After a five-game winning streak, the Dallas Cowboys were looking like a team that could make some noise in January. The games weren’t always pretty, but somehow the Cowboys scratched and clawed their way to victory. With impressive road wins over Philadelphia and Atlanta as well as a stunning defensive shutdown of the New Orleans Saints, the Cowboys had gotten people’s attentions. Things were on the up and up.
But after these last two games, things just don’t have that same feel. Sure, the Cowboys managed to beat Tampa Bay and clinch the division, but they’re just not playing very good football right now. The lack of production from the offense is the most obvious reason the team has struggled. They were shut out against the Indianapolis Colts so that game stands out as a poor performance, but when you stack the Tampa game next to it, there’s not a lot of differences (stats courtesy of ESPN.com).
The Cowboys had the exact amount of yards per play - 4.6 - in the Bucs game as they did against the Colts. They also had fewer first downs as well as total yards with only 232, tying a season low for the offense. But Dallas scored 27 points against the Bucs versus a big goose egg against the Colts. A big part of that was that the Cowboys converted two of their three red zone attempts against Tampa where they went 0-2 against the Colts. Kicker Brett Maher also muscled out a 59-yard field goal rather than kicking it into the armpit of a defender. It also doesn’t hurt when the defense picks up a couple fumbles as that led to 14 points for the Cowboys, including seven of them coming directly from the defense when Jaylon Smith scampered off for a 69-yard touchdown.
There were some plays made in this game that resulted in points for Dallas and that’s good, but underneath the surface the offensive woes are alive and well.
But it would be unfair to just blame the offense for the team’s lackluster performance over the last two weeks. The Cowboys defense has played better than their offensive counterparts, but they’ve still had a little trouble getting off the field, allowing opposing offenses to move the ball on them. After dominating the time of possession against Philadelphia a couple weeks ago where they held the ball over twice as long as the Eagles, the Cowboys have now lost the TOP battle in consecutive weeks.
One of the reasons both sides are having trouble winning possessions is the influx of penalties that have occurred over the last four games. Everyone is joining the flag party. The Cowboys, as a team, have had four straight games with eight or more penalties. Through the previous 11 games, the team only had two games with that many penalties (they lost both). Suddenly, they can’t seem to avoid provoking the officiating crew.
Why is this happening? Well, it’s a team effort, but some groups are more susceptible than others. The offensive line has committed 13 penalties over the last month, with 12 of them holding calls. Tyron Smith is the biggest culprit. Since returning from injury, Smith has committed six penalties and that is just over a three-game span. Five of them have been holding penalties. It is shocking to see the team’s All-Pro left tackle (and recently named Pro Bowler) getting so many flags.
It’s not as surprising to see backup center Joe Looney get flagged. He’s a backup. What do you expect? He’s been called for four holding penalties over the last four games. The surprise comes more from the fact that he hadn’t committed a single penalty over the course of the first 11 games of the season. But all of a sudden, he’s having problems.
Equally as disappointing as the 13 penalties from the offensive line is the 13 that has come from the defensive line. And no Cowboys player has been flagged more than Randy Gregory over the last four games. While he’s come up with some big plays, the right defensive end has been a flag magnet. Seven times he’s been wrung up for a penalty and many of them have been the 15-yard variety. He’s been flagged for roughing the passer three times, roughing the punter once, and even got a facemask penalty. He also has two defensive offside penalties which seems small in comparison, but they’ve also given opposing defenses new life.
The defensive backs have been called for seven penalties: including defensive holding (3), pass interference (2), illegal contact (1), and one unnecessary roughness. Recently named Pro Bowler Byron Jones leads the way with three of those penalties over this four-game stretch.
It’s easy to justify how raw players like Gregory or Looney are to where they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar, but there’s no excuse for the team’s most savvy veterans to be making these mistakes.
The Cowboys have committed 41 penalties over the last four games. Who's the biggest culprit?— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) December 24, 2018
1. Randy Gregory (7)
2. Tyron Smith (6)
3. Joe Looney (4)
4. Byron Jones (3)
5. DeMarcus Lawrence (3)
Some are first-year starters, but some are also Pro Bowlers. pic.twitter.com/4PHojwexCg
The offense is having enough trouble scoring points, they don’t need to shoot themselves in the foot by getting behind the chains. This offense has shown they are not equipped to handle long down-and-distance situations. Nothing is more frustrating than watching an Ezekiel Elliott 20+ yard run be called back because Smith is grabbing jersey.
And the defense isn’t helping by giving opposing offenses second chances. The Cowboys may have kept the Saints out of the end zone had it not been for a drive that consisted of the defense committing four separate penalties to keep New Orleans on the field.
The Cowboys have to clean things up. Sure, some of these penalties are ridiculous. I’m not a “ref conspiracy” sorta guy, but after witnessing a snap infraction and delay of game on the defense, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Cowboys got called for an “illegal block in the front” next game. While some of these plays are bogus, many are legit and the team is not playing with the proper amount of discipline. If they don’t fix this, expect the Cowboys to enter the post season with a disadvantage.