FanPost

Grading the Cowboys Gut-punch loss to the Raiders

Note: Apologies for being so late with recent game summaries. Had visitors over the holiday weekend and some professional things have changed that make it harder for me to do these in a timely manner. I will continue to do them throughout the season but it's unlikely they'll be up the day after a game and may in fact take a few days. Hopefully some will still find the late summary useful.

Welp. That sucked. Like, really sucked. Your Dallas Cowboys entered their Thanksgiving tilt needing a win to right a ship that had gone astray after losing two of the previous three games. Rather than navigating back to the planned course, however, the ship remains adrift after a penalty-filled affair that ended in overtime gut-punch fashion.

We saw a number of problems that have plagued this team recently continue. We also saw some things fixed but new problems emerge. In the "ongoing problems" department:

  • Yet another slow start that put the Cowboys behind and forced them to play catchup throughout
  • A non-existent running game that's forcing the Cowboys to rely on the pass for any offensive success
  • A kicker who can't be relied upon

In the "new problems that didn't exist before":

  • A rigid coaching approach that failed to adapt to realities on the field
  • A defense that's porous against the run
  • A defense that can't take the ball away
  • A defense that has zero ability to defend a good passing attack

Earlier this year we wrote that with a 3 game division lead less than halfway through the season the Cowboys would have some margin of error to work out the inevitable issues that would arise. Well, we're firmly in the "need to work those issues out" arena because the margin of error is shrinking and without a quick turnaround 2021 will be yet another once promising season that proved a mirage. Let's get to the grades.

OVERALL: C

This game honestly felt like a throwback to the 2019, 2016 or Rob Ryan-era teams that could score lots of points but could never stop anyone when it counted. The raw stats are those of a helpless defense:

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Amazingly, the 509 yards surrendered doesn't tell the whole story. Cowboys' defensive penalties (120 yards or so) along with Raiders' offensive penalties (60 yards or so) added another 60 yards to the Raiders' yardage totals. The 569 yards surrendered is 60 more than the team surrendered in any game of their historically bad 2020 defensive performance. The Raiders also gashed the Cowboys' run defense for 135 yards including Josh Jacobs scampering 21 yards on the 2nd play of their game-winning OT drive.

The only saving grace for the defense was stopping the Raiders 10 of 13 times on defense. This number is an illusion, however, as it doesn't include four instances where the Raiders converted 3rd-and-10, 3rd-and-8, 3rd-and-7 and 3rd-and-18 via penalty.

The failures were persistent and widespread. The Raiders needed only 3 plays to drive for a touchdown on their first drive then needed only five plays in OT to move into field goal range. The pass rush was non-existent most of the day with Derek Carr usually having time to drink a cup of coffee before looking for an inevitably wide open receiver.

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This game would likely have been an easy Vegas win had it not been for their inability to convert long drives into touchdowns. Three times they drove inside the Cowboys' 20 and ended up kicking field goals. So I guess that's a positive. There was also bad luck. Like when the one turnover the Cowboys forced all day was mysteriously "ruled an incomplete pass on the field" AFTER the play had been ruled a completion and reviewed in the booth. Or Greg Zuerlein's 59-yard FG attempt doinking off the left upright.

We also saw another Raiders' fumble that Dallas was unable to recover. The Cowboys had unusually bad luck recovering fumbles in 2020 then unusually good luck doing so early in 2021. Lately they've gone back to not taking advantage of such opportunities.

The final offensive numbers look solid but the reality is the offense sletp walked through the first third of the game.

