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Grading the Cowboys 13-9 defeat to the New England Patriots

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Some good, some bad and too much ugly in he Cowboys loss.

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Dallas Cowboys v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

Sigh.

This was somewhat predictable yet heartbreaking nevertheless. The Dallas Cowboys went into Foxborough, Massachusetts to take on the 9-1 New England Patriots in extremely challenging weather conditions. Yet another slow start, yet more special teams gaffes and yet more conservative decision-making from the head coach undermined a spirited but unsuccessful effort. The 13-9 defeat leaves the Cowboys with a 6-5 record as they head into the final portion of the season. A once-promising season has failed to yield even a single quality victory as this team continues to under-achieve.

Let’s go to the grades.

Overall: C+

In many ways, the Cowboys performed exactly like the 2019 Cowboys have performed all season:

  • The first few series consisted of clown play, as Dallas made mistake after mistake after mistake on both sides of the ball and on special teams. Penalties, turnovers, dropped passes and poor (putting it kindly) special teams left the Cowboys facing a 10-0 deficit after only 18 minutes of football. In a game where only 22 points were score that proved significant.
  • Special teams were atrocious (a more accurate term) throughout and are the single biggest reason Dallas took the loss. Pretty much everyone who’s watched this team recognized this unit as a problem and pretty much everyone predicted the unit would cost the team a victory at some point. It’s not surprising that day came against a Bill Belichick coached team, as his special team’s units are perennially among the best in the league.
  • After falling behind the Cowboys put up a great effort. The defense basically shut the Patriots down the rest of the way. The offense moved the ball just enough to create legitimate scoring opportunities but couldn’t quite close the deal.
  • And finally, the head coach yet again chose to neuter the team’s best player and MVP candidate at the game’s final, critical moments.

These are all things we’ve seen before, especially in the team’s previous 2019 losses.

Coaching: F

I had the pleasure of attending one of the great Cowboys’ regular season victories. The year was 1991 and a 6-5 Cowboys squad went on the road to take on an 11-0 Washington Redskins team. That Redskins’ team would go 17-2, set the then-record for most points scored and take home the Lombardi trophy. In short, a 6-5 team taking them on at RKF stadium faced long odds.

Head coach Jimmy Johnson chose a hyper-aggressive gameplan. In the first half alone the Cowboys attempted (and recovered) an on-sides kick and twice went for it on fourth down. They also relentlessly attacked Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green. Despite Troy Aikman throwing a pick-six interception on the team’s first possession and later being knocked out of the game, Dallas would emerge a 24-21 victor.

A famous locker-room clip (that I can’t find anywhere now) shows a jubilant Jimmy Johnson addressing the team. And (paraphrasing from memory) his message was:

When you go up against an 800-pound gorilla, you don’t tip toe around, you give him your best shot!

The locker-room erupts, Dallas goes on to win six straight games, including the team’s first playoff win in eight years. The next year they would go 16-3 and win Super Bowl XXVII.

Jason Garrett, facing a similar situation, chooses to tip toe around. Again. As he has in past doomed situations. Garrett continuously plays conservative, loses doing so, and fails to learn any lessons in the process.

Four times the Cowboys moved the ball into New England territory and eventually faced fourth down. Four times Jason Garrett chose to kick a field goal and bypassed going for the first down. Based upon pure statistical analysis, Garrett was correct three of the four times (the one instance he was wrong was kicking the field goal on 4th-and-3 from the Patriots 28 in the second quarter).

However, those pure statistical analysis don’t take into context:

  • Weather conditions that made both moving the ball and kicking field goals extremely difficult. This increased the leverage of each penetration into enemy territory, meaning teams needed to maximize such opportunities.
  • The Cowboys possess one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. As such, the Cowboys can be expected to convert these fourth down opportunities more often than the average NFL offense, even in difficult weather conditions.

Those four decisions resulted in nine points. A couple of conversions, however, would have potentially resulted in touchdowns. Now, the Cowboys went only 2-of-14 on third- and fourth-down attempts so it’s far from certain they would have converted those potential fourth-down attempts.

The most egregious decision came late in the fourth quarter when the Cowboys faced a 4th-and-7 at the Patriots 11-yard line with 6:08 remaining, down by seven points. The problem with kicking a field goal in this situation is prior to the fourth down attempt you need a touchdown in order to at least tie the game; after converting a field goal the team needs... a touchdown in order to tie/win the game. You gain very little in terms of actually winning the game by bypassing the touchdown attempt for the field goal.

