In our attempt to analyze the Cowboys offense from Sunday in Denver, we must keep some level of perspective about what we saw. The Cowboys were doing something that is very, very difficult. They were playing an elite defense on the road. And, despite having an offense that we thought appeared to be unstoppable - they were brought to a complete stop for the 3rd consecutive "tough road opponent."
At Minnesota - December 1, 2016 - the Cowboys went 1-9 on 3rd downs, passed for 124 yards, ran for 140 more, and scored 17 points.
At New York Giants - December 11, 2016 - The Cowboys went 1-15 on 3rd downs, passed for 152 yards, ran for 108 more, and scored 7 points.
At Denver - September 17, 2017 - The Cowboys went 3-14 on 3rd downs, passed for 228, ran for 40 more, and scored 17 points.
So, basically, the reality is this: In Dak Prescott's 17 games as QB of the Cowboys (we don't count Week 17 of last year in Philadelphia), the last 3 road games would rank 15th, 16th, and 17th in terms of yardage production, 3rd down efficiency, and points scored.
Let that sink in here for a brief moment. And try not to panic.
Sure, there were other good defenses and other road games on that list. But, playing the Vikings in Minnesota, the Giants in New York and the Broncos in Denver is very difficult (try not to think about the Lions just going into New York last night, please). At the same time, good offenses who think they can contend for the whole thing must be able to beat any challenge in any location to really be that "unstoppable force." For the offense to truly be repeatable and sustainable, we shouldn't be seeing 260 yard performances - unless that is the repeatable part.
Just for the newcomers, knowing what a good offensive performance is by yardage is important. 400 yards is the target, with 360 or so being what is an average or acceptable day. Anything below 325 is poor and anything below 300 is what the Browns, Jets, and Bears expect. 260 or below is just awful with the expansion Houston Texans in 2002 at 248 yards per game. The expansion Cleveland Browns in 1999 were at 259 per game. So, that should help you understand what 260 is all about.
Here are the specific numbers from Sunday:
That didn't work very well at all.
And it all starts with the cat and mouse game of the two coaching staffs. The Broncos want to make Dak Prescott beat them. That means put as many players in the box at the start of the game as possible to scare the Cowboys out of calling run plays.
The Cowboys are expecting this and planning on ways to make the Broncos pay for doing this. But, the way they wish to make the Broncos pay is by agreeing to not commit to running the football. It is an odd and frustrating dance that has happened in all 3 of these road games in a row.
Broncos Coach Vance Joseph: "We made them (pass). Obviously we were in our base front and we were playing man free so they knew they couldn't run the football. So that was our plan to make them throw the football. He could have run it 15 more times for ten more yards but that wouldn't have helped them win."
The Cowboys drafted offensive linemen in 2011, 2013, and 2014 in Round 1. They then double down and take a RB in Round 1 in 2016 with the highest pick they have had in 25 years. They invest in the running game and they suggest it travels and cannot be slowed down.
Then Denver challenges them and says you won't run on us - we both know you won't even try it.
And in the game of strength versus strength with the score still close and comfortable, the Cowboys tried to run the ball 4 times in the entire 1st half. In other words, they agreed with Vance Joseph.
They agreed that to win this game, the only solution was for Dak Prescott to throw the ball and to pass their way out of this mess. Only issue with that is that Denver doesn't play soft zones. They play tight man coverage that challenges you to get open. They do this every week and do not give a sliver of space unless it is earned. They play as much man coverage as any team in football. So, either you have a way to sustain drives or your punter is going to get plenty of work. Chris Jones punted 4 times in the 1st half.
So, let that sink in - Chris Jones had as many punts as Ezekiel Elliott had runs in the first 2 quarters in Denver.
The game got out of hand, but we have talked about this many times - most recently here - that Dak Prescott is an exceptional talent. That said, there are some very obvious game effects that must be considered (from the piece linked above): Prescott was phenomenal, but in fairness, he hardly faced any third-and-longs. The Cowboys had the 31st-most third-and-long situations. And they were never behind. In 16 regular season games last year, do you know how many snaps the Cowboys were behind in the second half, down by seven or more points? That would be 42. The Eagles game at home, and the Eagles game on the road (which didn't matter at all). That is it. In other words, Prescott was great. Nobody is debating that. But how much of it was him, and how much of it was that he was never asked to deal with third-and-longs or playing from behind? I suspect the answer is both. Blake Bortles would love to live in this world. Jacksonville had 318 snaps like that. Cleveland had 385. It is a different job when the scoreboard is constantly upside down.
