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Five late-game sequences that doomed the 2019 Cowboys

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These moments were part of the Cowboys downfall.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The 2019 Dallas Cowboys offense was one of the best in team history... perhaps even NFL history. Well, if we use numbers and statistics to evaluate such things.

Bob Sturm recently wrote about it in The Athletic. This gist of his thoughts are this Cowboys offense repeatedly had games of 30+ points, 400+ yards and 10+ margins of victory. The following table (from The Athletic) shows the teams since 1960 with the most number of such games in a season:

What you have is a list of some of the best offenses in NFL history (2007 Patriots, Greatest Show on Turf Rams, Drew Brees Saints, Steve Young 49ers). And an 8-8 Cowboys team. Now, Sturm goes on to say this shows Kellen Moore has some some potential, and there’s promise for the Cowboys offense moving into 2020.

Fair enough; I’m largely in agreement with the Sturminator. But now the question, if the Cowboys had such a high-powered offense how did they end up with a .500 record? Normally you’d think the defense must have been woefully inadequate, but that’s not true. The defense wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible, finishing middle of the pack in most metrics:

So, a (nearly) top 10 defense in the basics (yards and points). The perpetual inability to create turnovers continues. The advanced analytics guys at Football Outsiders didn’t like the defense (19th in DVOA). And wow, that’s a lot of missed tackles (120 in total). Still, overall this wasn’t the 2013 Cowboys (who ranked 31st or 32nd in virtually every major defensive metric).

Special teams were a problem throughout the season but they didn’t surrender a single point on punt or kickoff returns though they did allow a blocked punt, but these weren’t historically inept special teams that undermined an otherwise special team.

So, what explains the .500 record? Obviously, lots of different things. The defense got run over a few times (Green Bay, Chicago, Buffalo) and Brett Maher’s inability to hit routine NFL field goals very likely cost a victory or two.

There were three games when the Cowboys defense surrendered 12, 13 and 17 points...and Dallas lost each of those games despite an alleged high-powered offense. A look at those three games - and two others - shows that in each case the offense had opportunities to win the game and came up short.

New Orleans Saints 12 - Dallas Cowboys 10

Dallas entered this contest as an offensive juggernaut. The team had averaged 32 points and 482 yards of offense per game. Those numbers came against some poor competition but those are still eye-popping numbers regardless of opponent.

And as we see the Cowboys defense held the Teddy Bridgewater Saints out of the end zone and limited them to only 12 points. The Dallas offense, meanwhile, finished with only 223 yards, 45 rushing yards and turned the ball over three times. This by a Saints defense that finished 13th in points and 22nd in yards allowed. We’ll see that these types of numbers were pretty common in Cowboys losses.

Still, because the Saints were never able to pull away Dallas had a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter. In fact, three times the Dallas offense had such chances and each ended in failure. Here’s what they did with those possessions:

The first drive ended on 3rd-and-2 when Dak Prescott threw slightly behind Randall Cobb at the first down marker and Cobb dropped the ball. It was a poor throw by Dak but also a catch that an NFL receiver should make.

The second drive ended on 3rd-and-2 when a pressured Prescott rolls right and tries to hit Amari Cooper but the pass is broken up.

The final drive effectively ended on the first play. Taking over at the Cowboys 14 with 1:39 remaining and zero timeouts, Prescott was ambushed on the very first play, suffering an 11-yard sack. Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata tossed Travis Frederick aside and bulldozed Prescott right up the middle.

Dak did complete two passes to move the Cowboys to their own 26-yard line to provide some hope, but an offensive pass interference penalty on Amari Cooper set the team back again. Dak threw perhaps his best pass of the entire season to move the ball to the Cowboys 46, but there was only two seconds remaining. A desperate Hail Mary was intercepted, ending the game.

The sack and PI call set Dallas back 21 yards on the drive. Otherwise, they would have been in position to attempt a game-winning field goal.

The aggregate numbers on the three fourth quarter drives:

Summarizing:

  • A poor pass dropped
  • Rushing game contributed nothing
  • A bad sack
  • An offensive pass interference penalty

If you’re looking to place blame here, spread it around generously.

New York Jets 24 - Dallas Cowboys 22

The Cowboys offense was effective throughout much of this game. They would finish with 399 yards; convert 10-of-17 third downs, committed zero turnovers and controlled the ball for 32+ minutes, but two sequences resulted in another disappointing loss.

The first came midway through the second quarter with the Cowboys trailing 7-3. Dallas took over at their own 38 and moved smartly to a first down at the Jets 15. A red zone conversion would allow Dallas to take a 10-7 lead. Two Ezekiel Elliott runs netted nine yards to give Dallas a 3rd-and-1 at the Jets 6-yard line. On 3rd-and-1 the Cowboys hand the ball to Elliott yet again, this time against a 9-man box:

Predictably the play resulted in a one-yard loss. Now facing fourth down Jason Garrett (rightly) decided to go for it. This time Dak kept the ball himself and was easily dropped for another one-yard loss. These two plays were followed by this:

So, the Cowboys, behind their highly-pedigreed, extremely well-paid offensive line and highest paid RB in the NFL couldn’t gain a yard and the woeful Jets (two touchdowns total the previous three games) easily go 92 yards for a 14-3 lead. Change the outcome of any of those three plays and the Cowboys are likely in the playoffs.

But the Cowboys’ failures weren’t over in New York. After trailing 21-3 at one point Dallas scored on four of their last five drives (only a 39-yard missed field goal kept it from being five of five) to make the score 24-22. A two-point conversion failed when the Jets sent six blitzers against only five blockers and got immediate pressure up the middle on Prescott, forcing an errant throw. The play never had a chance.

