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Handing out grades for the Cowboys season-ending, mistake-riddled, ugly loss

Grading the Cowboys season-ending defeat.

Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys 2017 season ended on Christmas Eve in an ugly, mistake-riddled performance in which coaches and players combined for the team’s worst performance of the season. Bizarre, inexplicable play-calling combined with multiple offensive miscues, penalties and missed field goals to put a stake in yet another Cowboys season. It was a bitter, ugly ending to a season that started with Super Bowl aspirations.

The Cowboys identity for the last four seasons has been that of a physical, ground-based offense. And yet, for the third time in four seasons, the Cowboys’ season ended in a game where the running game was effective throughout and then abandoned when the season was in balance. Serious, critical questions of the entire enterprise are deserved after the team lost to a disabled, addled Seattle squad that had no business winning this game.

Overall: F

There’s simply no way Dallas should have lost to a reeling Seahawks squad. The anemic Seattle offense posed no threat whatsoever, managing a meager 136 yards of offense. The Seahawks’ defense had been pummeled by previous opponents and offered no real resistance to the Cowboys’ ground game. But the Dallas coaches and players repeatedly bailed the Seahawks out by abandoning the running game and going with a passing game that never, ever showed any real capacity for success and then executing poorly.

The Dallas running game consistently kept the team ahead of the chains, putting up 128 yards on 30 rushes. Every time the Dallas coaches called upon the running game the running game answered the call. Throughout the first, second and third quarters the run game managed to move the chains and keep the offense moving.

And yet, Scott Linehan and the Cowboys “leadership” consistently abandoned that effective running game to go with a passing game that never got untracked. Multiple drives stalled as soon as Linehan chose to go to a passing attack. Despite repeated success with runs early Linehan chose to go with an empty backfield, shotgun formation on 2nd-and-5 in the red zone...which promptly resulted an ineffective play resulting in a lengthy third down which also failed.

This happened over and over and over....the running game would move the ball effectively and then the Dallas coaching staff would bizarrely choose to go with empty backfields or passing attempts on first or second downs that would set the offense back and once-promising drives would quickly derail.

The Dallas defense, meanwhile, played an outstanding game, except for a number of debilitating penalties. The three Seahawks touchdowns came on a interception return and two short scores after end-zone pass interference calls set Seattle up and the 1-yard line. Otherwise the defense was superb. The numbers are dominant:

  • 136 total yards surrendered
  • 2.5 yards per play
  • Six tackles for loss along with three sacks
  • 60 gross yards passing on 24 dropbacks

The only thing the Dallas defense couldn’t do was come up with a turnover. The Dallas offense, meanwhile, turned the ball over three times. Dak Prescott threw a horrifically bad, off-target pass that was returned for a touchdown. And Dez Bryant looked pathetically bad; he fumbled once, then had two balls go through his hands, including one that was picked off in Seattle territory, although Prescott threw a poor pass on that attempt to help create the turnover.

Finally, Mr. Reliable, Dan Bailey, had a nightmarish ending to a game that began with him hitting four consecutive field goals. After successfully banging one kick off the goal posts, Bailey missed twice in the final minutes of the game. It’s not at all a stretch to believe that had he made those kicks the Cowboys might win.

In sum, it was a complete meltdown of mistakes and errors and poor coaching and was no doubt the worst performance of the season for the team as a whole.

Coaching: F

The Cowboys first two drives resulted in fairly quick punts. But the third drive took the Cowboys from the Cowboys 42 to the Seahawks 23 where Dallas faced a 2nd and 5. At this point the Cowboys had run 11 times for 51 yards while the passing game had managed 27 yards on 8 attempts. So Scott Linehan decides to go empty backfield, signaling to the Seahawks defense the team is going to pass. Prescott was unable to find anyone and ended up throwing a 2-yard outlet pass to Ezekiel Elliott. Then on 3rd-and-2 Prescott was unable to connect with Jason Witten and the Cowboys ended up kicking a field goal.

This happened repeatedly throughout the game. Linehan would abandon the only effective part of the offense (running) to go with a passing attack that was completely inept throughout the game. This was no more evident than midway through the fourth quarter when the Cowboys, down by nine points, enjoyed a 1st-and-goal from the Seahawks 3-yard line. At the time I told my best friend then “run the ball four times; if you can’t score from there you don’t deserve to win”.

After all, the Cowboys had Ezekiel Elliott, arguably the league’s most effective running back. Elliott hadn’t broken any long runs but was consistently gaining 3-4-5 yards in chunks. At no point had the Seahawks shown they could stop the Cowboys’ running game for more than one play at a time.

Instead, Linehan called up a run-play option on first down that resulted in Dak keeping the ball for a short gain. Then a designed roll-out that resulted in a (highly) dubious holding call on La’el Collins. Then another pass attempt ended with a sack of Prescott. The possession ended with Dan Bailey missing a 34-yard field goal.

At no point did the league’s most effective running back touch the ball. I don’t care what the thinking is or what the scheme is or what your strategy calls for....this is inexcusable. It seems like yet another instance of the Cowboys’ coaching staff outsmarting itself and in the process making things easier for opponents.

Had the Cowboys simply set up with Prescott behind center and handing the ball off to Zeke on four straight plays is there any doubt things would have turned out better? Why is this so hard for Linehan, Garrett and the coaching staff? It was a monumental strategic failure where the coaches abandoned the alleged strength and identity of the team.

