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Cowboys point/counterpoint: Is the biggest problem on offense coaching or execution?

A debate on the state of the Cowboys.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching or execution? For the Dallas Cowboys, that has become a raging debate. Is the impotence of the offense due to Scott Linehan’s play calling, in-game strategy, and lack of both adaptability and innovation? Or is it due to the failure of nearly every single player on the offense, with Dak Prescott just not looking like an NFL quarterback, Ezekiel Elliott cramming a season’s worth of bad mistakes into one game, the offensive line letting defenders have a free run, and the receiving corps looking like they are indeed the worst in the league?

If we are trying to be rational about this, it is obviously something that involves a bit of both. But rationality be, um, danged! Michael Strawn and I are going to go all black and white on you as we try to pin down where the biggest share of blame lies.

Tom: Look, concerning the offense, the only reason we are not weeping openly is that this has become a comedy of errors. Dak seems to have about five good throws in him a game. The offensive line is having real issues with Travis Frederick out and things like Tyron Smith just getting embarrassed out there. (Joe Looney has actually performed well, but him starting over Frederick is kind of like feeling pretty good about trading in your Dodge Demon for a nice Charger without the big engine. You still have a decent ride, maybe one that is still a bit fun to drive, but you left a lot of power behind.) Outside of Cole Beasley, there seems to be no chemistry or consistency anywhere in either the wide receiver or tight end groups. And I have no idea what happened to Zeke. He blew a great day running the ball with terrible blunders.

How can the coaches, especially Linehan, plan anything offensively with any confidence it will work? The players have to prove they can do something right other than a handful of isolated drives. And you have to be suspicious of the reads Prescott is making. If he keeps checking down from the play Linehan wants to another two-yard throw to a stock-still Elliott with defenders closing, no play calling is going to work.

Michael: Here’s what I can’t get over: the Cowboys were completely unprepared Sunday. They were sloppy and undisciplined in every phase of the game. Pre-snap penalties, missed assignments, players stepping out of bounds, blown coverages, stupid penalties; these are all the signs of a poorly coached team. What’s most demoralizing to me is historically Garrett’s teams have played smart, fairly disciplined football. What is different now? What has the coaching staff been doing the entire off-season that three weeks into 2018 players don’t know where to line up, can’t stay in bounds and can’t avoid dumb penalties?

I’m not focusing on scheme or play-calling (we’ll get to that), I’m talking about the culture of preparation and discipline. Because based upon what we all witnessed Sunday (and through the entire season thus far) whatever the coaching staff is doing Monday through Saturday isn’t preparing this team for Sunday.

Tom: Here’s the problem I have with that. We don’t know what the coaches tried to prepare them for. They may have focused on how to handle Frank Clark all week - only to see players just run by him as he was headed in the opposite direction towards Dak. I’m fairly sure Sanjay Lal has continued to emphasize hanging onto the ball, but Michael Gallup and Zeke certainly didn’t. And I will guarantee that they are trying to get Prescott’s mechanics and processing speed better. It just isn’t taking.

I also think there is now a problem with overcompensation setting in (kind like why someone buys a Demon in the first place). Some of these players look like they are trying too hard, like Tavon Austin did on the one reception where he gave up ground trying to make something happen. This roster had the look of some desperate guys, especially after Elliott’s touchdown-that-wasn’t. Throwing down that “poorly coached” card may not have any basis in what the staff is doing, which is probably much the same as it has been for the past several years.

Michael: I get that players play and coaches coach and it was the player’s making mistake after mistake after mistake Sunday. But I have long believed that when enough people from a large group simultaneously fail to meet expectations there is a leadership problem. Watch the tape, Elliott had another play where he was unaware of the boundary as an outlet receiver. That makes me think it wasn’t an isolated, one-time thing but something that’s become a pattern for him. How is this not corrected on Wednesday or Thursday? You can’t tackle at practice in today’s NFL but you can run routes until Elliott should be able to do it blindfolded.

Kavon Frazier is a young player who has a handful of starts at safety. He’s playing against a proven veteran quarterback. What’s he doing trying to fool Wilson? He literally lined up so far out of position he gave away a touchdown. Surely he didn’t do this on his own, right? Either way, it’s a coaching problem. Either the coaches encouraged such actions, or Frazier is unilaterally doing such things seemingly without any repercussions. I didn’t get it Sunday and nothing I’ve seen or read since makes me feel any different.

Tom: Or is it players who just get confused and forget what they are supposed to do? This is a young roster, and that reliability takes some time to develop. The coaches may be trying to get more out of the players than they are able to deliver at this stage. And that might be even with the best attempts to keep things simple for them. That might be something we don’t realize on offense. They are putting predictable plays on the field because that is about all some of these players are able to manage right now. Until those players get better, we may just be stuck. And the coaches may pay despite their best efforts.

Michael: I hope you’re right and this is just a hiccup and these young players won’t make such mistakes moving forward. We know for certain that when it comes to offensive schemes this staff isn’t going to innovate. Their idea of a route combination is having four receivers run verticals where the secondary waits on them to arrive. Without any creativity on offense there’s no room for errors like we saw against the Seahawks. And I’d argue the coaching staff largely made their bed here. Garrett, Linehan and Marinelli have been around for years and no doubt have a significant say in how this team was constructed. If they brought in players who not only aren’t all that talented but also can’t be disciplined, well, they deserve to go.

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