. But it was also a bit too cute, perhaps, which is one of the extremes that Linehan swings between. It should have worked, of course, but maybe he tried too much trickery there.
Another thing to note was that this was still early in the game, and Linehan’s plays are much more varied to start, when the team is presumably still working off a script. Once the script runs out and they have to improvise, things tend to revert in that other direction, where things are too predictable.
Facing fourth and one, Linehan fell back on an old reliable (in his mind). He bunched everyone but one wide receiver in as obvious a running play as possible.
Dallas might as well have put a big sign in the backfield pointing to Elliott. The Colts keyed on him and defeated the middle of the offensive line, dropping Zeke for a loss and snuffing out the best scoring threat the Cowboys would mount all game.
A couple of years ago, that play was all but unstoppable - because the Cowboys’ offensive line was arguably the best in football. But on this play, there was no Travis Frederick or Zack Martin to dig the defensive tackles out of Elliott’s way. Instead, the middle of the line was Xavier Su’a-Filo, Joe Looney, and Connor Williams. They pretty much collapsed against the middle of the Colts’ defense, and the play was dead.
In looking at the video, there might have been a way to make that work by having Dak keep the ball and running wide to the right. A different blocking scheme might have given him a wall to run to the pylon, or at least get the single yard needed to extend the drive. The tight ends have been blocking much better of late, and certainly couldn’t have done worse than the interior of the line. Linehan made the “safe” call, with a patchwork line to get it done, and Dallas paid the price.
This further illustrates another problem for Linehan. He continues to go back to plays that worked in the past, even though they have not in recent games. The clearest example is how often on third down, he sends four receivers just deep enough to get a first, then has all of them turn back toward Prescott. Every team out there has seen this over and over, and figured out how to defend it. That is why Cooper scored a 75-yard touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles a week ago. He persuaded Prescott to change his route, and the Eagles were caught with their pants down.
Linehan should have learned something there, but he didn’t. Instead, he keeps going back to things that the defense expects. The compressed space in the red zone seems to just add to the issues. When you have less space to defend and a pretty good idea where the receivers and running back are likely to go, it is just easier to get in position to stop the play.
What might work in the red zone is staying away from tightly bunched formations that scream running play. Go out with formations that could be a run or a pass. Incorporate Prescott’s mobility in the plan. Remarkably, the Cowboys decided to not use Prescott’s running ability at all against the Colts because they thought they could run the ball without it. Why leave your second best rushing weapon out of the plan because the first option is better? Matt Eberflus had to have seen that they were not utilizing Prescott’s legs and adjusted accordingly.
Linehan has been accused of being too conservative, and the evidence is pretty damning. He will pull an unexpected move or two out early when things are still in hand, but when things get tight, he still seems to revert most often to a handful of plays everyone has seen countless times before. The book on him has been written for a long time, and it is in boldface and highlighted. If he can somehow shake things up, the red zone issues might get markedly better.
But speaking of marks, there is an old saying about leopards and spots. Linehan may just be too old a cat, too set in his ways.