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What we think: Lions game is crucial to a couple of Cowboys coaches

And you know who we are talking about.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys
It may fall more on the OC, but the heat is on the HC as well.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It’s only the fourth week of the NFL season. That is way to early for us to be talking about coaches losing their jobs. Right?

Uh, maybe not. The Dallas Cowboys are stuck in a rut offensively. They are only one game behind the co-leaders in the NFC East, but faith in the team has plummeted. A crucial part of this is how we have been told since the end of last season how the team was making some big changes to the offensive side of things to return to the productivity we saw just a couple of years ago. So far, those promises have not just been empty, the level of failure has dropped Dallas to the bottom of the NFL stats.

And belief is growing that the reason for that failure was that the changes did not reach high enough. While a lot of new faces were brought in on the coaching staff, head coach Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan retained their jobs, and it seems obvious that they must have had a lot of input to the changes in the roster as well.

Now the Cowboys are scrambling to try and eke out another win to stop the bleeding. But a narrow win in a low scoring game is not likely to change things much. The big issue on a team where the defense is clearly playing better overall is the paltry offensive production, particularly on the scoreboard. So what will it take to start changing things?

It is going to take points. Points off touchdowns, to be specific. Dallas has only scored four of those in the first three games, two each throwing and running. One of those “passing” scores came off a shovel pass, which is really just a running play where the handoff cannot be ruled a fumble. And total yardage is just as bad. When you are in the bottom five in almost every offensive category, well, you wind up looking to place blame. And the crosshairs are on Garrett and Linehan, especially the offensive coordinator.

What will it take in the game against the Detroit Lions to turn down the heat a few degrees? That is really all they can do in one game, because Detroit is 26th in the NFL in points allowed, giving up 29.3 per game. Whatever they do this week will not have a large impact unless they both score near or over that average and then show it was not an aberration by repeating it.

So the benchmark looks pretty clear. The Cowboys need to score at least three TDs with some field goals tacked on, or get to four.

This appears to be a tall order. Sure, Linehan and Dak Prescott are both talking about taking more shots and having some more “wrinkles”, but you know the various sayings about talk and backing it up.

Further complicating things is the way the Lions defense is performing so far this year. They are the best in the league at limiting passing attacks - and dead last in stopping the run. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have shown themselves to be very vulnerable so far to stacked boxes, with a glaring inability to hurt the opponent through the air. The loss to the Seattle Seahawks showed some signs of the running game coming around, but there still was precious little evidence that they could go over the top or convert on third down. Ezekiel Elliott may be hitting his stride as a runner. The obvious problem is that a one-dimensional team is easy to stop by even poor defenses when there is virtually no support form the aerial game.

Both teams have a blueprint for how to attack the other, with Detroit looking to have an advantage. Just disregard the pass until Dallas does something there and go all-in on bottling up the ground game.

So it comes back to Prescott and the passing game. Having Dak use his legs at times can also help, but the risks involved there make that something that can only be used in spots, not a viable approach from opening kickoff to final whistle. While the question of whether coaching or player execution is the biggest culprit remains open, the current mood of the media and fanbase alike is to put the blame on Linehan. Both his game plan and play calls have been heavily criticized.

Linehan simply has to find a way to move the ball through the air. That is for both his sake and Garrett’s. It also means he has to figure out how to help Prescott and the so-far lackluster receiving corps succeed.

The evidence from around the league is that it can be done. The Thursday night game showcased how the Los Angeles Rams are doing it. The Kansas City Chiefs certainly have figured it out so far. And those are just the most obvious examples. It’s not like there are any secret plays or something that lead to success offensively. All you have to do is look at the video of the successful passing offenses and see what they run. Those kinds of plays are in the Dallas playbook, because every now and then we see them run one, as they did early in the game against the New York Giants when they scored on their single long play of the season. They have also put together a handful of long drives with multiple first downs. The issue is that they do those things with no regularity.

Quarterback performance has certainly been a problem so far, but even there, the onus is at least partly, if not mostly, on the OC. He has to grasp what his passer is doing, and find ways to help him. Just doing the same thing over and over without change is by definition a bit insane. Again, we are hearing promises, but now we have to see delivery.

Even if the Cowboys manage a narrow win in a low scoring game, the pressure is not going to lessen appreciably. That is simply not a sustainable formula in the NFL where there are so many high-scoring offenses out there. The defense can help, but it is increasingly hard for it to carry a team in a league that keeps tweaking the rules to favor the offense. Just look at how the latest changes to roughing the passer calls has punished pass rushers for plays that just last season would have been highlights.

This isn’t just one writer’s view, either. Our Michael Sisemore had his own take on this, which comes to a very similar conclusion:

It’s going to take a solid and consistent offensive performance from these coaches that translates to a win over Detroit for the heat to come off Garrett and Linehan. If Dak Prescott and the offense can have a consistent game, not like the Giants game, that was spotty at best. No, this needs to be a game where Prescott is clearly moving the ball, including getting it out, and delivering to his receivers. Ezekiel Elliott will need be rushing hard on this bad run defense, without mistakes, and allowing it to open up play-action for the passing game. We got a quick-strike in week two and a 2016-like drive that took the defenses will to compete away, they need to find what used to work and start making it work again. Even so, it may take a few of those performances before anyone’s ready to believe in this system.

If the Cowboys don’t get a win against the Lions with a solid offensive performance, the doubts and calls for new blood at the top of the coaching staff are just going to grow. Garrett is very involved in coming up with the game plan and scripting the first part of the game, so he is handcuffed to Linehan. This is an opportunity to show that they can figure things out. They have to take advantage of it, or pay the price. It’s pretty much just that simple.

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