Throughout Dallas‘ 16-8 loss in Charlotte this past Sunday, one question seemed to ring out across all of Cowboys Nation: who’s to blame for the offense’s struggles?
As one might expect, there are many suspects to be considered for such a debacle. But before we dive into the list of potential culprits, let’s begin by examining a few numbers that really illustrate just how anemic the Cowboys’ offense was on Sunday.
232 | The total yards for the Dallas offense
This number marks the third lowest total in the Dak Prescott era. One of those games can be thrown out as it was Week 17 at Philadelphia and Prescott played in just one series. As such, whenever I see a number like this, my initial reaction is to view it more as an outlier, but considering some other trends, which we’ll get to here momentarily, it might have some significance after all.
0 |The number of Cowboy snaps in Panther territory in the first half
This number says a lot about Dallas’ ability -or rather its lack of ability to move the ball. Yes, the Carolina defense came into the game having not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 21 straight games, but for much of Sunday’s opener, a Dallas team supposedly built around its dynamic running back and a stout offensive line, looked overmatched and outclassed.
Tyron Smith and La’el Collins were each flagged twice for costly penalties. Connor Williams allowed Kawann Short to record two sacks, two tackles for loss, and four quarterback hits. When that much of your line is making costly mistakes and pushing you into second and long and third and long, you’re going to be hardpressed to sustain drives.
Another number which illustrates this point is that late in the first half, Dallas was averaging one whole yard on first downs. Yep, you read that correctly. One yard.
While that number did raise all the way to 3.1 yards by the end of the game, it still left Dallas in a 10-0 hole before they’d even sniffed Carolina’s side of the field. And to be honest, 3.1 yards on first down still isn’t going to cut it if you need to get to third and short so you can open up your playbook a bit.
11 | The average distance Dallas needed on 3rd down
If gaining just 1 yard on first down for a half doesn’t make clear how difficult of a position Dallas was putting itself in, this should do the job. For the game, Dallas saw just one third down of fewer than seven yards -a third and 3 which they failed to convert.
Teams built to run the ball must find success on first down and second down in order to keep their third-down attempts to a reasonable distance. So when you’re abysmal on first down and then miss opportunities on second down, you’re going to find yourself backed into a corner. So how did Dallas fair on third down for the game? They went 2-11.
10 | The number of snaps Tavon Austin played
Much was made about Tavon Austin‘s acquisition during the 2018 NFL Draft. We heard from Jerry Jones how he reminded him of Cowboys Hall of Famer, Michael Irvin. We heard from Stephen Jones how they would like to see Tavon get as many as 24 touches a game. The coaching staff told us he could play just about anywhere on the field -inside, outside, in the backfield, wherever. So why then did he see just 10 snaps against a Panthers secondary that was ready to be had?
The speed department is not one of Dallas’ best-stocked roles. If Terrance Williams and Allen Hurns are your starting receivers, your only real speed (Austin and Deonte Thompson) is buried down at your 4th and 5th receivers. And with that, much of your vertical threat is an afterthought.
So who’s to blame for Dallas’ offensive woes?
Suspect #1: Dak Prescott
While Prescott avoided throwing an interception over the course of an erratic day, he also avoided many of his open receivers. Whether it was Cole Beasley running open in the middle of the field on Dallas’ last offensive play, a pass 3 yards behind a wide-open Michael Gallup on a crossing route with nothing but green in front of him, or the horrid underthrow of Blake Jarwin that might’ve gone the distance had Prescott simply led the tight end and not hit his shoelaces.
In total, Prescott threw for 170 yards, marking the 7th time in 9 games he’s failed to record at least 200 yards through the air. Going a step beyond, you’ll see he’s also failed to surpass 215 in 8 of his last 9.
Remember the point I was making earlier about the offense only gaining 232 yards on the day? This stat is officially in that same boat. Just as you’d like to say that low yardage total is an outlier rather than a trend, Dak’s recent history actually suggests such things can no longer be dismissed.
One of the main talking points I had this offseason was that Dak’s first 25 starts were largely good, though there are certainly obvious exceptions, like his games against the Giants and Vikings. Even for the first half of 2017, he was at least passable for the most part, if not as efficient as we saw in his 2016 campaign. In fact, his struggles only really got out of hand after his Pro Bowl running back, Ezekiel Elliott was finally forced to serve his 6 game suspension for alleged domestic violence.
We all saw what happened in Atlanta last year. The combination of Chaz Green and Byron Bell gave up 6 sacks to Adrian Clayborn and Dak was never quite the same. His mechanics were suddenly thrown out of wack and his timing was wrecked.
The reason I called the final 8 games of 2017 an anomaly for Dak was that he’d only had the luxury of Tyron Smith and Zeke Elliott on the field for a grand total of 3 snaps. Say what you want but being without a perennial All-Pro and your Pro Bowl running back is a lot to overcome for a quarterback. And Dak is more in the mold of a complementary quarterback, to begin with.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case Sunday. Zeke and Tyron were back, and Dak appeared much the same as what we saw in the second half of last season. Should this trend continue, it’ll only continue to raise serious questions about whether or not Prescott can be “the guy” in Dallas’ quest for “number 6.”
