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Cowboys lesson learned: The offense is holding the team back

After carrying things for years, the offensive side of the ball is where the biggest problems reside in Dallas.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Well, this certainly sucks.

It was actually starting to look like the Dallas Cowboys would get a bit of a Christmas miracle as things began to fall into place. By the end of the early games, they had the Detroit Lions loss they needed, and coupled with the Atlanta Falcons losing, they just needed to get one more loss for the Falcons in their season finale against the Carolina Panthers.

Oh, and win out. But in just about two hours, it was becoming blatantly clear that they were not able to get the job done against the Seattle Seahawks, rendering the last game of the year against the Philadelphia Eagles meaningless. Expect to see several key players, like David Irving and Tyron Smith, sitting. You also have to wonder just how much would be gained by putting Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott on the field, especially with how badly Prescott was beaten up on Sunday.

The really sad thing (among so many other depressing elements) is that the 21-12 loss was in so many ways just a continuation of what we have seen so many other times this year. In a reversal of how things have gone recently, especially in 2014 and 2016, the offense once again failed to carry their end of the load, wasting another good defensive effort (the special teams was a mixed bag, due to the two misses by Dan Bailey, who probably is still not 100% after his injury).

We’ve seen this over and over this season. In the first of the three losses when Elliott started his suspension, the offense scored one touchdown in the first quarter, and was shut out the rest of the way during an apparent attempt by the Cowboys offensive line to get Adrian Clayborn to the Pro Bowl with one games’ sack production. (OK, the real issue was that Tyron Smith was out with an injury and the staff inexplicably thought Chaz Green could not only handle the left tackle job, but do so on an island.) But despite the lack of support from the O, the defense kept the score to 10-7 at halftime before finally getting worn down. The next week, the Cowboys actually had a 9-7 lead at the half, but was unable to get anything but field goals. And they couldn’t even muster those in the closing half of the game. Then the Los Angeles Chargers came to town, and Dallas could not even score a point until the fourth quarter, when they were already down 16 points. But the game was only 3-0 at half.

Sound familiar? The Cowboys again took a small 9-7 lead at the end of the first half against the Seahawks, but were also unable once again to score anything but field goals. In all four of these games, the defense clearly gave them a chance, but the offense failed to capitalize.

That is a complete and total failure of the Cowboys’ scheme. This is not a team that is built to come from behind. It is supposed to get an early lead and then wear the opponent down. In all four of the games cited above, the opportunity was there because the defense limited the other team’s scoring. In order, the Cowboys allowed 10, 7, 3, and 7 points by the opponent in the first thirty minutes of play. It was exactly what the team wants, a low score for the other side. But the Dallas offense simply failed to do anything with the opportunities.

That was supposed to no longer be and issue with the return of Elliott, but his first game back was just another example of futility. He did well enough himself, amassing 97 yards on 24 carries, but the four yard a carry average was more the grinding needed when working with a lead than the quick strike needed to get that lead in the first place.

Instead, the offense struggled, with Scott Linehan’s play-calling as puzzling and frustrating as it has ever been. Like so many offensive coordinators, he seems to try and focus far too much on outsmarting the other team. This was most apparent when the Cowboys got inside the Seattle five yard line not once, but twice. On second and goal from the five, the subsequent third down from the three, and then on a different drive facing a first down from the three and a second down from the two, there were no handoffs to Elliott. Three of the plays were passes, and one was a run by Prescott.

The outrage on social media was immediate, and frankly quite justified. The team spent a fourth overall pick to get Elliott. Prescott has been making some poor decisions and just bad throws. Once again, the team was without Tyron Smith to protect the QB. The simple approach would have been to hand it off to Elliott every time inside the five-yard line, and force the Seahawks to stop him. While Smith was out, you still had Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins lined up shoulder-to-shoulder. Running is supposed to be the strength of the team. Why go with the weaker aspect of the offense, which has been struggling anyway?

When you have five yards or less to score a touchdown, and two or three downs (even if you don’t go for it on fourth down), DO WHAT YOU DO BEST! It seems a simple enough concept. All game, Elliott was getting four and five yards a carry, and even on the few occasions he was met in the backfield, he managed to turn it into a positive yard or two.

But Linehan went with either having a struggling quarterback try to throw the ball to a corps of receivers that is also having its difficulties, in the tightly condensed coverage you get inside the five, or he put his quarterback at more risk by having him carry the ball in a game where he was taking shot after shot from the always aggressive and often dirty Seattle defense. As mentioned, this is not a trait unique to Linehan, but one that he certainly exhibits far too frequently. NFL offensive coordinators often give an appearance that they feel like they need to justify their fairly high salaries by showing how inventive and unpredictable they are. The fail to realize that they aren’t getting paid that money to make clever, unexpected calls. They are paid to make the right call. And when you are in short yardage with Ezekiel Elliott in your backfield, the right call is not keeping it out of his hands repeatedly.

Obviously, the coaching is just one of the issues. The surge in interceptions thrown by Prescott (he now leads the NFL in pick-sixes surrendered), the drops by all the receivers, and the struggles to keep things functional when Tyron Smith is out are also big issues, and could easily justify 700 or 800 words for each of them. But those will have to wait for other articles (and indeed have already been addressed from a somewhat different angle by Dave Halprin earlier on BTB).

The evidence is pretty clear, especially in a game where the Cowboys defense held the Seahawks to 136 yards from scrimmage, and only gave up one long drive all game. They got three sacks on the elusive and dangerous Russell Wilson, despite more non-calls for offensive holding that were so egregious that Troy Aikman pointed it out during the broadcast. To start the game, they held Seattle to four consecutive punts, including a pair of three and outs. They held up their end and gave Dallas a chance to get that early, big lead. And were let down completely by the offense. It is something that has to change for next season.

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