The 2017 Cowboys Offense: A Postmortem Examination, Part I - The Mechanics of Failure

If you're like me, you're probably old enough to remember a time when the Dallas Cowboys sported one of the best offenses in football. They were exceptionally efficient through the air, not generating a ton of big plays but completing passes consistently and rarely turning the ball over. They were dominate™ on the ground, pounding defenses for four or five yards at a time until they broke and gave up that backbreaking 60-yarder. The offense was so good, in fact, that it propelled the team to a 13-3 record and realistic Super Bowl aspirations despite a defense that could most charitably be described as "competent."

Ah, those halcyon days of.. wait, 2016?! Fast forward less than 12 months and, despite featuring largely the same cast of characters, the Dallas Cowboys find themselves eliminated from playoff contention, having barely escaped the doldrums of another 8-8 season, primarily because the offense has cratered and mustered a thoroughly unimpressive 16 points per game over the season's final eight contests. That includes a stretch of positively Brownsian ineptitude that featured consecutive games of 7, 9 and 6 points, a narrow win over a bad Oakland team that required divine intervention from a folded index card and an "elimination game" performance about which pretty much nothing positive can be said. Oh, and a riveting 6-0 win over a bunch of backup Eagles to ostensibly close out the season on a "high" note.

To channel the legendary Vincent Thomas Lombardi, "What the hell's going on out here?!"

Because I hate myself and I'm a glutton for punishment, I've decided to poke around a bit and see if I can't get to the bottom of just what in the world went wrong with the Cowboys offense over the course of this season. On the advice of a few helpful folks here, I've decided to split this into a couple of parts rather than subjecting you to thousands and thousands of words of my rambling at once.

So, without further ado, let's get down to business with Part I, in which we find that maybe Dak Prescott isn't quite the second coming of Tom Brady.. yet. Get ready, 'cause it's gonna get messy.

State of the Offense

Like any competent team, the Dallas Cowboys have a clear organizational philosophy. Offensively, that means dominating on the ground, being safe and efficient through the air and controlling the pace and tone of the game. Though it certainly wasn't perfect, I believe 2016 serves as a useful model for what the coaching staff would ideally like this offense to be. So, to start our little exercise, I think it's useful to take a gander at what that ideal looks like and how the 2017 offense compares.

To wit:

Offensive Performance 2016 2017
Scoring Percentage 43.9 38.1
Points Per Drive 2.5 2.1
Yards Per Drive 34.8 31.3
Turnover Percentage 8.7 11.9
Yards Per Play 6.0 5.3
Red Zone Percentage 66.7 60.8

Using 2016 as the standard, this season saw a six percent lower scoring rate, four-tenths of a point less per drive, more than three percent higher turnover rate, seven-tenths of a yard less per play and a six percent lower red zone scoring rate. Taken together, these numbers paint a pretty clear picture: by virtually any measure, the offense was notably less efficient, less productive and more prone to mistakes this season. Well, duh. But there's far more to it than that.

Even an offense predicated more on efficiency than big plays needs to gain yardage in big chunks on occasion. Defenses are simply too good to rely on executing flawlessly on 10-plus play drives consistently. One way to measure this is with explosive play rate. A run is considered an explosive play if it gains 10+ yards, while a pass is deemed explosive if it goes for 15+ yards. Here's how 2016 and 2017 compare:

Year Explosive Run Rate Rank Explosive Pass Rate Rank
2016 15.9% 2nd 8.8% 15th
2017 12.1% 12th 5.4% 31st

Well then, that ain't good. Whereas the 2016 offense generated explosive rushes at a nearly league-best rate, this year's offense was barely above average. And while last year was average in terms of explosive passes - not a terrible position for a run-oriented team led by a rookie quarterback - this year's offense was worse than all but the Eli Manning-led Giants. The same Giants, by the way, whose entire receiving corps was essentially wiped off the face of the Earth by a pestilence of injuries. Consider that the Cleveland Browns - those Cleveland Browns - posted nearly twice as many explosive passes as did the mighty Dallas Cowboys. The mind positively boggles.

