One of the things Mike McCarthy has consistently talked about since arriving in Dallas is his desire for complementary football. As he describes it, this means having shared philosophies between offense, defense, and special teams that allow all three phases to be equally successful.
Offensively, that means stringing together sustained drives that control the clock but also result in points. The idea is for the offense to take away time from the opponent but also put the opponent at a deficit, thus allowing a fully rested Micah Parsons and company to tee off on the quarterback and create more turnovers, which sets the offense up in great position.
For the most part, this approach has worked wonders over the last three years. This season, in particular, has seen the offense rank seventh in total time of possession while ranking second in drive success rate, which measures the percentage of down series that result in either a first down or touchdown. Meanwhile, their defense is 31st in total plays while having the fifth-highest amount of takeaways.
However, this was not the case on Thursday night. Playing their third game in 12 days, the Cowboys defense looked gassed from the start. A Seahawks offense that came into the game struggling, and ranking near the bottom in third-down efficiency, converted on all but one of their third downs in the first half and scored on all but one of their first half drives; the lone exception was a missed field goal.
The Cowboys offense actually one-upped them, scoring on all four of their first half drives, but they trailed 21-20 at halftime with the Seahawks getting the ball to start the third quarter. On that opening drive of the second half, Seattle put together a 10-play drive with just two third downs, both of which were converted, and Geno Smith ran in for a touchdown to extend the lead to to 28-20.
It became clear that the Cowboys would not win this game with complementary football. They were in a proper shootout, their first one all year long, and this game was going to come down to which team scored last. All of the pressure was on McCarthy, his offense, and Dak Prescott.
Without question, they delivered. The Cowboys responded right away with a 12-play drive that never once saw a third down and ended with Tony Pollard running in for a touchdown. Three plays later, they got the ball back thanks to an interception, but came up short when CeeDee Lamb dropped an easy pass on fourth down.
That would be the last time the Cowboys failed to score in this game until they took a knee at the end. They kicked a field goal on their next possession to trim the deficit to just five points. Then, Prescott hit Jake Ferguson in the endzone to take the lead. And later they kicked another field goal to make it a six-point lead.
All in all, the Cowboys scored 41 points and totaled 411 yards of offense, with Prescott throwing for 299 yards. This isn’t the first time they’ve put up this kind of performance, but it was the first time this year they had to grill up a 40-burger. And they answered the call beautifully. In fact, they averaged 0.232 EPA/play in this game, which was fifth among teams in Week 13. Their offensive success rate of 53.5% was second among all teams this week.
The Cowboys eventually got some very timely stops from their defense, which certainly helped, but this was not the type of game that fans have come to expect from Dan Quinn’s unit. If it wasn’t for McCarthy’s offense putting together a masterclass performance and keeping pace on the scoreboard, this game would’ve been over before halftime.
Furthermore, it’s at least a little bit encouraging to see the Cowboys show they’re capable of winning like this. They’ve proven, time and again, that they can blow out bad teams. But what happens when their defense isn’t sacking and intercepting the quarterback at will? That question had yet to be answered, but they passed the test with flying colors on Thursday.
Of course, the Cowboys will look to get back to their preferred method of winning, and the defense should benefit at least somewhat from their mini-bye week. But it’s nice to know that this team can win even when their defense, which has earned plenty of accolades lately, isn’t playing well. Kudos to McCarthy, Prescott, and the rest of this unit.