The Dallas Cowboys’ season has officially come to an end with a 30-22 loss against the Los Angeles Rams. There’s a lot of credit that should be given to players, coaches, and front office executives for the way this team rebounded from a dreadful 3-5 start to finish 10-6, win in the Wild Card round, and come up just one score short of a really great Rams team.
However, there is a nagging feeling of disappointment, too.
That feeling is wholly valid when you look at the talent on this roster. Dak Prescott is the unquestioned leader of this offense who’s at his best when using his athleticism, and Ezekiel Elliott just led the league in rushing yards for the second time in his three years in the league. Then there’s Amari Cooper, who’s been on another level since coming to Dallas, along with Michael Gallup, Tavon Austin, and Cole Beasley. And between tight ends Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz, and Geoff Swaim, the Cowboys have to be pleased with the way each of them developed throughout the year.
While the offensive line had its struggles, the midseason firing of Paul Alexander and promotion of Marc Colombo to offensive line coach marked a big improvement in the blocking game that set this unit back on the path towards rediscovering their dominance.
And yet, this offense ranked 22nd in total yards, 23rd in passing offense, and tenth in rushing offense. How you can have the league’s leading rusher on your team and only finish tenth in the league in rushing is beyond me. The Cowboys also averaged 21.2 points per game, 22nd in the league. They ranked 24th in the NFL in total offensive DVOA, giving them the least efficient offense of any team that made the playoffs.
The worst part of this offense was their inability to finish off drives in the redzone, specifically inside the ten yard line. Dallas only scored touchdowns in the redzone 50% of the time, tying them with the Giants and Texans for 27th worst in the NFL. The Cowboys improved in this aspect in the last three games, but the problems are still troubling.
Now, we know what this defense is capable of. They may have fallen apart against the Rams, but Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard have built a top tier unit that should only get better with more time together in the offseason. The offense is what’s been holding this team back all year, and with all those exciting players on that side of the ball, it really shouldn’t be the case, and for that the blame falls squarely on Scott Linehan.
It’s been pretty popular to call for Linehan’s job for a while now, and for good reason. After all, he was the one calling the plays when the team got shut out for the first time since 2003. But the game against the Rams was perhaps the best example of why Linehan’s time with the Cowboys must come to an end.
Against Seattle, the definitive play of the game was Dak’s clutch run on third and 14 to get the ball to the goal line, and it showed fans once again why Prescott’s threat as a runner makes him such a dangerous playmaker. Of course, that skill has been woefully underutilized with Linehan, and it showed again Saturday night in Los Angeles as Prescott only had two rushing attempts.
There was another example of poor understanding of the game by Linehan on a first and ten play at the Rams 44-yard line. Down eight with the third quarter coming to a close, Linehan drew up a run to the right tackle for Elliott that called for Tyron Smith to handle Aaron Donald on a reach block. As good as Smith is, he just was in no position whatsoever to get to a guy as talented as Donald, and the former Defensive Player of the Year plowed past the All Pro left tackle and clobbered Zeke for a four-yard loss.
Overall, the Cowboys did a good job containing Donald, as that was one of his two tackles in the game and the league’s leader in sacks was held to zero against an offensive line that hasn’t had its best year in pass protection. But one has to wonder what exactly was going through Linehan’s head when he called for that kind of blocking that basically just allows Donald a free shot at blowing up the play.
And then there was the entire final offensive drive for Dallas, which was a showcase in poor playcalling and serves best as an instructional video of what not to do as an offensive coordinator. Dallas got the ball back with 7:16 left in the fourth quarter and down 15. They needed a quick score, a defensive stop, and then another quick score. On the very first play, Dak threw a 24-yard strike to Gallup, but then the Cowboys didn’t snap the ball again until nearly thirty whole seconds had ticked off the clock.
That became a trend for this drive, as Linehan took his time calling the plays into Prescott’s headset, and even though Dallas ended up getting a touchdown at the end of it, the drive took 12 plays and just over five minutes to complete. That’s great if you’re trying to run the clock down, but it’s horrible when you need two scores with limited time.
And of course, there’s that play Linehan called right before the touchdown. The clock was stopped after a pass interference penalty in the end zone, and the Cowboys got it at the goal line with 2:43 left in the game. Conventional logic in this situation says to spread things out and take a shot in the end zone; if you score that’s great, but if it falls incomplete then at least the clock stops. But no, Linehan lined up in a goal line formation and had backup tackle Cam Fleming check in as eligible before running it up the gut. Elliott got stuffed, predictably so, and 32 seconds ran off the clock before Dak ran in for the touchdown on the next play.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg in the tenure of Linehan as the offensive coordinator. He seems to lack situational awareness and certainly hasn’t displayed an understanding of what his offense’s best skills are. Worst of all, though, is that the Cowboys offense under Linehan has become stale and predictable. After all, the Rams defense allowed more yards per carry in the regular season than any other team in the NFL, and Elliott only averaged 2.3 yards per carry. That is unacceptable.
The good news is that the Cowboys are an incredibly talented team on both sides of the ball, and with most of their stars still at a young age, this team’s future is very bright. But one thing has become clear during the course of the 2018 season: the only way for the Cowboys to reach the next level is by getting a better offensive coordinator.