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Grading the Cowboys sloppy, embarrassing loss to Packers

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Don’t let the final score mask a failing effort for the Cowboys.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys looked to bounce back Sunday after losing last week in New Orleans. Instead, the team put in a collectively embarrassing performance that raises serious questions about whether this team is any good. Let’s go to the grades.

Overall: F

Thirty-four minutes into this game the score was Green Bay 24, Dallas 0. Twenty-four to zero.

Make no mistake, this score is much more indicative of how these two teams played than the misleading 34-24 final. Those first 34 minutes consisted of:

An offense that was prolific enough to move across midfield six times while simultaneously recording three points. That’s because the drives featured a turnover, penalty or sack that undid all the good that came before. Receivers turned potential catches into interceptions. The quarterback threw hopelessly into triple coverage. The offensive line was a turnstile at times and resorted to clutching and holding at others. Add it all up and when you combined the team’s first seven possessions Sunday with their anemic performance the previous week in New Orleans and you get:

  • Punt
  • FG
  • Punt
  • Fumble
  • Fumble
  • TD
  • Punt
  • Punt
  • INT
  • INT
  • Punt
  • INT
  • Punt
  • MFG
  • Punt

That’s 10 points in 15 drives along with five turnovers and six punts. In short, the offense that was bad in New Orleans simply continued to be bad when this game was still in doubt.

A defense that had absolutely no clue how to stop a Green Bay offense that ranked 20th in total yards, 26th in rushing yards and 27th in third-down conversion rate. So what happened? Green Bay mercilessly carved up the Dallas defense during those first 35 minutes, scoring three touchdowns and a field goal on six drives. Most demoralizing was the fact it wasn’t Aaron Rodgers but a different Aaron doing the primary damage. Running back Aaron Jones got the scoring started by going 18 yards up the middle for the game’s first touchdown. Dallas would end up giving up “only” 122 yards to the Packers’ run game but when the game was in doubt the Packers effectively ran whenever they wanted.

A coaching staff that didn’t have the team ready to play and made it worse by also making multiple questionable decisions that made winning more difficult. One of which was to bet on the field goal kicker converting from 54 yards when the odds say going for it on fourth-and-4 is the better choice.

Add it all up and it was a massive, team-wide failure.

Coaching: F

I have a simple theory about large groups of people: any time everyone or every unit fails simultaneously then those in charge are responsible. One has to wonder why the quarterback, offensive line, receivers, defensive line, linebackers and secondary all failed to play up to expectations during those first 35 minutes. That’s a sign of a group of people who weren’t properly prepared.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this this year. In fact, the Cowboys have played below expectations in the first quarter of every single game in 2019. At some point (now) you have to hold those at the top responsible and ask why does the team constantly come out not ready to play?

Add to the lack of preparedness a litany of questionable decisions by Garret, especially in regards to clock management:

  • Trailing 17-0 late in the first half the Cowboys had (again) moved into Green Bay territory. They faced a 3rd-and-5 from the GB 36 but a pass intended for Randall Cobb fell short. Statistically, the right call on 4th-and-5 from this spot on the field is (Googles “4th down chart”) going for it. Now that statistical analysis doesn’t take into account your team is already down 17 points and that your field goal kicker has been extremely unreliable and doesn’t convert kicks as well as an average NFL place-kicker. If you combine those things the obvious thing to do would be to go for it. Add the fact that missing the kick would return the ball to GB in better position...and, well, you have to wonder if Jason Garrett will ever learn?
  • Pass interference has been a problem for the NFL for a while now. Adding video review has simply made it more infuriating because it slows the game, steals timeouts and challenges from teams and reviews don’t fix obvious instances of interference. So it wasn’t too smart for Garrett to challenge a questionable PI call on Anthony Brown. It wasn’t “clear and obvious” that Brown didn’t interfere, so the decision to challenge was doomed from the start. That timeout would have been very useful later in the game.
  • Dallas trailed by 10 when Prescott scrambled away from pressure for a first down at the GB 40. A bad roughing the passer penalty tacked another 15 yards to give Dallas the ball at the GB 25 with exactly 2: 34 and one time-out remaining. The right move here is to kick the field goal immediately. Why? Because Dallas has to score twice here to win. With one time-out and the two-minute warning remaining a converted field goal would allow Dallas to kick the ball off and play defense. However, an attempt to score a touchdown, even if successful, likely takes the clock to the two-minute warning. This would force Dallas to try an onsides kick-off. NFL teams have tried 29 onsides kicks this year and none have been successful. In short, you want to err on the side of the clock and do whatever you have to do to score (either FG or TD) before the clock hits two minutes. Garrett chose to go for the TD, the team ran the clock to 1:44 AND used up their timeout. In short, the decision to keep trying to score a TD when the FG was available reduced the Cowboys’ chances of winning.

