This is always the time of optimism around the NFL. Teams have a new crop of rookies that perfectly meet their needs (or so they say), plus the new free agents that were exactly who they were looking for (or so they say), and the returning vets are all in the best shape of their careers and will be improved this fall (you know what goes here). Despite being sold the same bill of goods year after year, fans still get sucked in, only for most of them to see their team fall short of the playoffs. But for a handful, those factors mentioned above really are true, or at least largely so. That may well apply to the 2019 Dallas Cowboys.
That is of course important for the hopes of the team and its fans alike, but it is particularly key for head coach Jason Garrett. He is in the last year of his contract, with owner/general manager Jerry Jones basically saying he believes he can succeed - but he wants to see it before he offers an extension. However, this offseason has looked more like a team going “all in” than it has in years. This roster is deep and looks dangerous, and Garrett’s staff looks more unified and solid as well. Let’s break things down.
The changes to the coaching staff were limited, but huge
Many were clamoring for it to happen, and arguably it was at least a year overdue. The biggest move of any kind in 2019 for the Cowboys was the termination of Scott Linehan as offensive coordinator, with the corresponding promotion of Kellen Moore and the accompanying hire of Jon Kitna to replace Moore as QB coach.
It is perhaps a bit of piling on, but it had become clear that Linehan was a problem in a couple of ways. The reports of growing tension between him and both his head coach and players seem accurate. He repeatedly lapsed back into predictable play calls, but worse, he telegraphed what he was doing with personnel and formations far too often. Ezekiel Elliott is a formidable weapon, but running him into a stacked defensive box because the defense is reading run all the way just does not pay. Add in that the offensive line was compromised by the absence of Travis Frederick and having to work in a rookie, Connor Williams, and what should have been nearly certain short-yardage conversions were too often being stuffed. First down runs often suffered from the same issues as well, especially after the early, scripted part of the game.
In promoting Moore, the main reasons revolve around innovation and fresh ideas. This does not mean that he is going to come in with a bunch of new plays. Based on interviews with the staff this past week, it is more about using what already exists to better effect, with the incorporation of more pre-snap motion and shifting players from one role to another on the field. It is not surprising that the leadership sounds all positive about it, since it was their decision. But the reviews have been exceptionally strong from the players as well.
We've heard Cowboys QB Dak Prescott praise offensive coordinator Kellen Moore as a "phenom" and "genius."— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) May 10, 2019
Today, RB Tony Pollard said he's "crazy incredible" at utilizing players in scheme. We hadn't even asked about Kellen
If Moore can bring this to calling the offense it could be exciting. And so far, Garrett seems to be giving him the freedom to do his thing.
Meanwhile, Kitna may be just what Dak Prescott needs. Moore’s strengths appear to be in calling plays, not coaching up his quarterback. Kitna is the opposite, and his comments during the past week reflect what he brings to the table.
Kitna said his playing career is invaluable: I'm not gonna sit back here w/ a clicker & go 'Come on, that's easy.' ... The fact I can tell them, I've already paid that cost for you. You don't even need to look at that route when we get this coverage. I already threw that pick.— Kate Hairopoulos (@khairopoulos) May 11, 2019
Unlike Moore, Kitna has many NFL starts under his belt - 124, to be exact. He truly knows what a QB faces. If he is good at teaching technique (which is unfortunately limited under CBA rules), he can help Prescott take the next step.
Meanwhile, Kris Richard is now coming into his second year as part of what is a surprising well-functioning partnership with Rod Marinelli running the defense. And we shouldn’t overlook the retention of Marc Colombo as the offensive line coach. All in all, this may be the best and most cohesive staff Garrett has had. And one that shows very few fingerprints of the owners in assembling.
The roster is just as strong
Much of the fan base is freaking out about the prospect of Prescott getting in the neighborhood of $30 million per year, although some of us (like me) have been saying it was inevitable for months now. Put that concern aside, and focus on something that is often glossed over: Prescott is just now entering his fourth year in the league and as a starter. He looked a lot like the phenom he was in his rookie year in the latter half of last season. And the Moore/Kitna combo looks much more favorable than what he was working under. If he has just the average improvement NFL starting QBs make from year three to four, then he is going to be worth every penny they pay him.
And the other parts of the offense look either better or just as good. Elliott is probably going to be playing to get that big second contract, although the team could still get an extension done before the season. The addition of Amari Cooper paid immediate dividends at mid-season last year, and now he and Prescott have a full offseason and camp to work on honing their on-field chemistry. Michael Gallup is similarly poised to take another step forward. There are some intriguing other pieces in the skill positions, with Tony Pollard having huge potential as a running back who is also outstanding as a receiver. (The one disappointing development so far is the reported injury to rookie RB Mike Weber, which we hope will not be too significant.) There appears to be a real plan to get more out of Jamize Olawale from the fullback position. And the return of Jason Witten brings back a real security blanket for the QB, with a couple of young tight ends who can develop into receiving threats on the roster as well.
And this offensive line could be set for a return to elite level. We still have to see if Frederick is back to anything like his All Pro form, but all reports have been very positive. Williams came back for the offseason having completely remade his physique to better handle the NFL level game. Tyron Smith is still one of the best left tackles in the business when healthy, Zack Martin is arguably the best guard in the league, and La’el Collins was actually looking much better once Colombo replaced Paul Alexander as his coach. And the depth may be the best in the NFL. Joe Looney and Cameron Fleming were more than serviceable, Connor McGovern looks like a real steal in the third round who may be able to back up all five positions if needed, and UDFAs Mitch Hyatt and Brandon Knight may well be real contenders to break through to the 53-man roster. If you believe in bloodlines, you can’t wait to see what Larry Allen Jr. brings as well.
Defensively, Rod Marinelli has to be pumped. DeMarcus Lawrence is back, and has a shiny new bookend in Robert Quinn. Marnelli believes he finally has the explosive 3-tech he has longed for in rookie Trysten Hill. Antwaun Woods is solid at 1-tech. And there is a lot of depth to contend for the defensive line rotation, with rookies Joe Jackson, Jalen Jelks, and Daniel Wise all likely to make the cuts hard to decide at the end of camp. And while we aren’t going to count this particular chicken until something good hatches, there is still the wild card of Randy Gregory to keep in the back of your mind.
The linebackers are arguably the best overall group in the league, especially for the 4-3 scheme Dallas uses. We saw what Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch could do, and now Sean Lee will be starting alongside them as the SAM, which gets his superb knowledge and anticipation on the field while limiting his exposure, as the “base” package will only be out there for a small percentage of the snaps.
A lot of people were disappointed that the Cowboys didn’t invest more at safety, but that was partly a vote of confidence in Xavier Woods. Corner is strong with Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, and Anthony Brown all back. And while Donovan Wilson was not drafted until the sixth round, he looks like a prototypical Richard defensive back. If you need a pet cat (outside of Allen, who is mine), you might want to consider UDFA Chris Westry. He’s big and fast, albeit raw, but looks like great raw material for Richard.
This is my ninth year covering the Cowboys here at BTB, and I don’t remember an offseason when the roster and the staff looked this strong. It may be too much optimism, but this still has the appearance of being the most Garrett has ever had to work with. That’s the good news.
The bad news, if you want to look at it that way, is that this will be a clear referendum on whether Garrett will be back, or if the Jones family will be forced to look in a new direction. They have finally given Garrett a full toolbox in all aspects. Now we are going to find out just how good he is at building and leading the contender we all want to see.