That was less of a football game and more of a burial. The Dallas Cowboys, having already clinched the NFC East by kickoff, sent a message to the rest of the league just weeks before the postseason. The game we have all been waiting for.
It was a perfect illustration of what Cowboys fans were hoping from this team; when the offense is clicking and the defense is performing to the level we now expect, Dallas is unstoppable. But every game will not be a 56-14 blowout, so what did we truly learn?
The defense is led by a young core
If you need any other reason to be excited about the defense at this point, consider this, the Cowboys are tied for the seventh-youngest defense in the NFL.
Here are a few defenders still on their rookie contracts: Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, Osa Odighizuwa, Kelvin Joseph, Chauncey Golston, Dorance Armstrong, Donovan Wilson, Trysten Hill, Neville Gallimore, and Leighton Vander Esch.
Outside of Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence, this defense is built around an incredibly young core. What is even more encouraging than the younger players getting significant playing time is they are some of the most impactful players on the team.
In the 2021 season alone, Cowboys defenders still on their rookie contracts have combined for:
- 47% of all defensive snaps
- 41% of tackles
- 56% of quarterback pressures
- 58% of quarterback hurries
- 62% of sacks
- 44% of interceptions
- 67% of batted passes
Just look at what happened in the Sunday Night Football game alone. The Cowboys’ first four picks in the 2021 draft (Parsons, Joseph, Odighizuwa, and Golston) all played a significant role in the 42-point victory. The four players combined for eight quarterback pressures, two sacks, six stops in the rushing game, a 20% completion percentage (one reception for -2 yards from Joseph), one pass break-up, and a partridge in a pear tree.
This is not only a young defense, but all of the defenders that are on their rookie contracts are playing like seasoned veterans. Getting truly impactful production out of defenders that are still developing is truly special. Hats off to Will McClay and Jerry Jones for this one.
The Cowboys need as many home playoff games as possible
Step aside Lambeau Field, there is a new king of home-field advantage. With seven games at home and eight on the road, the sample size is large enough where we can start to form definitive conclusions about this team’s performance when they play at AT&T Stadium.
Conclusions such as, the offense is a different beast when they play at home:
The offense is not only more efficient, but they also finish drives with a touchdown at a much higher rate at home. It is the difference between a middle-of-the-pack offense on the road versus an offense putting up numbers at a historic pace when playing at home.
The contrast is most pronounced with the leader of the offense. Dak Prescott has thrown for 20 touchdowns and two interceptions on 8.3 yards per attempt at home, but just nine touchdowns with eight interceptions on 6.7 yards per attempt on the road.
It is not like Dak is the only one who looks better at home. The play-calling from Kellen Moore was significantly improved on Sunday, the receiving corps was finding the pockets and getting open, and Ezekiel Elliott hit his highest yards per attempt since the Denver game.
Now, obviously, the Cowboys want as many home playoff games as possible, so does every team that has ever competed in the postseason. But for the 2021 Dallas Cowboys, playing on the road in January is a scary proposition.
We know a drop-off exists when Dallas has to travel on the road. Thus, while it would be poetic, beating the Packers in Lambeau seems unlikely unless the offense can learn how to travel.
It was fun to beat a division rival by 42 points. But having to rely on playing at home is scary when it appears the Cowboys will travel for at least one playoff game if they want to play in the Super Bowl.
The takeaway can be reframed as: we should have confidence the Cowboys can win at home in January, but they still have to figure out their offense on the road. Hopefully, this was just the offense getting rolling again, and it was only a coincidence they were at home. But at the very least, the Cowboys have clinched one home playoff game.
Dak’s legs are a weapon when he uses them
Dak finished with a stat line of 330 yards on a 71.8% completion percentage, four touchdowns, and no interceptions, leading to his second-best passer rating on the year of 131. But for all he did through the air, the most encouraging aspect of Prescott’s game might have come on the ground.
Since 2016, Dak Prescott has always been a player willing to tuck and run with the ball if the situation warranted it. Since Dak entered the NFL, he has the seventh-most rushing yards among all quarterbacks.
However, 2021 has been a different story with Prescott’s willingness to run. This season, there have been 28 quarterbacks that have started more than ten games, and here is where Dak ranks among them using his legs coming into Sunday:
- Yards per Game: 8.1 (15th)
- Yards per Attempt: 2.7 (22nd)
- Total Yards: 105 (16th)
Even worse, Dak’s cumulative EPA on QB rushes was -15.8, meaning Prescott had lost the team 16 total expected points when he chose to run before Sunday.
Before the Washington game, Dak Prescott was in the bottom half of the league by nearly every rushing metric. But Dak proved his legs are still a weapon when he chooses to use them.
