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Dallas Cowboys coaching spotlight: Offensive line coach Paul Alexander

After 24 years with the Bengals, he’s coming to the Cowboys to fortify the Great Wall of Dallas.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2017 season ended, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett decided to make some wholesale changes to the structure of the Dallas Cowboys to avoid another disappointment, if 9-7 can really be called a disappointment. While offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli both remained with the team, much of the staff around them has changed. This series is meant to profile each coach, including the ones who stayed, and analyze how their presence will contribute to the 2018 Dallas Cowboys. Today, we are looking at the newest engineer of the Great Wall of Dallas, Paul Alexander. Be sure to check out our other profiles below:

Jason Garrett
Scott Linehan
Kellen Moore
Gary Brown
Sanjay Lal
Kyle Valero
Doug Nussmeier

Among the many changes made to the offensive staff this offseason, perhaps the most surprising was the decision to fire offensive line coach Frank Pollack and replace him with longtime Bengals assistant head coach/offensive line coach Paul Alexander. Pollack had been the assistant offensive line coach under Bill Callahan, and when Callahan left the club, Pollack was promoted in favor of continuity among Dallas’ dominant line.

However, that continuity resulted in regression for the offensive line in 2017. In addition, the left guard spot was a constant question mark that Pollack never found a legitimate answer to. This is not to say the Cowboys’ line was bad; in fact, they were still a top 5 unit in 2017, but the production was below standards. Thus, a change was made.

Alexander has been with the Cincinnati Bengals somehow longer than Marvin Lewis; he began coaching the offensive line in 1994. In 2003, when Lewis became the head coach, Alexander added assistant head coach responsibilities. Throughout this time, Alexander has coached up some really talented offensive linemen. His long list of players under his tree include Willie Anderson, Levi Jones, Andrew Whitworth, Nate Livings, Anthony Collins, Evan Mathis, Andre Smith, Clint Boling, Kevin Zeitler, Russell Bodine, among others. Quite a list, indeed.

With a résumé like that, it’s not hard to see why the Cowboys thought he’d be an upgrade over Pollack. However, in the past few years, Alexander has been running a man blocking scheme in Cincinnati. There were obvious reasons for this, as Whitworth, Smith, Boling, and Zeitler all were ideal man blocking linemen. Still, this brought concern to many Cowboys fans considering Dallas has found significant success with their offensive line from running the zone blocking scheme that Callahan taught. It’s a schematic preference that has become very ingrained in Dallas, even encompassing the way that they run the ball and how Dak Prescott handles pressure. Would Alexander, a man blocking kind of guy, try to fix something that ain’t broke? Or would he coach a technique he doesn’t currently coach?

First of all, the assertion that Alexander can’t coach a zone blocking scheme is overblown. It’s a perfectly fair conclusion to make, given how many coaches in the NFL are set in their schemes and are generally reluctant to make wholesale changes, but Alexander has been coaching offensive lines for 24 years. You don’t coach for that long with that much success without learning something other than your specific way of doing things. Furthermore, Willie Anderson took to Twitter to explain why Alexander would be perfect for the Cowboys:

Coming from one of Alexander’s most impressive players, this is high praise that should quell doubts about the coach’s ability to adapt to his player’s strengths. Alexander is a student of the game, and is more than willing to do whatever works best for his players. As Anderson puts it, Alexander is “willing to learn [his] players.” Alexander knows that he’s getting three All-Pro linemen, a budding star in La’el Collins, and a rookie who could be the next big thing in Connor Williams; more importantly, he knows all these guys work best in a zone blocking scheme, and that the rest of the offense thrives when these linemen are doing their thing.

Though Alexander’s presence isn’t merely a case of doing what’s worked before. He’s always challenging his players and getting them to try new things, whether it’s different angles with their hands, different block forms, or just different looks from the defense. Alexander has talked about how much he loves challenging the Cowboys linemen so far in OTA practices:

“On different blocks, I’m saying, ‘OK, you’ve done it this way, let’s try it this way and you tell me what you like better,’” he said. “The young guys, (it’s) ‘No, you’re doing it this way.’ But some of the guys who have been really successful, I’m going to take that away from the guy. That’s kind of the approach we’ve had. It’s been great. I love the meetings. They’re smart. They know how to play. They work really hard.”

The players, specifically Frederick, have also been responding well to Alexander’s coaching style:

“Coach Alexander’s a really smart guy. You can tell that he’s been doing this for a long time,” Frederick said. “He continues to try and teach us those things that he’s bringing in, just trying to give us new tools for our toolbox and help some of these younger guys get up to speed.”

Head coach Jason Garrett has also been impressed with the work Alexander has been doing since arriving in Dallas:

“He’s really an interesting guy because he’s been in one place for a long time, but he’s worked with a lot of different coordinators,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. “So he’s been exposed to a lot of different schemes in football, a lot of different techniques. So he really has a broad range of knowledge about this position. He’s a really, really good teacher.”

What’s more than that is that Alexander has taken up unique ways of teaching the linemen different techniques to improve their skills. Alexander brought in Willie Anderson for a few days of OTA practices to work with guys like Tyron Smith on technique, a move that should not only leave an impression on these players but also give them firsthand input from a former great lineman.

Alexander is a smart guy, and he likes smart linemen.

I’m an Offensive Line Coach. I coach the big, fat guys, and I love them. Offensive linemen need to be the smartest, most cohesive group on the football field because they are responsible for the combinations of problems that eleven coordinated defenders can cause. In football, there are eleven defenders and eight gaps that they can charge. Assuming each man can choose one gap, there are 437,514 possible defensive alignments that the offensive line must deal with. Football strategy can be complicated much like an advanced level math problem. Offensive linemen and their coaches seek to solve complex problems with simple solutions.”

It would seem that Alexander is very much focused on doing what is simplest and most likely to produce positive results for this offensive line group. Any concerns about him bringing a new blocking scheme to Dallas should be gone by now, and there should instead be cause for optimism about his presence here. He has connected with his players and is challenging them in new ways to make them better. The offensive line was definitely not a weakness, but with Alexander bringing his 24 years of experience to this unit, the Great Wall of Dallas should reach new heights in 2018.

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