Task of fixing prolonged offensive slump falls on OC Linehan
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.
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.”