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5 takeaways from the Cowboys Thanksgiving disappointment against the Raiders: Coaching is worrisome

A slow start, a defense that couldn’t stop a struggling Raiders offense, and Dak needing to do everything himself. Did we time travel to 2020?

Las Vegas Raiders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Time to be brutally honest. Yes, the penalties in the Thanksgiving game were egregious. But no matter how much laundry was thrown on the field, the Dallas Cowboys should have been able to beat the Los Vegas Raiders. The Raiders benefited from a handful of bad calls, but that is not the sole reason the Cowboys lost.

It is starting to get scary. The Cowboys have lost three of their last four, and the division race is now getting tighter. This is a big problem, but it doesn’t mean that all hope is lost just yet. It does mean that we learned a lot of discouraging facts about this team, and here are a few.

The first down play-calling is becoming a problem

Las Vegas Raiders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

When did Kellen Moore start watching Jason Garrett’s offense and decide that’s what he wanted to emulate? It's a situation that seemed impossible going into the bye, but somehow Kellen Moore has become predictable and inefficient.

The Cowboys aren’t running it more on first down, they’re actually running less now. However, they aren’t creative runs when it happens, meaning no sweeps, motions, or counters, and the results are a lot of one- or two-yard gains. Somehow the Cowboys are passing more on first down but getting less creative with the play-calling.

Look what has happened to Kellen Moore and his creativity. Going into the bye week, the Dallas Cowboys were running it 60% of the time on first down and faced an average second down distance of 7.2 yards, the best first-down offense in the NFL by EPA per play.

Now, the Cowboys are running the ball 44% of the time on first down but facing an average second down distance of 7.9 yards, making them the 23rd most efficient offense on first down by EPA per play.

So a quick summary, Kellen Moore is passing the ball more on first down. But he simultaneously has gotten less creative with his runs and passes, which means the Cowboys overall are struggling on first down.

This is an area where Dallas used to dominate. They would set up short-yardage situations on second down, and then the entire playbook is open. With their inefficiency and lack of creativity, they are forced to pass on second down nearly every time because they didn’t gain any yards on first down.

Moore needs to get his identity back fast, and maybe having Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb will help him, or possibly it is time to see what Pollard can do with more touches. Regardless, if Dallas continues to struggle on early downs, the entire offense will continue to struggle.

This is not a call to start running more on first down. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. This is a call to get back to your creative ways, Kellen, the same plays that had every Cowboys fan enamored by your mastery of an offense. Having your two best wide receivers back will open up the playbook, but it has gone downhill and needs to change.

Speed is the secondary’s weakness

Las Vegas Raiders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Overall, the defense has been the most consistent aspect of this team post-bye. More specifically, the secondary had been playing great. However, it became clear against Kansas City and more so against the Raiders; the secondary lacks speed.

Let’s review the fastest receivers the Cowboys have faced this year and their stats against Dallas:

  • DeSean Jackson- 3 receptions, 102 yards, 1 TD (97th percentile in speed)
  • Tyreek Hill- 9 receptions, 77 yards (98th percentile)
  • Kadarius Toney- 10 receptions, 189 yards (86th percentile)
  • D.J. Moore- 8 receptions, 113 yards, 2 TDs (89th percentile)

Do you see the trend? Speedy wide receivers who can stretch the field tend to have a big day against the Cowboys’ secondary.

And it makes sense; look at the disparity in speed among the Cowboys’ coverage unit:

  • Trevon Diggs- 87th percentile
  • Anthony Brown- 99th percentile
  • Jourdan Lewis- 39th percentile
  • Jayron Kearse- 32nd percentile
  • Damontae Kazee- 63rd percentile

Now, it is weird that Anthony Brown gets burned so frequently, given how fast he is. But your two starting safeties, the players that are supposed to protect over the top on deep routes, combine for a 48th percentile speed score.

This is a takeaway that Dan Quinn can’t fix. Of all the things that the secondary does right, covering the field-stretcher is not one of them. They get beat deep.

It will hurt to play teams like the Packers with Marquez Valdes-Scantling, or the Rams with Cooper Kupp and Van Jefferson. It’s unclear what Dan Quinn needs to do to address this, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that fast wide receivers should prepare for a field day against the Cowboys.

Mike McCarthy has lost his confidence in the offense

Las Vegas Raiders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

It was the best of times, a happy paradise away from the conservative play-calling that the previous decade had made us accustomed to; Mike McCarthy was aggressive and played to win. Oh, the fond memories.

It is a confusing trend, but that same confidence and aggression has faded. Going into the bye, only two teams were more aggressive on fourth down than the Cowboys. But since week eight, McCarthy has been the tenth least aggressive coach on fourth down.

We saw it against the Chiefs, where McCarthy continually punted when the game was essentially on the line, but you could argue that the Raiders game was even worse. So, let’s take a stroll down memory lane.

