There is a real danger in analyzing the offense every week from a "blame game" standpoint. You are searching for answers and explanations and in the football universe, it is no fun to blame figures who are down the list of importance. When a game is lost, we want to blame someone -- it might not be the right thing to do, but it feels better. We want answers. We want to fix it so it doesn't keep happening.
Unfortunately, we then begin simplifying things in our brain to the point where we want there to be absolutes. We want to say definitively that this player is awesome, and that this one needs to be replaced. This coach is the best, and this one needed to be fired years ago.
But football is about 120-150 plays every game, against the best in the world. You will win some and lose some of those plays every single game. Every guy is trying to win more than his share and that will help his team win the game. That requires nuance and measured responses to every game and, within it, every play.
So here, we try to do that a little better than your average Twitter exchange. We want to look at the bigger plays that told the story.
This week, I think it is pretty clear where things went wrong for this Cowboys offense. Once again, the third down and "11 Personnel" packages let them down. When this team fails, it often goes back to this make-or-break characteristic of the Dallas offense. It runs the ball. It runs on everyone. It is generally to what degree do they run it, but on first and second downs the Cowboys continued to do their thing reasonably well. But every time they hit a third down, they put on their 11 Personnel, the Eagles brought on their nickel/dime package, called their blitzes up and the Cowboys were unable to make them pay.
The Cowboys found 21 yards on third down all night. On 14 snaps. Oh, my. That will end a lot of drives and lose a lot of games. The reasons were multiple. Missed throws, missed reads, poor job by wide receivers, poor protection and so on. The Cowboys had a really bad night on third down and that submarined their entire game.
The other thing that runs into issues here is the Dak Prescott performances against teams he sees the most often. Below, John Daigle made us a chart to demonstrate the statistical output of Prescott against the three teams in the NFC East and the 17 games he has played outside of the division. As you can see, he destroys everything outside of the division -- and does very well against Washington. But when it comes to three games against the Giants and two (plus a small portion of a third) against the Eagles, it has been disconcerting. Much of that goes back to third down, too.
Now, keep in mind, we are going to use Prescott's numbers, but this is about more than the quarterback. This is the entire offense's passing game performance.
DAK PRESCOTT VS. THE NFC EAST
You can take it a step further with third-down performances against Philadelphia. The entire NFL is crammed between 45.7 percent (New England and New Orleans) and 33.4 percent (Cleveland) on third downs in 2016-17. So, the very best teams are at just under 46 percent and the very worst teams are at 33 percent.
The Cowboys during that stretch are at 42.5 percent, trailing only the Patriots, Saints, Packers and Falcons. That is really impressive, given the quarterbacks on those teams.
Well, against the rest of the league, the Cowboys are 45.3 percent on third downs in the past two seasons. Against the Redskins, they are 44 percent. Even against the Giants, they are still 40.4 percent. But against those doggone Eagles, the Cowboys are at 30 percent (12 of 40) in the past two seasons. And you might say, "Yeah, Bob, but I am sure it is better without the Week 17 game, which was Mark Sanchez time." No, it isn't. In the two full games against the Eagles in Prescott's career -- both in Dallas -- the Cowboys are 7 for 28 on third down. That is 25 percent! In other words, miles below the Browns.
So, what do we do with these numbers? We come to terms with the fact that Jim Schwartz is in the Cowboys' playbook as much as Jim Johnson used to be. And the Cowboys are playing right into those tendencies too much and not burning the hands of a very confident Eagles defense.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
There isn't a single game you can win in the NFL if you are going to come up with 225 yards and commit four turnovers. In the past 10 years, it hasn't happened. Carolina, in 2008, apparently beat Oakland with a stinker like that, but it is an extreme rarity.
Three of 14 on third down is just brutal. And you won't be surprised to learn that this is the second time the Cowboys have gone 3 for 14 this season -- they did it at Denver, too. Yeesh.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
More bad news here. Three yellow dots! And look at all the red dots down the sidelines. The Cowboys never go between the numbers toward the middle of the field -- they are like the opposite of Drew Brees on that, and so they work the outside edge repeatedly. So, if you are defending them, what would you likely be sitting on? Yeah, me too.
To be fair, nothing was good. S12 and S02 were the ways to get more protection in late in the game and they moved the ball better, but aside from the success on the ground with 13 and even a little 11 personnel, this was a very poor day in which the RPOs got nothing and the third-down package was abysmal.
Prescott was very poor. Dez Bryant was ineffective. Cole Beasley was underutilized but taken away by some coverages. The protection was better, but it required more people to help out, thus making the targets fewer and easier to patrol. All in all, the Cowboys were outplayed and outschemed on Sunday night at the hands of a talented and confident Eagles defense. They knew they were in the Cowboys' heads. And the Cowboys never made them pay.
Let's look at it:
First drive -- third and 3. Cowboys try to fit the ball into Bryant right away. It is short yardage, so maybe you need to go elsewhere here, but the throw is pretty solid. But Jalen Mills is aggressive to get in there and challenge Bryant -- and ultimately win.
Here is the end-zone view of the same play. We see this a lot -- Cowboys receivers running hooks and then becoming stationary at the sticks. Prescott might be able to use Noah Brown here, but this is what they tell him -- on third down, look for Bryant. The throw looks pretty good, but is there an easier way to move the chains? In other words, is Bryant open enough to try that difficult throw? And can Bryant win the route to make the play?
