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Grading the Cowboys 19 - 9 loss to the Chiefs



So, you're Dallas Cowboys had a tremendous opportunity Sunday to make an emphatic statement to themselves, their long-suffering fans and the entire NFL. They headed into Arrowhead Stadium (again, I refuse to call stadia by their corporate names) to face off against the defending AFC Champions. They would do so without four of their top 10 players (Amari Cooper, Tyron Smith, Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory). A win against the resurgent Chiefs (winners of 3 straight) despite missing 22% of the starting lineup would move the Cowboys to 8 - 2 and in the lead for the NFC bye. It would also be yet another game when the team triumphed over difficult circumstances and reinforce the idea this Cowboys' team was different.

Alas, it was not to be. The Cowboys' offense went 3-and-out on their first series, then the defense surrendered an 86-yard touchdown drive on the Chiefs' first possession. The deficit quickly grew to 16 - 6 and based on the first 15 minutes it looked like your Cowboys were headed to a second beat down in three weeks.

From that point forward the game became a stalemate as both offenses failed to make plays or move the ball and added a combined five turnovers (three for Dallas, two for the Chiefs). What was billed as a potential Super Bowl preview shootout between two MVP-caliber quarterbacks instead resembled a trench warfare battle of defensive teams. It was a missed opportunity for the Cowboys, but not a debilitating blow. In fact, if we look past the offensive wreckage we'll find a lot to like on the defensive side of the ball.

The Expected Points Added metric tells much of the story:

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Both teams had negative overall EPA, which is expected when the two teams combine for 28 points in a league where an average games features 46 points scored. We also see:

  • The Cowboys were more than twice as bad as the Chiefs overall in EPA
  • Both passing games struggled mightily
  • Kansas City did manage some success on the ground

Each of the Cowboys' last two games were heavily influenced by late down (3rd/4th downs) performance. This wasn't true Sunday:

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We see the Cowboys actually fared better on late downs than the Chiefs, but the Chiefs were significantly better on early downs. This is largely due to neither team attempting a 4th down attempt, instead kicking on every 4th down opportunity. Fourth down attempts are high leverage plays and can cause big swings in EPA.

Dallas had positive EPA numbers and EPA variance numbers each of the first seven weeks of the season:

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After that impressive 7 week stretch, however, they've now had negative EPA and negative EPA variances two of the last three weeks. Note also the defense has forced opponents into negative EPA results six times in ten games including six of the last eight. Prior to Sunday's game Football Outsiders already ranked the Dallas defense 4th in defensive DVOA and 5th in offensive DVOA; it's not that much of a stretch to suggest the Dallas defense has been better than the offense through ten weeks of the season. Did not expect to write those words this year.

Let's go to the grades.

OVERALL: C-

Some will complain this is too generous. They're welcome to their opinion but it would ignore the good that we saw on the defensive side of the ball.

The above EPA numbers largely support what we see in the traditional metrics:

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These are all losing metrics for the Cowboys:

  • Outgained by nearly 100 yards
  • Outgained by 1.3 yards per play
  • -14 in passer rating variance

And yet, the Cowboys found themselves in a competitive game in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys defense, after surrendering two touchdowns and a field goal on the Chiefs' first three drives gave up only 3 points on the Chiefs' final 8 competitive drives (I say competitive because they had two drives that ended the 1H and the 2H and made no attempt to move the ball on those drives). Nevertheless, after a shaky start the Cowboys defense pretty much shut the Chiefs' offense down the final 40 minutes.

Which make some of these numbers notable:

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The key numbers here are the red zone numbers. Dallas moved to the Chiefs' 20 yard line twice and got zero points off those drives. The Chiefs, meanwhile, scored 17 points on their 3 red zone forays. It's not an exaggeration at all to say those red zone performances determined the winner.

So, I'm not ready to declare the 2021 version of the Cowboys trash just yet. I thought the idea of going into Arrowhead and beating KC without four of your best players, then losing a fifth after one half, was unlikely. But I did expect a better effort than we saw, at least on the offensive side of the ball. Look, I understand some folks are frustrated and ready to light the torches and pick up the pitch forks. But let's imagine that instead of Dallas without Tryon Smith, Amari Cooper, Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory the situation was reversed?

