I could make this a very, very short article by answering the headline question — “Will Dak Prescott and the 1-2 Dallas Cowboys really ‘sling it around’ against the Lions?” — thusly:
Dallas’ offensive struggles to this point have offensive coordinator Scott Linehan conceding that it’s all taken an emotional toll of sorts.
“You start to press,” Linehan said. “I think our guys just need to basically take the weight of the world off their shoulders and go out and play. Just start slingin’ it around. They’re ready to do that.”
Wait. What did he say? “Slingin’ it around?”
Yippee! But … What. What did he really say?
You’ll have to take my word on this (at least until Sunday at AT&T Stadium if/when I’m proven wrong), but Linehan does NOT use “slingin’ it around” here as a way of suggesting that QB Dak Prescott is going to be “unleashed” to show off his inner Jared Goff (who after Thursday night’s win over Minnesota registered 465 yards and five TDs in one game compared to Dak’s 498/2 in three games.) Nor does he mean “slingin’ it around” here as a way of suggesting Dallas is going “Full Favre” — that is, be a “gunslinger” as part of a gameplan designed to purposely include 50 pass attempts, including the lunatic freedom to throw behind-the-back passes and such.
If the Dallas gameplan is to ask Dak and his pass-catchers to be that against the Lions, Dallas will get slaughtered.
No, I’m pretty certain that Linehan is talking about being “looser” in the attitude department, not looser with the ball. He wants everybody to breathe. To smile. And then, to execute.
Having said that, are there different and better ways to pull this offense out of a funk that has the Cowboys averaging 277.7 yards per game (30th in the NFL), 145 passing yards per game (31st in the NFL) and just 13.7 points per game (31st in the NFL)? Yes. Which is where I come up with these Five Fixes — and my thoughts on whether Dallas will actually employ them:
5) “There are going to be some different things you’ll see,” Prescott said.
And, added Linehan, “We’re obviously searching for some things that will help us. I think we’ve got some good stuff in this week. Maybe just a few more wrinkles to it.”
I believe those “difference” and “wrinkles” won’t be about behind-the-back passes or 50-yard alley-oops. I think they’ll be about specifics in the passing game … “specific” to the point where the layman fan (like myself) will barely notice them. Is there a specific down-and-distance play-call for Allen Hurns to line up at the X and be given a 50-50-ball chance? A lot more 11 personnel? (More on this in a moment.) A bubble screen to Tavon Austin?
I think these are the sort of things Dallas has worked on in practice this week … stuff that’s essentially already in the playbook but that needs to be polished up and brought out.
4) Shoot your shot with Tavon Austin. He’s the most explosive athlete on the entire roster. Move forward from considering him a “gimmick” guy or an “exotics” guy and make him an offensive staple. Not to the point where COO Stephen Jones’ “25 touches per game” comes true, but heck … he’s not even on pace for 25 touches a month! Let him play receiver — in the slot, where he can win in space. Let him play running back — shifting from outside, thus creating some defensive confusion. I’m not sure Dallas can “out-scheme” anybody; we shall see. But Tavon Austin, shedding the always-silly “Web-Back” tag, is the one guy on this offense who can out-athlete opponents.
Head coach Jason Garrett said on Monday that there would be “no major personnel changes.” But this would count as one. I do think this is coming on Sunday.
3) Dump the reliance on the tight end. None of the four of them are ready to “win” at their position right now (and I say that with great respect for Geoff Swaim, because by God, as he gets the heck beat out of him every week as he tries to be Jason Witten). So if you can’t win with tight ends, why be obligated to use tight ends? There’s no rule that says you must, you know.
Fewer tight ends. More 10 Personnel. I’ll tell you something regarding the “predictability” of the Dallas play-calling: You run a couple of plays out of 10 Personnel, even running plays, and the defense will barely recognize what its watching.
Will it happen? It was only two weeks ago that I brought up “conservatism” to Garrett in a press conference, and when he pretended to not know what I meant, brew my “You know, two tight ends and a fullback” response. So, alas, no. I doubt Dallas goes this way. Garrett and Linehan are as married to the tight end as they are to each other.
2) The Cowboys have scored 41 points. That’s their lowest total three games deep into the season since 1990. If you are Garrett, as much as you trust Linehan, how do you keep your hands off the game-day play-calling steering wheel that will possibly control the rest of your head coaching career? If you are an offensive-minded coach, as much as you trust what you’ve built, how do you watch Rams-Vikings on Thursday and not say, “Dang it, can we do any of that? At least, in terms of tempo?”
Will Dallas go no-huddle here? As with “slingin’ it,” be careful what you wish for. If you “sling it” and aren’t good at it, you throw interceptions. If you go up-tempo and aren’t good at it, you are on the field as an offense for 40 seconds before your poor, overburdened defense has to drag its butt onto the field once again to try to harass the well-protected and quick-release QB Matthew Stafford and his dangerous batch of receivers.
I’m not sure how much of this happens. I can tell you, though, that any ownership group that watched Rams-Vikings on Thursday muttered to itself, “Dang it, can we do any of that?” … And then wondered, if “we” cannot, why not? And if not now, maybe next year, under a different coaching regime.
1) They actually need to run the football more. … but just do it better. I’m sorry if you think this is boring. But there are simple solutions to not being the poorest third-down conversion team in the NFL (at 23 percent) and they start on winning on third-and-1. If this Dallas Cowboys roster can’t win on third-and-1, it can’t win at anything. When Ezekiel Elliott gets at least 20 carries, the Cowboys are 16-5; there is some chicken/egg there, as maybe he gets carries when Dallas is ahead in games it is destined to win. But the smartest people inside this building watched film of Seattle’s win over Dallas and of Carolina’s win over Dallas and view with admiration how they did it. Both those offenses are short on weaponry. But Carolina has a running QB in Cam Newton and Seattle has a QB who can run in Russell Wilson. Doesn’t Dallas have that? Neither team has healthy Pro Bowl tight ends or receivers. Isn’t that just like Dallas? Carolina has Christian McCaffrey and in Week 1 he got 16 touches to Cam’s 13 carries … and Cam completed just 17 throws. Seattle, in Week 3, had somebody named “Chris Carson” and he got 32 carries for 102 yards, to pair with Wilson, who kept plays alive with his legs and completed just 16 passes.
Even in this Rams-Vikings-style era, some teams do win with run-first offenses. Hey, two of them just beat Dallas.
RPOs as the base offense? I bet Dallas won’t do that, but I believe it should. More risk with Dak injury-wise, but a lessened risk of all the bad things that can happen when he’s asked to be the thrower he is not, and more reward if if works. And, via RPO, Zeke remains fully involved, too.
But what about “slingin’ it”? I think Linehan means that he wants Dak to “let ‘er rip” on the pass plays that are called, and to do so with swagger and confidence and freedom. And me? I’d like him to run and hand off with swagger and confidence and freedom, too.
“Scott is saying, ‘Just us going out there,” Dak said, and “(be) ourselves, from the passing game, from the running game, getting comfortable with everything. It just boils down to the execution. He can call whatever play he wants to call, it’s on us to execute it and execute it the right way. The bottom line is that’s how it’s got to be approached.”
And you’ll notice that my Five Fixes fit into that framework. Not “panic.” Not drastic alterations. “Differences,” like Prescott said. “Wrinkles,” like Linehan said. Execution, like everybody says … but execution of a gameplan that plays to Dallas’ strengths, as few as those may be.