Sunday's game was not supposed to be half this thrilling, nor half this educational. The details of the heroic, the awful, and the refereeing have been covered plenty and we won't recap it here. But the bottom line is that the Cowboys went down to the finish line to scrape past a sub-par team. And in doing so, some of their ongoing issues came to the forefront.
Let's talk about coaching at the coordinator level. At the planning, play calling, and adjustment level.
Thus far in the season both Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn have delivered coached-up players and delightfully effective schemes, demonstrated elite game-day mastery of their craft, and ridden a crest of success and near-universal praise across fandom and punditry alike. They're both already being fitted for head-coaching jackets next season. The only open questions are the destination cities.
Then New England happened. Now neither Kellen nor DQ can say their poop doesn't stink. Against the NFL riff-raff, they could overcome their issues by just cranking up the offense in the third quarter and leaving them in the dust. Give them a sub-par opponent but coached by a brilliantly evil mastermind who may be the only man closer to the Prince of Darkness than Nick Saban, and these issues come near to costing them the game.
Imagine what awaits against playoff teams who are both talented and well-coached. This is the wake-up call for our guys. They will have to coach better, scheme better, and call plays better, or else the Cowboys will give us the one-and-done playoff experience we've come to know so well since 1996.
Start with the Offense:
#1: Play calling on short yardage:
How many times Sunday did the Cowboys have 1-2 yards to go for a touchdown or crucial first down, and run it up the gut or QB sneak it, and fail every time (yes, I know Dak got it on third down)? I can think of 6 just on 2 series, and I think it was 8 or 9 attempts.
And when we think back to all games so far, this has been an ongoing thing. I personally think that gut plays are mostly a matter of smash-mouth winning the trenches . And I don't know, maybe the Cowboys line is just not capable of winning those against the better defensive lines.
So when something is simply not working, why do we just keep doing those gut plays in critical, game-changing situations? What gets in Kellen's head to keep trying the thing that will not work? For once, I am getting flashbacks of Jason Garrett.
#2: Offensive line penalties
Yes, the refs this Sunday,. But this season Dallas has the 4th most penalized offense, and holding or hands-to-face calls are drive killers. This is ongoing and chronic. Dak is getting decent protection, so I don't believe all these are a result of desperation. Kellen as the coordinator is not directly responsible, but the buck does stop here. I like Joe Philbin too (wow, Terrence Steele, Tyler Biadasz, and Connor McGovern development) but this is a big problem, Kellen needs to put his big-boy pants on, get red in the face, and stand inside Philbin's shirt until something changes here.
Kellen Moore is a brilliant offensive mind. But if he has any notion of being a successful head coach, he better learn how to do hard things, say hard things, and make hard choices with the coaching staff and players.
Now the Defense:
#1: The short middle is a petting zoo.
Do we even put guys from 5-20 yards deep between the hashmarks? I can't tell you how many times the QB has been able to find a guy in the short middle, and at the time he catches it no Cowboy is within 10 yards of him. The Cowboys have given up the NFL's third worst total YAC, 150 yards per game, thanks in large part to guys standing all alone in the middle.
The short middle is the domain of linebackers and strong safeties. Everybody's heart is all aflutter over Micah Parsons, Keanu Neal, apparent future president Jabril Cox, and our new stable of starter-quality free agent safeties Kazee, Hooker, and Kearse. And I don't think people are wrong about any of these guys.
This is not personnel, this is coaching/scheme. Dan? I believe for the most part our deep and border coverage is above average, and we've got more pressure on the QB than we have seen in a long time (and D-Law will eventually get here!). But this soft middle is fertile ground for playoff teams, and this better get cleared up.
#2 Open field tackling is atrocious.
Like the offensive line penalties, this is a discipline/focus/hunger thing, although in the case of Mister Interception I think the guy has never been taught how to tackle. Lordy, Diggs cannot tackle a sack of potatoes.. Anyway, at New England, multiple times I saw guys standing around while running backs still had the legs churning for extra yardage and maybe 2 guys were bringing him down. And I am talking guys we know and love who are supposedly high motor. Like Parsons. Guys who reach the second level are having lots of success digging for those extra yards.
The Cowboys defense is miles better than last year in every phase, but it is not good enough to fail to play hungry, mean, and swarming. DQ? Your move.
So anyway. My sincere hope is that this very narrow escape against New England will stir Moore and Quinn to bear down even harder, and shut down the remaining issues we do have.