We have reached the end of a season that the Cowboys started with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. The team and its fans had every reason to be excited about the opportunity for a special season, building on the rousing success of their returning young stars at quarterback, running back, defensive tackle and cornerback. Now, looking back at a disappointing finish without even a playoff birth leaves all parts of the team subject to intense scrutiny inside and outside of the Star. With that in mind, we will look at the leadership of the team (the coaches and front office) and how they performed this season.
It’s been a few years since I was in school but one of the most important things I wanted to know for every class I took was, “does the teacher grade on the number or on a curve?”. That would always make a huge difference at the end of the class. For better, or worse, the NFL’s parity-driven setup requires that we always grade on a curve. An 8-8 record for one team can be a great job considering circumstances, while at the same time being a colossal failure for another. Over this series, we will grade the offensive coaches, the defensive and special teams coaches, the head coach and the front office. Today we will start with the offensive side of the ball.
Running Backs Coach – Gary Brown
Gary Brown began the season with one of the most talented position groups, not just on the Cowboys but on any team. He was three-deep with proven, 1000-yard backs in Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris and the star of the show, Ezekiel Elliott. They also had a talented young back in Rod Smith that was pushing the veterans all preseason. With that room, he should be expected to produce a dominant running game, and at times, he did. The Cowboys ended the season 2nd in total rushing yards and 3rd in yards per carry.
This is where grading on a curve comes in to play. Brown had to manage his group through the drama of Ezekiel Elliott’s legal battle with the league. NFL teams are made up of alpha males and managing those egos when a player is yoyoing between a big gameday role and being inactive is always difficult. This is even harder when dealing with such an accomplished group. When the suspension finally became a reality, Brown had his troops ready to carry their load and keep the running game effective. It was clear even in the dismal three-game losing streak at the beginning of the suspension, that the running backs were holding up their end of the bargain.
The only dings were that Elliott really didn’t come into the season in his best football shape and he looked unprepared in pass protection upon his return from suspension. Those are mostly on the player but motivating the players to be their best is part of coaching.
All of this together grades out to a solid A.
Wide Receivers Coach – Derek Dooley
Derek Dooley began the season with great expectations for his position group. Dez Bryant was finally healthy with a full offseason and he was going to be the guy Dallas paid for with the 2012-2014 production to match. Cole Beasley was set to build on an excellent 2016 in which he led the team in receptions and firmly establish himself as one of the top slot receivers in the entire league. They were able to keep Terrence Williams on a hometown discount deal AFTER getting Brice Butler back on a one-year prove it deal. The team also added another big-bodied wideout at the end of the draft in Noah Brown. This group was expected to make Dak Prescott’s 2nd season a smooth continuation of his dominant rookie year.
Looking back at the totality of the year for the Dallas wideouts, 2017 was an unmitigated disaster. The group went from the best team in the league in lowest drop percentage in 2016 to one of the worst this season. The drops were plentiful AND damaging as several ended up bouncing into the hands of the opposing defense. Dez Bryant never looked dominant and he didn’t develop any of his route running or expand his route tree. Beasley was shut out in most games and there was no plan in place to help him get open. Terrence Williams gave the Cowboys their only 100-yard receiving game but was also responsible for some of the biggest drops of the season and hasn’t developed any consistency. Brice Butler is still the same “flash-in-the-pan” guy he has always been.
A position coach spends all that time with guys and, if he can’t get improvement in ANY of them that is cause for concern. When ALL of them regress at the same time, it is time for a new voice to lead the room. It is hard to do worse with your players than the performance of this year’s Dallas wide receivers. That makes Dooley’s grade an F.
Tight Ends Coach – Steve Loney
Steve Loney took over for the legendary Mike Pope after two years as a low-level assistant on the offense. When speaking of curve grading. Loney has one of the all-time greatest Cowboys with him in Jason Witten. Witten’s leadership throughout the whole team is unquestioned. This is both a gift and a curse for his 1st-year position coach. Witten is still effective as both a receiver and a blocker, but he is no longer excellent at either. His status as an all-time great player demands that he start and play most of the snaps, but both he and the team would be better served with a reduction in his playing time as he continues his hall of fame career. I don’t envy the coach that has to implement that plan with him.
The Cowboys seemed to take a step back this season in the performance of their backups (James Hanna and Geoff Swaim) in terms of their effectiveness in the run game. Injury robbed Loney of the opportunity to coach up the potential of Rico Gathers, but the team seems to be very happy with the progress of Blake Jarwin. It is hard to really see the influence of Loney on this group other than a slight regression of the backups. That makes my grade for him a C.
Offensive Line Coach – Frank Pollack
Frank Pollack moved over to the big chair in the offensive line room in 2015. The departure of well-known offensive line guru Bill Callahan left some big shoes to fill, but Pollack has been up to the challenge over the ensuing seasons. This season he began with two-fifths of his unit gone. La’el Collins was moved to right tackle to replace the retired Doug Free, and there was an open competition for the left guard spot vacated by Ronald Leary’s free agent departure and Collins’ position change.
