Cowboys’ offense falling off the rails was unexpected downfall of 2021 hopes

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“What’s wrong with the Dallas Cowboys’ offense?” was a familiar phrase over the second half of the 2021 season. The Cowboys sprinted out to a hot start on offense and although they wound up leading the NFL in both total yards and scoring, it never felt as though the offense was the same after their bye week.

Aside from the 50-point scoring outbursts against a tired Washington Football Team in Week 16 and a Philadelphia Eagles team playing backups, Dallas’ offense only scored over 30 points once after Week 6, which came against the Atlanta Falcons. The Cowboys did score over 30 against the Las Vegas Raiders on Thanksgiving, but seven of their 33 points in that game came courtesy of a Tony Pollard kickoff return for a touchdown.

In the first six weeks of the season, the offense for the Cowboys (defensive touchdowns not included) averaged 31.8 points a game. They were led by a balanced rushing attack that was hammering defense with running backs Ezekiel Elliott and the aforementioned Pollard, while also throwing the ball with quarterback Dak Prescott.

After the bye week, the offense cooled off. In the final 11 games of the year, the Cowboys averaged 26.3 points a game. However, when removing 50 burgers they scored against meager competition, and they only scored 20.2 ppg in the other nine games after Dallas’ bye week.

It’s clear something happened to cause the offensive production to take a dip.

Perhaps it was the calf injury to Prescott, he never did seem quite the same after it occurred.

Maybe the Denver Broncos and Vic Fangio were right, they had the blueprint to slowing down the Cowboys’ offense.

Perhaps Kellen Moore’s offense got too predictable and they never figured out how to adjust. It certainly felt like the creativity and play calling never got the offense back to the same level after the bye week.

Maybe the idea to play less man-to-man and not blitzing against the Cowboys was the winning formula. Prescott was destroying the blitz before teams realized it didn’t pay to bring pressure, but instead to keep more defenders in coverage.

It might have been a combination of all these things because the offense never looked the same. What seemed almost too easy in the first six weeks turned into a grind on offense. The Cowboys may have ended the year with the No. 1 offense, but to weekly observers of the team, it was obvious things were off with the offense.

Another possible reason for the downfall of the offense was the running game fizzled out. Early in the season, the Cowboys were dominating on the ground.

Through the first six weeks, the Cowboys totaled 986 yards on the ground, and were rushing for just over 164 yards a game. In the 11 games after the bye, the Cowboys ran for 1,133 yards, just 103 per contest.

It’s easy to blame the slump on the injury to Elliott, who partially tore his PCL in Week 4. However, Elliott still torched the New York Giants for 110 yards on 21 carries the following week and had 17 totes for 69 yards in Week 6.

Through the first six weeks, Elliott was averaging 17 carries a game, for 86.8 ypg and 5.1 yards a carry. To begin the year, Elliott rushed for 521 in six games.

After the off week, Elliott only topped 15 carries three times the rest of the season. His numbers dipped to 12.2 carries, 43.7 yards per game and just 3.56 yards per carry, gaining just 481 yards in his final 11 games.

The injury did seem to zap Elliott of some of his explosiveness and the Cowboys were utilizing him less as well. The dip in carries made sense because the team had a more explosive and just as productive a runner behind Elliott in Pollard, yet he wasn’t used as much after the bye week either.

Pollard’s carries from Week 8 on went from over 10 carries a game to 7.6 for the rest of the season. The super-sub ran for 407 yards in the first six weeks, averaging 6.67 ypc and 67.8 ypg.

After the Cowboys’ bye, Pollard only ran for 312 yards in nine contests. Pollard had 61 carries through Week 6, but only saw 69 carries for the rest of the season.

The sudden stoppage in Pollard’s usage is difficult to understand, especially with Elliott being banged up and needing some rest. Pollard was among the league leaders in yards per carry (5.5) all season, but his touches decreased over the last half of the year.

It wasn’t just at running back where the Cowboys weren’t as effective after the bye week either. The wide receivers, especially CeeDee Lamb, saw their production crash.

In the first six weeks of the season, Lamb had 497 yards and four scores. In that timeframe, Lamb had four games with over 80 yards receiving. In his final 10 games he had just 605 yards and two touchdowns, going over 80 yards just three times.

After the Week 8 win over the Minnesota Vikings, neither Lamb, nor fellow wideout Amari Cooper topped 100 yards receiving in a single contest.

For a team with such a solid offense, that doesn’t make much sense. It seems unfathomable that Dallas’ top two receivers couldn’t produce big games in the final half of the season.

If the Cowboys played in such a terrible division where they played five games against the NFC East in the last six weeks, why weren’t the offenses best players racking up the statistics?

The offense for the Cowboys had problems after the bye week. They couldn’t run the ball as effectively and they couldn’t throw it to their play makers. For a team that boasted so many skill players, Dallas had problems getting their best guys involved and it carried over into the playoff game.

In the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Pollard got just six touches, including four on a touchdown drive. Lamb had just five targets and Cooper had six catches, but for just 64 yards. The Cowboys couldn’t find a way to put their best players in position to succeed.

The answers will hopefully come this offseason. Fans will see if Moore returns, but questions and theories remain about what happened. Whatever the causes, it derailed a season that had immense promise.

Instead, it in bitter disappointment, again.

You can chat with or follow Ben on twitter @BenGrimaldi.

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