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Cutting loose the anchor: Why the Cowboys’ offense is already better than last year

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Is the Dallas offense doing a little addition by subtraction?

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NFL: Oakland Raiders at Dallas Cowboys
Yeah, bashing him again.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a burning question about the Dallas Cowboys that won’t be truly answered until we see the results on the field: Will the offense be better this season? While the team did manage to turn things around after a poor start in 2018 and get to the playoffs, there was still a lot of frustration about the conservatism and poor play calls under former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Now it is in Kellen Moore’s hands. It is understandable for there to be a bit of concern about a man with only one year of coaching experience taking over. If he is not up to the task, this will be a long, sad campaign for Dallas.

So this take may seem a bit controversial. It is that the offense is already better, because Linehan was effectively serving as a brake on things. That brake is gone, and Moore doesn’t have to be a genius. He just has to be competent and let what looks to be a very talented offensive roster play to the level of their ability.

Admittedly, that faith in the team is not universally shared. Among the points that faith involves: Dak Prescott is not only a true franchise quarterback, but will prove to be solidly in the top-ten at his position. Ezekiel Elliott will be more effective with even a modicum of misdirection and pre-snap motion, and what looks to be a recovering offensive line to open holes. That line will also aid the quarterback with better protection, assuming Travis Frederick does not suffer some setback. The wide receiver corps looks fast and dangerous, and Jason Witten will return to his role as the security blanket QBs need.

But this goes deeper, and is rooted in a perception that Linehan was truly dragging the team down with the much-discussed flaws in his approach. One of the most important parts of that is an idea that Joey Ickes, a former colleague here at BTB, came up with. He terms it being “elite player reliant”. As I understand it (and thanks to Joey for clarifying it for me), Linehan relied too much on his best players, or, as Joey put it, “All the targets in the pass game go to the elite players because he’s basically isolating all the routes. So only guys who can win one versus one consistently get targeted a bunch.” This meant forcing the ball to the players Linehan considered the best, like Dez Bryant. It could work when Bryant was at the top of his game, but it also came with the cost of the defense knowing where the ball was likely to go and adjusting to counter. It meant that other weapons were underutilized, and carries a built-in conservatism. Really, it is a definition of predictability.

Additionally, this should extend to the running game as well, which not only means piling a heavy load on Elliott, but on needing the offensive line to be dominant. It worked beautifully in 2014 with DeMarco Murray as well as Elliott’s rookie year of 2016, when the line was operating at peak efficiency. But it fell apart in 2017 and 2018 as injuries and Frederick’s illness played havoc with things. It was an issue that reared its head repeatedly when the best running back in the league was stopped for little or no gain repeatedly in short yardage last year. It could have been overcome with some creativity, but that seldom was used as Linehan kept going back to his comfort zone, even though that zone really didn’t exist given the problems the line was having. There is an old saying that doing the same thing over and over and expecting the results to change is a definition of insanity that comes to mind here. Linehan just kept calling plays that required a patchwork line to perform the way his former stellar units had. They couldn’t, and the results were predictable.

That line issue was also significant for pass protection, and the most glaring example of failure was the horrid game against the Atlanta Falcons in 2017, when the Chaz Green experiment blew up and Dak Prescott was lucky to escape intact. Those issues did not disappear in 2018, and Bob Sturm has an excellent series of posts at The Athletic about the huge number of sacks surrendered, and just who was responsible for each.

Both the running and passing shortfalls could have been mitigated by using more motion and sets that didn’t telegraph where the ball was going, but those just did not happen under Linehan. Perhaps he did not realize he was effectively coaching for his job last season, but that should have been blatantly obvious to even the most casual observer, much less the man at the center of the whirlwind.

These are reasons why the removal of Linehan from the equation should, in and of itself, make this offense better. Moore was promoted to bring the needed changes in approach. Despite his inexperience, the installation of his new wrinkles went very well in the OTAs and minicamp. All the observers reported that the changes were evident, and seemed to be going very well. It was only in helmets and shorts with no contact, of course, but the principles demonstrated were doing exactly what they were supposed to.

There is another level of concern over the underlying philosophy of the offense, which is still driven by Jason Garrett. That centers around Garrett, through Moore, reverting back to the same conservative tendencies. But that is a static view of things. It assumes Garrett has no ability to learn and adapt. Based on reports, a running conflict over exactly that between the head coach and his offensive coordinator played a large part in the decision to move on from Linehan. Further, Garrett has experience successfully running a much more wide-open offense in his own days in the OC job. He is a smart man, and is coaching for his job this year. I don’t think a foolish consistency is going to be a problem.

There was another, less significant coaching move that relates to how the offense should be better, and that was the midseason replacement of offensive line coach Paul Alexander with Marc Colombo. It looked like the line responded well down the stretch, which bodes well. Now Colombo has had a full offseason and still has camp to finish correcting the line issues that drug the team down.

A new offensive coordinator is not the only indicator that the team is fully committed to a more innovative, wide open attack. The offseason additions to the roster, including players like Randall Cobb, Tony Pollard, and UDFA speed merchants Jon’Vea Johnson and Jalen Guyton, all show that the roster has been remodeled to something other than “line ‘em up and beat ‘em down” offensively. The idea of using pre-snap motion and different personnel packages to open the field up fits right along with that, and those seem to be part of Moore’s DNA.

So despite this being so very early, the hypothesis here is that the offense is already better for having removed the anchor that Linehan had become for the offense. The case is convincing, at least to me, that he was holding back his talented players. Now they can turn loose. I think they will.