Next drive. All the way down the field they go. Second and 9 from the Eagles' 11. The Cowboys have Beasley in the backfield. He is going to go out to the right and have an angle on his man. Prescott knows the Cowboys' offense tells him to always use Bryant in the red zone if he has only one guy to beat. He gives Bryant a chance to overpower Ronald Darby on his way in. Bryant doesn't win, and then we wonder if Beasley going across the action was actually the easiest way into the end zone. Again, this is Prescott doing what he is told to do in the red zone. But maybe they need to stop assuming Bryant is money in every spot down here. The Eagles were fine with one guy playing him.
Next play. Third down. Cover 0 blitz! No respect for the Cowboys here! It is a full challenge! Prescott makes the automatic read. Fade to Bryant. Darby isn't scared, plays him physically and may flirt with a pass interference. But where is the throw supposed to go here? Bryant doesn't have position and this is just hoping for the best.
Against Cover 0, can we throw something a bit more high-percentage? Because Darby is never out of position here. He is comfortable against Bryant in this situation and the Cowboys forced it in there. The Eagles were more than fine allowing it. And the Cowboys leave with a field goal.
Here, you are set up to run the RPO late in the first quarter on a second-and-10. Eagles don't know if you are running or throwing, but they are bringing heat either way. You run and the play is dead, but you pull it to throw and they are going to have pressure on your throw. Ball gets tipped, ball gets picked.
Malcolm Jenkins gets a piece of it and Terrance Williams has the ball carom off his body right to Rodney McLeod, who has the pick. It looks like you needed a better throw, but that is difficult to do when the Eagles are going to rush so aggressively. Also, would have liked Williams to make a better play than McLeod after it gets tipped.
Early second quarter -- third and 4. A classic bread-and-butter Cowboys call here. The outside receivers run deep to pull the coverage out against Cover 3 and the inside guys head to the sideline at the sticks. Jason Witten on the right, Beasley on the left and because of the leverage. The Cowboys almost always convert this.
The Eagles are having their guys challenge this throw and try to get under it. The throw has to be perfect and, although it looks pretty good, Patrick Robinson is right there to say no. Another third-and-short not converted as the middle of the field is completely open. But you can see the Eagles are not going to let Prescott convert it with his feet. They were on those escape routes all night long.
Here is the third-and-8 where I am going to need much more from Bryant. This is Prescott knowing that the Eagles are sitting on the first tendency and he has a chance to make an adjustment to throw Bryant open to the sideline before the safety can get there. This is not as smooth-looking as you would like, but if you want your quarterback to "make a play" on a third-and-long, that is what is happening here.
The degree of difficulty on this throw is very high -- especially with Fletcher Cox pushing Travis Frederick into Prescott's lap. But the throw goes to the only place it can and Bryant has to make this catch. Instead, it appears he sees the safety and is considering the collision more than the ball. This has to be better than this.
Next drive, first down. The Cowboys are going to break tendencies and throw out of 13 Personnel. The bootleg is planned, and the Cowboys are going to get some nice yardage on first down as long as rookie first-rounder Derek Barnett takes the fake inside. He doesn't. He is waiting on Prescott's bootleg and will not let him escape. Heck of a play, and a sign of how the Eagles were tactically a step ahead of the Cowboys all game.
Two plays later it is third and 17. This was what I wrote about yesterdayas arguably the worst decision of Prescott's young career. Because of a similar conversion against the Chiefs in this spot, the Cowboys had some confidence they could do it again. Of course, the Eagles watched that game and knew what the plan would be, too. So they showed a coverage that would force the Cowboys to take the punt and deal with it, or throw a ball that is as forced a throw as you will ever see. I have heard people say if this ball isn't underthrown, it might be a touchdown. I think the video proves the free safety had the deep ball and adjusted his angle when he saw it was underthrown. No throw is making it to Bryant. The coverage was there and Prescott made a rookie decision.
You take Witten underneath and punt. This throw is what gets you beat. He was lucky the defense stood tall, but it was just not a good night for the passing game.
This is late in the second quarter -- third and 6 from the Eagles' 29. The Eagles throw the Cover 0 blitz again with seven guys coming at Prescott. He has his automatics -- go to Bryant at this spot, which I am not liking these days. I like Beasley on the slant here way more, partly because Bryant isn't open at all. You are saying, "Just trust Bryant to win against anyone one-on-one." And that is giving him way too much credit at the expense of the supporting cast based on a blitz that should make the supporting cast more dangerous. Frustrating.
At no point on this throw (end-zone view of the same play) is Bryant open. It is simply the decision tree of, "Blitz and man coverage on No. 88 means I throw it to 88 no matter what else is going on." I think that is an issue the Eagles were feasting on.
Third quarter -- third and 10. Same concept as that first-half Beasley throw. Outside guys pull coverage and allow Beasley to sneak out to the sticks. Just a brutal throw from Prescott to end this drive.
He has to play better. This throw is not up to the grade.
Now, late in the third quarter, you are down 14 and facing a third-and-2. The Cowboys are lined up for the RPO but have Beasley deep for an option pitch. Wow, this is a nice idea! But Prescott makes the read to give it to Rod Smith when it sure looks like Beasley has everyone outflanked. Another bad decision from Prescott here.
And finally, a third-and-5 late in the game. Prescott is sacked because Smith and Byron Bell both get their signals crossed on protection and nobody appears to be open downfield. Sack, fumble, touchdown and good night to the division battle.
Look at Smith consider the chip, then move to a blitzer. Look at Bell feel that Smith is helping, so he tries to give up space and they both let Barnett turn the corner to get Prescott's arm. What a disaster on third downs.
This game is over. It was very bad. I can't think of anyone on offense that was especially good. Plenty of blame to go around. And sometimes, good players have bad nights -- on this night, Schwartz and his Eagles defense were always one step ahead of Scott Linehan and his Cowboys offense.