Everyone expected there to be growing pains for Collins and there were. However, throughout the season his play steadily improved under Pollack’s tutelage. He finished the season as an above average right tackle. The Cowboys were not nearly as lucky with their decision at left guard. They spent the whole offseason trying to make Chaz Green the starter and kept him there until he had his annual injury early in the season. The team insisted on doing this even though he was obviously not better than Jonathan Cooper. All the time Green spent working on being a guard must have made him forget how to play tackle. He was solid to good in 2016 when he was called upon to replace an injured Tyron Smith, but we all know the disaster that was Chaz Green against the Falcons when he was called upon to reprise that role this season. Jonathan Cooper looked like an above average starter when he played between the two all-pros (Smith and Travis Frederick) but was merely serviceable when he had to play with Byron Bell at the end of the year.
This is where the grading gets complicated. Did the front office dictate to Pollack to get Green ready and handicap his ability to put the best line and best depth on the field? I personally think so. I believe that there was pressure on Pollack to help justify the 3rd round pick they invested in Green and it happened to the detriment of the continuity and continued dominance of the whole group. I will give him a bit of a pass here and so his grade winds up a B.
Quarterbacks Coach – Wade Wilson
Wade Wilson reportedly banged the table in favor of taking Dak Prescott in the 2016 draft. The relationship they had cultivated through the draft process allowed Wilson to be a major factor in Prescott’s rookie of the year performance in 2016. What the coaches were able to do with the compensatory 4th round pick in replacing Cowboys great Tony Romo was nothing less than a stellar display of coaching prowess. Wilson was able to coach Prescott through some of the holes in his game and allow him to function superbly with a top-notch offense that season. That success appeared to carry over into the offseason program as all observers talked about was Dak’s improvements and his continued poise.
Prescott’s success continued well into the season as he was quieting any talk of a sophomore slump. He was even considered a dark horse candidate for MVP. Then the Atlanta game happened, and the bottom fell out of the quarterback’s performance to point where people were legitimately questioning his ability to operate an offense. Prescott was clearly shell-shocked and his supreme confidence in his teammates seemed to waver. His accuracy suffered as he wasn’t confident enough to set his feet properly behind a suddenly porous offensive line. His receivers gave him no help with their inability to separate from coverage and too many untimely drops. This regression seemed to cost Wilson some fans within and outside The Star as the search began for a scapegoat. It ultimately ended in the Wilson parting ways with the team within a week of completing the campaign.
All things considered, Wilson has been around for the development of Tony Romo and the explosion into the league of Dak Prescott. He deserved a better fate than “fall guy” for the 2017 team’s offensive struggles. He got a 2nd-year quarterback to a winning record with very little help from his supporting cast and helped Prescott navigate the first real adversity of his career. For this, he gets a B.
Offensive Coordinator – Scott Linehan
Scott Linehan came into the 2017 season with a seat that was cooler than the other side of the pillow (RIP Stuart Scott). He took a 4th round draft pick at quarterback and inserted him in for long-term starter Romo without a hitch. He was masterful in taking an offense designed for an excellent drop back passer and tweaking it just enough to maximize his offensive output anyway. Linehan was returning intact his entire skill position starting group with a full offseason to improve even more. That didn’t happen. The offense had flashes of brilliance against Green Bay and Kansas City, but was never the juggernaut the Cowboys trotted out almost every Sunday in 2016. There were plenty of reasons for this and it appears that Jerry Jones has decided to focus on those in deciding to keep Linehan for the 2018 season. I can’t focus on the excuses in determining Linehan’s grade for one main reason. It is the play-caller’s responsibility to prepare and adjust for injuries in the middle of a game.
The play-caller must be able to change the plan when it becomes clear that the plan (no matter how well thought out) can no longer work due to a change in personnel. It is inexcusable that Linehan never adjusted his protections help Chaz Green and keep his quarterback from being pummeled in that Atlanta fiasco. That gross negligence cost them the confidence of two players that were being counted on to be a big part of the team’s success. Prescott should regain his much-discussed poise that seemed lost after that beatdown, but Chaz Green was abused so badly that he may never recover enough to be a serviceable swing tackle in the NFL. Running Alfred Morris at the goal line against the Raiders when the bigger Rod Smith was available and NOT running Zeke at the goal line the next week when the game was still within reach against Seattle were other egregious mistakes that fall directly in the lap of the person calling the plays. His play-calling too often allowed the defensive alignment to dictate that his quarterback go away from their best player.
Scott Linehan will get another chance to show he can effectively create offense with all the talent Dallas has accumulated on that side of the ball. He can’t be too stubborn to admit when the game plan isn’t working. For the team to find success in 2018, he will need to be much better at not just creating a game plan, but executing the calls in real time that give his team the best chance to succeed. He will need to improve upon his grade of a D in 2017.
Update: In addition to the departure of Wade Wilson, the Cowboys will also lose Derek Dooley to the Universiy of Missouri, as he has accepted the offensive coordinator position there. Frank Pollack and Steve Loney will not be back with the team in 2018 and running backs coach Gary Brown is currently set to interview for the same role in Oakland. Scott Linehan appears to have survived the disastrous 2017 season, but with the departure of nearly his entire offensive staff, the onus will be placed squarely on his shoulders in 2018.
Let us know what you think about these grades and look for the defensive coaches grades next.