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Reasons why the Dallas Cowboys offense declined over the course of the 2021 season

While it took a complete collapse from all eleven players, can we more accurately pin-point what went wrong for Dallas?

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

A time that felt like nothing could go wrong has soon become a source of pain and disappointment. Think back to the pre-bye week Dallas Cowboys; the offense was unstoppable, the defense was playing well enough to maintain a lead, and there were legitimate concerns that the Cowboys would be unable to retain Kellen Moore in the offseason.

Flash forward thirteen weeks later, and Cowboys fans are in an all too familiar situation. The roster, loaded with talent across the board, disappoints in a playoff game. The season comes to a premature end once again.

What went wrong with the Cowboys’ offense?

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

As is usually the case, people are quick to point fingers at the leader of the offense, and Dak Prescott has received his fair share of the criticism. Rightfully so, Dallas’ signal-caller regressed following the New England Patriots matchup.

For a little more context, we can compare weeks one through six Dak Prescott to weeks nine through the end of the season. Dak’s completion percentage declined by 8%, his yards per attempt decreased by 1.6 yards, and he had three times as many turnover-worthy plays. This regression led to a 20-point decline in his passer rating.

The stats justify the argument that Prescott underperformed over the back half of the year. However, his PFF grade was ninth in the NFL during the final twelve games of 2021. Additionally, with a near-6% increase in the Cowboys’ receivers drop rate, the blame shouldn’t end with Dak Prescott.

Prescott didn’t play to the level we expect, but he was not the only problem.

Another popular culprit for the offensive inefficiency has been Ezekiel Elliott. This has more merit considering his yards per attempt in the final twelve games was 1.6 yards less than in the first six games. In fact, Ezekiel Elliott rushed for more yards before the bye (six games) than after the bye (twelve games), 521 compared to 512.

But Tony Pollard declined as well, with a one-yard drop in yards per attempt despite gaining more yards after contact per attempt. Pollard also had more ten-yard runs in the first six weeks than the last twelve despite more rushing attempts.

The Dallas backfield underperformed as well. However, with a seismic efficiency decline by both Pollard and Elliott, it seems like the rushing game was facing an uphill battle. It would be odd for the two running backs to drop-off at the exact same point in the season due to both just “not playing well.”

The offensive line is a significant reason for the Cowboys’ struggles

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Gone are the days when the offensive line is the cornerstone of this team. With names such as Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and to a lesser extent, La’el Collins and Connor Williams, we might have unfairly believed the offensive line was set up for success.

But for the first few weeks, they were playing well; teams were blitzing 37% of the time, yet they were only surrendering eleven quarterback pressures and 1.5 sacks per game. This led to a 90.9% pass-blocking efficiency through the first six weeks, the best in the NFL over that span.

Entering the bye, the Cowboys’ front five was composed of four linemen graded in the top 30% of the league by PFF’s pass-blocking grading. Their run blocking was even more impressive, with five Cowboys linemen landing in the top 25% of PFF grading. There is a reason that Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard both produced at an elite level before the bye.

But then it turned for the worst. Whether it be the constant reshuffling of the offensive line rotation or Tyron Smith’s injury, the offensive line played horribly over the final twelve games. The 25 pressures allowed in the Wild Card Round meant the offense was doomed from the start.

But let’s compare it with the same stats we just used.

Teams refused to send pressure against Dallas in the second half of the year, with a 24% blitz rate over the final twelve games. This should mean Dak faced a cleaner pocket, right? Not only is this false, but it is mind-blowingly incorrect, with fifteen pressures and 2.4 sacks allowed per game. Teams were thus allowed to drop more defenders into coverage, yet they were getting to the quarterback more frequently.

Now, the obvious argument is that Dak was probably holding the ball longer in the pocket. But Prescott’s average time to throw only increased from 2.60 to 2.75. To put that into perspective, in the first six weeks, he was getting the ball out at the 10th fastest rate in the league, and in the final twelve games, he was still the 12th fastest quarterback in time to throw.

After the bye week, Dallas only had two linemen rank inside the top 30% of pass-blocking efficiency with Tyler Biadasz and Zack Martin. Similarly, Dallas had two linemen rank inside the top 25% for run blocking PFF grading with Zack Martin and La’el Collins.

If you need any more proof, Dallas’ running backs saw contact 2.2 yards past the line of scrimmage before the bye week, but that number decreased to 1.3 after the bye.

Here is the bottom line, it was a complete collapse across the board for every member of the offense, Dak Prescott included. No one was playing to the level we witnessed before the bye, and maybe that pace was unsustainable in the first place. It was horrifically bad for all eleven starting offensive players and the offensive coordinator. This is not an attempt to justify the poor performance of other contributors; once again, the drop-off is inexcusable.

However, the most apparent decline in performance came from the offensive line. This caused problems across the board and ultimately ended the Cowboys season. But this is a far scarier proposition than suggesting the problem only falls on Dak or Kellen Moore. As Cowboys fans know, building a dominant offensive line takes a lot of time and draft capital.

Maybe the Dallas Cowboys can pull a page from the Kansas City Chiefs and do it in one off-season. Given that this is unlikely, hopefully the front five can find the magic they captured before the bye week.