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Cowboys hot topic: Fixing the offense

Everyone is firing off silver bullets, but this requires a different approach.

Dallas Cowboys v Seattle Seahawks
These guys are just one thing that needs work.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

A cursory look around social media gives the impression that many or even most fans have given up on the Dallas Cowboys. In particular, they have abandoned all hope that the offense can work. The bulk of the blame seems to be directed at Scott Linehan, with Jason Garrett as his accomplice. Those who don’t focus on the coaches are blasting quarterback Dak Prescott for not being who we thought he was at all, with a nod to the lack of anyone who can catch the ball on the roster.

It raises the question of whether the offense can be fixed at all, especially given that dumping Linehan and/or Garrett to bring in someone new, with their own system, is not likely to work to any extent during the season. But there is also a problem with most of the reactions out there. The BTB staff had a long debate about it, and while we didn’t come to a real consensus, something that Michael Sisemore (the founding host of our Brews and the Boys podcast, check us out, shameless plug now done) put on Twitter hit home, with me at least.

It’s what I saw from watching the game and looking into the stats. The question wasn’t what went wrong. It was what didn’t? (Quick answer: Byron Jones and Leighton Vander Esch).

That’s why you can’t just do one thing, or even a few, to fix the offense (the defense, while having a bad day in some aspects against Seattle, certainly has shown it is capable of good play). It has to be a broad-based approach, encompassing all the issues that have cropped up. Some may be more crucial, or at least have to come first to allow the other things to happen, and it is possible that if the team can get several things right, it doesn’t have to get all of the going equally well to be able to improve. But it does need to work on all of them.

What, exactly? So glad you asked.

First, stop treating coaching and play-calling as a stand-alone issue.

Everything is interrelated, and coaching permeates everything that follows. But just changing the focus during preparation or making different play calls won’t fix things. The players have to take what is done and effectively complete their assignments on the field.

If this seems to imply that the idea that the coaches are failing to prepare the team properly may be wrong, well, that is exactly the point. Based on what came out of training camp, the coaches worked hard on things like pass routes and blocking assignments. It is hard to believe that they have just quit doing those things in weekly practices. Similarly, while the calls for more creativity and different concepts on the field are widespread, if the players are not doing their jobs correctly in the plays that are called, what would lead the coaches to have confidence that they can successfully do something different, especially if it is a lower-percentage play like a deep pass downfield? There are some things that can be done in that department, but other things have to go hand-in-hand.

This is not intended to give a pass to Linehan or anyone else on the staff. It is just to say that even if they get everything right, it can still go awry. There are certainly some other things that have to be addressed first.

It has to start with execution.

No, I’m not referring to the late Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach John McCay’s old joke. This is about the multiple mistakes we saw. Ezekiel Elliott had three major ones, Michael Gallup just gifted what should have been a completion for a first down to Earl Thomas, Prescott certainly had his share of bad throws and poor decision-making, the offensive line, particularly Tyron Smith, was just off, there were defenders that were just left to come free (notably Bobby Wagner to stop Elliott on a third-and-one attempt) - it is a long and depressing list. It returns to a point I have been making since the first game: It is hard to be sure about the efficacy of the play-calling when the plays are blown up by self-inflicted mistakes.

The lack of discipline and focus across the board was depressing. It has to be an emphasis during the practices for the Detroit Lions game - but the players have to take responsibility for fixing these things. And then, you know, they have to actually fix them. It doesn’t matter if Scott Linehan calls absolutely perfect plays if the ball is dropped or fumbled, or the line completely blows their assignments, or Dak misses badly on a throw. All have to be right.

For some, there will be a question about whether they can improve that much. But one case where the improvement should definitely happen is with Zeke. His multiple mistakes were just not what we have seen from him. That has to get better fast.

By unit, the offensive line has to take top priority.

Prescott got beat up. While some of that may fall on him not getting the ball out quickly, there were plays where rushers had a free run at him. Even if he gets the ball out, he still takes the hit - and even if a penalty is called (which should have been on at least one sack), he still has to endure the physical punishment. Better protection for him is the top priority.

