Why the Hiring of Scott Linehan Could Be a Great Move for the Cowboys

The Cowboys have more problems on defense than offense, but Linehan could create an offensive juggernaut in Dallas.

What Jerry Jones wants, he usually gets. Unsatisfied with the Cowboys offense, he brought in former Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan during the offseason and immediately dubbed him the "passing game coordinator." Linehan is more recently known for reviving the Lions offense, but has been on the coaching staffs of the Rams (head coach), Dolphins, and Vikings over the past dozen seasons.

Linehan had varying results throughout his coaching career with four different offenses. Granted, he coached Calvin Johnson and Randy Moss, but he also did well with Chris Chambers and Moe Williams. But Linehan’s effect wasn’t just on top receivers; it extended to using running backs in the passing game as well as channeling his inner Bill Belicheck in his use of tight ends. So let’s draw from Linehan’s past to see how it will affect the Cowboy’s future.

Improved Efficiency

Linehan had different successes as well as failures with each team he coached. In Minnesota, he not only had Randy Moss, but Daunte Culpepper pre-knee problems. In Linehan's third and final season there, the Vikings posted an Adjusted (for strength of schedule) Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) total that happened to be the highest in Linehan’s coaching career. For a quick refresher on what NEP means, be sure to click here.

YearTeamAdj Passing NEPRankAdj Passing NEP per PlayRank

The Vikings are just one example of Linehan turning an offense around. In his 12 seasons as a coordinator or coach, Linehan had eight different teams post a positive Adjusted Passing NEP. Of those eight teams, seven of them finished as top 12 passing offenses.

The key to each team’s improvement was efficiency. In 2001, Minnesota's passing game had an Adjusted Pass NEP per drop back of -0.03, the 17th-best efficiency mark in the league. Linehan stepped in for the 2002 season, and as a result, that average increased to 0.07, the 11th-best mark in the league.

Miami and St. Louis were jobs with similar success. While the Dolphins’ efficiency was still a negative mark, Linehan did improve the passing game from -0.17 points per pass in 2004 to -0.07 in 2005. St. Louis’ passing game saw an improvement of 0.06, but it was good enough to be a top-12 passing offense in 2006 despite a core that was starting to show its age.

The Lions were the only team that didn't improve their passing offense in Linehan’s first year. In his defense, he didn’t have Matthew Stafford for six games, and Calvin Johnson missed two games as well. Despite the Lions struggles in the passing game in 2009, 2010 proved to be better as the Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back rose from -0.16 in 2009 to 0.07, Linehan’s biggest season-to-season improvement in his career.

The Cowboys had the fifth-highest passing offense in 2011, but fell to the middle of the pack over the last two seasons. A slight per drop back improvement could have turned a couple losses into wins, and two more wins would have won the division, securing at least the NFC’s three seed. While that difference seems small, Linehan can make that difference happen based on his past results.

Picking Up the Pace

Not only did Scott Linehan improve the efficiency of any offense he touched, but he stepped up the pace of each team's passing offense as well. Of the 12 offenses he's directed, nine were top 10 in terms of passing plays run, and six of those teams cracked the top five. The Lions were Linehan's pass-friendliest team, never finishing worse than seventh in number of passing plays run, including the 2012 season where they set the record for most passing attempts in a season.

Linehan's play-calling has increased over time as well. Since the beginning of his coaching career, he's averaged a 1.51 pass-to-run ratio, directing his offenses to a top-10 pass-to-run ratio in eight different seasons. Some of Linehan's highest pass-heavy teams were some his most efficient, too. In 2004, Minnesota had the fifth-highest pass-to-run ratio (1.55), and were the second-most efficient passing offense as well when looking at our Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back (0.27 points per drop back).

In 2011, Detroit held the highest ratio (nearly two passing plays for every one running play), and ended the season with the seventh-best passing offense on a per drop back basis. A high pass-to-run ratio didn't always equal efficiency, but of the five seasons a Linehan-led offense was in the top five of pass-to-run ratio, four of those were top-12 in terms of passing efficiency.

We should expect Dallas to run more passing plays upon Linehan's arrival. The Cowboys have only finished higher than ninth in terms of passing plays run just once over the past six seasons, and Detroit averaged 70 more plays per game than the Cowboys over the last five years. More plays usually isn't a bad thing with Linehan at the helm. If the number of plays for the Cowboys increase and Linehan works his magic with improving the Cowboy's efficiency, than we could expect big years from some of the stars in Dallas.

