It has been a whirlwind of an offseason for the Dallas Cowboys. It started with the gutting and remodeling of the assistant coaches. Then free agency wound up looking a lot more effective than in recent years. A couple of stunners came with the departures of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Add in what is looking like a quality draft and the very preliminary indications from the just concluded rookie minicamp, and this is shaping up to be a significantly different team than we saw last year.
It is very much a real shift in direction from last offseason, when the watchword was continuity. It made sense at the time, given the surprising success of the team with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, but things ran off the rails quickly. Some damaging suspensions, the drawn-out and draining court fight to try and overturn Elliott’s six game penalty, key injuries, and a spectacular failure in trying to make Chaz Green into a guard that also ruined him, at least for the season, as a tackle, combined to keep the team out of the playoffs. Many thought that the evident failure to build on the previous year would lead to the dismissal of head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, but the ownership elected to keep them. Skeptics and critics feel that what was done is not really enough. But a look at the big picture shows just how different things really are.
This may not be so apparent when you focus on the various moves individually, but here is a look at some of the more significant things collectively to paint a picture of an organization that has indeed undergone real change.
The departure of the two major stars.
It still seems hard to get our arms around a Cowboys team without Bryant and Witten. But as has been covered so extensively, their departure opened up a lot of new possibilities for the offense. The acquisition of Tavon Austin is the most intriguing part of that, along with the idea that it is not going to be nearly as easy for defenses to figure out just where the ball is going when Prescott is throwing. As the Amazon series “All or Nothing” documented, both Bryant and Witten had a lot of influence on the coaching staff - perhaps too much. While we always must take what winds up edited into a series like that with a large grain of salt, it is certainly something to take into consideration.
And there are some other benefits for Dallas, including the next one.
Linehan can get back to his strengths.
One of the biggest complaints last year was about the predictability of the offense. That was laid squarely on the shoulders of Linehan, but there is another way to look at things. Last year may have been more an aberration, along with some difficulties in transitioning to the post-Tony Romo era. A couple of things that popped up on Twitter last weekend serve as reminders of what Linehan is capable of.
Ezekiel Elliott. pic.twitter.com/Yj6kVTnvdX— COWBOYS (@AmericasTeam_21) May 12, 2018
Staple of Linehan for atleast 5 years lol pic.twitter.com/Cxb7M1XCG7— #OptimisticJoey (@JoeyIckes) May 13, 2018
Now the Cowboys have not only Zeke to run plays like that, but Austin as well. And while it may just be me, there is a sneaking suspicion that the acquisition of Jamize Olawale may lead to another wrinkle here. He was used at times to get big chunks of yardage while he was with the Oakland Raiders, and in the backfield with either Elliott or Austin, could easily get lost by the defense and bust a big one.
That is just one example. Add in Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup, and maybe Cedrick Wilson, and Linehan has a variety of ways to attack. The lack of proven ability at tight end is still an issue, but the Cowboys may be able to overcome that by not having to use one on every passing down.
It remains to be seen, but there is certainly reason for optimism.
The new coaches are already having an impact.
It didn’t take new passing game coordinator Kris Richard long to win over his immediate boss.
Rod Marinelli said adding Kris Richard to the coaching staff might be the best acquisition the Cowboys made this offseason. “This guy’s special...You know that ‘it’? He’s got ‘it.’”— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) May 11, 2018
And a quick look at the rookie DBs (all UDFAs) at the rookie minicamp shows the influence Richard has already had on the personnel department. All are long, fitting the template he had when he was the architect of the Legion of Boom for the Seattle Seahawks. Now he also has the second year DBs that did so well as rookies last year to mold. This is flat out exciting.
Richard is not the only one. New receivers coach Sanjay Lal was focusing on route running with the rookies, something that you can expect will carry over when OTAs get underway. As Linehan has remarked, the team is not focused on making things “Dak-friendly”.
“When you play well and you execute and do the things that you’re supposed to do, that’s a quarterback friendly offense, right?” Linehan said. “So I think it’s a fun narrative term or whatever, but I think ‘Dak-friendly,’ ‘Cooper [Rush]-friendly,’ ‘Mike White-friendly,’ all quarterbacks is an offense that executes and does its job when we call upon them.”
There is another new assistant that has a major role to play, but has been somewhat overlooked. That is offensive line coach Paul Alexander. He is tasked with re-establishing the dominance of the Cowboys line, including molding projected starting left guard Connor Williams. He is known for his ability to tailor his coaching to the strengths of his players. Developing Williams, and continuing the progress of La’el Collins, are a couple of crucial tasks. If he is successful, everything is better in Dallas.
So far, the distractions are missing.
“All or Nothing” also showed just how much of a weight the prolonged court fight was on Zeke’s shoulders. Now that is gone, and so far (knock madly on wood), there have been no other suspensions handed down for Dallas.
The Cowboys have managed to control that which they can. The Bryant situation, while it could have been handled better in some ways, was concluded early enough that it will not be a problem off the field. DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving are back in the fold for at least another year, keeping the suddenly much more effective pass rush alive. The only thing on the radar at the moment is the expected application of Randy Gregory for reinstatement. Hopefully that will be resolved quickly, one way or another, and not become another festering Roger Goodell sore.
Cap issues may be a thing of the past.
This is something that is flying a bit under the radar (although we do try to point these things out), but with the release of Orlando Scandrick and the departure of Bryant and Witten, Dallas is suddenly in great cap shape. Currently, they have over $5 million in space, and that roughly doubles June 1, when Scandrick’s money hits the cap. That should be enough for any last minute signings, with all the draftees except third rounder Michael Gallup already signed and accounted for. (All figures from Over the Cap.)
And then it just enters into unknown territory. In 2019, Dallas is projected to have over $66 million in space. That puts them in the top five of all NFL teams. We simply don’t know what it will be like for the Cowboys to operate with that much room to work with. Let’s just say that long-term deals with Lawrence, Zack Martin, Prescott (eventually), and possibly Irving are easily done, with plenty left over if the team should decide that maybe it is time for a big-dollar free agent to be added.
No more “kicking the can down the road”. Just put the pedal to the medal and cruise.
All these are things that are very, even radically different than they were just a few months ago. It is a new day in Dallas. That doesn’t mean that this will finally be the year for a playoff run.
But the chances seem much, much better.