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Cowboys lesson learned: The problems on offense are still there

There still is not one solution, because things are so interconnected and interdependent.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins
This was just the biggest offensive error - but there were plenty more.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Another away game, another frustrating loss for the Dallas Cowboys. And has usually been the case, this is squarely on the offense (albeit with a big assist from the special teams). The defense only allowed 13 points, and outside of the first drive of the game for Washington, they largely shut things down, especially in the red zone. No, this was one caused by another collection of huge mistakes and miscues on the offense. And that was the whole offense, coaches and players alike.

One theme that has run through this season, and this particular weekly look at what we learn from each game, is that the offensive woes of the Cowboys are due not to any discrete issues, but spring from how different problems compound each other. So let’s break those problems out to see how they affected this game.

Some things might change with the addition of Amari Cooper, but for now we’ll just look at what we saw in Washington and how those issues are still valid.

The offensive line was, once again, inadequate and outplayed.

The Cowboys have invested a huge chunk of their salary cap in building a stellar offensive line. In 2016, we saw that working at just about peak efficiency. But now, this looks like a shell of that dominant unit.

The loss of Travis Frederick due to Guillain-Barre Syndrome has had a major impact, and the poor job of adjusting the blocking against the defense on Sunday is likely a direct cause. Joe Looney has not been bad filling in, but is not the same level of player both physically and mentally. But he is just the start of the issues. Only Zack Martin has continued to play at a high level, while Connor Williams is undergoing not unexpected growing pains as a rookie and La’el Collins has not been consistent. But the real problem is the play of Tryon Smith. He has been frequently beaten, and almost every game there seems to be a big play called back because of a penalty on him. In the latest loss, that is exactly what happened on the first drive of the game. After Dallas received the opening kickoff, Dak Prescott used his legs on third and six to gain 22 yards and set the team up at the Washington 49 - only to have it called back on a Smith holding penalty. The next pass would go incomplete, the Cowboys would punt (one of several bad efforts by Chris Jones, netting only 33 yards) and Washington would capitalize on the excellent field position to get their lone offensive touchdown of the game.

That was the real start of things going severely downhill. Had the run by Prescott stood, the Cowboys may have maintained the offensive efficiency from the win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the entire course of the game might have been different. At the least, there would have been much less of a chance of Washington scoring a touchdown on their first possession with the way the defense played for most of the game.

It is sad to contemplate, but the question has to be asked: Is Tyron Smith now washed? He just does not look right out there, and the holding calls are mostly because he is getting beaten by speed on the edge. The Cowboys may have a huge decision to make about his future if he does not recover at least some of his old form.

Prescott continues to raise questions about his ability to be the quarterback this team needs.

Social media is full of looks at how Dak is holding the ball too long and not seeing open receivers.

While some, such as Bryan Broaddus, have disputed whether Prescott actually looked at Gallup in that first play above, the issue of his lack of ability to see the field and missing open receivers is still valid. He also missed some throws as well, notably one to Ezekiel Elliott (although that would likely have been stopped for little or no gain as defenders were closing in, so it may not have mattered much). But on the touchdown drive that pulled the Cowboys to within three points late in the game, he missed too many plays and burned too much time off the clock that the team could have used on the failed final possession.

It is hard to argue that Prescott doesn’t hold the ball too long, especially with pass protection that seems to break down all too often. To win more games, especially on the road where the team is playing significantly worse than at home, he needs to be more decisive and get the ball out. He just may not be capable of that. The now infamous “hot hand” decision of 2016 may have thrust the Cowboys into the dreaded “quarterback purgatory”, where they can’t break through, but win just enough games to make it very difficult and expensive to get a more legitimate franchise QB in the draft. If the O line was the wall of protection that it was just a couple of seasons ago, he might still be able to thrive. But under constant duress, partly because he does hang on to the ball so long, he is going to struggle unless he makes a sudden, and very unlikely, leap forward in his vision and accuracy.

However, there is still a chance the team can find a way to make it work. He did have his best output passing of the season, completing 22 of 35 passes for 273 yards and a touchdown, and did lead the team on two drives at the end of the game. Still, his own mistakes fumbling the ball cost the game, and his four sacks were also at least partly on him because of the holding the ball problem already mentioned. Whether the team can figure things out is dependent on another thing, which we’ll get to shortly.

Zeke is not able to carry this team.

At least with a true lack of running lanes, as was the case in this game. His longest run on the day was only for six yards. And he also dropped a touchdown pass that would have saved some precious time at the end of the game. He is still very talented, but is being met far too often behind the line in the losses. As dependent as Dallas is on running the ball, this is a prescription for failure.

The wide receivers took a step forward, but it wasn’t enough.

It was something of a breakout game for rookie Michael Gallup, who had three receptions on five targets for 81 yards, including the big 49-yard touchdown to knot the score with a minute to play in the first half. And Allen Hurns, although he had one significant drop, had his best game of the season with five catches for 74 yards. Cole Beasley was also reliable, although somewhat contained by the defense, pulling in seven catches on eight targets for 56 yards.

And now the Cowboys have sent a first round pick to the Oakland Raiders for Amari Cooper. If it works out, it could certainly change things for Prescott and the passing game.

Meanwhile, the coaching is still a big problem.

A lot of focus has been on the final drive, when the decision was made by Jason Garrett to play for the field goal to tie and go to overtime rather than hurry up and take more shots at the end zone. That may have been influenced by the repeated drive-killing penalties and turnovers, but it still rankles, especially after a similarly conservative decision cost them a chance to win the game at the Houston Texans.

That is hardly the only thing to criticize about the coaching. After Gallup had an outstanding first half, he seemed to disappear from the offensive plan. And it has to be asked whether the plays where Prescott held the ball too long were due to what was being sent in by Scott Linehan. That is a bit of an unknown, since we don’t know what was intended on each play. Did something break down, was the coverage too tight, or did Prescott just miss a read?

Nonetheless, the players need more help from the staff. At the same time, Linehan needs better execution as well. He had nothing to do with Dak’s fumble on fourth and one, for instance, and hardly can be held accountable for those play-killing penalties by Smith, Williams, and Collins. That does not exonerate Linehan, or Garrett for that matter. They still need to put this team in a better place to succeed.

So we are stuck in the whole chicken or egg situation, where the blame for the offensive struggles on the road have to be shared. The most frustrating part of all this is that the Cowboys have had a real chance at wins in three of their four losses, all one score games - one an overtime loss, plus this latest flop. But outside the scoring explosion against the Jaguars, the wins have also been close affairs. That is a path to mediocrity over a season.

At the moment, that looks exactly the way this year’s team is headed. Unless Amari Cooper’s presence can shake things up and put the offense on a path forward instead of being stuck in neutral.

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