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Twitter Q&A: Why was the 2018 Cowboys offense so lame?

It kinda is simple, in more ways than one.

Divisional Round - Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Well, we asked.

We had a lot of responses. Some were things that we, outside of the Dallas Cowboys staff, may never really know the answer to. But there were several that dealt with the same thing, or were very closely related. Here are some of them, and my attempt to put this all under one big umbrella. (I’m cutting and pasting here to keep from having the same GIF over and over. Jen is cute and all, but we don’t want to bore you with repetition.)

  • Why did we not call more misdirection plays knowing full well the D was focused on Zeke? - Brad Cooper (@chilehead2000)
  • Why was Dak’s mobility underutilized? - Scruffy Nerf Herder (@haitian1999)
  • Why have the Cowboys been so afraid of using one of Dak’s biggest strengths: his legs? When he moves the pocket or runs, he is so much more effective. - Robert Goldberg (@rdgoldber)
  • At some point, gameplans have to evolve over a season and even in the playoffs it has to have new stuff/wrinkles.. why did it not evolve or have any new wrinkles or stay soooo predicable? Made me really down at some points. any real cowboys fan knows exactly what i’m talking about. ex. so many key 4th and 1s...oh lets run it up the middle even tho the defense knows whats coming. Why not more boot legs? QB Draws? QB Read options.... - F7_JonPrez (@For7itude)

The answer to these questions can also be used to answer another one: Why exactly was Scott Linehan replaced by Kellen Moore?

It is all related, and while Linehan may not have been the entire problem, he was a big part of it. More importantly, he was also a real roadblock to solving things, according to something that longtime Cowboys beat writer Mike Fisher has repeatedly stated.

The departed coordinator Scott Linehan and Garrett did not get along at the end. Linehan, as I’ve reported, tended to both curl up in a protective ball and dig in his heels.

Here is that second sentence explained:

Linehan had great success with Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and the best offensive line in the league in 2016. He was able to keep things simple for his new QB/RB duo because that line could impose its will on the defense, protecting Prescott when he passed and opening up holes for Elliott when the team ran the ball. It didn’t matter that the opposing defense knew what was coming. As in the days of the original triplets and three Lombardis in four seasons, the Cowboys were able to just line up and beat the guys across from them on a consistent basis.

But 2017 and 2018 saw injury and illness, along with some personnel changes, degrade that offensive line performance - severely. With Tyron Smith out and no viable substitute, Prescott was burned down in Atlanta by the Falcons. It would take him until the 2018 season to really get his game back on track. Meanwhile, Elliott was seeing a lot more first contact behind the line of scrimmage instead of getting to the second level untouched, especially when the Cowboys lined up in their jumbo or heavy package with multiple tight ends, signalling an intent to run it down the opponents’ throats.

Simply put, the performance changed, but the utilization didn’t. Faced with a team that could no longer do what was so successful two years ago, Linehan did pretty much exactly what he did back then. He kept going back to the same things, calling plays inside a comfort zone that no longer really existed. Despite growing evidence that this approach was just not working, he fought change. Toward the end of last season, there were reports that Jason Garrett, Moore, Doug Nussmeier, and Prescott were all getting more involved in the game plan, which seemed to show some positive effects. But, for whatever reason, Linehan kept the play-calling duties, and once the team got beyond the “scripted” portion of the first half, he kept reverting to things that just weren’t working.

One thing that seemed to really be an issue was that the formation often tipped the play. As so many complained, things were just too predictable. The bunched offensive formations on short yardage were one of the most concrete examples. The defense would crowd nearly everybody into the box, yet the play called would still send Elliott plowing into the middle of the line, as if Travis Frederick was not watching from the sidelines. The team got away with it several times during the season just because Zeke is that good and was able to fight for the last foot or six inches he needed. But other times, notably in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams, he was met too far behind the line and could not fight his way to the line to gain.

It extended to the passing game as well. Every defensive coordinator in the league, plus a majority of random people on the street, knew that if the Cowboys were in third down and medium (five to ten yards to go), the receivers were probably all going to go to the sticks and hook back to the QB. Over and over and over again.

Pre-snap motion was a part of Linehan’s offense, but primarily limited to the function of letting Prescott read if the D was in zone or man coverage. It did not incorporate the elements of deception and unpredictability that Sean McVay and others build into their offenses.

