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Why coaching could be the real key to the Cowboys 2018 season

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Sudden health problems for the offensive line are just the latest challenge for Jason Garrett and his assistants.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that escalated quickly.

A couple of weeks ago, hopes for the Dallas Cowboys this season were founded to a great degree on re-establishing the dominance of their offensive line, anchored of course by the three All-Pros, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. Now, two of those three pillars face health issues. Martin is uncertain for the season opener against the Carolina Panthers after the (apparently minor) injury to his knee against the Cincinnati Bengals. Frederick’s status for the entire season is up in the air after he was diagnoses with Guillain Barre Syndrome. He remains optimistic he will play at some point this season, but barring a truly remarkable rebound, he is probably going to miss at least a few games, and putting him on IR with the opportunity to bring him back is one option the team will consider.

Thus depression and despair ensue for Cowboys fans everywhere. Just look at the line the team was using in practice, with Smith (up to now the O linemen with the most health concerns) taking one of his off days to manage his back.

One tweak to Smith in practice, and this could be a reality in a regular season game. Or, maybe it could be even worse.

La’el Collins turned out to be okay.

That offensive line lineup noted above is not expected, of course, but no one expected to see Martin and Frederick both questionable to start the season, either. And there was absolutely no way anyone could have seen a rare auto-immune disease strike Frederick. Now we have to wonder just what kind of a season the Cowboys will have. Many NFL teams have overcome injuries to go into the playoffs and even win Super Bowls (like the Philadelphia Eagles), but there is no faith that Jason Garrett can do the coaching job to get it done for Dallas.

Or did you forget? This is nothing new. It is a very similar script to what happened to the Cowboys in 2016. When Jason Garrett and his staff lost their starting quarterback, the one player everyone knew they could not survive without, and then won 13 games behind a fourth-round rookie QB. It resulted in this.

NFL

The names are different, but the issue is still the same: A player (or players) that the team was depending on to lead the way this season is now out. We don’t know for how long, so somehow the coaching staff have to work through things.

It’s a good thing they have a head coach who proved his ability to do just that.

That last sentence is one that may have just resulted in some devices getting hurled across the room, because there is no shortage of Jason Garrett detractors out there. But this is exactly why Garrett is so trusted by Jerry Jones. The owner/GM knows exactly what Garrett did two seasons ago in turning Dak Prescott into the rookie sensation he became. He probably thinks that last season was at least partly attributable to the off-field circus surrounding the Ezekiel Elliott suspension and court fight. So, with some changes needed, the team elected to keep the guys at the top of the coaching staff and replace some who were not thought to be part of the solution going forward, along with a voluntary departure or two.

And if things work out and Dallas gets back into the playoffs, that newly remodeled coaching staff is likely to be the reason why. Here are some key tasks facing them.

Find a way to make the offensive line work and keep Dak and Zeke from getting killed

Suddenly, a somewhat overlooked hire, offensive line coach Paul Alexander, may be the most important man on the staff. He will be tasked with getting the most out of players like Joe Looney, Kadeem Edwards (gulp), Cam Fleming, and Chaz Green (just shoot me now), as well as bringing along rookie Connor Williams. He also will help integrate any new linemen brought in.

While they seem to be dropping like 300 pound flies right now, the team hopefully won’t be totally without talent, as Smith is healthy. And don’t expect to see him play against the Arizona Cardinals, either. With all the damage done to the line, it would be absurd to risk the last healthy starter from last season. It’s time to give up on the whole “dress rehearsal” idea, and turn this over to the backups and camp bodies.

The task of getting the offense to work is not just on Alexander, of course. Scott Linehan has to develop a game plan that relies less on sterling blocking up front and uses the mobility of his quarterback plus some inventive and unpredictable play calls to find yards. He was able to help Prescott succeed behind a healthy line, but this is obviously a different and likely bigger challenge. And with the running game now more of a challenge, he also has to make sure that defenses cannot just disregard the pass and key in on stopping Elliott.

