This is starting to become a trend.
For seemingly the fourth week in a row the Cowboys played an incomplete game. They made a lot of plays but were also sloppy. They turned the ball over twice. They converted only two of their five red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Twenty-seven minutes into the game the score was tied at 10 - 10 against an inferior opponent. And yet at the end they dominated a division rival winning by 24 points while racking up over 500 yards of offense.
That's where we are with the 2021 version of your Dallas Cowboys. They can play an incomplete game and still win in dominating fashion. That's a very good sign. When you can not play a complete game and still thoroughly outclass your opponent you're a good team. It's something Cowboys' fans haven't seen in a long, long time.
Now, to be fair, the opponent was not the best. The New York football Giants are tied with the New York Jets with the worst record in the NFL since 2017. They won their first game of 2021 last week. Daniel Jones has looked pretty bad most of his career but last week had the best performance of his career.
But by the end of the game Jones had been knocked out with a concussion. He joined Saquon Barkley and Kenny Golladay as players who had succumbed to injuries. They joined Sterling Shepard, LT Andrew Thomas and Darius Slayton as good, but injured New Giants.
So the Cowboys were facing a MASH-unit of a Giants team. But they did exactly what you're supposed to do to poor teams in bad circumstances: they beat them and beat them decisively. Let's go to the grades:
Honestly, there's not much to gripe about. Dallas rolled on offense and the defense kept another opponent from putting big numbers up. The special teams did everything expected of them and didn't do anything stupid. The offense is living up to pre-season expectations and looks like an NFL Swiss Army knife, able to deal with whatever situation they're presented with.
The only thing keeping this from a higher grade is they just had too many sloppy plays. Dak threw an INT and later fumbled. Dalton Schultz dropped what should have been a touchdown. The secondary got embarrassed by Zadarius Toney several times.
In addition.....um....yeah, I got nothing. It's hard to argue the coaching staff isn't getting the most from this team. The units that were supposed to be strong are living up to the hype while the weaker units are playing anywhere from average to above average. Hard to ask for more. Honestly, the only thing a discerning fan could gripe about is this team has yet to play a complete game. Again, the fact they're 4-1 without a complete game shows how high this team's ceiling is.
Most of the sloppiness on display during a lackluster first half were issues of execution; Dak fumbling a snap, Dak tossing an interception, etc. There's little to complain about in terms of the team's energy, preparation or scheme. Kellen Moore continues to make the case he should be a head coach in the NFL. Yet again he schemed a wide open Cowboys player for a comically easy, walk-in touchdown.
This seems to be an every game event. Coaches putting Cowboys' players in advantageous situations through scheme is something that was completely absent during the Jason Garrett era so every time it happens I'm still pinching myself to make sure I'm not dreaming.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn continues to pull all the right levers on the other side of the ball. Micah Parsons has lined up as an off-ball linebacker, a pass rushing defensive end, a pass rushing middle linebacker, a pass rushing outside linebacker and a cover linebacker. At this point it's easier to count where he hasn't lined up than where he has.
The bargain-basement free agent safety trio again struggled at times but still looks like the best safety unit we've seen in many years. A defensive line decimated by injuries continues to shut down opposing rushing games and contributes some disruptive pass rush.
Dan Quinn seems to be getting the most from this defense which is all you can ask from a defensive coordinator.
We're now at the stage of Dak Prescott's career - and 2021 season - where we're grading on a curve. Sunday Prescott threw three more touchdown passes (10 in last 3 games) and another 300+ yards. He coolly led a merciless offensive attack that scored four touchdowns and two field goals on the team's final seven drives. We've come to expect such performances from Dak when surrounded by such talent.
But Dak had a couple hiccups in a sloppy first half. First there was this interception, when Lorenzo Carter made an excellent play. But it's also hard to understand why Dak was looking for a difficult sideline pass to a running back when he had an easy middle of the field option to a wide open Dalton Schultz.
And then we had Dak fumbling this shotgun snap, a red zone turnover that ended another Cowboys possession. Dak's sure-handedness with the football is easy to take for granted because he never seems to make such sloppy mistakes but this one was costly.
Those were the exceptions, however, as Dak spent most of the day calmly carving up the Giants' defense.Perhaps his best pass of the day was this perfectly placed deep ball to CeeDee Lamb that kick-started the Cowboys' offense.
Dak is playing with such great confidence and poise at this point that it's surprising and disappointing when a Cowboys' drive doesn't result in points and / or a highlight reel play. The ceiling on both him and this offense is unknown at this point but is likely to determine how far this Cowboys team goes.
Finally, if there was any doubt about Dak's ankle it was answered on this play when the Giants' Julian Love sure looked like he was purposefully pulling/yanking/twisting the ankle. Seemed like a cheap play.
Running backs: A
The best just goes on and on and on. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard combined for 185 yards rushing on 35 carries for a 5.3 yards per attempt average. Some meaningless late game plunges by Pollard brought that average number down. It's the fourth consecutive week the dynamic running duo has been both productive and efficient. Consider their numbers:
That's 730 yards at 6.0 yards per attempt over four entire games. If your running game can do that you'll be in virtually any game you play. Constantly moving the chains by simply handing the ball off and physically beating opponents is a very 1970's way of playing NFL football but it's also extremely effective.