Would the Chiefs have easily won if Tyreek Hill and Orlando Brown were missing on offense and Chris Jones and Frank Clark on defense? And then Travis Kelce missed the second half? Jones alone accounted for 3.5 sacks. a forced fumble, a recovered fumble, 2 tackles for loss, 3 QB hits and a pass defensed. Clark chipped in a sack and another QB hit. Hill and Kelce, meanwhile, contributed 151 of the Chiefs' 370 offensive yards.

Let's just say I'm fairly confident that if the roles were reversed the outcome would have been significantly different and therefor I'm not going to predict the imminent demise of this version of the Cowboys. Dallas still maintains a 2.5 game lead over the Eagles' for the East division. They also only have a single more loss than the NFC leading Arizona Cardinals (whom they play in December).

Two losses in three weeks, both featuring an inept offense, has created some urgency. Dallas has only a couple days before they play the Las Vegas Raiders and another poor performance would leave me worried. Based on the overall record in 2021 I'm reasonably confident Dallas will bounce back Thursday and put together a solid, winning performance. If not...yeah, that would be a problem.

Perhaps the best illustration of how well the Dallas defense played Sunday shows up in the biggest plays of the game. Here's the five best plays of the game for the Cowboys in terms of win percentage change:

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The thing that jumps out is the two best plays for the Cowboys came with the defense on the field. The third came as a result of the Chiefs missing a field goal attempt. When your 2nd best offensive play on the day is a 17-yard completion you know the offense had a bad day.

We see a similar dichotomy when it comes to the five worst plays for the Cowboys in terms of win percentage:

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Four of the five worst plays came with the defense standing on the sidelines. Three featured Prescott being intercepted or sacked. The fourth was a made Chiefs' field goal.

Summarizing:

  • The Dallas defense created two of the best plays for the Cowboys and surrendered only one
  • The Dallas offense created only two of the best offensive plays but surrendered three of the worst

So the offense was terrible; that's undeniable. But the defense, despite missing their two best edge rushers and facing a high-powered offense, played quite well after a shaky start.

COACHING: C-

Had this game been a one-time event I would give the coaches more benefit of the doubt. But this is the second week in three where the team came out unprepared to play and the 2nd time in three weeks the offense looked inept. We'll see that basic execution was a problem for the offense, and the defense ended up with a quality performance. But that doesn't change the fact that over the first 16 minutes of the game Dallas was outscored 16 - 3 and lost 80% of the snaps to that point.

I blamed Jason Garrett for repeatedly not having his team prepared to play when games kicked off and this is the 2nd time in 3 weeks we've seen the same from Mike McCarthy's team. It's somewhat inexplicable to me. I know these are humans and not robots and you can't just expect them to produce. But it's hard to understand how you're QB can't throw, your receivers can't catch, your blockers can't block, your defenders can't tackle or cover and it all happens at the same time in a game where you should be amped to play your best when you walk on the field.

I also saw Kellen Moore getting a lot of grief on my Twitter timeline throughout the game for calling too many running plays.

blahblahblah.

Look, when the players can't even execute an 18 inch pass it's hard to blame the play-caller. On the opposite side Dan Quinn deserves a lot of credit for getting the defense to stand tough when the game was still in doubt. Look at the Chiefs' drive chart:

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After giving up two long drives early (surrounding an impressive 3-and-kick after a Cowboys' turnover on the Chiefs' 2nd drive) Dallas gave up a total 59 yards and zero points on the next six Chiefs' possessions (highlighted in grey). They single-handedly kept Dallas in this game, thwarting the Chiefs series after series. Let's give the coaching staff some credit for that.

Unfortunately the Dallas offense couldn't do anything during that period:

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During that exact same period the defense was keeping the Chiefs at bay the Dallas offense generated four punts, an interception and a single field goal. The field goal "drive" went all of 24 yards on 7 plays and came about only because the defense handed the offense the ball in good position.

