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Cowboys point/counterpoint: Looking for direction after yet another disappointment

Figuring out the Cowboys problems is no easy thing.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys
The luster is gone for them.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Sadly, it is now the 2022 offseason for the Dallas Cowboys after getting dumped from the playoffs at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers. At the midway point of last season, we thought the team had most of the answers they needed. Now, there seem to be nothing but questions that have to be addressed.

All last season, we did our point/counterpoint weekly posts. Now the three contributors to those, David Howman, Tom Ryle, and Terence Watson, look ahead and discuss what they think are the most important things to work on.

Terence: There is going to be a lot of talk about what went wrong and what could have been done to change the outcome of another Dallas Cowboys letdown season. Well, the time for thinking about what could have been is over at the Star, so the Cowboys front office must shift their immediate focus to player retention as well as coaching staff retention and replacement. One of those decisions is on whether or not to bring back offensive coordinator Kellen Moore who is starting his tour of head coaching interviews. Moore has been a hot name the last two seasons as a future head coach in this league, but the Cowboys need to evaluate whether or not Moore is what they need. This should have been a high-powered Cowboys offense, but that fizzled badly. If teams look at how that went and decide not to hire him for a head coaching job, does Dallas really want to be stuck with him?

Moore has had his ups and downs since taking over as the play-caller for the Cowboys offense, and many thought some of the issues was his head coaches, who were offensive coordinators before, hijacking his duties at times or at least restricting what he could do. But with those issues surfacing with two different head coaches, we have to put the blame on Moore. Even though this was one of the best offenses we’ve seen out of the Cowboy in some time, they were also the biggest weakness when the games mattered the most. That had to do in large part because of the play-calling from Moore. The inventive plays that seemed to be working early in the season along with the running game just seemed to fade away. Moore seemed to rely upon the arm of Dak Prescott when he had one of the best backfield combinations in the league in Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.

His willingness to abandon the run in games on a whim is just perplexing. That along with his reluctance to try mixing his plays up a bit more made it easier for defenses to key in on what the Cowboys were going to do. Dallas needs some new blood in that offensive coordinator seat, new ideas, and concepts that will effectively use that talent on this offense because they are again becoming too predictable in my eyes and that reminds me too much of when Scott Linehan was calling the plays.

David: I have to disagree with Terence here, and not just because that’s the nature of these point/counterpoint pieces. I think we’ve forgotten just how bad and predictable the offense was under Scott Linehan. Even though the Cowboys offense this year had a high amount of variance from week to week, they still finished the year as one of the most efficient units in football. Kellen Moore is undoubtedly smart, and his connection with Dak Prescott is invaluable, but we have to remember he did just complete his third year calling plays. He’s still very new to this, so him needing growth in this respect is to be expected.

I happen to think the offensive issues go deeper than Moore, though. While I would like to see Moore improve in a few areas, most notably in red zone play design, he’s faced a serious problem with his unreliable offensive line. Tyron Smith can’t stay healthy any more and he and La’el Collins got rocked by the 49ers pass rush, even when Nick Bosa wasn’t playing. I’ve advocated for both Connor Williams and Tyler Biadasz plenty this season, but they’ve also had their bumps along the way.

Overall, I think this offensive line right now is stuck in the middle. They have games where they look unstoppable and games where they look like it’s their first time playing the sport. Moore and Prescott did a good job of scheming around it for a while but eventually we started to see Prescott rush his progressions or get happy feet because he didn’t trust his protection to hold up. I think the secret to “fixing” this offense all starts up front. Now, how do you fix something like that? Right now, I’m short on answers.

Tom: David, you hit on something I see as one of the things (unfortunately they seem legion) that the Cowboys have to deal with, the uneven and often bad performance of the offensive line. That is a real limiting factor for Moore, and so far he has not come up with the adjustments needed. Finding more talent for the offensive line should be a priority for the team, on which I have done a separate post.

