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Grading the Cowboys’ 19-16 loss to the Texans

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A look back at a winnable game that the team lost.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Houston Texans Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans engaged in an old-fashioned, hard-fought, physical slugfest Sunday night that saw the Texans eke out a 19-16 victory in overtime. The game no doubt satisfied fans of strong defensive play and disappointed those who like brave coaches. Let’s go to the grades.

OVERALL: C

There again wasn’t much to like from the Cowboys’ offense. The only touchdown drive came after a turnover where the Cowboys took over at the Texans’ 16-yard-line. The team had seven drives that netted 20 yards or less. When Dak Prescott wasn’t under immediate pressure he was throwing wildly inaccurate passes or his receivers were dropping the ball. The running game averaged only 3.8 yards per attempt and failed miserably on a third-and-one near midfield in overtime.

The defense was a mixed bag. On the one hand, they surrendered 462 yards, 25 first downs and 6.1 yards per attempt. But they also forced two turnovers and allowed zero points on ten goal-to-go plays after the first quarter (the Texans did kick field goals). Honestly, they were simply asked to do too much (they faced 75 plays on the the night) and finally buckled in overtime when they gave up a 72-yard FG drive to end the game.

COACHING: F

We can talk a lot about players needing to execute and all of that. But a single coaching decision Sunday will forever be remembered for this loss. Dallas had taken the overtime kick-off and traveled 33 yards to the Texans’ 42-yard line when they faced a third-and-one. Dallas lined up in 22 personnel, all but announcing their intention to run the ball.

Which is fine if it works. Instead the play went nowhere, meaning Dallas then faced a fourth-and-one. Jason Garrett decided to punt. Chris Jones did what he normally does, dropping a nice punt on the Texans’ 10-yard line with no return for a 32-yard net gain.

Nevertheless, the decision to punt is indefensible on many levels:

  • The strength, and in fact the identity, of the 2018 Dallas Cowboys is the team’s running game. They have invested more draft resources and salary cap in the offensive line and the running back than anywhere else. When you need a yard to keep the ball and potentially win the game you trust your best unit and tell them to go win the game. It makes no sense whatsoever to not allow them the opportunity. Some would argue “well, they just failed on third down, what makes you think they’ll win on fourth down”. I don’t know they will succeed on fourth down but I certainly give them the opportunity. And I don’t necessarily run the ball. But between the ability to run the ball, or the threat of running the ball, I should be able to come up with a play to gain a yard. You have the league’s best running back, one of the league best running quarterbacks and a supposedly good offensive line. You don’t take the ball out of their hands.
  • The message Jason Garrett sent to both his offense and defense is “I don’t believe in you”. He said “I don’t believe in my offense” by taking them off the field when a single yard would put them within 40 yards of a winning score and five yards of a field goal opportunity. He said “I don’t believe in my defense” by saying “I don’t trust you to stop the opponent from their own 40-yard line if the offense doesn’t convert”.

Consider the effect this decision has on the players compared to someone like Doug Pederson or (going back a few years) Jimmy Johnson. Both were gamblers willing to take the criticism of failing when making bold decisions. Their players loved this about them and gave them confidence to go out and make the plays when given the opportunity.

Or compare Garrett’s decision to Sean McVay’s decision yesterday afternoon:

Los Angeles led 33-31 when it faced fourth-and-inches from its own 42. Punting the ball would pin the Seahawks deep in their own territory with around 90 seconds left in the game. Getting stonewalled on fourth down would mean turning the ball over in a situation where Seattle would only need to gain 10 yards to set up a reasonable game-winning field goal.

But head coach Sean McVay was confident in his team’s ability to pick up six inches. He dialed up a quarterback sneak, then celebrated as Jared Goff crashed through the line of scrimmage with a game-sealing two-yard dive. The Rams kneeled out the clock from there, improving to 5-0 in the process.

Imagine yourself an NFL player; who would inspire your more? Who would make you more enthusiastic? Who would make you proud? Who would make you READY AND EAGER to go out and make a play? A coach who goes for it in that situation? Or a coach who punts?

Jason Garret stole the opportunity for either the offense or defense to make the play that would win the game. It’s indefensible.

Beyond that, the coaches showed good and bad. Linehan showed a number of innovative play-calls near the goal-line on the team’s lone touchdown drive. However, despite the Cowboys’ offensive line proving vulnerable to the Texans’ potent pass rush he insisted on calling slow-developing plays that left Dak Prescott in the cross-hairs of Jadaveon Clowney and J.J. Watt.

