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The 2018 Dallas Cowboys are different than their predecessors in fundamental ways

Believe it or not.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys
A potent defense is just one change.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It just ain’t the same old Dallas Cowboys. After a tumultuous offseason and training camp, this team seems to be doing things a bit differently. Oh, Jerry Jones is still the owner, Stephen Jones and Will McClay continue to handle the heavy lifting of the GM job, and the top trio of Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan, and Rod Marinelli remain in charge of things on the field. But, for lack of a better or more precise way to put it, this team has a very different feel to it than any of the past decade.

It all really started with the surprising decision to release Dez Bryant, followed by the retirement of Jason Witten, and then the truly shocking cut of Dan Bailey. Those moves alone meant that change was happening. But it has gone much further than trying to find a way to compensate for the loss of three players who had been crucial to the team for so long. Those departures were the catalyst for some roster changes, but the rebuild that Dallas has done goes beyond that. As OCC explained:

With 24 players not returning from last year’s season opener, that’s a roster churn of 45%, which even by Cowboys standards is quite a lot. Note also that the Cowboys will be replacing eight starters (nine if you add Dan Bailey), so the roster churn this year isn’t only about the bottom of the roster.

It wasn’t just the volume of change, it was some of the decisions made. None is more illustrative than keeping Rico Gathers on the roster. He is not the kind of addition that the Cowboys have been prone to make in recent years, being rather limited in his overall game while bringing certain outstanding skills. Rather than being an all-purpose tight end, he appears to be a specialist. And now, the first (unofficial) depth chart has him as the third tight end, not the fourth.

This is one place where there is a shift in thinking for the coaching staff. And that is where the most important differences are going to be.

They were forced a bit by the loss of Witten and Bryant, who absorbed so many snaps and targets between them. The plan now seems to be something very different offensively, with a couple of other specialists, Deonte Thompson and Tavon Austin, also on the roster. The talk from the staff all season pointed to changing the offensive plan, so that Dak Prescott could use his strengths. Rather than trying to make him run an offense that still had many elements of the one Tony Romo led, the team has brought in receivers to run precise routes and then put them under the tutelage of new receivers coach Sanjay Lal, who wants them to be precise in all their movements, from the moment they get out of bed and head to the bathroom. His second priority, catching the ball, is not a bad thing to have after seeing some notable drops last season.

Now if Scott Linehan can properly utilize his weapons in the gameplan, we are going to see a different look. Lots of rollouts, play-action, and RPOs to capitalize on Prescott’s strengths. Moving receivers around so their role and patterns are not so predictable. Stretching the field with speedsters like Thompson and Austin to get defenders out of the box so Ezekiel Elliott can eat big bites. (Don’t overlook the fact that Elliott came to camp in better shape than he ever has, and seems supremely focused.) And Gathers going up over everybody to haul down passes near and in the end zone.

At least that should be the plan. If it is, this offense may just surprise people.

The defense may not, because most people have taken notice of what the Cowboys have built, especially in the front seven. DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory (another player who, like Elliott, has a bit of chip on his shoulder) are a fearsome set of bookends, Antwaun Woods seems to be emerging in the interior of the line, while the depth players seem good. And with Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith behind them, this could become a defense that strikes terror in the hearts of quarterbacks while bottling up runners all day. The secondary is a bit shallow, but the starters are mostly young and seem to be improving under Kris Richard, another important addition to the coaching staff.

The defense may have to be strong, because there is a chance they will have to help out the offense early in the season as the new approach goes through some growing pains. The early indications are that the D is up to the challenge.

Let’s go back to those departures again. The decision to move on from Bryant and Bailey represents a certain hardness that the team has not always had, although it has been trending in that direction in recent years. No longer do we see the team handing out big contracts to players who were already showing signs of being past their prime, or hanging on to veterans rather than bringing in new blood.

There has been a lot of talk about how hot Jason Garrett’s seat is. Some characterize the wholesale changes this year as coming from desperation. But perhaps it is more a case of seeing the problems of last season and taking aggressive steps to change course. I just don’t see Garrett as a man who is prone to desperate moves. He is all about improving all facets of the team all the time, and this just looks to me like an acknowledgment that the team needed some big doses of that, in several areas.

Now we are about to find out how successful the changes will be. Things may fall apart, and that could well be the end for Garrett. But almost all NFL head coaches face falling from grace if their team does not perform and losing their jobs. If things work out for the Cowboys, if these changes get them back into the playoffs and maybe further than just a game there, then the talk about dumping the head coach will quickly cool.

And we will see what changes come about the next year.

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