Which means the wide receivers have to come through

The concerns in the wake of releasing Dez Bryant was about who would become WR1 now. The team trotted out the idea that there would be a committee approach, where the defenses would not know where the ball was going just by looking at who was on the field. That is more important than ever. Prescott is going to need receivers who are open in a hurry and where he expects them to be, because he is not going to be surveying the field from a pocket as wide and empty as the plains of Texas any more. He is going to have to make a quick read and get the ball out of his hand before he gets mashed.

That is why Sanjay Lal may wind up as the most valuable coach on this roster. He has been drilling route discipline and timing into his receivers, plus catching the ball any time it is even close to on target. The reports out of camp certainly sound like this is working, and there have been few dropped balls in the preseason games, especially when the players who are expected to make the roster are on the field. Lal has even been working with tight end Blake Jarwin to improve his receiving skills (something that would be a good idea for all the TEs, to be honest).

If the passing game is impotent, opponents will just stack the box and shut Zeke down. And if that happens, the Dallas O is DOA.

They’re gonna need some help from the defense

Fortunately, that is looking a lot more likely than in recent seasons. While there are still depth concerns in the secondary, the front seven looks absolutely loaded. The starters have seen limited action in preseason so far (and should see even less going forward), but the first two opponents just haven’t been able to do anything against them. The pass rush is shaping up to be scary and the linebackers are impressive, especially when Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith are side-by-side. And despite the issues for the defensive backs, Chidobe Awuzie and Byron Jones look to be a very effective pair of corners.

Kris Richard is the passing game coordinator, and there is a suspicion that he is going to be carrying more of the load than Rod Marinelli. However the responsibilities shake out, those two have the job of stopping the other team and getting some turnovers to help their offense. With a plus five turnover margin so far in preseason, there are signs of hope for that.

It remains important to keep calm and carry on

In times of stress, it is crucial to keep an NFL locker room focused, united, on target, and positive. There may be no coach that has a better handle on how to do that than Jason Garrett. No matter the W-L record during his tenure, there has not been even a whiff of losing the locker room. There have been a handful of since-departed players that seemed unhappy with his leadership - but they also seem to have been outsiders in a sense. Dez Bryant himself pointed fingers at “Garrett’s guys” for playing a role in his departure. But unwittingly, he revealed just how strong Garrett’s support is, because in the end it seemed that the entire team was with the coach in the messy divorce.

This, not Xs and Os, is where Garrett makes a difference. If the team does put together a winning season, he will deserve credit - more than he is likely to get.

Meanwhile, how much will you really be able to hang on the coaches?

Despite the sudden rush of injuries, concentrated in one unit (which just compounds things), I remain fairly optimistic that this team can find a way. But if I’m wrong, if things just don’t go well, would that be justification for cleaning house with the coaches?

This is not going to be a popular view for many, but if, for instance, the Cowboys see Frederick miss extended time, plus at least one other of the starting line from last season, then even another one of the hated .500 records might be enough to get Garrett and company another shot at things. It is not the coaches’ fault that the team got caught short along the O line, or at safety, or may not have many proven pass catchers.

That is on Jerry and Stephen Jones, who make the decisions on how to spend those cap dollars and who to try and sign from outside the team when holes develop. They also likely played a role in the Chaz Green experiment last season, which may have ruined him.

The coaching staff now has to overcome the issues that have presented themselves, and they didn’t cause those issues. If they succeed, then they deserve credit for the job they do. And if they don’t, then you have to ask if they just were not able to overcome things. That seems to have been how last year was addressed, and it could be again, depending on how things go. However, it may finally be the year there are no excuses, and a poor showing could lead to a new head coach.

But hopefully it won’t come to that, we will see the O line come back together sooner rather than later, and the team will be more like what we were hoping for. One way or another, this year is going to depend on the coaching as much as anything.