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A year ago, Scott Linehan could do no wrong.

He directed a Dallas Cowboys offense that averaged 26.3 points per game and 376.7 yards total per game, including 149.8 yards rushing per game. He did so with rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, a fourth-round pick, starting every game. He had the NFL’s leading rusher in rookie Ezekiel Elliott and an offensive line that boasted three All-Pros.

All of that earned Linehan a contract extension after the 2016 season.

As 2017 comes to a close, Linehan has been under fire for an offense that is averaging 23.2 points and 334 yards per game. The Cowboys still run the ball well; even without Elliott for six games, they averaged 136.1 yards. But the passing game is 25th, averaging just 197.9 yards a contest.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Linehan said. “It’s part of the gig.”

Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has backed head coach Jason Garrett’s return for 2018, but he has not done the same for the rest of the staff. A number of assistants have expiring contracts when the season ends.

Linehan was asked if he feels pressure for his job.

“No, that’s just part of the deal,” he said. “If you spend time listening to whatever you call it, criticism or whatever, then you’re not focusing on the right things. We stay in a pretty tight, close-knit group, and we focus on our team and what we got to do to win football games, and do it the best way we can. We’re not focused on what people think or how they think we should do it. That’s really our approach. That’s been my approach.”

Linehan came under question for calling a run-pass option from the Seattle Seahawks’ 3-yard line in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 21-12 loss. Prescott went with the pass based on Seattle’s look, but he was not able to get the ball to an open Cole Beasley. On second down, Jason Witten was called for a hold on another pass call.

“It’s a called run, but if the free safety is blitzing, it’s going to be a negative play,” Linehan said. “So we missed that opportunity. … And if it works, everything is fine. If it doesn’t, I’m sure like with any loss, you are going to have a lot of naysayers out there criticizing what we do. That doesn’t really affect our approach and what we do and how we do it.”

The passing game has taken a step back. Prescott has failed to reach 200 passing yards in a game seven times this season. Linehan put that on the lack of big plays. The Cowboys have just 31 pass plays of 20 yards or more. A year ago, they had 39.

“I think we’re going to run first here. Throwing for 300 yards in this approach is going to be a little bit more of a less common thing,” Linehan said. “I don’t think we say we have to throw for a certain number of yards. I just think the big plays have been the biggest thing. You saw it in the New York game. You really saw it for a couple games, the big play was a part of that game. We didn’t really throw the ball a whole lot more than we normally would.”

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Last offseason the stated goal of Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones was to sign All-Pro right guard Zack Martin to a contract extension, but that never came about.As the Cowboys look to an offseason that starts the day after Sunday’s finale against the Philadelphia Eagles, the priority remains to sign Martin to a long-term deal. A source said the discussions should happen a lot sooner than last year when they did not happen much until training camp.

The Cowboys and Martin’s agents, Tom Condon and R.J. Gonser, held talks last offseason and into training camp but the discussions never really progressed very far. When the season started Martin wanted the negotiations to end so he could focus on the field.

“I think we had good talks,” Martin said. “It was just at the time, I didn’t want it to linger during the season and think about it. Kind of held it and played this year so hopefully we can talk and get something done here this offseason.”

The Cowboys signed left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick to long-term extensions prior to the start of their fourth seasons. The Cowboys have the fifth-year option on Martin for 2018, which is worth $9.3 million. With DeMarcus Lawrence looking at the franchise tag and the team wanting to retain other free agents, signing Martin could be an important part of the offseason to create some salary-cap flexibility.

Martin’s deal should surpass the five-year, $60 million deal Kevin Zeitler signed with the Cleveland Browns last offseason as a free agent that included $31.5 million in guarantees. He was named to the Pro Bowl for the fourth time in four seasons last week and has never missed a game.

Despite the lack of success this season, Martin has no desire to play anywhere else.

“I was lucky enough to be drafted here and I want to be here for my career,” Martin said. “Hopefully we can get something worked out.”

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Wide receiver Dez Bryant does not want to leave the Dallas Cowboys and has not thought about life with another team, but he understands the way the NFL works.