So, if the recipe for success is to get ahead of the chains and the scoreboard and only pass into defenses that are sitting on the run, then the recipe for failure must be to fall behind, always facing 3rd and long, and not even try to run the football.
See Sunday. And at Minnesota and New York last year.
Here is an early trend to consider about Mr Prescott. Less is more:
As you can see, it is all tied together. The more Prescott passes, the more his numbers drop. Why? This is simple - the defense is playing the pass. When a defense at this level expects you to pass, they are ready for you.
Prescott was effective last year because defenses were too busy trying to stop the Cowboys' true strength - running the ball. Everyone knows this. This is why the Cowboys spent $50 million a year on their offensive line and then still drafted an RB. They wanted an unstoppable force - which makes their willingness to succumb to Denver's challenge to not even try to run so frustrating.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART:
There is no doubt that Dak Prescott is off to a slow start. There is also no doubt that he may have played the two toughest defenses on the schedule in the first two weeks. The Cowboys are being challenged by the defensive backs, and that will continue in Arizona. So either you get some conviction about your running game or you prepare for one more week of press coverage on the road that makes most throws difficult.
You see how this all is tied together. Make him throw into passing defenses and the windows get smaller. If he throws when you are sitting on Zeke, they can use play-action to make it a pitch and catch into wide open spots. This is what makes the QB - the numbers advantages that this team was able to force in 2016. We should have known the league was going to figure out ways to deal with it.
We just didn't know the Cowboys coaches would go along with it all so easily.
More stuff that is unpleasant above. Look at the runs from non-shotgun postures. Under center - where you declare run and then go man-vs.-man up front, the Cowboys tried 5 runs in 68 plays. Even if the 2nd half was garbage time, it demonstrates that almost before the game even started, they were not interested in that part of the playbook.
If that is the level of conviction from Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett, then I would suggest you could have done that without spending so many 1st round picks on a guard, a center, and a running back. In fact, if you want to pass in these situations so much, spend the picks on guys who can get open more often against populated secondaries.
Let's look at the tape (unfortunately, the All-22's at NFL.com are not functional. So, the TV copy - which is never ideal - is our only choice):
Here is the first third-down situation, just a 3rd and 6. Witten is open and that little option route is money. But, look at Chris Harris leaving Beasley to make the stop short of the sticks. Big stop here early. Should have been able to move the chains here.
Next 3rd down, Denver goes zone and fools Prescott a bit. The pass rush from LT/LG side gets home and into his line of sight. He has to double-pump and by then it is too late. Chaz Green needs to switch guys a bit faster, but easy for me to say.
Dak wasn't having a great day, but he made a few great throws. Here is one that didn't count:
Another 3rd down. This could have been massive. But, they got Dez for offensive pass interference.
He would be fine until that final push-off in the face of Talib. Once that happens as the ball is in the air, the flag is coming. Quite a shame.
This is horrendous. It is 2nd and 1. You cannot throw into coverage on 2nd and 1. But, I don't think Dak thinks he is. I think he is just inaccurate with a simple back shoulder fade here that Dez has to break up or Talib might have a chance at another pick here.
Throw it to the back shoulder and this is fine. He wasn't close.
So, they try the throw again in the 4th quarter.
Again, 2nd and short. Again, to the right. Again, Dak misses inside where Talib is sitting. What is going on here? Dez saves another pick.
Many of his throws were great and things still went wrong.
Jason Witten makes this catch all the time. It was one of those days.
But, on that back shoulder to the right, they kept trying it. And Dak kept missing it.
Is this a fade or a back shoulder? Doesn't matter. It is a pick-6. We need to keep an eye on that throw because 3 times in one half is more than Prescott ever missed his whole rookie season.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
I can't think of a single aspect of the offense I felt good about. Coaching was poor with the game plan and the determination to play to your strengths instead of agreeing with the opposition. Quarterbacking was poor. Running game was poor and then had a even poorer effort level. Offensive Line was poor. Receivers were poor. Dez Bryant was the best Cowboys defensive back on Sunday, I guess. But what a poor outing from what we believe is an elite offense.
Arizona will follow the Denver recipe on Monday night in another road game. They haven't played well on the road since Pittsburgh last November. It is time to re-find that identity and confirm that physical, bully football travels well.