It’s not news, at least not now after four weeks of the season, that the Cowboys defense is really bad. So bad that they are dragging down a historic effort by the Cowboys offense. That brings up the first point of debate. Just how good is the Cowboys offense playing?
We have to point out that the Cowboys offense has created a lot of the troubles by turning the ball over nine times. That is tied for the worst in the league with the Eagles. The Cowboys -7 turnover differential is the worst in the league; that’s a stat that indicts both the offense (nine turnovers) and the defense (caused only two turnovers). But the offense is putting up points.
It’s true that you can call the offensive stats “garbage time” or “empty calories”, and you would be partially right; teams tend to give up yards in exchange for time when they are leading big in the second half. But you also have to consider that the Cowboys “garbage time” stats include winning one game in the fourth quarter (Atlanta), getting in position to tie/win another if not for a ridiculous offensive pass interference call (Los Angeles), taking the lead in a third game with under four minutes left in the contest (Seattle), and coming within three points with under four minutes left in the last one (Cleveland).
These garbage time stats have actually put the team in contention to win all four of the games. The Cowboys are the third highest scoring team in the league. The other members of the top five have a combined record of 14-1. The Cowboys are 1-3.
There are things wrong with the Cowboys offense. We mentioned the turnovers above, and that’s the biggest. Dak Prescott, a quarterback known for protecting the ball, is turning it over way too often. As my colleague DannyPhantom discussed, he’s holding the ball a little long on occasion and his pocket awareness hasn’t been on its A game. He’s fumbled the ball too many times. He’s also throwing more interceptions than we’re used to, and on Sunday against the Browns he had three to four balls that could have been picked that the Cowboys were lucky ended up as harmless incompletions.
Still, Prescott is putting up record-shattering numbers, and as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell notes, the Cowboys should be winning.
There’s a perception that lofty passing totals amount to little more than empty calories, but that’s outdated. If you look at the other players in the top 20 for most passing yards through four weeks [historically, not just this season], they went a combined 51-23-2 over their respective four-game stretches. Six of them would go onto the Super Bowl. Prescott has spent much of the time playing from behind, but when you have a quarterback producing at this sort of level, it typically results in victories.
He backs this up with an analytic stat.
With that being said, if you’re blaming Prescott and the offense for the problems in Dallas, you’re not being realistic. We can use ESPN’s win probability added (WPA) model as a way to parse out how much of its struggles can be blamed on the offense and the defense. The Dallas offense ranks 17th in WPA; it’s clear that it hasn’t been as impactful or impressive as its raw numbers indicate, but Prescott & Co. have done enough to keep the Cowboys afloat through four weeks.
The Dallas defense, on the other hand, ranks last in the league in WPA. Mike Nolan’s defense was 17th in DVOA heading into Sunday, but that mark will fall.
Sure, the Cowboys offense needs to cut down on the turnovers, and they need to make their late-game surges a staple of their early-game performances. But as Barnwell notes, it’s just not realistic to hold the offense accountable as the major reason for the Cowboys woes in 2020.
Even a sloppy special teams, which has certainly contributed to the issues, is as impactful as the tissue-soft defense.
We like to blame the secondary, and we should. They are among the very worst in the game and teams are hitting the big play against them on a regular basis. The Cowboys reticence to acquire a competent safety is hurting them again as both Darian Thompson and Xavier Woods have been burnt by deep passes. The Cowboys benched Thompson, but the odds are that Donovan Wilson isn’t the answer (but by all means give him a chance).
Jaylon Smith looks a full-step slower than what is needed at his position, and his constant being out of position based on play fakes is leaving the Cowboys exposed in the middle. The Cowboys defensive ends were constantly jumping inside on the Browns zone runs leaving the edge exposed for big gains. Barnwell notes more how the defense is not playing as a unit.
In terms of the run issues, though, Dallas’ problems extended way beyond [Jaylon] Smith. Some of the problems were schematic and/or mental mistakes. The defense rotated its linebackers in response to motion just before a snap and Smith didn’t fill the A-gap, which Chubb cut through for a 21-yard run. Dallas tried to scrape-exchange a counter play with a cornerback blitzing off the edge to serve as the force player, but they forgot the exchange part of the concept and left D’Ernest Johnson an easy path for a 28-yard gain.
Otherwise, there were plenty of problems with players who are much less famous than Smith. Safety Donovan Wilson, who took the place of benched starter Darian Thompson, missed a number of tackle attempts, including one on a Kareem Hunt touchdown run. Joe Thomas, filling in for Vander Esch and Lee, was too easily caught in trash around the line of scrimmage. Guys such as Everson Griffen and Xavier Woods had opportunities to make plays at or around the line of scrimmage, only for the Browns’ backs to run right by them for first downs.
Yesterday we noted that the Cowboys need to really make some changes on the defense. They can’t just continue doing what they have been doing. Barnwell even suggests some of the same free agents we suggested yesterday, although he does note that signing Earl Thomas won’t fix the issue. His concern is more with the Cowboys front seven and cornerbacks. Fair enough, but an upgrade at safety certainly wouldn’t hurt.
He also takes note of Mike Nolan. The Cowboys do have George Edwards on staff who was formerly the defensive coordinator in Minnesota. Trying to change a coordinator mid-season is usually a losing proposition, but a few more weeks of what we’ve seen might mean there is no other course of action.
The Cowboys offense isn’t perfect. The Cowboys special teams are still flailing in some respects (we’re looking at you John Fassel). These are problems that need to be fixed. But if you squint your eyes hard enough, you can see that happening. If the offense just quits turning the ball over they’ll be fine. If Tony Pollard quits running kicks out and the Cowboys don’t call ridiculous things on kickoffs like the one they did when they were down by three points on Sunday, things can work out there.
On defense? It’s hard to see how they’ll improve. Getting some injured players back might help. Adding a few free agents could shake things up. Drastic moves like changing coordinators are a “break in case of emergency” solution.
Or maybe some of the Cowboys “star” players on that side of the ball will start playing like stars.