Here’s the plan for the Cowboys in 2019:
- The Cowboys will make the NFC Championship game and probably even the Super Bowl this year.
- A visibly improved Dak Prescott will lead a rejuvenated passing attack that will be one of the most efficient in the league.
- Ezekiel Elliott will rack up the yards like it’s nobody’s business.
- The O-line will once again be spoken of in hushed tones in other NFL cities.
- And that defense! Boy, that defense!
- Pro Bowls for everybody!
That’s the plan. But plans have a way of not coming to fruition. Here are the top five things that will not go according to plan for the Cowboys in 2019.
1. Jason Witten’s triumphant return will be anything but
Witten was a shell of his former self in 2017, and there is no rational reason to believe that we’ll see an improved version of the multiple Pro Bowler two years later. He hit a career low in first down percentage (percentage of plays that resulted in a first down or touchdown) in 2017, as the table below shows.
|1st down percentage||35.7||36.6||45.6||40.7||40.1||41.0||39.2||33.6||39.8||38.1||39.3||52.7||35.6||35.4||29.9|
Some will want to reflexively blame this on the quarterback, but the table is a stark reminder that Father Time is undefeated.
Witten will likely struggle over the first few weeks, there’ll be talk about how he “needs to get his football legs under him”, but that talk will diminish in line with Witten’s playing time, and will eventually be replaced by talk about how the failure to upgrade the tight end spot in 2019 was a major offseason mistake.
2. Ezekiel Elliott will continue to run into stacked fronts
The Cowboys are firm believers in establishing the run (no data exists that shows establishing the run is even a thing), and will remain a run-heavy team in a pass-first league.
This is not a secret.
But the Cowboys’ stubbornness in sticking with the run regardless of what the opposing defense is doing is what led Ezekiel Elliott to run into 8-men fronts on 25% of his runs last year, thus reducing the overall effectiveness of the offense.
Last year, the Rams showed how a modern offense with a top running back can deal with 8-man fronts effectively - by checking out of the run when the defense loaded the box. Todd Gurley ran into stacked fronts on only 8% of his runs, and with that the Rams exchanged a lot of running plays that averaged 2.8 yards per attempt for pass plays that averaged 8.3 yards per attempt for them last year.
What % of the time does an RB carry the ball against 8+ men in the box? One of these things is not like the others: pic.twitter.com/lG9VDEHvBQ— Cowboys Stats & Graphics (@CowboysStats) July 14, 2019
3. Kellen Moore isn’t going to be all that as an OC
The offense will use a little more subterfuge, movement, and misdirection to try and confuse defenses, and that will work on occasion. But beneath all that lipstick, the Cowboys will still run the same basic plays they did last year. They’ll still be a run-heavy offense, they’ll still run Elliott into stacked fronts, they’ll still throw it short of the sticks on third down, and their gameplan will still be built around unsustainable long drives.
All of that netted the Amari Cooper-enhanced offense 22 points per game over the final nine games of the season last year. Having a different guy calling the plays in the same overall scheme isn’t going to change that too much.
Unless Moore changes the scheme, of course, but what are the odds of that happening?
4. Oh boy, that defense!
Cowboys fans everywhere are excited about the young Cowboys defense that held opponents to just 20.2 points per game last year, ranked sixth in points allowed and seventh in yards allowed.
And with those numbers, we collectively and conveniently have forgotten that the defense ranked just 22nd with a 95.7 defensive passer rating. The Cowboys have done nothing to shore up their pass coverage, eschewing upgrades to their defensive backs for an investment in the pass rush.
Recent research, summarized by Steven Ruiz of USA Today, suggests that the Cowboys may have been better advised to invest in their pass coverage than in their pass rush.
The debate over which is the more important facet of defense, pass rush or coverage, is hardly a new one in the football world, but it was rebooted this offseason when stat nerds decided they would tackle the issue and finally give us a solution to the sport’s own version of the “chicken or egg” problem.
Pro Football Focus’ numbers crunchers, Eric Eager and George Chahrouri, released their findings in early May which, as so often happens when the analytics community puts forth a theory that goes against conventional wisdom, led to a somewhat heated dialogue taking place on the internet hellscape known as Twitter dot com. Had Eager and Chahrouri concluded that pass rush was the more important facet of defense, we may have avoided another NFL Twitter debate between the Nerds and Professional Football Knowers, because conventional wisdom says pass rush is king, and true football men love conventional wisdom.
But that’s not what PFF’s research team found…
Those selfsame Professional Football Knowers will likely be the first to loudly criticize the Cowboys for not signing Earl Thomas (or any other name free agent) when the pass defense remains mired in the bottom half of the league.
5. Special Teams Lottery
The Cowboys lost special teams coach Rich Bisaccia to the Raiders, and for all the joy of “winning” the Amari Cooper trade, Cowboys fans may come to regret losing Bisaccia to the Raiders.
In 2018, the team made a risky decision to move on from Dan Bailey, and the result of that move are mixed at best. Couple that with a significant downturn in overall special teams play, and a team that had consistently been a borderline top 10 unit (per Football Outsiders) dropped to 21st in 2018.
|Cowboys Special teams|
The Cowboys chose to promote from within instead of hiring an experienced special teams coach to replace Bisaccia. Will that decision come back to haunt them?
Professional hindsight artists use their amazing powers of extraordinary hindsight to point out the glaringly obvious with great smugness and self-satisfaction, but always after the fact.
Sports media is filled with writers and broadcasters who think they know all there is to know, and post hoc ergo propter hoc they therefore know everything better than the team they are covering.
All sorts of things might happen this year that could derail the Cowboys’ season. The Cowboys can’t prepare for every conceivable contingency, but there are topics (like some of the five above) that even hindsight grandmaster Stephen A. Smith could have seen coming in advance.
”Hate to Say I Told You So” is the first single from Swedish rock band The Hives. Today, you can take The Hives at their word and tell Jerry Jones what contingency he should have addressed.
Then, once the season is over, perhaps we’ll come back and revisit our collective predictions, fears, and worries, to see which were warranted and which had us collectively hyperventilating for no reason at all.
Because, deep in your heart, you know that this is the year the plan will finally come together.