The running game got going early, despite plays like the third-and-one stuff mentioned above. Elliott found success, and had the Cowboys not fallen behind by two scores in the first half, that might have been the ticket for the offense later in the game. But Dallas had to go to the pass more and more as time ran out. All the complaints about Zeke not getting enough carries ignore that. Zeke hit his stride, and if he had not made so many mistakes, he would likely have been the hero of the game. He just needs to keep doing the good things.

So the offensive line has to keep up the run blocking it mostly showed last game, while not letting Dak get banged around so much.

Prescott has to be more effective.

He has to hit his passes, and he needs to be more involved in the running game.

Easy to say, but much harder to accomplish. One criticism that emerged from the Seattle Seahawks game was that the team abandoned the read-option plays that Prescott used very effectively a week earlier against the New York Giants. This is one of those times when maybe the critics don’t know as much as they think, however.

In general, the Seahawks did a great job defending the Dallas offense. And while Linehan could likely have come up with more ways to try and counter, such as designed runs for Dak, it was not really bad coaching to try and use what an earlier opponent just couldn’t stop. The NFL is all about matchups. That was the error here, perhaps, not properly anticipating that Seattle would solve that issue and having a backup plan.

We know that given the chance, Prescott can make things happen with his feet. It is what he does with his arm that is the great unknown. He has always had some limitations in his passing repertoire, and opponents have figured out what passes he can and can’t make. So they defend the ones he is good at, and pretty much ignore the rest.

This is an area where the coaches and Prescott have to work together. They have to try some deeper throws. We saw that he can complete a deep ball, even if it was just one. It is time to run some plays with four receivers going deep (at least 20 yards) before hooking or crossing, and one or even two need to keep going. Heave a few up at them, and if you just complete one, you get a big impact play and put that in the defense’s head, the way the Tavon Austin deep play against the Giants did.

The receiving corps has to step up.

Gallup’s drop-turned-into-an-interception was the worst problem, but Prescott needs to have receivers who are open early so he can get the ball away when the pressure comes.

But oddly, hidden in the bad things against the Seahawks was a hint that maybe things are closer to working out here than we thing.

Look at the average and longest completion for five of the receivers:

Geoff Swaim - 9.4, 20

Cole Beasley - 15.3, 18

Deonte Thompson - 11.5, 13

Allen Hurns - 11.0, 12

Michael Gallup - 17.0, 17

The problem wasn’t so much that the receivers weren’t catching the ball. It was that the ball wasn’t coming to them enough. What killed the passing offense was throwing eight times to Elliott, most of them very short (and with him dropping the best chance he had for a decent gain), and only three passes to Austin, all at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Remember what was mentioned about going deep? Here is one for the coaches to work on. Why are you just getting the ball to Austin and Elliott at the line? Run them deep. It may never happen, but I have dreams of seeing Elliott split out wide and running a nine route as the primary target. We already know what Austin can do, so he definitely needs to be sent deep. And why is the team not throwing to Terrance Williams? For that matter, why is he only on the field for running plays, as he was on Sunday? That is what they call a tell in poker. Hey, coaches, this is another one on you. If your personnel grouping and formation always result in the same play, either do something different, or quit using it. Defensive coordinators have this marvelous new technology called video and can see that crap.

Of course, this circles back around to the quarterback. It doesn’t matter how many receivers you send deep if he always checks down to the running back two yards past the line of scrimmage. So there is a definite interplay here.

Meanwhile, Blake Jarwin has been a real disappointment so far, while Swaim at least breathed some life into the TE position. Now let’s go for the shot of adrenaline to the heart and leave Jarwin on the sidelines to put Rico Gathers out there a lot more and, radical idea here, throw him the ball.

What I’ve tried to do here is show how there are some solutions, but they aren’t as simple as player X or coach Y needs to fix it. It is going to take all eleven players, plus the rotational ones, and the coaching staff to work together. There are solutions. Those are complex, which makes it more challenging. However, it is also likely that one or two will click. If the offensive line can buy more time for Prescott while still leading the way on 10 yard Elliott runs, other things may start to fall into place, for instance.

The Cowboys’ season seems to be teetering on the brink again - and it’s only week four. A win over the Lions will at least stave off the negativism a bit, but a loss will lead us to the vortex of despair and anguish fans of the team are so accomplished at attaining.

Let’s hope for the former.

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