According to the old saying, you learn more from your failures than from your successes. By that logic, there should be a lot of revelations about the Dallas Cowboys after their disappointing loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Here are some possible lessons that game taught us.
We got caught up in the hype - again
This is the most talented roster we have seen in years. The pass rush is unstoppable. Our trio of wide receivers is going to shred defenses. Mike McCarthy and his staff are going to breeze into this season without any problems because of the COVID restrictions they had to face.
Or so many of us convinced ourselves. Maybe some tapped the brakes, but they seemed in a clear minority. Our soaring hopes then met with hard reality on Sunday, and were shattered. It is almost an annual thing for us - but really, it is sort of a league-wide phenomenon.
It was just one game, against one of the best offensive minds in the league and facing possibly the best defensive player anywhere, who continuously disrupted things up the middle. We should have paid more attention to having our starting right tackle on IR. And expecting a mostly new staff to have this team humming at peak performance right off the bat was always a foolhardy assumption. The season is far from over, and there is still a lot of talent on the team. It may not be quite as much as we thought, but it’s not a bunch of schlubs. And things certainly took a major hit with the injuries to Blake Jarwin, Leighton Vander Esch, and Cameron Erving.
The hype was legitimate in some ways, though, so perhaps we should be forgiven. Two players that looked almost impossibly good in camp were Aldon Smith and Trysten Hill. If there was anything that generated a bit of skepticism in camp, it was the unending glowing reports about these two. Yet they fully lived up to things, with Smith getting the only sack, two of the team’s three QB hits, and leading in tackles, while Hill got more snaps than any other defensive tackle and amassed some good stats as well. All the reporters and coaches got these two right.
Remember, there are 15 games left to play, and the Philadelphia Eagles, the team everybody was projecting to be the biggest threat to Dallas winning the NFC East, laid a huge egg against the fighting Washington Football Team. Or are they the Football Teams as a collective noun? Anyway, the Eagles played horrendously, and Jason Garrett was up to his usual tricks as the New York Giants also lost, in a run-establishing, questionable play-calling fashion we are all too familiar with. It got a bit harder with their opening loss, but the Cowboys are still in the thick of things.
We really shouldn’t have been so high. It would have made the fall much easier to handle.
The offense still runs through Ezekiel Elliott
That is a good news/bad news thing. The good thing is that Elliott produced both touchdowns while amassing 127 yards from scrimmage. The bad thing is that this sure looked like the Jason Garrett team from last year that had us so up in arms. They lost a one score game, which was their nemesis last season. They ran and ran on first down, which led to too many failed drives. Elliott is a valuable player - but maybe they need to pick the spots for him, rather than just treating him like the go-to answer for all situations.
Above all, Dallas needs to get over this infatuation with first down runs. As noted elsewhere, they stuck to the ground on seventeen first down plays, and passed on only twelve. That leads us directly to the next lesson.
We need to be more skeptical about Kellen Moore
Let me gaze deeply into a mirror on this one, because I have been on the Moore bandwagon since he first got promoted to offensive coordinator. But the Rams game looked a lot like some of the failures of last year, which begs the question, was it Garrett or Moore that couldn’t get the offense on track when it needed to be? One game does not give us any kind of definitive answer. It just starts the questions, ones that we probably should have been asking all along. But, see the first subheading.
The offensive woes can’t be laid on Dak Prescott
He had a higher QB rating and passer rating than Jared Goff, for what those metrics are worth. His passing chart looked more effective, with deeper passes by comparison. There was a decided lack of deep passes, which seems to be due to a combination of another tremendous game from Aaron Donald, who seemed to be violating social distancing with Prescott on nearly every play, and that play-calling.
Evidence that the game plan and play-calling were driving factors is in this comparison of last season’s first game with this one.
Here is Dak Prescott's passing chart from Week 1 in 2019 vs. Week 1 in 2020: pic.twitter.com/L7fffDdhTX— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) September 14, 2020
The two are similar, out to 15 yards deep. But the multiple deep balls from last year disappeared against the Rams. In addition to the two things mentioned above, we also should keep in mind they had UDFA rookie Terence Steele at RT, and the loss of Blake Jarwin early in the game.
Don’t forget, Prescott was one offensive pass interference call from setting up a tying field goal attempt or possibly winning it in regulation. He demonstrated good chemistry with all three of those highly-touted wide receivers, who, according to PFF (via John Williams on Twitter), did not have a drop all game. He did not have a single interception, and he used his legs effectively on more than one occasion.
Mike McCarthy was supposed to help Moore utilize Prescott to better advantage. There was no evidence of that. However, there was something interesting in social media.
Now, I think this says a lot more about the Cowboys play selection and/or personnel groupings than it does about whether defenses "fear" Elliott. But it seems that part of the reason DAL coaches went with such a heavy dose of him on 1st down was because the boxes weren't heavy.— Cowboys Stats & Graphics (@CowboysStats) September 15, 2020
It’s a very intriguing thing. The heaviest stretch of runs actually came on the first Dallas possession of the second half, when they ran on three consecutive third downs. The drive was moving until, on third and four (what is considered in some antediluvian schools of thought as “manageable), Prescott was sacked.
We long bemoaned how there were not real adjustments made in-game under Jason Garrett. Could this be a case of making an adjustment at halftime that just didn’t work out? Is it the kind of thing that makes great sense unless the opposing defensive line has a guy named Donald on it?
This is a case of learning one thing that just leads to a dozen more questions.
We have us a couple of stud rookies
CeeDee Lamb was second in just about every team receiving metric as he proved he is not just capable of being a starting wide receiver in the NFL, but may well be an outstanding one. And Trevon Diggs was up to the task of starting at cornerback, on the field for every defensive snap as well as about a quarter of the special teams plays. Jared Goff did have a couple of completions against him, but they were excellently placed balls and there was not much else Diggs could have done.
Most teams consider a draft successful, at least in the short-term, if it produces one legitimate rookie starter. When you get two week 1 starters, you have hit the jackpot.
Overreaction is still our modus operandi
The season is not over. McCarthy’s job is not in jeopardy, nor, truly, is Moore’s. Prescott has not suddenly turned into Carson Wentz, and there is no reason to plan to move on from him once he finishes playing out the tag this year or look for our own Jalen Hurts. The Cowboys are not going on a panic-induced free agent spending spree.
Yet every one of those things has been discussed in the strange land of social media. Not all of them by @newfan5093877829, either.
The Cowboys certainly have things to fix. If they don’t, then we may have another long, difficult season ahead. But there is not need to lose all faith. The Rams may well be a better team than many of us gave them credit for, with the advantage of continuity. Dallas gets another chance Sunday, so we’ll have a whole new set of things to overreact to then.