There’s Plenty of Time to Fix the Dallas Cowboys’ Struggling Offense

First things first—Cowboys COO Stephen Jones maintains that Jason Garrett and the rest of the staff are not coaching for their jobs. But the 2–3 Cowboys face a crossroads with their conservative offense, and there are four obvious areas that need improvement. Also, other pro players with crucial games this weekend, a spotlight on two college players and answering your mail.
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Anytime a season gets off to a slow start in Dallas—where the bar is always set high—the coach’s job security will inevitably become a discussion point. And that’s how it is right now for Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, whose team is 2–3 with the likes of the Jaguars, Saints and Eagles (twice) looming over its next eight games.

Let’s start there—are Garrett and his staff coaching for their jobs?

“No,” Cowboys COO Stephen Jones answered late Wednesday afternoon, over his cell phone. “I think we’re all coaching to win football games, we’re all managing to win football games, we’re all playing to win football games. We’re not worried about jobs right now.”

Those jobs, by the way, are tough enough as things stand.

Dallas came into this season with questions, and the loudest ones centered on the exodus of skill-position staples Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. But there was also plenty of optimism internally. There were only two 30-somethings on the 53-man roster—linebacker Sean Lee and long snapper LP Ladouceur—and a sturdy young core along the lines of scrimmage. The quarterback was 25 years old and the bellcow was 23, and a slew of high draft picks dotted the defense’s back seven. The plan was to field a physically imposing team that could control the pace of games. Instead, a struggling offense has put it on an improving defense to win, and that identity has been mirrored in conservative coaching.

In fact, owner Jerry Jones himself was critical of Garrett’s decision to punt the ball on fourth-and-one in overtime on Sunday—“It’s time for risk at that particular time” —which served as a precursor to Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins putting the Texans in position to kick a game-winning field and hand the Cowboys an overtime loss.

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Yet despite all this, the younger Jones isn’t seeing doom, instead seeing potential. When I asked whether he’s encouraged with the defense, he answered by metaphorically resetting that bar to where the team had it on Labor Day. Sure, that single group’s playing well, but they can do better. Everyone can.

“Absolutely,” he said of the defense’s work. “But at the end of the day, you are what you are. At the end of the day, we’re 2–3, and we’re not playing well enough to be satisfied or be happy about anything. We have to play better. We’ve got a lot of young players that should improve, I believe we will improve. And if we don’t, we’re going to be very unsatisfied, regardless of how young we are, regardless of a handful of good players.

“I mean, that’s what we have, but we’re not gonna be satisfied if we continue at a 2–3 pace.”

In this week’s GamePlan, we’ll give you players to watch this weekend in both pro and college football, and get to your mail, as we always do, but we’re starting with a Dallas team that seemed to hit a crossroads with the elder Jones’s comments. With more coaches are going for it on fourth down and going for two points after touchdowns across the NFL, Garrett’s conservative approach was always going to invite scrutiny.

But the fact that the criticism came first from the team’s owner made this one a little different. For now, it just means the Cowboys have dug themselves a bit of a hole, one made a little less deep due to their divisional assignment (the Redskins, 2–2 and just bloodied by the Saints, are alone in first place in the NFC East). They have time, but they also have plenty to fix. What needs fixing? Well, we asked around …

The offensive line. All-Pro center Travis Frederick is out until at least December with Gullain-Barre syndrome, and while his absence hasn’t helped, it’s far from the only problem the Cowboys have had (his replacement, veteran Joe Looney, has been mostly fine). Four-time All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith, just 27 years old, isn’t close to his accustomed level through five games, and the unit has been inconsistent across the board.

The Cowboys have allocated a league-high $43.63 million, representing a quarter of its salary cap, to offensive linemen. The team’s identity in the 2014 and ’16 playoff seasons ran through the group, so if the line’s not a strength, that’s a problem. And it certainly needs to be more of a strength than it has been.

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Play-calling. Scott Linehan came aboard as play-caller in 2014, and was at the controls of units that ranked seventh, 22nd, fifth and 14th since. Currently, Dallas sits 25th. Worse, new receiver Allen Hurns called the play-calling into question on two occasions this week—a sentiment on which he’s not alone. When asked about whether Linehan’s losing the room on Wednesday, one player texted, “not yet, but he better tighten up.”

