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Dallas Cowboys hot topic: Is the offense really fixed?

The answer likely determines the course of the season.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It came down to the last second. The Dallas Cowboys won their game over the Detroit Lions on a come-from-behind Brett Maher field goal as time ran out. It was glorious.

More importantly, after some real offensive struggles in the first three weeks of the season, that winning kick came after a truly clutch two minute (and seventeen second) drive led by Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. This capped the best offensive performance of the season to date, where Prescott was able to move the ball and get a couple of touchdown passes and Elliott was simply on fire. Along with their contributions, the offensive line was generally very good, several receivers came through in the passing game, and there was not much to criticize about Scott Linehan’s game plan or play calling.

So rejoice! The offense is fixed!

Is it really fixed, though?

Maybe something is missing... focusing specifically on that “maybe”. The truth is that the offense worked well for one game but with the exception of Elliott, who has been playing better every game of the year, none of the other elements listed above are exactly a given going forward.

It was, after all, a game that seemed tailor-made for the Cowboys to win. The Lions came in with the unusual combination of being the best pass defense in the league and the worst at stopping the run. That plays right into the very identity of the Dallas offense. It is no surprise that Zeke would gain 152 yards running the ball or that the team would total 183 yards on the ground as a whole. What was a pleasant surprise was Dak having his best game of the year against what was the toughest pass defense he has faced. He was more decisive and accurate with his throws and took more shots downfield that were met with real success. After a marked lack of long plays in the first three games, the Cowboys had five that went over 30 yards. Four of them were passes with two covering most of the distance in the air.

If you were among those condemning Linehan for the failures of the first few games of the season, you have to give him credit for what he did in this one. He was throwing out of running sets, using a lot more motion and play action to give Prescott better situations and clearer reads, and he threw in some plays that have not been seen before... including the crucial 34 yard pass completion to Elliott to set up that winning FG.

Elliott split out as a slot receiver and went deep, where Prescott delivered perhaps his best throw of the afternoon. Using Elliott like that is something armchair critics and the media alike have been demanding. Linehan delivered, and he did so when it had the biggest impact.

The question of the season is whether or not Dallas can do it consistently

It’s all good. Now let’s see if Dallas can do it again against the Houston Texans. Like the Lions, the Texans enter the game as a one-win team that is fighting to keep shrinking hopes alive. They consider the Cowboys a big rival (largely a one-sided affair, to be honest), and have them at home for a Sunday night national game. They want this bad. At this time of year, every NFL team should feel that way about every game, of course.

Here, courtesy of our old friend Patrick Conn, is a look at how the teams match up statistically.

In a sense, this is a mirror image of the Lions game. The Cowboys were strongest on offense where they were weakest, and vice versa. But facing the Texans, it is strength against strength... and weakness against weakness.

That means Dallas cannot rely on Elliott carrying them on his (quite capable) shoulders. They have to see a continuation of the offensive performance from last game, particularly on the passing side of things. It is a good test that they really need to pass.

So will they?

One good game is not really important. Being able to string them together is vital. The Lions game presented evidence that the passing game can be effective, the running game is one of the best (with a league leading 5.8 yards per attempt), the offensive coordinator is not the incompetent that so many believe he is, and the team is getting better at putting points on the board. They still need to improve on third down conversions and red zone efficiency, but there was even some progress there.

So what is it exactly that the Cowboys have to do more consistently?

All of this brings us to a point of trying to figure out what the team did differently in week four from what they’d done prior to. It seems to come down to one simple thing. Allow me to present the explanation as given by someone whose football analysis and acumen far, far exceeds my own.

This debate is far from over, but the Lions game looked like a very good argument for the previous offensive problems stemming from poor execution rather than coaching or even the talent level. Go back to that list of things that went right in the opening paragraph:

  • Prescott’s execution was markedly better.
  • Elliott’s level of performance was arguably the best for any player at any position in the league for this week.
  • The offensive line was working well together with few missed blocks or assignments.
  • The receivers mostly had a much better day catching the ball. There were still some drops, but they were not as egregious and fortunately did not turn into interceptions. A few of the catches were clutch.

This recipe makes play-calling a lot simpler. It may be a mistake in the literal sense of the word, but it does not seem very likely that a long-time coach and offensive coordinator like Linehan would undergo a significant change to his style and approach in just one week. “Wrinkles”, maybe, but not anything pervasive. What can change quickly is player performance, especially when they have been making mistakes and missing assignments the way the Cowboys offense was the first three games. That can be cleaned up. The coaches can help both in practices and in what plays they call (such as how the inclusion of more motion aided Prescott), but most of that has to come from within the players.

The Cowboys got it mostly right for one week. Now they need to show they can do the same or even improve next week. It’s also worth noting that some of the members of the secondary need to make some improvements themselves after some errors cropped up in what had been a real strength for the defense. If they fail, the plays will start to go wrong. It is very difficult for the offensive coordinator to fix things during a game when the root is one or more players not doing their job.

So the offense isn’t fixed, exactly. The solution is there, it just has to be carried through by the players. The running back and offensive line are talented enough to do a good job against just about anyone in the league. The quarterback is far less reliable, but can be very effective if he keeps his mind and mechanics all straight. The tight ends and wide receivers are the key, though. They are an unproven group outside of Cole Beasley. The rest of them have to be able to carry the load to keep the opposition from taking Beas out of the equation with double teams and stacking the box to limit Zeke’s damage. We saw them do that against Detroit.

If they can do it again in Houston, we can start talking about a real, sustainable fix to the Dallas offense. And the prospects for the season will be considerably brighter.

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