Things are bad in Cowboys Nation. After getting ran over by a Mack truck in three-straight contests, it’s really hard to peel yourself off the asphalt and come up with a coherent reason that the Cowboys could still be a good football team. Sure, Jerry Jones might try to tell you something different. He’s going do his best to sell you on the idea that this team is better than they’ve been playing and that it’s possible to turn things around and win the whole damn thing. Who’s he trying to kid?
With such contrasting performances from the 2016 Cowboys to now - it’s really hard to know what we got with this team. Why, all of a sudden, is this team so terrible? There’s a lot of blame going on right now and many are playing the excuse game, but this has become tiring. I don’t care that the referees aren’t calling offensive holding on other teams and nobody will be able to convince me that there is some Roger Goodell conspiracy that is set out to put this Cowboys team in ruins. And I’m not going to hang my hat on the narrative that not having Ezekiel Elliott or Sean Lee immediately turns this team to trash. That’s not to say that we should throw a blind eye to how important the Cowboys biggest playmakers on each of the ball are. The statistics are overwhelming.
- With Ezekiel Elliott on the field, the Cowboys offense scores 28.3 points per game. Without him, they score 7.3 points per game are are 0-3.
- With Sean Lee on the field, the Cowboys defense gives up 18 points per game. Without him, they give up 32.4 points per game and are 0-4.
Winning games without those two players inevitably creates a challenge, but the Cowboys aren’t even on the cusp of playing good football so this problem is well beyond the absence of two players. So why are the Cowboys this bad? Let’s take a close look at things and see if we can extract some answers from such an incomprehensible display of football over the last few games.
The first thing we must acknowledge is that this isn’t exclusively an offensive or defensive problem. The Cowboys have been awful on both sides of the ball. Bob Sturm paints a very clear picture as to the carnage that is occurring on each side.
In the Garrett era, the Cowboys offense has been limited less than 10 points and 250 yards of offense on five different occasions: 2011 in Philadelphia (in a Stephen McGee game), 2015 at Tampa Bay (in a Matt Cassel game) and this team's past three games (at Atlanta, vs. Philadelphia and the Chargers)!
And on defense...
In the past five years -- since the Cowboys switched to a 4-3 defense and welcomed Rod Marinelli to run the defense -- they have had only three performances of zero sacks and zero takeaways. Two of them happened this week. In both of those games, the opposing team emerged from the locker room and scored touchdowns the first three times they touched the football: Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown -- with every single drive starting at least 75 yards away -- and the Cowboys found absolutely no suggestions to slow the freight train down.
It’s been the perfect storm for the Cowboys. The offense can’t score and the defense can’t stop anyone from scoring. After winning 13 games last year and being the top team in the NFC, this team now looks broken-down on both sides of the ball. Typically, the blame can be placed into one of these four categories with some of the more popular explanations offered up:
Front Office - The brain trusts aren’t supplying their team with enough viable pieces. They dice roll during the draft, they do next to nothing in free agency, and they let too many of their own players walk which leaves huge holes to fill. And they completely whiffed in the 2017 draft.
Jason Garrett - The team can never win with him. He’s just a gum-chewing, clapper that is a puppet for Jerry Jones who’s really calling the shots. He never acknowledges that anything bad is happening and just complacently pushes his team to mediocrity. He just doesn’t have the coaching temperament to get his players to perform.
The Coordinators - The Cowboys are too predictable in their playcalling. Opponents don’t have any problem figuring out what Dallas is doing and constantly exploits them. The team cannot find matchups in their favor and just keep doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.
The Players - Dak Prescott keeps making poor decisions. Dez Bryant cannot create separation and has lost his ability to be a big play threat. The entire secondary is suspect led by Anthony Brown whose performance this season has been a complete disaster. It just comes down to execution and there are too many players not doing their job.
There are likely to be things mentioned in those groups that you agree with. And there’s also a good chance that you find some of it laughable. For many of us, it’s easy to target one specific area as the biggest culprit. And chances are its that same area you have been preaching to other fans for years now. The “see, I told ya so’s” are hot and heavy these days. In order to seek clarity, I’m going to examine each of these areas acknowledging both the good and bad that have been present in recent years.
When it comes to the front office, it’s hard to be critical of this group. Despite the very low dividends of the 2017 draft class, this team has been really strong at talent acquisition through the draft in recent years. They also appear to be learning from their mistakes. The only gamble they took this year was with Jourdan Lewis who was dealing with a domestic violence court case, but the team did their homework and weren’t worried about him. As it turns out, he’s the most productive player from the draft class thus far.