Scheduled to make $12.5 million in 2018, Bryant understands questions about his lower-than-expected production compared to his high salary. But he will not take a pay cut if the Cowboys ask this offseason.

“I haven’t heard no talk about that but if it comes, I don’t know, probably not,” Bryant said Wednesday. “Hell naw, man. I believe in me.”

Bryant is set to count $16.5 million against the salary cap. The Cowboys can free up $8.5 million if they release him or $12 million if he is designated as a post-June 1 cut, with him counting $4 million against the cap in 2019.

After Sunday’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks, owner and general manager Jerry Jones, who has an affinity for Bryant, did not want to discuss the receiver’s future.

Bryant was asked if he could envision playing anywhere else.

“I don’t know, but if that came about, I’m still Dez Bryant,” he said Wednesday. “I’m still going over the top. If it’s there where I can grab it, I’m going to grab it. That’s who I am.”

Bryant, 29, leads the Cowboys with 66 catches for 815 yards with six touchdowns, but those numbers are a far cry from the 91 catches, 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns he averaged from 2012 to 2014.

In 2015, Bryant missed seven games with foot and knee injuries. He missed three games last season with a tibial plateau fracture. He has played in every game this season, but he said he has been bothered by tendinitis in his knee the past eight games. He has not been listed on the injury report.

“Well, I’m a warrior,” Bryant said. “I consider myself as a warrior. If I can walk, I can move, I’m going to go out there and try to play. It’s probably dumb, but, hey, that’s just who I am. I love this game and I try to push it.”

Bryant has gone 22 regular-season games without a 100-yard game. He has eight games this season with fewer than five catches, and nine games with fewer than 60 yards receiving. The low point came in the loss to Seattle when he dropped two passes, including one that led to an interception, and he fumbled once. Seattle turned both of his turnovers into touchdowns.

Bryant said he has allowed personal and professional things to impact his play, but he would not go into detail as to what those are.

“I just got to focus on the things that I can control and only I can control,” Bryant said. “All I know is if my mind’s not cluttered, I can beat whoever, whenever, anybody at any time. It’s just sometimes I let certain things get to me that I shouldn’t.”

Bryant has acknowledged the Cowboys have a different offense than the one they ran from 2012 to 2014, leaning more on the run, but he expressed frustration with the scheme, not with quarterback Dak Prescott.

“That’s something you got to discuss with them coaches, not Dak or me,” Bryant said. “You got to discuss that with them.”

Bryant is planning on sitting down with coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan after the season. He also will meet with Jones.

“Because it means something to me,” Bryant said. “Like, I don’t really do much in the offseason. I don’t. I like to be in Texas. I like to think about football. I like to focus on football. That’s all I care about. Just me thinking about this long-ass offseason is frustrating, and I just got to see what it is.

“But, hey, it’s probably going to be my best offseason yet because I’m going to enjoy the s— out of it. You better believe that. … I’m going to enjoy it. I’m going to get my body checked out. I’m going to make sure I’m right in all angles. And I’m looking forward. I’m just looking forward. I got my mind on 2018. I got my mind on spending time with my family. I got my mind on everything that I need to have it on. I’m set in stone. Like, I’m ready.”

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Despite a sprained lateral collateral ligament in his right knee, Dallas Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith will play against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

Smith went through his normal pregame stretching routine with strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik and was pronounced fit to play. He is wearing a wrap on his knee and normally wears a brace as well. He went through one limited practice during the week and was listed as questionable.

Smith suffered the injury in the fourth quarter of last week’s victory over the Oakland Raiders. Protecting themselves against Smith not being able to play a full game, the Cowboys will have backup tackles Byron Bell and Chaz Green both active.

Bell took the first-team snaps in practice during the week.

Smith had been slowed by back, hip and groin injuries this season before injuring his knee and missing two games. He was named to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time in his career earlier this week.

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When Chidobe Awuzie saw Marshawn Lynch coming toward him in the second quarter of the Dallas Cowboys’ win against the Oakland Raiders last week, he did not have a decision to make.

