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Cowboys lesson learned: Time to consider a housecleaning

A new coaching staff may not fix the problems, but the current group is not finding the right answers.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Due to some circumstances, I wound up with some extra time to ponder the frustrating and frankly puzzling Dallas Cowboys loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Hopefully, that has allowed some of the initial hasty reactions to settle. But even with that, what has become increasingly clear is that Jerry Jones now faces a major decision. Jason Garrett’s contract expires at the end of this season. And after nine years with him as head coach, and despite a winning record, it looks like the only logical course for Jones is to not offer a new one, and bring in a new head coach and staff to try and use the talent this team has, particularly with Dak Prescott.

Just about the only way that should be given any reconsideration is if this team somehow stuns us all by getting to the NFC title game. But just about anything short of a Super Bowl appearance may not be enough. The problems we saw in the heartbreaking defeat on Sunday night all have one thing in common.

We have seen them all before.

Over the length of Garrett’s tenure, I have been his supporter. He does an excellent job of building a culture. His ability to work with Jones is superb, and the owner/GM has shown a great deal of trust in him. Now that we have seen everyone on the staff but the head coach replaced, sometimes more than once, the fact that this team seems stuck in a loop of reoccurring errors leads to the conclusion that the Cowboys just may never be any different while Garrett remains, and the head coach may not be the only problem.

Here are some of the more glaring things that cost Dallas the latest game:

The team still lives by an archaic credo of “establish the run”. The first five sets of downs against the Vikings all were running plays - with less than satisfactory results.

There is a value in being unpredictable on first down. After all, the failure to do just that was seen as one of the reasons Scott Linehan was replaced, but Kellen Moore has shown an alarming tendency to revert to conservatism against the better opponents the Cowboys have faced this season.

While there is nothing wrong with trying the run, when you have failure after failure, it makes no sense to do nothing different. However, as that graphic notes, until the third quarter, NOTHING was working on first down. Still, you would think that Moore would at least try to shake things up a bit, and when they did start to find success late in the game, note that it involved going to things other than a handoff to the running back.

Meanwhile, Ezekiel Elliott was basically a non-factor in this game. That opens a whole other can of worms beyond this one loss. As part of Garrett’s “run-first” philosophy, the team has built itself around Elliott. He, of course, represents the highest draft capital the team has spent since Garrett became head coach, and is now the highest-paid running back in the league.

The return on investment, right now, looks sadly insufficient. Which is putting it mildly.

Now, the Cowboys have a ton of sunk costs, and frankly that seems to drive the game plan. He is the highest paid at his position, therefore he shall be featured. That is absolutely the wrong way to approach things. Elliott can still take over a game, as he did in the second matchup with the New York Giants, but he has yet to have a breakaway run this year, and the screen play has largely been missing from the Dallas repertoire. Minnesota showed how to use a top performing back in both the running and passing game, as Dalvin Cook put on a clinic and churned out 183 yards from scrimmage. He was the hammer that broke the Cowboys’ defense. Meanwhile, Elliott had a paltry 47 yards rushing (at a 2.4 yards per carry rate) and 16 catching the ball.

It’s time to shelve the idea of running the offense through Elliott. He can still be a weapon, but when he isn’t getting it done, he should be relegated to pass protection and some short-yardage situations for the most part. He could also be integrated more into the passing game as something other than a dump-off target.

Doing that may not be possible as long as Garrett is overseeing things, however.

There is a problem playing to real strengths rather than what you want to be strengths. Elliott is the clearest example of that, but it can also be applied to the offensive line and the defensive front seven in this game. Neither of those groups were doing exceptionally well. Despite that, the team maddeningly ran it twice from the Minnesota 11-yard line when victory was within Dallas’ grasp, with the failure we witnessed. The Cowboys also had no answer for much of the game to Cook or his backup, Alexander Mattison. The linebackers had a bad day all around, but the real problem seems to be the interior of the defensive line. Antwaun Woods had a decent game, but Maliek Collins had little to no impact. The latter was predicted to be set for a breakout season. Now that has fizzled.