Troy Aikman expressed his bewilderment at the decision on the Fox broadcast and if you read Twitter you’ll find very few supporting Jason Garret’s decision.

This is consistent with Garret’s long-term strategic decision-making; he has rarely ever chosen the aggressive approach. Compare that with John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens, as outlined in a recent TheAthletic article:

Aggressive fourth-down calls have become practically a weekly occurrence for the Ravens. They’ve gotten 10 of 14 fourth-down attempts on the season, tied with the Colts for the most conversions in the league. And on the 10 drives where they’ve converted, eight have resulted in touchdowns. They’re averaging 10.5 yards per play on fourth down, which is tops in the NFL.

Now, put yourselves in Dak Prescott’s shoes. Every time you’re in a situation to make a key play at a high-leverage point in the game your coach repeatedly takes the ball out of your hands. How would you feel? And how does that feeling compare to comments we read from that same article from Ravens’ players:

“It’s just confidence,” says Jackson. “Our coach believes in us. …He believes that we can do it, and we just have to honor it and do our job – get the first down.”

Adds tight end Hayden Hurst, “He tells us every single week, every meeting, ‘We’re gonna be aggressive.’ And I think that confidence he puts in us is paying off.”

Harbaugh acknowledges that showing trust in his players with the fourth-down decisions has had a positive impact on the overall culture.

If you’re Dak Prescott, and the head coach keeps taking the ball out of your hands to put it on the foot of Brett Maher, do you feel like your coach trusts you?

Jason Garrett is a good coach Monday through Saturday; but his robotic, conservative decisions have never served this team well and he seems incapable of learning from past mistakes.

Quarterback: B-

Honestly, I don’t know what to think of Dak’s game Sunday. On the one hand he was really bad in the first half, finishing 10-of-15 for only 84 yards and an interception:

This interception was 100% on Dak; he had the play if he didn’t throw short. But he first had to deal with a high snap, then underthrew Tony Pollard. It was consistent with a first half where Dak was erratic and inaccurate. In addition to the interception he badly missed Randall Cobb on a very easy third-down conversion and generally struggled.

You’d also like to think Dak could take advantage of this:

On the other hand, after putting a glove on, and after halftime, he was generally better. Most significantly, given the ball at his own 11 with just over nine minutes left he led the team on a 78-yard drive. This was in the fourth quarter, on the road, against the league’s number one defense, against Bill Belichick, down seven points. That 78-yard drive was 26 yards longer than either team managed on their other 23 drives.

Then, given the ball at his own eight-yard line, and needing a touchdown again, Prescott set the Cowboys up for a first down at their own 38-yard line. But the play was negated by a “tripping” call that created a 3rd-and-11 from their own 25.

This is the “tripping” penalty:

I’m generally not one to complain about referee decisions. They have a hard job and the outrageously large and complex rulebook makes their job overly difficult in my opinion. But, if this is tripping, then tripping occurs on every single pass play in the NFL because Travis Frederick does nothing more than lift his leg (slightly).

It’s one of those calls that makes you scratch your head and wonder about the motivations of whoever made the call. It put the Cowboys in a very difficult 3rd-and-11 situation. An incomplete pass resulted in a fourth down attempt that saw Prescott seemingly complete a pass to Amari Cooper for his only catch of the day:

Replay conclusively showed, however, that Cooper didn’t make the catch to finish a disappointing day for the receiver.

All in all Prescott played okay but his first half woes doomed the eventual outcome. It also continued the Cowboys streak of being able to come back from a fourth-quarter deficit. The last time Dallas came back after trailing going into the fourth quarter was the Pittsburgh game in 2016. They’ve lost 19 games over that span.

Running backs: B

Things were a little better for Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys running game after two sub-par weeks. The Cowboys would end up with 109 rushing yards on 26 attempts for a 4.8 yard average. Zeke ran hard and tough and the team managed to bulldoze to six rushing first downs.

Big plays continue to elude both Zeke and the running game in general; the longest run of the day was only 12 yards. In a contest where passing was extremely difficult, the Cowboys needed more from a running game that features massive investments (in terms of both draft picks and salary cap).