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The drive charts show the Dallas offense averaged less than 25 yards on the team's first five drives. Combined with the defense being largely unable to stop Vegas and the Cowboys yet again found themselves down double digits in the first half, this time 17-6. This continues a bad trend:

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This team simply isn't ready play week after week. And it's nothing new for either this McCarthy-led group or previous iterations. In the first five weeks of the 2020 season, before Dak's injury, the Cowboys trailed in every game in the first half:

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If we want to go back to 2019 we saw the Cowboys fall behind by double digits in the first half six times in nine games, turning a 3-0 season start into a 6-7 record. In short, the Cowboys' not being prepared to play a game has been a problem for years. It will be interesting to see how this Dallas team comes out Thursday against New Orleans with virtually no real practice or in-person preparation due to the team's never-ending COVID infections. Mike McCarthy won't be there so it will basically be up to the players to reverse a trend that must be reversed for this team to enjoy any type of success.

Biggest Plays

Much has been made of the 33 penalty flags thrown (28 accepted, 5 declined). And there should be because we're going to see they played an enormous role in the outcome of the game. Here's the five biggest plays for Vegas in terms of win probability added:

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The late defensive pass interference penalty on Anthony Brown was single biggest play of the season, in terms of win probability added, of the entire Cowboys' season. Which is extremely frustrating when you consider it's was a ticky-tack, 50/50 call. I just don't believe football fans enjoy watching bureaucrats deciding game outcomes and not, you know, actual football plays.

Not sure if Shawn Hochuli is just hungry for national airtime or whatever but the incessant penalties, like this one for "roughing the passer" made watching the game a chore. Every play I found myself wondering if the it would count and far too often the outcome was determined not by players but by these referees.

Beyond that we see that early strike to perennial Cowboys-killer Desean Jackson was the second biggest play of the game. In addition we see the Raiders' kicker stepping up and knocking in a deep kick which the Dallas kicker was unable to do. In terms of positive plays for the Cowboys:

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It's not often you see a punt with no return show up as one of the biggest plays of the game. But let's give Bryan Anger some love because it seemed like submission when they sent him out there to punt from his own 10 yard line in overtime. But his 59 yard punt topped an outstanding day where he averaged 55 yards per kick. In fact, special teams yielded three of the team's top five plays. Note also we see Micah Parsons OT sack of Carr which was immediately followed by the defense being unable to hold on the ensuing 3rd-and-18.

Expected Points Added

Again, you can go here to understand EPA.

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The Cowboys were again outclassed in terms of EPA, which makes the fact they managed to reach overtime and twice had opportunities to win somewhat lucky. The Raiders were simply better on more plays than the Cowboys. Yet again we see both teams recording negative EPA per run play, despite the big rushing yardage numbers compiled by Vegas. We also see the Raiders enjoying huge success on passing plays (that's how you get 500+ yards).

But's it's the late down numbers that really tell the story. We saw above that both teams were 3-of-13 on third downs and neither team tried any 4th downs. But when we look at EPA on these late downs we see:

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The Cowboys offense was wholly inept and the Raiders enjoyed huge success. How can that be? Well, EPA includes all those mammoth 3rd down penalties that aren't captured in the raw stats. When those are included we see the Raiders with what proved to be an insurmountable edge.

Dallas enjoyed an advantage in total EPA every game through the first seven weeks, which is a real good way to win games. Since, however, they've lost the EPA battle three of the last four weeks and, not coincidentally lost all three:

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The EPA deficit Thursday was due mostly to a Cowboys defense that simply couldn't stop the Raiders' passing game:

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Vegas enjoyed 0.5 EPA per pass dropback, which is an outstanding number. It's by far the best number recorded by a Cowboys' opponent this season. But we also see it's the 2nd time in the last 4 weeks opposing QBs have had field days against the Dallas defense. The combination of a porous run defense and lack of takeaways has converted a "vulnerable but playmaking defense" to simply a "vulnerable defense".

It's been noted many times that winning the "QB rating battle" is a reliable path to success. Well, you can say the same about the QB EPA battle:

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Dallas has lost the QB EPA battle three of the last four weeks and lost each game. Dak Prescott and the offense has performed poorly two times in the last four weeks and the defense has allowed opposing QBs to go crazy twice in the last four weeks. Looking back we see that throughout the first 7 weeks the Cowboys consistently enjoyed good QB play while limiting opposing QBs. Getting back to that formula is probably the simplest route to future success.

