On the night after Christmas, the Cowboys had the entire league in front of televisions, ready to give the NFC's No. 1 seed a critical eye to see where weaknesses would appear.
The verdict is to hope that the Cowboys team that shredded the Lions' defense cannot be found in January, or the rest of the league may not even bother to try to take it down. For on this occasion, there was almost nothing the Cowboys didn't do well.
First, keep in mind that this Detroit defense had not surrendered 21 points in a game since Week 6. So to allow a season-high 42 points to Dallas, which seemed to be able to name its final score, was a rather impressive show of strength by the Cowboys.
Then to see the efficiency (the Cowboys only attempted 21 passes) and diversity (they used a season-high 11 different personnel groupings and variations) with a number of options they had not previously shown the league, it all appeared as a message sent to the Lions -- and more so to the rest of the NFC -- of "come and get it."
The Cowboys' offense has answered charges of growing stale, predictable, and even careful from two weeks ago, and now after seeing them shred the formidable Tampa Bay and Detroit defenses like they did -- 68 points, 824 yards of offense and just one turnover (a very rare Jason Witten fumble) -- it appears one could argue they are once again peaking at just the right time.
This offense has built a scheme that requires a defense to play everything "honest." That is, if you do not cover what the Cowboys show, they will simply run the play you think they are running. But if you seem to committed to the initial look, they will use your decision-making against you and go in the exact opposite direction of their look. This is what the good offenses can do. They can make you choose, and then your answer will never be right. You cannot cover everything against an offense that can stretch you and pull you in all sorts of directions at once.
This isn't about the Lions or Buccaneers. This is about 15 opponents over four months who have tried to slow the Dallas Cowboys down. We shall certainly give the New York Giants their due, but when you start to study the league stats, you see that the Cowboys -- with rookies at two of the most important spots -- have set the pace for the NFL on offense.
The NFL declares 15 different statistics to measure offensive performances as more significant than all of the others. They are: Yards per game, yards per play, rushing yards per game, rushing yards per play, passing yards per game, passing yards per play, interception rate, sacks per attempt, first downs per game, third-down percentage, fourth-down percentage, red-zone scoring percentage, goal-to-go scoring percentage, time of possession and points per game.
The Cowboys' offense ranks "top five" in 12 of those 15 statistics. Top five! They rank in the top two in six of them. The only three offensive metrics the Cowboys do not rank in the top five of are: passing yards per game (19th), third-down percentage (11th), sacks per attempt (13th). That's it. And we could easily argue that passing yards per game and sacks per attempt are mostly by virtue of not passing in the second halves of games they have in hand. The third-down percentage being as good as it is, with a rookie quarterback, is actually a very impressive accomplishment.
In other words, if you are complaining about the state of the Cowboys' offense and the premise that you think it can be better, allow me to help -- you are wrong. The Cowboys' offense has not ranked in the top-five category of everything in decades. In fact, let me help you on 2014. The Cowboys ranked in the top five in nine of the 15 categories. They were out of the top five in: Yards per game (7th), passing yards per game (16th), interception rate (14th), sacks per attempt (16th), first downs per game (11th) and fourth-down percentage (11th).
It has been some year around here.
WEEKLY DATA - DETROIT
A season high in points, yards per attempt, red-zone scoring, and the third-down numbers are back to where they need to be. The Cowboys set the Lions on fire with three touchdowns in each half and just put on an offensive clinic, so much that I had to stop picking plays to highlight below in the interest of time.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART - DETROIT
Hope you don't mind John making a chart for Dez Bryant. But you want some 20-yard throws for touchdowns? There. Three of them. (We will count the Dez back-shoulder fade as "close enough.")
Dak, once again, never approached the hint of an interception. The fact that a rookie quarterback can throw 23 touchdowns with a 105 quarterback rating and only four interceptions in an entire year of relevant NFL football, while being criticized by a large portion of his own fan base, is truly remarkable. Then you add in the other six touchdowns he has scored with his feet, and you have a 29-to-4 season in the TD/INT department, which generally is known as "Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady" territory. And he is a rookie. Who was picked at No. 135. Evidently, some people would look a gift horse in the mouth.