The reasons for this decline are manifold - football is nothing if not an exercise in chaos, and trying to isolate singular driving factors amid the swirling maelstrom of complexity is a fool's errand. Of course, being a fool, I'm here to do just that. So, if you've all got your torches lit and your pitchforks sufficiently sharpened, let's turn our attention to the first - though by no means only - point of failure.

When Good Quarterbacks Go Bad

In 2016, one Rayne Dakota Prescott was arguably the biggest story of the NFL season. The rookie sensation took over for an injured Tony Romo in preseason, immediately leading the offense to success and never relinquishing his spot atop the quarterback depth chart - a somewhat controversial decision, if you'll recall. But quarterback controversies aside, young Dak was a success by virtually any measure. He presided over a highly efficient and reasonably explosive offense, setting a record for the most passing attempts without an interception to begin a career along the way.

What a difference a year makes. In 2017, changing circumstances and heightened expectations placed a greater burden on Prescott and the pass offense. There were troubling signs even early on, including a less-than-stellar opening night against the rival Giants and a crushing Week 2 loss at Denver in which the passing game looked completely and utterly overmatched, but Dak & Co eventually settled in and responded with a stretch of quality play.

And then, beginning around Week 10, the wheels started to come off. Tyron Smith went down, Zeke was lost to suspension and the Cowboys offense turned into a pumpkin. There were issues aplenty, but the film revealed one issue of particular concern. Dak, a cautious and risk-averse quarterback by nature, had become increasingly tentative and hesitant. This seems a fitting time for one of my all-time favorite quotes:

"On the plains of hesitation bleach the bones of countless millions who, at the dawn of victory, sat down to wait, and waiting—died!"
- George W. Cecil

Yeah, something like that.

See, as the top professional football league in the world, everyone is good in the NFL. Even the 53rd man on a given roster can count himself among the best on Earth at his chosen profession. In such an ultra-competitive environment, the difference between winning and losing a game - between a successful play and a failed one - often lies at the margins. If baseball is a game of inches, then football is a game of milliseconds. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the quarterback position, where success and failure are often separated by the smallest of details.

Consider: on a typical play, a quarterback will have about 2.8 seconds to survey the field, progress through his reads and deliver a throw. He will be throwing to receivers who, on average, have about 2.7 yards of separation on their nearest defender - though the numbers vary significantly from player to player and from play to play. For instance, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Cole Beasley each average 2.4 yards of separation on plays in which they're targeted, while Terrance Williams averages 3.2 yards. We'll get to those guys later in this series, by the way.

In any case, the point is clear: there is no time for hesitation, no place for uncertainty at the margins. Unfortunately, hesitation and uncertainty seem to have become the defining traits of Dak Prescott's second season as quarterback of America's team. So, how does that manifest itself? To the tape!

This particular play is maybe the clearest illustration of how much timing matters, and how seemingly minor details can cause chain reactions that cause otherwise successful plays to fail. It comes from the Week 11 beatdown at the hands of the much-loathed Philadelphia Eagles. Early in the second quarter, Dallas is facing a 2nd & 8 at its own 30 yard line.

Dez quick out vs. PHI

The play is a very simple one: with the cornerback giving nearly ten yards of cushion, Dez Bryant - aligned to the boundary - is running a quick out to the sticks. Because this is designed to be a quick-hitter, it's paired with a simple quick drop from the shotgun. The idea is to receive the snap, flip your hips quickly into your passing position, drive off your plant foot and take a short (about 6", ideally) target-step toward your receiver to transfer your weight through your lower body and deliver the throw just as the receiver makes his break.

That's the idea, at least.

Instead, Dak hesitates ever so slightly. It isn't much, and you may not even notice it on first glance, but the result is clear. The subtle hesitation causes Dak to lose his mechanics, taking a second target-step that lengthens his stride, throws off his weight transfer and results in a poor pass that skips well in front of the target. This is as simple a throw as you can make in football. It's a throw I made hundreds of times even as a mediocre high school quarterback, and it's a throw that an NFL passer has no business missing. Yet, because of a fractional hesitation, Dak turns it into a worm-burner of which even Donovan McNabb would be proud. Still think these small details don't matter?