It's not ideal. It's hard to understand why the entire team came out unprepared to compete. It happened multiple times under Garrett late in his regime and it's now happened twice in the last two weeks under McCarthy (and happened multiple times in 2020 in the early part of the season when Dak was still playing). So this isn't something that is uncommon for this group and it's the kind of thing that can derail an entire season (see the first 4.5 minutes of the Cowboys 1994 NFC Championship game against the 49ers for reference):

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Quarterback: D-

Dallas came out aggressively, setting up Michael Gallup for a deep shot on the first play of the first game. Gallup not only beat Charvarius Ward, Ward falls down leaving Gallup alone up the right sideline for what should be an immediate big play to start the game.

Except Prescott sailed the ball far beyond Gallup's reach for an incompletion. It would be a harbinger of how things would go as Prescott was inaccurate on many of his throws. In addition to the miss to Gallup on the Cowboys' final drive of the first half he badly underthrew CeeDee Lamb on a play where the one thing you can't do is underthrow the ball. The resulting interception squandered the good field position and momentum provided by Micah Parsons' strip-sack of Mahomes.

It also led to CeeDee Lamb slamming his head on the turn, causing a concussion and taking him out of the game for the 2nd half.

Prescott missed other throws, and even completions were off-target. The inability of the Cowboys' offensive line to provide reliable protection meant Prescott had to get the ball out early and Dallas called a number of bubble screens. Dak missed a couple of these and when he did connect the receiver frequently had to jump or reach, messing up the timing on these plays.

The end result was another ugly, ugly performance from Prescott for the second time in two weeks:

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We see that from weeks 1 through 6 Prescott was playing at a very high level. Since injuring his calf and missing the Minnesota game, however, he's been mercurial, sandwiching an outstanding effort against Atlanta with two stinkers against Denver and Kansas City.

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The red line on the above charts represents the league average in each metric. Prescott was routinely performing much better than that but we see Sunday he had a truly abysmal performance.

Running back: C

Unlike the quarterback, offensive line and wide receivers, the Cowboys' running back duo wasn't terrible; they just weren't very good. The numbers are meager, reflecting both their limited opportunities and inability to do much with them:

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The two combined for 138 yards on only 24 touches (5.75 yards per touch). They did combine for the team's best offensive play of the game when Pollard took a direct snap, faked a reverse toss to Prescott then followed a devastating lead block from Elliott to gain 31 yards.

Outside of that play however, they netted only 51 yards on 15 carries (3.4 YPA) and 107 yards on 23 touches (4.6 YPT). It's hard to point at anything bad from either player but there was a distinct lack of anything good. This is best illustrated on what appeared to be a well set up screen to Zeke.

But, in a good example of the skill player's inability to execute blocks of any kind Dalton Schultz allows Juan Thornhill to slip past unchallenged. Not ideal but that's also your very expensive running back one on one in open space and Zeke does nothing with the opportunity.

Most concerning is the Cowboys' run game has largely disappeared recently.

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After netting 926 yards from weeks 2 through 6 (175 yards per game) Dallas have averaged only 88 yards per game since. Most of that came against a thoroughly inept Atlanta defense. Add the yards from trick plays and late game garbage numbers in their two losses and the run game has basically been missing in action since week six.

For a team that has an OL that grades out very highly in run blocking and (seemingly) two solid running backs those are worrisome numbers.

Wide receivers: F

Yes, you were without your number one receiver and you lost your other number one receiver after one half. But that doesn't excuse the complete no-show by this group in every phase of the game. There's literally not a single part of the game where this group wasn't terrible.

Getting open? Kansas City left their corners in one on one coverage throughout most of the day but most plays saw the Cowboys' receivers blanketed by their defender.

Catching the ball? Nobody did it well with CeeDee Lamb, Cedric Wilson and Michael Gallup all dropping uncontested throws that hit them in both hands.

Blocking? Again, an atrocious performance. Dallas was forced into getting rid of the ball due to the KC pressure, including (by my count) more than a dozen WR screens. If any of the receivers successfully blocked on any of those screens I missed it.

