The Dallas Cowboys are having trouble scoring points this season. They are averaging 19.7 points per game which ranks them 26th in the league. They are coming off their first shutout in 15 years, which is an odd thing for this offense considering the game before they just put up the most yards this franchise had seen in 40 years. But moving the ball isn’t the real problem in Dallas as the offense can string together large-play drives. It’s just punching it into the end zone that’s been the issue. The Cowboys offense just can’t finish off drives as they rank 31st in the league with a red zone efficiency of just 44.2 percent.
It’s puzzling why this continues to be a problem for Dallas. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is typically the guy with the biggest target on his back when it comes to shouldering the blame. We’ve heard things like “his plays are too predictable” to “he tries to get cute” which seems a little contradictory. Which is it? What is even more puzzling is that the Cowboys were third in the league in 2016 in red zone percentage and sixth in 2017, even without their star running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games. Linehan was the team’s OC during those seasons and he sure seemed to be calling good plays back then. What changed?
The execution of players has certainly been a big issue for the team. Cole Beasley, Noah Brown, and most recently, Jamize Olawale, have been wide open for walk-in touchdowns, but the team just couldn’t make the play.
It still seems so odd that this team went from one of the better red zone teams in the league to one of the absolute worst. What’s missing?
How about three All-Pro’s?
Is it possible the absence of Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Travis Frederick play a larger role in the Cowboys red zone woes than one might think? We can talk about how age had caught up with Dez to the point where his athletic gifts no longer give him the advantage it once did, but when it comes to going up and getting a jump ball in the end zone - Bryant was still doing that last year. And then there is Witten who, for as slow as he appeared, somehow managed to create a perfect throwing window for his quarterback.
Here are the players who scored the red zone touchdowns last season (receiving on the left, rushing on the right):
And here are the red zone scorers for this year:
The Cowboys had 16 red zone passing touchdowns last season, but 11 of those TD’s were to Bryant, Witten, and Brice Butler, all are no longer on the team. That’s 69% of the team’s red zone touchdown receptions now gone. This season, no player has scored more than two receiving touchdowns inside the 20.
Watching the highlights of every Cowboys touchdown last season was very revealing. Dak Prescott loved hitting Witten over the middle on those read-option fakes and he didn’t have to be wide open to come down with the catch. And speaking of covered, Bryant made some outstanding catches in the end zone last year while being smothered.
Those are things that aren’t available this season. And if you look closely at the receiving touchdowns this season, they’re not contested passes. Whether it’s Geoff Swaim, Allen Hurns, or the Jacksonville Jaguars forgetting to put a defender on Cole Beasley - their touchdowns have come from defenses being out of position. When Dak has thrown into coverage this season on his attempts in the end zone, the results haven’t been favorable.
Even more interesting than the touchdown receptions were the rushing scores from the running backs last season. Of the 11 touchdowns scored from Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Alfred Morris - 10 of them came by running up the middle. Only one run (by Smith) came from a pitch to the outside. The Cowboys were running right into the heart of the path created by Travis Frederick. The team’s star center was constantly bullying his opponent, getting push back on these touchdown runs. This year, the Cowboys aren’t able to get the same push. This has forced Linehan to go outside more with option plays or Zeke will have to make a cut and pop to the outside. Even when Elliott does score in the middle, it comes from second effort rather than a path cleared out for him.
The Cowboys can improve their red zone efficiency simply by executing better. Stop dropping passes, stop taking unnecessary sacks, and don’t commit stupid penalties that take them out of goal line situations. Dak and Zeke are still the meat and potatoes of the red zone arsenal, but defenses are committing extra resources to stop them.
Ezekiel Elliott has run the ball 38 times in the red zone this year. Even excluding touchdowns or short yardage conversions, 22 of those runs have been for 2 yards or fewer. 11 for no gain or a loss.— Tim Roberts (@21stCenturyTim) December 20, 2018
The Cowboys need to have alternative options to get the ball in the end zone. This is where Linehan needs to figure things out. Amari Cooper is great at getting separation and has one touchdown on just three red zone targets, but that space tightens up when the field shrinks in the red zone. Maybe Michael Gallup should get more chances?
Lowest drop rate in the red zone among the 2018 NFL Draft class at WR?— PFF College (@PFF_College) March 26, 2018
Of course that belongs to Michael Gallup! pic.twitter.com/HVW7uGF7h2
Cole Beasley had four red zone touchdowns last year, but only two this year. But he’s also had a couple passes in the end zone roll off his fingertips. He’s saucy and can change direction quickly, making him a viable target. Prescott needs to keep looking his way.
While Cooper, Gallup, and Beasley are all more red zone capable than the results have shown, Prescott should be able to get help from his young tight ends as well. Blake Jarwin continues to come along, as does rookie Dalton Schultz. And what’s the point of having Rico Gathers on the team if they can’t find some red zone work for him.
The play-calling isn’t as bad as some think and the team has pieces to make this work, but it can’t be discounted that some of the team’s most dependable red zone weapons from year’s past are gone. The team hasn’t been able to supplement their production in the red zone, but that’s got to chance. Dak and Zeke can only do so much and it’s time for these other pieces to get it done.