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Grading the Cowboys’ season-ending 47-16 victory over banged up Redskins

Jason Garrett’s likely final game is an empty victory.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 Dallas Cowboys season ended Sunday. It was a season that started with great promise and high expectations and finished with a whimper as the players, coaches and fans watched helplessly as the team won the battle on the field but lost the war in the standings. A week 16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles allowed the division rival to win the NFC East despite missing approximately half their opening day roster.

Sunday’s 47-16 win featured pretty much everything we saw from the Cowboys’ since September:

  • Facing a Redskins defense that featured players taken off the streets that had surrendered 500+ yards and five touchdown passes to (checks notes) Daniel Jones and the New York Giants, the Cowboys offense gained a total of 18 yards on their first four possessions.
  • Followed by three quarters of really strong offensive play, piling up 47 points, 223 rushing yards and 517 total yards.
  • A defense that generated two turnovers on the Redskins’ first two drives to give the Cowboys offense rare short fields.
  • Followed by allowing the Redskins (ranked 31st or 32 in both yards and points) to drive 74, 58 and 65 yards on consecutive drives to turn a 20-3 laugher into an uncomfortably tight 20-13 game early in the third quarter.

These Jekyll-and-Hyde performances are what we’ve seen all season from this version of the Cowboys - swinging wildly from completely inept one minute to looking like world beaters the next.

In the process, the Cowboys did something that hasn’t been done since the NFL went to the league’s current playoff format:

That pretty well captures the frustrating aspect of this team. One characteristic of a good team is a strong record in non-one-score games (games with score differential greater than eight points). The Cowboys were 7-2 in such games in 2019. Generally when you have such a dominant record in “blowout” games you’re a very good team. Only an extremely poor record in one-score games could possibly keep the Cowboys from 10 wins, a playoff appearance and the team’s first back-to-back division titles in 23 seasons.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys had an equally bad record in those one-score games, finishing 1-6. The numbers from those games tell the story of the Cowboys’ season:

The thing that jumps out are the rushing numbers. In blowouts, the Cowboys averaged 179 rushing yards but only 78 in one-score games. Rushing yards allowed also changes significantly, jumping from 93 to 117. Combined, Dallas outgained opponents by 86 yards on the ground in blowouts but was outgained by nearly 40 yards in close games.

Dallas also generated fewer turnovers in close games (barely half of a turnover per game). Otherwise, all other numbers are pretty much the same. Now, realize that three of the close games Dallas lost they surrendered 12, 13 and 17 points. So, while the passing yards were there in those games, the points were not.

In short, despite Dak Prescott and the Cowboys passing game being one of the most prolific in the league, it was the Cowboys’ rushing success - or lack thereof - that determined the Cowboys’ fate in 2019.

Let’s go to the grades for Sunday, which will be based upon the game and not the season:

Overall: B+

Look, the Redskins are bad. Really bad. If there’s a position unit that’s been more decimated by injuries than the Redskins’ secondary, I’m unaware of it. Fox showed that 11 players from that group have gone on IR and they suffered another injury early in the game. That meant the Redskins were effectively fielding people who shouldn’t really be on an NFL field. On offense the Redskins have also been hit by injuries (Vernon Davis, Jordan Reed, Derrius Guice) and rank near the bottom in virtually every major offensive category.

So beating this team isn’t exactly something to boast about. But the Cowboys did what good teams are supposed to do against bad teams - they beat them decisively, with the fourth quarter an academic exercise.

Coaching: B

Coaching in his (likely) last game as Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett had a very Jason Garrett game. Despite playing against a secondary made up of the equivalent of NFL day laborers the Cowboys could do nothing until the run game starting breaking the defense down. The table above really captures the Jason Garrett era; whenever the team has enjoyed success it’s usually been behind a highly effective run game. When the Jason Garrett Cowboys have been unable to run the ball they’ve generally struggled. Sunday was a perfect encapsulation of that reality.

Quarterback: B

Much has been made of Dak Prescott’s shoulder injury. He hasn’t looked nearly as good as he did earlier in the year the last couple weeks. He’s been behind on many throws and wildly inaccurate at times. But the sign of how much he’s improved is the fact he ended up with four touchdowns, 300 yards passing and a 138 rating on a day when he had six yards on his first six passes.

If there’s one thing the current coaching regime has consistently failed at is figuring out how to maximize Dak’s high-level running skills which he put on display with this play:

Dak had a pretty typical 2019 Dak game, finishing with substantial numbers and not making any big mistakes.

Running backs: A-

One of the really frustrating aspects of the Cowboys December is the fact Ezekiel Elliott has been really good throughout the month. He continued that run Sunday. First he ignited the Cowboys offense with a number of impressive runs on the team’s first touchdown drive. After he pretty much had his way and finished with 122 rushing yards on only 18 runs (nearly seven yards per run). He added a nice toe-tap touchdown for the Cowboys’ first foray into the end zone since the Rams’ game.

He would later add a highlight touchdown run that was also his longest run of the season:

Offensive line: B

Again, the Redskins are bad. They surrendered 200+ yards to the Giants the previous week. Teams should expect to run over, through and around these guys. And that’s pretty much what the Cowboys did after the first quarter. Dak Prescott was officially sacked three times but it didn’t seem like he was under pressure a lot. Dak was sacked only 20 times in 2019 after being sacked 56 times in 2018. Depending on who you listen to that’s either the sign of a highly improved offensive line or better awareness and reaction by the quarterback.

