Task of fix­ing pro­longed of­fen­sive slump falls on OC Line­han

The Dallas Morning News - - Sportsday - BRAN­DON GE­ORGE bge­orge@dal­las­news.com

FRISCO — A frus­trated Scott Line­han headed straight for the exit door of the vis­it­ing locker room last Sun­day at Carolina when coach Ja­son Gar­rett stopped him.

Gar­rett was check­ing on his of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, gaug­ing how he was do­ing af­ter a rough sea­son opener that fin­ished with the Cow­boys mus­ter­ing only 232 yards and eight points.

Af­ter a brief ex­change, Line­han left the locker room and told re­porters he wasn’t talk­ing.

“It’s like ev­ery­body else, [I] wasn’t

real fired up about how we per­formed,” Line­han ex­plained Thurs­day about why he de­clined to com­ment, “and want­ing to look at the tape first.”

One game into the sea­son, and al­ready the heat is on Line­han. He ac­knowl­edged as much Thurs­day, adding that fac­ing crit­i­cism is sim­ply part of his job.

But Line­han shoul­ders the re­spon­si­bil­ity of mak­ing the Cow­boys’ of­fense work with­out No. 1 re­ceiver Dez Bryant and one of the most pro­duc­tive tight ends in NFL his­tory in Ja­son Wit­ten.

The Cow­boys gave Line­han great lat­i­tude in the off­sea­son. He had a voice in the de­ci­sion to re­lease Bryant and to hire four new as­sis­tants to coach quar­ter­backs, re­ceivers, tight ends and the of­fen­sive line. The new quar­ter­backs coach is Kellen Moore, one of Line­han’s clos­est con­fi­dants.

If this of­fense craters, Line­han’s job will be on the line.

“Peo­ple can crit­i­cize peo­ple even on good days,” Line­han said. “I’ve done this long enough that you can’t worry about if it’s fair or un­fair. Cer­tainly, if an of­fense doesn’t put up a lot of points there’s go­ing to be crit­i­cism to­ward how we played. We ac­cept that and take on the chal­lenge that we’re go­ing to go out and play much bet­ter the next game.”

Stop­ping the slide

The Cow­boys spent all week lead­ing up to Sun­day night’s home opener against the Giants try­ing to ex­plain away their woe­ful of­fen­sive per­for­mance against the Panthers. Mostly, they pointed to how they faced too many sec­ond- and thir­dand-longs be­cause of penal­ties or sacks. That didn’t al­low them to use much of their game plan, they said.

What has to con­cern Cow­boys ex­ec­u­tives and coaches more — if they’re truly hon­est with them­selves — is that Sun­day’s loss wasn’t an out­lier.

If Line­han wants to stay on solid ground with the Cow­boys, he must find a way to stop the de­cline of quar­ter­back Dak Prescott. Cow­boys owner Jerry Jones’ charge in the off­sea­son was for Line­han to make the of­fense more “Dak-friendly.”

Prescott has started 33 games. In his first 22 starts, Prescott av­er­aged 231.5 pass­ing yards with 37 touch­downs and eight in­ter­cep­tions with a quar­ter­back rat­ing of 102.8. Over his last 11 starts, Prescott has av­er­aged 188 pass­ing yards with eight touch­downs and nine in­ter­cep­tions and a quar­ter­back rat­ing of 78.6.

One glar­ing prob­lem for Prescott of late has been in­creased de­fen­sive pres­sure. In his first 22 starts, Prescott was sacked 32 times. Over these last 11, he’s been sacked 31 times.

Of course, part of that 11game slide for Prescott in­cludes the six-game sus­pen­sion of Ezekiel El­liott last sea­son. But with El­liott back in the lineup for the last three games, the Cow­boys have scored 26 points.

The Cow­boys have av­er­aged only 17.9 points over their last 11 games, five times fail­ing to score at least 10.

Prescott has passed for more than 200 yards in only three of those 11 games. The out­lier is the 332-yard pass­ing game against the Giants on Dec. 10, but that in­cluded two plays with a com­bined 117 yards af­ter the catch on touch­downs to Rod Smith and Bryant.

Cre­ativ­ity lack­ing

A quick fix for the of­fense might not be on deck. The Cow­boys over­hauled their re­ceiv­ing corps in the off­sea­son and new tar­gets Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup, Deonte Thomp­son and Tavon Austin will need time to mesh with Prescott. The Cow­boys also have lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence at tight end now that Wit­ten has re­tired.

That means the op­pos­ing de­fense’s game plan — crowd the line of scrim­mage to stop El­liott and take your chances with Prescott —is pretty sim­ple.

The Panthers loaded the tackle box on more than half of the Cow­boys’ of­fen­sive plays Sun­day, and Dal­las couldn’t find a way to back them off.

One pur­ported strength of the new re­ceivers is that they’re a ver­sa­tile group, able to line up out­side or in the slot on any given play. That should lend it­self to more cre­ativ­ity.

