Dallas Cowboys: Power, Zone, and the Alexander Firing

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 14: Tyron Smith #77 of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 14: Tyron Smith #77 of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

The firing of Paul Alexander may not seem overly significant but it’s probably a bigger move for the Dallas Cowboys than the headline-grabbing  Amari Cooper trade.

At the start of the season the Dallas Cowboys had hired Paul Alexander to be their offensive line coach. The tales of “ketchup geniuses” overshadowed what was a questionable hire to begin with. Before we get into the Xs and Os of why this didn’t work, let’s look at how we got here and why this is a bigger issue than scheme.

When Frank Pollack was not retained to be the offensive line coach this past offseason, he picked up and went to Cincinnati, who had just let go of their offensive line coach Paul Alexander. Pollack in his three years as the offensive line coach had a top 10 line Dallas, but was still let go (more on this in a minute). Alexander who coached 20+ years with the Bengals had one season of being a top 10 line. Five seasons they were bottom five in the league.

Why Alexander and not Pollack

So why did the Cowboys let go of Pollack in the first place? Well, the answer shows part of the systemic problem in Dallas: Scott Linehan. There are stories that Pollack and Linehan did not get along very well. Part of the issue was that Pollack wanted more of a say in the offensive gameplan and playcalling. Neither of which Linehan was willing to bend on. Of course, Jerry Jones backed Linehan, and Pollack was let go.

The reason Jerry supported Linehan is quite deep, but it looks like that support is softening. Linehan was signed by the Cowboys after the 1987 draft, and while Jerry didn’t own the team, we can assume Jerry knew this. The real connection came through Jason Garrett, however. Garrett worked on the Miami Dolphins’ Nick Saban staff with Linehan. Jones completely trusts Garrett, and Garrett trusts Linehan. Linehan wanted Pollack gone, Pollack left.

So what does this have to do with Alexander? Well, Linehan liked Alexander, didn’t like Pollack, and neither Garrett nor Linehan felt that the new offensive line coach, Marc Colombo was ready or had enough experience to be the line coach. A long road to get to the right answer, but here we are.

The Xs and Os

So once Alexander came in, and everyone was all about his unusual coaching techniques, one of the things a lot of people overlooked, was that Alexander employs a power blocking scheme. The Cowboys had been using a zone blocking scheme for years, and built their line around this scheme. What does this mean? Well, different assignments, different techniques, and different roster needs.

I’ll try to explain the differences as simply and easily as I can here. As we go through this, remember the Cowboys drafted linemen either in the first round or had a first round draft grade. However, they were all players who would excel at zone blocking due to their agility, footwork, and hand usage. They were not drafted with a power blocking scheme in mind. This should have set off alarms.

In a power blocking scheme, the lineman has a man they have to block. They have a specific assignment to open one of the lanes in running. Commonly called zones A, B, C, D, the linemen try to push their player away from a specific gap, and usually a fullback and the guard on the opposite side of the run, will seal edge of the lane. The pulling guard will go after the linebacker in the specific lane.

For a run to the left, let’s say. The majority of the line will take their man and push them to the right, or opposite side of the run. The fullback will seal the defensive end on the left edge of the line, and the right guard will pull around and block the linebacker also to the left. With the majority of the players going right, and a few players being blocked left, the idea is that the selected lane is open and the running back bursts through the open hole.

In a zone blocking scheme, the line blocks laterally in the same direction as the run (usually, not always, I am trying to keep it fairly simple here). This should create some open lanes just by blocking, and the running back has to be patient, let the blocks develop, make a single cut, and hit the hole that opens up.

The running back has more to do in this scheme, as his first read is looking at the defensive end or linebacker at the end of the line toward the side he is running. This will allow him to start making a decision of bouncing the run outside, or looking for a single cut. However, this scheme relies on very athletic linemen who have strong footwork and can get to the second level in blocking.

Essentially, the Dallas Cowboys have linemen who are agile, quick, and can shed blocks and get to the second level, all things needed in a zone scheme. In a power scheme you need linemen who are bigger, more powerful, and can hold blocks longer. This isn’t to say the Cowboys linemen couldn’t, but it isn’t playing to their strengths.

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Beyond the offensive linemen, it is important to have a really good blocking fullback, strong blocking tight ends, and a center who can make man-to-man blocking adjustments. The Cowboys lost Travis Fredrick to injury, lost Jason Witten to retirement, and didn’t really have that one fullback. So they didn’t have the personnel, or the right personnel to switch to a power scheme.

Moving Forward

Now that Marc Colombo is the offensive line coach, we can assume the Cowboys will go back to a zone blocking scheme. It should alleviate some of the problems the Cowboys have been having in the run game, and could even help the passing game as now linemen can focus on what their strengths have been and not trying to become something different.

It might take a week or two for them to readjust to the changes, but it should help everyone out. It also could signal the unwavering support for Scott Linehan is starting to fade. This very well could be his last year as the offensive coordinator. To be honest the game seemingly has passed him by, and a change is needed.

dark. Next. Dallas Cowboys: Shift in philosophy?

While this will most likely keep Jason Garrett around for another season, a change at offensive coordinator could be a bigger impact to the Dallas Cowboys. The Alexander hiring should never have happened. It did, and gratefully it ended quickly. This was the move the players wanted when Pollack left, it should help. Bring on Tennessee.

  • Published on 10/30/2018 at 13:01 PM
  • Last updated at 10/30/2018 at 12:15 PM