QUARTERBACK: C-

This would be a lower grade except for two facts:

  1. Prescott showed a lot of toughness and courage despite taking a beating throughout the game. He was hit numerous times but hung in there.
  2. He also made one of the most improbable plays you’ll ever see, twice avoiding a sack, then standing tall to deliver a deep pass to Tavon Austin despite knowing he would get clobbered.

Not only was it an eye-popping play but it came in the fourth quarter with the team trailing by three. Beyond that, however, Dak had another game filled with poor decisions and inaccurate throws.

  • On the team’s first drive, facing third and two from the Houston eight Prescott first looked to Cole Beasley, who cleanly beat his man for what should have been an easy first down at the two yard line. For some reason Dak refused to make the throw and instead threw an outlet to Ezekiel Elliott that went nowhere.
  • Late in the second quarter on first-and-ten from the Texans’ 39 Tavon Austin cleanly beat his man on a deep slant route. A good pass very likely would have resulted in a first down and maybe more as Austin was wide open. However, Prescott sailed the pass high and in front of Austin. Making matters worse, Austin allowed the ball to ricochet up despite getting his hands partially on the ball, resulting in an interception. Some believe Austin is completely responsible for the interception but this is an easy throw for NFL quarterbacks and instead Prescott’s inaccuracy equally contributed to the turnover.

There was also a near-disaster early in the game when Dak attempted a screen pass only to throw too far. The decision to throw the pass was a bad one as the play had no prospect of success and nearly resulted in a pick-six. Only a slight tip of the ball by the intended receiver prevented disaster.

Prescott ended up with 208 passing yards, two interceptions, a touchdown and a 66.5 rating. It’s virtually impossible to win in the NFL when your QB has a 66.5 passer rating.

OFFENSIVE LINE: D

Honestly, it seemed like the offensive line turned a corner last week. That proved illusory. Instead, they seemed under siege throughout the game. There were no running lanes for either Ezekiel Elliott or Rod Smith; the team averaged only 2.8 yards on runs by the running backs. This team won’t win when that happens.

Beyond that Prescott was again under pressure throughout. He was sacked twice and hit six other times. Everyone on the line struggled at one time or another. Tyron Smith struggled mightily against Jadaveon Clowney throughout the night. Conner Williams was overpowered a number of times. La’el Collins was beaten on the edge more than once.

Perhaps no play showed more inept offensive line play than a late third-period sack when Tyron Smith blocked no one, La’el Collins was beaten cleanly and Joe Looney / Zack Martin failed to pick up a Jadaveon Clowney stunt. It was complete failure in every way imaginable.
Add the disastrous third and short play in overtime and it was another bad game from what is supposed to be the team’s strongest unit.

RUNNING BACK: B

Honestly, there were no opportunities. Zeke did was Zeke does: he ran hard when given the ball. It’s hard to find any meat left on the bone yet he gained only 54 yards on 20 attempts for a 2.7 yard average. Only twice in his career has Zeke averaged fewer yards per attempt: his first game against the New York Giants (2.55 YPA) and the 2017 debacle against the Denver Broncos (eight yards on nine attempts).

Zeke did catch seven balls but, as usual, they netted only 30 yards. Zeke also contributed a number of impressive blocks while in pass protection, proving how he’s truly a complete running back, able to excel in every role asked of him.

WIDE RECEIVERS: F

Both of Dak Prescott's interceptions touched a receiver. The group combined for 80 receiving yards on sixteen targets. On the few occasions they managed to get open either Dak refused to throw, threw wildly or the receiver dropped the ball.

It’s hard to blame this group. Many of us were highly skeptical that employing a bunch of third-rate free agents and mid-level draft picks would somehow lead to success and we’ve largely been proven correct. This group doesn’t scare anyone. Beyond Tavon Austin’s catch of Dak Prescott’s miraculous fourth quarter toss and Allen Hurns three-yard touchdown catch (his only catch of the game) this unit didn’t make a single noteworthy positive play.

TIGHT ENDS: B+

Unlike the no-name, low-pedigreed wide receiving group, the no-name, low-pedigreed tight end group is at least contributing something. Geoff Swaim added another long gain on yet another drive-opening bootleg (how team’s aren’t prepared for this play is beyond me but as long as it works, I guess).

Rico Gather - RICO GATHERS! - got his first career catch on the first play I’ve seen a tight end not named Jason Witten get downfield for a catch since Martellus Bennett was a Cowboy.

Even Blake Jarwin contributed, catching a ball for a key first down. The three tight ends combined for 98 yards on six targets.

