Editor's note: This story first appeared on Dallasnews.com on Jan. 17, 2017.
There is an old story in the hockey world about the Edmonton Oilers dynasty. When they were just starting out together as a group of kids, they had to climb their way to the top of the league. Sitting at the top was the old dynasty, the New York Islanders, who were winning their fourth straight title at the expense of Wayne Gretzky and those kids from Edmonton in the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals.
The young Oilers were disappointed that they hadn't quite figured things out in losing to the old Islanders, but they knew they were close. That idea was cemented in their heads when they walked by the winners' dressing room and didn't see a celebration, but rather 20 exhausted guys with barely enough energy to congratulate each other. The Oilers lost, but knew from that moment -- when they hardly felt winded -- that it was just a matter of time.
Now, this isn't to say the Packers are a dynasty, or that Aaron Rodgers is old. But it did pop in my mind when I saw the demeanor of the two Cowboys rookies that this team is now built around, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, after the game Sunday night. They looked bummed, but unfazed. If the Cowboys were allowed to play again today, they are fresh, ready, and eager. In other words, those two young lads know their time is coming for playoff success. It is just a matter of time.
Those two, Prescott and Elliott, are the prism through which we should view the 2016 Dallas Cowboys season. There were many other players doing many other things, but in the end, if this doesn't feel like the sunrise of a new era of Cowboys football to you, I think you are missing it. We can question the way we got to this point and the allocation of resources in certain areas at the expense of others, but given that you cannot unspill milk, this is the course they are on and it appears to be very good.
Now, let's get to the more pressing issue of why they are not playing anymore football. As we told you last week, the offense had a much easier matchup than the defense, but with that came much more responsibility to put out a flawless performance.
Let's look at the initial numbers that often indicate success:
OFFENSIVE DATA BOX
Thirty-one points, 429 yards, 55 percent on third downs and one giveaway. Those are all numbers you would have taken on Saturday night to feel like you were definitely going to win Sunday. Twenty-five first downs? And 6.7 yards per play? Only nine possessions the whole game? These all look great.
I said all week that the game was going to be a race to 35 points. I said 30 points might not be enough. I also said that settling for field goals might get you beat. This is not an exercise in self-congratulating, but rather a reminder that numbers are impressive in a shootout and the game was just a hair away. But basically, I want to make this point: 429 yards and 31 points do not amount to an A+ if you know you need to maximize every opportunity.
If settling for a field goal one time too many, or giving Green Bay a 10th possession instead of nine is the margin that gets you beat, then yes, even the offense has to ask difficult questions of itself.
Those numbers above are great. They will lead to victory in about 80-90 percent of situations. Unfortunately, that last 10-20 percent is the margin in the NFL playoffs.
So what is the most legitimate critique of Sunday's effort? For me, it is that the Cowboys had an unstoppable force against a defense that has no idea how to slow it down, and Dallas elected to not destroy its opponent with it.
Since 2013, the Cowboys have played the Packers four times. In each game, they ran all day and had no issues whatsoever. They ran and ran and ran. They have run the ball with this massive offensive line against the Packers and Dom Capers 99 times in four games and have rolled up an absurd 641 yards.
That comes out to 6.48 yards per carry. Oh, and the Cowboys are 1-3 in those four games.
Well, make it 123 times for 779 yards in five matchups -- 6.33 yards per carry! And a 1-4 record against Green Bay.
So let's go back to the question/critique of the entire offensive operation: Even with your 31 points and 429 yards, why isn't the answer to nearly every play-calling situation (within reason) to run Elliott behind this offensive line you have built?
The Cowboys are a running team. They claim that, identify that and lead all rushing categories. And yet, when it is third-and-2, they pass. Even when there is no reason not to give the ball to Elliott twice. I can understand the premise if the opposition was stopping you. The Giants have a chance. Surely, there are others. But Green Bay? You can barely find one play in five meetings where Green Bay is stopping the Cowboys' running game. And yet, the Cowboys are passing in run situations with the season on the line.
I really don't understand.
Here are some very disturbing examples from an offensive day when so much went right. Your quarterback played very well. Your pass protection was decent. Your receivers caught the ball. You just didn't feed Zeke to the maximum level available.
Third play of the game. Cowboys run wide on Green Bay. They know Elliott can beat this team to the corner at will. He stumbles and only gets seven yards. I contend that this is a sliver from turning into a 60-yard touchdown run.
Another one. Some impressive runs with a fullback in this game. Look at this. The Packers insist on playing nickel because they aren't trying to stop your run. They have conceded that before the snap. Their entire philosophy is based on poaching big plays and making you string 12 plays together without a mistake. Meanwhile, you bust it out to midfield for 22 yards.