Their failures in free agency isn’t anything they seem too worried about as they have made it clear as to how they approach it. We can all moan about it, but the money they save is the money that will be used to retain known talent they have acquired through the draft.
Where they’ve messed up: The remodeling of the secondary. Between all the players they’ve lost in free agency and the contribution they’re getting from the new guys - the net difference is a weakened secondary. Philip Rivers just shredded the Cowboys pass defense for 434 yards and most of it came with receivers running loose in wide open space. We can talk about Chidobe Awuzie being hurt and how throwing so many young guys into the fire is going to have it’s growing pains, but the front office was not expecting it to be this bad when they made their decisions. Time and development may correct this problem, but it comes with a huge price in 2017.
What about Jason Garrett? What’s his role in all this? There are so many fans calling for his head right now, but did those same fans want him fired at this time last year when the Cowboys were 10-1? Probably not. Just as Garrett supporters now find themselves at a crossroad and questioning whether or not he is deserving of continued support.
When it comes to Garrett, you have to look at the big picture. If you’re judging solely based on wins and losses then your conclusion would be that he’s a mediocre coach, a great coach, and then a terrible coach. All those things can’t be true. And you simply can’t just pick the seasons you want to count to match the point you’re trying to make. Instead, you have to take a long look at everything that’s happened and see what you come up with. What you end up with is a Jason Garrett team that is not yet completed. He’s building the team his way and he’s not going to circumvent “the process” to achieve short term results. There’s no panic, there’s no sense of urgency, and there’s never any display of frustration that lets us fans know that drastic changes are coming. That’s because they’re not. And that is the part that angers fans when things aren’t going well.
Where he’s messed up: He’s too committed to riding out the storm. Garrett believes in his players and will let them play through their mistakes. He always believes they will get better. But while he waited for Chaz Green to improve, Adrian Clayborn ripped off six sacks. As Drew Davison writes, Garrett will stick to what he believes despite the fruitlessness of his decisions.
“Certainly we’re always looking at ourselves and things that we can do better, but our convictions as a coaching staff, or as a football team, really won’t change,” Garrett said on a conference call Friday. “You’re looking for different ways to implement things. You self-scout. You do a lot of different things week by week to give your team the best chance possible. But the core convictions about how you win ballgames? They remain intact.”
Judging the coordinators is tough. Fans have seen both Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli shine at times. I can’t count how many times both of these coordinators have been praised for their work during their tenure in Dallas. Last season, the Cowboys were top five in points scored and top five in points allowed. Linehan was creative in how he used his offensive weapons and Marinelli’s group produced great results despite struggles with a consistent pass rush or the ability to takeaway the ball.
But none of these things are happening now. Offensively, the Cowboys are struggling to find ways to sustain drives. You can’t blame them on the running game as both Alfred Morris and Rod Smith are making good runs. The offense just can’t convert on third downs. Defensively, Marinelli hasn’t been able to find the answers. Traditionally, he doesn’t like to blitz (6.5 attempts per game), but came after Rivers 14 times. The Chargers veteran quarterback would make him pay for blitzing, completing 9 of 13 passes for 139 yards. The Chargers didn’t have many problems converting on third as they went through the entire game without having to punt.
Where they’ve messed up: The coaches aren’t doing enough to put their players in opportunities to be successful. When you run a jet sweep right into an unblocked defensive end, that’s a terrible play. When two defenders blitz from the same side leaving the tight end wide open for a 27-yards gain, that’s a breakdown in playcalling.
It’s not hard to point fingers at a slew of different players not playing up to par recently. Most noticeably is second-year quarterback Dak Prescott. Not only has he thrown more interceptions over the last two games than he did all of last year, but it’s clear that the game is moving a lot faster for him now. He’s not seeing the field well, his throws on the run are off-target, and he has no trust in his line to allow him to step up in the pocket.
The play of the quarterback looms large in a team’s ability to be successful, but the Cowboys are getting sloppy play from many other players. Penalties and poor blocking from the offensive line are putting them behind the chains. Poor tackling from the defense has led to big touchdown plays. And blatant drops by cornerbacks means they come up empty when an opportunity for a takeaway falls right in their hands.
Where they’ve messed up: This part is two-fold. The Cowboys have a lot more player deficiencies than we realized going into this season. Players like Anthony Brown, Jaylon Smith, and Jeff Heath are performing at a level much worse than expected. Not only that, but many of the better players are trying to do too much. Whether it’s throwing into coverage or cheating on their gap assignments, players aren’t staying disciplined and doing their jobs.
Who is most at fault for the Cowboys disappointing 2017 season?
This poll is closed
The Front Office
Scott Linehan or Rod Marinelli