On paper, the Dallas Cowboys should be running away with the division and competing with the Saints, Packers, and 49ers for a first round bye in the playoffs. They have a quarterback who’s playing at an MVP level, a receiver who can do this with regularity, a two-time rushing champion, one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, and a defense with playmakers at every level.
And yet, the Cowboys sit at 5-4 in a tie with the Eagles for the lead in a wretched NFC East; a division where one team has already fired their head coach and the other team is getting closer and closer to firing theirs. During the offseason, Dallas made moves to beef up an already talented roster by getting Randall Cobb and Robert Quinn and pursuing, but ultimately missing on, Earl Thomas. Coming into the year, most media outlets ranked Dallas as one of the three most talented rosters in the NFC.
So why can’t they win? The offense comes out flat every single week, and the defense gets carved up to put the Cowboys in a hole early on. Then both units step up and make a mad dash to come back and win, but usually fall short. Even when the Cowboys started out 3-0 and looked unbeatable, they only scored once on their opening drive. The slow starts have consistently been a problem.
Cowboys point differential this year...— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) November 11, 2019
1st quarter: -18
2nd-4th quarters: +99
New Orleans is the only team Dallas hasn't outscored between the 2nd and 4th quarters this season.
They have to figure out this first quarter sleepwalking.
And while there’s usually a handful of player-related things you can point to in order to explain these slow starts, at some point it falls squarely on the shoulders of the coaches who are preparing this team to play each week. And that’s where we’re at now, with five coaches who must be held especially responsible.
1) Special teams coordinator Keith O’Quinn
The Cowboys used to have some really good special teams back when Rich Bisaccia ran the unit. Dan Bailey was the most accurate kicker in NFL history and Chris Jones was a sneaky good punter. But much like when Bill Callahan left and his top assistant, Frank Pollack, took over the offensive line, the special teams have regressed under Keith O’Quinn, who was promoted when Bisaccia left for Oakland.
Last year, Dallas ranked 23rd in special teams DVOA in O’Quinn’s first season as coordinator; in Bisaccia’s final year, the team ranked seventh in special teams DVOA. Prior to the Vikings game, Dallas ranked 25th, and are likely to take another tumble downward.
The obvious issue is Maher’s inconsistency in the kicking game, but Jones has seemingly gotten worse each week. After three straight years with a net average of 40+ yards per punt, Jones fell to 39.6 yards last year and is currently at 38.1. Additionally, the number of punts downed inside the 20 have decreased sharply since O’Quinn’s promotion.
Aside from kicking and punting, special teams is also responsible for field position, and the Cowboys have been bad there, too. Per Football Outsiders, the Cowboys are 24th in average starting field position per offensive drive and 15th in average starting field position per defensive drive. In short, special teams are a mess, and it’s been that way since O’Quinn has been in charge.
2) Kellen Moore
It’s hard to put a ton of blame on Moore, because he’s been pretty great overall. And even when he hasn’t, there must be some leniency granted to a 31-year-old first-time coordinator. Additionally, the Cowboys offense has been great in most respects, leading the league in yards, DVOA, and ranking top five in scoring. Moore’s increased use of pre-snap motion, play-action, deep shots, and rub routes have all been a huge improvement over his predecessor.
But when the offense does bad things, they make a big impact. While the slow starts are a team-wide issue, it’s notably started with the offense. Through nine games, the Cowboys have only scored points on their opening drive twice. One instance was a field goal against the Dolphins and the other a touchdown against the Eagles, which came on a drive that started in Philadelphia territory after a defensive takeaway.
Another big issue for Moore has been the insistence on running the ball repeatedly on first down, even when the running game is nonexistent as it was against Minnesota. There are a lot of advanced metrics and analytics out there that prove a run on first down is almost always a bad idea, but Moore continues to do so.
There are some conspiracy theories out there that suggest Jason Garrett is forcing Moore to run so much, but even if these baseless and unfounded claims are true, Moore is still the one calling the plays and he bears responsibility for it. While the boy genius has done some great things this year, his shortcomings have contributed to the team’s overall downfall.
3) Kris Richard
There’s no reason this defense should be so bad. DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn, and Michael Bennett headline a loaded defensive line, the fourth best linebacker (Joe Thomas) could start on some other teams, and the secondary has Byron Jones, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods.
But this defense, virtually the same unit that finished ninth in DVOA last season, currently ranks 17th. And with Richard being the one who calls the plays, he deserves a big chunk of blame for that.
More importantly, though, is the way Richard’s position group, the defensive backs, have fared. Jones has actually been better in coverage so far this year than he was last year, but he still hasn’t picked off a pass since October 29, 2017. And Jourdan Lewis, who routinely creates takeaways, can’t get on the field unless Anthony Brown is injured because he’s too short.
And then there’s Chidobe Awuzie. Make no mistake, I’m a Chido fan, and he’s actually pretty good in press man coverage. But Awuzie is the embodiment of this secondary’s biggest collective weakness: he has an inability to turn his head around when the ball is in the air. Most of these defensive backs have this problem, but it’s most evident with Awuzie, and it prompts questions as to why Richard hasn’t coached up his players to locate the ball better.
4) Rod Marinelli
Rod Marinelli is a great defensive mind, and has been for a long time. He helped build one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history in Tampa Bay. His ability to get the most out of his defensive linemen, even overlooked talents like Tyrone Crawford, Benson Mayowa, and David Irving, is second to none.
But Marinelli has been figured out, and he’s done nothing to adapt. Ever since the Rams and their backup running back impaled this run defense last year in the postseason, opposing offenses have had an easy blueprint to run against this team: use the defensive line’s aggressiveness against them.
Most offenses use some form of a trapping concept to allow defensive tackles upfield penetration, and if the running back is able to slip past them they’ll have a blocker or two already in the second level to take on the linebackers. It’s absolutely killed this run defense, and it’s easy to see why. What isn’t evident, however, is why Marinelli hasn’t changed up how his defensive line attacks to try and counter these running games.
5) Jason Garrett
In the end, it all comes back to the feet of the guy in charge, and that man is Jason Garrett. I’ve been a defender of Garrett for a while, but that sentiment is waning quick. The consistently slow starts in every phase of the game ultimately reflects on Garrett and how he’s prepping this team.
Make no mistake, though, the reason we all expect such greatness from this team right now is because of Garrett. He’s effectively rebuilt this team since he took over, and has instilled a competitive culture that his players have never quit on; just flash back to last year’s second-half turnaround after starting 3-5. But while Garrett has raised the standard for the Cowboys back to what it was in the 90’s, he’s repeatedly shown he isn’t the guy to meet that standard.
In many ways, Garrett is like Dan Reeves with the Denver Broncos. For those not familiar, Reeves went 110-73-1 over 12 seasons, making the playoffs six times, but he was never able to get them over the hump. They fired him and promoted defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, but after two more unsuccessful years they replaced Phillips with Mike Shanahan, who went on to win the Broncos two Super Bowls.
It might just be time for the Cowboys to move on from Reeves and skip right to finding their Shanahan.