After averaging less than 15 rushes over the season's first three weeks Zeke has gotten 20+ carries each of the last two weeks. And he's produced big-time, notching 253 yards and 3 touchdowns. This run featured Zeke beating the defender to turn the corner and reach the end zone. Elliott routinely seemed to gain the edge against defenders who seemed to have the angle on him back in his 2016 rookie season but it's not something we've seen in a while. I guess all those off-season workouts really did make a difference.
Tony Pollard has become Mr. Consistent. He's gained 60, 67 and 75 yards the last three games while never averaging less than 5.4 yards per carry. The one-two punch of the punishing Elliott and the explosive Pollard is proving a highly effective two-headed rushing monster.
Wide receivers: B+
The numbers surrounding the Dallas Cowboys' wide receiver corps are perplexing and yet reassuring. Since week once they've been targeted a total of only 50 times, which is 12.5 times per game. That's not one receiver, it's the entire wide receiver corps. A true number one receiver often gets targeted more than 12.5 times per game across an entire season.
Yet this group. which is widely considered one of the best in the league, has been reduced to supporting role status. Sunday Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Cedric Wilson caught 8 of the 13 passes thrown their way for 179 yards. Ho-hum numbers; but among those 8 catches were two touchdowns.
The first we highlighted earlier, when Prescott hooked up with CeeDee Lamb for a picture-perfect 49-yard touchdown. The second featured typically brilliant Amari Cooper pass rout and resulted in a 24-yard touchdown and gave Dallas a 17-10 lead.
But it was Cedric Wilson who probably had the most impressive catch of the day, snagging this sideline pass for a scintillating 35-yard gain. Wilson has produced pretty much whenever called upon; he's going to be in demand this off-season and is likely headed to a lucrative second contract somewhere. Good for him; he's earned it.
The week five numbers for the receivers are not overwhelming but are exceedingly efficient:
This is very much in keeping with the season-long trend:
The last three weeks Prescott had had a passer rating of 134 or higher when targeting wide receivers. That's amazing. The combination of high completion percentages, solid yards per target and getting into the end zone show how effective this group can be.
I've said it before, there will come a time when teams will start committing more resources to stopping the Cowboys' running game and when they do, this group will be called upon to provide the answer. I believe they'll be up to the task.
Tight end: B
Dalton Schultz is also headed towards a big payday next year. He continues to establish himself as a top third tight end in the league with 6 catches Sunday for 79 yards. He's become a key third down chain mover and outlet option for Prescott. There was nothing splashy or super exciting about what Schultz contributed Sunday. But every week he seems to make a half dozen catches and contributes to seemingly every successful offensive drive.
Sunday was also the first time all season Blake Jarwin had zero catches as well as zero targets. It clearly illustrates how Schultz has firmly taken the TE1 position. But the Cowboys run a ton of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) and Jarwin is still an integral part of the offense (31 offensive snaps).
Cowboys' tight ends, like their wide receiver corps, have been exceptionally efficient throughout the season. They've caught 80% of balls thrown their way. And have never had a passer rating of less than 97 and have topped 100 four of five weeks. They are on pace to catch 119 passes for 1,179 yards and 14 TDs.
Obviously the one common denominator in all this is Rayne Dakota Prescott. Regardless of who he's targeting he's being very efficient and productive. Good stuff all around.
Offensive line: B
You can look at this group in two ways. When it comes to run blocking they are absolutely killing it. Lot of analytics folks will tell you "running backs don't matter", which is non-sense. But there is truth that all running backs are dependent upon the team around them. And both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are benefitting from this group playing at a very high level.
Going into Sunday's tilt the Cowboy's offensive line ranked 1st in Football Outsider's Adjusted Line Yards, 1st in running back yards and 4th in run block win rate. This is a dominant run-blocking offensive line despite missing right tackle La'el Collins.
Pass blocking isn't as great, however, being merely "above average" as opposed to "dominant". Sunday Prescott had to deal with quite a bit of pressure but nothing too bad. This was one of two sacks on the day. Tyler Biadasz continues to be the weak link, which leads to pressure up the middle too often.
Still, considering everything, this group is playing lights out. Tyron Smith is having his best, most consistent season in years. Conner Williams has grown to be an average to above-average NFL offensive lineman and is getting beat much less frequently than in the past. Biadasz's struggles have been well-document but they haven't derailed an explosive offense. Zack Martin just keeps playing every play like a Hall of Fame lineman in his prime. And Steele, who was basically a turnstile in 2020, has improved tremendously. Truly a luxury for a team to have a former rookie free agent capably filling in at the offensive tackle position.
Defensive line: B
The Dallas defensive line recorded no sacks and the only tackle for loss came about after Giants' backup QB Mike Glennon misplayed a snap. In short, not a lot of splash plays for this group. They did keep the Giants from running the ball effectively (73 total yards, 2.9 yards per carry) and were fairly disruptive.
