The Dallas Cowboys’ 2017 season began with enormous promise. But for the second time in three years a Cowboy’s team many projected to compete for a Super Bowl has seen their season effectively end on Thanksgiving Day. A third consecutive blowout loss against the Los Angeles Charges ended any realistic chances of a post-season. Rather than contemplating playoff match-ups fans will spend the rest of the season evaluating players and thinking about future draft picks. Sigh. Let’s go to the grades:
Dallas has been outscored 92-22 the last three weeks. After halftime the Cowboys have been outscored 71-6. Thursday Dallas gave up 515 yards of offense and forced exactly zero punts, sacks or turnovers. The offense went 10 consecutive quarters without scoring a touchdown, something that has never happened in the 57-year history of the team. The Cowboys offense netted less than 250 yards for the third consecutive week. Only the Chargers’ kicking woes due to an injured place-kicker stopped this game from being a bigger blowout than it was. It was a third straight butt-kicking in every phase of the game.
With these types of results leaders must be held accountable. The recent sustained failures are spread across-the-board, with every unit failing to meet expectations. Whenever you have multiple units failing at the same time those in charge bear the responsibility.
Jason Garrett seems to have no idea how to stop this runaway train of failure. This also happened in 2015 when another Cowboys team expected to be a Super Bowl contender instead lost 12 of the team’s final 14 games. That time Garrett had no answers when Tony Romo went down with injury. This is three consecutive abysmal performances; if things don’t change over the next few weeks I expect the front office will give a change at head coach serious consideration.
The coordinators don’t seem to be helping. The offensive game plan seemed to consist of simple runs plays and 5-yard passing routes. Only when the team fell behind by double-digits did we see any semblance of a downfield passing game. The Cowboys defense was carved up for 500 yards and has been pathetically bad in the second halves of all three games. Sacks and turnovers have been non-existent during the losing streak and the secondary doesn’t seem to have any answers.
The misery continues for Dak Prescott. He spent the first half throwing three yards downfield regardless of down or distance. He had 18 passing yards at halftime. He spent the second half alternating between making a few plays and either throwing bad picks or missing wildly on open receivers for two-point conversions. He threw a terrible, back-breaking pick-six that officially ended the game. That’s the fourth time this season opponents have scored as a result of a Prescott interception or fumble. Naturally, his best play, a 39-yard touchdown run, was wiped out by a holding call on Tyron Smith.
Prescott’s performance has mirrored the teams. He’s been very bad three consecutive games and looks nothing like the poised, accurate leader that won 18 of his first 24 starts.
Running backs: B
The only unit of the team that has enjoyed even moderate success over the three games has been the Dallas run game. Alfred Morris and Rod Smith combined for 79 yards against the Chargers. They ran effectively enough in the first half when the game was close and really had no opportunities in the second half. Still, the drop off from Elliott to the Morris/Smith tandem is stark. Teams simply don’t worry about either, knowing neither represents a homerun threat. When they are given room to run they simply can’t convert the holes into big plays.
Wide receivers/tight ends: D
One glaring reality the three-game losing streak has revealed:
- Opponents are perfectly willing to cover Cowboys’ receivers one-on-one and take their chances. Other than the one downfield pass to Terrance Williams in fourth quarter garbage time I didn’t see a single Cowboy open downfield.
- Contrast this with the Cowboys secondary where seemingly every wide-out is easily able to beat one-on-one coverage.
Right now I’m not sure the Cowboys have a single above-average player at the skill positions. Dez certainly isn’t among the top 15 #1 wideouts in the league. I doubt Terrance Williams is among the top 15 #2 receivers. And Jason Witten may be a future Hall of Famer but he’s only a marginal threat in today’s game.
Dez Bryant’s struggles continue and he’s a shell of the player who terrorized defenses from 2012-2014. He simply can’t get open and leads the league in drops. His only real opportunity came on a deep contested ball in the end zone he was unable to corral. It would have been a difficult catch but if he’s unable to make such plays you have to wonder about his status in the future.
