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The only thing the Cowboys’ offense has to fear is fear itself

It’s time for the Cowboys to stop playing scared on offense.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), 32nd President of the United States of America 1933-1945, giving one of his ‘fireside’ broadcasts to the American nation during.
Who knew he was a football guru, too?
Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

This seems to be the week to re-visit the postmortem on the failures of Scott Linehan as the offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys. On Monday, I took another run at it, inspired by a video posted by Jeff Cavanaugh of 105.3 The Fan. Well, he was at it again on Tuesday, posting another video that lambasted the tendency last season for the Cowboys to follow up a first down sack with - a run. They did so about 50% of the time. That call is basically giving up the possession, and just setting the team up to punt it away. Even worse, when they got the ball after having lost it on a turnover their previous possession, they ran the ball on first down about 70% of the time. Here is the chart he used for that data, which comes from this article.

Cavanaugh is not the only personality at The Fan who felt this frustration. Ben Rogers had his own mini-rant about how bad the Linehan situation was, and how necessary the change to Kellen Moore became.

In a league full of exciting, modern, exotic, powerful, high-tech sports car type offensive attacks, Linehan had his hands firmly at 10 and 2, attentively squeezing the life out of the steering wheel of a 2005 Chevrolet Malibu with 187k miles and cloth seats. The Cowboys have been attempting to overcome a sizable disadvantage in the weekly coaching chess match that takes place between coordinators. The Cowboys scheme and play-calling rhythm under Linehan has been so freaking predictable and terrible and predictably terrible that Dak & Co were starting out in a hole way too often. But no more.

The fact that the team has made the change spurs a good bit of cautious optimism. Still, it leaves unanswered this question: Why was the offense so maddeningly conservative?

In discussing this on social media, I threw out an off-the-cuff response about this.

Immodestly, I think I stumbled across a root cause for the problems last year. For whatever reason, Linehan was playing strictly to not lose, rather than to win. Extreme conservatism, which we saw in 2018, was the result.

We still don’t know why. Linehan was coaching for his job, and perhaps that is his reaction in such a situation. He certainly seemed to show a lack of faith in the ability of Dak Prescott to handle things aggressively. When Linehan had Tony Romo as his quarterback, we saw more willingness to attack the defense and let the QB create things. That is somewhat understandable. Romo had proven his capacity to improvise and read the defense. Prescott is still early in his career. He has shown growth in those areas, however, especially since the addition of Amari Cooper to the arsenal. Linehan did not adjust his own approach, though, and paid the price.

This still leaves us to wonder how aggressive Jason Garrett wants Moore to be. That attacking mentality does seems to be part of Moore’s football DNA. It should have been a factor in choosing to go with such an inexperienced coach to handle the offense. Moore will be calling the plays, so why would you promote him if you didn’t want him to make badly needed changes?

Still, Garrett is now coaching for his job. We are likely going to find out just how much of the conservatism stemmed from him, or if it was mostly coming from Linehan.

There is also the risk of Moore himself growing over-cautious as a rookie OC. It is always a possibility, especially if things get off to a rocky start this season. Countering that are some other elements of his situation.

  • His newness means he doesn’t know what can and can’t be done. That can be remarkably freeing.
  • With his head coach on the proverbial hot seat, the heat is mostly not going to be on him even if things don’t go as we hope.
  • As mentioned, he comes from a background of wide-open, attacking offenses in both high school and college. If he falls back on anything, that is likely to be it. He set records doing what we hope to see from Prescott this year.
  • Finally, he had a front-row seat to what happened to Linehan. That in itself should a strong argument in his own mind to not make the same mistakes.

Outside of what Moore brings to the table, this is perceived to be a truly loaded offense for the Cowboys. The offensive line should be much more like it was in 2016 than in 2017 and 2018, the receiving corps is much, much stronger than it was a year ago, Jason Witten with his veteran savvy is back to provide a safety blanket, and when analytics say it is a good idea to run the ball (like on third and short), the team still has Ezekiel Elliott to take the hand-off, as well as one of the most effective quarterbacks in the league when he uses his legs.

While we mostly have to wait for camp, preseason games, and then the real ones, we have seen a tantalizing hint that Moore is indeed taking things in a different, less cautious direction. That is the extensive work done on deeper passing plays in the OTAs. Those offseason practices are mostly about installation of the game plan, especially when a new OC is in place. All that work on putting more long balls into play was surely not just for show.

Mindset is something that can only be gauged as it is demonstrated. With a new guy calling the plays, we can only infer and project what that will be for the Dallas offense for now. It will obviously start to become more clear in training camp, now less than three weeks away. Some hints will also come in preseason games, but those will mostly just give us a rough sketch as a lot will be held back until the season opener against the New York Giants in two months.

The Cowboys must not play scared. Their weapons are too good, and “windows” close rapidly in the NFL. It is time to go after the opponents, not sit back and try to avoid risk.

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