When starting quarterback and four-time Pro-Bowler Tony Romo was sidelined with a back injury in the 2016 preseason, not many people thought the Cowboys would make the playoffs. However, their offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan, knew the team had something special.
The Cowboys have seven Pro Bowlers this year, six of whom are offensive players. Even in their playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott-led offense scored 31 points. This can be attributed to talent and teamwork, but what most people don’t know about is the involvement of a Miraculous Medal.
Linehan, whose wife’s sister is married to actor Jim Caviezel, uses the medal St. Catherine Labouré introduced in the 1800s while he calls plays during games. The results may not have been miraculous, strictly speaking, but they have been very notable. The Cowboys finished the regular season at 13-3 and earned a top seed in the playoffs.
Because the team’s season ended unexpectedly in the divisional round of the playoffs, Linehan, head coach of the St. Louis Rams from 2006 to 2008, is now part of the NFC’s coaching staff in the Pro Bowl, which takes place against the AFC on Jan. 29 in Orlando, Florida. He spoke with the Register about this past season, the Super Bowl and about being a lifelong Catholic.
What do you think of the Super Bowl matchup between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons?
It’s a great matchup between two different franchises. The Patriots have a lot of playoff wins and four Super Bowl victories, while the Falcons have a lot fewer playoff wins and no Super Bowl victories. It’s Bill Belichick versus Dan Quinn, or the favorite coach versus the upstart coach. Dan is a good friend of mine, and he has done very well in his two years with the Falcons. It’s tough even to make the playoffs, but to get to the Super Bowl in your second year is remarkable for any coach.
Many people thought the Cowboys would make it to the Super Bowl, but you lost to the Packers. The offense scored 31 points, which would have been enough to beat any other opponent you faced this season, yet the Packers were able to score 34.
There were certainly good aspects of the game, such as our second-half comeback and point total, but a loss is a loss. It was a disappointing end to a great season. We have a young team, though, so we can learn from what happened and come back better for it next year.
It might sound like a cliché in sports, but we have really emphasized teamwork this season. We’ve been fortunate that the players have responded extremely well to that message. The most visible example is our rookie quarterback, Dak Prescott. He is the epitome of what you want a pro quarterback to be: poised enough to take on any situation, but humble enough to do what the coaches want him to do, and no more.
Cowboys’ player personnel expert Tom Ciskowski said that Prescott doesn’t fall into the temptation of trying to be the star by playing beyond his capacity.
That’s exactly right. Prescott is smart enough to know that the team does well when everyone does his own part — no more and no less. It can be fun to make flashy plays, but in the end, the winning team is usually the one that was the steadiest, not the flashiest. Coach [Jason] Garrett likes to repeat something his former coach, Jimmy Johnson, would say in the 1990s — that, in the NFL, games are usually not won, but lost. Put another away, the winning team oftentimes facilitates the losing team’s demise, rather than doing lots of spectacular things itself.
It’s very rare to have a player so young like Prescott be smart enough to thoroughly accept and act on that insight, but that’s what we were blessed with this season. It was a tremendous ride that was only possible with humility and teamwork.
Philip Rivers said that it’s easy to know which player to throw to if you have tons of time, but the quarterback doesn’t have that luxury. Is it tough to make quick adjustments and decisions as the play-caller for the offense?
I like to say it’s more challenging than tough. Taking preparations made over the preceding week and trying to implement them in real time in a game is a fun process. Most of the time we go with our set plan, but the other team prepares for us, too, so there are occasions when we see something we hadn’t expected and then do something different based on that.
The main thing is putting ideas to good use with real players. You can only play the game so long yourself, so as a coach you kind of live through the players vicariously. When they do well, it’s very fulfilling to be a part of.
I like to think that one reason for our success, which goes beyond Xs and Os, is a Miraculous Medal that I keep with me in my folder when calling plays. Sometimes I’ll touch it during games, which helps me to think clearly and make good decisions. Football doesn’t seem like a place for Marian things, but there’s the so-called “Hail Mary” pass, so this is a way of bringing grace to the game. It’s not as if we should stop being Catholic at work.
Had you always wanted to be a coach or was it something you fell into?
I think I did always want to coach, although I first wanted to extend my playing days as far as possible. That ended up being a collegiate career at the University of Idaho, with a great senior season and then a tryout for the Dallas Cowboys in 1987. I never played in an NFL game, but I started coaching in the NFL in 2002, which followed many years of collegiate coaching.
My dad was a football coach before becoming a high-school principal, and all three of my brothers have been in coaching. My oldest brother, Ron, was a successful high-school coach in Oregon for many years before dying in 2005. It’s a family thing. Our father taught us how to play football in rural Sunnyside, Washington, and it just seems like the best game in the world, so I wanted to stick around it after my own playing career.
Would you like to coach your sons on the Cowboys?
It would be wonderful if, one day, my own sons played for the Cowboys — a great franchise I hope to be a part of for years to come — but that’s not the most important thing. Playing football, regardless of the venue, is fun, so it should be enjoyed for what it is, without seeking an exterior reward that’s based on what others think of you.
My sons Matt and Mike both play for Idaho, like I did. They finished the season at 8-4 and then went to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Dec. 22 against Colorado State. It was a high-scoring game, with Idaho winning 61-50 and Matt, a senior, being named the MVP. Even though it’s not the Super Bowl, it is fun and should be enjoyed while you’re in it.
Have you always been able to connect football with faith?
I think so. Being Catholic keeps everything in the right perspective. You do the best you can in football with a clean mind and heart, knowing that spiritual things are more important than results of games. If I weren’t part of the Church, I’d be spinning my wheels, but being Catholic allows me to see there are more important things in life, despite how much I enjoy football.
The Church has always recognized that not all choices are equal and that it’s important to do the right thing. Helping those who are less fortunate is a regular part of being Catholic. The Church sees the human dignity in each person, so is moved to address their needs and serve them as they would serve Christ himself.
What are some of the most helpful aspects of the Catholic Church for you?
I really see the importance of the sacraments, how the Church gives us a different sacrament for every significant time in life. Baptism marks the beginning of new life in Christ, reconciliation is for when we’re off-center and need to get back into gear, and anointing of the sick is for serious illnesses.
Another of the sacraments — the Eucharist — is the biggest one. The Eucharist gives us what we need on a weekly basis. We need to be reminded who we are as Catholics and be given the power to act on it. This is what happens at every Mass, but two types of Masses stick with me.
The first type of Mass is a wedding Mass. We’re family at any Mass, but at weddings that’s much clearer because our natural family — or at least the family of our friend getting married — is present. We see the close connection of all kinds of people, with differing ages, abilities and experiences. It’s a visible reminder of how Christ came to save all people, without exception.
The second type of Mass is a funeral Mass. It’s such a sad time when someone dies, yet people come together in faith. When my parents died — my dad in 1998 and my mom in 2015 — I thought of my own marriage and how my parents “passed the torch” to me and my wife, Kristen. Now we’re living what they did, and, eventually, our own kids will do the same.
Even though joy is usually found at weddings and sadness at funerals, they really are similar events. Faith, family, sacraments, commitment and permanence are all a part of what goes on. That’s one of the things I like most about being Catholic — the noble purpose in life that we are given through the Church.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie
writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven
(Dynamic Catholic, 2015),
contains numerous Catholic sports
interviews, most of which have
appeared in the Register.