Pretty much all you need to know:

DEFENSIVE LINE: C+

The Cowboys’ defensive line had some good. They pretty well shut down the Texans’ run game with nearly half of Houston’s 88 rushing yards coming from Deshaun Watson. And they did get pressure on Watson, hitting him hard and often. They also finally caused a turnover with pressure that led to a poor pass that resulted in the team’s first interception of the season.

But they recorded only one sack against a highly suspect Texans’ offensive line. This is the second time in three weeks this supposedly “elite” pas rush group has faced a suspect offensive line and largely been stymied in sacking the quarterback.

Also, as mentioned, the Texans’ gained 462 yards and Watson compiled a 98.2 rating and marched the team for a 70-yard drive in OT to win the game.

DeMarcus Lawrence didn’t record a sack for the first time this season. Or a tackle for loss. In fact, he ended with only a single tackle. Taco Charlton finished with only an assisted tackle. After a promising start Charlton has been very, very quiet the last few weeks which is a bad sign.

Randy Gregory finally recorded some statistics with five combined tackles and a quarterback hurry. But he also contributed yet another dumb third-down penalty that extended a Texans’ drive. For those counting, that’s now four penalties on Gregory for the season, which is four more than the number of sacks he’s recorded.

LINEBACKERS: A

The one group no one can complain about is the linebacking crew. Jaylon Smith had the best game of his career and finally looked like a player deserving of the 34th pick in the draft. He was all over the place, compiling 12 total tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries.

But it was his play as a spy on a Texans’ fourth down attempt near the end of the second half that really wowed.

Watching Jaylon change direction, then outrun Watson to the sideline to deliver a touchdown-saving hit on this play is inspiring. It’s exactly what the team and fans have been waiting for since his selection two and a half years ago.

Leighton Vander Esch also had a strong game, continuing his impressive rookie performance. He chipped in 13 tackles, including 11 solo. Smith and LVE combined for 25 total tackles.

It’s a sign of changing times that a Cowboys’ linebacking group missing Sean Lee was the team’s best unit on the field.

SECONDARY: C-

The struggles that began last week against Detroit continued Sunday night. Houston passed for 375 yards and a 98 passer rating. That’s a pretty strong recipe for defeat. It follows the team getting torched the previous week against Detroit.

Chidobie Awuzie, who had looked quite good most of the season was actually benched in favor of Jourdan Lewis late in the game, although his injured ankle may have had something to do with that. Lewis also made his first contribution to the 2018 season by picking up a fumble caused by an Anthony Brown. Brown had a pretty strong rebound game after his poor performance last week. Well, except for getting beat and then allowing Deandre Hopkins to run nearly 50 yards in overtime for the key play of the game.

Jeff Heath also looked better after a terrible game last week. He finished with nine total tackles and a pass defensed. He also prevented a late-second-quarter touchdown by preventing Hopkins from reaching the end zone. This led to Jaylon Smith’s fourth down stop.

But the team’s fortunes can be summed up in Xavier Woods’ night. Woods finally captured the team’s first interception on the season; an easy catch of a wildly off-target pass late in the game to end a potential game-winning drive.

However, he was badly exposed on numerous plays, whiffing several times on poor tackles. And Woods was posterized on the key play of the game, when he was embarrassed on Hopkins 49-yard catch-and-run.

Byron Jones, who has been touted as the “best cornerback” in the league also had a mixed night. He was beaten several times but also finished with ten tackles and two passes defensed. Houston was the first team to really test Jones this season and exposed him as not exactly a “shut down” corner. He’s simply not in the same league as Jalen Ramsey or other corners of that quality and that showed Sunday.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B

Brett Maher has quickly made people forget Dan Bailey. He’s now made eleven consecutive field goals since missing his first attempt of the season. He’s accounted for 24 of the team’s last 42 points, including a game-tying 43-yard kick with five minutes remaining against the Texans and a game-winning 38-yarder against the Lions last week.

Bailey, meanwhile, nearly cost the Vikings a victory by missing two kicks Sunday (including a 28-yarder) against the Eagles. In short, the Cowboys’ front office seemed ahead of the curve when they released the league’s second-most accurate kicker for a no-name Canadian football refugee.

SUMMARY

Dallas won a very close game last week and lost a very close game last night. That happens in the NFL. However, Jason Garrett speaks often about what a privilege it is to “have an opportunity to play in the NFL”. But Sunday he stole that opportunity from his team with his decision to punt in overtime. That act may very well be the beginning of the end for his tenure with the franchise.