Is it time for Cowboys fans to panic after falling to 5-4? Yeah, probably.
Panic level: So you’re saying there’s a chance
Dallas Cowboys: Buckle up for the NFC East race, because suddenly after the Cowboys’ 28-24 loss to Minnesota on Sunday night, Dallas and Philadelphia are tied for first in the division.
We easily could have listed the Cowboys one level higher, but as impressed as we were with Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb — those catches, my goodness — against the Vikings, we’re equally concerned about a defense that appeared to be worn down, play by play, by Minnesota’s combination of running game and play-action passing game.
“If you allow people to run the ball like that against you, it deflates,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Sunday night, after Dalvin Cook accumulated 183 total yards.
And as we try to decide how worried about the Cowboys we should be, we have to weigh confidence in Jason Garrett. This wasn’t the type of coaching meltdown we saw from Garrett and his staff in the inexplicable loss to the Jets last month, but we can’t help but wonder about the Cowboys’ late-game decisions to force carries to Ezekiel Elliott when Prescott had so brilliantly engineered a drive into the red zone. Once there? An Elliott run for no gain on second down, a loss of 3 yards on an Elliott carry on third down and an incomplete pass to Elliott on fourth down.
Elliott will carry the Cowboys to plenty more wins this season, but Dallas needs to have the awareness to know when it isn’t working.
Like many of us, Machota questioned the play-calling late in the game.
None of the Cowboys players publicly second-guessed any play calls after Sunday night’s game, but it clearly looks like a mistake now to run on second and third down with just over a minute remaining.
The Dallas running game had not worked all night. Ezekiel Elliott’s longest run went for six yards. The Cowboys never picked up a first down on a running play. The passing game, however, was clicking. It’s what got Dallas down to Minnesota’s 11-yard line with 1:33 remaining, down by four. But instead of allowing Dak Prescott to continue adding to his impressive night, the coaching staff took the ball out of his hands to continue running the clock.
The plan was to leave the Vikings little to no time to respond. The problem? Dallas never scored because both run plays were disasters. Elliott was dropped for no gain on the first one and a three-yard loss on the second. Those decisions are on head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
More questions regarding the late game sequence.
Leading up to the second-down run call, Prescott had been 6-of-7 for 79 yards on the drive that started at Dallas' 6-yard line. Elliott, meanwhile, was averaging a near-season-low 2.4 YPC on the night. Asked how important riding the hot hand, a.k.a. Dak, was in that situation, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said the team was right to try a different approach in the red zone.
"You want to attack [in] different ways. It's important for us to try to continue to run the ball," Garrett told reporters. "In normal circumstances, you'd think if we give it to Zeke a couple of times second inside of two yards, we're going to make that. We're going to make that first down. Unfortunately, it didn't happen in this game. We got to that fourth down situation and we couldn't convert."
Prescott was similarly peeved, not about the play-calling on second and third down, but the execution on fourth.
"As a quarterback, you can't ask for more," Prescott said. "Ball in your hands. Fourth down. Chance to make a throw to win the game. They made a great play. They made more plays when it counted and beat us situationally."
Dak Prescott looked elite Sunday night. Some think he always has been.
Even with Cowboys coaches doing everything in their power to blow the game, Dak Prescott was the story of the night. At least he should be. His numbers weren’t overly impressive: He completed 28-of-46 passes (60.9%) for 347 yards, three touchdowns and one pick. On a day where Lamar Jackson put up a perfect passer rating and took a Bengals player’s soul right on the field in a blowout win, what Prescott did might go under-appreciated by the media. That should not be the case. For me, it was the night Dak established himself as one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
It was as complete a performance as I’ve seen from a quarterback since … well, maybe ever. There were highlight-reel throws downfield, shrewd pre-snap checks and protection changes, plays that required Prescott to exhaust his progressions while avoiding hits in the pocket and plenty examples of his ability to create outside of structure when a play breaks down. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say there are only two or three quarterbacks in the league capable of putting together such a comprehensive display of quarterbacking. It was an elite performance, which should not come as a shock since Prescott has been playing at an elite level all season — and for the majority of his short career.
Sure would have been interesting to see what Tavon Austin could have done with that final punt. We’ll never know.
