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Crunching stats bonus edition: The three seasons of the Cowboys

2020 has almost been like three different Dallas teams played.

San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys
Dalton hit his stride, and so did the team.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It may seem an odd time to review the season of the Dallas Cowboys. They still have a crucial game 16 to play against the New York Giants. If they can win that one, they will have to wait until the Sunday night contest between the Washington Football Team and the Philadelphia Eagles. If you are not still clinging to Team Tank, you find yourself in the unusual position of wanting the Eagles to triumph, which would make the Cowboys the NFC East representative in the playoffs. Given where things stood just about a month ago, that will be one of the most improbable comebacks in team history.

So how did they get here? When you look at not just the scores, but some of the stats from the games this season, there are three fairly distinct phases Dallas has gone through.

Dak attack

Under new head coach Mike McCarthy, the team had a disjointed effort against the Los Angeles Rams to open the season, but for the next four games, the offense led by Dak Prescott was simply red-hot. They averaged 37 points a game, and before Prescott was lost for the season in game five, they had three consecutive games with over 500 yards of total offense, with Prescott throwing for an average of 462 yards and amassing 10 passing touchdowns in that span. The trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and rookie CeeDee Lamb was all we dreamed for at wide receiver. That is unstoppable offensive production.

Unfortunately, it was paired with incredibly bad ball protection and a completely porous defense, as the team would only manage two wins in the five games Prescott started. During the four games after the opener, the offense gave the football up eleven times, with at least two giveaways in each game. It is extremely hard to win when you are turning the ball over at that rate.

Just as incredibly, while the Cowboys were piling up 163 points in their first five games, the defense was basically getting beaten to pieces, yielding 180, including an incredibly embarrassing 49 points to the Cleveland Browns as Baker Mayfield went pass-for-pass with Prescott. Both would have over 500 yards, with the three giveaways by Dallas making the main difference. By the time Dallas was having to face the rest of the season without Prescott after he was injured in the win over the New York Giants, they had only taken the ball away three times.

It was frustrating on many levels. Incredible efforts by Prescott were wasted. Much ire was directed at Mike Nolan as his defense was in shreds. Many of his players looked lost, with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch seeming to have the worst struggles. They were not alone. Clearly the defensive installation had not gone well at all, and calls for Nolan’s dismissal came almost immediately.

The team should have had three or four wins by this time, but was sitting at 2-3, and hoping Andy Dalton was the insurance policy they needed to keep the season afloat. Unfortunately, leaks were already present, and about to increase.

The struggles without Dak

The next seven games would threaten to completely torpedo the season. First, Dalton would struggle in his first two starts, with the team only scoring 13 points while still giving the football up five more times. Then multiple disasters hit in the first game against the Washington Football Team. Dalton would leave the game with a concussion, and Ben DiNucci was just not ready to pick up the slack. The defense would hit a nadir against the run, as the Team had 208 yards on the ground, after they had just given up a whopping 261 rushing yards to the Arizona Cardinals. They did not generate a single turnover.

DiNucci’s only start of the season was pretty much a disaster, as the team’s first positive turnover margin was not enough for them to overcome the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys had just signed Garrett Gilbert, and may have been far better served to roll with him despite his lack of preparation.

He would get the start the next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and looked far better than DiNucci. But he could still only lead the team to 19 points, hurt again by the team giving up two turnovers while the defense didn’t get any. Still, they only allowed 24 points, a quietly positive development.

The bye week gave Dalton time to complete the protocols, and led to the lone victory of this long, disappointing stretch. The defense had just its second positive turnover margin as well while at least slowing the Minnesota Vikings run game.

But they could not sustain things, dropping two decisive losses to the Football Team and the Baltimore Ravens. That left them 1-6 for the seven games since Prescott was lost, and 3-9 on the season. Team Tank was at its peak, as the Cowboys would have to win out the season and Washington would have to lose three of their last four, given their sweep of Dallas to make the playoffs. Any wins from then on would just cost them draft position.

Or so we thought.

Dalton and the defense rising

It all seemed over for the Cowboys, as the defense just seemed hopeless and Dalton was failing to step up. But the schedule was finally favorable, as the remaining four teams all had losing records as well.

And suddenly, Dallas caught fire. After not winning back-to-back games all year, they reeled off three decisive wins.

It started with the defense suddenly finding an aptitude for taking the ball away. During the win streak, they got the ball away from the opponents ten times, just one less than they had in the first twelve games combined. That led to a couple of early insurmountable leads, and helped the team roar back after falling behind 14-3 in the first quarter in the rematch against the Eagles.

Just as importantly, Dalton started to find his rhythm. In the wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers, he did not have to do much due to the short fields the defense kept giving him. But he was efficient, leading the team to 31 and 40 points in the wins.

Then it all really came together in the final three quarters against the Eagles last Sunday. The defense would shut down Jalen Hurts with a brilliant adjustment from Nolan. Dalton had one of the best games of his career, throwing for 377 yards, working the short field and completing a couple of long passes, with the aid of some brilliant route running from Cooper. Even Ezekiel Elliott would make his presence felt with a 100-yard effort. They would get 37 points in a must win game.

Something that has been a bit overlooked is that the Dallas secondary has gotten healthier, and while they had breakdowns against the Eagles early, they were a big part of the comeback with two drive killing interceptions. And Nolan’s use of C.J. Goodwin to spy on Hurts and force him to pass from the pocket was a key move.

Meanwhile, the Football Team was doing its part, losing their last two games and setting up a decisive week 17.

The finale

They still need Philadelphia to beat Washington. Both have real issues at quarterback, with the Football Team releasing Dwayne Haskins and not sure if Alex Smith can go, while the Eagles are mulling whether to put Carson Wentz back in as their starter. Meanwhile, the Cowboys still have to take care business against the reeling Giants.

But against all odds, the final weekend of the season is a very meaningful game for Dallas. The path to get here has been extremely difficult, but it offers real hope that Mike McCarthy was a good hire. We not only have next season to look forward to, with hope for much better health for a team that has been truly hampered this year by injuries. We can actually hope for a playoff game at home.

It would be a nice way to say goodbye to 2020, a year we all are so ready to see end.

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