Then, a middle zone, where Zeke knows he can bounce it outside anytime he wants and go get near the sticks. It was repeated over and over in the two meetings with Green Bay. Doug Free might have got away with a hold there, by the way.
This one is devastating. Cowboys chop three bodies to the ground, and if Zack Martin can get around Free, this might be a huge run. As it stands, Zeke picks up another first down. The Packers are now exhausted in the fourth quarter and the runs are getting easier.
Inside zone, and they can't stop you. They seriously are giving up a huge gap every time the Cowboys run.
So as you go through the tape and barely find a bad run all day, you must return to the question: What are you going to do on third-and-2? Second-and-1? Third-and-3?
Pass all three times.
This is the one that gets me -- and I hope you know I am seldom the "play-calling second-guesser." But, first possession, third-and-2. They cannot stop you on the ground. Why would you not pound Zeke twice to show intent on what you are all about? Instead, your rookie quarterback is throwing at double coverage. You settle for a field goal and are already playing into Green Bay's game plan.
Dangerous throw. It did knock Morgan Burnett out of the game, but it was one of a few risky throws by Prescott when the down/distance indicated there was no reason to throw your third-best pitch.
Here is the Micah Hyde interception. The killer here is that it is second-and-1 and Zeke just got you nine. Any pass is showing mercy. This is a Dak decision -- run-pass option -- and Dez Bryant does no favors here by missing his guy. But this is something Tony Romo struggled with over the years (in fact, the 2013 Green Bay game was lost by a similar Romo decision). It is second-and-1. You have a hammer. And the Packers watch film, too.
Points off the board when there was really no reason to believe Green Bay was going to handle another few runs. Run it right through the back of the end zone.
And, finally, the last drive. Maybe the most important decision of the game. It is third-and-3. You have told us what you are all about all season. You have one call to either win the game, or settle for a tie and put the ball back in Rodgers' hands.
You decide to go empty and call the slant to Dez. The pass is there, but the pass protection breaks down. Green Bay gets to your quarterback with four rushers and one affects the throw before another bats it down.
If it works, you might win. If it doesn't, guys like me (in our mom's basement, no doubt) will wonder why Zeke isn't there for at least a play-fake and protection help. Or, go crazy, and give it to him twice, move the chains, and go win the game.
In other words, if you are going to lose to the Packers, at least make them prove they can stop your running game ONCE. If they do, you lost on your best pitch.
Instead, despite 31 points and 429 yards, I felt like the Cowboys' offense allowed the Packers' defense to survive a game it had no real power to survive. People will say that being down 21-3 took this off the table. I will submit that I just showed you several situations where that didn't apply AND that this thinking helped put you down 21-3 in the first place.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
Much like the 1994 NFC Championship Game -- a gutting loss that many call Troy Aikman's best game -- I thought Dak Prescott was excellent. Like Aikman that day, it doesn't mean he was perfect, and it doesn't mean he wouldn't love a few decisions or throws back.
But it does mean that you can learn a lot about a quarterback with everything on the line and adversity hitting you in the mouth. Will you cave in, or play your best until the very end? I love Prescott's effort and am delighted about everything he displayed in 2016 -- without qualification. From his first preseason game until his last playoff snap, he proved he has a real future.
Blitzer coming right at you and you stand tall to deliver a ball to the right spot for a big touchdown. This is what made Romo his money. And now Prescott is doing it as a rookie.
Important third down here and nothing is open. So, your dual-threat guy can beat them in many ways. Here is another. He made a number of big plays in that second half and almost brought them all the way back.
Look at all of the production, especially in 21 and 22 personnel, and almost no runs out of shotgun for Elliott. I believe two of those three shotgun runs are Prescott scrambles. I think they got away from being the team they were built to be -- and they still scored 31 points on 429 yards of offense.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
This was an amazing season from an elite offense. And yet, the final chapter suggests the Cowboys still aren't positive who they are. That will all get better with experience and they can grow into their squad, but I think the final narrative of "Rodgers beat us" is partially true, and partially too simple for me.
I would love to see how this game looks if the offensive philosophy was, "We will stop running our best options when, and only when Green Bay shows it can stop them." Obviously, we will never know.
I remember how Emmitt Smith and the Cowboys took down that same Green Bay squad in the 1995 NFC Championship Game. Smith had 35 carries (37 touches). Now, they were never down 21-3, but if you enter the game determined to answer every question with this O-line and running back, you never fall behind 21-3 in the first place.
I thought Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan had a remarkable year designing this offense. But I also think they lost the plot a bit out of fear of Green Bay's quarterback. And that affected their own offensive play-calling in an adverse way.
Maybe the young pups will make sure they never let that happen again.