While the NFL league year doesn’t start for about a month, we are officially on to 2022 now that Super Bowl XVI is in the books. While there are many lessons that could be taken from that spectacle, including how millennials now are facing their “old head” status as their music is now in the classic oldies realm, let’s focus on a few things about the victor in that game that are pertinent to the Dallas Cowboys as they seek to find a way to return to the big show after the ever lengthening drought.
Quit with the emphasis on running the ball
It is said that you learn more from your failures than your successes, and that can also apply to studying the Los Angeles Rams. It is time to face facts. Just, um, forget “establish the run.” That was clearly a point of emphasis for L.A. head coach Sean McVay. It nearly lost them the game. They averaged a truly pitiful 1.9 yards per attempt on the ground, yet they still handed the ball off 20 times. Outside of an end around play to game MVP Cooper Cupp, almost all of the others were failures. Frequently, they went to the run on first down. And frequently, they lost yards or just got one or two. That makes it so much harder to sustain drives.
If that sounds familiar, you were watching the Cowboys last season. This was also an approach used by Kellen Moore. Despite the futility of the early down run, the ball kept going to a running back, most often Ezekiel Elliott. That included all the games after he suffered a PCL injury. The evidence was clear that this is an ineffective way to run your offense.
The big picture here is that running the ball is just not doing much for most NFL teams. An occasional unicorn like Derrick Henry is the exception, not a model for offensive success. Elliott was once able to make a big difference, but for a variety of reasons, such as a less effective offensive line, he has become more of a liability on early downs. The fact teams know those early down runs are coming also just makes it worse.
The game has evolved. Too many offensive coordinators, including both Moore and McVay, have not kept up. McVay now has a Super Bowl victory on his résumé, but he often was calling plays in the game that should have led to a defeat.
A pass rush can make the difference
The things Stephen Jones is saying about DeMarcus Lawrence should strike a bit of fear in the hearts of Cowboys fans. While Cooper Kupp was awarded the MVP trophy, it probably should have gone to someone else.
Votes were due before the 2-minute warning. If voters had until the end of the game, I bet AD would have won it. https://t.co/rtT4f9hDwT— Charean Williams (@NFLCharean) February 14, 2022
One reason for that was how Aaron Donald made the final big play of the game. His pressure and near sack on the Cincinnati Bengals’ last offensive play led to the incompletion on fourth and one that decided the outcome.
Note that this crucial play was not a sack. The impact of the pass rush is far more than just getting the quarterback down. It is about ruining plays, and Lawrence does that far more than he is credited. Pass rush is one of the biggest factors in today’s NFL, given how the rules favor the receiver downfield. If quarterbacks have time and good vision, receivers will get open. The best thing a defense can do is cut down the time and interfere with his ability to read the field. Dallas needs to do all it can to improve that, and the best ways to do so are to not try and move on from Lawrence while finding the cap space to bring back Randy Gregory.
Speaking of the cap and roster building
The Rams were the epitome of going all in, cap space be damned. They went out and got Matthew Stafford, Odell Beckham Jr, Von Miller, and a lot of other talent, spending cap space and trading away draft picks like water. Now they are in the hole on cap space to the tune of minus $14 million and have traded away a ton of first-round picks.
Do you think they care? They went all in on winning now, successfully. And they built this roster with no first-round pick since 2016, and won’t have one until 2024 - if they don’t trade that one away. The deal to acquire Stafford was part of how they got here, and he turned out to be a real difference-maker with his proven ability to lead game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, as he did on Sunday. (Admittedly, he got a bit of help from the refs, who might have been giving a make up call for the missed blatant face mask committed against Jalen Ramsey that gave the Bengals a touchdown.) It wasn’t just that game, either. Stafford was doing it all postseason.
Clearly, the lack of draft picks and cap space did not hinder Los Angeles at all in building a championship roster. There is no reason to doubt that they can continue to construct a strong team going forward.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys (read Stephen Jones) act like cap space is an inviolable barrier and draft picks are the most precious rings forged in Middle Earth. That is despite the many times they have themselves created cap space by moving things into the future and trading picks when it suited them, such as getting Amari Cooper. While much of the things Jones has been saying are posturing, it does speak to the stubborn philosophy of using draft picks as far and away the most important part of assembling the roster while disdaining free agency as a way to get high-quality talent. All draft picks are a gamble. Even first-rounders can fail, as we saw with Taco Charlton. Since that bungle, the Cowboys are seen as one of the best drafting teams in the league. But that may not be entirely accurate. It turns out that their success in the draft is heavily weighted to those first round picks.
That wAV stands for “weighted approximate value.” Yes, it is another bit of analytics, but this is the way now. This shows that Dallas is actually mediocre after day one of the draft. And look at how the Rams have rather easily overcome their lack of first-round picks.
There is clearly more than one way to get to the peak of the NFL. Part of being successful is not getting mired in your own orthodoxy. That is a major issue for the Cowboys.
All of these are things that point to ways for Dallas to get better. Unfortunately there is little to no evidence they are going to use them.