“Real ball players, when the play snaps, you just do your job,” Awuzie said. “I’m not going to make a business decision or do anything like that; I’m going to do my job and that was to stop him where I hit him and make sure he didn’t get any more yards, and I think I did a pretty good job of that. If you’re on that football field, you should be able to do everything, you should want to do everything, love to do everything. That’s all part of it. People who really love football, that’s the type of plays you’re going to get. They ain’t going to make no business decision.”

There have been contact-averse defensive backs in the NFL for years. Awuzie, the Cowboys’ second-round pick, didn’t back down. Awuzie is listed at 202 pounds. Lynch is 215 pounds and one of the toughest runners to tackle in the NFL.

The collision sent Awuzie backward, but Lynch did not gain any more yards after contact. And Awuzie popped up quickly enough to see Lynch stick his tongue out at him. His willingness to stand strong against Lynch earned him praise from teammates and coaches.

“Maybe line 1 with him is the demeanor with which he plays and we saw that in college, played a lot of different spots for them at Colorado, was regarded as the leader of the secondary, leader of the defense there,” coach Jason Garrett said. “So that’s one of the things we really liked about him. We didn’t get a chance to see him for a lot of the year because of his injury, but he always went about it the right way. He was preparing to play. Since he’s gotten a chance here the last few weeks, I think we’ve seen a lot of things that we liked about him coming out of school. A lot of that is the demeanor, the physicality, the competitive spirit.”

So what is the sensation that comes with such a hit?

“Loud. My neck is still stiff a little bit,” Awuzie said. “It was very loud, very forceful, big. I bounced up pretty quick. Had to. Can’t be looking like no sucker.”

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It didn’t take long for DeMarcus Lawrence to realize 2017 was going to be different for him.

On the Dallas Cowboys’ third defensive snap of the season, he sacked New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning for a 7-yard loss. He added a half sack later in the game, which meant he had more sacks in one game in 2017 than he did in nine in 2016.

“After my first sack, I felt like, ‘OK, I got my legs back. Now it’s time to roll,’” Lawrence said. “I’ve been feeling good ever since then.”

With two games to play, Lawrence has 13.5 sacks, good for third in the NFL and just 1.5 behind the leader, Chandler Jones of the Arizona Cardinals. On Tuesday, Lawrence was named to his first Pro Bowl, a fitting reward for the best seasons by a Cowboys’ pass rusher in the last four years.

“It would be great for the recognition that the fans and coaches and players also see all the plays I’ve made on the field,” Lawrence said Tuesday before the Pro Bowl announcement was official.

What has been the difference for Lawrence this year?

“I think health,” he said. “Being in the system for a while. Going against our offensive line, you don’t have a choice but to get better.”

Lawrence’s rookie season was impacted by a broken foot suffered in training camp that cost him to miss the first eight games. In 2015, he led the Cowboys in sacks with eight, but he was never right last season following back surgery. He played anyway, despite missing seven games (four because of a suspension and three because of the back injury).

He had a second surgery going into this season and has not missed a game.

Since the opener against the Giants, Lawrence has seen more attention from opposing offenses. He does not get many one-on-one opportunities. They will have a tight end help a tackle and maybe send a running back his way as well.

“Other teams have scouting reports,” Lawrence said. “They have film also and I feel like they gave me a little bit more recognition throughout the season. That’s the way it is.”

In addition to the 13.5 sacks, the most by a Cowboys’ pass rusher since DeMarcus Ware had 19.5 in 2011, he has been credited by the coaches with 41 tackles, six tackles for loss and an astounding 45 quarterback pressures. His previous high in pressures was 31 in 2014. He also has forced four fumbles, recovered two and knocked down a pass.

“Sets the edge well, makes plays on the ball in the running game,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “You’ll see him make plays on the other side of the field running it down, 20, 30 yards down the field. He has been incredible. An All-Pro and really defensive MVP.”

