Dallas Cowboys: The Linehan Effect

Pat Thorman takes a look at how will the Cowboys' hiring of Scott Linehan affects their fantasy prospects for 2014.

| 3 years ago

Pat Thorman takes a look at how will the Cowboys' hiring of Scott Linehan affects their fantasy prospects for 2014.

Dallas Cowboys: The Linehan Effect


DeMarco MurrayThe simplicity of the failure made it all the more exasperating. After all, the Dallas Cowboys’ offense did its job in 2013, and for the most part did it well. They just did not do it often enough.

Dallas totaled the fifth-most points in the NFL. They tied the Patriots for the eighth-fewest turnovers. The Cowboys placed a quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, and even a kicker in the top 10 of fantasy scorers at their respective positions. They could have done better.

Perhaps the most telling of all is the 0.46 points per play that Dallas averaged. The Super Bowl-bound Denver Broncos led the league with a 0.52 mark, and were the only offense to average more points per snap than Dallas.

Let that sink in for a second. Even the fantasy darling Chicago Bears, who placed second in total scoring and only ran the 22nd-most plays, averaged fewer points (0.44) on a per-snap basis than Jason Garrett’s band of wayward wranglers.

The Cowboys snapped it a league-low 957 times in 2013. It was a major departure from the previous four campaigns, during which they averaged 1,030.3 plays and a 12.3 NFL ranking. The difference of 73.3 snaps is roughly the equivalent of an entire game’s worth for a team that leads the league in total plays run (Denver posted an NFL-best 72.3 in 2013).

Add in the Cowboys ranked eighth in yards per snap (5.4), and those 73.3 unaccounted-for plays roughly equate to an additional 396 yards and 34 points. Obviously a lot more goes into it, not the least of which is that wet paper bag of a defense that they kept running out there, and we will get to that. However, it does give a feel for what was missing, and for what might have been if they just ran their average amount of plays from recent seasons.

Thirty-four more points would have ranked them second in the NFL.

A New Sheriff in Town?

If only.

In recent years the Cowboys’ offensive hierarchy and debilitating play call-relaying process has resembled baby monkeys playing telephone, on an ether binge. Perhaps the hiring of former Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan can streamline it for them. Maybe he just has stronger ether.

Either way, it appears as if Dallas’ new passing game coordinator will be heavily involved in calling plays, and the obvious conclusion is that their offense will embark on a throwing binge. Prior to his five-year stint in Detroit, Linehan spent two-plus seasons as head coach of the St. Louis Rams. In his last seven full seasons (he was fired after four games in 2008), Linehan’s offenses never ranked lower than ninth in pass attempts (2007), and regularly ended up in the top three.

Year

2006

2007

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Pass Att.

592

574

585

633

666

740*

634

Rank

3

9

6

3

1

1

5

* NFL Record

Obviously Linehan’s hiring is a positive development for the fantasy prospects of quarterback Tony Romo and wideout Dez Bryant, primarily, and Dallas’ other receiving targets in general. Parallels will be drawn between Bryant and Lions’ superstar wideout Calvin Johnson, and for good reason. They are both physical marvels and the focal points of their respective offenses. However, it should be kept in mind that Bryant only saw 0.8 fewer targets per game in 2013 than Johnson.

On the other hand, Romo will see a boost in attempts from the 35.7 per game he averaged in 2013. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, an inferior quarterback by nearly every statistical measure, attempted 39.6 passes per game in 2013. That came one year after he set an NFL record by slinging 45.4 passes per contest. Romo averaged 0.51 fantasy points per attempt in 2013, which beat the mark that Stafford set (0.48) while placing as the sixth-best passer in fake football. In 2012, Romo scored two more fantasy points than Stafford, despite attempting 83 fewer passes.

Crank up the volume

Beyond the angle that says Dallas will throw-throw-throw, the biggest positive comes purely from an overall volume standpoint. As discussed above, the Cowboys compared favorably on a per-play basis with any offense but Denver’s. They even ranked eighth in yards per carry (4.5), and DeMarco Murray averaged the most yards per attempt (5.2) of any runner with a minimum of 200 carries.

Increased snaps will mean more opportunities across the board, and Linehan has proven to be nothing short of a rainmaker when it comes to play volume.

Year

2006

2007

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Snaps

1065

1026

1037

1064

1058

1160

1102

Rank

3

10

8

5

4

2

5

Even going back to his first NFL job with the Minnesota Vikings, as receivers coach and offensive coordinator (2002 through 2004), Linehan’s offenses have ranked near the top of the league in snaps more often than not. The Vikings ranked third in 2002 and second in 2003, before slumping in 2004 (22nd). However, what stands out the most from those seasons is that Minnesota ranked eighth and seventh in rushing attempts during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, respectively.

It is not that Linehan has ignored his running backs. He has deployed them in a manner that fits what they do best. Michael Bennett had 255 rushing attempts in 2002, and Steven Jackson ran it 237 times in 2007 a year after posting a truly eye-popping season. In 2006, Jackson ran for 1,528 yards on 346 carries, and caught 90 passes for 806 yards, with 16 total touchdowns.

Murray would probably be okay with that workload, considering that his 217 rushing attempts ranked 18th among his peers. He is also a skilled receiver, who turned 87 percent of his 61 targets into catches in 2013. Along those lines, Murray owners should be nothing but encouraged at his prospects. Just once has Linehan coached an NFL offense that has failed to crack 83 running back receptions, and backs regularly have broken the 100-catch barrier.

Scott Linehan’s influence on the offense’s play volume will be the tide that lifts all ships.

Doomedsday Defense

Dallas ran the fewest plays in the league mainly as a result of their defense being the most accommodative unit in the NFL. Simply put, they could not get off the field so the Cowboys’ offense could take it. They surrendered 415.3 yards per game (32nd), and ranked 29th in third down conversion percentage allowed (43.3%).

It is dangerous to look at a bad situation and say that it can only get better. Chances are, however, the Cowboys will not be so thoroughly dominated by opposing offenses again in 2014. Their defense suffered an unusual amount of injuries last year, particularly along the front seven. Ten of their 16 opponents ranked in the top half of the league in scoring offense, and seven were in the top 10.

Dallas ranked 24th in time of possession last year. In 2012 they were 13th. Before that, starting with Romo’s first year in the NFL, the Cowboys ranked 10th, 1st, 9th, 9th, 18th, 4th, 12th, and 8th. Before running the fewest snaps in 2013, Dallas ranked 8th in 2012, 14th in 2011, 14th in 2010, 13th in 2009, and 20th in 2008.

From 2008 through 2012, of the 25 total instances in which a team ranked as a bottom five team in total plays, just 28 percent of the time did the same squad wind up back in the bottom five again the next year. The average ranking jump from a bottom five finish to the next year is 8.6 places per team, and on only three occasions did the ranking fall. While none of that means it is a rock-solid guarantee, chances are very much against the Cowboys finishing last in snaps again in 2014.

Outlook is positive

The combination of Dallas’ per snap firepower with a nearly guaranteed hike in play volume is an exciting prospect. Scott Linehan’s arrival will undoubtedly account for a sizable portion of the additional snaps if the Cowboys can simply manage to streamline their play-calling process. The Cowboys’ nearly unavoidable defensive improvement, and (dead cat?) bounce from the bottom of the play total standings, should take care of the rest. A repeat of 2013’s defensive futility would be historic, and regression is far more common than records.

Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman



Pat Thorman is a lead writer for PFF Fantasy and a Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner.

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