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Three ways the Cowboys coaching staff must improve in 2018

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It wasn’t just the players on the field who struggled in 2017 for the Cowboys.

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Dallas Cowboys v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

My mother used to tell me “the biggest room in the world is the room for self improvement”. Well, we all know the Cowboys’ have a rather large version of the self improvement room after the team’s disappointing 2017 season.

The fallout from that unsatisfying performance was a thorough overhaul of the position coaches. Out were Wade Wilson, Derek Dooley, Steve Loney, Frank Pollack, Matt Eberflus, Joe Baker and Rich Bisaccia. In their places came Kellen Moore, Sanjay Lal, Kris Richard, Paul Alexander, Doug Nussmeier, Keith O’Quinn and Ben Bloom.

That’s a huge change in the coaching ranks and yet the head coach and both coordinators remain the same. Can the new blood can breath some new thinking into the group as a whole? Specifically, improvement is needed in three areas the coaching staff did not handled well.

Play the players who play the best

The best sports franchises don’t anoint players with playing time. Instead, every player competes to earn their role on the team. While the Cowboys talk a good game in this area their actions simply don’t support their message. Let’s look at several examples where the Cowboys stubbornly stuck with a preferred player who had clearly been outperformed by another player.

  1. Chaz Green at left guard over Jonathan Cooper. The left guard position was allegedly an open competition between Green, Cooper and Byron Bell. Observers seemed unanimous in their opinion that of the three Cooper had performed the best throughout the offseason, in training camp and in preseason action. And yet the Cowboys insisted on starting Chaz Green. Within weeks Green was (predictably) injured and replaced by Cooper, who quickly claimed the starting spot by, again, performing better.
  2. Kellen Moore at backup quarterback over Cooper Rush. The Cowboys’ long-term fascination with the cerebral but poor performing Kellen Moore had baffled Cowboys’ watchers for years. The bewilderment only grew during the 2017 preseason. On the one hand, free agent rookie Cooper Rush took the offense by storm when given a chance, compiling a 136 quarterback rating while tossing six touchdowns and zero interceptions. He was electric. Moore, meanwhile, was wholly ineffective. He managed one touchdown and one interception, fumbled away a touchdown and compiled a 75 passer rating. By any measurement Rush was clearly better than Moore at playing the position. And yet the Cowboys stubbornly clung to Moore. At one point the team exposed Moore to be picked up for any other team while protecting Rush while at the same time having Moore second on the depth chart, ahead of Rush. It made no sense. Midway through the season the Cowboys coaches finally gave in to the obvious and officially made Rush the backup quarterback.
  3. Jeff Heath as starting safety over... everyone else. Heath was simply given the starting safety position after four seasons as an adequate backup. Many were uncomfortable with this and there was speculation one of the rookies such as Xavier Woods or Chidobie Awuzie could potentially take his place. Heath didn’t play well through the early part of the season.

In fact, a certain someone detailed how Heath was making virtually no plays relative to the number of snaps he was seeing.

Woods, meanwhile, played well in his limited opportunities. A more flexible coaching staff likely would have reduced Heath’s snap count but the Cowboys basically put him out there every snap of the season.

The issue with these situations is the coaching staff seems to have made up their mind who the better player was, and tried to justify their decision by giving the player playing time. There’s two significant drawbacks to this approach:

  1. An inferior player is on the field.
  2. The message being sent to players “competing” for playing time.

Imagine being in Jonathan Cooper’s shoes (or Ronald Leary’s in 2016, when the same thing happened to him behind La’el Collins); you know you’ve performed better; everyone else knows you’ve performed better and yet the playing time is going to the lesser player. What motivation is there to improve? Every player up and down the roster sees what’s happening and there’s a collective realization that playing time isn’t awarded based upon merit but instead some nebulous “who the coaches like” factor.

That is not a winning environment. The coaches need to nurture a competitive environment at every position where those who perform the best earn time on the field and things like draft status and contract situation isn’t determining who gets to play.

Put players in the best position to succeed

This goes hand-in-hand with the first area of improvement. The Cowboys have repeatedly struggled to find where best to play many of their players. Byron Jones is the poster child of this confusion. Despite entering his fourth season in 2018 the team still isn’t sure if he’s a safety or a cornerback. He spent the bulk of 2017 at safety but by the end of the season saw his snap counts being taken by Kavon Frazier and Xavier Woods. Now it looks as if the team will move him back to cornerback next season.

It’s bewildering that a team that spent a first-round draft pick on Jones and has had him on the team for three full seasons doesn’t know where he should be playing. Other players who’ve suffered similar confusion include La’el Collins, Tyrone Crawford, David Irving and seemingly half the secondary. Chidobie Awuzie is going to play corner in 2018 but there’s been talk of him playing safety. Jourdan Lewis spent 2017 playing the outside corner position but going into 2018 is being looked at an inside slot defender.

Yes, position flex can have its value. Some could argue that having David Irving available at either end or tackle enables the team to exploit match-ups. But the constant shuffling of players from position to position looks less like an effective strategy and more like a confused coaching staff. Let’s hope the new coaching staff figures out where each player can best succeed.

Be aggressive

The ever insightful Bob Sturm did a typical deep dive recently, looking at how head coach Jason Garrett approaches fourth down. He came away finding what we’ve all known for a long time: Garrett is ultra conservative:

Zero times Garrett has been aggressive on fourth down. Give Garrett credit for having a firm commitment to his fourth down approach; you don’t see the team confused about when they’ll go for it or not. Basically if the ball is past mid-field, and short of the 30-yard line, and the team needs less-than-two yards the team goes for it. The offense knows it and simply lines up and runs the play; there’s no confusion, no uncertainty, no looking to the sidelines for guidance. That’s good.

But the rigid, unyielding lack of aggressiveness to fourth downs in general is a terrible indictment on Garrett’s faith in his team and understanding of simple math. The reason Pederson has been given huge kudos for being “unconventional” is he simply listened to what the stat nerds have been saying for years and years: your chances of winning improve by a noteworthy margin by being more aggressive on fourth down.

Of course Garrett’s conservative approach isn’t limited to his fourth down strategies. He employs conservative play-calling and conservative game-plans. Worse, he’s conservative in adapting to evolving in-game situations (such as your backup left tackle performing about as well as a traffic cone protecting your quarterback).

Whenever my mother would use her “biggest room in the world” quote on me it often seemed trite, but it also made me think. I hope this coaching staff is doing some serious self-evaluation and looking to improve in these key areas.