I’m not ready to quit on the kid yet, but the polish is most certainly off the apple now.
Suspect #2: Scott Linehan
When Dallas made the decision this past offseason to fire its entire coaching staff, save for the two coordinators and head coach, a lot of critics found themselves grumbling angrily under their breath. “That won’t fix anything,” they said. “They’re just using them as scapegoats.”
Not if you ask Jason Garrett or Scott Linehan. They’d make you believe that before receivers coach Sanjay Lal arrived, Dallas’ receivers didn’t know how to run routes. Lal’s inclusion, as well as the other positional coaching changes, were supposed to unleash some great weapon for the Cowboys offense.
That’s why guys like Dez Bryant were no longer on the roster, right? That’s why they opted instead for speed like Thompson and Austin. They wanted versatile players who could keep defenses guessing and run crisp routes! That’s why they traded Ryan Switzer to Oakland and then cut the player they acquired for him, Jihad Ward at the end of training camp.
It may only be one game but what we saw out of the Cowboys offense was so much like the old, predictable offense we’ve seen the past few years it may as well have been its twin. Aside from maybe one or two plays, nothing stood out as any different.
Remember all that talk about using Zeke more in the passing game to help serve as a safety valve to Dak? I’ve been beating that drum since the end of last season and we saw none of that.
This offense is basic and predictable. The reason the Cowboys could get away with it back in 2014 and 2016 was that their offensive line was the best line in the league and could help either DeMarco Murray or Zeke bully their way down the field. In 2014, you had the added element of Tony Romo‘s playmaking ability and arm talent. You also had a Dez Bryant at the height of his powers. Then, in 2016, you had a young, talented quarterback with little film out on him who could do some things very well.
That, mixed with weak schedules allowed Dallas to sneak up on people for a couple of years. What Dallas has now is a lesser club at every position. This offensive line is not the best in football, though it does have the potential to become that again once Connor Williams develops a bit more and puts a little more weight on. Yes, Travis Frederick could return this year, but even then I’d have to say this line is lesser than the ’14 and ’16 squads.
In the absence of elite talent or a favorable schedule, the playcalling of Scott Linehan simply does not work. If he can’t change and make some real adjustments moving forward, Dallas will need to reassess everything in the offseason, while they’re likely looking for a new head coach as well.
Suspect #3: Stephen Jones
Ah, Stephen Jones. Over the past couple of years, Stephen’s influence has become more and more evident, as seen with decisions to not resign DeMarco Murray. He was also the primary voice behind cutting guys like DeMarcus Ware, Dez Bryant, and Dan Bailey. There’s no doubt he’s made some controversial decisions. But then he’s also made some great decisions. Convincing Jerry not to draft Johnny Manziel and instead take Zack Martin was a stroke of genius that doesn’t require explanation at this point. He was also the one who put a cap on Jerry’s wheeling and dealing as Dallas tried to jump back into the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft for Paxton Lynch.
So like any executive, there are good decisions and bad decisions. Another strong point in Stephen’s favor has been the tedious working of the salary cap to ensure Dallas not only no longer has dead cap next season, but a surplus of cap to be spent. Obviously, a chunk of that will probably go towards resigning DeMarcus Lawrence to a longterm deal but there will be other moves too.
So why then is Stephen a suspect? Well, for starters, people will point to the absences of Dez and Bailey and say those two alone make the difference in Charlotte this past Sunday. And while I would hesitate to go that far, I would suggest they certainly couldn’t have made the offense or special teams look any worse than what we saw. But to me, Stephen’s biggest flaw is his continued support for Jason Garrett.
If Stephen really does have more influence than ever, enough so he can force out multiple All-Time leaders in franchise history, then why can’t he convince Jerry it’s time for a new direction in the coaching department? Because on some level, he agrees with the idea of Jason Garrett remaining Dallas’ coach.
The key difference for Stephen, as he continues to step more and more so into the role of “head honcho” at The Star, will be if he can admit when he’s wrong and enact sweeping change. For the past decade plus we haven’t seen any willingness to do that with regard to Jason Garrett. And until that changes, Stephen will remain one of the prime suspects for the state of this Cowboys team.
In the end, there is no clear-cut culprit to explain the ineptitude of the Dallas offense on Sunday. Dak missed several throws -many of them badly. Scott Linehan called a terrible game and showed that virtually nothing had changed in his approach or scheme. And Stephen Jones? Well, he cut fan favorites like Dez Bryant and Dan Bailey. Moves like that, right or wrong, will only anger a fanbase, and now any time Brett Maher misses a kick this year, as he did Sunday, or a receiver loses a jump ball in the endzone, fans will curse Stephen Jones. They’re all to blame.