The 2018 version of the Dallas Cowboys’ entered Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in good spirits. The team had enjoyed a convincing victory over the Seattle Seahawks, had won three games in a row and eight of their last nine games to forge a formidable unit going into the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
But the strong, physical defensive unit that we’ve enjoyed watching throughout the 2018 season was nowhere to be found Saturday night. Instead we were witness to an abysmal defensive unit that posed little resistance to the Rams’ offensive juggernaut.
The Cowboys eventually lost 30-22 in a game where the Cowboys made the final score much closer than it deserved to be. In short, the Cowboys were dominated and physically beaten on both sides of the line of scrimmage throughout the entire game.
Let’s go to the grades.
I predicted the Cowboys would play their best, most complete game of the season. Instead, they played one of their worst, not remotely approaching a winning effort. I can think of only a single player who met or exceeded expectations (Michael Gallup). Every other player, every unit, was outplayed. The defense, in particular, was exposed, surrendering:
- 273 rushing yards - most in Cowboys’ playoff history
- 459 total yards - second most in Cowboys’ playoff history
- Nearly 37 minutes time of possession
In addition to being pummeled by the Rams’ ground game all night, the defense made no plays - at all. Zero sacks, zero turnovers and only one punt forced the entire game.
Offensively things were minimally better, as the Cowboys somehow managed to put 22 points on the board. This despite a running game that was completely shut down (only 50 yards on 22 attempts) and converting only one of ten third-down attempts (worst conversion rate on the season). The offense netted only 308 yards the entire game, meaning the Rams out-gained Dallas by 151 yards (459 to 308)
The only reason the team avoids an F is despite all this they somehow managed to make a game of it. A late third-quarter touchdown and two-point conversion created a one-score game. And a late TD just prior to the two-minute warning also created a one-score game. But, of course, the Dallas defense couldn’t get a stop. The Rams simply ran for two first downs to run the clock out, an 11-yard scramble by Jared Goff on third down being the back-breaker.
Here’s what I wrote of Jason Garrett prior to the game:
Will Garrett come out and run the same old predictable Dallas game plan with the same old conservative “keep it close and win at the end” strategy? Or will he approach this game as Jimmy Johnson would: when you go up against an opponent that’s better on paper you don’t tippy tap around them....you give ‘em your best shot! I want to see aggressive play-calling; flea-flickers, reverses, fake field goals, 4th down tries.
Not all of these things obviously, but some of them! Don’t go to the locker room having left your best play or a play you’ve been holding onto in the bag. Give the Rams EVERYTHING you got!
Needless to say Garrett didn’t share my way of thinking. Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan lined up and ran the same plays and the same concepts and added absolutely nothing new, different or out of character. They did go for it on four different fourth down opportunities so there’s that.
The stubbornness was on full display on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Cowboys had clawed to within eight points (23-15) and had forced their one and only punt of the game. Facing a fourth and 1 from the Rams’ 35, the brain-trust decided to go to a jumbo package with a tight formation. You’ll never believe it but the plunge up the middle failed to gain the needed yards and the game was pretty much over. I guess banging your head against a wall enough makes you think it’s fun.
I’ll also note that for the third time in Jason Garrett’s five playoff games the team faced a double-digit deficit before halftime:
- 2014 - Detroit Lions: trailed 14-0 after 13 minutes
- 2016 - Green Bay: trailed 21-3 after 21 minutes
- 2018 - Los Angeles: trailed 20-7 after 26 minutes
That’s a combined 55-10 for those counting. Three times Jason Garrett’s playoff teams have emerged from the locker room unprepared for the game. They’ve been beaten up, run over and outclassed from the opening whistle. Give them credit for coming back and making the games competitive (even winning one) but one has to ask why Garrett’s teams repeatedly play horrid opening quarters in their most important games.
Dak Prescott had a quintessential Dak Prescott game. He started out hot, going 3-for-3 for 48 yards and a touchdown strike to Amari Cooper:
And then we got bad Dak. Prescott looked flustered and inaccurate as the offense punted on each of the team’s next four possessions. With no ground game whatsoever to help, Prescott was asked to put the team on his back and wasn’t able to do it.
Of course, he did perk up in the final 20 minutes, as he always seems to. He led the team on two touchdown drives sandwiched around the drive doomed by the fourth-down failure. His best play of the night came on a pinpoint strike off an improvised scramble:
Prescott also hit Cooper for a two-point conversion and later ran for a touchdown. But it was all too little too late. One Prescott oddity: the losing quarterback has posted the higher passer rating in all three playoff games Dak has played:
Dak wasn’t the problem Saturday night, but he also wasn’t the solution.
