We all know the Dallas Cowboys offense has been stuck in neutral this season. There is no shortage of theories as to why. Yesterday our own Connor Livesay noted how Dak Prescott is failing with his mechanics. There has also been plenty of conversation about the play-calling and scheme of Scott Linehan. The basic theory holds that he needs to update his scheme, and the team overall including Jason Garrett need to understand the new NFL is about the passing game. Our own RJ Ochoa covers that here.
But what if the Cowboys could be succeeding as they are currently constructed? What if the plays are there, they just aren’t executing? That could be the case so let’s look at some examples of that from the Texans game. This will be disproportionately laying blame with Dak Prescott, but as the quarterback he does take on that responsibility.
Play 1: Sometimes you need to break the rules
This play was a third down on the first drive. You can just make out the first-down marker at the six-yard line. The screenshot is from the start of the play. Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that this call was a screen to Ezekiel Elliott to the right side. But look at what Dak Prescott sees right in front of him (blue lines). Cole Beasley is running an out route (red line) and no one is even close to covering him, it’s a simple pitch-and-catch first down at minimum. Yes, it’s a screen call to Zeke, and yes that’s maybe where the coaches told him to go, but you have a simple first down right in front of you, no linemen are downfield and the opposite side receivers are not blocking, just take it and get a new set of downs. Instead, the screen is blown up and they kick a field goal. And for those wondering, yes, Beasley is an option on this play because you can see the way he turns his head at the top of the route looking for the ball and his disappointment when he doesn’t get it (shown on a replay). Maybe Dak was just following the rules here, but he should have broken them and taken what the defense gave him.
Play 2: Push it past the sticks
This was a third-down play. The blue line is an approximation of the first down line although the 20-yard line is more accurate. Dak is in the pocket and is not being pressured as Zeke has picked up the blitz. Look at Tavon Austin and the red arrow which is where his route is going. He’s got open field with only a safety over six yards away. That is wide open in the NFL. Instead, Dak checked down to Swaim (black circle). If he hits Swaim in stride maybe he can fight for the first down, but he and Dak are not on the same page, the pass makes Swaim go to the ground and the play is dead. Why Dak didn’t take a shot at Austin is confusing.
Play 3: Quick release wins the day
This seems like a small thing but it’s costing the Cowboys offense. Here Gallup is running a simple “in” pattern. At this point in the play, Dak has performed the play-action with Zeke and has his back foot planted (blue circle). He is looking right at Gallup (yellow line) as Gallup is making his break in (red arrow). You can see the corner is too far off to make a play. Dak must throw the ball right now and he’s got an easy six or seven yards on the play. Instead, for some reason, he hesitates.
Here is that same play a second or so later. Look how far away Zeke has run now (black line) showing the delay in Dak’s throw. The red “x” shows the spot Gallup was in the first screen shot where Dak should have thrown the ball. Now he’s drifted in (yellow line) and the corner (blue circle) is closing the gap. By the time Dak throws and the ball gets to Gallup, the corner breaks up the play and it’s incomplete. The Cowboys just gave up and easy completion for six or seven yards.
Play 4: Bad play-call, but someone is open anyway
This is the infamous Deonte Thompson interception that Allen Hurns called out. There is no doubt that two deep curls against this defense is not ideal. We are not here to argue that fact. But let’s look at the play. The red circle is Thompson running a curl with a defender on his inside. The red line shows his pattern turning right into the defender. I have no idea why Dak would choose to make that throw. It’s obvious there will be a defender right there. Now look at the backside. There Tavon Austin (black circle) is running a mirror route but his defender is on the outside. When he curls in (black line) he is going to be open. That’s where the ball should go. Maybe a poor play-call, but there still was opportunity on the play.
Play 5: It’s not all on the receiver
This is the play where Tavon Austin dropped the pass on the sidelines that was foolishly challenged by Jason Garrett. Everybody blamed Austin, and he does deserve blame, he has to hold on to that ball. But the fact of the matter is he should have never been in that position. Look above. Dak (blue circle) is just about to feel pressure but at this moment he still has a clear path. He is looking at Austin (yellow line) but doesn’t let go. You can see that Austin (red circle) is going to beat his man when he cuts out, the corner is still running back and hasn’t even flipped his hips to the sideline. If Dak uncorks one right now anticipating Austin’s break, it should be a pretty easy catch for Austin. Instead...
Dak delays his throw which allows the corner to close the gap with Austin (blue circle). He also throws it high so Austin has to jump (red arrow). So instead of a pitch-and-catch, you got a throw that makes the receiver leap in the air, that allows the corner to close the gap, and makes the receiver walk the tightrope on the sideline. Sure, Austin still should have made the catch, but all of that mess could have been avoided.
Play 6: The offensive line isn’t helping
This one is on the offensive line. That blue circle is Dak getting buried by the pass rush, and he was scrambling in the pocket from the start. Just look at what he would have had if the line had blocked. That’s Gallup at the 50-yard line (black circle) wide open. That's a good gain and a first down. That’s not even the worst part, the red circle/arrow is Austin on his route into open territory. That yellow circle/arrow is the corner who is actually turned the wrong way and has to circle back around. Austin is going for six on this play if Prescott is given any kind of time.
Play 7: When you scramble, keep your eyes downfield and trust your arm
This play is late in the game when the Cowboys are trying to drive for a go-ahead touchdown. Dak (red circle/arrow) is scrambling to his right. The blue lines represent his field of vision. He has two open potential targets. The yellow circle is Geoff Swaim which is his best option. The black circle is Michael Gallup who is also open. Granted, there are defenders underneath meaning Dak would have to drop the ball in the window, but by NFL standards that’s a pretty large window. Instead, Dak doesn’t choose to risk it, scrambles all the way to the sideline and unloads a last-second bullet to Gallup that is too far outside for him to catch. Sure, this isn’t the easiest throw to make, but Dak has made them before, he just didn’t trust himself here.
Play 8: Oh for just one block
This is the very next play. It’s 3rd and 14 and the Cowboys call a screen. Zeke (blue circle/arrow) is catching the ball and will be heading downfield. Look at all that open green field with Connor Williams in front. That Texans defender in the black circle, he never even turns around to recognize a screen and runs down field with the Cowboys receiver. That red circle is Zack Martin, inside that same circle and obscured by Zack is a Texans defender. If Zack is able to get ahead of the defender and make the block, I guarantee you Zeke runs for the first down and maybe a lot more. Instead, the defender beats Martin's attempt at a block and manages to grab Elliott from behind and bring him down. That is the difference between maybe scoring a go-ahead touchdown and kicking a field goal.
This review maybe was unduly harsh on Prescott, he obviously can’t be expected to make everyone of these plays. But if he makes maybe half of them, or the offensive line makes a couple of key blocks along the way, the Cowboys go on to win that game on Sunday.
Yes, Linehan/Garrett need to expand their thinking and their playbook. Yes, the Cowboys receivers need to do a better job in some cases. But if Dak can cut down on some of these misses, Dallas isn’t that far from being competitive.