Coaching: C

We've already noted the team's inability to play to their abilities early in games. Jason Garrett didn't have an answer for that riddle and got fired. And if Mike McCarthy, Dan Quinn and Kellen Moore can't figure it out they won't be here much longer either.

Beyond that there were several head-scratching decisions. I've been watching NFL football for half a century and I've never witnessed an "offensive line rotation". The head coach has loudly and repeatedly cited "consistency" as a reason for, say, starting Terrence Steele over La'el Collins. So it's hard to understand what exactly the coaches were thinking when they instead had 40% of the line switching off between series.

Then we had Dan Quinn stubbornly sticking to man-to-man concepts despite the Raiders roasting them from their first offensive sequence to their last. Dallas allowed nine explosive plays, which is ridiculous. The vast majority came with Desean Jackson or Hunter Renfro wide open against man coverage. You'd think at some point, as the explosive plays and pass interference penalties reached double-digits there'd be a reevaluation. Nope. There we were in overtime with Las Vegas facing 3rd-and-18 after a Micah Parsons sack and the Cowboys were again in man coverage.

Rather than play a zone which allows the defenders to face the QB and more easily avoid a soul-crushing DPI Anthony Brown fell behind Zora Jones and the Raiders converted in about the only fashion possible.

Also I'm not sure what the explanation was for constantly putting wonder rookie Micah Parsons over the center on obvious pass-rushing snap. He seemed wholly ineffective when inside yet was, again, a terror rushing from the edge. I get the attraction of putting your best rusher in different places but not if he's clearly more effective from one spot than another.

We also saw an offense that sputtered and coughed throughout much of the game and in their lone OT possession. The answers are never easy in the NFL but overall things just needed to be better. I previously said McCarthy was my coach of the year choice but that was before three substandard performances in four weeks. If the answers don't come soon McCarthy, Quinn and Moore are going to be facing different types of questions.

Quarterback: C-

Let's start by just looking at the numbers, which are pretty good:

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Yes, 375 yards, two touchdowns, a 106 passer rating and 9.4 expected points added are solid results from both a volume and efficiency perspective. Dak did a lot of good. This perfectly placed sideline ball to Michael Gallup was one of two such completions that contributed to scoring drives. The Dalton Schultz touchdown featured deft touch to get it over the coverage down the middle of the field.

And this strike to Cedric Wilson while on the run to the right is one of the things Dak does consistently and is an underrated element of his game. But when you pay your QB $40 million per year the expectations are pretty simple when it comes to late game situations: you're job is to take the ball, drive the team down and win the game.

Dak twice had that opportunity and in each instance he and the team came up short. In regulation Dallas took over at their own 25 with 1:52 remaining and needing a field goal to tie, a touchdown to win. This is where you expect your high priced QB to win the game. And Dak started strongly, moving the team 46 yards in 6 plays. Dallas still had 37 seconds and a timeout and were 29 yards away from a dramatic, last second victory.

But the next three passes netted only 2 yards and the Cowboys were forced to settle for a game-tying field goal. Luckily, however, they won the OT coin toss. But ineptness on special teams found them starting at their own 7 yard line.

Still, this is where you expect your high priced quarterback to take the reins and lead the team to victory. Instead, after two short gains on third down Dak badly missed Noah Brown on a relatively easy on-the-run throw he's routinely completed in the past. It was arguably his worst throw of the game.

"Completion percentage over expected" is one of those new era statistics that basically compares a QB's actual completion percentage to expected completion percentage. Dak's expected completion percentage for the game was 70.0% and he finished with a 68.1% completion rate. This overtime miss was the reason he ended up with a negative CPOE and, more importantly, was a major reason the Cowboys lost the game.