Against Washington, Prescott ran for 21 yards, his highest total since the Carolina game. But it was when he ran that was most impressive.
Despite only one first-down rush since the Atlanta game, Dak picked up two first downs with his legs on Sunday night, including one on third down. His thirteen-yard run was the third-longest run of this season, and he added 2.3 expected points using his legs.
Dak proved on Sunday Night Football that he can still move the offense downfield by scrambling when he wants to. While he is more decisive now than before the injury, Prescott is not scared to lower his shoulder.
Coming into the postseason, when the Cowboys need a few yards, and the pocket collapses, Dak will pick up the yards by himself. That is an incredible asset going into January and should encourage all Cowboys fans. In front of a national audience with the rest of the league watching, Prescott sent a message.
The offense’s identity is that it has no identity
We have been trying to figure out what the offense is built on this entire season. Are they a pass-first team that wants to rely on their quarterback? Are they similar to 49ers offense, where they grind out yards behind a stout offensive line? The truth is, they have no identity, and that is ideal.
Kellen Moore is at his best when he doesn’t try to force his game plan into a matchup; he simply finds his rhythm and calls for what the situation allows. Moore is not good at reading sheet music, but he is a master of improv.
The Football Team is pressing up and playing close to the line of scrimmage? Run play-action and beat them deep.
Are they playing off the ball and dropping into coverage? Hit them with an inside run.
Washington is on their heels, unable to stop Dallas? Keep it that way by going no-huddle.
Are they starting to catch on and have switched to man coverage? Throw it to Terrence Steele.
There is a reason where it seemed like everyone was getting the ball in this game. Unlike the five previous weeks, Moore wasn’t trying to force a specific game plan. He was once again reading what the defense was giving him, calling the plays accordingly, and letting Dak find whoever was open.
How great is @ESPNStatsInfo? Dak Prescott is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw a touchdown pass to a running back, tight end, wide receiver and offensive lineman in a single game.— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) December 27, 2021
The offense works best when it does not have an identity. The 2021 Cowboys’ identity is that they will not rely on one facet of the game but instead use the tools and play-calling based on what the defense gives them. Things start to go wrong when they deviate from that identity; see the post-bye week Dallas offense for proof.
After a stretch of bad games, Kellen Moore rebounded in a big way, and hopefully, he can stay in this rhythm for future games. This offense is not a painting, it is a puzzle, with every piece fitting in according to how the defense responds.
The 2021 Cowboys are built for a playoff run
In the most literal sense, the Cowboys have the composition of a great team. This is not like 2014 and 2016, where Dallas relied on an explosive offense and a “bend-don’t-break” defense. They are built for the postseason.
If you think this is premature given what we have seen lately, we are resting on the assumption the offense is gaining some semblance of momentum after Sunday night. If that is not true, then sure, this team will likely lose in the Divisional Round at best. But if the offense can play at just 50% of what we saw against Washington, this takeaway is genuine.
Based on correlations between Super Bowl-winning teams and various metrics, a few ingredients are needed to win it all.
- An elite defense: The Cowboys currently rank as the number one defense in the NFL by EPA per play and third by DVOA. The defense is one of the best units in the league and can carry this team in the postseason. Elite defense: Check
- Dominating margin of victory: Seven of the last ten Super Bowl Winners ranked top-ten in the NFL by margin of victory, and four of the ten ranked either first or second. The Cowboys currently rank second at +150, an average margin of victory per game of ten, falling only behind the Bills. Margin of Victory: Check
- An above-average offense: Defense indeed wins championships, but the offense needs to convert on the opportunities the defense gives them. The Cowboys don’t need 56 points every game; they simply need a complimentary offense. Gone are the days where the offense needs to carry the defense. Offense: Hopefully found its rhythm again; if so, then check
- Playmakers at every level: Having players than can completely change the momentum of a game at every position group is the mark of a championship team. The Cowboys have talent all across the board on offense, on the defensive line they have Gregory and Lawrence, a linebacker with Parsons, a cornerback with Diggs, a safety with Jayron Kearse, and even special teams talent with Bryan Anger. Playmakers: Resounding check
The table is set. The Cowboys have what they need to make a deep playoff run, and this truly could be a different year than prior seasons. The ceiling of this team rests on the offense playing complementary football, but the ingredients are there; we just have to hope they are combined at the right time.
The Cowboys seem to be peaking right as the playoffs are arriving. The defense is playing at a dominant level, and hopefully, this was a “get-right” game for the offense. Time will tell as the Cowboys have a date with the Cardinals coming up.
It was a great end to the holiday weekend. Dallas clinched the playoffs on Thursday, the NFC East on Sunday afternoon, and then ran the Football Team out of the building on Sunday night. Merry Christmas, Cowboys fans, walk into the New Year with your head held high.