With the 2019 season over, the plans for the 2020 season are underway. The Cowboys should reflect on what separated them from the twelve playoff teams.
The Dallas Cowboys are watching the playoffs this year. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take notice of what made the twelve playoff teams successful.
The formula for success in the NFL hasn’t changed despite the analytical drive to pass the football. Playoff football teams, for the most part, are successful in rushing the football.
In 1979 when the Pittsburgh Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl, only ten teams made the playoffs. Seven of the top ten rushing teams that season, including the Cowboys who finished tenth overall, made the playoffs.
Fast forward forty years to this season and seven of the twelve playoff teams finished in the top ten in rushing. The Cowboys were one of the three top ten teams that did not make the playoffs finishing fifth in rushing yards. So why did the Cowboys fail when so many playoff teams successfully ran the ball?
What has changed in forty years is how teams establish the run. In years past, teams would run first to draw the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage to set up the pass.
Now, teams are spreading the field and using the passing game to open up the running game. In 1979, NFL teams averaged 180.4 passing yards per game. In 2019, that number jumped to 235.0 passing yards per game representing a 30 percent increase.
So what can the Cowboys learn from this when it seems they have already bought into establishing the running game? The pivotal Week Sixteen loss to the Eagles shows issues with scheme or quarterback decision-making. On the Cowboys first offensive series which resulted in a three and out, Dallas ran on first down and passed on second and third.
On first down, the Cowboys lined up in 21 personnel (two running backs and one tight end on the right side of the line) with two wide receivers flanked to the left. The Eagles defense countered with two corners pressing the wide receivers with safety help over the top. The remaining eight Eagle defenders were in the box.
The Cowboys handed the ball to running back Ezekiel Elliott for a rush up the middle for a three-yard gain. Conventional wisdom would suggest checking out to a pass but the Cowboys chose to run in a classic strength on strength battle, the Eagles were the third-best run-stuffing defense in the NFL this year.
On second down, quarterback Dak Prescott was in the shotgun with 11 personnel with tight end Jason Witten on the left side of the line and three receivers bunched on the right. Prior to the snap, wide receiver Amari Cooper went in motion to the left.
The Eagles defense had four linemen and three linebackers in the box with a single high safety. The Cowboys sent Witten, wide receivers Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb and Michael Gallup running routes five yards or less past the line of scrimmage and Elliott running a pattern to the right flat.
Prescott’s first read was Witten who was double covered. It appeared the second read was Cooper who ran an out pattern and was well covered. When Prescott made the decision to throw to his third option, Cobb who had about two yards separation from his defender, Elliott was six yards deep in the backfield with the closest Eagle defender more than ten yards away.
While the pass to Cobb was completed four a four-yard gain, the option to Elliott in the flat might have been a much bigger play as linebacker Nigel Bradham was fighting through the natural picks that Cobb and Gallup’s routes created. The nature of the NFL today is to scheme your playmakers into space and let them make plays. The Cowboys missed an opportunity for a low-risk high-reward gain.
On third down with three to gain, the Cowboys lined up in 10 personnel with four wide receivers and Elliott in the backfield. Prescott was in the shotgun to receive the snap.
The Eagles had five in the box with four linemen and one linebacker. At the snap, a safety was eight yards off the line of scrimmage.
The Cowboys choose to pass the ball to Cooper who ran a drag route across the formation with safety Malcolm Jenkins trailing him. Jenkins made a great play to deny Cooper any chance to catch the ball forcing a Cowboys punt.
In 1979, most teams would have run the ball to get the three yards to pick up the first down. In 2019, most teams pass the ball to do the same. The 2019 Cowboys were no different from most.
With three Pro Bowl offensive linemen, center Travis Frederick, guard Zack Martin and tackle Tyron Smith and a fourth lineman, tackle La’el Collins likely more deserving than Smith, and a very favorable tackle box, the Cowboys chose to forego the run option. The pass threat had setup the run perfectly and the Cowboys did not check to the higher percentage play.
The series highlighted several issues with the Cowboys this season. The coaches were adamant at times to establish their running identity even when the odds were stacked against them. Running into an eight-man Eagles front on first down was symbolic of their stubborn tendencies.
On second down, the quarterback chose the second-best pass option with very little upside. On third down, the quarterback did not check to the run and made a poor pass that the defender batted away.
Despite the NFL’s number one ranked offense by yards from scrimmage, the Dallas’ offense was their own worst enemy. The official game logs show the Eagles forced a three and out but the reality is the Cowboys failed to capitalize by running when they should have passed and passing when the run was the better play.
Between the coaches and the quarterback, the Cowboys were not able to scheme their way into more favorable outcomes. The fact that this team led the league in yards from scrimmage with this shortcoming only highlights how the 2019 Dallas Cowboys missed a great opportunity.