As we said it earlier, it’s a tough time to be considered old school—which is how Linehan is seen—given the Doug Pedersons and Sean McVays of the league. It’s also probably part of why there’s been buzz in league circles indicating that the Joneses may eventually set their sights on Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, who is, by the way, a native of West Texas.

All that isn’t great for Garrett, but I can say this for sure: The owners here aren’t going to haphazardly dump a coach they’ve invested a couple decades in without very good reason to do so. Garrett has time.

Dak’s efficiency. Prescott’s numbers this season aren’t terrible—he’s 89-of-144 for 961 yards, five touchdowns, four picks and a 81.4 rating. But the problem, to this point, has been progress, or lack thereof. Other teams see him as a one-read-and-run quarterback, after he effectively played point guard as a rookie. And there’s no question he misses the consistency that Witten brought, particularly in have-to-have-it situations.

He also clearly misses Frederick, who was an absolute maestro in blitz ID and run-game checks, which took so much of the mental load off a young quarterback who’s looking to play faster.

That said, Jones told me, as he sees it, “He’s doing everything he can. Can he play better? I’m sure he’d put himself in that category. I think we all have to be better. Anytime you’re not having success, you have to be better. We’re young, we’re a young team and a lot of these guys are new to our system, new to Dak, Dak’s new to them. We just have to continue to work.”

Overall consistency. The Cowboys turned a Houston fumble into a touchdown quickly after halftime, but then were picked and punted twice in their next three possessions. Part of this, of course, is that the Cowboys don’t have one thing offensively to hang their hat on, without the line’s accustomed dominance. But maybe a bigger part is that they haven’t been firing on all cylinders much yet.

“It can’t be a Zeke offense, it can’t be a Dak offense,” Jones said. “You gotta be multidimensional in this league. If all you do is throw it, it’ll catch up to you. If all you do is run it, it’s a problem. We’ve shown that. We can run the ball with anybody, but we have to get better in our passing game, everybody knows that, whether it’s Jason, whether it’s Scott Linehan, whether it’s Dak, whether it’s the receivers, the tight ends, Jerry, myself, [personnel chief] Will [McClay]. We’ve gotta be better.”

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Being better across the board is the theme here for the Cowboys. Does Hurns’s comment ramp up the drama? Sure it does. But there’s also an easy way for the Cowboys to nip that in the bud, and the guys in charge know it.

Amid the issues, there are positives. A young defense is playing well. Byron Jones’s move to corner has worked out. First-round pick Leighton Vander Esch looks like a star in the making. Kris Richard, the secondary coach who calls the defense on third down, has given the staff a big boost. There are also areas where promise hasn’t turned into production, so if Dallas can make that growth happen, the rest—as the COO sees it—will take care of itself.

“I just don’t think, in general, it’s time to point the finger at anybody,” Jones said. “Obviously, everybody’s got their opinions, people want to criticize the receivers, people want to criticize Dak, people want to criticize playcalling, people want to criticize Will, Jerry and I for how we put the team together. It’s the full body of work. We’ve gotta continue to work … It’ll come around. I’ve got zero blame on anybody.”

Which makes at least one of him in Dallas. Now, let’s get to the players to watch this weekend …

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Five NFL players in the spotlight in Week 6

Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict: Burfict played in his first game of the season last week after a four-game PED suspension, and Cincinnati looked fierce defensively, suffocating Miami’s offense and scoring twice to provide the difference in a 27–17 win. Now, comes the real test against a Pittsburgh offense that hit its stride against Atlanta. Keep in mind here, Burfict has always been involved when Steeler/Bengal games have gotten chippy in the past.

Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore: For as much as we make (justifiably) of Patrick Mahomes, he’s throwing to a lot of skill talent, so watching how Bill Belichick deploys his best cover guy—Gilmore’s been excellent—will be interesting. Don’t rule out the idea that he could wind up on Travis Kelce. Belichick’s done that before with athletic tight ends (he once assigned Aqib Talib to Jimmy Graham).

Rams WR Josh Reynolds: With Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp still in the concussion protocol, the 2017 fourth-round pick, who’s actually flashed some potential in limited opportunities, might get a shot at an increased workload. And those in Los Angeles wouldn’t be shocked if the tall, long Reynolds did something with it.

Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston: There’s a lot of money on the line for Winston here, no matter how this plays out, and a $20 million decision ahead for the Bucs. He’s taking over a loaded offense, and he gets soft landing back into life as a starting quarterback with a game indoors as an injury-ravaged Falcons defense.