As you can see above, the Cowboys pretty much expanded their universe to show the NFL a little bit of everything to prepare for, in the event of a matchup with the Cowboys. They shifted groupings, looks and tendencies in a way that made you think they were toying with the overmatched Lions. I am sure they were not that cocky, but it sure started to look that way in the third quarter. They were calling their shots.
Let's take a look at some video to show you what was so impressive. Like I said, we could have looked at 20 plays, but since we are all on Christmas break, let's limit it to my favorite half-dozen:
Motion of Gavin Escobar (No. 89) shifts the Lions to the offense's left. They must respect the run left with Tyron Smith pulling out into space and Escobar setting the down block, or Ezekiel Elliott will punish them. This is a play we have seen, but seldom with the quick pitch element. The fake pitch does a great job of setting the trap, and the Cowboys roll back right, with Jason Witten uncovered and an easy way to get 23 yards off a very basic variation of showing run left and going pass right. If the defense doesn't shift, you run left. If it does, you come back right. They are always wrong.
Here is another view, and on plays like this, it will be the quarterback's decision on what looks best to him. The O-line and even Zeke don't know if they are getting the ball or not. But just look at the movement of the Lions' defenders and listen for them cussing when they realize they just fell into a trap.
Here is a throw that demonstrates that Dak is a good quarterback. Third-and-14. He has to read coverage here, check into the right situation, and then execute an accurate, on-time throw to the appropriate place. I will express again the opinion that good quarterbacks make their throws to places where the math makes sense. That means if he is doing it right, you never see the death-defying throws because he is not trying them. But when he sees a tasty matchup, he makes you pay for a dicey coverage plan. Like here, where they have three to cover three on the left.
Once Witten clears out the lane, it is now just two vs. two, with the Lions looking like they want to zone with the inside defensive back taking the shallow and the outside defensive back taking the deep. But, with leverage and the receivers' paths, there is just no way to close this lane to Brice Butler and the middle safety is not going to get there in time. Dak has to see the options and execute a quick and accurate throw to make this look easy. And he did.
Here are the Lions looking at Cover 1 with a run blitz to try to shut down this 11 personnel run from Zeke. They crowd the line and cover every gap. The problem here, of course, is if you are going to put seven in the box against six blockers, you better get the running back. If he breaks through, he is gone. Most of us said "gone" when Zeke took one step through the hole. There is no way the safety is going to bring him down. It is a deadly game the Lions played here.
Zeke chooses the B-gap between Zack Martin (No. 70) and Doug Free (No. 68), and because the Lions defensive back is taking the C-gap around, this thing is gone. And when you have a running back with a home-run gear, all he needs is a bit of daylight and he will do the rest. Run blitzes against 11 personnel works quite a bit. But that one time you miss, it hurts the scoreboard. Like Russian roulette, you only have to be wrong once.
This is the true test of a quarterback for me. Tony Romo used to make teams look silly in this and now Dak is, too. Empty in shotgun with 01 personnel, or S11-empty. Either way, it spreads the defense out with five targets on the line. You must pick your poison, but a quarterback will have a few options. No. 1, it chases you out of a blitz because it is so hard to disguise it when everyone is spread from sideline to sideline. No. 2, you want to leave a quarterback spy, because this is where a quarterback can look to break contain and move the chains on his own. This is another third-and-7. So, five wide with a quarterback spy is always going to mean Cover 1. Dak knows Darius Slay is not playing, so he is going to target the overmatched Johnson Bademosi (No. 29). Dez does the rest.
Watch Dak's eyes. He is taking the safety to the other side. He might even go there, but you know in the back of his head he is thinking that Dez is locked up in man coverage against a guy who is only on the field because the Lions have no other choice. At worst, he will draw a flag. At best, he will get a touchdown. How about both?
Here, 12 personnel. This is the Lucky Whitehead end-around. But this time, Dez plays the role of Whitehead. Probably because he is a left-handed passer, right? Well, this one definitely felt like something the Cowboys wanted to get out there to show the league for January preparations.
As you can see, Witten's man is thinking end-around, so he has to shed his block and get to the corner. And of course, when that happens, it is Witten who is five yards clear of everyone.
He must have wondered why he shed Witten so easily. Again, this is scheme and execution working together in perfect harmony.
And finally ...
A few weeks ago in this space, after the Giants game, we talked about the fact that the back-shoulder fade had disappeared. Why? Dak had hit Dez with it a number of times earlier in the year, and what better way to punish tight coverage? Well, they brought it back. This was the cherry on top, and it is a huge confidence builder that this can appear at any time again. This needs to be a big throw for Dak moving forward.
Again, Dak looks to the opposite side and then comes back. With great protection (again), this has the time to develop, and then Dak allows Dez to use his strength and body position to make this easy.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Given that Sunday should see a lot of regulars on the sideline for big parts of the game, this served as the last real rehearsal before the playoffs. And what a rehearsal it was. With nothing on the line against an opponent that had plenty, the Cowboys toyed with and destroyed the Lions with a flick of the wrist. Every component is operating at a high level and benefiting from the others.
This is not to say that they will never hit a rough patch. But it is to say that we see what happens when scheme meets execution. To go back to what we were saying in this space in October -- this appears repeatable and sustainable.
And if they roll out anything close to this, their playoff run will be lengthy.
Sunday night was a pleasant return to form for the Cowboys' offense in certain categories we deem to be pretty important. In fact, based on the conversations the Cowboys' fandom are having right now, it appears nobody actually is aware that this was the highest yards-production game of the season for a matchup that did not go to overtime -- these 449 yards were exceeded only by the 460 produced against the Eagles, which were aided by a 75-yard overtime drive.
The issue you would properly raise is where were all of the points that should come with those yards, because let's not forget that the effort was made much easier by the defense, which was able to give the offense two very short fields after turnovers. Surely, 26 points has to be the floor for any performance of that level.
And that is where we see problems that have been creeping into the Cowboys' game in December, which have very little to do with the quarterback play that everyone wants to talk about all day, every day.
I hope nobody minds me pointing a finger at the offensive line for a moment. As they all go to another Pro Bowl (it seems), I think we should also suggest that they need to clean a few things up. I would argue that it starts with this team allowing more sacks in the past three games than it had during any other stretch of the season. The nine sacks allowed in December mean that, in the NFC, only the Rams allow their quarterback to get sacked as much, and that Dallas already has allowed more sacks this month than it did in any other month all season.
This needs to be cleaned up quickly, of course. But the other issue has been linked to their lack of offensive success quite a bit recently -- penalties. Now, again, it is too simplistic to just say they are committing penalties and that they should just choose to not commit penalties.
Players generally commit penalties because they are losing a battle and are trying to prevent a disaster from happening. So, they hold; they fall back into desperation mode a bit. It happens when you ask someone to block someone they cannot block. This could go back to the injury of a blocking tight end, or that right tackle Doug Free is wearing down, or that left guard Ron Leary is not quite to the level of his colleagues, or that left tackle Tyron Smith is playing hurt. There are many possibilities here, but the facts are pretty clear: Only Baltimore and Oakland have been called for holding on offense more than the Cowboys have. The 28 holding penalties this year put them atop the NFC and at No. 3 in the NFL in a category you do not wish to lead.
Look at what happens to drives that encounter O-line penalties -- they die:
To prove this is no fluke, they had a similar effect on the Vikings game earlier this month:
With the talent on hand around here, clean drives mean touchdowns. But drive-killers are penalties and sacks allowed. They both are creeping into the game quite a bit and almost none of them have to do with the quarterback in question. Except for the reality that if Tony Romo gets sacked nine times in three games, you likely are trying to get a new quarterback out there to replace him because of an injury.
Penalties and sacks allowed. They are disconcerting problems because you begin to see that they don't just destroy every opponent. You allow sacks because they overpower you. You hold because you are losing your blocks. I think it is worth considering that this offensive line is great, but not invincible right now. They need to find another gear for January.
WEEKLY DATA - vs. TAMPA BAY
Lots of time of possession. Lots of yards. Third-down conversions were at 38 percent, which I believe is a tick below the league average for the season (39 percent). That is not going to raise your December average much, but it gets you back to where you are not embarrassed.
A better job mixing up the concepts and predictability on offense, and a better job from the quarterback of finding the right matchups and zeroing in on them.
Speaking of quarterbacks, have you ever in your life heard more noise around a 12-2 quarterback? Most quarterbacks who lead teams that are this successful are being thrust into the MVP conversation by their markets. In this city, I am bombarded by people who want their quarterback replaced by the old quarterback who many wanted replaced five years ago -- before he had enough injuries and surgeries to slow any career down to a crawl.
I think it is important to say a few things about Dak Prescott versus Romo from the perspective of having covered them both and finding them both to be quarterbacks I enjoy.
I have written a thousand pieces about Romo being an exceptional quarterback. I have been accused as a Romo cheerleader and homer. By the way, it is true. He is the only NFL quarterback of substance from my homeland ever, and I have a photo with him and my other favorite quarterback, Brett Favre, hanging on my wall as they shared a moment before their first meeting in 2007.
But I am here to suggest that this Romo absurdity from the fan base is craziness. He hasn't played well and healthy in nearly two years, and you want him to replace a perfectly healthy quarterback who is fourth in the NFL in YPA, third in passer rating and second in QBR? I must have lost my mind, because there is no way everyone else has collectively lost theirs, right?
I love the guy. He is not the best quarterback for this situation. In fact, his stock has never been higher -- precisely because he isn't playing. If he did play and revealed any signs of diminished ability because of health or age, the stock would fall. But on the sideline, we can claim anything we want. We can claim that he never had a roster this talented -- although the 2014 roster had a healthy and dominant Dez Bryant and a running back who hit historical highs across the board, too. We can claim that he would be better in the playoffs -- although his signature win is a wild-card defeat of the most hapless franchise in the NFC. We can claim that the injuries are all behind him and that they were not in any way connected, or related -- although after three of the past five times he has been hit, in live play, he has missed a minimum of two months. We can claim anything.
Then we can minimize what Prescott is doing. We can say his yards are cheap -- even if the stats suggest that is insane. We can say he is driving a bus -- even though his yards per attempt this season are higher than Romo's career average. We can say that he won't go downfield -- even though his "air yards" rank fourth among NFL starters.
And we do it in the name of loyalty to our guy. I get that. But I believe in loyalty to the team. It was here before any of these players were born, and it will be here after they are all gone. And this team is doing something special.
Which, while I am off on a rant, leads me to this ... this looming situation, when January is going to be unbearable. The noise has been so loud from within that when the Cowboys are eliminated from the playoffs, the noise from Romo loyalists is going to be louder than ever. They know it is disingenuous to claim that Romo guarantees playoff success, but they won't care. They will offer the false claim that Romo could handle the playoffs better (don't worry about the decade of facts that suggest that is stretching the truth a bit) and that the Prescott decision led to this disaster.
By the way, it may. Prescott may be a disaster in the playoffs. I will just tell you now, 12 teams make the playoffs every year and 11 of them go home in tears. And each of the 11 teams need someone to blame. A coach, a quarterback, a fumble, a call by the refs -- something. And even though the odds are stacked high against the Cowboys to win a Super Bowl, even if they have the No. 1 seed, the noise will come. And it will come for the rookie quarterback who has done great things that have never really been done by a rookie quarterback. So we must tear him down, I guess. This is a weird business.
No rookie has ever won a Super Bowl. No quarterback over the age of 35 who has never been to the conference championship round has ever gone on to win a Super Bowl, either. I guess they should just pack it in.
Who gives you the best chance to win right now? The quarterback who they are winning with. They have conformed to this new "high probability" style. They are not gunslinging their way to wins.
Who gives them the best chance to win a Super Bowl? The odds are long for both. Remember this. But again, the one who is helping them get the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason seems to have a pretty good case for that one, too.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART vs. TAMPA BAY
I put this on Twitter yesterday and everyone lost their minds over how many shallow passes he throws. I assume if this makes you lose your mind, you don't study these every week because this is modern NFL offense. At least, this is modern NFL offense that doesn't want the quarterback getting silly with the ball. Here is Tom Brady's visit to Dallas in 2015:
Aside from John's design from year to year, you may notice a similar high volume under five yards and an identical number of passes beyond 10 yards. Brady has a similar chart every week, but I guess (in our heads) we see him throwing bomb after bomb, or something.
PERSONNEL GROUPINGS - TAMPA BAY
As you can see, most of the production is coming from 11 personnel these days -- under center and shotgun. This was pretty predictable, and it shows that the Cowboys are seeing what we are seeing and starting to use what they do have instead of trying to force fixes for what they don't have. In other words, Joe Looney is never going to be a good blocking tight end. And neither will Gavin Escobar. So let's stop.
Let's look at some video and call it a day:
Big early run here out of shotgun-11, where they get a pulling Leary and Jason Witten into the hole with everyone blocked up well. Ezekiel Elliott is on the safety in no time and tries to jump him (because he can) and the Cowboys get a quick 13 yards. Notice the step Elliott takes left to set the timing and keep the linebackers honest.
A nice first-quarter third-down conversion here, where they bring Cole Beasley in motion to the left and Witten clears out the spot where Beasley can run an easy slant against a zone corner and pick up a big chunk down the middle. Again, high-percentage opportunity with low degree of difficulty. I guess you are supposed to apologize for taking these because there are no car chases or explosions -- just repeatable and sustainable offense.
Here, the defense crashes down on Elliott on the play-action fake, allowing Prescott to roll out and fire a dart to Brice Butler against Cover 1. Once Butler crosses his man's face, you take the sideline route. A difficult throw, but one that's into high-percentage parts of the field.
The end-zone view shows the nice job done by Prescott at the mesh point and a fine job by Butler in getting his feet down. Russell Wilson has made a fine career out of this sort of play, so I guess it shouldn't surprise me that people don't think Wilson is a star quarterback, either. Despite him being a sliver from two Super Bowl rings in four seasons.
Here is another shot to disprove this "bus driver" nonsense. If he is taking the easy throw, it is Witten. The throw to Bryant requires some zip and accuracy into a zone window in the middle of the field. This play didn't happen, given the feedback I have received about Prescott.
Look at Dak's eyes going to Witten. Pulling defenders to his eyes and then knowing he has Dez behind them. He then resets and zips a confident throw to the next spot. Back into his comfort zone and back to doing what he has shown all year.
Two more plays to look at here, where the Cowboys have been struggling to find their second tight end. Here, Scott Linehan rolls out Terrance Williams to do it. First on that tight end drag off the roll-out we have seen so many times. This is to start the third quarter. He seems faster than Geoff Swaim.
And then here is a play with Williams in motion and filling the role of blocking tight end (sort of) on the edge on this big Elliott run. This is an interesting modification that won't always work against all matchups, but it is a new wrinkle to consider if you are playing Dallas.
But that big run above does not happen if Prescott and the passing game don't get them off their goal line. This is a critical throw at a critical point in the game, midway through the fourth quarter.
This shows a confident coaching staff and a confident quarterback, realizing the game is hanging in the balance here and that they need to move the ball. He has to trust his offense and his receiver to get to that window as he risks standing in the end zone too long.
That was big. And like I said, the big Zeke run was on the next play.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
All in all, a pretty decent day from the offense and it can feel good about getting everything swung back in its favor. I cannot stress the need to clean up the penalties and continue focusing on details, but this was a fine step forward.
I recognize I wandered off the path here a bit, but I think Prescott deserves some credit for this season. Evidently, the NFL thought so by sending him to the Pro Bowl. Now if only his own fan base can learn to appreciate what they are looking at.
Like I said, this has been an odd and unexpected season.