Austin had all the blocks in front of him to do something special. Instead, the Cowboys took over in their own territory and ended up losing the game four plays later when Dak Prescott threw a pick on fourth-and-1 from Minnesota’s 45 yard line.
Apparently he was told by the Dallas coaches to fair catch it, which is just some incredibly bad coaching, even if the Cowboys didn’t have any time outs left and wanted as much time as they could for their offense to try to get the game-winning score.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the Cowboys’ stubborn commitment to an ineffective run game was the unwillingness to just put the game in Dak Prescott’s hands.
Two things were true about Sunday Night Football: Dak Prescott was the best player on the field, and the Cowboys lost. How Dallas squares those two realities will define the team’s season, especially since the Vikings didn’t beat the Cowboys as much as they beat themselves. A combination of coaching, bad execution in the run game, and confusing special teams decisions (why didn’t Tavon Austin return it!) decided a 28-24 game.
“I thought Dak played as well as any quarterback I’ve seen this year,” Kirk Cousins told NBC’s Michele Tafoya after the game. It’s barely hyperbole. Prescott completed 28 of 46 passes for 397 yards and three touchdowns with an interception on a Hail Mary as time expired. Prescott and Amari Cooper may have had their best night together as teammates, and that’s saying something for one of the best quarterback-receiver combos of the past 12 months. Cooper caught 11 of 14 targets for 147 yards and a touchdown, and three of those catches came so precariously along the sideline that it looked like he had a wire team ready off screen. The most stunning catch of them all was when Prescott found Cooper in the end zone to take a 21-20 lead midway through the third quarter.
The Sturminator was unimpressed with many aspects of Jason Garett’s decision-making, including his career-long refusal to go for it near mid-field.
Including the final drive, which was just 17 seconds long, there were only nine drives per team last night. Wasting the first three is a bold strategy, but on their third drive, Dallas had a 4th-and-4 from the Vikings 39-yard line. I promise Garrett strongly considered another 57-yard attempt here, but what he probably was not going to consider was going for it on 4th-and-4, because he never does. How do I know? Since the start of 2017, the Cowboys have faced 86 occasions of 4th-and-3+ from opponent territory before the fourth quarter. They have decided to go for it just once — and that once was down 35-10 late in the third quarter in Denver back in 2017, so the answer is actually pretty much zero. There is only one coach who has less interest in going for it in these situations in the entire NFL: Mike Zimmer! Of course, Garrett was not going to let Zimmer prove he was the most conservative coach on the field, so the punt team runs on and that was even more of a cowardly punt than the one before it, this one registering in the 99th percentile of cowardly punts in 2019.
He was also confused by the clock “strategy” on the penultimate drive.
Of course, if we are going to mention the maddening approach all night to first-down runs — in the first three quarters, they used 11 different first-down opportunities to pound the rock into the teeth of the Vikings defense for just 28 yards — we had sure better look at that drive inside the final two minutes of the game. Revisiting the ghosts of Aaron Rodgers in both the 2016 playoffs and 2017 meetings, it was clear in both of those games that the Cowboys coaching staff did not quite grasp the concept of “not leaving the other guy time to respond” when marching in for a final score. In the postgame press conferences last night, there were many hints that using up the remaining time was a real priority, which we could argue is problematic. They needed a touchdown against a stingy defense, so that needs to be the main and possibly only objective. That said, if the priority was to bleed the clock or Minnesota timeouts, then I am not sure why you rush to snap a play for no reason before the two-minute warning to Witten. I would also not be sure you are snapping the second-down run (that went nowhere) with 0:22 left on the play-clock. So which is it? Are you trying to run down the clock or aren’t you? The third-down run (which went backward) was snapped with 0:21 on the play-clock, so now I am assuming you are running the ball to run out the clock, but you are not running the clock down and losing yardage. There is no detectable logic whatsoever as to what is going on here. And, of course, the Cowboys managed to take a 2nd-and-2, run the ball twice and turn that into a 4th-and-5.
Even the Cowboys’ former scout didn’t understand the play-calling stubbornness.
I am generally a big believer in a balanced attack, but even I can’t defend Kellen Moore for his willingness to stick with the run in this game. Mike Zimmer was not going to let Ezekiel Elliott beat him and he gambled that Dak Prescott wouldn’t. Zimmer’s plan only worked due to Moore’s stubbornness. Zimmer continued to dare Moore to run the ball and he fell for the trap by doing so. Moore ran the ball three times on two red zone trips for a total of -1 yard. There was nothing I saw from Elliott or this offensive line blocking that led me to believe they were going to have any success running at all the entire game.
