Cowboys fans are optimistic about the team’s chances going into the 2019 season, with good reason. The additions of Randall Cobb and Robert Quinn, the return of Jason Witten and draft picks like Trysten Hill, Connor Mcgovern and Tony Pollard have all fueled fan optimism.
But the biggest source of blue kool-aid has come from a change at the offensive coordinator spot. The departure of Scott Linehan and the promotion of Kellen Moore has many fans hoping a stagnant, predictable and often boring offensive scheme will be replaced by a vibrant, dynamic and exciting scheme that will lead to offensive riches.
It’s hard to recall when the arrival of an assistant coach created such out-sized expectations. Which leads to a simple question: has a change at offensive coordinator - while keeping most other parts in place - ever resulted in dramatically improved results? And the answer is an emphatic yes.
The year was 1991. Your Dallas Cowboys were coming off a 7-9 season that many considered a monumental achievement because those seven wins were a six-game improvement over the previous season. But those seven wins came largely via an improved defense.
In fact, the 1990 version of the Cowboys were a tale of two teams. The defense finished 15th in points allowed and 10th in yards allowed. The offense, meanwhile, finished 26th in points scored and 28th in yards gained. There were only 28 NFL teams back then meaning the Cowboys had a truly abysmal offense in 1990.
Those numbers astound me because - and I kid not - the 1990 Dallas Cowboys were absolutely loaded on offense. Doubt me? These were primary starters on that team:
- Quarterback: Troy Aikman (Hall of Famer)
- Running back: Emmitt Smith (Hall of Famer)
- Fullback: Tommy Agee
- Wide Receiver 1: Michael Irvin (Hall of Famer)
- Wide Receiver 2: Alexander Wright
- Wide Receiver 3: Kelvin Martin
- Tight End: Jay Novacek (5-time Pro Bowler, 1-time All Pro)
- Left Tackle: Mark Tuinei (2-time Pro Bowler)
- Left Guard: Crawford Ker
- Center: Mark Stepnoski (5-time Pro Bowler)
- Right Guard: John Gesek
- Right Tackle: Nate Newton (6-time Pro Bowler, 1-time All Pro)
Summarizing, an offense with three Hall of Famers and another four players who combined for 18 Pro Bowls somehow ended up one of the worst offenses in the league and one of the worst in Dallas Cowboys’ history. How does that happen?
Truthfully, there are a number of reasons. Michael Irvin missed several games. Five players were in their first or second NFL season. You could continue to peel the onion and find other reasons why this particular group failed so badly.
But there’s no getting around the fact that one David Shula was the offensive coordinator. Those unfamiliar with David Shula the person are certainly familiar with the Shula name. David was Hall of Fame coach Don Shula’s oldest son. He had been coaching for several years already, all with the Miami Dolphins under his father, as a wide receivers coach.
Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson made him the offensive coordinator in 1989 and the younger Shula rewarded them with consecutive seasons of offensive ineptness. This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for this particular Shula as he established a solid track record of mostly poor offensive performances as either an offensive coordinator or head coach.
The following are the ranking for offenses under David Shula as either head coach or offensive coordinator (rankings are for yards, points and giveaways):
There’s no way around the fact that those are very bad numbers.
Jimmy and Jerry, both not being fools, bid goodbye to Shula and brought in Norv Turner. Turner immediately made changes, implementing an Air Coryell offense that featured a rugged running game and an aggressive downfield passing attack.
The results were immediate, astonishing and undeniable. Overnight the Cowboys went from an offensive coma to an offensive juggernaut. Consider the team’s statistics those two seasons:
The Cowboys improved - dramatically - in virtually every major offensive category. Dallas went from being one of the absolute worst offenses in the league to one of the best. The team’s rankings improved across the board:
Now, there’s many reasons for the dramatic improvement, and not all can be attributed to Norv Turner. The roster changed - a little bit.
But the changes weren’t major. The key components (Aikman, Smith, Irvin, Novacek, Martin, Tuinei, Stepnoski, Newton) were all already on the roster. The only real changes:
- Daryl Johnston replaced Tommy Agee as the fullback
- Alvin Harper replaced Kelvin Martin as the #2 WR (but truthfully, his impact was minimal with only 20 catches, 326 yards and one very memorable touchdown).
- Nate Newton moved from RT to LG, his best position.
- Rookie Erik Williams immediately became a Pro Bowl caliber right tackle.
The bottom line is that the additions of Turner, Williams and Harper transformed a laughingstock of an offense into a feared unit that would dominate the league for the next five years. You can argue about how much the rookies upgraded the raw material Turner had to work with compared to Shula. But it’s virtually impossible to deny the addition of Turner - and his offensive philosophies - were the primary reason for the monumental turnaround in the Dallas Cowboys’ offense during this period.
And that clearly demonstrates just how much impact a change at the offensive coordinator position can have. So, can the Cowboys catch lightning in a bottle again, 28 years later? Time will tell. The good news is the Cowboys are starting from a better position. The 2018 Cowboys weren’t one of the worst offense in the league; however, they did finish 22nd in both points and yards. That leaves a lot of room for improvement. Luckily for Moore, like Turner, he’ll be working with what, on paper, looks like a talented offense. Cowboys’ fans will be ecstatic if Moore can replicate what Turner was able to accomplish back in 1991.