Wide receivers: B+

Four days after having an abysmal performance in Kansas City when this group couldn't get open, catch or block they had a very solid game despite missing Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. The numbers tell a positive story:

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That's your 4th and 5th receivers combining for 157 yards on 19 targets. Add Michael Gallup's big day and about the only complaint would be none of the three found the end zone. Nevertheless, it was an impressive performance that shows the true depth of this group.

Here's Gallup's other deep sideline catch that seemed to spark the offense. We also saw Cedric Wilson with a nice catch-and-run. Wilson has been a solid contributor all season long with either Gallup or Cooper or Lamb all out at one time or another so it was satisfying seeing him bounce back strongly after a truly terrible outing in Kansas City.

The season numbers for the WR group by game:

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This group was heralded as one of the best in the league prior to the season. Gallup, Cooper and Lamb have combined to miss 10 games, which has stressed the group. And they've had two stinkers the last four weeks. But overall they've largely lived up to the "elite" billing.

Running back: C-

Yet another underwhelming statistical performance from the Cowboys' run game:

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None of these are good numbers. The running numbers are extremely bad. The receiving numbers are meh. The 117 combined yards on 31 potential targets are not good. Naturally, the best run play of the game was negated by a penalty (if you can find where Tyron Smith held on this play you're more observant to me).

It's not surprising that play came with Tony Pollard running the ball. I'm not sure why Ezekiel Elliott continues to get so many opportunities. As far as I can tell the only thing he does better than an average NFL running back is pass protect. His speed and quickness has evaporated; he can't outquick or outrun linebackers. He's never been elusive. And his power has virtually disappeared as he rarely breaks any tackles and is consistently brought down by the first defender.

I mean, you can find running backs who lack speed, quickness or power pretty much on any college campus so I'm don't get the continued fascination. Tony Pollard simply looks like a better runner and the statistical results support that conclusion. Unfortunately, neither runner is doing much in the running game.

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The EPA numbers tell the story. The two combined to generate 20.6 EPA running the ball over weeks 2 through 5. Since then they've combined to generate -25.0 EPA running the ball. The receiving results aren't much better though they've at least been positive most weeks.

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Thursday was the 3rd time in the last six games when Zeke/Pollard combined to generate -4.3 EPA or less after never having such bad games through the first five weeks.

Now, running backs don't operate in isolation and the revolving door on the offensive line hasn't helped. Neither has repeatedly falling behind early in games. But that's kind of a chicken and egg thing; is Dallas falling behind early because the running game is ineffective or is the running game ineffective because they're playing from behind?

That's a question for wiser folks than I. I do know the Dallas offense was a dynamic, potent, elite unit when the run game was contributing and it won't again be an elite unit without a productive run game.

Offensive line: B-

Well, the good here is this unit bounced back from a horrid performance in Kansas City. Of course Tyron Smith didn't play against the Chiefs and did play against the Raiders and that's the primary reason for the improvement. Smith looked pretty much like his high quality self most of the game.

Well, other than this embarrassing play when he got confused and took the wrong defender. But as we've noted the run game accomplished nothing and that was largely due to the line's inability to create room for the runners.

On the positive side this group held up pretty well in pass protection. Raiders edge rusher Maxx Crosby is a handful and Collins and Steele combined to keep him relatively at bay. It wasn't always pretty but it was far better than the KC game when Dak rarely had time to throw the ball.

Tight end: C

On the surface the numbers are impressive:

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I mean who wouldn't take 2 touchdowns and a 112 passer rating and 4.0 EPA on only 8 targets? We had Sean McKeon catching his first career TD a week after notching his first career catch. And of course Schultze contributed the big 4th quarter touchdown, his fourth of the year. And he immediately followed it up with a 2-point, game-tying conversion on a well-designed goalline play.

All good stuff. So what's the problem.