Running back: B-
I honestly don’t know how to grade Ezekiel Elliott. He had no lanes to run through as the Rams made it their priority to stop Zeke from eating. Elliott had one 15-yard run and a 12-yard catch and that’s about it. He did make a key block on the early Cooper touchdown. But when the league’s leading running back’s biggest contribution was a block you know it was a bad night.
Offensive line: D-
The offensive line was simply inept. Playing against a defense that allowed more yards per carry than any other NFL team, the Cowboys’ averaged a putrid 2.27 YPA; the second lowest mark in the team’s playoff history (shockingly, the worst number was the team’s victory over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XXX).
Aaron Donald and the rest of the Rams’ much-maligned front seven simply punished the Cowboys’ offensive line. Prescott was only sacked once (a dubious sack at that) but also didn’t have tons of time in the pocket.
It was a poor effort from a unit that started the season as the team’s best and ended as perhaps its worst.
Wide receivers: B+
If any unit showed up to play Saturday night it was this group. Gallup and Cooper combined to catch 12 balls on 18 targets for 184 yards and a touchdown. Gallup’s over-the-shoulder catch set up another touchdown and Cooper also hauled in a two-point conversion.
There simply weren’t enough opportunities for this group.
Tight ends: C
Again, I’m not real sure how to grade the tight ends. Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin did make three catches on four targets for 37 yards. But they were mostly called on to block and obviously the overall blocking was woefully inadequate.
Defensive line: F
If Demarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford or Randy Gregory made a play Saturday night I missed it. The stat sheet indicates they combined for six tackles, one tackle for loss, zero sacks, zero fumbles, zero pressures and zero passes defensed.
Zero is a good way to describe the way this unit performed as they were thoroughly whipped in every way imaginable. Again, the Rams punted once the entire game. Their drive table (courtesy of Pro Football Reference) is a disaster:
- Five drives of 64 yards or more
- Six scoring drives (only a missed field goal prevented it from being seven)
- Three drives of 11 or more plays
- Five drives of at least four minutes; two of more than seven minutes
Many believed the Dallas defense to be an elite unit but we should all disabuse ourselves of that notion. Here’s how that “elite” unit did the final six weeks of the season:
Those are bottom ten in the league kind of numbers.
When the opponent runs at will, from opening whistle to final gun, linebackers have to be held accountable. The dynamic duo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, along with Sean Lee, simply couldn’t get it done. They were credited with 20 tackles but most of them seemed to be five or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Like the defensive line there were zero splash plays from this unit.
It was a stunning development for the two youngsters who truly did play at an elite level most of the season.
This unit didn’t give up many big plays but that’s mostly because they weren’t tested much. Goff was largely held in check, throwing for only 186 yards with a long play of only 21. But whenever the Rams needed him to make a play he was able to do it, as the Rams moved the ball at will. Like the other units, I don’t recall a single standout play from the secondary.
The only noteworthy play was a horribly timed penalty on Byron Jones. Dallas had actually forced the Rams’ into a rare 3rd-and-long but Jones’ penalty allowed them to convert. It was particularly frustrating because:
- The infraction was away from the play
- Had the Rams completed their pass it wasn’t enough for a first down
- The hands-to-the-face call was borderline (at best)
- Todd Gurley ran 35 yards for a touchdown two plays later
Special teams: B
Nothing really noteworthy from this group. On the positive side the coverage units didn’t allow a long return for (seemingly) the first time in months. Brett Maher converted his two extra point attempts and Chris Jones punted.
I can’t help but wonder about Jason Garrett. He simply doesn’t seem to rise to the occasion. His teams don’t play their best when the stakes are highest. This isn’t new, as when we look back even the not-so-great teams of the 2011-2013 had chances to advance but always played poor in those win-and-advance games.
I like Garrett and the overall job he’s done. But I’m wondering if reaching the NFL’s final eight is his ceiling? The Cowboys haven’t played terrible in all of their post-season losses but they’ve never come close to playing their best games.
When you look at Super Bowl champions those team peaked in the playoffs and played their best games. Jason Garret’s teams don’t. And that’s a problem for a franchise that hasn’t reached the final four for 23 consecutive seasons.