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Grading the Cowboys devastating loss to the Titans

It’s not a pretty report card for the Cowboys after their last game.

Tennessee Titans v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The 2017 Dallas Cowboys entered their Week 9 game against the Atlanta Falcons with a chance to advance their playoff hopes. A win would set up a marquee Sunday Night Football matchup against division rival Philadelphia that could swing the division - and a playoff spot - to the Cowboys. Dallas then went out and laid an egg, getting obliterated by the Falcons.

The 2018 Dallas Cowboys pretty much replicated that feat Monday night against the Tennessee Titans. A win would have put them in contention for the division and set up a big game with Philadelphia the next week, but then Dallas played their worst game of the year. In the process, they may have started the end of Jason Garrett’s nine year run of mediocrity. Let’s go to the grades.


The failures were numerous, widespread and (mostly) predictable. In the predictable category:

  • Playcalling and offensive schemes that lacked any innovation or surprise
  • Mind-numbingly poor quarterback play
  • Offensive line (and tight end) penalties that negated big plays and stalled promising drives

In the not-so-predictable category:

  • A defense suddenly vulnerable to an opponent’s run game
  • A defense that looked absolutely hopeless trying to stop a mediocre quarterback on third down
  • A defense that leaked like a sieve in the red zone

Most damning, however, was the effort late. There are many legitimate criticisms of Jason Garrett’s teams over the years but effort has never, ever been questioned. Even during the 2015 debacle when the team lost 12 of 14 games the players played their tails off.

Not so last night. Evidence? Watch the effort put forth by Jaylon Smith on the game’s clinching touchdown:

Given a chance to stop the opposing quarterback from icing the game by racing into the end zone, Smith gives Mariota a tender, two-hand shove. Lack of effort can be seen as the head coach losing the team. That doesn’t excuse Smith (or the others who looked lackadaisical going after Mariota) - but when effort wanes, leadership must be questioned.

Coaching: F

Given 15 days to prepare, Jason Garrett’s team came out looking sloppy, unprepared and employing the exact same dull, unsuccessful approaches they’ve been employing for years. Every outside neutral observer sees what ails this team, as evidenced by Jason Witten repeatedly noting the team’s approach leaves no margin for error and makes it difficult to succeed.

Yet inside The Star, the echo-chamber of stale ideas and schemes continues to reverberate. How predictable are the Cowboys? Here’s The Athletic’s Bob Sturm before the game:

All eyes will also be on the Cowboys’ new investment at wide receiver. If we know how things work around here, they will be trying to show Amari Cooper off to the world. But make no mistake, the Titans are not clueless. They will be trying to spring an ambush on Dak Prescott with a group of very talented corners and safeties, including Kevin Byard, who leads the NFL in interceptions since the start of 2017 (whether Deion Sanders knows who he is or not).

So what happens on the key play of the game, where Dallas has an opportunity to go up 14 points early against a wounded opponent on the road? Dak Prescott forces the ball to the team’s new toy, surrendering a horrific red-zone interception. Again, everyone in the football watching universe seems to see exactly what the Cowboys will do and the brain-trust continues to think failed strategies and approaches will somehow suddenly succeed.

Jason Witten’s comments were, I thought, very revealing. They probably tell us, for instance, why he’s in the booth and not on the playing field. He knows they’re rigidly conservative and willingly punt (literally and figuratively) away opportunities to win games.

Now, imagine going into The Star tomorrow as a player and having Jason Garrett monotonically tell you how you’re going to “fight” and “stack one good day on top of another” and believe in “the process”. What would your reaction be?

Jason Garrett’s fate is pretty well determined at this point without a miracle comeback. It seems impossible to think he’ll be the head coach in 2019. The only question is if he can prevent the 2018 version from completely collapsing.

Quarterback: F

We’ve seen this play before:

  • Poor decision-making that involves both missing open receivers and forcing balls to covered receivers.
  • Poor mechanics and footwork that result in inaccurate throws
  • Poor pocket awareness
  • Refusal to throw the ball to open receivers

We’re now two-and-a-half seasons into Dak Prescott’s career and at this point he looks like a bottom-half NFL quarterback. Those aren’t the kind of players that successful teams employ as starting quarterbacks.

Running backs: B

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: it’s hard to grade Ezekiel Elliott because he never really had a chance to perform. Unlike against Washington, Elliott was able to pick up chunk yardage on running plays and added a 37-yard catch-and-run on one of the few Cowboys plays that repeatedly works.

However, after generating nearly 100 combined yards in the first half he ended up with only 122 combined yards. Like every other team, the Titans simply outnumbered the Cowboys running game and dared Prescott and the Cowboys passing game to make them pay. Yet again, Prescott and the passing game failed.

Wide Receivers: B

Amari Cooper looked every bit as advertised. He repeatedly beat one-on-one coverage to give Prescott easy targets and ended up with 58 yards and a touchdown on eight targets. Allen Hurns scored a touchdown on one target where he employed a slick double move to badly beat Malcolm Butler and give Prescott an easy target. Even Deonte Thompson made a couple catches. Cole Beasley was virtually invisible.

