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Dallas Cowboys coaching spotlight: Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan

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The next part of this series focuses on the embattled offensive play-caller, who needs something special to happen this year.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-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. 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 play-caller that many fans probably still hold accountable for the 2017 season, Scott Linehan. Be sure to check out our other profiles below:

Jason Garrett


Scott Linehan will be entering his fifth year with the Dallas Cowboys, which many thought impossible at the conclusion of the 2017 season. The Cowboys’ offense regressed significantly when Ezekiel Elliott missed six games for suspension, scoring only 22 points through the first three games before getting into a groove again. That three-game stretch turned into three of Dallas’ seven total losses, a losing streak that severely jeopardized their playoff hopes. Granted, All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith was also injured for those three games, and any time you’re missing an All Pro left tackle and the reigning rushing champion, your offense is going to regress. Still, with the likes of Darren McFadden, Rod Smith, and Alfred Morris at backup running back, along with the rest of the offensive talent available to Dak Prescott, Linehan should have done better.

Then, when Elliott did return for a must-win game against the Seahawks, the offense looked as stale as it did in the three-game losing streak. Elliott started out strong, with Linehan feeding him the ball, and a dominant defensive performance put Dallas in great position to win. However, their offense couldn’t convert red zone trips to touchdowns, settling for four field goals throughout the entire game. Prescott had two interceptions, and two rare misses from Dan Bailey on field goals cemented the loss. What was most egregious, though, was late in the game when Dallas had the ball on 1st and goal. Rather than giving the ball to Elliott and trusting him to run behind the Great Wall of Dallas for a touchdown, Linehan dialed up three consecutive pass plays, and none of them scored. The next week, Linehan’s offense put up a measly six points against the Eagles backups.

For better or worse, Linehan has returned for 2018 after a quick makeover to his offensive staff. He was already on the hot seat before being retained, and his seat hasn’t cooled off one bit since.

But if there’s anything Linehan is good at, it’s adapting to change. As the offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions from 2009-2013, his gameplan largely revolved around having Matt Stafford throw to Calvin Johnson. If Johnson wasn’t open, throw to him anyway. If he really wasn’t open, throw to someone else. Only run when Stafford’s arm needed a rest. While simple and one-dimensional, this strategy worked very, very well.

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

When Linehan came to Dallas, though, he looked at a road-grading offensive line and DeMarco Murray and decided to call a run-first offense. It worked like a charm, and his offense ranked seventh in the nation with the second-best rushing attack. Even in 2015, when Linehan was dealing with Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden as his starting quarterbacks and having lost Murray in free agency, Dallas had the ninth best rushing attack. In both 2016 and 2017, Linehan’s offenses have been the second-best rushing attack behind Elliott. The magical rookie year of Prescott elevated the 2016 offense to fifth best overall, while 2017 was 14th in the nation. This adaptation in focus between Detroit and Dallas is notable, as most coaches hold fast to their scheme and are hesitant to alter their approach. This is no doubt something Linehan learned from Nick Saban, who he worked under from 2005-2006 in Miami; Linehan also worked with Jason Garrett at that time.

Linehan is seemingly making another adaptation in 2018, as the buzz this offseason has been about creating a more Dak-friendly offense. While Linehan will undoubtedly still run the ball first and foremost, the passing attack is likely changing to a receiver-by-committee approach that prioritizes the ability to get open over speed, size, and athleticism. A return to the 2016 offense would be welcome for Linehan, and might hush many of his doubters. Yet, with the changes at receiver and tight end, as well as the addition of receiver-turned-running back Tavon Austin, there should be some new wrinkles as well. Furthermore, the changes he has made to his offensive staff - specifically the addition of new receivers coach Sanjay Lal - indicate a full commitment to rectifying last year’s issues with new, fresh ideas.

While Linehan has shown a willingness to change schemes to fit his talent, he has shown a lack of ability to make in-game adjustments. We all remember the Chaz Green game against Atlanta last year, and the reluctance to take out the struggling tackle until the fourth quarter was an indictment of both Garrett and Linehan. Furthermore, Linehan declined to put a tight end next to Green on most plays to help out with blocking Adrian Clayborn. The closest he came to an adjustment in that game was a HB screen to the left, but the pass was dropped. In 2014 and 2016, Linehan never needed to make these kinds of adjustments because the offensive line was so stout. It still is, but injuries are something a coach absolutely must adapt to. In 2018, keeping all five of their offensive linemen on the field for all 16 games, along with Elliott, is the main key to success for Linehan. If he is asked to make changes on the fly, though, things can go off the rails pretty quickly.

This weakness may be what separates Linehan from the top tier of coaches, and there are certainly those who think America’s Team should have all the top tier coaches and not settle for mediocrity. While that’s a good mindset to have, Linehan was kept on the staff for a reason. After a less than successful tenure as the St Louis Rams head coach, Linehan was labeled as soft and unwilling to discipline players, specifically because of players like Torry Holt berating him on the sideline. Linehan may be a very reserved personality, much like the public persona of Garrett, but his time in Dallas has been markedly better than in St Louis. For starters, the players actually like him. The only player to ever really confront him in public has been Dez Bryant, who apparently would confront everyone and anyone for better or worse. Garrett likes Linehan, but more importantly, so does Prescott:

“I have 120 percent belief in [Linehan], 200 percent belief in him,” Prescott said. “He [deserves] a lot of credit for my success in this league. Everything that I’ve done, teaching the game, breaking the game down. I’m not into all the speculation and things like that. I hope he’s here. I hope we figure it out. He means a lot to me.”

The reasons why Linehan is still here are clear: he’s had success before in Dallas and he’s liked by influential members of the club. Keep in mind that prior to losing both Smith and Elliott, Linehan’s offense was averaging a respectable 28 points per game. While he’s had missing-personnel-related bumps along the way, his offenses in 2014 and 2016 are proof that he can be a serviceable, if not outstanding, offensive coordinator. However, if Linehan can’t recapture the magic, Jerry Jones might be looking for a new offensive coordinator soon.