Last year, the season was on the line for the Dallas Cowboys when they hosted the Seattle Seahawks in the second-to-last game of the year. The Cowboys had climbed out of a hole by winning three-straight games to get to an 8-6 record. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a good Christmas for Cowboys fans in terms of the delivering the gift of postseason football. The defense showed up and only allowed 136 total yards, including just 60 yards passing. But the offense was nowhere to be found. They didn’t score a single touchdown and to make matters worse - they turned the ball over leading to points for Seattle, including a pick-six to the Seahawks defense. It was a terrible way to have the door close on the season.
Strangely, last Sunday’s Week 16 game had that same type of feel. The Cowboys had that same 8-6 record and how they performed could be the barometer for how their season could play out. While the uncertainty of winning the division didn’t weigh heavy on our minds, the idea of just how good this football team is - did. The momentum built up from their five-game winning streak had been derailed by a shutout performance against the Indianapolis Colts. How would this team respond?
The Cowboys started the game off strong. On their first offensive possession, they drove the ball 75 yards on eight plays and finished it off with a Dak Prescott touchdown run. It was refreshing to see the offense have red zone success and was a great way to start the game. It was also the last time the offense would drive the ball down the field for a touchdown. The Cowboys emerged victorious and there were many good plays to be joyful about, but at the same time - there was a lot about this game that has some fans worried as the playoffs near. The problem, just like the year before, remains with the Cowboys offense.
This offense just isn’t stringing together long-play drives like they’ve done in the past.
The offensive problems are strange to deal with because this team has been so good under Jason Garrett in years past. In the four years from 2013 to 2016, the Cowboys offense was ranked in the top five in three of those seasons with the only exception being in 2015 where they lost Tony Romo and finished 4-12 on the year. With Dak Prescott taking the controls in 2016, the offense was back to their usual self of putting points on the board, averaging 26.6 points per game.
But things have changed over the last couple seasons. Last season, the offense dropped off to 22.1 points per game, finishing near the middle of the pack. It looked like a tale of two seasons with them firing on all cylinders in the first half, only to spin their wheels in the second half. This season feels like a continuation of last year’s second half struggles as they only putting up 20.2 points per game, ranking 24th in the league.
Fortunately for Dallas, their defense has shown great improvement. Despite some really bad seasons in the past, the Cowboys now will have finished in the top 10 in points allowed for three straight seasons. They are currently ranked fourth in the league this season, only giving up 19.3 points per game. The defense has gotten a lot better, but the offense continues to hold them back.
Thinking back to the 2016, we watched a very well-oiled offensive team that was capable of stringing together large-play, touchdown-scoring drives. They had a total of 41 of those drives (at least five plays and 50 yards) that season. Last year, that total dropped to 25 and they currently only have 20 so far this season. These long touchdown drives were a common occurrence in 2016. In fact, the offense put together at least three large-play touchdown drives in a game 10 times that season. Last year, they did it only five times and this season they’ve done it only twice (Jacksonville and the first game against Philadelphia).
This is a missing part of the Cowboys offense now. It’s actually amazing that this team has been able to win nine games this season when the offense has only had two games where they’ve shown the ability to orchestrate drives and finish them with touchdowns. This is a testament to a great defense and their ability to eek out close games. Even if you look closely at the last game against Tampa Bay, the offense was almost a no-show. They opened the game with a good drive, but that was it. The rest of the scoring came from help from the defense or Brett Maher field goals.
The Cowboys were successful in 2016 because the offense could sustain long-play touchdown drives. They converted on third down better, they converted in the red zone better, and they wore down teams while they were scoring points. These things aren’t happening this season.