The Dallas Cowboys entered Sunday’s contest riding high, having won five straight games, with the opportunity to clinch the NFC East division. They exited bruised and bullied, facing renewed questions about the team’s ability and still needing a win to clinch that division title. It’s hard to imagine how the day could have gone any worse for the franchise. Let’s go to the grades.
The Cowboys offense has struggled many times this season. The Cowboys’ defense has not, suffering only the occasional blip. Sunday, both units put on a putrid display of football. Both were thoroughly whipped in the trenches, with the lines being physically beat up and dominated. This, combined with numerous sloppy, undisciplined errors made for virtually unwatchable football. Not to be outdone, the special teams submitted yet another ugly performance, this time surrendering a blocked field goal (that was nearly returned for a touchdown). The end result was a 23-0 shellacking that saw Dallas shut out for the first time since 2003.
In short, the team was completely outclassed in all three phases of a game where one will have to look far and wide to find anything positive. Most embarrassing was the fact that in addition to being physically whipped on both sides of the ball the Cowboys would constantly kneecap any good plays with boneheaded mistakes and gaffes. Consider:
- A positive opening drive yielded zero points when Brett Maher lined the field goal low and straight into an oncoming rusher.
- Jamize Olawale was wide open and had what should have been the easiest touchdown in his career. Instead, he completely whiffed looking like someone who’d never tried to catch a football before in his life.
- Any time the Cowboys managed something positive you could be sure there was a penalty that wiped it out. Six (count ‘em) offensive holding penalties negated three Cowboys’ first downs, including a 4th-down conversion that put Dallas in scoring position. Two defensive holds and a pass interference call negated two third down stops by the Cowboys as well as an Xavier Woods interception.
The endless parade of mental blunders, penalties, dropped balls and missed tackles was an embarrassment.
The team has one week to get the plot back on track or the easy stroll to a division title will turn into a tortuous journey.
Three words come to mind:
Jason Garrett’s team simply wasn’t ready to play. Their play indicated they walked on the field feeling entitled to a Cowboys’ victory. Effort and hustle seemed lacking. Attention to detail was absent. Virtually every unit played well below their ability.
I’ve long believed that whenever a large group of individual simultaneously underachieve leadership must be questioned. I understand the team had come off five consecutive games where any loss likely doomed their season. I also understand the players are professionals and get paid and this isn’t high school football where a locker room speech can inspire the team to victory. I also understand the players on the other side are paid and doing everything they can to make your life miserable.
But whatever Garrett and the rest of his staff did to prepare this group of players for Sunday, it was an abysmal failure. Every single unit had embarrassingly poor play, whether it was missed tackles (Jaylon Smith, Chidobe Awuzie), penalties (name your offensive lineman, Byron Jones), dropped balls (Jamize Olawale, Blake Jarwin) or flubbed kicks (Brett Maher).
A well-coached, well-prepared team doesn’t suffer across-the-board outages like we saw from the Cowboys Sunday.
Dak Prescott followed up his first 400-yard game with a game that looked a lot like those from early in the season:
- Less than 200 total yards passing
- 61% completion percentage
- 5.3 yards per attempt
- A long completion of only 18 yards
Dak was able to avoid the head-shaking, embarrassing play that has been a staple of each game recently. He again faced a fierce pass rush behind a patchwork offensive line. But consider:
- He led the team to what should have been an game-opening field goal drive
- He put the ball to an open receiver on the goal line only for the receiver to drop the ball
- He converts a fourth down throw to Cole Beasley only for the play to be called back
Dak wasn’t great but he wasn’t the problem either.
Running back: B+
There was exactly one player with a star on his helmet who was ready to play Sunday. Had every Cowboys played with the passion, energy and physicality Ezekiel Elliott displayed we would have had a competitive game, perhaps even a Cowboys’ victory.
Elliott continued his torrid run, racking up 128 yards on 25 touches (5.1 YPA). As always, he ran hard and tough, making the most of every play. The rest of the offense managed only 164 yards on 39 touches (4.2 YPA). When your running back is gaining more yards per touch than wide-outs and tight ends you have a major problem.
