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Cowboys 2019 season a lesson in dysfunction

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How could a team be so good in half their games, and so bad in the others?

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys
He was (mostly) so good, so what went wrong?
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Frustrating. Maddening. Mystifying. Disappointing. The words to describe the 2019 season for the Dallas Cowboys are just about all negative. The stats just make it worse. Not only did this campaign fall far short of expectations, it had some of the most contradictory numbers associated with it you will ever see for an NFL team. By the time it was all said and done with Dallas missing out on the playoffs, we all knew that this team was broken somehow. But trying to figure out exactly how, and what needs to be fixed, is a much more difficult task.

Let’s try anyway.

The wins and losses were entirely different worlds

I can’t say if this is some kind of a record, but I certainly do not remember any team having this kind of split between the games they won and those that were lost. Look at this chart.

2019 Cowboys’ points differentials

Wins Score Margin Losses Score Margin
Wins Score Margin Losses Score Margin
NYG 35 - 17 18 NO 12 - 10 -2
WAS 31 - 21 10 GB 34 - 24 -10
MIA 31 - 6 25 NYJ 24 - 22 -2
PHI 37 - 10 27 MIN 28 - 24 -4
NYG 37 - 18 19 NE 13 - 9 -4
DET 35 - 27 8 BUF 26 - 15 -9
LAR 44 - 21 23 CHI 31 - 24 -7
WAS 47 - 16 31 PHI 17 - 9 -8

A couple of things just jump out at you. In each of their eight wins, Dallas scored 31 or more points. In their losses, they never scored more than 24, and three times had ten or less. That is a stunning level of inconsistency. It hardly is something that presents a clear way to correct. The scheme seems to be effective when things work well, but it is hard to sort out just why it went so badly in half the games. Even when the Cowboys put up three or four scores in losses, much of that came when they had gotten deep in a hole.

Part of the problem seems to be that the aggressiveness of Kellen Moore swung wildly. He looked to be far more conservative against good teams and on the road. We are left to wonder how much of that was on Moore, and what role Jason Garrett played in the game planning.

Just as remarkable are the margins shown. The Cowboys only had one victory that was a one-score game, but six of the eight losses were. Again, several of those losses were games where the offense was trying to come from way behind, but in the losses to the Saints, Patriots, and Eagles, Dallas was never that far behind. They just couldn’t get things rolling.

Whoever winds up as the head coach and offensive coordinator, figuring this out is going to be major.

The disaster that was the special teams

Look at the final rankings for the Cowboys’ STs.

Early in the season, I started harping on the way the poor performance of the special teams was putting the Cowboys in a hole almost every game. It continued all season, and probably cost them more than one win. Which means that even a near middle of the pack performance on teams would have gotten them into the playoffs, and possibly saved Garrett’s job.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that there is no evidence that anything was done to correct this during the season. Instead, we kept seeing Dallas with worse average starting position for their drives than the other team. When you are having to drive 75 or more yards on almost all your possessions, but the opponent is facing shorter fields - sometimes much shorter - everything gets harder, both offensively and defensively. The lack of takeaways in most games also factored into this, but most of it still falls on the kickoff and punting units.

There has been a report that Kevin O’Quinn may be moved from coaching to scouting, where he apparently has done well in the past. That would be a big first step, but there will have to be more. The Cowboys need some more ST aces. The loss of Kavon Frazier may have been much more significant than we realized when he was injured, but this needs to be a priority in the offseason as well. “Hidden yards” are important.

The mistakes

Turnovers. Drive killing penalties on the offense or handing a new set of downs to the opponent on defense. Dropped passes. Blown coverages. Gaping holes on run defense. Slow starts. All played major roles in the losses.

A lot of those were on the players, and this included so many of the stars on the team. But it also speaks to a failure of coaching, and that is just one reason why we will be seeing a lot of new faces on the sidelines for Dallas.

That table earlier in this article shows just how potent this team was when things went right. But when they went wrong, and they went wrong in bunches in the losses, things really fell apart.

Eliminating those has to be job one for the new staff. If they can cut down on all those self-inflicted wounds, the Cowboys can do a lot with the weapons they have.

Toughen up

When things went wrong for Dallas, they seemed soft. Adversity seemed to crush their spirit. The team seemed to start waiting for the next thing to go wrong instead of buckling down and finding a way to prevail.

That was a new, completely negative development for the Cowboys under Jason Garrett. Just a year ago, we saw them come storming back from a 3-5 start to go 7-1 down the stretch and claw their way into the playoffs. It is hard to figure out what changed, but one possibility is that the Garrett message just got stale. That can happen after almost a decade.

It is one of the biggest reasons that the team wound up with no real option but to make a change at the top. At the time this was written, there was still no official word on Garrett’s fate, but it is almost inconceivable that there will not be a search begun for the next head coach - and it most likely has quietly started.

It turned out to be a very disappointing decade in Dallas. Now it is time to forge a new future. We’ll soon start to find out if Jerry and Stephen Jones can do so successfully.