Quarterback: F

Dak Prescott was terrible Sunday. There’s just no way around it. He repeatedly missed receivers. His bad overthrow of Ezekiel Elliott early in the third quarter resulted in a Seahawks touchdown. It was the fourth time in 2017 when a Prescott pass ended up with the opponent’s celebrating in the end zone. Otherwise, Prescott missed on passes all game long.

His only noteworthy pass play was an ad-libbed scramble left where he miraculously found Dez Bryant for a big downfield play. When in the pocket Dak was under pressure throughout but also simply played poorly. He was reduced to a checkdown Charley (as he has been throughout the second half of the season) and was off-target on seemingly most throws.

Dak has had an alarming number of really, really bad games over the last eight weeks. But Sunday he was unequivocally terrible.

Running back: B

Ezekiel Elliott was everything the Cowboys hoped he could be coming off his six-game suspension. He ran hard and he ran effectively. He consistently moved the chains and punished the Seahawks defense. He wasn’t ever contained by the opponent; instead it was the Cowboys coaching staff that prevented him from having a bigger game by repeatedly failing to give him the ball.

However, Elliott looked rusty in pass protection. On at least two occasions he missed his blitz pickup which resulted in sacks of Prescott. Overall though, Elliott’s game was terrific; only the Cowboys’ coaching staff stopped him.

Offensive line: C

The team’s running success sure seemed more a result of Ezekiel Elliott’s skills than the offensive line. Elliott didn’t enjoy big, wide running lanes. Instead, he pounded out his yards, often turning what seemed like 0-yard situations into 4 or 5-yard gains.

In addition, the pass protection was poor throughout. Prescott was hammered throughout the game. No doubt having Byron Bell in instead of Tyron Smith played a role but there were also times when Travis Frederick was cleanly beat in passing situations. Not a good day for the offensive line.

Wide receivers / tight ends: D

Dez Bryant was unequivocally bad in every aspect Sunday. After not being targeted early in the game his first catch resulted in him fumbling, setting up Seattle for their only score of the first half. This was after dropping an earlier pass and before being unable to gather a pass that was intercepted. It was his worst day in a season where Bryant has been revealed to be average at best as a #1 wide receiver.

Terrance Williams had a very Terrance Williams day, making a few early plays and then being completely invisible throughout the rest of the game. Noah Brown drew a pass interference penalty but otherwise his three targets were ineffective.

Defensive line: A

I honestly can’t recall the last time the Cowboys lost a key game because the offense failed and the defense was good. The Cowboys defensive line was outstanding throughout the game. They pressured Russell Wilson from beginning to end and sacked him three times. They also wreaked havoc on the Seahawks’ running game and for the most part dominated the Seahawks in every way. The only thing missing was a big turnover but I don’t know what else this group could have done.

Taco Charlton had his best day as a pro, recording a sack, two tackles and looking the best he has all season. His progress the last few weeks in encouraging.

Linebackers: A-

Similarly the linebackers were great. Sean Lee ended up with 14 tackles and 2 for loss. Look, when the opponent only has 136 total yards pretty much everyone on defense gets an A grade.

Secondary: B

This grade should really be an A. At no point did the Seahawks threaten the Cowboys with their passing “attack”. However, Dallas was twice called for pass interference in the end zone that gave Seattle the ball at the 1-yard line.

The first of those was a completely bogus call on Jourdan Lewis where the ball sailed far over the head of the receiver. The second was on Chidobie Awuzie in a nightmarish sequence where Awuzie first committed a face mask penalty, then a pass interference penalty, then was beaten cleanly for an easy touchdown pass.

Other than that the entire secondary was practically unblemished. Unfortunately, the group couldn’t come up with a big, momentum-turning play and gave up plays when it counted.

Special teams: F

Dan Bailey has been as good a kicker as the NFL has seen. Ever.

But he failed Sunday, in a way that is hard to swallow. When Bailey lined up for a 34-yard field goal with 5:34 left in the fourth quarter and the Cowboys down nine points, Dallas still had a reasonable chance at victory. Cut the lead to six, stop the pathetic Seahawks’ offense, get the ball back, score a touchdown, win the game, move on to playoff glory.

Instead Bailey’s kick was never on target and the Cowboys remained two scores down. Then, under more desperate circumstances, Bailey again missed when a conversion would have allowed the Cowboys one final chance at victory.

The Bailey misses were the last of more than a dozen unforced errors that doomed the Cowboys to a loss that never, ever should have happened. The first quarter saw multiple personal foul calls that derailed potential scoring drives. The defense was never really beaten, but multiple pass interference calls allowed Seattle to score there two offensive touchdowns. A special teams penalty set the Cowboys back on a drive that eventually reached the 3-yard line but then went backwards.

There’s just nothing positive to find in a Christmas Eve performance that will go down as perhaps the most demoralizing defeat in the Jason Garrett era. Honestly, I’m much more bothered by this defeat than last year against Green Bay or 2014 against the Packers. There’s absolutely no reason the Cowboys’ should have lost this game.

With Detroit and Atlanta losing the NFL gods had smiled upon the Cowboys and provided a realistic chance at reaching the playoffs. And given that gift the entire Cowboys franchise produced an embarrassing performance that will long live in infamy.

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