(As always, a h/t to our old friend rabblerousr, who originated the By The Numbers column here - Dave)
So, that didn’t go as planned. The 2018 Dallas Cowboys season began with a whimper, losing 16-8 to the Carolina Panthers. The much-hyped defense played well enough, holding the Panthers to only 16 points and 293 yards - that’s usually good enough to win in the NFL. But not Sunday, not for the Cowboys in Charlotte.
That’s because Dallas’ revamped offense had an anemic performance. Shut out for the first 52 minutes of the game. the offense struggled to move the ball throughout the game. Dak Prescott played terribly and the high-pedigreed, very-expensive offensive line didn’t play close to expectations. The end result was an offense that generated only 232 yards and eight points. Ouch.
Let’s look at the numbers:
Ten - combined number of sacks and major penalties committed by the Cowboys’ offensive line
The tone was set early for the offensive line when Tyron Smith was called for a blatant block in the back penalty on the team’s second play from scrimmage. The penalty set up a 2nd-and-21, leading to an eventual punt. This was a pattern that would be repeated again and again as sacks and penalties would frequently put them team in bad down-and-distance situations.
Tyron Smith was also called for a holding penalty later in the first half. La’el Collins visibly wore down as the game progressed. He was twice called for holding in the second half, gave up two sacks and basically looked like a turnstile over the last 20 minutes of the game. Connor Williams again showed the flaws that have plagued him throughout the preseason: an inability to stand up to a strong, physical bull rush and lunging forward and dropping his hands, allowing defenders to race past him. Both showed up Sunday and resulted in a sack and hits on the quarterback.
The Cowboys ran only 57 plays and ten of them ended with either a sack of Dak Prescott or a 10-yard penalty on the offensive line. That’s basically a negative play attributed to the offensive line once every six plays. No offense can succeed with that kind of performance.
That’s not what was expected. Dallas has invested numerous high draft picks and big money contracts on the big bodies up front. Not only is the OL supposed to be the strength of the team, it’s supposed to be the team’s identity. Yes, Travis Frederick was out. However, his replacement Joe Looney wasn’t the weak point Sunday, the problems were found with others, mostly Williams, Smith and Collins. Those who expected the OL to return to an elite unit after a less-than-elite 2017 might have to re-evaluate.
Three - missed big-play opportunities
Sometimes, an NFL team can lose most plays but make just enough big plays to overcome being the inferior team. Dallas had several opportunities to write such a script, but simply couldn’t capitalize on enough of them. The Dallas defense did capitalize on a big play to thwart the Panthers’ first drive. Carolina had moved from their own 32 to the Cowboys 5-yard line and looked sure to push the ball in for a touchdown when Daniel Ross penetrated and caused a fumble with DeMarcus Lawrence coming up with the loose ball.
There were three additional opportunities where the Cowboys’ came up empty:
- Facing third-and-two from the Cowboys 27, Cam Newton tossed a screen pass to Jarius Wright. Sean Lee had an opportunity to make a play but couldn’t wrap Wright up. Wright would eventually pick up the first down but fumbled at the end of the play. Dallas, however, could not come up with the ball.
- The very next play Lee was able to tip a Newton pass intended for Torrey Smith. The ball deflected towards Jeff Heath, who managed to get both hands on the ball but couldn’t come up with the interception. It would have been a difficult play but Heath is capable of making it. Three plays later Newton would run four yards for the game’s first touchdown.
- Two possessions later it would be Dak Prescott who missed a big play opportunity. Trailing 7-0 and facing a third-and-seven from their own 35, Prescott was pressured and stepped up in the pocket. This is what Prescott saw:
An NFL team can play an entire season without ever having a receiver get that wide open. It should have been an easy touchdown. Instead, Prescott’s pass was so short Jarwin had to stop, come back and was unable to make the catch. Not only didn’t the play result in a touchdown, the Cowboys didn’t even pick up the first down. The poor pass was one of many, as Prescott was inaccurate throughout the afternoon.
Had the Cowboys been able to convert any of those three opportunities the game could have played out differently.
6.7 - average yards gained by Dallas per first half possession
The Cowboys offensive first half was simply abysmal. Six possessions netted only 40 yards. The team managed only three first downs. The offensive line that surrendered six sacks and four penalties also couldn’t create any running lanes for Ezekiel Elliot (seven rushing attempts for 15 yards).
The team’s drive chart for the first half is a nightmare:
Note: the red columns indicate a drive that went backwards. When four of your six drives ended with the team in worse position than when it started there is a problem. Just an ugly, ugly first-half performance from the offense.
232 - total offensive yards
The Cowboys 232 offensive yards is something Cowboys’ fans have, unfortunately, become accustomed to. It was the sixth time in the team’s last nine games that Dallas was held under 300 yards. It was the fifth time in the last nine games Dallas was held under 250 yards.
The following chart shows the Cowboys’ offensive yardage totals since week one of 2017:
The Dallas offense topped 375 yards five times in the team’s first eight games of 2017; they’ve reached that number only once since (against the Giants in late 2017).
Many were skeptical about the Cowboys’ decision to employ second-rate free agents, no-name third and fourth stringers and mid-level draft picks at the tight end and wide receiver positions. Those critics can pat themselves on the back for at least one week.
Cole Beasley had a strong game with seven catches on eight targets for 73 yards. None of the other receiving targets, however, managed more than 27 receiving yards and no one found the end zone.
Until Dak and this receiving corps is able to prove the naysayers wrong, questions will remain about this group.
Zero - number of converted field goals and extra points by new kicker Brett Maher
Okay, that’s a little harsh, since Maher had only one attempt the entire afternoon. But the Cowboys’ rookie kicker missed the 47-yard, third-quarter attempt. The score was 10-0 at the time so a successful kick would have brought the Cowboys to within a single score. The Panthers then marched 63 yards with the resulting good field position and took a commanding 16-0 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Normally, a single missed field goal wouldn’t warrant undue attention. But when the Dallas brain-trust put more faith in a 28-year old rookie with zero NFL experience and a fairly sketchy CFL resume over the second most accurate kicker in NFL history... well, every kick is going to be scrutinized until you disprove the skeptics.
Perhaps no Cowboys’ off-season move was more shocking than the decision to go with Maher over Dan Bailey. Through week one, that decision looks a bit questionable.
NFL fans shouldn’t put too much weight on a week one performance. The vast majority of players haven’t played or even practiced any real football in nine months. The first three to four weeks of the season are now used to get into game shape. Thus, whether a performance is unexpectedly good or bad, it’s reasonable to assume that performance will change over the next few weeks. Still, there was very little to like in what the Cowboys had on display Sunday in Charlotte and if things don’t change for the better soon this will be a very long season.