Jaguars RB TJ Yeldon: No Leonard Fournette, no Corey Grant, lots of Yeldon coming. The Alabama product, in a contract year, had a big spring and summer, and he’s parlayed that into a nice start (258 yards on 49 carries; another 194 yards on 22 catches; 4 total TDs). And for the time being, with Dallas up next, it’s his show.

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Michigan DL Rashan Gary (vs. Wisconsin, ABC, 7:30 p.m.): Gary missed last week’s game, and has been working through an AC joint sprain for a while. Should he play, which seems likely at this point, he’ll face a massive Badger line that might have three guys drafted in the first two rounds in April. So this will most certainly be one of the first tapes the scouts pop in to look at the 6' 5", 283-pounder, who mostly plays on the edge at Michigan, but some project to play 3-technique tackle in the pros. Wherever he’s lined up, he’s got freakish athleticism that I’ve heard compared to that of Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah and San Francisco’s Solomon Thomas.

“He’s a fit in any defense,” said an AFC college scouting director. “You could see him play outside, and reducing inside on passing down in the NFL.” And the best part is that he’s probably a better football than either Ansah or Thomas was in college. “It’ll be a battle with that group at Wisconsin,” said an AFC personnel exec. “He’s a badass. … This kid is an edge player [in the NFL]. I’d say a little more like Ansah [than Thomas]. More physical, though, and nastier.”

And he isn’t the only Wolverine defender that the NFL will be eyeing—smallish but lightning-quick linebacker Devin Bush will have a real chance on Saturday night to allay concerns about his size. He’s got a shot at joining Gary in the first round in April.

LSU CB Greedy Williams (vs. Georgia, CBS, 3:30 p.m.): The redshirt sophomore may be the leader to be the first corner taken in April right now, but he’s not necessarily for everyone and the race is still fairly wide open. Which is why this week is a big one for the 6' 3", 185-pounder, who’ll probably get plenty of chances to man up Bulldogs star Riley Ridley (Calvin’s little brother).

“He’s tall, long, athletic, can run,” said one AFC college scouting director. “He’s in the mold of a lot of guys they’ve had [at LSU], and he’ll be that kind of player—an NFL press-and-run corner. The length and speed are the two things that stand out, but he’s good athlete, and has done a lot of man-to-man stuff.” The knocks? Well, he hasn’t flashed the scheme versatility that some teams covet, and his build is a little slight, which will call into question his ability in run support. And that’ll be a problem for some teams. For others, particularly Seattle-styled defenses, it won’t be.

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From Marco (@Langtang11): Why is Drew Brees still so underappreciated when it comes to all time greats?

I think a piece of it, Marco, is the era he played in. He came into the league a year after Tom Brady and three after Peyton Manning, and those two are probably in the top-five all-time. By the time he won his championship in 2009, Aaron Rodgers was starting in Green Bay. Rodgers would win a title in 2010, and may be capable of playing the position at a higher level than anyone ever has.

All of that is to say Brees’ era was a tough one to get recognized in as a quarterback. That said, he’s a slam dunk Hall of Famer, and was easily top-five at his position in most years since he signed with the Saints in 2006. There have been nine 5,000-yard seasons in NFL history, and Brees has five of them. No one else has even two. And he’s gotten there despite being benched multiple times in San Diego, then replaced.

The other thing Brees should be recognized for? He was the first spread quarterback to really make it in the pros, and he did it at just over six feet tall, meaning he opened doors for others in multiple ways. That’s, of course, without getting how he was the perfect triggerman for Sean Payton’s innovation, or what he did for New Orleans post-Katrina. So I’d say he’s got a pretty healthy legacy, even if he was overshadowed in some ways by Brady, Manning and Rodgers.

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From Anthony Scott (@deacon_ascott): Do you believe in Cincinnati this year?

Yes, Anthony, I do, and the reason why is grounded in a principle that worked out for me last year when I called the Eagles a darkhorse to win the whole thing—the Bengals are strong, and invested, in the trenches. They’ve had some attrition there the last few years, too, losing mainstays like Andrew Whitworth, Domata Peko and Kevin Zeitler. And this year, they fixed the issue.

The Bengals traded for Cordy Glenn, drafted Billy Price, and overhauled an offensive line that suffered from big swings-and-misses on Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher in the draft. And on defense, they invested picks in Carl Lawson, Jordan Willis and Sam Hubbard over the last two years to energize a group led by Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, both of whom just got extensions.