Summarizing: an unwillingness to throw the ball in the red zone combined with an ineffective rushing game resulted in no points on a red zone opportunity and a simple blitz derailed a game-tying two-point conversion.

Minnesota Vikings 28 - Dallas Cowboys 24

This was a good game between good teams. The Dallas offense again performed well, recording 443 yards despite the run game getting only 50 yards on 22 carries. Dallas trailed 28-24 and took over at their own six with 4:34 remaining.

Prescott would complete six passes in seven attempts for 78 yards to quickly move the Cowboys into the red zone. A first down pass to Amari Cooper for eight yards left Dallas with a 2nd-and-2 with 1:33 remaining. With the Vikings defense having no answers for the Cowboys’ passing attack (397 yards on the night) it seemed inevitable the Cowboys would convert to take a late lead.

Instead, the Dallas “braintrust” chose to abandon their highly effective passing game and instead bet the outcome on their woefully ineffective run game (50 yards rushing on 22 attempts). Predictably the decision proved a foolish one.

First, Elliott was stopped for no gain on second down then dropped for a three-yard loss on third down. Now facing 4th-and-5 Prescott inexplicably looked to a well-covered Elliott wide left, bypassing Randall Cobb, who had clear inside leverage for what looked to be an easy pitch-and-catch first down.

That effectively ended the game (though Jason Garrett did have one last head-scratching contribution when Tavon Austin fair caught a last-second punt near midfield despite having a wide avenue of open green space and a half dozen blockers):

Summarizing: stubborn unwillingness to trust the team’s quarterback and instead put trust in their failing run game. Predictable results followed.

New England Patriots 13 - Dallas Cowboys 9

This was not a well-played game between good teams. Playing in miserable conditions (windy, steady rain, temperatures in the 30s) neither offense could do much. New England blocked a punt that led to the game’s only touchdown. Beyond that the teams traded field goals. In the fourth quarter the Cowboys had two chances to tie the game.

Taking over at their own 11 with 9:32 remaining the Cowboys put their best drive of the game together, marching 78 yards in eight plays. With a first down at the Patriots 14, an Elliott run netted three yards. Prescott was then incomplete on back-to-back pass attempts to tight ends Jason Witten and Blake Jarwin. Just over six minutes remained.

Now facing fourth down, down seven points, with an offense that had netted 185 yards at that point Jason Garrett decided to kick a field goal. It’s an understandable choice from one viewpoint, but it’s also totally Jason Garrett to not trust his team and instead choose the most robotically conservative choice available.

Dallas would get the ball back with 2:38 remaining and now down four points. They would start at their own eight-yard line, however and thus needed to go 92 yards. Two completions would set up a 3rd-and-1 from the Cowboys 35 which they converted with a three-yard pass to Elliott giving them a fresh set of downs.

Except a professional NFL referee saw something that no one else saw and called Travis Frederick for tripping. It was the second time in the game Dallas has been called for a non-existent tripping penalty. The NFL would announce the next day that neither call should have been made and - you’ll be shocked to learn this - the Patriots twice benefited from NFL officiating incompetence.

The penalty resulted in a 3rd-and-11. Two incompletions ended the game.

Summarizing: needing a touchdown Jason Garrett chose a field goal over a fourth-down attempt and then inept officiating derailed a final desperate attempt. Dak Prescott didn’t play very well regardless. Each of the two drives ended on back-to-back incompletions. Dak just couldn’t make plays in a difficult environment.

Starting from the 11- and eight-yard line on those drives didn’t help as the team did march for a total of 105 yards on the two drives (nearly 50% of the team’s total yards on the day), so it wasn’t like they just failed to move the ball. They just didn’t move it far enough.

Philadelphia Eagles 17 - Dallas Cowboys 9

Dallas traveled to Philadelphia for a week 16 winner-take-all contest against the Eagles. Despite poor, uninspired play for the previous 14 games the Cowboys had an opportunity to salvage a playoff spot and win back-to-back NFC East titles.

It was not to be. They fell behind 10-0 after only 10 minutes. The Dallas offense struggled throughout with errant passes, dropped passes and an ineffective run game. They would net only two field goals on their first nine drives. And yet, with 4:33 remaining they took over with a chance to tie the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion.

Predictably, Dallas started on their own 15. Prescott would complete six passes on eight attempts to move Dallas to the Eagles 25. A first down pass to Cooper gained six yards. On second down Prescott couldn’t find anyone open initially and is sacked by Vinny Curry, who beat La’el Collins. On 3rd-and-8 Prescott has time but throws to... no one in particular. Finally, on fourth down with the season in the balance neither Amari Cooper nor Randall Cobb is in the game and Prescott goes to the only starting receiver on the field. Michael Gallup is well covered and unable to make the catch.

Summarizing: just unable to make plays when it counted. Dak and the Cowboys moved the ball but when when in position to make the kill shot simply couldn’t convert.

Overall several themes emerge:

  • The Dallas offense five times had opportunities to win games by scoring on the team’s final drive. They failed all five times.
  • Virtually every potential game-winning drive started from deep in Dallas territory:
  • Dak and the offense were able to move the ball, but repeatedly failed when they got in scoring range.
  • The run game was was given ill-advised opportunities that weren’t warranted based upon results up to that point.
  • Jason Garret predictably chose the conservative route whenever faced with any type of strategic decision.

It’s pretty sobering. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that different results on a handful of plays and Dallas is 11-5 or even 12-4 rather than 8-8. But these late-game failures help explain how a team that shares characteristics with some of the best offenses ever ended up missing the playoffs entirely.