Well, Kellen Moore crafted another well-designed 2-point play that failed because Schultz couldn't sustain his block after getting his hands on the defender. This cannot happen. We also had Schultz drop an uncontested ball that would have been a 3rd-down conversion. That came early in the game when the Dallas offense was struggling and contributed to the team's double-digit deficit.

These types of errors are exactly why Dallas is 1-3 in their last four games and if they continue it's likely the losing continues.

The season-long numbers show this was a return to efficiency for the tight ends but the volume numbers are still modest.

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Defensive line: C

This grade should really be separated. On the one hand Micah Parsons, playing exclusively as a defensive lineman, again looked like one of the best defensive players in the league. He came close to sacking Carr in the first half. And then had what seemed like the biggest defensive play in the game when he did sack Carr in OT.

Parsons would end up with the sack, 2 tackles for loss, 5 QB hits and 5 total tackles. I know it's blasphemous but at this point the only player I can recall who had this type of all-over-the-field defensive impact was Lawrence Taylor. I mean:

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Not all splash plays are created equally. Parsons is leading established, All Pro defenders in pretty much all the key metrics. This from an off-ball linebacker who had zero experience as a defensive lineman coming into the season. He's just remarkable and the possibilities for his future are head-spinning.

Unfortunately, the rest of the defensive line was virtually missing in action the entire game. Unless Parsons was getting in Carr's face Carr had all day to throw. Trysten Hill, Chauncey Gholston, Dorrance Armstrong, Justin Hamilton, Terrell Basham, Osa Odighizuwa's combined statistics:

  • 0 sacks
  • 0 tackles for loss
  • 2 QB hits
  • 0 passes defensed, fumbles caused or fumbles recovered

The entire rest of the group was completely shut down and without Parsons this group gets an F. When you have one guy playing like Lawrence Taylor and the opposing team still goes for 500+ yards and 36 points you know there's a problem.

Linebackers: D

Yet another performance from this unit where the only time their names were called was for getting beat. About the only time I noticed Leighton Vander Esch was when he badly bit on the run-fake on the Derek Carr touchdown run. Keanu Neal did contribute a tackle for loss and finished with 12 tackles but I feel like most came 5+ yards downfield. I don't really remember seeing either do anything noteworthy.

Secondary: F

Going into the season this was the group Cowboys' fans most worried about. At corner you had a meh outside corner (Anthony Brown), an unproven second-year guy coming off a shaky rookie season (Trevon Diggs), a below average slot defender (Jourdan Lewis) and a bunch of unproven rookies. At safety you had oft-injured Donovan Wilson and a trio of bargain-basement free agent additions either coming off injuries or mediocre performance.

Then they started making plays. Diggs was intercepting passes every week. The safeties looked like a significant upgrade over what we've witnessed for the last ten years. Anthony Brown suddenly started making plays. It all came together brilliantly.

Then Thursday happened and all the pre-season worries were on full display. None of the corners could cover anyone. Brown was cited for DPI penalties for 91 yards including the OT killer and this end zone call that quickly turned into a Vegas TD. The one play where Dan Quinn finally switched to a 2-high safety look resulted in Damontae Kazee standing flat-footed guarding no one while Jayron Kearse was nowhere to be found.

Trevon Diggs almost got an interception early, but it ended up being a positive play for the Raiders. Here we see Diggs trailing badly then failing to make the tackle to allow a huge gain on the very offensive play after Dallas had finally tied the game.

On the Raiders' 3rd offensive play Jourdan Lewis couldn't keep up with DeSean Jackson and Damontae Kazee took a terrible angle to allow a chunk play to turn into a long touchdown. Note how long Carr has; there's not a Cowboys' player close to him.

Jayron Kearse, who's been a solid safety all year, was burned badly on this play when yet another poor angle resulted in a big gain. This kind of stuff happened all game long.

Just an all-around horrible game from this group with virtually nothing positive to point to. I'm willing to write it off but the vulnerabilities of this group didn't magically disappear because they looked good for a couple months.