It is the second quarter, with the Cowboys on the Raiders’ 40-yard line. After two incomplete passes, Dallas now faces a fourth and seven with six and a half minutes until halftime. The Cowboys are down 17-6. Going for it would increase Dallas’ likelihood of winning to 36%, and punting would keep it steady at 33%. Those are the two best options, so what do the Cowboys do? They *checks notes* kick a 59-yard field goal and miss. Kicking a field goal drops your winning percentage to 32%; even if it went in, your winning percentage only stands at 35%.

But it was one lousy mistake, lets move on and win the game.

Third quarter, ten minutes to play. Dallas has tightened the gap, and it is 17-13 around midfield, fourth and three for the Dallas offense. Going for it increases your winning percentage by 3%. McCarthy punts, and it leads to another Raiders’ touchdown drive.

After a Pollard kick return touchdown, Dallas is still in it.

Two minutes left in the third quarter, Dallas faces a fourth and two from their own 33-yard line down by eight points. Going for it increases your winning percentage by 4% since Dallas can’t stop the Raiders offense and a two-score game this late makes it very difficult to come back. Surprise, surprise, Dallas punts.

After all of that, the Cowboys are fighting back.

They face a fourth and seven on their own 28-yard line with seven minutes left. It is an eight-point game, essentially crunch time now. Going for it would boost your win percentage by 2%. Hey Bryan Anger, it is good to see you again.

The natural argument will be that the Cowboys tied the game by the end of regulation despite all of those decisions. While that is true, imagine what would have happened if they were more aggressive.

In the situations above, the Cowboys conceded 13 winning percentage points by punting or kicking a long field goal. If they had been more aggressive early in the game, maybe you don’t even go to overtime.

McCarthy was a coach that trusted his offense to stay on the field and was more aggressive than any Dallas coach we have seen in a while. Maybe he is playing it similar to Kellen Moore, where they have lost confidence without Lamb or Cooper. But it has been discouraging to watch and needs to change for the Cowboys to right the ship.

The Cowboys need reinforcements

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

What has changed from the bye week to now? This is a genuine question because this meltdown is unprecedented. It is essentially the same team, leadership, everything, with the only difference being they are missing a few key offensive contributors.

Because this decline corresponded to a time where the injuries started to pile up, we should be willing to believe that maybe things will get back to what it was with a healthy roster.

This is not an excuse; the team has been downright bad, and there is no excusing what has happened. It is just a mystery that the wheels are falling off now. The only thing that has prompted this was a few injuries.

Thus, getting back Cooper, Lamb, Randy Gregory, Demarcus Lawrence, and Donovan Wilson might turn things around. It has to turn around, because the only other explanation for this is that the entire team has lost confidence in itself. And that is far scarier to speculate about.

So, we will see what happens when these key players come back and the assistance they provide. If they can fill their roles again and the Cowboys immediately get back to what they were, maybe there is no reason to panic.

But if these four key contributors come off an injury and the losses continue to accumulate, there will be a real problem. Don’t hit the panic button quite yet, but we all have our hand about an inch over it, ready to sound the alarm.

Adjustments after a slow start are an issue

Las Vegas Raiders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

There is one glaring difference between the pre-bye week Cowboys and the post-bye week Cowboys; their response to a slow start. In the early weeks, several games looked ugly at first, but Dallas eventually straightened it out. Since the bye, the ugly starts have crippled the team.

Need some illustration? First, let’s look at the Cowboys point differential by quarter:

  • First-quarter: -9 (they are giving up seven first-quarter points per game, the most in the NFL)
  • Second-quarter: 15
  • Third-quarter: 42
  • Fourth-quarter: 23

The point is that the Cowboys have started slow all year; a first-quarter deficit isn’t new for this team, they were even down to the Panthers at halftime.

But the problem is that since the bye week, they haven’t responded coming out of halftime. We can look at the third-quarter point differential split by the bye week as proof:

  • Weeks 1-6 second-half point differential: +34
  • Weeks 8-12 second-half point differential: +7

Dan Quinn, Mike McCarthy, and Kellen Moore were excellent at adjusting the game-plan at the half, coming out of the break, and punching the other team in the mouth.

Now, they come out of halftime, and it is the same Cowboys team we saw going into the half. There are little to no adjustments being made, and we are seeing it on the field. It has been sad to watch because this is another aspect of this team that made them dominant going into the bye.

At this point, we are all terrified that this Cowboys team is the same as prior years, and they are just going to let us down in the end. Maybe that will happen; perhaps we are seeing a team going through a rough patch without some key players. In actuality, no one knows what has happened or what will happen.

But things need to change soon. Before everyone loses their confidence, the team needs to regain their momentum. With the Saints next up on the schedule, at this point, who knows what will happen. Sad, frustrating, disappointing, and yet somewhat hopeful, what else did we expect from a season with the Dallas Cowboys?