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Cowboys have to find playoff success as a one-dimensional team

The run game simply has not been working for the Cowboys.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys
This just isn’t working.
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

It was very appropriate that CeeDee Lamb had a monster, record-breaking night catching the ball for the Dallas Cowboys in the one-point win over the Detroit Lions. This was a game where the offense was almost completely reliant on Dak Prescott passing the ball. He, Lamb, and the other receivers combined for 323 yards and two touchdowns, while the running game only managed 61 yards. And this was no aberration. Against good defenses this year, the ground attack has generally been held to around 100 yards or less. Like it or not, the Cowboys have become a one-dimensional offense.

The season finale to take the NFC East is against the Washington Commanders, who held them to exactly 100 in the first meeting on Thanksgiving, but the Commanders have yielded the second most yards against the pass in the NFL, and the most touchdowns. The lack of an effective running game is not likely to be much of a hindrance against them, and with the possibility that Washington is going to be largely checked out in this game, Tony Pollard and company could have a good day anyway.

(When looking up the stats, I couldn’t help but notice that the second most passing touchdowns in the league have also been given up by an NFCE team. And it isn’t the New York Giants. I found that both interesting and amusing, and wanted to share it.)

While things may change in the playoffs, there is no clear reason to think they might. Things should get tougher. Complementary football is generally held to be necessary to make a deep run. That is not always the case, and Dallas has to be able to buck the trend in order to avoid another disappointing postseason.

They do have reason to believe they can do so. Prescott is one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. He is fourth in yards and leads the league in touchdowns. While Lamb has been the obvious leader in his receiving corps with 1,651 yards, second only to Tyreek Hill in the NFL, Brandin Cooks, Jake Ferguson, and Michael Gallup have combined for 1,728, so Lamb is far from a one-man show. He’s just the biggest star. Cooks is especially valuable in scoring with seven TDs compared to Lamb’s ten.

The Cowboys have the tools to make this work. The issue is, will Mike McCarthy call the games to lean on the obvious strength of the offense? The evidence does not seem to indicate this. Against the Lions, he insisted on a nearly 50-50 split, calling ten runs and eleven passes on first downs against Detroit in a game where there were so many failed runs to start series.

McCarthy has done some good things, and if his team wins on Sunday as expected, he will have coached them to three consecutive 12-win seasons. That is praiseworthy, but he also has some significant flaws. His game and clock management at the ends of halves is at times maddening, and his stubbornness is another serious irritant. Establishing the run is a concept that has been convincingly discredited by better football minds than mine, yet McCarthy still clings to it. With Prescott, Lamb, and company, he needs to adjust his thinking to better reflect the modern realities of the game. Instead of trying to have balance on first downs, he needs to focus instead on what is the most likely play to find success. That is throwing the ball. Prescott completes passes at a 68.4% rate, which is what they need to lean on. A lot of the completions on first down would set up second and short, and that is when the run might be more efficient. They even have a nice insurance policy should a first down pass fall incomplete, as Prescott’s completion percentage on third down is 68.8%, making it still very likely they will get another set of downs even if they don’t get anything with a first down throw.

While it is likely to be harder to do so, Dallas also plays its best when it gets a lead. That also sets up a time when the run can be more useful as it can also burn clock, an idea that McCarthy seemed to have forgotten on the last scoring possession last Saturday. Getting ahead will almost always come via the air. If they do, then once again the run can become more important.

It they don’t have a lead, they have no real choice but to be pass heavy. It is clearly the way to get points.

All of this falls on the head coach and play-caller. He has to be realistic in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of his team, and act accordingly. It’s not like he has never faced a situation where his team had an outstanding passer and talented receivers with lackluster running. That was exactly the nature of the 2010 Green Bay Packers. McCarthy rode Aaron Rodgers to win the Super Bowl that season with a running game that was very similar in lack of potency to that of the Cowboys - even a bit worse.

He knows how to do this. While Prescott has not earned the right to be considered on the same level as Rodgers, he is not far behind. He can lead this team to success. He is also blessed with one of the absolute best targets in the game in Lamb. McCarthy should be able to utilize that to lead this team on a deeper run than we have seen in decades.

The Commanders game also is very important for this prospect. Win that, no matter what happens to the fading Philadelphia Eagles, and Dallas starts their playoff run at home. As you may have heard, they are undefeated at AT&T Stadium this season, with a sixteen-game winning streak stretching back into 2022. Not having to go on the road to a hostile environment has a lot to do with that. It is a lot easier to run the offense when you aren’t fighting extreme crowd noise.

The worst thing to do would be for McCarthy to keep dialing up early runs, especially if the first few get stuffed. Should Pollard or another back start finding early down success in the opening stages, that would of course change things. But if a couple of first-down carries get stuffed in the first quarter, then either McCarthy has to put the ball in Prescott’s hands, or the quarterback himself has to audible to passes.

It would be great to be wrong and see Pollard or Rico Dowdle suddenly explode in the playoffs. Realistically, that seems remote. This team is going to go as far as Prescott’s arms and Lamb’s hands and legs can take them.

Which is how it has been in so many games to get to this point.

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