More Questions than Answers for the Cowboys

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What do we take from the 2020 trainwreck that was the Cowboys? I’m going to buck the trend and say that there’s actually some things we can learn about this team, their philosophy, and things that may help us anticipate what is to come in 2021.

Offensively, it doesn’t get much more brutal than what we saw in Dallas last season. Their franchise quarterback was lost in the fifth game. Their top tight end who was expected to make a significant impact in the receiving game was lost in the season opener. Their offensive line dropped like flies all season long. RT La’El Collins was hurt in training camp and missed the entire season, LT Tyron Smith played in just two games and RG Zack Martin missed six games.

When Dak Prescott went down, Dallas turned to Andy Dalton. He was believed to be a top-3 backup in the NFL before the season. But he was absolutely horrible. He averaged 5.0 YPA and -0.02 EPA/att in his first start against the Cardinals in Week 5 on Monday Night Football, and the Cowboys were blown out 38-10. The very next week, Dalton averaged 3.9 YPA and -0.51 EPA/att in another loss, this time 25-3 against Washington. Dalton sustained a concussion in the game on a late hit.

His replacement the next week was the great JMU product Ben DiNucci. DiNucci averaged 4.5 YPA and -0.45 EPA/att in a primetime 23-9 loss against the Eagles.

The Cowboys then decided to give Garrett Gilbert a spin. He averaged just 6.4 YPA with -0.17 EPA/att and lost 24-19 to the Steelers.

Dallas, sitting at 2-7, crawled into their Week 10 bye to lick their wounds.

Two things beyond others stood out: how was this passing offense allowed to be so terrible – even considering the QB rotation, and secondly, where was Ezekiel Elliott?

The passing game averaged below 4.5 net YPA in three straight games (Arizona, Washington and Philadelphia), two of which were Dalton games . Only two other teams the last two years have gone three straight games with below 4.5 net YPA:

Washington Football Team in 2019 (coaching staff subsequently fired)
New York Jets in 2020 (coaching staff subsequently fired)

There’s legitimately no excuse to be that terrible for that many weeks without addressing the issues. It typically is a microcosm of something larger involving coaching in addition to just players themselves.

What was this coaching staff doing with Andy Dalton? They had more than a full week to prepare for his first start due to it being on Monday night. Of Dalton’s 57 dropbacks, only four used play-action. Of the 57 dropbacks, 56 came with three or more wide receivers on the field. 52 were in 11 personnel.

With 3+ WRs on the field, they were 75% pass. With less than 3 WRs, they were 90% run.

There was simply no disguise. The offense moved from a shotgun-based offense 80% of the time with Prescott to 85% shotgun with Dalton.

Plays from under center were runs 76% of the time and plays from shotgun were passes 75% of the time.

Some offensive coordinators may take the approach when passing with a weaker offensive line to spread the field with 3+ WRs and get it out of the quarterback’s hands quickly before the pressure can get to him. Other coordinators may add a tight end or back to help the offensive line in pass protection.

Regardless of what the desired approach is, if it’s not working, it must be changed… and quickly.

It was clear the offensive line wasn’t able to handle the protection with 3+ WRs on the field and yet nothing changed. Andy Dalton was a sitting duck.

The next game against Washington, Dalton was pressured on an insane 44% of his dropbacks in 3+ WR sets.

On his final play of the day, the Cowboys were in 11 personnel, backed up at their own 3-yard line. Dallas didn’t have the tight end inline, instead, had him split out in a trips formation to Dalton’s left. Washington brought only four rushers, so the lone back didn’t chip and instead, ran to the line of scrimmage looking for a pass. Dalton, from the gun, dropped back into his end zone and by the time he reached the back of his drop, the pocket collapsed. He stepped up, scrambled for a 6-yard gain on the third-and-10, and was concussed by a cheap shot from a Washington defender.

After Andy Dalton returned from his concussion, the offense improved and the team won four of its last seven games. But the offense was far from optimized.

For example, Dalton’s splits from shotgun were significantly worse than from under center, yet they still used roughly 80% shotgun snaps. The team was still far too predictable with play calls based on alignment (70% run from under center, 80% pass from shotgun). Even early downs in the first three quarters (removing predictable pass situations), the Cowboys were 79% pass from shotgun (NFL avg = 66% pass) and 68% run from under center (NFL avg = 63% run). Dalton was more efficient when passing from under center and sacked far less often.

Dalton was far more efficient on early down passes when using play-action, but the team rarely used it. From his Week 10 return onward:

With play-action: 22% usage, 9.0 YPA, 64% success, +0.22 EPA/att
Without play-action: 78% usage, 7.0 YPA, 52% success, +0.04 EPA/att

And keep in mind, the NFL average play-action usage on early downs last year was 33%. The Cowboys’ 22% usage ranked third-lowest in the NFL, despite the massive spike in efficiency it delivered.

The bottom line: after Prescott’s injury it was a tough situation for Dalton as well as the offensive line… but it was not a situation that was made any easier by preparation, planning or adjustments.

The other question: where was Zeke?

There are many arguments that the pro-running back crowd likes to make in support of having a blue chip, highly-drafted back: His production will be special. He can support below average quarterback play. He’ll generate yards beyond what his line is blocking. He’s so much better than the next guy on deck.

In one season, Zeke undermined all of those arguments. Not that they weren’t already debunked by countless other highly-drafted running backs over the years. But I challenge any pro-RB individual to defend their stance after witnessing what happened in Dallas last year.

But first, a quick trip down memory lane where I looked at the last 20 first round running backs drafted, which spanned 2009-2020.

Of the 20:

Most (15 of 20) haven’t even led their team in YPC as the primary starter.
Half (10 of 20) haven’t even gained above average yards per carry.
Their teams won fewer games the following three years than the year prior to drafting the RB.
Their teams made fewer trips to the playoffs than they did prior to drafting the RB.

With that understood, let’s examine Zeke. When the team needed him most, he didn’t perform. But why? What made Zeke great in the past but not this year?

For starters, let’s examine the quarterback splits: with and without Prescott in 2020.

With Dak: 4.1 YPC, 56% success, +0.00 EPA/att
Without Dak: 3.9 YPA, 48% success, -0.12 EPA/att

Let’s also look at where runs typically have the most value, which are those in the red zone:

With Dak: 3.0 YPC, 71% success, +0.27 EPA/att
Without Dak: 1.8 YPC, 37% success, -0.10 EPA/att

It’s almost as if a great running back can’t magically support below-average quarterback play. It’s also almost as if the presence of a good passing game helps rushing efficiency.

The offensive line was problematic for several games while Dak was still healthy, and yet Zeke’s drop off didn’t come because of the line, it came because Prescott got hurt. That said, the offensive line certainly was a large part of Zeke’s struggles later in the season.

The offensive line ranked top-10 in run blocking in three of Zeke’s prior four seasons and has been one of the very best in the NFL for years. But in 2020, it dropped to 29th. And although still healthy, Zeke saw his production fall off immensely.

It’s almost as if the offensive line is responsible for most of a running back’s production. It’s almost as if having a great offensive line is more important than having a great running back.

We’ve discredited every pro-RB argument there is, except for one: “He’ll be so much better than the next guy on deck.” Surely, with all the other excuses RB-truthers would make for Zeke, there’s no chance Tony Pollard could upstage Zeke. After all, Pollard is playing with the same terrible quarterbacks and behind the same terrible offensive line. Pollard is a fourth-rounder, Zeke was drafted fourth overall.

And yet, Pollard’s EPA/att was -0.02 (on 80 att) after Dak’s injury compared to Zeke’s -0.12 (on 137 att). On the season overall, Pollard gained 0.13 yards above expectation, nearly double Zeke’s 0.07.

Against standard seven-man boxes after Dak’s injury, the splits weren’t close:

Elliott: 3.3 YPC, 46% success, -0.18 EPA/att
Pollard: 4.9 YPC, 52% success, +0.04 EPA/att

Against light boxes, Pollard was gaining +0.14 EPA/att compared to Zeke’s -0.09 EPA/att. The only place Zeke was better was, unsurprisingly, against stacked boxes (although Zeke was still averaging -0.07 EPA/att).

At this point, we could ask the question of how great is Zeke? In 2019, his highest touchdown season since his rookie year, he finished 18th in player tracking metric Rushing Yards Over Expectation, per NFL Next Gen Stats. In 2018, his best season as a pro since that rookie year, he ranked 15th. Zeke also has 21 fumbles in his five year career, seven more than the next highest running back in that time, including 15 in his last three years.

No one would have expected the Cowboys to make the playoffs without Prescott. But seven wins was enough to win the NFC East. What better way to show that elite running backs matter than by putting the team on his back, supporting below average quarterback play and a banged up offensive line?

But in his 10 games after Prescott’s injury, Elliott exceeded the NFL average in YPC (4.4 yards) just twice. One of which was vs the No. 27 run defense of the Vikings and the other, a Week 16 win over the Eagles, which saw him gain 4.1 YPC on 18 runs and 31 yards on a 19th run to up his average from 4.1 YPC to 5.5 YPC.

If Elliott needs elite quarterback performance to have success as well as an elite offensive line, he’s absolutely not worth $90 million and especially not worth $14 million cap hits — which is what he’ll hit the Cowboys cap for in each of the next three years and in five of the next six — particularly when a second-year player drafted in the fourth-round is outproducing him.

Here's a sobering thought: running back Ezekiel Elliott's total cap hit the next two years is higher than Tom Brady's. Elliott’s cap hit this year is higher than the hits for both Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady...the quarterbacks that won the last three Super Bowls.

At the end of the day, I was left with two thoughts that I think can be taken away from the Cowboys offense in 2020 despite the injuries: I walked away more disappointed in their coaching (from a playcalling, adjustments, and game planning perspective) and more convinced paying Ezekiel Elliott won’t be worth it and was a mistake.

Both of these things spill over into 2021. But the good news is, Prescott is back and the Cowboys’ offensive line should be much better than it was in 2020. Let’s keep in mind, however, that the Dallas offensive line continuity wasn’t even 10th-worst in the NFL last year. Although they did suffer the second-most games lost due to injury, they did have stretches with the same starters. While some teams went only two consecutive games with the same line, the Cowboys went five games (something that 16 teams can’t claim to have done).

One thing that never fell off in 2020 and is here to stay in 2021 is the stud receiving corps. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb played all 16 games last year and return to do the same this year.

Dallas is also hoping the removal of one-and-done defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in exchange for former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn makes a difference. We shall see if that helps, but it certainly can’t hurt. Here are Dan Quinn’s defensive ranks in Atlanta based on EDSR (Early Down Success Rate):

2015: 31
2016: 27
2017: 30
2018: 29
2019: 32 (before firing himself from calling plays)

A completely new set of players, with substantial investment on the defensive side of the ball, has the potential to help Quinn. The Cowboys invested their first six draft picks from 2021 into their defense, and their four highest paid players signed in this year’s free agent class were all defenders. Dallas knows they won’t win the NFC East with just offense and a terrible defense, and they’ve set out to improve on it in 2021 via personnel and coaching.

Your outlook for the 2021 Cowboys depends on what area you want to focus on most. This offense should be just as impressive as they were to start the season last year with Dak, but they’re unlikely to be a fully optimized unit. I haven’t loved most of what I’ve seen from Kellen Moore but I certainly don’t see him as an extreme liability or a bottom-third offensive coordinator. Additionally, where did that supercharged offense get them with Prescott in 2020? They went 2-3 with him as the starter. One win came against the 4-12 Falcons by one point, which required Dallas to outscore Atlanta 30-10 in the second half including an insane onsides kick blunder by Atlanta. The second was a 3-point win over the 6-10 Giants. At the end of the day, they still have to be consistent.

In Prescott’s starts, 93% of the Cowboys’ drives began when the game was tied or they were trailing, fourth-most in the NFL behind only the Jets, Jaguars and Washington. That’s not in the games he missed, that’s when Dak played!

This defense cannot be worse prepared or coached than they were for most of last season, but there’s no assurance the players and new coaches they’re adding will help boost the defense meaningfully.

The schedule bodes well for the Cowboys. I forecast them to play the sixth-easiest schedule, predominantly due to the fact that they face a considerable number of bad offenses outside their own subpar division. This could help their defense significantly (although they played bad offenses in 2019 as well). The largest shift for them comes from run defenses. Last year, Elliott and company faced the NFL’s second-toughest schedule of run defenses. I predict they will face the ninth-easiest schedule of run defenses in 2020. The 2021 Cowboys need to improve in a lot of different areas but there is a reasonable path forward for this team to finally meet expectations.

Stay tuned over the next eight weeks as we preview all 32 teams with daily articles and videos right here at the preview hub. For complete team chapters featuring dozens of visualizations and 462 pages, pick up a copy of Warren Sharp’s new ‘2021 Football Preview’ book.

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