When your receiving group can't get open, drops the ball when they do get open, and can't block in the open field on short passes designed to get yards after catch....well, its going to be hard to move the ball.

The numbers show the carnage:

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Every metric is ugly. Many fans seem eager to jettison Amari Cooper and "use his money to pay Gallup" but that's ludicrous. Gallup has been plagued with drops his entire career and has never been the focus of opponent's coverage. Cedric Wilson has been a very pleasant surprise with solid play throughout the season but he was extremely bad, not only dropping this wide open pass that likely would have converted a 3rd and 19 but also dropping a "pass" that was little more than a handoff. He also failed on a number of blocking assignments.

CeeDee Lamb did almost nothing with his limited opportunities and like everyone else couldn't hold onto the ball when the opportunity presented itself.

This group has been a source of strength throughout the season. But like Dak, this is the second week they've looked very bad as they were also plagued with numerous drops against Denver. Dallas will be without Cooper Thursday against Las Vegas; as of this writing it appears Lamb should be able to return. The Cowboys desperately need this group to return to form because, as noted, the running game has been stymied.

Tight ends: C

The numbers for Dalton Schultz and Sean McKeon aren't terrible:

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But like the run game the tight end production has fallen significantly since week 6:

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After netting 329 yards and 5 touchdowns over four games from weeks 3 through week 6 Dallas tight ends have netted only 149 yards, zero touchdowns and an interception in the four games since.

Also like the running backs it's hard to point at many specific plays and say "this was bad" but we did see missed blocks (as noted above) and a lack of playmaking. Getting both the RB and TE group back into productive mode is a necessity for this offense to return to their high-powered ways.

Offensive line: F

Cowboys' fans are haunted by the specter of Adrian Clayborn abusing Chaz Green for seven sacks of Dak Prescott back in 2017. Sunday wasn't much better. Tyron Smith was again missing and the offensive line again struggled to provide any running lanes while also getting run over in pass protection.

I didn't really understand the decision to insert Connor McGovern into the starting lineup. Connor Williams has been plagued by penalties (13 total) throughout the season. But as I noted last week:

  1. Many of those penalties were questionable and several were clearly wrong
  2. Outside of those penalties Williams has been an average to better than average NFL guard

I also wasn't a fan of making the change when the Cowboys would be on the road in perhaps the loudest stadium in the league. That problem was exacerbated when Smith couldn't go and McGovern would be making his 2nd NFL start (1st at left guard) with Terence Steele on his left.

Any team would attack a left side consisting of Steele and McGovern and that's exactly what the Chiefs did.Here we see Steele seemingly unaware the ball has been snapped leaving Chris Jones to race untouched to the quarterback for the sack fumble.

Steele has looked significantly worse on the left side than the adequate play he provided on the right earlier in the season. Many Cowboys fans seemed to mistake that adequate play for high quality play and also seemed to think Steele had magically transformed from a vulnerable free-agent rookie in 2020 to a better offensive lineman than, say, La'el Collins.

Steele's performance the last few weeks should serve as a reminder there's a reason he wasn't drafted in 2020 and that we should be grateful he played as well as he did when called upon earlier this year.

But Steele was far from the only problem. Collins himself didn't look particularly great and struggled throughout the day. McGovern and Steele suffered miscommunications on a number of plays. Even Zack Martin was beaten for a sack, which is about as common as a solar eclipse.

Combine the porous pass protection and the anemic run blocking and this was a total, unmitigated disaster for this group.

Defensive line: A

All week the Cowboys' brass claimed Micah Parsons would again be playing mostly as an off-ball linebacker. But when the game started he was lined up as a defensive end and, as far as I can tell, played all his snaps as a defensive lineman.

That was a wise decision because Parsons had yet another astoundingly impressive game. He was easily the best Cowboys player on the day. The defensive rookie of the year award is already his barring a catastrophic injury. Heck, defensive player of the year is a legitimate possibility for the rookie wonder.