Offensive line: C
Not nearly as bad as the rest of the team but not great either. Breakdowns in pass protection led to two more sacks (14 in three games for those counting). Zack Martin suffered a head injury and was replaced by Joe Looney. Looney missed a stunt that ended one Cowboy drive. The Smith holding call negated a would-be Cowboys touchdown and La’el Collins also was called for holding. The team did average 4.0 yards per carry but they were empty yards without much meaning.
Defensive line: F
Demarcus Lawrence was arguably Defensive Player of the Year over the first half of the season; lately he’s been completely invisible. David Irving didn’t make a single notable play Thursday. The two combined for 0 sacks, 0 pass deflections, 0 tackles for loss and one tackle against the Chargers. Irving has recorded one assist for a tackle the last two games; otherwise he hasn’t made a single play. No one else on the defensive line made an impression.
The Cowboys have recorded zero sacks the last two games and only one over the three-game losing streak. The same is true of turnovers; none in the last two games and only one over the last three games.
With the defensive line no longer getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks the Cowboys secondary has been revealed as no better than replacement-level players. Phillip Rivers dropped back 33 times and threw for 434 yards; that’s 13.2 yards per attempt. No team will win when the opposing quarterback can throw for 13 yards ever time he drops back.
Let’s start with the lone bright spot in the game: Jaylon Smith had his best game as a pro. He finished with seven solo tackles, a tackle for loss and one pass defended. He exhibited the sideline-to-sideline speed he was known for as a collegian. He took better angles and simply looked like a different player than the hesitant, slow defender we’ve seen most of the season.
Otherwise it was a forgettable performance by the linebackers. At one pont Anthony Hitchens somehow found himself in one-on-one coverage with an outside receiver; that ended with one of many long downfield completions for the Chargers? How does that even happen?
Shallow crossing patterns to backs, tight-ends and receivers continue to decimate the defense with the linebackers usually out of position or behind their man. The Chargers repeatedly attacked the unit for big gains on such plays.
The 2013 Dallas Cowboys defense was historically bad. One reason was teams could easily convert third downs because the Dallas secondary had no one who could adequately cover one-on-one. This 2017 defense looks very similar. Teams that have a good (not great, good) quarterback and a good receiver are able to play pitch and catch all day. Thursday it was Rivers and Keenan Allen, who netted 172 yards on 14 targets and abused everyone who tried to cover him.
No play captures the utter futility of the Dallas secondary than Allen’s final touchdown of the day:
Keenan Allen : 11 catches for a season-high 172 yards & a TD on 14 targets (23 catches for 331 yards & 3 TD's in his last 2 games) pic.twitter.com/AqYdMt7TP2— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life) November 24, 2017
That’s Orlando Scandrick, Jeff Heath, Byron Jones, Xavier Woods and Anthony Brown all missing tackles after Allen cleanly beat Scandrick for yet another easy catch from Rivers. Not one of the group looks like an actual NFL starter at this point. The decision to jettison Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, and Barry Church may have made long-term sense, but right now the Dallas secondary is completely helpless.
Eighteen days ago the Cowboys won their third consecutive game to reach 5-3 and put themselves in position for a late-season playoff push. Now you have to wonder what kind of changes will be coming. The fact the failures have been sustained for three consecutive weeks across every unit on the team is the most disconcerting fact.
If the problem was the offensive line or the failure to get turnovers or the inability to run the ball...individually those are manageable problems that can be addressed. What do you do when every unit has regressed and fails to play to expectations? Those are leadership issues.
I’ve long maintained Jason Garrett’s greatest attribute is his development of a winning culture. A culture where expectations are clearly defined, players are held accountable; everyone from superstars to special teamers to coaches and trainers are committed to a single purpose.
That simply isn’t happening right now. This is a team in disarray.