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A disgruntled look back at the Cowboys’ 2020 stats

It was a tough year for the world, and the Cowboys.

NFL: NOV 01 Cowboys at Eagles

Dealing with basic statistics is always something that has to be done carefully. Volume production and efficiency are not the same. Situation is crucial to understanding the numbers. You have to consider how everything fits together. Still, there are a lot of useful things that can be determined from the kind of stats dive we’ve done about the Dallas Cowboys after every game. Now, looking back at the entire 2020 season, the stats tell us one thing clearly.

This team sucked.

There are many reasons why, and those are certainly subject to discussion as to which was the most important and how things can change. But this is just a depressing set of numbers to consider.

Let’s start with offense. Overall, the Cowboys were middle of the pack in yardage gained and points scored per game. But remember that context is important. There is a crucial point in the season when everything changed for Dallas. That is, of course, when Dak Prescott was lost for the season in the fifth game. In those first five games, the team had a staggering 488 yards per game in total offense. The vaunted Kansas City Chiefs offense with Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill, only averaged 416. In the remaining 11 games, the Cowboys would only average 319 yards per game, which would have been the fourth worst in the league if projected for the entire season. Points scored tells a similar tale. For the season, Dallas was just a bit below average with 24.7 per game. Again, with Prescott, they averaged 32.6, which is better than the Green Bay Packers’ league-leading 31.8 for the year. Without, they could only manage 21 per game, which would be bottom ten in the league.

It is worth noting that the somewhat phenomenal numbers they put up in those first five games came when the offensive line was still struggling to figure out how to manage with their fourth- and fifth-best tackles starting. While those difficulties would never be completely overcome, the line was at least more consistent later in the year. The Power Point presentation that Prescott’s agent, Todd France, can put together for the negotiations on a new deal with the team would be the equivalent of bringing an M2 .50 caliber machine gun to a pillow fight. Prescott deserves every penny of the eventual megadeal he is going to get.

The running game is a different but also informative case. Ezekiel Elliott, who already has his huge contract, played in all but one game. But the team was once again a bit below average. While some of that was driven by having a very pass-oriented offense under Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore as well as how many games the Cowboys were playing from behind and forced to throw, it still was a disappointing effort. The team could have used a better performance from Elliott and the rest of the ground attack to help carry the load. It also could have helped prevent falling behind so often as the offense repeatedly had slow starts with too many failed early down runs. Elliott would fail to crack the 1,000-yard mark, averaging just 65.3 yards in the games he played. He would only rank eleventh among all backs which is a poor return on the considerable investment in him. Again, the problems with the offensive line were a big factor, but it still raises the question of just how valuable he was this season. That’s a complex thing, and not an automatic condemnation of his worth. Much more concerning is the five fumbles he had, most among all running backs. Still, the team has to have more next season unless they are going to be very one-dimensional. Tony Pollard was perhaps underutilized, but provides an excellent number two back for the team.

One bright spot for the Cowboys was the receiving corps. While none of the three starting wide receivers cracked the top ten in yards per game as they dealt with having four different quarterbacks, all were in the top 35. Amari Cooper led the trio with 1,114 yards, CeeDee Lamb had a very good rookie season with 935, and Michael Gallup added 843. That is potent. Dalton Schultz was one unexpected bright spot, chipping in 615 yards after having to step in for Blake Jarwin after he was injured in the first game of the season. With Jarwin expected back, this is a formidable set of targets. There has been some speculation that the team might use Gallup as a trade chip as they seek to rebuild the roster, but that seems highly unwise.

The defense saw a similarly disappointing year, giving up the tenth most yards per game in the league and the fifth most points. That is partly due to the rash of giveaways early in the season, which made it much easier for the opponents to score. But they also allowed those other teams to convert 46.9% of third-down attempts, seventh worst in the league. That may be the most concerning stat of all for them. When you allow the other offense to convert nearly half of their third downs during the season, you are going to lose a lot of games. Which they obviously did.

This is why Mike Nolan’s future is very much in question in Dallas, with reports that Jerry Jones was furious after the particularly dismal showing in the season finale against the New York Giants, one of the worst offenses in the league. While making changes on the coaching staff may not be the answer given the uniquely trying circumstances of this strange season, it may be the choice, and the numbers provide ample reason to go that direction.

One bright spot that may give a glimmer of hope for Nolan is that the team suddenly found a way to take the ball away late in the year. In the last seven games they amassed 18 fumble recoveries and interceptions, after only managing seven in the previous nine. It is interesting that the turnaround came after the bye week, which may show that the coaches got something right with the extra time.

Still, the overall body of work for the defensive staff was not at all satisfactory. Or for the team in general. Only special teams showed a real improvement, and the job John Fassel did deserves praise.

Now the Cowboys face a bit of a rebuilding year, hopefully to be helped significantly by getting a lot of injured players back. With that, and the hoped for new deal with Prescott, this team could make a real jump in McCarthy’s second season.

It’s a bit if. The task is clear.

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