Sunday he would notch two more sacks, a forced fumble, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. He was all over the field. This strip sack where he makes yet another lineman look like a human traffic cone and then chases down Mahomes from behind is all world type stuff. It's so good it's worth another look. Here's his second sack of the night.

Parsons' statistics through the first ten games of his career would be exceptional for a highly touted defensive end. For a defender who's played more snaps at linebacker than as an edge rusher they're just remarkable.

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Parsons ability to play multiple roles as needed has transformed this defense and he is the primary reason the Dallas defense now ranks among the top five in the league in metrics such as Football Outsider's DVOA.

Outside of Parsons the rest of the defensive line didn't make a lot of plays but also didn't allow a lot of plays. Dorrance Armstrong claimed his third sack in the last two weeks but was otherwise quiet. Osa Odighizuwa, who impressed early in the season has not been making plays the last few weeks and had no notable plays. The rest of the low-pedigree defensive line was likewise largely held off the stat sheet.

Linebacker: C+

With Parsons playing on the line the linebacking duties were mostly left to Leighton Vander Esch and Keanu Neal; neither looked particularly impressive. Neal, who flashed early in the season, hasn't been the same player since missing time due to COVID. LVE and Neal would combine for 9 tackles but were otherwise kept off the stat sheet. If either made any notable plays I missed them.

Secondary: B-

Yeah, we had Anthony Brown looking silly and falling down trying to defend Tyreek Hill. That's happened to lots of defenders but it would have been nice if he could have stayed on his feet and made a play he was in position to make.

But we also had Jayron Kearse continuing his positive play snagging this interception. Trevon Diggs didn't get an interception for the third time in four games but also held Tyreek Hill to 19 yards on 4 targets.

Look, when you limit Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to zero touchdowns and a 72 passer rating your coverage units had to have a good game. The only real blemish were those early drives when KC kind of had their way with the Dallas defense.

In fact, those two drives are the key reason the above grades aren't higher. The Dallas defense was good for the final 44 minutes, but they weren't good for 60 minutes.

Special teams: C

This unit had been a positive the last few weeks but Sunday was minor step backwards. Mostly due to allowing the Chiefs to consistently net positive yardage on kickoff returns (which very few teams can accomplish in the modern NFL). Greg Zuerlein, returning from COVID, made all three field goal attempts and looked solid in doing so. The punt coverage units were also good.

Summary

Prior to the season if you'd told Cowboys fans your team would be 7-3 and would sport the following metrics most Cowboys' fans would be ecstatic:

  • An offense averaging 418 yards and 29 points per game
  • A defense allowing 21 points per game and ranked 4th in DVOA
  • A defense forcing 1.9 turnovers per game (more than any year other than 2014 when the Cowboys led the league in turnovers forced) and 8 more than the team recorded in the entire 2015 season
  • A quarterback on pace to throw for 4,900 yards and 37 touchdowns while recording a 104 passer rating

Those are all winning numbers. It's easy to forget the good that was done earlier after an ugly performance like Sunday. For those of us who choose to put more weight on the totality of the evidence, however, there's still much to like about this team.

It's easy to forget how many players have missed time and the fact Dallas was playing with a severe handicap Sunday. On the negative side of the ledger they have now lost much of their margin for error. A loss Thursday to a cratering Raiders' team would indeed be bad and undo much of the good that was done in September and October.

The NFL season is very much a marathon. Many Super Bowl winners from the past 12-15 years had meh records after 10 or 11 games; the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 7 - 5 after 12 games last year before reeling off 8 straight wins to take home the Lombardi trophy.

So in many ways the real NFL season starts Thursday. I've been touting Mike McCarthy as a Coach of the Year candidate for much of the season; the next 8 or (hopefully) 11 weeks or so will determine whether that's an accurate appraisal.

McCarthy has to figure out how to get his offense back to being a top-5 unit. He has to eliminate the slow starts that have plagued this team for the last three years. He has to figure out how to get the running game back on track. And he has to do all this with an ever-revolving door of players on both sides of the ball.

I'm still bullish on this team but recent weeks have definitely given reason for pause.

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