This also applies to not utilizing Prescott’s running ability. It is something that just is not part of what Linehan is comfortable with in his scheme. That has the quarterback mostly in a neat box labeled “pass and hand the ball off”. We know the Cowboys have play-action, read-option, and run/pass option plays, because we have seen them at times. But the amount of usage was a fairly clear indication that Linehan just didn’t like having them in the repertoire. It was fine for a quarterback to be mobile and able to evade a pass rush, but to have him deliberately carry the ball just smacked of heresy, based on what we could observe.

The narrative grew near the end of last season that Garrett was pushing Linehan to open things up and dig deeper into the playbook, but as Fisher said, Linehan mostly resisted. His default was to plow ahead and defy anyone to stop him. The problem was that he was being stopped by the other teams on a too-regular basis.

In a way, it is puzzling, because Linehan has run much more pass-centered offenses before 2016. He was able to shift one way. We may never understand why it apparently became impossible for him to go back the other direction.

It oversimplifies things to lay it all at Linehan’s feet, but it is also reasonable to say that he had become the single biggest hindrance to the offense. So he had to go.

And that ties into another one of the questions generated by that tweet at the top.

  • Will Moore be successful in his first season as OC? - KazzCowboys (@KazzCowboys)

If he is as inventive as reports have him to be, then the answer should be yes. He has experience in the kind of college offense that has been steadily leaking up into the NFL lately, he is widely regarded as very intelligent about the game, and it is hard to imagine that bringing innovation and unpredictability was not a clearly defined condition of his promotion.

One of the most encouraging things you can read about what he should be able to do was a piece at ESPN by Todd Archer on how long Moore has been exhibiting just the kinds of things we are hoping for from an OC. Here are some excerpts. (If they look familiar, it’s because they have been used at BTB already, but they just fit so well here, I’m subjecting you to them again.)

Grant Hedrick was a redshirt quarterback at Boise State in 2010, when Moore was a junior.

“I’m sitting next to him, watching film, watching concepts at practice and it’s like the dead middle of training camp in August,” Hedrick remembered. “He’s drawing up these things of what we can do differently and he’s got a full notebook. He’s drawing up stuff, making adjustments. I’m sure he didn’t even notice that I saw it. It was like 10 different variations of what we could do differently. It was kind of crazy.”

“We’d always just call him the surgeon because he would just dissect defenses and know exactly schematically what they were going to do,” said Matt Miller, one of his favorite receivers at Boise State and now the offensive coordinator at Montana State. “He just always had a good feel for it. He was just one of the smartest football guys I’ve ever been around. I don’t know exactly what it was. I know his football background with his dad and being around it at such a young age. He was just a junkie. He couldn’t get enough of the X’s and O’s.”

Miller remembers the countless times Moore would tell him to anticipate a look and adjust his route from a sit to a slant. Sure enough, the corner was waiting for the sit, and Miller ran the slant for a first-down gain.

“Obviously he had a lot of prep in the film room Monday to Friday where he had a good feel for where the defenses were trying to get us and he had our counterpunch ready to go,” Miller said.

In 2014, quarterback Dan Orlovsky joined the Lions as a free agent to be Matthew Stafford’s backup. Moore had spent two years as the No. 3 quarterback with the Lions after signing with Detroit.

One day, Orlovsky remembers sitting in the quarterbacks room with Stafford.

“We’re grinding on this one thing for like 20 minutes, maybe longer. Kellen comes in after lunch, sat down casually and just within a minute or two gets up and points his finger on the screen, ‘Look, you can do this, which will make this guy do this and then that guy will do this and we can do this,’” said Orlovsky, who is now an ESPN analyst. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Uh-oh, this is a smart dude.’ I’m going in thinking I’m a shoo-in for the backup job and it’s, ‘Oh, this kid is really smart. He’s going to make me earn this job.’ But my main thing was, ‘Dude, how did your brain work like that?’ That was an example, to me, that he was probably going to be a good coach one day.”

All three examples point to innovation and creativity. Just exactly what the Cowboys need after the stolid persistence of Linehan in sticking with what had worked in the past, even if everyone in the stadium and at home could see what was coming.

So yes, Virginia, it was Linehan. He may have started out just putting Jason Garrett’s scheme into play, but by the end of the 2018 campaign, he had become the one guy who would not face the need for meaningful change. It wound up dragging the offense down, and the success that the team did have often seemed more in spite of him than because of him (such as the well-reported incident of Amari Cooper convincing Prescott to change the pass route). As to why the team let it go on so long (another popular question in the replies we used), that is hard to say. There are internal dynamics to the Cowboys that are both unique and somewhat opaque.

That power he once wielded is now gone. The pressure to make things work has now been shifted clearly onto Garrett. Moore and Jon Kitna are there to help fix things, but the buck stops with the head coach now.

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