Elliott has become the unquestioned leader of this team. First, after the demoralizing defeat Zeke took time to do this:
This is cool. On his way into the tunnel, Zeke saw this little guy with a sign saying it was his first Cowboys game.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) December 16, 2018
Sat down, took off his cleats, signed them and gave them to the kid #cowboyswire pic.twitter.com/M1tWkP26lH
How people behave and treat others when things go bad reveals their character; good for Zeke to make someone else’s day under such circumstances.
Then, Zeke offered these uncompromising thoughts on the team’s performance:
“We can’t go out there and do that. We cannot. That is not us, at all,” Elliott said after the defeat. “It’s embarrassing. We’ve got to be better than that, way better.”
So, why not an A when Elliott did his usual great work? Because Jamize Olawale also plays running back and he flat dropped an easy touchdown.
Brilliant play design from Scott Linehan. Sends Elliott in motion, leaks Olawale and Jarwin out to the left. Had two guys wide open, and Olawale gives himself a round of applause.— Connor Livesay (@ConnorNFLDraft) December 17, 2018
Momentum killer. pic.twitter.com/SrNqcksqCj
This has become somewhat of a tradition for the Cowboys when they get near the goal-line. They drop passes. They miss wide open receivers. They commit penalties and surrender sacks.
There are those who blame the offensive coordinator for poor play calls and scheme for the team’s red zone woes, but the players simply aren’t executing. It’s ridiculous.
Offensive line: F
Dak Prescott was sacked three times by the Colts. That makes him the first Cowboys quarterback to be sacked 50 times in a season. It’s amazing he’s standing. In addition to the three sacks there were five holding penalties by the OL (plus one by L.P. Ladouceur).
Yeah, this is a patchwork group. Once Xavier Su’a-Filo went out with a gruesome eye injury the unit consisted of:
- A banged up Tyron Smith playing well below his once excellent standards
- Someone named Adam Redmond
- Joe Looney
- Connor Williams
- La’el Collins
That’s second-stringers at center and one guard spot and a third-stringer at the second guard spot. The Colts have a young, athletic defense and they gave the line fits throughout the day. They did manage to give Elliott a few holes to run through.
But this group’s failures were highlighted when the team couldn’t get a yard on fourth down at the Colts three-yard line. Now, you can complain about the Cowboys’ approach to these short yardage situations:
Colts run from spread at the goal line on third down, touchdown.— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 16, 2018
Cowboys run from jumbo at the goal line on 4th & 1, get stuffed.
Running 13-personnel (one back, three tight ends) in compressed formations is about the least imaginative way to run the ball near the end zone and the Cowboys do it over and over and over with varying results. But that’s often due to the players simply not making blocks. In this case, Joe Looney and Connor Williams doubled the same player, leaving an unblocked man to penetrate and destroy any chance of success.
Wide receivers: D
Amari Cooper has been the most productive receiver in the NFL since coming over to Dallas. Sunday he had 32 yards on seven targets. The Colts prioritized stopping Cooper over stopping the run, playing two deep safeties. The Cowboys had no response. None of the other receivers seemed capable of winning one-on-one battles (stop me if you’ve heard that before). And while the running game was nominally effective, it never translated into points.
And of course we had moments like this:
I don’t know, call me crazy, but if I’m playing wide receiver in the NFL and the ball gets knocked up in the air near me I don’t turn my back and quit on the play. Beasley’s lackadaisical, lazy play was indicative of the general malaise the team exhibited throughout the afternoon.
Tight ends: C
On the one had, we’ve seen this group finally make some plays the last few weeks. Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz contributed 68 yards on 11 targets, the second consecutive game they’ve put up decent numbers. Schultz also had a devastating block on a good Elliott run.
On the other hand Jarwin dropped two easy balls, including a third-down conversion. Relative to most other groups, the young, no-name tight ends had the best game other than Zeke.