The result? Andy Dalton looks great, the run game has been pretty good (even through injuries to Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard), and the defense was a terror last week against Miami, with pressure from the front generating two touchdowns. Put it together, and I think you have another example of how a team that’s strong in the trenches will be a tough out every single week.

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From Matt Bowditch (@BowditchMatt): Who's going to be the biggest name to hit free agency?

Anyone ready to give up on their team in 2018? This one’s for you … And I guess we’d have to start with Le’Veon Bell, even if I’m not totally convinced there’s this pot of gold waiting for him at the other end of the rainbow, no matter how the rest of the year plays out for him.

Next? Well, what’s interesting is how the strength of the 2019 free agent class mirrors the strength of the draft class. If you need defensive front help, it’ll be everywhere this offseason. Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence and Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah, like Bell, were franchised in 2018. The fact that either would cost $20.6 million to tag again, means both could make it to the market.

Then, you’ve got Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney, Kansas City’s Dee Ford, Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett, tRams’ Ndamukong Suh, Philly’s Brandon Graham, Minnesota’s Sheldon Richardson, New England’s Trey Flowers and Seattle’s Frank Clark. Some will be franchised. But given how expensive the tags are, most of those guys probably won’t be, making for a pretty juicy.

Another spot to watch is safety, where Seattle’s Earl Thomas, Giants’ Landon Collins, Rams’ Lamarcus Joyner and Green Bay’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are up.

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From Nick Costillo (@ballinnickcast): Will we be seeing Chad Kelly anytime soon?

I don’t think so Nick. For now, I can’t at least say it hasn’t been a discussion point there. Broncos GM John Elway and coach Vance Joseph are tied to Case Keenum, and my sense is it’ll take falling out of contention for Kelly to get the call. And I, of course, am not assuming that won’t happen – Denver has the Rams, Cardinals, Chiefs, Texans, Chargers, Steelers and Bengals between now and Thanksgiving weekend.

Maybe the biggest problem is how much Keenum is being saddled with—he’s on pace to throw well over 600 passes, indicative of a team that’s playing from behind and needing the quarterback to play hero.

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From Steelers 2-2-1 (@Quis_WallStreet): You think Steelers should trade for Bucannon or Reddick?

Those, of course, are the two Cardinal linebackers drafted in the first round to play in old DC James Bettcher’s scheme, now stuck in limbo playing for Steve Wilks. And yes, Steelers guy, the Pittsburgh 3–4 is a better fit for those two than Wilks’ fast-flowing 4-3. Deon Bucannon is playing 40% of Arizona’s defensive snaps through five games, Haason Reddick is playing 32%.

That said, I think Reddick would be the more useful piece for the Steelers today. First off, he’s under contract for two years after this one, while Bucannon is up. Also, Reddick is more of a traditional linebacker, which could help Pittsburgh take care of the spot they’ve struggled to fill—where Ryan Shazier used to play. And in first-round pick Terrell Edmunds, Pittsburgh already has a hybrid type like Bucannon.

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From Jason Morrissey (@Flubbedtundra03): Who do the Eagles trade with for a RB?

I’m never saying never with the Howie Roseman-led Eagles—they kick tires exhaustively and on everyone and everything. But I’m not sure Le’Veon Bell was ever a real thing (though they did call Pittsburgh), nor do I think that they’re banging down Buffalo’s door to get LeSean McCoy (they did call the Bills too). Could it happen with Jay Ajayi down? Sure. Is it likely? No.

In fact, I’m told the Eagles don’t even view running back as their first or second biggest concern. The first one is over how one offensive tackle being beat up pretty good and the other is underachieving. The second issue is at corner, where Philly’s been torched. Can Sidney Jones make leap? It’d be a godsend for Philly if he did. And it’d sure help if they got some more out of Jason Peters and Lane Johnson too.

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From Danny Heifetz (@Danny_Heifext): When will the NFL change Ty Montgomery’s jersey so @Andy_Benoit can sleep at night?

We can wrap on this. I did see Andy crack wise on Twitter on it—and he’s right. Eighty-eight still looks bizarre on a back’s jersey, kinda like when Denard Robinson wore 98 at Michigan.

So if someone wants to start a page, I won’t help set it up, but I might go ahead and sign it for you. See you guys next week!