It was time to get out the pitchforks and torches after the Dallas Cowboys lost the season opener to the Carolina Panthers. And for most of the unruly mob, the primary targets of their ire were head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Rod Marinelli’s defense played well, at least well enough that the game was winnable with even a moderately competent offensive effort throughout. But the offense never got on track until they went with a hurry-up approach in the fourth quarter, and that was too little, too late, to coin a phrase.
The complaints were all too familiar. The play-calling was predictable and lacked innovation, the offense was not properly prepared for the Panthers’ respected defense, and the adjustments, while they did show up, were not sufficient and were untimely. After a major overhaul of both the assistant coaching ranks and the offensive roster, particularly the receiving corps, the “new look” offense landed with a splat normally heard in cattle pastures. Obviously, the HC and OC have to go.
Let me take a controversial stand: It isn’t nearly as obvious as the hot takes in social media would have it.
Our own Dave Halprin came to a similar conclusion in his post on charting all the drives in the game.
As for the offense and trying new stuff, they certainly did that. They ran more screens to a variety of positions, they mixed up their running game much more than usual, they tried some misdirection, they utilized different formations including bunch formations and empty-set backfields. It wasn’t the same ol’ Cowboys. Was it the right stuff? That’s up for debate, if the players would have executed better we would have a better idea. I’m not here to defend Scott Linehan, I have my own issues with him. But after watching this game in detail, the execution by the players was a huge factor in how things played out. As mentioned towards the beginning of this article, there may have been other things Linehan could have used that would have been more effective. He certainly shoulders some of the blame.
But we are, after all, a Cowboys site, and some would claim that is just homerism. So here are a couple of tweets from an outsider who also saw things much the same.
Man I really like blaming Garrett and Linehan for everything, but in this first half the offense they called was actually fine. Nothing down the field but it really was just execution failure. That's not as much fun as blaming Garrett. Dangit.— Jeff Cavanaugh (@JC1053) September 12, 2018
Proper blame for first half offensive grossness via me after tape:— Jeff Cavanaugh (@JC1053) September 12, 2018
42% Offensive line/penalties by offensive line
41% Dak Prescott
Note that none of these takes completely exonerate the coaches. But they put more of the blame on a real and very noticeable lack of execution.
That is partly on the coaches too, of course, but even there, not all of it was on them. As noted in this post about a lesson we learned from the game:
While some of the lack of preseason work was a matter of choice, such as limiting Dak and Tyron to avoid potential injury, there were unavoidable things that contributed. Travis Frederick’s Guillain-Barre Syndrome thrust Looney into the starting job, and Martin’s knee injury kept him from working beside Looney much (if at all) before the first game. I am not certain, but it is likely that the starting lineup against the Panthers did not have one snap together prior to lining up against one of the best defensive front sevens in the league.
The main thing is that the obvious errors by the players muddy the waters badly. We don’t know if the play calls were really that bad if the play was DOA because of a missed blocking assignment or Dak Prescott holding the ball too long when he had an open receiver.
This is just more evidence that the coming game against the New York Giants is going to be extremely important. And how the Cowboys respond to that challenge will certainly give us more data that will make conclusions about Garrett and Linehan more valid. They have the game prep and practices this week to identify and fix things, both in how the players perform on the field and how they use those players. If the Cowboys lose the game, which would put them dead last in the NFC East no matter how the rest of the division fares, then the calls for their replacement at the end of the season (or, if things go into a real death spiral, before) will have more credence than they do now. But if the team comes back and gets a win, then in all fairness the coaches deserve some credit. And the margin of victory or defeat will have an effect on just how loud the calls for their replacement should justly be.
Overreaction is just a part of life for a fan base. A win lifts the spirits, while a loss brings sackcloth and ashes. Patience is hard, especially in a sport where there are only sixteen chances to get into the win column. With one game down and the L already here, the pressure is on early. The players still have to do their part, and that includes everyone on the offense. But motivation and direction from the coaches play a role there, too.
This week’s contest is a bit of a litmus test. We’ll be looking at it with more than a touch of trepidation. And all who are fans of Dallas should be hoping that the coaches pass, no matter what our personal feelings are about them.