Wide receivers: C

We all love Amari Cooper. He provided a much-needed shot of adrenaline to a moribund offense from the second he arrived. Bu Sunday he was completely shut out. He was targeted only twice and came away with zero catches for zero yards. He had a chance to extend the game by making the fourth-down catch noted above but wasn’t able to hold onto the ball. It was a difficult catch in difficult conditions but that’s what All Pro players do and he simply didn’t make the play.

And frankly, expecting much from Cooper on the road was probably unrealistic. He’s been a completely different player on the road versus playing at home since becoming a Cowboy:

The above shows Cooper’s road and home averages per game. Simply put, at home Cooper is the best wide out in the game and on the road he’s a mediocre receiver.

Unfortunately, Sunday we saw the mediocre Cooper. He was basically shut down by the Patriots’ Stephon Gilmore, who is (admittedly) one of the best cornerbacks in the game. But you would hope your All Pro caliber receiver would produce something, even against a premier corner.

Michael Gallup continues to impress, making four catches for 55 yards. Each of his four catches came on similar routes:

Randall Cobb had another drop (I don’t remember him suffering so many drops as a Packers) but made the single biggest offensive play of the game:

When you look at the receiving group’s overall numbers it’s not hard to see where the issue was:

Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb contributed Sunday against the Patriots; the same can’t be said of Amari Cooper.

Tight ends: D

Jason Witten is largely looking like a 37-year old tight end called upon mostly to block and occasionally convert a third down with a seven-yard catch. He’s not going up the seam to stress a team down the middle of the field. And he’s not going to give you anything after the catch. So, when he drops two simple passes that hit him right in the hands... and struggles with his blocking assignments, it’s reasonable to ask what exactly he’s bringing to this offense?

Witten had a bad game against the Patriots. In a difficult environment when the offense is fighting for every yard and first down they can get, the last thing a team needs is their grizzled veteran dropping passes and not making simple plays. The future Hall of Famer ended up with only five yards on four targets and got beat several times on blocking assignments.

Blake Jarwin at least caught three of the four balls thrown to him. The fourth would have been a game-winning touchdown but the ball was high, he was surrounded by defenders and frankly just catching the ball (out of bounds) was an accomplishment.

However, Jarwin also contributed to the disastrous opening sequence when he fumbled after one of his catches. He was able to recover the ball but you simply can’t drop the ball in such situations.

Offensive line: C+

Again, not really sure how to grade here. Dak Prescott emerged from yet another game without being sacked. And the running game was improved over what it has been recently but it still wasn’t good enough.

But penalties plagued this team yet again. We can argue about the legitimacy of the calls, but the fact is that pre-snap, holding and tripping penalties sabotaged many of the Cowboys offensive possessions. In a game where any negative play basically ended an offensive possession those penalties proved hugely costly.

Now, you tell me if you think this is tripping on Tyron Smith:

I certainly don’t, just as I don’t think the Frederick call was tripping. I also disagreed with the holding call on Smith. But, the Cowboys suffered due to each of those calls.

Defensive line: B

This game pretty much captured the Cowboys defensive line performance throughout the season: they were disruptive, active and got after the quarterback. But they ended up with relatively little to show for their efforts.

There’s no question at this point that DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn, Michael Bennett and Maliek Collins represent a serious pass-rush challenge to opposing offensive lines. Quinn is so fast off the edge it seems like he’s on the verge of a sack every play. Sunday we saw them harass and harangue Tom Brady into hurrying his throws and being generally more inaccurate than normal. We did see a couple sacks, including a key one by Maliek Collins:

Michael Bennett showed his wily veteran presence when he snuffed out a Patriots screen late and recorded a tackle for loss. The four-man group would finish with 11 tackles, six tackles for loss, five hits on the quarterback and two sacks. This is a dynamic, disruptive group that is going to cause problems for opposing defenses. We’ve yet to see it turn into game-changing plays, however.

Linebackers: B+

The much-maligned linebacker group came up with a solid game against a challenging opponent. Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee and Joe Thomas finished with 19 combined tackles. There were a couple missed tackles but overall this group did well. Sean Lee did a real nice job disrupting one of the Patriots’ (surprisingly) few screen attempts. Both Lee and Smith also held up well in pass coverage and didn’t experience any of the mishaps that have plagued this group throughout the season.