Micah Parsons got three QB hits and Osa Odighizuwa each got a lick on the QB as well. But it was Randy Gregory who looked the most dangerous. He got two hits on the QB but was credited with 9 pressures. And you can see from this play and this play that he was terrorizing backup left tackle Nate Solder. I counted at least two holding penalties against Gregor that weren't called. He'd looked like a really good pass rusher these last two games.
This isn't a dominant group by any stretch of the imagination. But between Parsons, Gregory and Odighizuwa you've got three athletic players who can cause some havoc. Add Demarcus Lawrence and Neville Gallimore and more reps from Chauncey Golston and you've got a lot of players who have the potential to contribute. Doesn't mean we're going to be calling them Doomsday or anything soon, but it's better than just hoping the only three decent guys you have can keep it up all game every week.
This was the first game since 2017 when Jaylon Smith did not take any snaps at linebacker. He wasn't missed, sad to say. Micah Parsons played 63 snaps and as far as I could tell most or all were from a linebacker spot. Leighton Vander Esch and Keanu Neal split 65 snaps between them. And Jabril Cox was on the field for only four snaps (though one was the memorable goalline stop of Giants' QB Daniel Jones that knocked Jones out of the game with a concussion).
Parsons easily had the biggest impact with his three hits on the QB. Vander Esch contributed a nice tackle for loss and looked good filling run gaps. I honestly don't remember seeing Neal do anything noteworthy (good or bad) but he was credited with five tackles.
Honestly, after 2020, when linebackers were routinely getting escorted 6-8-10 yards downfield this group contributing to a stout run defense and not getting exposed by backs and tight ends in coverage is a major improvement.
I feel like we're listening to a broken record with this group. Yet again opposing receivers were able to make plays. This week it was rookie Kadarius Toney grabbing 10 catches for 169 yards in only the rookie's fifth game. Plays like this, where he beat Trevon Diggs cleanly, show Toney has rare skills that will make a lot of cornerbacks look silly.
We also had Anthony Brown yet again not knowing where either the ball or his man were on this ridiculous 3rd-and-long conversion. PFF will tell you Trevon Diggs is a poor cover corner who's on pace to give up more yards than any corner they've ever tracked. Meanwhile, many observers are ready to declare Diggs the defensive player of the year.
So what gives? They're both right. The Cowboys corners (including Jourdan Lews) are not shut down corners; they have been exposed in every game this year. But they're also making plays at rates we just haven't seen in recent memory. If Diggs is on pace to give up the most yards by a corner ever he's also on pace (20) to shatter the NFL record for interceptions in a season (14 by Dick "Night Train" Lane in 1952).
Diggs' pick of Glennon in the 3rd quarter gives him six takeaways on the season, seven in his last seven games and nine in his last ten. Anthony Brown, in addition to getting beat a few times, managed to avoid a flag on this key 4th down incompletion and capped the night by snatching this ball and returning it for a late touchdown.
I guess Diggs is rubbing off on Brown because he's dropped a number of such passes in the past. That's his second interception in his last three games and fourth in his last eight games. Brown had recorded exactly three interceptions in his previous 58 games so something has improved in that area.
We also saw the 3-headed safety group (Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker and Demontae Kazee) contribute another solid game. Kearse played every defensive snap and has established himself as the team's best safety. He had six tackles on the day and mostly looked solid in coverage. Damontae Kazee was also on the field for almost every snap but, like the linebackers, I don't recall him doing anything notably good or bad. There was a play where Neal and Kazee got confused and allowed Evan Engram to make a 20-yard play down the middle of the field. Generally, however, the fact receivers aren't racing behind the defense or tight ends aren't putting up 100-yard games is a sign nothing went disastrous.
Hooker got 30 or so snaps and also had an unremarkable game. He was credited with six tackles.
Special Teams: B+
Greg Zuerlein hit every kick. CeeDee Lamb returned a punt 17 yards which feels like the longest punt return by the Cowboys this decade. There were no big returns allowed and no huge gaffes. Solid, all around game.
Look, some who come to this spot will tell us we're fools for getting excited about this team. They'll claim they've heard the hype before. They'll remind us yet again those past teams never really accomplished anything noteworthy. Which is all true and anyone with half a brain already knows that; we don't need to read it yet again.
Besides, if you can't get excited about this team right now then I wonder why you would follow sports. Watching your team play exciting football and beat the snot out of your rivals is fun. Watching young players develop and make plays before your eyes is exciting. Reading and hearing people praise the team and the players you root for is fun. It's certainly more fun that moaning and groaning about how bad they are, like we were just 12 months ago. If it takes winning a Super Bowl for you to enjoy your team then following a sports team probably isn't good for your soul.
This Dallas Cowboys team is talented, it's young, it's coached well and it's playing an exciting brand of football. Getting excited about potential near term success is pretty much the best thing you can have as a fan other than winning a championship.
So continue to feel good Cowboys' fans. Continue to hope and get hyped and reasonably expect good things. We're guaranteed nothing and there's a significant chance the season ends in heartache, pain or both. I, for one, look forward to the journey.