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3 areas of concern after Cowboys narrowly escape Chargers

What are your biggest concerns with the Cowboys right now?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Theoretically, the Dallas Cowboys’ 20-17 win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday night was the perfect conclusion to Week 6 in the NFL for the Cowboys and their fans. Everything seemed to go in their favor. First, in the early slate of games, the San Francisco 49ers, who had soundly beaten the Dallas Cowboys a week earlier, lost to the Cleveland Browns. Then, in the afternoon games, the New York Jets wrestled a last-minute win against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Plus, as a bonus, the Buffalo Bills beat the New York Giants in the final seconds of Sunday Night Football. The outcome of those first two games leaves the Cowboys just one game behind for the best record in the NFC, and the possibility of securing the NFC East and the top seed in the NFC playoffs feels more tangible than it did a week ago.

While celebrating a crucial win and watching the national media playing mental gymnastics to mitigate the impact of the 49ers and Eagles losses in a way they wouldn’t dare do in favor of Dallas, some concerns came from Monday’s win. Here are three things that don’t sit well after the Cowboys win to improve to 4-2.

Clock management

The best way to characterize head coach Mike McCarthy’s clock management against the Chargers is puzzling. Take the closing sequence of the first half, for example. After a CeeDee Lamb 22-yard gain, the Cowboys had 1st and 10 from the Los Angeles 48-yard line with fifty seconds left to play in the second quarter and two timeouts left. On the next play, Prescott completed a pass for an 11-yard gain to Michael Gallup, whose forward progress is stopped while in bounds, which allows the clock to continue to run. McCarthy opts not to call a timeout in this situation. This is pivotal because, on the next play, the Cowboys are flagged for holding and are then backed up to the Chargers’ 47-yard line with only 21 seconds, allowing 29 seconds to come off the clock and be virtually back to where they started.

Somehow, the Cowboys are lucky enough to pick up 30 yards on the ensuing play, following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Chargers safety Derwin James that stops the clock and places the Cowboys at the Los Angeles 17-yard line with 14 seconds left in the half and both of their timeouts left. Instead of being aggressive and using the gifted yardage from the Chargers, McCarthy is content with taking a 3-yard check-down from the offense, allowing time to come off the game clock and settle for a field goal.

The decision was so bizarre that the officials inadvertently stopped the clock, assuming that McCarthy would make the wise decision and make at least one attempt at the end zone. Instead, McCarthy played the situation overtly conservative, taking extra time off the clock and a slim three-point lead into the second half.

This decision only sends mixed signals to what the coach’s identity is and, by proxy, its players. It also makes one ponder the question, does the head coach have complete confidence in the quarterback not to make a mistake and take points off the board? It’s unfathomable that McCarthy thought not attempting to go for a touchdown was the more appropriate choice.

One could also make the case that if McCarthy intended to also settle for a field goal at the end of the fourth quarter on the offense’s game-winning drive, then why didn’t he choose to drain the clock deliberately after Brandin Cooks’ clutch catch on 3rd and 9 on the said game-winning drive, snapping the ball with 22 seconds on the play clock and 2:40 minutes on the game clock. Working the clock further could have been a strategic ploy to force Chargers’ head coach, Brandon Staley, to call his remaining timeouts on the plus side of the two-minute warning. Things happened to work out in the bigger picture, but the execution at the game’s end could have been better from Dallas’ head coach.

Personnel usage

Dak Prescott was 21 of 30 on his passing attempts. Seven of his nine incompletions were passes intended for Michael Gallup. Gallup had a rough night against the Chargers and struggled to make plays when the ball was thrown in his direction. The lowlight of his night was a pinpoint pass from Dak Prescott that would have been a 35-yard touchdown had Gallup not allowed the pass to bounce off his arms for an incompletion.

The insistence on involving Gallup came at the expense of tight Jake Ferguson, who only had one target against Los Angeles, is odd. It’s understood that the Cowboys have a vested financial interest in Gallup succeeding, who is in year two of a five-year, $57.5M contract. On a night where Gallup struggled to win against press-man coverage, Prescott was 11-for11 targeting Brandon Cooks and CeeDee Lamb. Continuing to target Gallup isn’t proper allocation of their offensive weapons. Returning to Ferguson for a moment, the decision not to attack the Chargers predominantly in the middle of the field when they have shown this season they are susceptible to tight ends shows a lack of understanding of the opposition.

The Chargers were playing split safeties, and the Cowboys sparingly attacked that area, a point made by Troy Aikman on the Monday Night Football broadcast. Jake Ferguson could have easily been given more chances, especially for a Chargers defense that has allowed six catches a game to tight ends. Furthermore, besides Pollard’s 60-yard catch and run, the team needs more explosive plays downfield. It’s time we see those targets go to players like Brandin Cooks or even KaVontae Turpin instead of Gallup, if only sporadically.

Trying to establish the run predictably on early downs

Much of the discussion leading into Monday’s game was the storyline of the Dallas Cowboys facing off against their former offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore. Moore served as the offensive coordinator in Dallas for four seasons, and after the 2022 season, which resulted in another disappointing offensive showing in the postseason. Following last season, the Cowboys did not retain Moore, and the two sides parted ways. While many have conjectured that Moore’s offense grew stale and predictable, more has stayed the same with Mike McCarthy calling plays this year.

The Cowboys have run the ball on 34% of their first downs through six games. Except for a Dak Prescott kneel-down at the end of the game, Dallas ran the ball on 12 of their 26 first-down plays (46%). Worse, the running game was not efficient on those runs. Dallas totaled 44 yards on first down runs; two of those runs were an end around to Brandin Cooks for 14 yards and a scramble by Dak Prescott for 11 yards. That means ten first-down runs by running backs resulted in 19 yards; that’s an average of 1.9 yards per first-down rush by a tailback.

Unsurprisingly, this made things increasingly more difficult for the offense. Naturally, the Cowboys opened the offense on second and long to give themselves a chance to move the sticks on 3rd down, right? Wrong. When faced with second and 8 or longer on 12 occasions, McCarthy opted to run the ball four times. The stubbornness of McCarthy to force something that wasn’t working speaks to brutish, stubborn coaching, like the last coaching regime. The insistence upon a running game that wasn’t doing anything and then doubling down on it on second down should be most troubling.

Luckily for Dallas, Dak Prescott was terrific playing with the cards the coaching staff dealt him and pressed him into a more prominent role on money downs to keep the offense afloat. It’s fortuitous that the team didn’t have any turnovers when the game plan forced them to be more aggressive against third and very long most of the night. The defense also did its part to deliver the win, along with Prescott’s good game. However, it seems like the team won despite Mike McCarthy’s decisions, not because of them.

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