What a rough night for the Dallas defense. Missed tackles, third down conversions and just getting their butts handed to them by the Vikings. The plan should have been to make Kirk Cousins have to make plays in this game -- but none of that happened. Cousins tends to make mistakes and poor decisions, but Richard’s crew allowed the Vikings -- with a banged up offensive line and an old school fullback – to control the line of scrimmage. I lost track of how many times there was a white jersey wiping out a blue one. Cousins didn’t have to make plays in this game because no one stepped up to make him do so.
The Mothership’s writer wonders if, maybe, this just isn’t a very good team?
Maybe they lost it because they just couldn’t run the ball at all. Couldn’t believe the stat I saw after the game where the Cowboys didn’t convert a single first down by rush. That’s the third time in franchise history that happened and I’m pretty sure they didn’t have the NFL’s reigning rushing champ in the backfield previously.
Maybe they lost because the defense couldn’t get off the field at times trying to stop Dalvin Cook, who is the currently the NFL rushing leader and we just found out why.
Maybe they lost because they put the ball in Ezekiel Elliott’s hands in the final minute of play and got nowhere, failing to convert a first down despite driving the ball the length of the field to the 11-yard line.
That’s a lot of maybes. But that’s what this season has become. Maybe the Cowboys are good. Maybe they’re just not.
Or maybe, and we’ve seen this before, maybe they are just an average team that can not only beat most of the poor teams, but blow them out. But then against the teams that are competitive to good, the Cowboys just can’t get over the hump.
More befuddlement over late-game decision-making.
The scene: Backed up to his own 6 with 4:34 left, Dak, who passed for 397 yards and three touchdowns, came out smoking. On first down, he hit Cobb for 20 yards. Then Cooper for 10. After an incomplete pass, he found Michael Gallup for another first down. Then Cooper for 20 to Minnesota’s 31.
Frankly, Dak had rarely looked better at any point in his much-discussed career than he did on that drive. He made terrific decisions and delivered the ball, putting the Cowboys in position to win a game they had no business winning.
And then all that season-shifting momentum came to a sudden, screeching halt.
On four of the next six plays, the call went to Zeke, who rushed for 47 yards on 20 carries for the night. On the first play after Cooper’s catch at the 31, Zeke ran for 4 yards, his highlight of the possession.
Dak came back with passes to Jason Witten and Cooper, who took it to the 11. On their heels, the Vikings had no answers. Zeke was leading cheers. “They couldn’t stop the pass,” he said.
And then the Cowboys played right into Minnesota’s hands.
On second down, Zeke went for no gain.
On third, Zeke for a 3-yard loss.
On fourth, an incomplete pass to Zeke.
Owning notes how Prescott was routinely asked to bail the team out - and mostly succeeded.
Prescott was outstanding, evidenced by the fact that five of his 10 most difficult completed passes this season were done so against the Vikings (7-3), according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
Prescott routinely had to bail out the Cowboys’ questionable first-down play-calling. Despite having much more success through the air, the Cowboys frustratingly continued to stick with the ground game.
The Cowboys had 30 first downs against the Vikings, toting the rock 16 times for just 39 yards (2.44 yards per carry) and zero first downs while attacking through the air 14 times for 108 yards (8.3 yards per attempt) and six first downs (seven if you count Jason Witten’s 9-yard catch that became a first down after a Minnesota unnecessary roughness penalty).
If you take out the last two drives of the game, the Cowboys ran the ball on 15 of 23 first downs, which means, despite finding zero success, Dallas ran on 65% of first downs before the game situation forced them to pass.
And what happened when the Cowboys were forced to pass on first down on the last two drives? Fifty-eight yards on six passes (9.6 yards per play).
The reliance on the ground game on first down continually put the Cowboys behind the eight ball on second and third down. Of Dallas’ 16 first-down runs, only two went for over 5 yards, which continually put the offense behind the sticks.
Jason Garrett said some things on Monday that didn’t make a lot of sense. We discussed them all on the latest episode of The Ocho.
Make sure that you never miss an episode from Blogging The Boys by subscribing to the Blogging The Boys podcast feed!