Our next example comes from Week 9 vs. Kansas City, which is actually squarely in the middle of Dak's best stretch of football. Nonetheless, it wasn't all rosy. Driving just across midfield with a narrow 7-3 lead late in the second quarter, the Cowboys are facing a 3rd & 3.

Dez slant vs. KC

Once again, Dez Bryant is the intended target. This time he's running a simple slant pattern against zone coverage. Dez comes open when he breaks inside and the cornerback passes him on to the middle linebacker, which happens just as Dak reaches the top of his dropback. Rather than decisively planting his foot and driving the throw, however, Dak is again tentative. In fact, he waits for Dez to cross the field entirely, at which point he has climbed the pocket so far that he doesn't have space to step into the throw and follow through as normal. This, once again, results in a poor throw on what should be the most basic of passes.

Now, I know what you're thinking, and I agree that this is a catch Dez ought to make. If you're among the highest-paid WRs in the NFL, you should be expected to haul in a pass like this, even if it's off-target. No argument here. But the point is that there's no reason for the throw to be off-target in the first place. Better ball placement results not only in an easy catch and a sure first down, but potentially even an opportunity to make a play after the catch and pick up a bigger chunk of yardage.

Another example, this time from the opening drive of the Cowboys' narrow win at Oakland in Week 15.

TWill dig vs Raiders

There's kind of a lot going on here, so bear with me. The play is clearly designed with Terrance Williams, aligned to the field and running a dig route at about 12 yards depth, as the primary receiver. Cole Beasley runs a seam route from the slot in order to clear out the safety, while Jason Witten occupies the linebacker and slot defender with an underneath route. Not the cleverest of designs, but it works: T-Will gets a step on the corner and maintains good position on him as he breaks across the middle of the field, and once he clears the slot defender, he presents an easy target and even has some room to run.

But, again, the ball does not come out when it should. Are you starting to notice a theme here? Take a look at the same play from another angle:

TWill dig vs Raiders alt angle

There's really only one key with which Dak must concern himself on this play, and that's the slot defender (#38, T.J. Carrie). If he moves to help on Witten underneath - as he does here - the ball should come out to Williams as soon as he clear's Carrie's hips. So long as the ball is reasonably well-placed, which in this case would mean a leading throw just inside the hash, there's simply no way for Carrie to recover and make a play on the ball. Instead, Dak hesitates, and soon he feels pressure, scrambles and ultimately makes an ill-advised throw to Jason Witten that is nearly intercepted.

Later in the same game, another missed opportunity.

Dez deep cross vs OAK

I cut this gif a bit short (sorry!), but it begins with Ryan Switzer running a jet sweep action across the formation. This is a wrinkle we used on occasion last year to great effect, but it seems to have lost some of its effectiveness this year - partly through overuse and partly due to the fact that we've rarely actually handed it off on these plays. Anyhow, Switz finishes his route by heading into the flat on the play side. Noah Brown runs a go route down the numbers (another common theme, but more on that later), while Dez Bryant runs a deep crossing pattern. The Raiders show a single-high look, so the safety simply cannot cover both deep routes. He's busy gaining depth to guard against the vertical, leaving Dez open in the middle of the field.

If the ball comes out on time and with any kind of accuracy, this isn't a difficult completion. Dez has enough separation on his man, and he's in great position to shield the throw from the defender. Instead, Dak holds the ball far too long, and Khalil Mack takes Jason Witten to school for an easy sack. Which, while we're at it, brings up another issue. Even if he doesn't make the initial throw, there's no reason for Dak not to have climbed the pocket and bought himself more time. It's unlikely he'd have been able to make a play at that point, but he must improve on his pocket awareness and ability to move within it.

Now, you can doubtless find the occasional example like these from any quarterback if you look hard enough, but the reason I've chosen these is that they represent what I believe to be core issues for Dak. These are not isolated incidents - they've been apparent in his game dating all the way back to his time in Starkville, though they've become more exposed in the past half-season as the team around him has faltered. However! These are not fatal flaws, and there's also enough evidence to justify some optimism regarding our young quarterback moving forward into 2018 and beyond. But I'll get to that in a subsequent article.

For now, that's enough about Dak. In the second part of this series, we'll move on to some of the other things that sucked. There's plenty to choose from.

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