The Cowboys have a maverick owner in Jerry Jones, but he’s still not above the NFL being a copycat league. With his team at 3-5 in 2018 and getting farther away from playoff contention, all signs to him to making his first head-coaching change in eight years.
Because this is Jones and because this is the Cowboys, expect him to try to go big to replace longtime favorite Jason Garrett — with Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley. Why Riley? He represents the perfect candidate to reboot America’s Team.
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There will no repeat of 2014 or 2016 for Dallas, when it won the NFC East on the foundation of its running game and defense, with Jones building two strong fronts. In the year of the passing and scoring explosion, the Cowboys are desperately playing catch up and it’s not working.
Quarterback Dak Prescott is carrying over his sophomore slump from last season and until the trade for Amari Cooper — when they overpaid with a first-round pick — Prescott was struggling with the NFC’s worst receiving corps. With some offensive line injuries and the Cowboys no longer dominating on the ground with Ezekiel Elliott, Prescott hasn’t been equipped with the personnel or play-calling to reach the level of his stellar rookie year.
The morning after the Cowboys lost 28-14 at home to the Titans on Monday night, Jones came out and said Prescott was safe as the long-term QB for the Cowboys and is still in line for a major contract extension sometime in ’19. At the same time, Jones gave the dreaded unofficial vote of confidence to Garrett, less so for offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
Jones doesn’t want to make a midseason move on Garrett, à la when he promoted Garrett to replace Wade Phillips in ’10. That team was 1-7 after a 11-5 season and there was no choice but to save face.
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But there’s a good bet when the calendar turns into 2019 after a non-playoff season, Jones will do something reminiscent of 25 years ago: Make the successful leader of the Sooners an offer he couldn’t refuse to take over the Cowboys.
When Jones turned to Barry Switzer, however, he went for an established college winner to maintain a dynasty. When Jones makes the inevitable call to sell Riley, it will be for a 35-year-old offensive genius born to take the biggest football job of his native Texas.
Riley’s coaching, first as quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, helped Baker Mayfield become a Heisman-winning sensation and, more important for the Cowboys’ purposes, a QB worthy of the draft’s first overall pick. He’s doing great things again with Kyler Murray.
Someone who can get the very best out of Prescott’s strong arm and athleticism should be atop Dallas’ wish list. Riley would bring a lot of creativity and versatility that’s been sorely missing from the offense with Garrett and Linehan, who continue to employ predictable, easily defended game plans.
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Then there’s the central casting aspect of Riley. Jones has to be disappointed all these years later that the timing didn’t work out with a 42-year-old Sean Payton. He also has to be envious of what 32-year-old Sean McVay is doing now with the Rams.
Here’s another rare chance for the Cowboys to get the next big thing on the NFL sidelines. They can get the most out of the football life of Riley, who’s young enough to join Prescott as the co-face of the franchise.
Then there’s the competition for Riley’s coaching. There’s no doubt he has to be on the radar of the Browns, who already removed Hue Jackson and Todd Haley and need someone who can maximize the immense potential of Mayfield. The Broncos and Jets also figure to be marquee-market openings and don’t sleep on the Packers suddenly needing someone better than Mike McCarthy to help Aaron Rodgers.
If Riley wants to go pro, no time would be more ideal with Murray headed to MLB’s Oakland Athletics’ organization after this season and a long line of NFL executives ready to give him a mega contract. Given the Sooners have one of college’s premier jobs, it would take a team with the cachet of the Cowboys to convince him to go for it now.
Jones hasn’t just seen Dallas go flat. At the same time, rival Philadelphia is the reigning Super Bowl champion with an innovative offense around a big, mobile QB taken in Prescott’s draft class. New Orleans might be headed to a second title with Payton. Los Angeles has a budding juggernaut with McVay.
The Cowboys have hit their ceiling with slow and steady, both in the end with Tony Romo and the beginning of Prescott. Jones has every reason to go fast and furious. He was aggressive with the Elliott pick and then again with the Cooper trade. Riley has the big game he will attack for the sake of saving Dak.
For now, the word out of Norman is that Riley isn’t leaving for the NFL, but getting all the love from Jones can change that in a hurry. The Cowboys should and will do their best to make a long-awaited dream hire a reality.