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As Jason Garrett stood behind a podium inside what is normally the Oakland A’s weight room Sunday night, he could have ticked off 30, 40, maybe 50 things his Dallas Cowboys did wrong against the Oakland Raiders.

The Cowboys blew a 10-0 halftime lead. They converted 2 of 10 third-down chances. They did not sack Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. They allowed 5.3 yards per carry. They did not get a takeaway until the game’s final play, missing out on at least four opportunities. They allowed 25.8 yards per kickoff return. They were bailed out by three touchdowns called back by penalty or overturned by replay.

That’s just some of what went wrong.

But as Garrett spoke, he kept coming back to one word. It’s something he puts on T-shirts and sweatshirts for the players to wear. It is on Yeti cups. It is on a digital board inside the locker room.


Nothing was really pretty about the Cowboys’ 20-17 win against the Raiders except the result.

“Continued to scratch, continued to claw,” Garrett said. “Wasn’t our most perfect performance in any phase of our football team, but the fight was there.”

The fight was never more evident than on the Raiders’ final play. With 39 seconds left, Oakland had a third-and-3 from the Dallas 8. Carr scrambled to his right with nobody open and saw the front pylon daring him to go for the touchdown.

As he lunged forward he was hit by safety Jeff Heath, knocking the ball loose and ultimately out of the end zone for a touchback.

“I thought that play typified what we’re trying to instill in our football team,” Garrett said. “Him laying out, somehow, some way not letting that guy get to the pylon and ultimately knocking the ball out. It was a helluva play. It was an unbelievable game.”

So unbelievable that the Cowboys’ playoff chances can be symbolized by the piece of paper referee Gene Steratore used to affirm a first down on a fourth-down quarterback sneak by Dak Prescott at the Dallas 39 with 4:49 to play.

“It’s a game of inches, a game of 5-by-7 note cards,” tight end Jason Witten joked.

That was on display on the Raiders’ final drive. Anthony Brown should have ended the game with an interception of Carr with 1:05 to play but inexplicably dropped the pass. On fourth down, rookie cornerback Jourdan Lewis was called for pass interference at the Dallas 15.

A win was looking like a loss or at least a trip to overtime. The season hung in the balance before Ezekiel Elliott could return from his six-game suspension. And then Heath came up to hit Carr as the quarterback was looking for the winning touchdown.

Beyond “fight,” the play was another Garrett mantra.

“He talked about ‘finish’ all week,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “That’s been a big theme for us, and I think it showed.”

Now Elliott’s return can mean more. Now the Cowboys can envision the scenarios they need to get to the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 2006 and ’07. But all they have done is guarantee themselves no worse than the fourth 8-8 finish in Garrett’s tenure as coach.

“We got Seattle,” Dez Bryant said. “And we got to reset. As soon as I walk out of this locker room and every last one of us walk out of this locker room, let’s reset. We’ve got to get ready for Seattle.”

The Cowboys’ playoff chances are better but still not in their control. They will likely need to win their final two games and need the Atlanta Falcons to lose two of their last three games and the Detroit Lions to lose one of their final two games.

“Nothing has changed,” Prescott said. “We know where we are. Our backs are against the wall. We’ve got to win and that is what this team is about. We’re excited and we’re loving these matchups. We’re loving the position we’re in. It is what it is. We got ourselves here and we’re excited about next week. Just one at a time.”

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Late in the season it’s not so rare to come up with more than seven inactive players.

In attempting to figure out the Dallas Cowboys’ 46-man active roster for Sunday night’s game against the Oakland Raiders, it’s easy to come up with more than seven players to sit.

First, cornerback Orlando Scandrick (back), defensive end David Irving (concussion), linebacker Justin Durant (concussion) and wide receiver Brice Butler (foot) have been ruled out because of injury.

The Cowboys also don’t need a third tailback (Trey Williams) or a fourth tight end (Blake Jarwin).

You can make the case they don’t need an eighth offensive lineman (Chaz Green), ninth defensive lineman (Daniel Ross) or eighth defensive back (Bene Benwikere), too.

So when you get down to the final few spots, who brings the most value?

