We think the Dallas Cowboys have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL but sit at 5-4 ten weeks into the season. Dallas is staring at the toughest part of its schedule with a lot of questions.
Despite Dak Prescott having the best season of his career, the Cowboys are still struggling to win games. And they are not going to win games if they can’t shake their ridiculous run-first identity. Yes, they handed Ezekiel Elliott a sizable $90 million contract at the beginning of the year, but should that mean he has to be the go-to guy in every situation?
In prior years, an opposing defense’s game plan against the Cowboys would be simple. Stop Zeke. In prior years, that may have worked every once in a while. That is because Dallas was a running football team and Dak Prescott was not exactly a threat to consistently beat you through the air.
This year, Dak is second in pass yards and third in pass touchdowns. He is a different player than he was this time last season.
On Sunday, Prescott absolutely ripped through the Vikings secondary, but the game remained close because of the coaching staff’s insistence on trying to establish the run game. Minnesota limited Elliott to 2.4 yards per carry, but still, again and again, the Cowboys needed to establish the run.
During one drive in the fourth quarter, Dallas ran the ball on first down five times in a row (4 to Elliott, 1 to Pollard. In those five first-down attempts, Dallas averaged 0.6 yards. In all of the other plays of the series, which were all passes, Dallas averaged 8.8 yards. If those numbers made you upset, get ready…it’s about to get worse.
Let’s do it. Let’s talk about the now-notorious game-losing drive.
The Cowboys had to start on their own six yard-line with three timeouts and a little more than four minutes remaining. It took only eight plays to get to Minnesota’s eleven-yard line, seven of which were passes. Then out of nowhere on second and third down, the playcalling changes and they run it back to back, for negative three yards. This resulted in a turnover on downs and ultimately lost them the game. Dak finished with 397 yards, three touchdowns, and one garbage-time pick. The whole Cowboys rushing attack, consisting of Zeke, Tavon Austin, and Tony Pollard, racked up only 50 yards on 2.3 yards per carry.
For years, the Cowboys have had a crystal clear offensive identity which was basically, “we are going to run it down your throat all night long, and we will beat you doing it.”
Ezekiel Elliott is clearly still a top-5 running back in the league, so why should we need to change? Because now we also have a top-5 quarterback and a top-5 receiver in Amari Cooper. The Cowboys now have the ability to run it all over you, or, if for some reason that is not working, they can also throw it all over you. That is exactly what happened against the Vikings. But unfortunately, Jason Garrett and Co. could not stand to drift away from this outgrown identity, and that cost the Cowboys the game. It is truly deflating when a team loses, not because of their players, but because of their coaches being too cautious, and not being able to trust their QB when it matters most.
Sunday was not the first time we’ve seen this either. The Saints game is a great example of Dallas continuing to try the run, even when it consistently cost them downs.
The Cowboys are filled with talent across the board. They have a great running-back but more importantly, they now have a great QB, who does not have to rely on the run game. Dak has outgrown that.
The Cowboys have not. And if they can’t figure out a way to shake this label they’ve placed on themselves, they will not win the big games that they need to win in order to make a playoff push.