And that goes even further. The O line, the running backs, the wide receivers, even the quarterback failed at times, especially in the Wild Card loss. There is no doubt that Moore’s play-calling had a role, but it is hard when plays that should work fall apart due to poor execution - and we certainly saw plenty of that. Now the Cowboys go into the offseason with cap issues, limited draft resources when compared to last year, and the well-established aversion to putting much money into free agency. Last year was all about reinforcing the defense, and I argue that they did a great job with that. This year looks to be the inverse, with offense the area that needs whatever they can throw at it. Further complicating things is the many free agents they stand to lose, plus any releases they may decide to make with the need to free up cap space or just because they choose to move on.

New talent isn’t enough. The players they do retain also have to do much better. That is part of what is worrisome about things. There are just so many areas that fell short in 2021. It is going to be hard to get all these moving parts aligned if we are to see any improvement. I fear we might even see a good bit of slippage. Maybe the NFC East will continue to be a walkover for them. But all teams are trying to get better. That is not something they can rely on.

Terence: You both some very good points, David the offensive line did hinder the Cowboys’ ability to succeed due to lackluster play throughout the season. Tom, free agency has the potential for them to lose a lot of players that were big contributors on offense this season. But I can’t help but think this will all lead back to Moore.

Like you said Tom, he could have done a better job with his schemes to put the offensive linemen in better position to succeed, especially the offensive tackles that didn’t have the best season. He left them in more one on one’s instead of leaving a tight end to help block and give Prescott more time. He could have even done more three step drops with Prescott and utilize his receivers’ ability to beat press man and win on early routes to take pressure off the O-line.

This could also have the potential to keep free agents from wanting to return based on their usage or lack thereof at times. There were games where Pollard was clearly the better option in the backfield over Zeke and yet Moore continued to trot Zeke out even when he was hurt. I just believe it’s time for a fresh start for both sides, Cowboys inject some new ideas and a less predictable style of play while Moore gets a chance to either coach his own team or get more experience play-calling for another team.

David: The thing that makes Moore and his offense so great is that it’s not any specific scheme; instead, he uses just about any concept he can find. The downside to that is that his offense doesn’t have a clearly defined “bread and butter” style of play to fall back on when things go wrong. That’s where experience comes in and, as mentioned, Moore is still short on that. I don’t think that’s enough of a reason to throw away the relationship between the play-caller and quarterback. I’m also dubious that any other offensive coordinator would actually play Tony Pollard over Ezekiel Elliott. I think it’s likely that the most involved owner in the league makes it clear to anyone and everyone that the highly paid Elliott is to get the lion’s share of the snaps, even if he’s playing with a partially torn ligament, as it turns out.

As it relates to the offensive line issues, I think Joe Philbin is someone to note here. He molded several great players in Green Bay and the work he’s done in developing Terence Steele and Tyler Biadasz early on has been impressive. Smith, Martin, Collins, Williams, and even McGovern are not his guys. If the Cowboys decide that the OL is a big enough need to address this offseason, does Philbin make a case to get “his guys” in a similar manner to how Dan Quinn got players in the draft that fit his desired scheme?

Not only would that be an interesting wrinkle for an offensive line that was once the cream of the crop, but it would symbolize a complete and total commitment to the Mike McCarthy era given how far back he and Philbin go.

Tom: David, that is one of the baffling things about the Cowboys. Was Philbin an asset, or did he fail to have the line ready to go against good defensive fronts? His work early in the season looked very good, but the line really started to come apart in the latter half of the season - along with everything else about the offense, unless they were wiping their feet on NFC East doormats.

For the moment, however, it appears any coaching changes will be driven by other teams hiring someone off the Dallas staff, and the best bet is that Dan Quinn leaves, which could lead to wholesale changes with a new DC (unless they promote from within, which seems unlikely).

So the offense, which was the biggest issue, could keep their coaching staff intact, while the vastly improved defense may see a whole new set of coaches. Yeah, that sounds great.

No matter what, the staff will have to deal with Jerry Jones and his unique, and dysfunctional, approach to the GM job. He loves owning the Cowboys, but his suspected fantasy is to be the head coach. That is the root of things like the Elliott workload mentioned by David. It is a problem that is not going away, especially since the heir apparent, Stephen Jones, seems to have a very similar view of how to run things.

I think we will look back on 2021 as one of the greatest missed opportunities in terms of roster that the Cowboys have even had. And we probably need to brace ourselves for things being worse for a year or two.