About a month ago, the case was made for Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach Dan Campbell to be the next Cowboys head coach over bigger names like Urban Meyer, Lincoln Riley, and Ron Rivera. Then on Sunday night, Mike Florio of NBC Sports’ Pro Football Talk floated Campbell’s name as a possible candidate for the job, alongside Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and Vikings assistant head coach/offensive adviser Gary Kubiak.
And it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time, too, as the Cowboys’ gut-punch of a loss to the Eagles on Sunday encapsulated exactly why Campbell is the guy the Cowboys need. There were a lot of things that point to this, but there were three specific moments that highlighted the need for Campbell.
Campbell’s aggressive nature is desperately needed here
One of the more enduring criticisms of the Jason Garrett era has been the lack of aggression when it comes to situations like a fourth and one around midfield or going for a touchdown instead of merely playing for a field goal. And Garrett’s conservative nature reared its head again in Philadelphia.
That would not exist with Campbell as head coach. Having served as Sean Payton’s top offensive lieutenant for the past four years, he’s been learning under one of the more aggressive head coaches in the league. And while Payton not only has a natural tendency to want to go for it in certain situations, he also has made use of in-game analytics to inform his decisions as well, and Campbell no doubt has seen the value of all of this.
Additionally, Campbell brings an intensity to his work that should cure the slow starts this team has been plagued by all year. Back when Campbell was the interim head coach of the 2015 Dolphins, he started off by having players run Oklahoma drills to boost intensity for a team he deemed as too soft. At the time, Campbell said of the drill:
To me, the best teams that I’ve been a part of are the ones that, during the week, they go after each other. Whether it’s practice squad versus the defense. They’re giving the look of practice squad versus offense, but it gets heated. And it’s intense, and it’s people that are fighting to win. They want to get noticed or they want to do their job. It’s not just going through the motions.
As a result, the Dolphins won their first two games under Campbell by a combined 82-36 margin, which included a 51-3 first half point differential. It’s clear that Campbell knows what it takes to get a team, even the disappointing Dolphins of the 2015 season, to get ready to dominate teams from the opening kickoff.
Campbell’s experience utilizing two running backs could unlock this offense
Speaking of the Dolphins, they were the first team this year to be subjected to the overpowering effect of a Cowboys offense that effectively uses both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. In that game, both running backs went over 100 rushing yards and Dallas won 31-6. The next time the Cowboys had both backs cross the 100-yard mark in a game was their 44-21 drubbing of the Rams. Coincidentally, both of those games represented two of the Cowboys’ three biggest win margins all year.
Most people would think that this would incentivize the Cowboys to focus squarely on feeding both players, but even after the Rams game, Dallas went back to hardly featuring Pollard at all, and not only did the offense fail to score a single touchdown but Elliott struggled to do much of anything.
Campbell, who’s been credited as being “heavily involved” in the Saints’ run game the last four years, has overseen the rapid rise of Alvin Kamara and the electric duo of Kamara and Mark Ingram, and now this year the addition of Latavius Murray.
Getting both backs involved in multiple ways has helped increase not only their individual numbers but the offense as a whole. Kamara went over 1,500 scrimmage yards in his first two years and currently has 1,273 scrimmage yards this year despite missing a few games with injury. Similarly, Ingram averaged just over 1,200 scrimmage yards every year under Campbell and Murray is about to cross 800 scrimmage yards while setting a new career high for yards per carry (in years where he’s had 100+ carries).
In Dallas, whether or not Kellen Moore gets retained (he should be), Campbell would bring with him that same understanding of what it looks like to actually balance the usage of two talented running backs and find a way to get both Zeke and Pollard involved on a week to week basis. If the trends from this year hold, then big wins would follow.
Campbell’s expertise with tight ends could solve a lot of problems
The Cowboys have had a tough time figuring out what to do with their tight ends all year. On one hand, Blake Jarwin is teeming with potential as a pass catcher, but Jason Witten is a leader and future Hall of Famer. One three-play sequence during the Eagles game epitomized this struggle better than ever.
Down 10-3, the Cowboys got the ball at their own 33 after the Eagles turned it over on downs. After a big pass to Michael Gallup for a first down, the Cowboys ran it with Zeke on first down. Defensive end Josh Sweat blew up the play for a loss of four yards, and upon review it appeared that Jarwin was supposed to block Sweat and whiffed on it.
The next play saw Prescott take a shotgun snap and deliver a ball right on the money to a wide open Witten, but he dropped it. Then, on third and 14, Prescott was forced to throw to Witten short of the sticks. He caught it this time, but the old timer’s slow body was unable to advance the ball in any meaningful way.
This prompts plenty of questions. Why are you putting your move tight end in to block for a run play? Why are you putting your old and slow tight end out there when you need to pick up chunks of yards? There seems to be confusion on how to properly utilize this position.
That wouldn’t happen under Campbell, whose calling card is tight ends. He’s gotten the most out of the tight ends in New Orleans, and Jared Cook is having a particularly great year under his watch, setting a career record for yards per reception by a big margin. Whether or not Witten returns next year, Campbell would surely have ideas on how to integrate his tight ends and best utilize their different skill sets.
There have been a lot of things that caused the 2019 Dallas Cowboys to be in the position they’re in, and there’s no quick fix to solve all of it right away. But Campbell brings with him the experience of being a head coach in the past, the knowledge he’s learned from both Bill Parcells and Sean Payton, and the aggressiveness that the current coaching staff lacks.