Still, you can’t ignore 223 rushing yards and plays like this, featuring Joe Looney making life miserable for his opponent:

Wide receivers: A-

Sigh.

At times the Cowboys receiving trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb look like the best in the league. Like Sunday against a group of “NFL players” who probably shouldn’t sniff an NFL playing field.

They put up amazing numbers Sunday:

  • 18 targets
  • 14 receptions
  • 78% catch rate
  • 271 yards
  • 15 yards per target
  • three touchdowns

The highlights were numerous. First, Amari Cooper jump-started the Cowboys offense with an amazing high-ball catch:

But it was Michael Gallup who was the star of the day, scoring three times including highlight-reel worthy catches on all three of his touchdowns. First he made a twisting, toe-tapping grab to restore a 14-point lead midway through the third quarter:

Then he would add an acrobatic play to turn a short toss into a long touchdown:

And finally he would win for a relatively easy catch-and-run 45-yard score.

Michael Gallup is perhaps the most 2019 Cowboys of all Cowboys. He’s arguably the best receiver of the 2018 draft class. He’s a big-time receiver capable of being a true #1 wide-out.

And yet he leads the league in drops with 10 and had another Sunday. He is the epitome of the 2019 Cowboys: talented, capable, productive... but also infuriating.

Tight ends: B-

It’s very possible we saw the final game of Jason Witten’s Hall of Fame career. Which is sad, I guess. He came back believing he had a shot at a Super Bowl and instead experienced the same mind-numbing disappointment us fans have share for the last 25 years.

But it’s also reasonable to question whether Witten’s presence made this team better than it would have been without him. There’s no question Blake Jarwin is a more athletic, more dynamic, more dangerous passing target than Witten. I read that Witten is the better blocker but I also see Witten routinely getting beaten in his blocking assignments and also see Jarwin winning some of his. How much better does Witten have to be to validate him taking away opportunities for Jarwin? I don’t know but I’m curious to find out.

Defensive line: A

Dallas recorded only two sacks Sunday but it felt like many more. The Cowboys put constant pressure on Redskins quarterback Case Keenum. Robert Quinn continued a strong pass rush season with an early sack:

Later, Kerry Hyder got in on the action:

It was a strong performance from this group against an over-matched opponent despite DeMarcus Lawrence missing most of the game due to back issues.

Linebackers: B

Jaylon Smith is an enigma at this point. On the one hand, he was making plays all over the place Sunday.

His play was reminiscent of his impressive 2018 season. Smith would end up with eight tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception and two passes defensed.

He even got in on a key second quarter sack; unfortunately he grabbed the quarterback’s face-mask for a personal foul penalty that negated the sack, gave the Redskins a first down and led to a touchdown.

On the other hand, his consistency is a huge issue. He has games where he looks lost and is constantly taking bad angles or missing tackles. His pass coverage is also hit or miss.

Beyond that, Sean Lee seemed confused in coverage on several plays and contributed nothing noteworthy.

Secondary: C

Again, the Washington Redskins are not good. Their offense ranks in the bottom of the league in every significant category. So it was pretty distressing to see Jourdan Lewis getting badly beat for a huge 65-yard play.

There just weren’t many plays made by this group, but to be fair, they weren’t allowing plays either. I’m just not sure how much credit they deserve for that considering who they were facing.

Special teams: B+

Kai Forbath hasn’t missed either a field goal or an extra point since becoming the Dallas Cowboys kicker. It’s not the least bit of exaggeration to say the 2019 Dallas Cowboys season was undone by the front office’s stubborn unwillingness to admit error and part ways with Brett Maher.

The Cowboys very likely would have been a 10-win team had Maher been tested in pre-season and someone else given the kicking job. Or if Maher had been cut after nine weeks when it was obvious he couldn’t make routine NFL field goals.

The Cowboys brain-trust shocked pretty much everyone by cutting Dan Bailey - one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history - and going with Brett Maher - who had mediocre numbers playing in the Canadian Football League.

Maher dazzled at times with booming 60+ yard field goals. But he struggled with routine kicks between 30 and 50 yards. In fact, he missed six kicks in that range in 2019. Those six missed kicks proved extremely costly. In fact, you could argue that at least three of the Cowboys close losses outlined above were severely handicapped by Maher missing kicks that NFL kickers routinely convert.

So it’s extremely frustrating watching Forbath drill kick after kick down the middle of the goalposts, while noting Dan Bailey converting 92% of field goals this season. In short, no one can debate the fact the Cowboys made the wrong decision in choosing a journeyman CFL kicker over a proven commodity in Dan Bailey. To say that 2018 decision prevented the 2019 Cowboys from making the playoffs isn’t hyperbole in the least.

Summary:

The Jason Garrett era is over (we think). And it’s over because he’s stubborn, conservative and incapable of adapting. Given the exact opposite of what Doug Pederson had to deal with in Philadelphia he couldn’t win games.

The 2018 Dallas Cowboys won a bunch of one-score games and gave us an exciting run to the final eight of the NFL. This year, the Cowboys lost all those one-score games and ended up vastly underachieving.

Let’s hope next year is better - like we have every year since 1995.

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