In their most recent outing, the Dallas Cowboys suffered a third, frustratingly winnable loss, this time at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings. The team now sits at 5-4, with a division lead that doesn’t feel anything like a division lead at all.
As short as -200 to win the NFC East in late September, the Cowboys are now slight +100 underdogs to the Eagles (-130) ahead of Week 11 as reported by My Top Sportsbooks.
With both sitting at 5-4, Dallas currently owns the tiebreaker thanks to a head-to-head win, but also has the tougher remaining schedule. Not only do they have to travel to Philadelphia in Week 16, the Cowboys have five road games left (versus four for Philly) including at New England.
So many persisting issues reared their head in this contest. Some fixable in-season, others doomed without offseason personnel upgrades.
Here are three ideas that would improve the Cowboys over the final 7 regular season games, and hopefully into the offseason.
TE Blake Jarwin is a certified weapon in the passing game. Even in limited opportunities, he continues to come up big, seemingly at least once a game. Nonetheless, the legend status of starting TE Jason Witten is blocking out Jarwin’s potential shine. Per Cowboys writer and podcast personality Marcus Mosher, Jarwin has to this point run just 90 pass routes compared to Jason Witten’s 226. Jarwin averages over 13 yards per reception, and has racked up five 20+ yard plays. Witten averages just over 9 yards per reception, with just two catches of 20+ yards, despite having two and a half times the number of opportunities.
If believing the myth that the current, 37 year old version of Jason Witten is still some sort of ace blocker helps you sleep at night, then slumber on. In reality, Witten is an average blocker, and that has been the case for many seasons. Yes, he is still a better blocker than Jarwin, but the gap is negligible, and certainly not wide enough to make a case to sit the more dangerous pass receiver. Furthermore, Jarwin has actually been called on to block on more occasions than he has been asked to run patterns, so it can’t be about blocking.
When you cook it all down, what you are left with is the fact that Jason Witten has too much clout to be told no in Dallas. Sixteen seasons, the team record for receptions, a Hall of Fame resume, and more years inside the building than pretty much anyone not named Jones. When Witten decided to make a comeback, it was stated that the intent was for him to play around 25% of the offensive snaps. Here we are months later, and through 9 games that number has actually been 75.52%.
Everyone can see the impact that Jarwin has on the offense, but nobody seems to be able to tell Jason Witten no. Let us not forget that Jason Witten contacted the Cowboys about a comeback, not the other way around. They weren’t even thinking about it. Yet, when the future Hall of Famer came calling, they couldn’t tell him no then either.
CB Chido Awuzie is having a rough season to say the least. It’s really frustrating to see, because he isn’t bad at all as far as sticking with his man. The guy has just had an unbelievably hard time turning and locating the football, and he has been absolutely smoked because of it. Chido is getting bombed for big completions in seemingly every game. He is too athletic to be relegated to the bench, so maybe it’s time to find him something else to do.
Jourdan Lewis needs to be the starting corner opposite Byron Jones. Chido and Anthony Brown can divvy up the slot opportunities. Most of Awuzie’s abuse has come on deeper routes near the boundary. Maybe playing somewhere more central like the slot will present him with less of those situations. The team could also use him some as a sub package safety where he can play facing the QB. Chido would probably be pretty useful next to Xavier Woods in situations where the team wants to play two deep safeties.
Darian Thompson has shown enough at safety in the absence of Jeff Heath the warrant keeping the lion’s share of the snaps even when Heath returns. Neither is an ace cover man, but Thompson has been a missile around the line of scrimmage. Unlike Heath, Thompson hasn’t shown a propensity to take bad angles, whether it be in coverage or in run support. Donovan Wilson should mix in here as well. Regardless of how the team plays it, less Jeff Heath on defense is a good thing. This is really a personnel issue that can’t be fully addressed until the draft and free agency. However, the players you have are what you have to work with the remainder of the year. What the Cowboys have been doing hasn’t been good enough. It’s time to mix things up.
Trust Your Best Player
Let’s drag ourselves across the broken glass that is that infamous drive against Minnesota one last time, shall we? 2nd down and 2 from the Minnesota 11. Cowboys trailing 28-24 with 1:33 remaining. If you want to run the ball here, that’s totally fine. The Cowboys did run the ball, for no gain, bringing up 3rd and 2. The score and clock dictate that this is obviously 4 down territory. You have to give your best player, your quarterback two opportunities to pick this up. Whether it be from the pocket, and RPO, or something where you roll him out and give him the option to take off if need be. You’ve got to give your QB two chances to pick up those two yards. Ideally, you would work your two best offensive players in concert, and run something where Amari Cooper is the primary read on at least one of the plays.
What the Cowboys did in real life was hand the ball to Ezekiel Elliott, running behind the weak link of the offensive line (LG Connor Williams), on a day when the Cowboys couldn’t get a thing going on the ground. Zeke gets bagged for a loss of 3, leaving their quarterback one shot at 4th and 5, rather than two shots at 3rd/4th and 2. The Cowboys failed to convert, and you know the rest.
That sequence felt a lot like a flashback to 2016’s playoff skirmish with Green Bay. Dak Prescott was in a groove, leading the Cowboys down the field for a would-be game winning drive when Jason Garrett ordered a spike while the Green Bay defense was on it’s heels. You can maybe stretch to find the logic in that with a rookie QB as Dak was in 2016, but our baby boy is all grown up now. Do not disrupt that man when he’s cooking. Minnesota had literally no answers for Dak all night long, yet they had the run game solved. That taken into account, in the game’s most critical moments, the Cowboys chose to take the ball out of the sizzling hand of their passer, and hand it to a runner who hadn’t found daylight all evening. No more of this.
From here on out the Cowboys need to lean on their QB the way good teams with good QBs do. Big moments in big games, let Dak Prescott take the wheel. Let him have the ball on 3rd and 1, let him throw the ball backed up with his posterior hanging over his own end zone, let him throw with a lead, let him throw the 2 point conversion. Your quarterback is leading the league in QBR, and your running back has broken six tackles all year. It may have at one time, but this team no longer runs through Ezekiel Elliott, it runs through Dak Prescott. The Cowboys would be wise to allow it to do just that.
The Dallas Cowboys currently have the best collection of talent they have had in a decade. Hopefully, they can make the proper adjustments before the 2019 roster becomes a colossal waste.