But like Elliott, it’s really hard to grade these receivers when the quarterback won’t throw them the ball when open, but then does throw them the ball when covered.

Tight ends: F

No group reveals the mistakes of the Cowboys leadership more than the what we’ve seen at tight end this season.

The Shultz - Jarwin - Gathers trio might be a good jazz band, but they’re not much of a tight end group. The only time I noticed any of the three was when they were getting manhandled while “blocking”:

Or not knowing what play to run:

Or committing pass interference, thwarting a first down catch. Remember the preseason when the Cowboys brain-trust was so high on Blake Jarwin? Has anyone seen a single play in any game this season that warranted such optimism?

Considering the absence of an positive plays and the numerous negative plays, it seems reasonable to question the Cowboys’ decision to repeatedly utilize 2-and-3 tight end sets, including on the team’s final, desperate 4th-and-10 play.

Offensive line: C-

The first half was mostly okay. But again in the second half this group wore down, gave up too much pressure and committed multiple costly penalties. Connor Williams gave up his usual one sack when overpowered (and apparently injured his knee and will need arthroscopic surgery - meaning he could be out for the near future).

La’el Collins committed holding again, negating a first down. Then he and Ezekiel Elliott botched a chip block, allowing yet another sack.

A forward-thinking staff might use the Williams injury as an opportunity to put Collins back at LG, which is a better position for him. This staff, however, has never been associated with the words “forward-thinking”.

The one positive was Tyron Smith looked more like Tyron Smith than any point this season; that’s a positive development.

Defensive line: B-

There was pressure as the team recorded four sacks and Demarcus Lawrence absolutely blew up Mariota for a massive strip sack early in the game.

Lawrence has followed up an All Pro season with another elite performance. Beyond that, however, the rest of the line was meh. Many times Mariota was able to stand in the pocket and go through his reads and deliver the ball without much resistance. There were also wide, gaping running holes for the Titans, especially as the game wore on.

Linebackers: C

This group started out gangbusters. Sean Lee recovered the Mariota fumble caused by Lawrence. Then Jaylon Smith recovered Mariota’s second fumble. Smith also recovered another fumble that was overturned. There was some solid tackling in there from both Smith and rookie Leighton Vander Esch.

But then Sean Lee tweaked his hamstring; a sight we’ve seen far, far too many times. It’s not at all too early to wonder if we’ve see Sean Lee play his final snap as a Dallas Cowboy. He’s almost certainly out for the next few weeks, and you have to wonder what value there will be in bringing him back at that point. Add the fact he’ll be an oft-injured, 33-year-old free agent next season and the Cowboys already have his replacement in LVE. Like I said, we might have seen the last of Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboy.

The linebacker group seemed to wear down after that. The Titans ripped off 125 yards rushing. This after the Redskins ran for 130 yards. The Dallas defense has given up an average of 121 rushing yards in the team’s five losses and 65 in the team’s three victories. The linebackers simply weren’t good enough.

Secondary: F

Let’s get this straight - the Tennessee Titans have one of the worst passing offenses in the league. Football Outsiders ranks them 26th in passing after they went for 297 yards against the Cowboys. Their leading receiver is on pace for 900 yards and two touchdowns. No receiver has more than one touchdown. Their second leading receiver is a running back.

Marcus Mariota has an 86 passer rating on the season and had never surpassed 99 in any game prior to Monday night. The Titans’ passing attack is bad.

And yet they moved the ball at will against the Cowboys’ allegedly quality defense. Mariota threw for 297 and compiled a 119 passer rating. Every time the Titans needed to convert a third down - regardless of the distance - a receiver seemed wide open and available for an easy conversion. The Titans’ converted 11-of-14 third downs (with one of the misses a play where Mariota missed a wide open receiver for what should have been an easy touchdown).

Chidobie Awuzie was the preferred target and was beaten repeatedly. Byron Jones also surrendered a few catches. The safeties never seemed to know where the ball was going and were consistently late, especially on a key long, third down conversion to Darius Jennings.

The secondary looked pretty much like every secondary we’ve seen in the Garrett regime: unable to stop opponents from making big passing plays when needed. This has been a staple of Cowboys’ defenses going back to 2010. Despite the investments at both CB, LB and along the defensive line, we just witnessed a very poor passing attack slice and dice the defense with virtually on resistance. Ugly.

Special teams: F

Brett Maher contributed mightily to early missed opportunities by badly whiffing on a 38-yard field goal attempt. Beyond that, the special teams weren’t noteworthy in any way (as usual). But this team can’t afford for the kicker to miss kicks that are made 96% of the time in the NFL - just can’t.


This is dark. We’re now looking at a team with:

  • No realistic hope for the playoffs.
  • No first-round draft pick in 2019.
  • A young quarterback who is significantly worse now than he was his rookie season and hasn’t demonstrated top-12 capability at any point in 2018.
  • A highly-pedigreed, extremely well-paid offensive line that has numerous questions.
  • A gaping need for a legitimate tight end.
  • A secondary that can’t stop Marcus Mariota and the Titans passing attack.

And oh yeah, a very high likelihood of a new head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and schemes on both sides of the ball in 2019.

Folks, this is what a full rebuild looks like at the beginning.

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