Let’s start with Benwikere. He has become a pretty big part of the special-teams unit, but if something were to happen to Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis or Anthony Brown at cornerback, Benwikere can step in and play.

Given the presence of Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, Ross makes some sense because he can bring size to the defensive line at 305 pounds. Ross has yet to play since the Cowboys claimed him off the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad, but his addition was made with a long-term view.

With La’el Collins getting two practices in for the first time in three weeks because of a back injury, Green would seem to be the most dispensable. With Byron Bell already active as the swing tackle, Green’s only real function without two injuries up front would be on the field goal protection unit. Is that enough value to dress on gameday?

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Ezekiel Elliott can return to The Star next Monday with his six-game suspension coming to an end following the Dallas Cowboys’ game on Sunday night in Oakland, but the coaches have not yet finalized a plan on how to get the running back up to speed.

“That’s like so far away in our mind right now, getting ready for this Oakland game is what we’re focusing on,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said.

Perhaps the long flight to Oakland on Saturday will give the coaches a chance to work through the issues. Elliott has not been around the team since the Cowboys beat the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 5. He lost a legal ruling that would have kept him on the field and later dropped another appeal of the penalty for violating the league’s personal conduct policy in July of 2016.

By rule, the coaches and front office cannot have contact with Elliott. He can speak with the athletic training staff and teammates.

“I know he’s excited,” tight end Jason Witten said. “I’ve kept up with him, text, and if there’s one thing you know about Zeke through the first year and a half I’ve been around him is that he loves football. He loves being around. He loves the locker room. So from that standpoint I know he’s missed it. And we’ve missed him. I know he’s going to be really excited.”

Alfred Morris and Rod Smith have replaced Elliott as the Cowboys’ main ballcarriers. The Cowboys have averaged 120.4 yards per game on the ground without Elliott, compared to 148.3 yards per game with him.

In the first eight games, Elliott ran 191 times for 783 yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught 19 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns. He had more than 80 percent of the Cowboys rushes before his absence.

Linehan does not believe conditioning will be an issue when Elliott returns.

“He’s really a world-class athlete. He stays in shape and he trains. I’m sure he’s been doing that,” Linehan said. “In a lot of ways it’s probably the break he’ll feel a little bit like he feels when he comes to training camp. He’s got a little break between OTAs and training camp now. So he’ll probably have those fresh legs and I’m sure he’ll be ready to go. I don’t know that there’s any model to go by with a guy being gone for a length of time, but a lot of times if you do it right you stay in shape, it can be a benefit for you just as far as how you feel at the end of the year versus if you’re playing every game.”

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When Sean Lee sat out the second drive of the third quarter in Sunday’s win over the New York Giants, alarms went off.

Did he aggravate the hamstring injury that forced him to miss five full games and parts of two others?

“And that’s appropriate, too,” Lee said. “It’s been one thing after the next with me in a lot of injuries.”

With Lee having missed the previous three games because of the hamstring strain, the Dallas Cowboys athletic training staff came up with a plan to ease him back into the lineup. He played every series in the first half but was kept out of a third-quarter series with Anthony Hitchens playing on the weak side and Jaylon Smith at middle linebacker.

“Coming back from an injury, just making sure I’m fresh and ready,” Lee said. “We’ve got guys that can go in and play really, really good football, so just making sure I’m fresh until I get my legs back under me. Game legs and get in game shape. I was off for about three or four weeks, so we’ve got guys who can come in and make a ton of plays.”

Lee played in 66 of 80 snaps against the Giants and had two of the game’s biggest plays with a 9-yard tackle for loss and an interception in the fourth quarter. In the five full games he played before the New York contest, he played in 293 of 315 snaps, getting pulled for 17 snaps in the blowout win against the San Francisco 49ers. In the other four games he played in all but five snaps.

Lee, whom the coaches credited with 20 tackles against the Giants, said he could follow a similar plan this week against the Oakland Raiders.

“We’ll see what we do, and I think it can change game to game,” Lee said, “but I know I just have to find a way to stay in every game and be a part of every game.”