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One Thing We Learned About The Cowboys: Even When The Plan Doesn’t Work, It Still Does

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Dallas lost on time of possession, total yards, and points in the fourth quarter - and it didn’t matter in the end.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys
Somehow, they still keep getting it done.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The 31-26 win over Washington was huge for the Dallas Cowboys. It was a division win against a strong competitor for the NFC East crown. Dallas now is the first NFL team to double-digit wins, which of course helps them in the quest to get the number one seed in the conference as well as all but locking up a playoff spot. And it keeps the win streak alive in this incredible, record-setting season. What is amazing is that the basic plan the Cowboys have used to get to this point broke down in several significant ways - but it still worked. Dallas is now looking more and more like the absolute best offensive team in the NFL due to their superb balance, and it is arguably the most complete, despite the obvious flaws on defense. It is so complete, that when things fall apart in some ways, the team just shrugs it off and gets the win.

That is what you call resiliency.

Just to review, the Cowboys have been built to dominate the line of scrimmage on offense, run the ball, and complement that with an effective, methodical passing game. The game plan has been tailored to utilize Dak Prescott’s strengths without forcing him into situations where he is less likely to be successful. A key effect of this is controlling the ball and maintaining the edge in time of possession to protect the defense. With an evident lack of pass rush so far, the defense seeks to protect against long scores and force the opponent to try to score in the red zone, where the compressed area to work with allows the swarming, hustling nature of the defense to overcome some of their flaws.

The Cowboys were somewhat successful with that plan in the first half. They had perhaps their best drive of the season to open the game, imposing their will on Washington to score a touchdown without even facing a third down. It was an uncharacteristically quick drive, however, as they took only seven plays and 3:51 on the clock to get into the end zone. The defense held up its end of the bargain, holding the opponents to four field goal attempts, only two of which were successful. The offense would add ten more points by halftime to give the Cowboys an eleven point lead, which was just where they wanted to be.

But one thing was not according to plan, as Dallas failed to control the clock, ceding a 16:43 to 13:17 time of possession edge to Washington. More importantly, the snaps were piling up for the defense, and they had to stay on the field for 35 plays before halftime. This was a trend that would continue throughout the game, as Washington finished the game holding the ball for 33:24 and running a total of 72 offensive plays. In the second half, the Cowboys’ defense was clearly getting worn down, especially the secondary, which was already depleted with the absence of Mo Claiborne and Barry Church, and Orlando Scandrick playing hurt. Things just got worse when J.J. Wilcox, who has been doing an excellent job filling in for Church as well as really bringing some huge hits all season, went out with an injury during the game.

That set the stage for the second half explosion of the Washington offense, as Kirk Cousins threw for a total of 449 yards, completing 41 of 53 passes. After being kept out of the end zone for three quarters, he would complete three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. Dallas was getting pressure on him in the first half despite getting no sacks, but that largely evaporated after halftime. A few failed assignments, most notably by Anthony Brown on the 67-yard touchdown to DeSean Jackson with 9:22 left in the game, were no doubt partly because of the fatigue factor, as was the difficulty in getting pressure. The Cowboys also went to their three-man rush a great deal, but with the struggles of the secondary, it was much less effective than it has been at times in earlier games.

Yet despite this, Dallas never led for less than five points in the second half, and whenever Washington scored a touchdown, the Cowboys answered either with one of their own, or with the clock-killing final drive. Aided by a couple of questionable decisions by the Washington staff that gave the Cowboys short fields they converted into touchdowns, the plan held up even as it fell apart.

It did so primarily because the Cowboys have turned their offense into a true machine, especially late in the game. Even though the Washington defense was not on the field nearly as much as Dallas’, they were still worn down by the fourth quarter from facing the powerful Cowboys offensive line and the potent skill players, notably Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant, and Cole Beasley. Most importantly, Prescott continued to protect the ball flawlessly, with the only real threat of an interception coming off a ball that hit Bryant right in the hands but caromed off, only to have Duke Ihenacho fail to pull it in. Once again, Dak was nearly perfect down the stretch, continuing his recent superlative trend.

In a span that dates back to overtime of the Week 8 win against the Philadelphia Eagles, Prescott is 30-of-33 for 325 yards in the fourth quarter, with two touchdown passes and a touchdown run. He added 6-of-7 for 79 yards in the latest part of that ledger in Thursday’s win over the Washington Redskins. - ESPN Stats & Information

It is that incredible skill in moving the ball without mistakes that sets Prescott apart from not only all other rookie quarterbacks, but from almost every other QB in the game today. Partly it is his own amazingly advanced football IQ, but it also is a result of the team in place around him. With Elliott running the ball, Prescott is not trying to carry the team with his arm. Dallas has been successful in scoring on most of the opening possessions when they get the ball first, which has also helped keep the team from having to rely on the passing game to catch up. Prescott has shown he is more than capable of bringing the team back in the games this year against the Eagles and Steelers, but he and the Dallas offense are at their best when playing with a lead. That is when they have games like the one on Thanksgiving, where they are in control and the other team is trying (futilely) to play catch-up. The Washington game was close, but it never seemed at all out of control for the Cowboys. The team owns the fourth quarter, not so much in points scored as controlling the tempo and dictating the outcome. Now, the Cowboys have a huge +103 points scored differential on the year, just one bit of evidence of how good this offense is.

The plan broke down in many ways, but because they were in good shape at halftime and still had their offensive ability down the stretch, the Cowboys were able to complete the season sweep of Washington and become the first team in the league to make it to ten wins. Their offense is designed to control the game, and despite the defensive breakdown that let Cousins and company run up gaudy numbers, that was still the case. Logic dictates that this must break down at some point, and there are many who worry about that happening in the playoffs. But logic also dictates that there is no way that a rookie quarterback from a spread college offense could come into the NFL and do what Prescott does, week after week. As Bob Sturm put it in his Morning After piece:

I don't know how many more ways to describe these games, because at times, it is exactly what we have been calling it in this space for weeks.

"Repeatable and sustainable."

There is nothing fluky about this offensive power. There is something familiar about it, though. It has opponents looking as flustered as they used to appear against the old "Triplets" 25 years back.

Maybe some team will finally crack the code on how to beat this year’s edition of the Cowboys. Maybe that will happen in the playoffs.

But it hasn’t happened yet, despite repeated plans by teams like Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and now Washington. And who knows? Maybe this plan and the players executing it are good enough to go all the way. Even when it all doesn’t really work like it is supposed to.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB