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The McCarthy Chronicles: Cowboys outsmarted themselves and lost their identity vs Chiefs

Unforced errors led to the Cowboys’ letdown in Arrowhead.

Dallas Cowboys v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

There was a lot of hype around the Cowboys at Chiefs game this Sunday, and many expected a shootout in the first ever showdown between Dak Prescott and Patrick Mahomes given that both teams had just scored 40+ points last week. Instead, we got 28 combined points and exactly two touchdowns; Prescott and Mahomes combined for three interceptions, two lost fumbles, and zero touchdowns.

If the Cowboys didn’t have to play another game in four days, we’d take a lot more time to point out that the defense once again played brilliant football against an offense that’s breaking out of its mini-slump. They gave up two touchdown drives in the first quarter but otherwise held Kansas City to field goals and forced punts or takeaways, never letting Mahomes get into a rhythm.

The issue for the Cowboys was that they were unable to really score at all, and that was for several reasons. For starters, Prescott was just off in this game, and playing without Amari Cooper for the first time since the receiver arrived in Dallas was another. But it also didn’t help that Prescott was under duress most of the day against a Chiefs defense that has struggled to harass quarterbacks all year long.

On its surface, there really isn’t much to be worried about in this loss. Only the Cardinals and Packers have better records than the Cowboys in the NFC right now, and two of their three losses have come to the two teams who played in the Super Bowl last year. Those two losses were by a combined 12 points. It’s easy to write this one off as losing to a team that’s been really good for a longer time than Dallas has.

The problem, however, is the reason why the Cowboys lost this game. For the first time all year, the Cowboys just outsmarted themselves. They lost to the Buccaneers because Tom Brady is impossible to stop in a two-minute drill. They lost to the Broncos because the team just forgot to show up. But this time they lost because they committed too many unforced errors, both before and during the game.

The first big error was deciding to swap out Connor Williams with Connor McGovern. This had been hinted at by Mike McCarthy earlier in the week when he mentioned the fact that Williams was the most penalized player in the NFL. What McCarthy didn’t mention is that only two other guards in the NFL have allowed a lower pressure rate than Williams.

Well, they made the move anyway, and the Cowboys still racked up six penalties in the game. Four of those came on offense, with three of them being on the offensive line. McGovern wasn’t responsible for any of them, but if the sole reason for benching Williams was his penalties - since we know it wasn’t due to his actual production - then it clearly didn’t work. And while McGovern didn’t get penalized, he did give up two sacks and several more pressures.

It wasn’t just that McGovern struggled in pass protection, but it also influenced Terence Steele as well. Making his third straight start at left tackle, Steele played more like he did against Denver than against Atlanta. It’s not because the Chiefs are a great pass rushing defense - they were 23rd in pass rush win rate and 30th in sacks coming into the game. Simply put, this was an instance where Steele would have benefitted from continuity. Playing next to Williams, who’s been great in pass protection all year, had helped Steele take a step forward in his second game at left tackle. Changing things up this week threw a wrench into the process for him, and it showed.

The Cowboys offensive line didn’t just struggle in pass protection, but in run blocking as well. They’ve been one of the very best in that category all year, but the Chiefs repeatedly blew them off the line of scrimmage all game. Ezekiel Elliott had just one run that went for over five yards on the day, while Tony Pollard’s only run over five yards came on the trick play where he took a direct snap and faked a pitch to Prescott. These struggles didn’t stop Kellen Moore from continuing to run the ball, thereby repeatedly banging his head into a brick wall.

The cherry on top was the decision to move CeeDee Lamb back outside for most of his snaps this week with Cooper out. It’s not that Lamb is incapable of playing outside, but he’s just so much more dangerous in the slot. Of course, it didn’t help that both Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown forgot how to catch the ball, and losing Lamb to a concussion further complicated things.

All season long, the Cowboys have thrived with a simple approach: let players do the things they’re best at. They play a lot of man coverage because Trevon Diggs is great at man; they blitz a lot because of Micah Parsons; they throw a lot when facing good run defenses and run a lot when facing good pass defenses. For whatever reason, they got away from that identity Sunday, and it cost them.

Just like the Broncos game, this is likely a one-game anomaly, and it helps that they’ll get a chance to prove just that so quickly. But it’s the second time this year that these anomalies have cost Dallas a game, which could come back to bite them if the Cowboys end up having to play on the road late in the playoffs.