Friday, December 08, 2017

Friday Football Mailbag - 12/8

With this crazy schedule, it has been a difficult stretch for the Cowboys and for answering your questions and concerns on Friday mornings. However, perhaps we are back in the swing of things for a moment or two, so let's see what you have on your Cowboys mind today and get down to business.

Q:  Other than the Cowboys winning as many games as possible, what would have to happen to get a wildcard berth?
Well, you are going to need some help now. There is no real way around this and the Cowboys - as well as some other teams in a similar 6-6 bind - need to win out and get to 10-6. In doing so, that would require some teams to hit the wall. We assume that there is no catching those teams up top - Philadelphia, Minnesota, Los Angeles, and New Orleans - because at worst they all have nine wins and in the case of Los Angeles, the tie breaker against Dallas, too. Then, we turn our attention to the wildcard candidates to see if you can reel in one of those three leaders. They are Carolina at 8-4, Seattle at 8-4 and Atlanta at 8-5.  Only two of those teams will get in and all of them can get past you in the win column as each can get to 11 or 12 wins. And, lest we forget, Atlanta has the head-to-head tie breaker, too.  
So, now, for the Cowboys to have any chance, they must win all their games (which would give Seattle a loss and the tiebreaker loss) and hope those teams go on a real slump down. You would want Seattle to lose at Jacksonville this weekend (very possible) and the Vikings to win in Carolina. You probably wanted Atlanta to lose last night but that didn't happen and you technically aren't even chasing them, but they are between you and the goal. So, to put it nicely, you need some significant assistance and likely, like Detroit and Green Bay, are already in your grave and are in desperate need of a miracle. Probabilities are at 5 percent at the New York Times playoff machine and a 1-in-20 chance from here on in sounds about right. The Lions are at 8 percent and the Packers are at 7 percent if you are curious. As I said a few weeks back, it looks like seven teams are fighting for six spots and those three teams are not in the group of seven anymore. I wish I had better news for you, but those teams might have wanted to win a few more games last month. It has been that type of year. 
Q: If the Cowboys could go back and change something they've done this season, what's the top thing that you think they'd do differently?
I'm not sure how to answer this because decision-making may not have been their biggest weakness, but here are a few. If you serve your Elliott suspension from Weeks 1-6, I think things would be different now (but that is difficult to prove).  You ended up 3-3 with him and it is reasonable to assume you would have been able to do that well without him and then you have him from the Redskins game on and he is here for the stretch drive. That feels like the better decision.
I would have not been so thin at linebacker out of camp. They were in a spot where if Sean Lee got hurt, they were going to roll out Jaylon Smith in the early part of the year. I was hoping Smith would start on IR and return in Week 9 or so. But they needed him and I thought that was a mistake that was proven right from the get-go.
I also have a problem with their usage - or lack thereof - of Ryan Switzer on the offense and Rico Gathers overall. It appears that Rico was unavailable with a preseason concussion to a certain point, but then they decided to basically redshirt him again because "he had missed too much time."  I have no idea what that means with regards to when he could have returned. But, for me, as I look at this struggling offense, I see too many pieces that do not frighten the opponent. Those both looked like weapons to deal with in the middle of the field. In other words, if you said what does this team lack and how can we fix it, I would say you need to acquire a few weapons that cause matchup issues for defenses because you are too easy to defend, especially without Zeke. So, I would say you need some underneath threats - like Switzer and a vertical TE - like Witten used to be and like Gathers appeared in August. They have both players. I have no idea the issues with Gathers or if they just don't want to discuss with Witten the idea of sitting down a bit more often than zero snaps a game, but, those glaring issues have never been dealt with and that is why the Cowboys offense looks pretty harmless.  
Q:  What's the No. 1 thing you're going to be watching for in the matchup with the Giants?
I personally have very little idea of what the Giants are going to look like. They have many familiar names on the IR and in a week with the coaching change (and front-office change) as well as the Eli Manning story, I have no idea what to expect from the Blue.  
But, the Cowboys need to have that defense ready to run through whatever it is. They absolutely must take the game over and play with aggressiveness and an attacking posture. Because this is absolutely the type of game that can get away from you if you are not careful - and not really playing great football yourself.
Our old friend Janoris Jenkins is one of many foes on the IR, so it would help to get the passing game going, but if any team has been difficult on the Dak Prescott-led Cowboys offense - even on strong days - it is the Giants. But, this is the answer: For the Cowboys to have a chance, they have to have an offense again that can accomplish the titanic task of getting in the end zone.  This has been very difficult without Elliott and the passing attack has never been this bad with a starting QB.  In the last four weeks, they have thrown for a ridiculous 5.42 yards per attempt (so far below the rest of the NFL), a passer rating of 63.7, an average passing total of barely 150 yards a game, and two touchdowns with five interceptions. Ridiculous. Before that stretch, the Cowboys offense under Prescott was at 7.64 an attempt (up with the best in the league), a passer rating of 101.1, with 44 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions in 25 games.  
You should not have the wheels fall off a passing game to this extent because you lost a RB. That should not be allowed to qualify as that big of an excuse. I'm sorry. There is no excuse for what we have seen.
Q:  Is this just a sophomore slump for Dak or should we be more concerned?
I spent plenty of time on this earlier this week in the Decoding Linehan column, which I encourage you to check out. But the truth is that the Cowboys passing attack has lost its ability to find the big play.  
...they have played four games during his suspension, and we see the issues of the big plays -- or lack thereof. There have been seven explosives in 16 quarters of football.
No team in the NFL has fewer explosive plays in the past month than the Cowboys.
Not one.
It gets worse. Of those seven explosives, only four are pass plays. Only three other teams have less than double that during this stretch. Chicago (6), Cincinnati (6) and Buffalo (5) have more than Dallas, too, but not double.
When you cannot generate any big plays - forget 20+ yard "explosives," how about anything in double digits? - then you are just a feeble team that can only score with a 13-play drive.  You need explosiveness. But, that requires throwing the ball down the field and that is proving to be an issue with less than great protection, very poor QB throws and not much electric route running down the field. I am not sure how we got to this point after seeing the offense mow over everything in their path from the bye week until Kansas City, but here we are.
Q: Bob, I think that Dak was really affected by the beating that he took in Atlanta. (I am still angry with the coaching malpractice that day!) He just hasn't looked as confident and doesn't seem to trust his protection as he did before. What do you think?
I think he has not looked the same since. I do agree that he trusts his protection less and that he has lost his confidence from that day. But, that is his job. If he took a beating that day, and he did, then he is not the first QB to have a ridiculously difficult day. But, the job calls for you to shake it off (as difficult as that may be, and as easy as it is for guys like us to ask for it) and get back on the horse.
In other words, it might separate the good from the great. Those who can survive those tough days and keep the same level of nerve and confidence might be the top shelf. Those who are not the same again might find the job far more difficult. We need to see Prescott respond positively to negative experiences, because his first year and a half were largely good spots where his team was always ahead and things were going well with all sorts of weapons.  
You may remember this tweet from before the season: Craziest Cowboys stat of 2016: trailed by 7 points or more in second half of any game for 42 snaps the entire season. Basically, not at all.
This year, they have come back to earth and are middle of the league in this stat. They have been down more than a touchdown in the second half for 130 snaps already. They have dropped from first overall to 15th overall. And that changes the job of the QB dramatically. When you play QB with the lead, you pass when you wish to pass. When you are behind, you let the defense dictate the terms and that is a way different reality for Dak Prescott or any QB.
And, to be a star QB in this league, you have to be able to excel in any spot or situation. The education continues.  

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