The 2018 Dallas Cowboys are a bad team. Currently on pace to finish 6-10 on the season, languishing in third place in the four-team NFC East (God bless the New York Giants), and in such organizational disarray that 7-year-olds are writing letters to Jerry Jones to express how much the team sucks, America’s Team has seen better days. Head coach Jason Garrett seems to sit on a perpetual hot seat amid a rising clamor among fans for him to lose his job. The worst part about it all is that the Cowboys may only be one player away from being a serious championship contender.
As bold as that statement may sound, let’s take a look at the underlying numbers. Rod Marinelli continues to do great work as the team’s defensive coordinator. At the halfway mark of the season, Dallas is third in the league in scoring defense and ranks fourth in yards allowed. Marinelli has consistently been able to cover the holes in the Cowboys defense, and the whole has been greater than the sum of its parts.
The running game, on the strength of one of the league’s most punishing offensive lines, the legs of Ezekiel Elliott, and the scrambling ability of Dak Prescott, has been outstanding. The Cowboys rank sixth in the league in rushing yards and their 4.8 yards per carry is the fourth-highest mark in the NFL. They have accomplished this without a strong passing game, and fans, media, and talking heads alike have lamented how many yards Elliott has lost to opponents continually loading up the box.
The turnover battle has been fairly even for Dallas as well, as the Cowboys are only -2 in turnovers.
Which leaves one culprit: the passing game. Dallas is only gaining net 5.7 yards per passing attempt, which is probably the best single indicator of passing effectiveness as sacks, completion percentage, and passing yards are all factored in. That number ranks 28th among NFL teams. The media has been buzzing about the future of Dak Prescott, as one might expect. The quarterback always gets too much of the credit and too much of the blame for a team’s success.
Unfortunately, not only is this incredibly unfair to Prescott, but it’s wrong.
A cursory glance at his metrics on Player Profiler show an unexpected source of at least some of the problems in the passing game: the vaunted offensive line. The Dallas offensive line, through eight games, has only offered Prescott a protection rate of 80.5 percent, which ranks 27th of 32 teams. Prescott’s ability to escape pressure has come in handy, because Dallas has allowed the highest sack percentage in the league.
Critics have suggested that Prescott isn’t accurate as a passer, but this is also wrong. Player Profiler shows him ranking 12th in throws “on the money” and 16th in accuracy rating.
The other damning (and incorrect) narrative emerging about Prescott is that he doesn’t see open receivers downfield.
A starting QB for a 25-14 team in today's NFL is being questioned about whether he can pass at all to guys who routinely get open. Parts of this fanbase are lost without a compass or a map. https://t.co/jJIc7Wivl8
— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) October 27, 2018
Even former Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who should know better, made this judgment of Prescott during the Cowboys-Jaguars game. On a play in which Elliott slipped out of the backfield and split two defenders to get wide open on a deep route, Romo lamented on the telecast how Prescott didn’t see it. Yet watching the replay, it is clear that the protection had already broken down and Prescott was forced to scramble before Elliott ever got open. Blogging The Boys does an excellent analysis of the play in question, with video and still photos to illustrate. You can literally watch tape on any NFL quarterback and see receivers open as the play breaks down. The quarterback just has no opportunity to get them the ball.
Many have complained that Prescott’s inability to move the ball through the air is forcing Elliott and the Cowboys to face an inordinate number of eight-man fronts, but this isn’t true either. According to NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats Database, Elliott only faces an eight-man front 26.17 percent of the time, only 18th in the league and far behind NFL leader Royce Freeman of the Denver Broncos.
Prescott isn’t the problem. Those readers who were discerning earlier and perhaps spotted the statistical anomaly in my earlier analysis might already know who is: the receiving corps. Note that while the offensive line is ranked No. 27 in protection, the Cowboys sack percentage is the worst in the league. That sack percentage is actually better than it should be, as Prescott’s scrambling ability has helped the Cowboys avoid sacks. So in reality, they are by far the worst team in terms of sack percentage. Prescott is holding the ball too long, even under intense pressure, because nobody is open.
Cole Beasley is Dallas’ leading receiver in 2018. The diminutive Beasley has had a good career as Dallas’ slot receiver, but nobody considers him a No. 1 wide receiver. He was an undrafted free agent whose scrappy play and special teams ability carved him a niche on the roster. Thrust into the role by salary-cap limitations and the aging and ineffective Dez Bryant, Beasley has performed admirably under difficult circumstances. Elliott is second on the team with 29 receptions. No other receiver has more than 19. The top targets among that group are Geoff Swaim, a 7th round pick who wasn’t even a starter in college, Allen Hurns, another undrafted free agent who has carved a niche as a backup wide receiver, kick returner Deontae Thompson (yet another undrafted free agent), and 2018 third-round pick Michael Gallup. There is a marked lack of talent on the Dallas receiving corps.
This dearth of receiving talent, combined with the strong play from the rest of the team (except for the porous pass protection from the offensive line), was the impetus for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to acquire Amari Cooper from Oakland for a first-round pick. The 24-year-old Cooper was a 2015 first-round pick from Alabama, and brings the receiving credibility that the team so desperately needs. However, it is questionable how long it will take to integrate Cooper into the offense midseason, and it probably won’t be enough. Teams need more than one dangerous and reliable receiving target to open up defenses, but it is a good start. If the Cowboys could add one more impact receiver to the team, they could compete for championships.
Unfortunately for Dallas, they probably identified their Achilles heel too late.