Scott Linehan is out. Though the Cowboys made a historic turnaround from 3-5 to finish 10-6, and won their division and a playoff game, the tribe has spoken.
Is it fair to attach all the blame for their struggles to one man when others have a hand in it too? Probably not, but it’s a fitting dismissal in this case after all the significant changes that were largely implemented by Linehan. After a disappointing end to last season, Linehan begged for the biggest stick in the offensive decision making and it was given to him. He turned over all but one of his position coaches, was influential in the release of Dez Bryant, and was a huge seller of the receiver-by-committee approach.
Every decision he played a major role in implementing was under the microscope as Dallas sat two games below .500 at the halfway point.
During the bye week, the Cowboys walked back Linehan’s hiring of Paul Alexander, a tenured, respected coach that was just a disastrous fit in Dallas. Alexander was replaced in-house with recently re-signed assistant Marc Colombo, a favorite among the lineman. That committee idea was also axed as the Cowboys struck a mid-season trade for Amari Cooper. Prior to his arrival, the passing offense had already been read its last rights. In the final two months of this season, Cooper’s addition along with elevated play by Dak Prescott had helped Dallas make a steady climb:
|2018||Total Yds||Passing||Rushing||PPG||Total TDs||RZ%||3DN%|
|Last 10 Gms||3652 (5)||2505 (4)||1147 (7)||23.1(8)||27 (8)||52.2 (28)||44.8 (3)|
|% Season Tot/ Gain||66%||71%||58%||68%||75%||+4.20%||+3.40%|
|Adj. Gains||+134 Yds/Gm||+121 Yds/Gm||+13 Yds/Gm||+1.9 Pt/Gm||+1.6 TDs/Gm||+1.3 RZ TD/Gm||+4 3DN/Gm|
Though the offense found some success, they never fully eradicated the stubbornness in their play-calling and rarely made any adjustments. All coaches have tendencies to stick with what has worked before but you have to make edits along the way and know when something doesn’t fit. Linehan’s offense does work, has worked, and might work again but it could no longer coexist with the Cowboys current personnel. The Cowboys were experiencing steady declines in an era designed for offenses to dominate.
|Season||Total Yds||Passing||Rushing||PPG||Total TDs||RZ%||3DN%||Avg. Rank|
|2016||6027 (5)||3631 (23)||2396 (2)||26.3 (5)||49 (6)||66.7 (3)||42.3 (10)||8th|
|2017||5311 (14)||3141 (26)||2170 (2)||22.1 (14)||42 (11)||59.6 (6)||42.9 (5)||11th|
|2018||5501 (22)||3538 (23)||1963 (10)||21.2 (22)||36 (23)||48.0 (29)||41.4 (10)||20th|
The Cowboys offense dropped from eighth to 11th in 2017 and took a nosedive to 20th in 2018. Comparing the Cowboys to the NFL’s top offenses is saddening:
- Minus 1,300+ in total yards, at the Cowboys’ pace, it would take four games to reach that
- Minus 1,700+ passing yards, a pace of seven games to reach the mark
- Minus nearly 600 rushing yards, a pace of five games to reach
- Dallas scored two touchdowns less per game on average than the top offenses
- Cowboys offense was 25% less efficient in the red zone despite having Dak Prescott (tied for seventh in RZ TD’s) and Zeke (tied for sixth in RZ TD’s)
Three years into the Dak Prescott-era and Linehan was still trying to prove that he could fit him into the “Air Coryell” formula? Instead of embracing his quarterback’s athleticism with designed runs, play-action passing, or misdirection plays in the backfield, Linehan handcuffed his own offense.
The playoff loss to LA was a timely reminder of an extremely dysfunctional relationship between this play-caller and his personnel. That game served as sort of a “here is what you’re missing” hint for Jason Garrett and the Cowboys’ ownership. It’s amazing that the Cowboys have had three consecutive winning seasons through all the dysfunction.
The Cowboys are tied with the Saints and Eagles for the third-most franchise wins since 2016 at 33 victories, Linehan has been a part of all that. However, you have to evolve every year in this league to have lasting power, the Patriots do so with a 41-year-old pocket passer. The Cowboys roster drastically changed in the past three seasons with no revisions to fit these roster moves, it was stale and predictable but also hard to execute for guys with completely different skill sets.
Too often, Dallas was stubbornly running plays without the horses for the race. The Cowboys were trying to recreate the dominating rushing attack from two years ago but there was a big difference from that team to this incarnation. That 2016 line consisted of Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Doug Free. They were among the best lines in franchise history and any that were better have the hardware to prove it.
Besides, that line gave up half the sacks that this year’s group did. Nothing against a unit that overachieved in some ways but to expect that level of success in the trenches from such a compromised unit was naive on Linehan’s part. It’s even less likely to work when the league knows that you have to run the football to function. That was the reality this team lived in for half of the season without any proven threats in the passing game.
Elliott was asked prior to the season opener about the lack of outside weapons and the extra attention he would receive:
“We’ve faced eight-, nine-, 10-man fronts every week since I’ve gotten here,” Elliott said. “I don’t know how many more guys they can throw in the box. Yeah, there’s going to be more focus on me, but I don’t understand how you can say we’re going to throw more guys in the box. There are only 11 guys on the field.”
17% of Elliott’s attempts went for no gain or a loss of yards, the most of his career. No surprise, a whopping 53% of those runs were on first down attempts, facing a loaded box of eight or more. When everyone knows what you’re going to do, they will devise a way to stop it, no matter how good you are. When you’re Ezekiel Elliott-level good, you still manage to win the rushing title.
Sure, the Cowboys went on a remarkable run but how much of the credit belongs to the players stepping up? We’ve heard rumblings of increased roles for Jason Garrett, Doug Nussmeier, and even Dak Prescott. When you look over the statistics, it certainly looks like this offense was winning with their talents in spite of an unfit playbook. We’ll never know the validity in all the rumors of “who did what” at the end to make their comeback possible. What we do know is that the Cowboys didn’t feel like it was a sustainable method to continue on and that change was necessary.
Scott Linehan went ‘all-in’ that he could make these players fit him when he needed to do more to fit them. We can debate all day about the ideal quarterback, Jason Garrett’s involvement, or other variables but it was he who asked for the power. He bet on himself and he lost, there’s no other way this could have ended.