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What went wrong with the passing game in 2017 and how the Cowboys can fix it

Dak Prescott had his issues, but the passing game in general had plenty of problems.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

My good friend and colleague OCC recently posted an article dissecting the problems that Dak Prescott encountered in 2017. While laying some of the blame at the doorstep of Prescott, he also noted accurately through statistics that the offensive line didn’t protect Prescott as well in 2017, and the absence of Tyron Smith was especially crucial to the decline. I would like to build on this, and take a look at why the passing offense in general tanked in 2017, including Dak’s part in it. While The Cool One used stats to build a case, I will turn to visual evidence to explain larger concepts that led to a very poor offensive season by Cowboys’ standards.

I won’t retrace ground that OCC already mined, but just know that pass protection was a much bigger problem in 2017 than 2016 as he stated. Another issue was dropped passes, especially by Dez Bryant who was Dak’s favorite target.

Dak’s issues

Problem 1 - Inaccurate passing

Dak Prescott’s role in the decline of the passing offense takes form in a couple of different areas. The major one is he wasn’t as accurate this season, and that probably has to do with mechanics. Dak is not a gambler, he doesn’t particularly like to throw deep, he likes to take the easy throw and that is usually shorter patterns. If you’re going to play that way you need to hit your receivers in stride and allow them to get yards after the catch.

Below is an example of a throw that Dak missed much more often this season than last. Ryan Switzer running a basic out pattern (red circle). He’s lost his man and is past the yellow line ready to convert this third-down play. Prescott has some pressure in his face but he has time to make the throw, but he throws high and behind the receiver. Switzer manages to get his hands on the ball but can’t haul it in. It’s a catch that could have been made, but you can’t blame Switzer too much. Prescott needs to hit him where he is open, and this was a problem for Dak all year. Throwing passes too high. It has to be in his mechanics.

Contrast the results with the touchdown play. Here Brice Butler is running a slant, and has a corner right behind him (red circle). This is where the accurate throw makes all the difference. Dak leads Butler perfectly over the middle (even with pressure in his face like the above play), hits him in stride and he easily takes it to the house. These kind of throws make all the difference, especially since Dak tends to take the short throws.

Last year, Dak was making these throws routinely, this year - not nearly as often.

Problem 2 - Proper reads

There was a lot of debate about the amount of times that Dak threw the ball to Dez in 2017, maybe even forcing them in. There is some truth to it. Here’s a play early in the Eagles’ game. Dez is running a slant on third down, but because of the patterns and the defense, there are two players around Dez (red circle), and two other defenders on that side of the field (red squares). Dak has a clean pocket, if he comes off Dez and looks over to Terrance Williams breaking free (lime arrow), they might have had a big play.

Here’s another one. Dez is running a basic ‘go’ pattern with a fade towards the corner, but he has a cornerback with him (red circle). The safety is a long ways off and has to make up a lot of ground (red square), so I get Dak’s temptation to throw a deep one up to Dez and hope he gets it. But look at Switzer open in between two players (yellow square) for a nice gain. Dak has a decent pocket but fails to come off Dez and see the open man.

The passing game’s issues

Problem 1 - Nobody open

One complaint about Dak recently is his tendency to throw short of the sticks. I’ve made that charge myself. But many times, this isn’t actually on Dak. Here is a third and medium play early in the Eagles’ game. We all thought - why did they throw the ball to Terrance Williams so short of the sticks? Well, he’s the only one remotely open and the pocket is starting to collapse. Williams (red circle) is the only choice unless Dak is going to run the ball. The other Cowboys receivers are blanketed (yellow squares).

This is part of the complaint I’ve been making all season, the Cowboys receiving corps is just not winning their matchups. The obvious response is what about last year, when the offense was tearing it up? Nothing happens in a vacuum. So part of the problem is Dak made the receivers look better than they were with accurate passing that allowed them to make plays. But another issue is the way defenses played Dallas. Cole Beasley saw a ton of bracket coverage from slot corners and linebackers all year. He was the third-down guy and teams were determined to take that away. Also, Jason Witten doesn’t really beat his man anymore, his decline is happening rapidly. He is generally only open when teams play a poor zone coverage or they allow him to catch a short pass and then tackle him short of the sticks. Dez has never been a great route-runner and much of his play happens when he has a QB who is a risk-taker and can throw him open deep. That is not Dak’s game. Throw in pass protection that declined, and missing Ezekiel Elliott for six games, and that’s a lot of obstacles to overcome.

Problem 2 - Unimaginative passing plays

The Cowboys run the same patterns and formations a lot. I mean a lot. A general passing play sees Bryant and Williams outside, Beasley/Switzer in the slot, and Jason Witten as the tight end either in tight or slightly flexed out. You get a lot of longer, downfield routes on the outside, Witten runs a square in or out, and the slot has a few different directions to go. You see this over and over.

I think it would help the Cowboys if they would start incorporating different formations and patterns. Bunch formations, rub routes within a yard or two of the line of scrimmage to free up a player for YAC, crossing patterns with two players that form a natural pick play. The Cowboys, and Scott Linehan, seem slavishly devoted to their passing concepts and rarely incorporate anything from the spread or West Coast offenses.

When they do stray, they can get nice results like this twins formation. The Eagles corners play off, Dez runs a simple comeback route (red circle) and ends up converting a first down. After watching play after play of similar formations and patterns, you wouldn’t believe how jarring it is when they do something different.

Let’s run through a couple of caveats to all this. One is that it’s easy to go through a game and pick out plays that support your theories. I tried not to do that. When I went into watching the Eagles games film, my focus was general - why was the Cowboys passing game so bad against backups? From there, I tried to develop patterns from what I was seeing, then watched the film from a couple of other games for confirmation. I tried to represent what I saw instead of trying to shoehorn plays into preconceived theories.

The other is that none of these issues live in isolation. For example, poor reads by Dak over the latter part of the season may be more of a function of his receiving more pressure from the pass rush instead of anything different he was doing. All that pressure seems to have sped up his read process and he’s dumping the ball quickly when sometimes he could allow a play to fully form. Similarly, the unimaginative play-calling isn’t so much of an issue if Dak is hitting players accurately when they do get open. These issues bleed into each other, and that’s why there is no easy fix.

But, if I were to pinpoint two things the Cowboys need to work on in their passing game for 2018, besides trying to acquire better talent at receiver, it’s these:

  1. Dak has to work on his mechanics, specifically his tendency to have passes sail on him. He threw a lot of high passes this year, and those tend to get tipped up by the receiver trying to make a play and intercepted, or they float over the receiver right into the hands of the defense. Even if they weren’t intercepted, they blew a lot of easy chances with high passes in 2017.
  2. Open up the playbook. I doubt the Cowboys can magically overhaul their receiving corps in one offseason, but they can quit being so stubborn and incorporate some new concepts into their attack. If players aren’t getting open on their own, use rub routes and different formations to try and force them open. A few more misdirection plays or a trick play or two can slow up a defense.

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