Special Teams: C

This might seem like a harsh grade considering this unit contributed three of the biggest plays for the Cowboys:

  • Tony Pollard ran a kick-off back for 100 yard touchdown that electrified an audience numbed by the Cowboys' poor performance up to that point
  • Bryan Anger's overtime punt we already discussed
  • Greg Zuerlein converting a late game 45-yarder to force overtime

So, why the relatively low grade? Well, remember all those 2 pointers the Cowboys tried? They're probably not necessary if Zuerlein doesn't miss the extra point after the team's 1st quarter touchdown. Then we had multiple long Raiders' returns that contributed to their advantage in starting field position (26.4 vs 19.5 for Cowboys).

And finally we had the overtime kickoff. Despite Tony Pollard leading the league in kick-off return yards per kick AND having already returned one to the house the Raiders chose to pooch the kick and force the Cowboys to return the kick. That's an indication they were confident they could win the battle on the kick-off.

The calculation proved wise when Dallas couldn't block, then took a penalty and Dallas ended up starting from their own 7-yard line. Special teams penalties seem to be a specialty of this group. And despite Pollard's sparkling return numbers the reality is it's boom or bust; he's had a couple long returns but most of the time when he tries to run the kick-off back Dallas ends up starting short of the 25 and often far short.

That's kind of Jim Fassel's special teams in a nutshell. They'll make big plays, then follow it up by failing to execute the fundamentals.

Referees: F

Many have claimed that since both teams were called for 14 penalties that the bad calls were "on both teams". I'm here to tell you that's not true. While the number were even their impact was not. Penalties called on the Cowboys extended drives that netted the Raiders 23 points; penalties called on the Raiders extended drives that netted the Cowboys 3. I mean, you need only look at the 43% change in win percentage on the Brown DPI in overtime.

I just don't know how the NFL can watch what happened Thursday when an otherwise exciting game was constantly marred by the referees negating what happened on the field to award results based upon bureaucratic decisions. Nobody goes to a game hoping to see pass interference calls.

Summary:

I wrote last week that a loss to the Raiders would leave me concerned. And I am concerned. But I'm still bullish. I get back to these realities:

  • Amari Cooper didn't play and will return soon
  • CeeDee Lamb didn't play and will return soon
  • Demarcus Lawrence didn't play well and will return soon
  • Randy Gregory didn't play well and will return soon

I'm fairly confident that with Lawrence and Gregory playing Derek Carr isn't standing in the pocket looking left, right, left, center while checking his Twitter feed before having to get rid of the ball. And I'm pretty sure that if Lamb and Cooper are on the field that Dak can convert at least one of those two late game opportunities into a win. We have yet to see a Cowboys' defense with Parsons, Lawrence and Gregory all on the field at the same time. I think when we do things will improve significantly. I'm just wondering if we'll ever see that happen because, well, Cowboys.

But as I noted at the beginning of this, the Cowboys' early season wins gave them margin for error to work out such issues.

I feel like the formula is pretty clear:

The Dallas defense is okay; not great and not terrible. But they're much, much better when playing with a lead. But the early game woes have prevented them from playing with those leads. The absences of Tyron Smith, Amari Cooper, Ceedee Lamb, Michael Gallup and La'el Collins have left the offense short enough that they're no longer rolling teams like they were early.

So get your hurt players back (of course there will be more injuries so it's always fluid), have your helmet on and ready to play to start the game, get some early leads, let your opportunistic defense play aggressively with a lead....profit! That's a lot of ifs but you don't have to squint very had to see this team coming together for a late-season run.

Historically that's not happened. Historically Dallas has peaked in November then flopped in December. Personally I think the opposite will happen in 2021 but it's also possible I'm setting myself up for more disappointment.

We'll find out. I do know I like this a lot better than regretting a win because it means we dropped down in the draft.

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