Finally, of course, you have this:

This is perhaps the most non-Jason Garrett thing Jason Garrett has ever done. And the official’s decision to penalize him for it is ridiculous. But it can’t happen. Not when your entire culture and mantra is to put the last play behind you and concentrate on the opportunity in front of you.

Quarterback: F

How does a quarterback who threw for 463 yards and two touchdowns get an F? By making bad mistakes in a game when all you had to do was not make bad mistakes. No doubt Dak did a lot good but throughout those first 35 minutes he was frequently off target, throwing behind receivers. He also made several bad decisions, including this one where he chose to throw into triple coverage:

Dak did a lot good to eventually make this a close game. But he seemingly undid much of that with yet another bad decision and throw that resulted in an end-zone interception that was luckily negated by an illegal hands to the face penalty on Green Bay.

At this time last year we were complaining Dak Prescott simply wasn’t making any plays, but he was protecting the ball. Now, he’s making plays but isn’t taking care of the ball the way he needs to.

Running backs: B

Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard combined for only 16 carries, netting 81 yards for a healthy five yards per carry average. Frankly, Dallas could have run all day against the Packers but when you fall behind 14-0 in the first quarter and 24-0 after 35 minutes you have no chance to run the ball. It was nice to see Pollard get a series in the first half and he produced (19 yards on four carries); moving forward I expect he’ll get a series each half. Zeke added a touchdown and a terrific catch later in the game.

Wide receivers: C

Much like Dak Prescott, there’s was much good from this group that was undone by several egregious mistakes. First the good: Amari Cooper was unstoppable. He caught 11 balls on 14 targets for 226 yards and a touchdown. The highlights were many:

But he also did this:

That could be a catch inside the 15-yard line, at minimum, if Cooper doesn’t miss the ball. It’s hard to think this game doesn’t unfold differently if he makes the catch. Cooper also got loose later for a long reception down the sideline that should have gone for a TD but Cooper stumbled and was tackled.

Michael Gallup also had a productive return, grabbing seven balls on 14 targets for 113 yards. Gallup is now averaging 113 yards per game for the three games he’s played in 2019. Gallup finally got the Cowboys on the scoreboard with this big individual effort:

Gallup is an emerging star and might be the best receiver from the 2018 draft class. He was also involved in one of the many poor officiating decisions Sunday:

Realize, on the previous possession, an Aaron Rodgers incompletion was rewarded with an illegal contact call on Jeff Heath:

On a Dak Prescott interception, however, this was not ruled illegal contact:

Dallas didn’t play well enough to win this game but the officials were atrocious this game and this was the worst of many bad calls.

The receiving group’s overall numbers:

Tight ends: C

Jason Witten had a couple catches. Blake Jarwin didn’t do anything notable. And Dalton Schultz contributed his usual holding penalty and blown blocking assignment. A ho-hum day.

Offensive line: F

This is a collective grade for the unit’s overall impact on the game. When Dak Prescott wasn’t running for his life, he was walking backwards after a holding call negated another key play. Cameron Fleming, playing in place of LT Tyron Smith, struggled mightily throughout the game. Connor Williams missed a stunt that led to a Prescott sack. Travis Frederick was late with a snap resulting in what should have been a fumble. Even La’el Collins, who’s been the best Cowboys’ offensive lineman this year, got beaten badly. It just wasn’t a very good overall effort.

