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Cowboys conjecture: We may have seen the beginning of the end for Scott Linehan

The offense in the season-finale against the Giants did not look like Linehan’s. Maybe it wasn’t.

Dallas Cowboys v Chicago Bears

The chorus of voices that want Scott Linehan to lose his job as offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys has remained loud. The 7-1 stretch run to secure the NFC East crown and a home field game to start the playoffs is seen, by some, as more despite him than because of him. No matter how the playoffs go for the Cowboys, many still believe the team would be better off without him.

I think the process of cutting those ties may have already started.

Let me be perfectly clear. This is an opinion piece. It is based on personal observation, some information and hints dropped elsewhere, and is absolutely colored by my own thoughts on the OC. But there is an interesting picture that emerged during the win over the New York Giants that has just been reinforced by some things since.

Dallas used a completely different offensive plan to win the regular season finale from what we had seen in the fifteen prior games. Part of that was the absence of Ezekiel Elliott as he rested for the game against the Seattle Seahawks. Linehan bases his scheme on the run game to set everything else up while attempting to beat the opposing defense into submission. Without Elliott, the alternatives were to just try the same with Rod Smith and Darius Jackson, or do an about face and put the offense on Dak Prescott and the passing game. Given Prescott’s rather impressive performance, it certainly looks like door number two was chosen. This was the second-best total yardage of his career at 387, and just the fourth time he has exceeded 300 yards. Only the overtime win over the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this season was greater. It also was a career best in passing touchdowns with four. And his running ability was not a factor. This was all on his arm, including the spectacular fourth-and-fifteen touchdown throw to Cole Beasley that won the game.

It wasn’t just the volume of his output. It was how he did it. Look at this eye-opening tweet.

To me, at least, this was the most important bit of evidence that this was not the Cowboys attack we had seen to that point. All season, Prescott had avoided throwing to the middle of the field like it was lava. Let me offer the opinion that he did so because he was told to. Linehan tends to conservatism and part of that is avoiding turning the ball over. That part of the field is a place where interceptions are more likely, because defensive backs can move into it from both directions. Linebackers also live there. That complicates things for the passer, who has more he has to avoid. Indications have been that there is a certain lack of trust in Prescott’s ability to make those reads and throws, so they were simply off the table. That helps protect the ball, but it gives up a significant part of the field, limiting the team’s options without the defense really doing anything to cause it.

Against the Giants, it was time to pull up a chair at that part of the table and dig in. The result was a career day for Blake Jarwin, as he had by far his best performance and was acknowledged with NFC Offensive Player of the Week recognition - the first tight end from Dallas to be selected for that since the award was founded four decades ago.

More subtly, that game also saw Beasley re-establish his reputation as the most clutch receiver on the team. In addition to the game-winning, one-knee-down grab, he caught all six targets for a total of 94 yards and one each key third-down and fourth-down conversion besides the TD.

As mentioned, not having Elliott on the field was one reason to pivot to the passing game as the way to move the ball, but the overall situation also was important. It was, as mentioned endlessly leading up to it, a meaningless game. Dallas was locked into the fourth seed, and the decision to rest Elliott, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin reflected this. But since it was meaningless, it was also the perfect time to experiment with something different. If the move to throwing the ball, especially into a mostly unused part of the field and to a player like Jarwin who had been less than impressive to date, did not work out, no harm was really done.

But it worked. And brought another real benefit. Now the Seahawks have something very new to plan for. Will the Cowboys revert back to their Zeke-centric approach? If they do, and it works, fine. But if it falters, they have an effective adjustment ready, one they just got to work on in real game conditions against a decent passing defense. The Giants yielded 7.6 yards per attempt last season, just behind Seattle’s 7.5. And they gave up 24 touchdowns through the air, where the Seahawks surrendered 26. Those are close, and New York was better at intercepting the ball, with a 16 to 12 advantage over Seattle.

It is hard to imagine a better time to successfully roll out something that new than the last game before the playoffs. It was both a pragmatic and daring approach. Both of those are not exactly traits that Linehan has exhibited. He has at times seemed very stubborn about doing what he is comfortable with even when it isn’t working, and has long carried a label of being too conservative. The argument about whether things like the red zone woes are due to coaching, play-calling, or execution is still valid, but it is reasonable to say at least part of the issue falls squarely on his shoulders.

Oh, and the Cowboys scored touchdowns on 75% of their four trips to the red zone in New Jersey, so that was one more way things were rather different for the offense.

Maybe this was just Linehan deciding he had to do something different. Perhaps he was trying to ensure he kept his job.

Well, here’s a tantalizing tidbit.

Even if Linehan was still calling plays (which it did appear was the case), if it was indeed Garrett’s game plan, that is a potentially huge signal. It would reflect at least a loss of confidence in the former’s ability to make that kind of adjustment. It could be the first step in moving away from Linehan.

That does not make it a done deal. Linehan may get in line with a new direction. Or Garrett may just keep a bigger role in the game-planning while still relying on Linehan to call the plays during games.

There is also a question about just where the impetus originated for such a move. Did Garrett do it on his own, or did someone (cough) Jerry Jones (cough) lay down a little law here? That is something that may never be known, but it might - might - be a strong hint of the direction things might be headed after the postseason does end for Dallas.

Clearly, this is all circumstantial evidence. But while a successful run (meaning at least winning Saturday’s wild-card game) might extend both Garrett’s and Linehan’s tenures, it also could signal that Linehan’s star is finally fading beyond redemption.

One other thing is how this all will affect Prescott’s future. He is the quarterback, and there is absolutely no indication that the team is even considering another path. But that Giants performance was a major demonstration of just what he might be capable of. Better coaching that more fully utilizes his strengths and helps cover for his weaknesses would pay major dividends for the team. It looks like he may be getting just that when the Cowboys can really use it entering the playoffs.

We still have to see how that all plays out. But that handwriting may be showing up on the wall for Linehan.

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