Dallas has long shunned investing in big, run-stopping defensive tackles because they want to focus on pass rush. They paid for that Rod Marinelli philosophy. While the pass is a more valuable way to employ an offense, the Vikings used the run to beat the Cowboys. Meanwhile, they only got one sack of Kirk Cousins all game, and he made some big throws to help get the win. Marinelli’s approach has not paid dividends, and the addition of Kris Richard has not really helped. Garrett is not the only coach that has overstayed his welcome.

Decision making is still bad at crucial times. The failed runs at the 11 have already been mentioned. The clock management during that drive was also incoherent. Then there was the fair catch by Tavon Austin on the last-gasp possession, which may have been because he was led to lean that way before the punt. You can obviously add those early runs when they were not getting anywhere.

But there was another that really got things moving in a bad direction, and that was the decision to have Brett Maher try a 57-yard field goal when the opening drive stalled. At that range, it is never a sure or even highly likely proposition. The resulting short field was capitalized on by the Vikings the way their division rival the Green Bay Packers did after the early interception in that loss by Dallas. It seemed a very bad risk/reward calculation against a good team.

My personal opinion is that most head coaches make a lot of questionable decisions. That does not excuse Garrett setting the Vikings up for success with that one.

The team is too reluctant to go with better players over veterans. It took half the season for the staff to admit that Jourdan Lewis is a better cornerback than Anthony Brown. They continue to give the bulk of the tight end snaps to Jason Witten while Blake Jarwin is clearly more effective. It has taken injuries to Jeff Heath to give Darian Thompson a bigger role, which he is handling well.

Chalk that up to Garrett’s conservative streak. The team needs to focus on performance, not resumes.

Meanwhile, they have a real answer on offense, but still aren’t fully utilizing it. That is Prescott and his receiving corps. Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, Michael Gallup, and Jarwin had 364 yards and three touchdowns receiving. It was one of the most brilliant games of their careers for both Prescott and Cooper, while it also was one of Cobb’s best.

And it all was wasted. The stubborn insistence on running the ball with the highly paid running back literally took the ball out of Prescott’s hands at the deciding moment of the game.

Even the offensive line, which struggled run blocking, was doing a good job protecting Prescott, albeit with some real assistance from his own mobility and ability to throw on the run. Still, when the passing game is racking up those numbers, it needs to be the core of the offense. Not 2.4 yards and a cloud of artificial turf.

So, what next? Look, the Cowboys are not in a great position with the Philadelphia Eagles now tied for the division lead. But they aren’t dead in the water. There is still a rather remote chance they could win five more games, which would likely get them into the playoffs. And then who knows?

But at the moment, my prediction is that things will not go well enough to get Garrett another contract. That means a new staff. There has been some discussion about keeping Moore, given how much more effective the passing game has become. He is just a rookie in the position. There certainly is some reason to believe that he could grow and be a very good OC down the road.

As a side note, it is interesting that Garrett did something rather uncharacteristic for him. He kinda threw Moore under the bus about the decisions on the next to last drive.

Keeping Moore, or anyone currently on the staff, will be up to a new head coach, of course. Most likely, any new guy will want to bring in his own people across the board. It’s the way of the league.

As for who that head coach will be, it is too early to even speculate. The Lincoln Riley lust is just a pipe dream, I believe. He has a plum college job at Oklahoma, and the NFL is a very different world. Even tremendous success in the college ranks, where recruiting is the most important facet of the job, is no indication of NFL potential. Just ask Chip Kelly or Nick Saban.

Here is the sobering news. A new head coach will very likely wind up being a step back, especially the first couple of years. It may wind up wasting a lot of Prescott’s potential.

Still, it is becoming increasingly untenable to continue with the current regime. Change is likely coming, with a major housecleaning.

I will say that there is one current Dallas assistant that should at least be given a chance to interview with a new head coach, because his contributions this season have been immeasurable. That is quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna. The great leap Prescott has made is almost certainly to a large part his doing. A new head coach would be wise to consider offering him a chance to continue working with Dak.

While we are on the topic, even though it is at the high school level, Kitna does have head coaching experience.

Probably just another pipe dream, I know.

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