But I’d be remiss not to mention the surprisingly competent job undrafted rookie Brandon Kinght did replacing Collins after he left with a knee injury (uh oh). I don’t remember Knight’s name being called which is exactly what you want from your backup RT.

Defensive line: F

The first six Packers drives resulted in 24 points. Aaron Jones repeatedly gashed the defense for big, huge gains as the Cowboys defense yet again proved unable to maintain gap integrity when it counted. Add Aaron Rodgers repeatedly escaping pressure to make plays when Dallas did get GB in passing situations:

Dallas would eventually sack Rodgers twice but generated zero turnovers. The Cowboys defense is now on pace to record 13 turnovers and 38 sacks. Those are bad (turnovers) and mediocre (sacks) numbers and not what was expected of this defense going into the season.

Linebackers: F

I think it’s officially time to question what has happened to the dynamic duo of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. Smith came up with a big sack late (just like last week) and LVE made a nice tackle for loss near the goal line (that only delayed an eventual GB touchdown). But overall both were largely missing in action. LVE, in particular, had a bad game getting juked or run around on multiple occasions.

These two were sideline-to-sideline weapons of destruction last year but we just haven’t seen it this year. Since the Indianapolis game last year they’ve been repeatedly exposed as opponents have run right through the Cowboys’ defense. The Dallas run game was once a reliable rock, but not any more.

Secondary: D

The Cowboys’ secondary is a good coverage unit. Unfortunately they’re a terrible “play the ball” unit. Over and over we see Chido Awuzie, Byron Jones and Anthony Brown in good position to make plays... but far too often they still allow the play to be made. It happened multiple times again Sunday. They simply aren’t able to track the ball and what happens is the opponent either makes a good play for the gain or Dallas is called for interference.

This is better than, let’s say, Rob Ryan’s defense letting receivers run free with no defender in sight. But it’s frustrating that each seems incapable of making plays on the ball when in position.

Special Teams: F

Brett Maher has been an unreliable kicker throughout his Dallas Cowboys career. He’ll make a 62-yarder then miss a 28-yarder. Well, now he’s doing neither. Sunday he missed from both 54-yards and from 33 yards. I was disappointed the Cowboys didn’t bring in better competition for Maher in the preseason and essentially handed the starting job to him. I assumed, based upon his shaky performance, that he would cost the Cowboys a game in 2019. That didn’t happen yesterday, but it will happen sometime in 2019 if Maher continues to be the kicker.

I’ll be shocked if some kickers aren’t brought in this week but the Dallas front office has repeatedly shocked me.

Summary:

Eight days ago, Dallas was in position to take a stranglehold on both the NFC East and the NFC as a whole. Instead, you can now lump the team comfortably in the “mediocre” group of NFL teams. They’ve played two not-horrible opponents and lost to both. They went six quarters while scoring only ten points. The defense can’t cause any turnovers and teams seem able to run any time they commit to it. Prescott has gone from a game manager to a prolific passer who’s also making head-scratching decisions.

The time is now for Jason Garrett to get it figured out. It seems like when Dallas is set up to be a top-tier, dominant team under Garrett, they somehow under-perform (2015, 2017, 2019). On the other hand, when counted out and people assume they’re going to go down (2014, 2016, 2018) Garrett somehow rallies the troops and gets wins when no one expects it.

Garrett’s seat officially became hot when the final gun went off yesterday. This was supposed to be a Super Bowl contender with a deep loaded offense. They had an easy opening schedule and have basically squandered it by losing their two games against legit NFL teams.

We’re at a crossroads here. The Jets should offer another cupcake opponent next week but then you have the Eagles, Vikings, Lions, Patriots, Bills, Bears, Rams and Eagles among the next nine opponents. Those teams have a combined 20-10-1 record.

We’ll soon find out if this team is for real or a fraud.