Secondary: A-

On a night when passing was difficult the secondary group held their own for the most part. Chidobie Awuzie had his customary play where he had blanket coverage but simply couldn’t make the play. And Byron Jones got beat on the game’s only touchdown that, frankly, I’m not sure anyone could have defensed:

But it was Jeff Heath, however, who had the biggest impact. A week after many fans expected Darian Thompson and Donovan Wilson to make Heath expendable, the hard-hitting veteran reminded us why the coaches like him so much.

Late in the first half, with the Cowboys down a touchdown, Heath made this play to prevent what would have been one of the Patriots’ biggest plays of the game. It’s important to note how Heath gave himself up, despite knowing he was putting his already injured shoulder at risk.

Heath later thwarted the Patriots’ final scoring chance with this clutch third down play:

This gave the Cowboys the ball back for their ill-fated late-game possession. That’s twice where Heath came up with big plays in third-down situations to shut down prime Patriots scoring opportunities (and in the process remind us why he’s better than most of us think).

Special teams: F

Where do we start? Simply put, the Cowboys special teams cost the Cowboys this game. There’s no way around it. The single biggest play of the game came when the Patriots’ punt defense penetrated to block a first quarter Chris Jones’ punt:

This gave the Patriots the ball at the Cowboys 12-yard line. Which in a game where both offenses struggled in difficult conditions proved important. Beyond that we had numerous botched plays that all ended up costing the Cowboys valuable field position.

New England kicked off four times. The first went out of the end zone. Each of the next three were intentionally kicked short to force the Cowboys to field the ball under stress. Each time the Cowboys muffed the catch, leaving them in poor field position.

Which makes you wonder why, when New England kicked off after their lone second half score, Tony Pollard was positioned at the goal line to catch the ball. Here’s what happened:

The Patriots’ strategy at this point was clear. Why was Pollard standing on the goal line? He could have been at the 5 or 10-yard line. If the ball went over his head, just let it bounce through the end zone. Instead, he was left to deal with a difficult catch under trying conditions. This is a prime example of the Cowboys coaches putting the players in position to fail.

This play cost the Cowboys dearly. They would start the drive on their 11. They eventually drove 78 yards before settling for a field goal. Had they started at their 25 or so, it’s not unreasonable to think that drive results in a touchdown instead.

Then you had the disastrous sequence when the Cowboys got confused simply lining up for a punt. Dallas had smartly moved to midfield and faced a 3rd-and-3. Prescott hit Cobb for 15-yards for a seeming first down. But Tyron Smith was called for yet another phantom call (this time holding) to set the Cowboys back for a 3rd-and-13 from their own 40. A missed pass had them punting from their own 40.

That’s when the dysfunction and general ineptness of this group took over:

  • With the Patriots failing to cover the gunner on the left side, the Cowboys don’t know what to do. In a confused state they let the clock run down and take a delay of game penalty. Whereas an alert, well-coached team might have taken advantage of the Patriots’ blown assignment, the Cowboys turn it into a negative.
  • Dallas then punts to the Patriots’ 18-yard-line. However, Dallas is called for illegal procedure and forced to punt again.
  • Now punting from their own 30 a short punt allows New England to call a fair catch at their own 38.

In short, the Cowboys go from running an offensive play from midfield to the Patriots’ calling a fair catch at their 38. This was extremely crucial in a game where field position meant everything.

The Patriots turned that generous field position into a field goal, driving 38-yards for their only second half points. In short, the Cowboys dysfunction and general stupidity lining up for a punt cost the team three points.

Honestly, I don’t know how Keith O’Quinn continues to have a job. His unit has been chaotic, disorganized and ineffective since his arrival last season. The Cowboys have one of the worst units in the NFL, failing in every way possible (they give up big returns, they have no returns of their own and you have disasters like we see in this game).

Summary:

I’ve been a Jason Garrett supporter for most of his reign. But no longer. I simply can’t see the most talented roster of the last dozen years reaching it’s potential with him at the helm. Simply put the coaches are, without question, the biggest weakness on this team. Four of the five losses for this team in 2019 I’ve given the coaches an F grade.

Garrett doesn’t believe in his team and they likely know it. The coaches don’t adapt and adjust to changing situation in games. They repeatedly screw up situational play. They don’t have the team prepared to play their best from the start.

Before the season started the general feeling was anything short of an NFC Championship appearance would result in the end of the Jason Garrett era. I think we’re seeing that happen slowly before our eyes.