To get a better sense of the opposition this week, I linked up with Dave Halprin from Blogging the Boys, the SB Nation community for Cowboys fans.
Let’s start with the big picture. What’s going on? The roster has plenty of talent. You guys have more yards on offense than any team in the NFL. How the hell are yall 6-7? Is it as simple as putting it all under the “coaching” tab?
I wish I had a concise answer to this question, but the fact is the factors are varied. As you mentioned in your question, coaching is certainly one consideration. Jason Garrett has never been a great in-game strategist and he continues to make confounding and conservative decisions that fly in the face of today’s analytics. He’s even come out an said that in games they don’t rely at all on win-probabilities and other analytics stats. Garrett seems like he is coaching a game from the 90s in a world about to hit 2020. His conservatism and unwillingness to adapt has always been an issue and is hurting the team this year. It’s not just him in the coaching department, the special teams have been an absolute disaster that has constantly hurt the Cowboys. The defensive combo of Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard are also not very creative and seem to run the same things over and over even if the opposing offense is defeating it. Even Kellen Moore, the offensive coordinator, has resorted to the idea of running the ball on first down a majority of the time, something that has consistently put the team behind the chains. There are plenty of other coaching examples I could go through.
But let’s not let the players off the hook. The amount of undisciplined play is mind-boggling. We’ll jump offsides and give up a crucial third-down conversion. We’ll fumble or throw an interception just when we don’t need it. Our tackling has been atrocious lately and gap discipline has gone right out the window. Drops by receivers, holding penalties or other things on offense have busted up drives. And for all the yards we gain, we seem to bog down in the red zone. In short, the Cowboys are masters at self-sabotage. If there is a creative way to blow a game, they’ll find it. So while at times we can look really good, we always seem to trip up.
Offensively, you guys have been very good. The line is seemingly still holding up as one of the league’s best. Zeke’s chugging along. Dak has earned a megadeal, no? Any issues on this side of the ball?
Dak has earned a new megadeal. Even though he has slowed down somewhat during the current three-game losing streak, he is not the cause of our losing ways. His growth this year has been phenomenal and his statistics are top of the league. There are obviously things he can work on, he sometimes lets his mechanics break down and will have periods of a game where he’s not as good as he should be. He’s also turning the ball over a little more this year although his receivers are occasionally at fault and he is pushing the ball downfield more which is always a riskier play. In general, though, he has elevated his game and is a quarterback you can win with consistently.
There are problems on that side of the ball. The offensive line is good, but thy have had some issues opening up holes in the run game. Nagging injuries and center Travis Frederick trying to recover his form after a serious illness have slowed things a little. Ezekiel Elliott isn’t seeing quite the amount of open space he has in previous years. There is also the problem with drops from the receiving corps. Generally they have been deadly but sometimes they drop crucial passes. There is also the issue of play-calling discussed earlier, especially around the tendency to run on first down. Additionally, the red zone woes are somewhat of a mystery and have slowed the offense.
The defense seems to be the side of more concern. Right now, you guys are 22nd in defensive DVOA per Football Outsiders. Is it an issue with the Hot Boyz? The secondary? A little from Column A, a little from Column B?
There are a mix of issues on that side of the ball. One is that the center of our defense, the defensive tackles and the linebackers, have been under-performing. Especially at linebacker where last year Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch were very good but their play has slipped badly this year. The Rams exposed this in the playoff game by slicing through the middle of the defense and it hasn’t stopped this year. Teams are running on the Cowboys pretty effectively. Bad tackling and poor gap discipline have been an issue. Mobile quarterbacks have eaten up the Cowboys defense. In the secondary, the Cowboys cover pretty decently but don’t make good plays on the ball. Players fail to get their heads turned to break up passes and make interceptions. So while they are in position a lot, they fail to make the play. And coaching is also an issue here. The Cowboys use a pretty simplistic defensive scheme and expect the players to execute. When they are not executing, we don’t really seem to have a plan B. We don’t do a lot of deception and we’re not a heavy blitz team, so the options aren’t really there. It can be really frustrating to watch at times. Teams that run effectively in the middle of the line and have a strong screen game are a nightmare for the Cowboys.
Who are some Cowboys that Rams fans might not know as well as the stars but who are key contributors nonetheless?
Second-year receiver Michael Gallup has started to reach a higher level. He is a weapon that can get deep and can make circus catches. His only issue has been with drops but otherwise he is looking like he could become a star. Tight end Blake Jarwin can hurt a defense. Unfortunately, in another questionable coaching move, the Cowboys are playing Jason Witten much more than Jarwin even though Jarwin has looked like the more explosive and dangerous player. Chalk that up to Garrett’s conservatism and loyalty to veterans. On defense, corner Jourdan Lewis is a playmaker. If anybody on the Cowboys is likely to come up with a turnover, it’s him. But once again, he wasn’t playing because of a coaching decision. Kris Richard likes to use bigger corners instead of small guys like Lewis. He’s only been playing regularly recently because of injury to another corner. It looks like a real mistake not to have been playing him all along.
Let’s fast-forward a month plus. The season’s over. You guys won the NFC East at 7-9 and lost in the playoffs. Jason Garrett finally got canned. What’s the offseason plan? Obviously the coaching hunt would come first, but you’d have that wrapped up before the combine I’d expect. What about all those soon-to-be unrestricted free agents? What roster gaps need shoring up?
The Cowboys need to hire a coach, and a coaching staff, that believes in the future instead of trying to recreate what worked long ago. They need to be adaptable instead of just picking a scheme and expecting the players to outperform the competition. They need to be flexible and maximize the abilities of their players by adapting their schemes to them instead of fitting square pegs into round holes.
In terms of personnel, they need to get contracts done with Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. Those are the two they must get done. It would be nice to retain CB Byron Jones, TE Blake Jarwin and DE Robert Quinn (Quinn has been really good this year for Dallas). Among the things they need to shore up on the roster is a play-making defensive tackle (maybe a poor man’s Aaron Donald), and they could use a talented safety that is a sure tackler but that can occasionally make play on the ball. On offense, they are pretty set as long as they can get Prescott and Cooper signed, but they should start utilizing rookie Tony Pollard more. He is a different type of running back (a pass-catching guy who is quicker and shiftier than Zeke) that could complement Zeke’s skills.
The Cowboys roster is in pretty good shape, it’s just not being properly utilized this year.
Thanks to Dave for the time.