Also, op­pos­ing de­fenses seem­ingly shouldn’t know what to ex­pect be­cause in pre­vi­ous years Bryant ran a lim­ited num­ber of routes and Wit­ten’s sig­na­ture play was the Y-op­tion.

But the Cow­boys’ of­fense didn’t show any new wrin­kles Sun­day.

That was a talk­ing point of Cow­boys Hall of Fame quar­ter­back and Fox NFL an­a­lyst Troy Aik­man. In the third quar­ter of the tele­vi­sion broad­cast, Aik­man de­clared, “I’m not see­ing any cre­ativ­ity.”

Cow­boys ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent Stephen Jones re­sponded to Aik­man’s com­ment ear­lier in the week dur­ing an ap­pear­ance on “The Fan” KRLD-FM (105.3).

“At the end of the day,” Jones said, “ev­ery­body can play arm­chair quar­ter­back and point fin­gers af­ter the fact.”

Line­han was asked Thurs­day about Aik­man’s crit­i­cism.

“Peo­ple have their own opin­ions,” Line­han said. “It’s hard to be su­per cre­ative when you’re hav­ing loss-yardage plays. But I thought we had some re­ally good stuff for the game that we couldn’t use. But he’s en­ti­tled to what­ever opin­ion he has about that. It’s our job to go out and show him that we have some stuff that maybe he’ll be im­pressed with.”

Bryant also crit­i­cized Line­han in July on Twit­ter, say­ing he had “garbage ass play call­ing” last sea­son be­cause “ev­ery­body lined up in the same spot for 17 weeks.”

Bryant and Wit­ten at least gave the Cow­boys’ of­fense some “givens.” Those are plays that Line­han could call at al­most any time and feel con­fi­dent they’d be suc­cess­ful, such as Wit­ten’s Y-op­tion route.

There aren’t many “givens” left for this pass­ing at­tack.

“If you have a cou­ple of those things, five of those things, 10 of those things,” Gar­rett said, “that’s what the best of­fenses have.”

The Cow­boys fi­nally gained a lit­tle rhythm on of­fense in the sec­ond half Sun­day by us­ing a no-hud­dle at­tack to spread the field with empty sets. Ex­pect more of that against the Giants, likely much ear­lier, as the of­fense tries to find its way.

Break­out or break­down?

In past stops, Line­han has got­ten the most out of his quar­ter­backs in the third year in his of­fense. In 2004 in Min­nesota, Daunte Culpepper set ca­reer highs with 379 com­ple­tions, 4,717 pass­ing yards and 39 touch­downs. In 2011 in Detroit, Matthew Stafford posted ca­reer highs of 5,038 pass­ing yards and 41 touch­downs.

This is Year 3 for Prescott un­der Line­han. Will he also en­joy a break­out cam­paign?

Prescott ex­celled as a rookie in 2016 but took a step back last sea­son. Line­han was cred­ited for adapt­ing the Cow­boys’ of­fense in 2016 to fit Prescott’s skill set, adding some read-op­tion runs and bootlegs, among other twists. But the Cow­boys haven’t in­creased their run­ning plays for Prescott since his rookie year, in part, be­cause they feel like he can be their fran­chise quar­ter­back and want to avoid in­jury.

The Cow­boys’ of­fense fin­ished fifth in the league in yards and scor­ing in 2016, help­ing to ig­nite talk about Line­han pos­si­bly be­ing a head-coach­ing can­di­date again. Eigh­teen months ago, Line­han signed a con­tract ex­ten­sion that at more than $2 mil­lion a sea­son makes him among the high­est­paid co­or­di­na­tors in the league.

But that op­ti­mism has faded fast, with the of­fense now in an ex­tended funk.

Perhaps the only new twist Line­han showed at Carolina was that he han­dled the calls from a coach­ing booth in­stead of on the field as he had in his four pre­vi­ous sea­sons in Dal­las.

Line­han said call­ing the plays from above helps him to bet­ter see all 22 play­ers on the field. He’s en­trusted Moore to be his mid­dle man on the side­line, pass­ing along his words of ad­vice to Prescott.

“I feel like I can see the game bet­ter,” Line­han said. “Prob­a­bly didn’t look like it last Sun­day.”

Gar­rett was asked if he’d con­sider tak­ing over play-call­ing du­ties as he did ear­lier in his ten­ure, but he said he hasn’t lost con­fi­dence in Line­han.

“I have a tremen­dous amount of faith in Scott,” Gar­rett said. “We just have to do a bet­ter job col­lec­tively to help us move the foot­ball and score some more points.”

Other­wise, Line­han’s frus­tra­tions won’t sub­side any time soon.

“There is no loss in con­fi­dence at all,” re­ceiver Cole Beasley said of the of­fense. “We’re still very pos­i­tive. We know what we have in here. No­body is hit­ting the panic but­ton.”

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