A Necessary Number One Receiver

In making a difference with past teams, Linehan used tight ends and running backs in his passing attack quite often, and many times they would be the second or third best pass-catchers on the team. But while the secondary pieces remained interchangeable, there was always a common thread in Linehan’s offenses: an elite number one receiver.

ReceptionsReception NEPPer TargetYardsTouchdowns
Randy Moss106119.760.651,3477
Randy Moss111155.210.901,63217
Nate Burleson68100.370.981,0069
Chris Chambers82103.690.621,11811
Torry Holt93102.690.571,18810
Torry Holt93102.050.681,1897
Torry Holt6467.960.577963
Calvin Johnson6780.590.599845
Calvin Johnson77118.690.871,12012
Calvin Johnson96142.070.901,68116
Calvin Johnson122162.560.801,9645
Calvin Johnson84143.560.921,49212

Linehan had a receiver with at least 100 Reception NEP and at least 1,000 yards receiving in 10 of his 12 seasons as a coach or coordinator (2008 and 2009). In 2008, Torry Holt was on the decline and that offense was just stuck in misery as it was. In 2009, Calvin Johnson missed two games, or else he could have had a great shot at the 100 Reception NEP mark as well as 1,000 yards receiving.

On average, Linehan’s offense targeted just the wide receivers 339 times; the top receiver on each team received 46% of those targets. Linehan always weighted towards his top option and that shouldn’t be any different in Dallas for Dez Bryant.

I expect Bryant will have a big year and challenge for being the top receiver in the league. In each of the past four seasons, Bryant has seen a steady increase in targets, and that should continue with Linehan at the helm.

The numberFire metrics currently project 1,267 yards and 11 to 12 touchdowns on the year for Bryant. If he maintains his career 0.77 Reception NEP per target mark in 2014, those numbers shouldn’t be hard to reach. If he can improve upon that number as Megatron did over the last four years (0.87 per target average over this time), getting to 1,400 or 1,500 yards might not be out of the question. Bryant will have all opportunities flourish in Linehan’s system, as he's been getting a bigger share of the targets each year already.

Catch, Murray, Catch

But as Linehan used the top receiver on his teams, he made sure he involved the running backs in the passing game, too.

In the chart below, we notice a trend among all running backs when they are used in the passing game by Linehan. His system allowed each team’s backfield to see an increase in their Reception NEP, which takes into account just what the running backs did when they caught the ball.

Before LinehanLinehan's First YearDifference
St. Louis43.4259.8816.46

Minnesota’s running backs were targeted 131 times in 2003 compared to 83 times in 2002, but in maintaining their same catch rate (77%) from the previous season, they were much more effective in the passing game in Linehan’s second season. The running back group recorded a 0.41 Reception NEP per target mark in 2002, and increased that average to 0.57 in 2003.

In Miami, the team’s running backs saw their Reception NEP per target increase from 0.05 to 0.12, while St. Louis saw an increase from 0.33 to 0.38. In Detroit, Linehan made involving the running backs a priority in the passing game. The running back corp saw a 50% increase in targets (88 to 132) from 2008 to 2009, and the efficiency of the same group rose from 0.14 Reception NEP per target to 0.42 per target. The Lions backfield averaged 0.36 over Linehan’s five seasons, which was the fourth-highest mark in the NFL over that time period.

This has to be music to DeMarco Murray's ears, as well as backup Lance Dunbar's. If Murray stays healthy (he only missed two games last year and still finished second in our Rushing NEP metric), he should see a noticeable increase in targets within the passing game. And Dunbar should see more targets in 2014 than he has during his entire career (19).

In all but two seasons as a coach or coordinator, Linehan’s system has targeted the running backs no fewer than 115 times. In fact, a backfield under Linehan has averaged 138 targets over the last eight seasons. Murray himself could be in line for close to 80 or 90 targets; he’s only seen an average of 51 in his first three seasons in the league. If he stays in as the team’s third down back, Dunbar will definitely see a heavier dose of targets as well.

All in all, the Cowboys offense should be pass-heavy, and don't be surprised to see better efficiency from Romo and company. It's a good offense to target in fantasy football.