Defensive line: F
One constant for the Cowboys’ defense over the last few years has been a stifling run defense. Thus, if there was any real surprise Sunday it was the manner in which the Colts ran right over the Dallas defense. They ran early, often and effectively:
- 39 attempts
- 178 yards
- Two touchdowns
- 5.6 yards per attempt
Most astounding is they did this mostly by running right up the middle. The Dallas tackle rotation of Antwaun Woods, Maliek Collins, Daniel Ross and Caraun Reid got physically manhandled from opening snap to final whistle.
How different was this from what we’ve seen recently? Just check it out (wins in blue, losses in red):
You don’t have to be a CIA analyst to note that when the Cowboys run defense gives up lots of carries and lots of yards the team loses. Sunday was, by far, this group’s worst rushing performance and not surprisingly the team suffered their worst loss.
In addition to the team’s rushing woes the pass rush never really threatened Andrew Luck. He was able to make his progressions and deliver the ball without much discomfort. When they did manage to flush him out he’d inevitably run for a first down.
Just bad in every way.
The play of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch played a big role in the team’s failure to stop the Colts’ running game. They would get caught up in the wash; fail to disengage from blockers and take bad angles on seemingly every play. This Colts’ touchdown is a good example:
Both tackles get wiped out with double-teams. Neither Jaylon Smith or LVE are blocked yet neither comes close to making the play. Smith seems befuddled and doesn’t realize the runner is headed right into his hole. LVE runs himself into the scrum, leaving a wide open lane for Marlon Mack to waltz into the end zone. This went on ALL DAY LONG.
This unit wasn’t scorched quite as bad as the line and the linebacker unit but it was pretty bad. The Colts converted eight of twelve third down conversions (67%), indicating that whenever Indy needed a play they were able to make one. There were missed tackles. Chidobe Awuzie set the tone early, whiffing on a would-be tackle for loss that instead went for an 18-yard gain.
Other times receivers were wide open running through the middle of the defense. The only noteworthy plays came from Xavier Woods. In addition to an interception negated by penalty, the XMan did this:
Eric Ebron, meet Xavier Woods pic.twitter.com/DvSno4PEiI— Adam Collins ✭ (@AdamCollinsCN) December 16, 2018
That’s textbook, shoulder pad to ball to knock it away.
The overall defensive effort was so bad that when they finally forced a fumble late in the game this was the collective reaction of Cowboys’ fans:
Special teams: F
This is a unit that’s seems to be deteriorating before our eyes. First, there’s the complete absence of any return game to speak of. Cole Beasley simply isn’t an adequate returner. But worse is the outbreak of negative plays that have plagued this unit over the year. Long returns have become pretty common. Brett Maher has missed a number of kicks. But Sunday was the low point when he simply kicked a low ball that was easily blocked, ruining the team’s first drive. Little did we know that would be the closest the Cowboys would come to scoring.
I’m of two minds regarding this game. On the one hand that was a non-competitive team that got beat in every manner. The coaching staff and the players simply didn’t show up; it’s embarrassing. And being non-competitive in the 15th week of the season when a win clinches the division is mind-boggling.
Indianapolis is a good team and most recognized that going in. A hard-fought loss would be one thing. But what we witnessed was something entirely different.
That’s worrying. Competitive players with pride don’t let that happen.
On the other hand, a less-than-stellar effort was somewhat predictable. The Cowboys have had to play high-stakes, emotional games for the last five weeks and managed to emerge in good shape. It’s human nature to maybe pause and catch your breath mentally.
Also, there was virtually nothing at stake for the Cowboys while the Colts’ entire season was at stake. One team playing for nothing; the other for everything.
However, because Washington and Philadelphia both won Sunday the margin for error has shrunk. Dallas will need to win against Tampa Bay next week in order to avoid scoreboard watching and a possible road showdown against a division foe in week 17 to win the division.
If Washington and Philadelphia both win next week, they face each other in week 17 meaning one of them has to win that game. Hopefully Sunday was a reminder to this group of Cowboys coaches and players that only 100% focus and effort, both preparing and within the game, will lead to victory.